Sunday, 20 November 2011

Dreadfulfleet and the New Random

GW did a weird one-off game release recently for something called Dreadfleet. I didn't buy it because I objected to a load of things.

1 - It was £70
2 - It was another Space Hulk-style "teh limited" thing whereby they'd do one print run and then take the backup tapes with the manuscripts on and microwave them or something, trying to artificially create demand.(*)
3 - Their bizarre and secretive nature meant that they wouldn't tell you anything about it, clearly relying upon a docile herd of ruminant fanboys to go out and buy it anyway (which they didn't), either failing to realise or just not caring that Space Hulk was a known and much-loved quantity and Forthcoming Mystery Game isn't.

So, whilst I lack sales figures for it, it doesn't seem to have been much of a success and to be honest - if it hasn't been they fucking deserve that.

Anyway, when I found a review online that claimed it was the worst game that GW had ever put out (the review didn't put full stops between the words Worst, Game and Ever put may as well have done) my first, and somewhat smug thoughts were;

"What, worse that Trolls In the Pantry? Oii, That's My Leg? Combat Cards? Those cut-down versions of Battlefleet Gothic, Blood Bowl and Advanced Heroquest where you rolled the dice in the box lid? Reviewer is probably a 12 year old who started with the last edition of 40k."

I didn't expect to be morally chastened by the reviewer immediately explaining why the aforementioned GW miscellanea where all, in their own ways, better games than Dreadfleet. Colour me intrigued.

What I didn't realise was that is actually Jake Thornton, pro games designer and ex-WD editor. This is clearly pretty serious stuff if somebody like him is prepared to go public with opinions like that.

Jake's review highlights something about Dreadfleet and by extension GW that is starting to concern me. He's massively critical of it's randomness in that the randomness is moving control and tactical choice away from players. Dreadfleet effectively plays the players. (Yeah, I know - In Soviet Nottinghamshire Game Plays You!) and as a man who knows game design, Jake points out that this is a leveller between veteran player and novice.

Something I am picking up from Warhammer players at Stourbridge is that random charge moves and the randomness of magic is working to the detriment of the game. And we're a bit atypical at Stourbridge in that nobody played Warhammer until the last days of WFB7. I know that a lot of clubs and playing groups that had stuck with WFB for years have stepped away from 8 bemoaning the random nature of it and the the fact that it's suddenly inflated unit sizes seem a marketing decision, not a gaming decision.

Bang these three factors together - increased randomness in WFB, DF's totally random nature and a clear example of ledger sheet bottom line interfering in the design process and I'm starting to wonder if GW shirts have hit upon the random factor as a deliberate policy with which to make GW games more attractive for a beginner. Trouble getting started because everyone else is a veteran player with a well-tuned army? No problem any more as we'll remove player tactics from it and an good day you can easily beat "that guy".

If I'm right, then I suspect the forthcoming release of the next version of 40k could kill the game dead at Stourbridge. And that's a worry, not just for club numbers (we need a certain minimum to break even with the cost of room hire) but for GW's position within the market as "price makers" which might make other manufacturers follow this lead. Less of this tactical choice and rewarding skill please, but of this random bollocks whereby anyone can win.

(*) Everyone remembers the odd way that they found about 60,000 copies of SH in a warehouse a couple of weeks after the launch. Nearly all GW branches have some in the backroom if you ask nicely and the shop isn't full so we have the idiot and self-inflicted situation whereby they dare not lose face by admitting that it didn't sell out so would rather not sell surplus stock.


  1. Is that really what the box looks like? That's one of the most ugly-but-bland cover images I've ever seen coming out of the Workshop. Tsk.

    Thornton's also behind the Dwarf King's Hold board games from Mantic. They're great fun to play, simple but tactical, so I'd trust his thoughts on the subject.

  2. I've heard it makes for a good drinking game, which just about sums it up really! I think I remember Jack saying on his blog that he was working on a few additional rules that would overcome some of the randomness, so it'll be interesting to see if he ever shares them.

    I agree though that newbie (and I'd add tourney) friendly rules along with the marketing of must-have-hordes can risk spoiling the playability and enjoyment that can be had from 8th edition WFB. It would be a shame if they cock-up the new 40k, but it's not unimaginable.

  3. @Davey - I did look at house rules for this, but the problem is built in at such a low level that you essentially have to make a new game. There are a few minor tweaks you could do, but none of the minor changes touch the problem that it's a 4 hour game where you have far, far less influence on the outcome than the random card draws do. Of course, if you only play with one ship each then it's much shorter, but who wants to spend all that cash and get all those shiny toys just to leave 80% of it in the box?

    Randomness is fine if the game is fast. 4 hours game play is fine if the game rewards skill. Can you think of a really good game that takes all evening to play, and where player skill is largely irrelevant? I can't.

  4. I'm a great fan of Reiner Knizia's "Formula Motorsport" which appears to be amazingly random but then a round lasts about 9/10 minutes and we usually just play a 3 round series. And we play it after the main game of the evening if that finished early (although Knizia's Risk Express seems to have taken over that slot). Half an hour of randomness is fine as an enjoyable distraction.

    That said, since the same player seems to end up with his two cars in 1st and 2nd places right at the death of round #3 each and every time we play it perhaps it's so much random as me struggling to see the optimum strategies. :)

  5. One of my favourite "fillers" is Nuclear War, which is very random. However, like FM it takes less than half an hour - to blow everybody to bits :)

  6. Has some consultancy firm been going around telling companies that "pirates are so hot right now", because 4E D&D was according to it's designers an attempt at being able to play a "Jack Sparrow" (???), and then there's Dreadfleet.

  7. How can anyone not like Combat Cards?

    Sure the rules are ridiculous, but the cards themselves are great. I mean, no one still actually PLAYS with them... right?

    (Incidentally, those are my CC cover scans Jake's using in his article. I didn't even know he had a blog, but remember him fondly as the White Dwarf editor.)