Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Distant Voices, Miniature Lives

"In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love." -Mother Teresa
Sula and I have played World of Warcraft, on and off, since it launched in 2004. We were part of an exodus of about 400 players from the Midgard faction of the Percival server, in the online game Dark Age of Camelot. We loved DAoC. We were obsessed with that game for almost five years. It was the first MMO for both of us and there was something really special about the community on that server. We made friendships that have endured to this day, with people whom we fly to visit and who come to visit us. But by the time WoW launched, the bloom was well off DAoC and we were ready for change. We packed up our wagon, sold our cottage on the shore of Lake Carlingford and struck out for Kalimdor.


We played pretty solidly for the first year, or 18 months, but for us, there just wasn't the same magic. WoW didn't have the tools DAoC had for managing guild alliances and the community we moved with splintered into several fractious groups. Plus, we really enjoy PvP (Player vs Player combat) and, despite Blizzard's best attempts, the WoW PvP system has, in our minds, never been as engaging as the realm warfare in DAoC. So, we play for six months at a time, then we quit for six months. (We're currently on hiatus. We went back for the Lich King expansion, and enjoyed it enormously. The questlines were interesting and engaging, the new skills fun to use, and I think since much of the landscape looked like where we live [we're Canadian] we just felt right at home. [And if you think there aren't fearsome and bloodthirsty Orcs roaming around Toronto, try visiting the Eaton Centre on a Sunday.] We'll probably return for Cataclysm [the next WoW expansion], but there's only so much endgame raiding Sula and I can take before it starts to feel like a job and we find something else to do with our evenings.)


Now, I'm still a big fan of the WoW universe; the artwork, the lore, the gleeful embracing of the staples of role-playing: swords, dungeons, quests, etcetera, so I continue to look for ways to be involved with that realm. I had a brief dalliance with the WoW Trading Card Game, and while it has an easier entry point than Magic: The Gathering (a game whose rules have become so byzantine one needs to keep a talmudic scholar handy to figure out if you actually did any damage to your opponent) there was still something…bewildering about the system. My opponent, Kaiser Phred, and I both felt like we never really got a solid grasp on the rules; often things didn't work the way we were anticipating so we kept second-guessing what we were doing which made us feel a bit like we were losing our minds. (Which is fine for a game like Arkham Horror, where thematically you're supposed to be going bonkers, but not the vibe we look for when playing a collectible card game where you need rules to tell you how you're doing.)





Endgame


Then one day, during a spasm of boardgame buying I found World of Warcraft Miniatures (WoW Minis). (I also came home that day with a copy of Runebound, which I'll write about another time.) WoW Minis is a collectable miniatures game in which players fight on a board for control of victory point locations. It can be played with four people but I've only played 1-on-1. Each player chooses a faction - Horde, Alliance, or Monsters - selects a team of three units and begins rolling dice, moving about the board and trying to destroy the other player's characters. It's best to pick three units that support each others strengths and weaknesses. You'll probably want some combination of a healer, tank and DPS (Damage Per Second: a class like a mage or hunter that does lots of direct damage) and, if possible, classes that have some interdependencies. For example, some classes have auras that affect other friendly units that are near them. Each unit also has two cards that are chosen by the player that can represent additional class abilities - a particularly strong attack or a group heal, for example - or the cards can be potions for health or mana, or even a pet that will fight alongside your unit. These action bar cards add additional tactical depth as choosing the right moment to deploy them can mean the difference between winning and losing.


What I find particularly compelling about this game, the reason I keep returning to it over and over, is the way it models the concept of time. The board has a counter running along one edge that represents the current turn, or 'tick'. It starts at 1 and goes up to 10. Each unit has a rotating bezel on it's base that also represents ticks and it also runs from 1-10. At the start of a game every unit's personal tick counter is set to 1. If, on my turn, I only move my unit, and do nothing else, I move it's personal tick counter ahead by 1, so now it reads 2. And now that unit won't be able to take another action until the turn counter on the board matches the turn counter on that unit. In this case, turn 2. Each player moves their units, alternating back and forth until all have moved or taken an action, and then the turn counter on the board moves ahead one tick and the next round begins.


There's not much to do on turn 1 as the units begin on opposite sides of the board, but after a few turns it starts to get really interesting. If I do more than just move (which costs 1 tick), if I take an action with a unit - such as attacking or healing - that action will have a tick cost associated with it. Let's say it is turn 3 and that I make my warrior attack my opponent's priest. The warrior's attack has a tick cost of 5 and so I make my attack, the damage is calculated and the priest's hitpoint counter is adjusted, and I now set my warrior's tick counter ahead by 5 ticks, so that it reads 8. (It was 3 when this turn began because we are on turn 3 and all I'd done up to now was move her across the board, which only costs 1 tick.) So, now my warrior's personal tick clock reads 8 and she cannot do anything except defend - she may not move or attack - until the counter on the edge of the board - the main turn counter - also reads 8. It's a fascinating system, and a brilliant way of modelling the concept of a cooldown (the length of time it takes for a special skill to be ready for use again), which is so ubiquitous in the online game of WoW. If the units always had their abilities available to them they would just take turns hammering each other into pulp until only one was left standing. By placing a cooldown cost on an action it demands that players think tactically about how they are moving their units across the board, where their units are in relation to each other, and even asks the player to consider concepts like focus fire (concentrating your attackers on one enemy at time in an attempt to destroy them before they can counter attack) and line-of-sight (whether or not your unit can see another unit so that it may attack it).


The winner is the first player to earn a set amount of honour. Each unit has an honour value associated with it (more powerful units have more honour) and the sum total of your three unit's honour is the amount you must achieve to win the game. You earn 1 point for each unit that is standing on, or adjacent to, a victory point location, at turns 5 and 10 on the main counter. (When the main counter reaches 10 it returns to 1 and starts over.) And you earn four honour for killing an enemy unit (the unit that is destroyed has it's personal tick counter moved ahead by 2 ticks, and when the main counter matches that amount it re-enters the board).


I've played this game with both Sula and Kaiser Phred and everyone agrees that the mechanics are sound and interesting and no one feels like they've been steamrolled by an opponent, which makes us think it's well balanced. (We did have one game where The Kaiser chose a team of three rogues, which ended badly for him, but one of his pieces was the infamous Zomm Hopeslayer! A rogue of such poor skill and ability that he exudes an aura of deficiency which infects the other members of his team with malaise, resulting in massive failure. Zomm's main problem is he doesn't hit very hard, plus you apply your damage value against your target's defence value, so if the dice are feeling capricious you may not even hit them. He also has a special ability that allows him to sneak up on someone, attack them, and then retreat one space, like he's melting back into the night. However, since he does so little damage his attacks always played out like this:


Zomm (springing from a bush in surprise): "ha-HA!"


Zomm attacks - doink - and hits for no damage.


Zomm (springing back into a bush, muffled): "BLAST!"


I suppose it's possible that a team of three rogues could work but you'd really have to concentrate your attacks and find a way around the lack of healing. And have one of them not be Zomm :p)


There are some game units which are called epic pieces. They are usually well known WoW heroes, have very powerful abilities and are worth twice as many honour points when they're killed. And because you buy your units in booster packs, not knowing what you're going to receive, we've had an epic Horde unit for quite some time, but never used it because we feel it's an unfair advantage.


We ramped up slowly, playing without action bar cards for the first dozen or so games, and now we're comfortable with them I thought it time we got stuck in with some epic units. So, having bought a few more booster packs and not received a single Alliance epic (although I did get another Horde epic) I went to Ebay and bought two new units.


Highlord Bolvar Fordragon, a Human paladin, and High Priestess Tyrande Whisperwind, a Night Elf priest. The Fordragon piece is beautifully rendered, but Princess Tyrande has a bit of a messy paint job, which is a pity, because with very few exceptions the WoW Minis pieces are lovingly crafted, and a bit larger than is usual for this sort of thing, so you can really see and appreciate the detail.


I'm a bit nervous about how their presence will affect WoW Minis. Up to now, each game has played out in about an hour, or ninety minutes, which feels to me like the porridge that Goldilocks ate: it doesn't take so long that people start to get itchy (hello Runebound) and it's not so short that you can't put your tactics into action, and try different combinations. The games are always (with that one disastrous Zomm episode) quite close matches, often coming down to that one tick which distributes victory location points or a final decisive kill. So I worry that these super units will somehow topple this delicate construction and we'll come away with one person feeling like they got the short end of the Spear of Judicious Maiming. I hope not. There's something about these matches that is very satisfying - it feels to me like just the right combination of boardgame, tactical war-game, and fantasy fiction - existing in a weird half-light between collectible card games and role-playing games. Hopefully the epic pieces will deepen the experience and not reduce it, boiling it away so that the energy and excitement of the system vanishes like Zomm melting back into a bush.


"BLAST!"
~

3 comments:

phredviell said...

"ha-HA!"

Zomm is such a tool.

- Kaiser Phred.

mri said...

It's true, but he does make us laugh.

phredviell said...

He does. And I know I'll happily use him again. :o)

- Kaiser Phred.

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