Some personal background
I started playing Warmachine late 2006 (just before Mk1 Remix), hyping the game to my small playgroup in Slovenia where we played with paper printouts taped to round bases until we could get the minis in the store (sounds familiar).
In the last year or two, I have soured a bit on the direction (or lack thereof) of Warmachine, between Colossals as a model type systematically and progressively shallowing the tactical depth of the game, the lack of much needed large-scale balance errata to stimulate the meta and ‘dead’ releases, the general staleness of said meta and the tournament format, and last but not least the increasingly sizable cost of play (exchange rates accent this, given that almost every NZ-based player buys their stuff from overseas online stores).
My reasoning for sticking with the game over the last few years has been first and foremost community, and secondly that I believed Warmachine to be the best competitive miniatures game on the market. I am not sure that is the case anymore.
Having witnessed a game of Guild Ball with full rules, I gotta admit. It's very good. At first, I thought it was a borderline plagiarism of the WM/H mechanics, but now I see it's an evolution of them. Essentially it utilizes the resource management part of WM/H really effectively. And with the alternating activations it's really juicy. I strongly urge people give a proper game a go.
- Nikola Jaksic, New Zealand Warmachine Legend and National Treasure
Guild Ball, at least at this stage, seems to address a lot of the problems I have with Warmachine as a competitive tabletop games system:
- Low model count - this means not having to paint units that are basically just wounds/attack markers on the table, and saves a LOT of money. You pay quite a bit more per model than Warmachine, however those models are a lot more meaningful.
- Emphasis on tactics over strategy - with the playbook mechanic opening up huge tactical opportunities (not to mention design space) and alternating activations resulting in a constantly shifting board state, Guild Ball most about playing vs an opponent rather than playing vs a more-or-less set puzzle each turn. I’m still adapting to this.
- Balance Errata - first season has already had sizable systematic balance errata - this signals an intent to keep models balanced within the greater system, which is important (one might even say vital) in an imperfect balance system, and really important in a game without points values (ie. every model is ‘equal’). New cards were available in pdf form very soon after this errata - print out, stick in sleeves on top of the old card, done. Combined with the easy access to cards online using tablets and mobile phones, you don’t have much trouble keeping up to date with the latest rules.
- The Season X formatting - this gives the developers a way to compartmentalize the competitive game via formats (ie. like Magic’s Limited/ Standard/ Legacy, etc.) at some point in the future. It also provides good timeline segmentation for character development, which we are already seeing a bit with forthcoming ‘veteran player’ types. Finally, it’s a way to reprint full rules every new expansion, which makes errata & clarifications even easier to incorporate.
- All rules for free online - it’s MUCH easier to get people to play and check out model stats. You also get nice paper proxy printouts for the Season 1 releases to use while waiting for your models to arrive, or testing the game! You don’t have to scour the internets for the latest pdf of the book that you won’t be able to get a physical copy of for weeks.
- Great tournament format - the Organized Play Document makes great improvements on Warmachine’s Steamroller format. The introduction of ‘haemorrhaging’ VPs after deathclocking rather than it being sudden death is especially great and makes deathclock victories much less likely while still enforcing a time limit, as well as different formats suggested (huge fan of team drafting).
Speaking of competitive play, Steamforged have already organized a world championship event where they will pay for the flights and accommodation of winners of select national events to participate in said world final.
- Premeasuring - premeasuring at all times eliminates a lot of measurement jank that leads to lots of accidental drama at tournaments. While having a good eye for distances is a skill that can be developed, it’s not a particularly interesting one from a tactical perspective. Premeasuring takes away most ‘gotcha!’ moments where you are ½” in or out and puts emphasis on decisions and tactical counterplays. You can also more or less play the whole game effectively with measuring devices rather than tape measures, which once you get used to it is more accurate from both sides of the table.
There's a few other principles which the designers have made pillars of the game's design philosophy, including:
- you always get to play a "full" game (no turn 1 assassinations or scenario shutouts),
- there are very few "hard" denial effects (ie. effects that say "you cannot do X at all"),
- different teams still have very deep and identifiable playstyles (at this stage, at least).
Furthermore, it borrows some sweet mechanics from one of my favourite games from a design standpoint, DotA 2. If you’re going to steal, steal from the rich:
- Icy Sponge tokens - allows models to come back to the field, albeit weaker and thus at risk of feeding more VPs. Kind of like an increasingly long respawn timer - there is a definite downside to being taken out, but at the same time you’re not entirely crippled if you lose a key player early to dice spikes or a temporary lapse in judgement (these seem permanent, in my case).
- Momentum - a mechanic that means if you are winning, you are likely to win harder. This is awesome and represents competitive team sport environments very well. It is kept balanced in that it soft resets each turn, while still having an impact going into the next turn.
- All models equal - this is especially cool from a design standpoint, since it means when combined with FA:C models, there is an emphasis on choosing the WHOLE team; the combos and counters, rather than just looking at individual power and maxing out on OP stuff. The cost of a model is therefore its opportunity cost, and its value is relative & constantly shifting (in theory, at least).
- Drafting! - I love drafting as a competitive format in imperfect balance systems. It makes a game out of the meta-game, and allows for a greater diversity in compositions. Currently the game is young and the model pool for each team very small, but as it grows drafting will become more interesting as a team-selection mechanic in tournaments.
Aside from addressing several of the issues with competitive Warmachine, and bringing in some great games design concepts from DotA2, there are a few extra details about the game that are worth mentioning that one may find appealing:
- No big units!- this is one thing I really appreciate about skirmish-scale games. Painting the same model multiple times is, let’s face it, not really that enjoyable in itself. I’ve always done it as a sort of mechanical process to go along with another activity I enjoy more, like listening to podcasts/music. Also not having to carry around cases full of minis for local game night is ace.
- Each individual model matters - similar to the above point, I like it when models represent characters. I only have to buy/assemble/paint one copy, I only play one on the field, and it can’t get spammed. I can spend 10+ hours assembling and painting a single model and not want to hang myself afterwards.
- Cost - although the models are more individually expensive on a model-by-model basis than larger scale games, you also have to buy a lot less in total for that reason. ~120 NZD for an entire team is a pretty cheap buy-in for a miniatures game, and that buy-in point is not likely to increase too drastically over time given than you will only ever need a handful of models to play even the full size games.
- Models - I think the majority of the miniatures are fantastic, especially given the fact that Steamforged is a young company that kickstarted the game. To have access to that calibre of sculptors and molding processes right of the bat is both a nod to the level of technological development today and to the developers’ insistence on quality. Not to mention that I don’t think any of the models I have seen have an ‘overhang’ problem - there is clearly a design decision to make these miniatures fitting for wargaming.
- The artwork is also quite stellar on the whole. I mostly settled on Fishermen because I got a nerd boner from Shark as a result of his artwork (Norwegian Black Metal fisherman ftw), and then his superstar rules.
- The historical European aesthetic is also appealing. You have influences ranging from gritty Victorian to viking scandinavian to medieval Frankish, which is awesome.
- The fluff in the Season 1 book and behind the Season 1 players was surprisingly brutal, as you would expect from a violent game. No glorification, no clear protagonists - just humanity. A few characters’ deaths are strongly implied from the get go. Having mostly given up on WM fluff in Mk2, this was quite refreshing.
Finally, it’s a young game, so the online community is very friendly, enthusiastic, optimistic and generally super cool. It won’t last forever of course, but it is nice while it’s there!
Another nice effect of a young competitive game is that the majority of the players are wargaming veterans, who also happen to be sick miniature painters, so the overall quality of posts in the Display Cabinet subforum is very high!
Whether all this optimism on my part will last or not remains to be seen, but Guild Ball is something that I am currently very enthusiastic about and am aggressively shilling to my fellow nerds. I do this because I believe it may be the best overall competitive miniatures game experience currently on the market. And I hate professional football.