Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Editorial: The 'Casterkill' game mechanic

I imagine that this will be a sensitive topic for many but it's been weighing on my mind a bit since the tournament on Saturday, resurrected after a couple years of becoming more familiar with Warmachine/Hordes.  One of my first experiences observing a game of Warmachine/Hordes right after Mk. II was released involved watching a friend playing his Trolls kill epic Nemo with a Dire Troll Bomber on turn 2.  This was a 'casual' game and the Cygnar player was a little miffed that it happened so quickly (and easily).  I'm sure everyone has had a similar experience where they felt a bit cheated because they lost their game so quickly - typically because their warcaster/warlock got killed when they didn't see/know that a model could somehow kill them.  When I first started the game, the casterkill mechanic was a source of great frustration to me - I didn't think it was fair that you could lose the game so quickly.  Over the years however, I've become quite accustom to this mechanic and think it has some great merits to it.  Today I want to explore a little bit about it and compare and contrast it to other games where the mechanic exists and does not exist.

I would assume that many who read my blog are already players of Warmachine/Hordes or have a strong desire to start playing but my article today is intended to bridge the gap for those who are on the fence or generally don't like it when their warcaster/warlock dies and they lose the game.

Veterans and rookies to miniatures games alike are familiar with Warhammer 40k.  It's by far the most popular miniatures game out there and is often considered the "gateway" miniatures game (which I find ironic considering the start-up cost is greater than many other miniatures games).  For those who transition from 40k into Warmachine/Hordes, like myself, the objectives for victory are quite the change.  In 40k (and indeed, Warhammer Fantasy) your leader, or HQ choices, will often be powerful characters that bring some extra 'oomph' to your army.  They will lead the charge into battle but if they die you still keep playing the game.  No, the way you win a Warhammer 40k game in the traditional sense is through some form of attrition.  You need to claim objectives somehow or kill off more of your opponents units, and every faction plays the attrition game just in a different way.  You're either relying on superior numbers, superior offensive firepower, superior close combat prowess, or superior armor to basically outlast your opponent.  While there are some armies that can pull last-minute victories, it all comes down to who can survive longer while claiming regions of the battlefield.  This is very different from the casterkill mechanic and it suits the atmosphere of the game - a grimdark future where the only thing that exists is war and the fates of entire species lay in the balance. 

You might think that this playstyle would be the norm for wargames, but it's actually less common than you think.  For the rest of this article I will be referring to this as an Attrition Objective for the victory conditions and it refers to a victory achieved through surviving better than the opponent.  In an Attrition Objective game, the winner must claim and hold onto some kind of object or territory while the opponent tries to do the same.  We will contrast that with games which have objectives similar to the "casterkill" mechanic.  I will refer to these as Target Objectives, where the winner is the player who has to instantaneously acquire or neutralize a specific target.  These types of games will be won by the player who has achieved a specific goal, and while attrition of ones resources can certainly play a part, the winner can often be the one who has brutally lost many of their pieces or resources.

Probably the most obvious analogue to Warmachine/Hordes with which you will likely be familiar is the game of Chess.  While it might not seem like it, Chess can be considered a wargame since it relies on positioning and "combat" (capturing pieces) to achieve your Target Objective, which is essentially killing the king.  Chess is a game where attrition can certainly play a role but the winner is not always the one with the most pieces remaining - just the one who has made sure to kill the king.  Chess has a Target Objective but what other games out there do?  Stratego has a Target Objective as well.  I've discussed Stratego before as an interesting game due to it's lack of randomness, but the goal of Stratego is for a player to find the opponent's flag through encountering unknown enemy pieces on the board.  It's a great game for anyone who has not played it before and it really challenges the strategic part of your brain.  Attrition can certainly determine how effective you are at winning the game of Stratego, but whoever finds the flag first wins.  Other examples of games with Target Objectives include card games as competitive as Magic: The Gathering or as casual and fun as Fluxx.  The common feature of these kinds of games is that once one player has acquired or defeated their target, they instantly win.

So let's return to games with the Attrition Objective and contrast them.  We've already mentioned 40k and Fantasy as two games with Attrition Objectives, but there are other miniatures games that feature attrition, including Dystopian Wars, Firestorm Armada, and Uncharted Seas.  There are also board games out there which feature this objective as well.  Risk is probably the best example of an Attrition Objective game because leveraging resources is, in fact, one of the only features of this game.  The player who wins is the one who is able to acquire the most territory, defeating his/her opposing forces while losing the least.  The board game Battleship is an interesting case here but I think it still qualifies as an Attrition Objective game.  While you achieve victory immediately after killing your opponent's last ship, the victor is the player who has survived and leveraged their resources against their opponent - in this case, keeping their ships from getting destroyed.  Card games can also have an Attrition Objective to them - it's not just limited to miniature and board games!  In fact, Infernal Contraption (by Privateer Press) is one of my favorite card games and it's all about surviving against your opponent's contraption.

Now that we've looked at some examples, what are some of the features of these games?  In a Target Objective game, the length of the actual game typically has a much higher variance than that of an Attrition Game.  While Risk is certainly an exception to this, Attrition Objective games are "played until the end".  These are games which mostly are resolved in a specified amount of time.  These can be compared to sports like Football, Soccer, Hockey, etc.  While the length does vary based on the actions presented, the length of the game is largely predictable (again, Risk is an exception here).  In a Target Objective game, however, the game length could be very short.  If there's a turn 2 casterkill in Warmachine/Hordes, the game might end in only 15 minutes.  In Chess, a player could make a mistake that sees checkmate within just a couple of moves.  In M:TG, you could kill the opposing spellcaster in just a couple of turns if you have the right cards.  The games could potentially run longer, but such short games will almost never exist in an Attrition Objective game.  Going back to sports comparisons, Target Objective games more resemble sports like Volleyball, Tennis, or Ultimate Frisbee where you win once you have achieved a certain score, instead of who is doing the best after a particular length of time.

So what's the point of all of this?  Hopefully now you can appreciate that as much as a "casterkill" mechanic and game mentality might seem alien and unfair to you, perhaps it's because you're just more familiar with playing games of attrition instead?  What's also interesting to remember is that in all Warmachine/Hordes tournament scenarios, you can still achieve a victory through an Attrition Objective, by holding out in certain zones and/or achieving control points.  That's what makes the game so interesting, in my opinion.  Try playing some scenarios without casterkill activated and see how the game changes.  Personally, I like having the option there because it means that even when I might seem like I'm losing, I still have a chance to win, and having that constant hope makes the game more fun to play.
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