Thursday, 5 March 2015

Games Workshop Mini Codices - A Step In The Right Direction?

Even if you've only been paying a passing attention to Games Workshop in the last edition, you'll have noticed how they've been upping the ante in their releases. This recent edition has seen an insane number of codices released, big changes for better and worse and the company really pushing the angle of shoving new armies into the game. The latest of these has been Codex: Harlequins, with past efforts consisting of the supplements, Codex: Inquisition, arguably Codex: Imperial Knights and the few thousand Dataslates available for download. Now above all of this we have rumours that old favourites like Kroot Mercenary armies will be reviving their own mini-codex along with the Mechanicus and Genestealer Cults. Whether or not this massive push for multiple new books over the years is good or not has gone back and forth. The real question now is if this could truly be a step in the right direction or not for the company.

The big arguments you could make in favour of this being a good thing can be seen be looking at other successes in other companies. Chief among these is Spartan Games, the brains behind Firestorm Armada and Dystopian Wars. Much like Games Workshop, the landscape of their games is built up of a multitude of varying armies, each with their own distinct play-style and unique elements, from brutish bull-rushes to timed tactical FTL jumps. Equally like current Games Workshop, the main advantage of these armies is the alliance chart woven between each force. While this largely boils down to having two distinct sides (notably in Firestorm) the big advantage of it is how certain forces interact. How closely allied one army is to another is what helps to divide them up, and can allow an army to have a chunk of its force made up of ships from an entirely new fleet.

The result of such combined forces means that groups with very different play styles can be built up into a single entity, with the glass cannon Aquans teaming up with the heavily armoured Sorylians. Atop of this however, it also means that thanks to this it's much easier to gradually introduce and test new armies. The likes of the Terquai and the Kedorians, entirely new factions, can be easily worked in without a full scale release, limiting them to purely support at first but building them up over time. Equally, this is evident with many supporting factions such as the Rense System Navy ultimately serving as a sub-faction within the Dindrenzi. It allows for a great deal of flexibility within the game, allows for more time with experimentation, for players to have further tactics they can call upon, and any failed concepts can be easily phased out early on.

By having mini-armies in a manner quite similar to this, in the form of Dataslates and the like, Games Workshop can afford to take a similar approach. It means that they can test whether or not armies demanded by fans can truly work or not one step at a time and gradually build them up. In addition to this, the focus upon minor forces also means that they can do two things: Firstly, focus upon getting one aspect right about the army before building it up elsewhere. The likes of the Harlequins might lack the greater anti-vehicle firepower one would hope for the army, but thanks to the allies options it means such a role can be carried out by Craftworld or Dark Eldar. As such, the balance and focus of the Harlequins themselves can be put towards fighting troops, infantry and trying to balance out that aspect of their force first. This approach means that the company might be able to offer far better quality control than seen in past works and better overall balance.

Furthermore, in a stance away from the tabletop rules themselves, it's also the first step towards solving the long running problem of Imperial supremacy. As noted some time ago, the big failing of the setting was ultimately how Imperium-centric the setting was. One faction, made up of several armies, was effectively making up half the game and allowing one side total dominance even when compared with equally well established groups. By allowing for this, it can mean there is better representation of the races, sub-factions and groups, expanding their power and allowing for more freedom of choice among overlooked forces. This was previously attempted during the late Third and most of the Fourth Editions with White Dwarf releases, but was otherwise abandoned not too long afterwards. That fact, combined with the setting's extensive lore means that the game could allow for no end of new factions to emerge.

Most notably however, having several mini-codices released over a year also might allow for Games Workshop to finally shift its approach from the "bigger is better" rut it has been stuck in. While Codex: Imperial Knights was admittedly a vehicle to promote a single super-heavy unit (no pun intended) Codex: Harlequins and Codex: Inquisition did not feature the usual problems with such books. There was no single unit being desperately shilled, no massive emphasis upon raw power over actual tactics, and (besides the Solitaire) no insta-win deathmobiles. This back to basics approach means these could be the first books in a long time which aren't written with the objective of milking the fandom for all their worth. Books which are less about making a ton of cash from people buying super-heavies and instead about steady influxes and gradual streams of money from smaller, more manageable forces. This is ultimately how such approaches work best and it could lead to more elements people liked about the Games Workshop of old.

Unfortunately, despite this, there are some very possible problems with the mini-codices themselves stemming from how Games Workshop could treat them. And also is currently treating them.

Above all else, Games Workshop has been infamous for trying to gouge cash from its customers any way it can. It aims for a single well timed blow of an initial release, and unless it can instantly repeat that impact several times over, it seems to abandon its projects in favour of something else. Specialist Games, Space Hulk and Dreadfleet all come to mind as examples. As such, the big issue here is that these codices could be released only as they are now, and then could be outright ignored. Rather than being the first step towards something new, adapting and fleshing them out gradually over time, they could be left incomplete. This was the fate of the previous attempts to do this, with Kroot Mercenaries and many others being left in limbo. Harlequins disappeared for a lengthy amount of time, Codex: Dark Eldar and Codex: Necrons were ignored for seemingly eons, and both those were main self-supporting armies.

A bigger problem even than the idea of such mini-codices being left to die is how they might be treated, less as a developing idea rather than something fired off and forgotten about. Rather than focusing upon a few at a time and gradually building them up, it's all too easy to see the mini-codices being effectively churned off of a production line. This could devolve into new releases hitting shelves every couple of months, rushed out to meet deadlines and lacking the real attention they need. We've already seen how this can badly harm so many releases, with the supplements in particular repeatedly failing to offer both good lore and good rules, along with being chock full of blatant padding. Even now elements of this have shown up in Codex: Harlequins despite that codex's comparatively higher quality. This would additionally only encourage further problems we've seen so many times over, from the typos to nonsensical wordings of rules, and incredibly poorly researched lore.

Focusing upon the mechanics for a moment however, we also need to consider one big problem Games Workshop has over Spartan Games. Whereas Spartan's current allies system might be basic by comparison, it has the big advantage of actually working and not hacking off fans. Warhammer 40,000's lists of allies and groups who can battle alongside one another, by comparison, was severely maligned upon its introduction. From a lore perspective many additions failed to make any sense at all, leaving forces who by rights should be arch enemies teaming up with one another, and additionally suffering from rampant favouritism. As you can imagine, Sisters of Battle players were not amused when they saw just how limited they were even with other Imperial forces. While it has since substantially improved, there is still much work to be done, and adding new armies is only going to severely mess with any balance within the chart. It simply has severe problems supporting the addition of new forces and fully accounting for each army as it is added.

Even ignoring the allies issue however, there is also the problem of how many can truly be introduced without too many elements becoming samey. Some have criticised Codex: Harlequins for effectively being too close to an Imperial Assassins book, with its emphasis upon individual highly trained units. Sadly that would have been a difficult issue to really sidestep, as the immediate alternative would have made them extremely similar in their overall style to the Inquisition. The same goes for many armies, as from their inception they were effectively intended to be opposites to one force or another. Even after all these years, Codex: Chaos Space Marines is still quite distinctly a slightly different flavour of traditional astartes armies. To put it bluntly, it would be difficult to make a mini-codex stand out completely on its own. At least without it seeming like a clone of another force and keeping to the spirit of its original idea.

Above all other issues however, there is one notable flaw which hangs over the entire concept of mini-codices and smaller releases: Money. Another reason that Spartan Games' system worked so well was that the rules were readily available and prices were far cheaper. The basic rules for fleets and armies can easily be found online, meaning that players only needed to buy the main rulebook and - if they so wished for the additional lore and the like, their side's rules. Yes, not their faction, their entire side's rules, covering all of the groups associated with one another in a single release. Combined with the far cheaper prices of units, it meant that players could far more easily pick up new allies at the drop of a hat.

Even ignoring the all too often massive price difference between buying a whole Firestorm fleet and a working Warhammer 40,000 army, the company is selling off its rules in bits and pieces. There is no cheap option, there is no free option, and all too often there's no price difference at all. While the book was fun, Codex: Harlequins was released at the same price as a brand new full codex, and the Imperial Knights were only released slightly cheaper than a normal book. Even the Dataslates are, unless you are a lore buff, often overpriced for what they are offering you and extremely padded out. While Cypher and Codex: Legion of the Damned were both excellent in the lore department, when it came to the rules they were bare bones at best, covering a single unit. Compare this with the olden days, where the likes of Codex: Craftworld Eldar, Catachans, and Assassins could be bought for a fiver, and it's quite clearly price gouging at its finest. In all honesty, even if the company could get everything else right, this alone could sink their entire scheme.

On the whole however, speaking personally, I do think that the mini-codices are good in concept, but Games Workshop could all too easily bugger this up. They need to pay serious attention toward how this has worked with other companies, actively stop themselves falling back on bad habits, and focus less upon getting players to pay truckloads of cash. If they can accomplish this, if they can allow for more time to develop ideas and rework the game to really take advantage of this idea then it could mean a true redemption for the company. The first step along the road to making them less an enemy of a community which loves the game but hates them, and moving back to the days when they paid attention to the fans as a whole. It's a long shot, and an unusually optimistic one for someone who has watched this game gradually decay over the years, but perhaps this could pay off for the better. Only time will tell.

1 comment:

  1. What worries me the most is exactly what you bring up, just how quickly GW abandons its own products, even massive ones like The End Times, not only is that a massive event for Fantasy but they went through quite a bit of new artwork for the main GW site, even changing how small things like the gift vouchers looked (to better fit the faction the book stars), but as soon as the new Dark Eldar stuff was out, get rid of all The End Times stuff. Oh wait, the next End Times Book is out? Get rid of everything involving the Dark Eldar, we're promoting that now! Now throw that away, we've got the new Grey Knights! This isn't new to them either, anybody remember how many years the Tyranids spent without certain models, some of which were removed from later books out of spite?

    They just lack commitment, which I think is a bit odd because the writers and designers seem like they love what they do (basing this off of interviews or what they write), so I don't know who or what is holding the company back, if it's just a CEO who thinks only what's new is what's popular or something along those lines.

    Now I have wondered if the smaller codex's were the way to go ever since you wrote the other article, but I think the answer is no. I think that the various forces could all be represented by parent rulebooks that would cover various forms of the forces, how a rulebook would do this is by having many units in one larger book, differentiating the armies just by introducing elements like the Legion Rules that were in the old Codex: Chaos Space Marines and are in the current Horus Heresy rules, for example in Codex: Harlequins (and in this big book) they could have had various dances or plays that you would be performing with a main Harlequins force and these would give you certain bonuses or deficiencies or maybe even allow you access to unique units.

    It would allow you to differentiate the groups of Harlequins from each other, make the force itself look larger and would add character to the whole army, if you made a Codex: Necrons with the current Necrons, the Necrons of The Empire of the Severed Hand, and Necrons ruled over by a C'tan (and other variations) you could have those all play differently (different bonuses, weapons/units and objectives) and maybe even have sub factions within factions (for example Chaos Space Marines had Plague Marines, and their sub faction was the Death Guard). Almost all of these are already in the lore of the game and just haven't been added to the rules yet, just look at how different the various Tyranid Hive Fleets are for example, or they were in the rules and were then removed (such as the case of Chaos Space Marines and Eldar Craftworlds).

    Now I don't think that smaller Codices are bad, I just don't think they're the best way forward, though I think they can be useful if somebody wanted to test rules for a faction before incorporating them into the main book for balance's sake, just release a pdf of the army online and include them in the next edition.