Friday, January 24, 2014

Malifaux, M2E, and the Future

I've had a very strained relationship with Malifaux in the past. It was a game system that some of my friends discovered, and we all quickly bought into based on the charm of the models, the uniqueness of the setting, and the interesting potential of the rules.

Unfortunately, Malifaux suffered what I've noticed is a trend in miniature wargames: the first set of rules wasn't very good. Although the various books for Malifaux have titles, most players refer to them numerically - the Malifaux Core Rulebook (back in 1st/1.5 edition) is "Book 1", Rising Powers is "Book 2", Twisting Fates is "Book 3", and Storm of Shadows is "Book 4". 

The various books in Malifaux had a pattern to each of them, and it resulted in a really skewed gaming landscape:
  • Book 1 models were simple in most cases. These were some of the first models designed for the game, so the developers didn't seem to yet have the nuance of coming up with more complex interactions. As a result, most models were either pretty bad (due to having a poor rule set with limited focus,) or extremely good (due to have a great rule set with a laser focus,) and there wasn't much room in between.
  • Book 2 is where the developers let their imaginations run wild. The Masters in Book 2 were insanely deep, infinitely capable models that also had extremely strong ties to models in their visual theme, so they also came with very good crews. This made them flat out better than almost all of the Masters in Book 1, outside of some of the more innately powerful Book 1 Masters. Additionally, many of the Minion models introduced in this book were such a power curve jump above Book 1 that they became the staples everyone based their lists upon. This book also introduced the concept of Henchmen, which let factions that had a good Henchmen (or anyone willing pay the extra SS to hire Von Schill) to essentially have access to two Master level models, greatly skewing the power level of their crew.
  • Book 3 seemed like it was an effort to reset the power curve, to an extent. The main thing that was introduced in this book was the Avatar mechanic: transformations for each Master (unique to them) that would dramatically alter their play style and rules. In theory, this was a way to get old, unused Masters back on the table - their basic rules may suck, but when they manifest they'll be cool - and give some of the really rigid Masters more flexibility. In practice, the Avatars ended up being an incredibly mixed bag, and outside of a handful or two weren't really that useful. Some Masters saw new life with their Avatar rules, but most of the ones that were on the shelf stayed there; the Book 2 Masters were amazing right out of the box without the extra work needed to Manifest.
  • Book 4 marked the introduction of a new concept and a new faction. The new faction, Ten Thunders, brought an Asian themed faction to the mix, which was met with excitement by some. What was particularly interesting was the other concept introduced: Dual Faction models. These were models that could be used in two different factions, without any extra rules or cost associated with them. In particular: out of the five new Masters introduced in this book, four of them were Dual Faction Masters between Ten Thunders and another faction. This made it very easy to add something new to your faction, while also potentially dipping your toe into a new faction. This book also showed the most restraint and refinement in rules, with few entries being out and out power jumps (though as a result some things were underwhelming when considered in the context of the other options available.)
Towards the end of Malifaux's first edition (technically 1.5 since there was a partial update of the core rulebook at one point,) it faced a situation very similar to what Privateer Press faced with Warmachine and Hordes: their flagship game was awash in clunky, confusing rule interactions, models were wildly imbalanced or laden with extraneous rules, and the game was a mess of errata, addendums, and clarifications from the rules forum.

Malifaux also faced its own issue that didn't factor into Warmachine/Hordes (and was partially resolved by the yearly Steamroller releases): Malifaux's original scenario options had aged very poorly. Many of the Strategies and Schemes (the ways players earn VPs and thus win the game) seemed interesting and fun, but played out awkwardly on the tabletop. This was heavily exacerbated with the Book 2 releases, where a number of Masters, Henchmen, and Minions were so fast that they could complete Strategies and Schemes fairly trivially. Instead of being the core focus of the game, the Strategies and Schemes became something you paid lip service to while you slaughtered each other.

As a result of all of the above factors, Malifaux was a game that some of my friends enjoyed playing, but I could never really get to "click." It always felt like the game was tripping over itself, showing lots of potential and promise but failing to live up to it. For every decently fun game of Malifaux I played, there would be half a dozen games that felt one sided or miserable. And that is all accounting for the fact that our group mostly stayed away from the more powerful models, and didn't dip into the more ugly rules loopholes! I can't even imagine what it must have been like playing that game in a competitive environment.

The challenge of Malifaux 2.0 (M2E) from my perspective was simple but tremendous: level set the models so that every model becomes an interesting, viable option; refine the Strategies and Schemes to return them to being the focus of the gameplay; re-write the core rules as necessary to achieve the previous two goals while also closing all of the previous loopholes, and make the rules as easy to understand as possible.

Wyrd's approach to this process was similar to PP's: they held an open beta of the rules and asked for players to participate and provide feedback. The main difference was that PP relied on players submitting beta results through a formal process, probably not dissimilar to what they do with their actual playtesting. Wyrd opted for a less formal approach. They created a sub-set of forums off of their main Malifaux boards specifically for beta discussion, and gathered all (or a lot) of their feedback from what players reported in those forums.

I have fairly strong opinions on where PP went right with the Mk. 2 field test and where they went wrong, but looking back at it I think each company made the correct decision with their data gathering methods. Although they weren't as big as they are now, I feel like PP at the time of the Mk. 2 transition was bigger than Wyrd was/is going into M2E, so trying to collect data via forum interactions probably would have been disastrous for them (apparently the process they implemented was already pretty damn unpleasant for them to work through.) Wyrd's forums feel smaller in comparison, so it seems like it was a better idea for them to be more "grass roots" in how they solicited feedback.

Wyrd also broke up their beta, similar to PP, but along different lines. Wave 1 targeted the core rules and all of the models that were in Book 1 (with some extras thrown in as necessary to get the model counts even,) and Wave 2 would handle everything else. 

Wave 1 concluded towards the end of summer last year, and I feel like it was a huge success. The core rules, while not perfect, were leagues better than the M1.5 rules turned out. The Strategies and Schemes were significantly overhauled, and the new system results in games that are (typically) much closer and more "live" for longer in the game than they ever were in M1.5. And the Wave 1 models largely succeeded in being cool, interesting, and useful across the board. 

I finished Wave 1 of the beta incredibly optimistic about Wave 2, though I was nervous about the scope of it. Wave 2 included some of the most loved/used/purchased models in the game, who also had really powerful rules in the previous edition that would no doubt have to be adjusted to get them in line with the new power landscape. I knew there would be some serious back and forth about some of those models, and then you have Avatars on top of all of that.

Wave 2 recently concluded, and although we're two weeks out from getting the final rules, the pre-final rules we've seen make me feel like this wave was also very successful. I feel like all of the Masters in this wave ended up with very interesting, cool mechanics that work well in the context of M2E, while also retaining the feel and flavor of those models as established previously. Plus, some new Masters were added in this wave that we got to playtest, and I think those turned out awesomely as well. I'd be pretty damn happy if the final printed rules matched what is in the current pdfs, and I'm sure the rules we'll get in two weeks will be even more refined. 

Wyrd also made a very wise decision during this wave of testing: in order to limit the scope and let everything get it's due attention, there will be a third wave of the beta that will focus exclusively on Avatars and any new general upgrades they want to introduce. This was an extremely smart decision on their part, as it let the players focus on the models in this wave. Most important of those are the Wave 2 Masters; with those locked in, all of the Masters will be done, so testing can focus on just how the Avatars interact with the Master.

So with two waves down and one (comparatively shorter) wave on the way, M2E feels like it's almost all the way up and running. There are still some more kinks to work out: many of the new models aren't out yet, it's going to be awhile before we get actual printed cards for anything in Wave 2, and although it should be a relatively easy wave there's still one more round of testing to go. By the middle of this year, the beta for M2E should be done, which is very exciting.

I never would have thought I'd describe playing Malifaux as exciting even as early as a year ago, but the changes to M2E have made me do a 180 on how I feel about the game. It's gone from a game system that had promise but flawed execution to a game system that consistently delivers nuanced, interesting, deep games, and has a ton of replay-ability (between all the different crew types you can run, and with your Strategy and Scheme pools being randomly determined.) So long as things continue as they have, I feel like Malifaux is a game I'll be happily playing for a long time to come.


  1. I'm positively surprised by the positivity of your review. So far, all I heard was a mixed to disillusioned response, but that was some time ago, too.

    I wonder whether they kept the "measure at all times" and "static threat ranges" combination. I hope not.

    1. I remember there being a fair amount of negativity during the Wave 1 transition. In a lot of ways, it was similar to what happened in the PP Mk 2 transition: players that absolutely loved the old edition (or a specific model/interaction that went away) didn't react well to the transition. M2E has been even harder on the player base in some ways, because there was a lot of fear and hesitation about how the Book 2 models would transition, and some people tapped out there as well.

      But I think overall its going to be similar to the Mk 2 transition: even though some players don't make the jump, the overall improvement of the rules and ease of getting into the game now will let Malifaux flourish in a way it couldn't before.

      I have to ask what you mean by "measure at all times" and "static threat ranges".

      They did keep pre-measuring in the final rules. I was initially concerned about it, especially coming from a stronger Warmachine background, but honestly it works very well in Malifaux. The smaller table combined with the fair threat ranges on everything makes it hard to really cheese the ability to pre-measure, and the Strategies and Schemes tend to get everyone fighting (running away usually doesn't do much to earn you VPs.)

      The individual models have static threat ranges (well, some of them do,) but there are a ton of ways to push models around and pull movement shenanigans, so it rarely feels like the game is predictable or not dynamic, if that makes sense.

    2. Also, thanks very much for reading and commenting. :-)

    3. 1) Yes, premeasuring, that's what I meant. I always thought that premeasuring would dictate introducing random elements (i.e. dice) into a models ability to threaten other models (like in WHFB). If Wyrd has found a way around that, though, without resorting to that measure - more power to them.

      2) Don't mention it. It's a "do unto others..." approach. I'm a blogger, too, and would like some more interaction on mine, so I thought: Don't just read, type.