Aesthetics vs Gameplay in the Old Skool Skirmish

I posted the following on Quirkworthy, the blog of the games designer Jake Thornton:

“I’ve heard it said that “looks pretty” is what sells games, and “plays well” is what creates retention and builds a community. I don’t know whether this is the case globally but it matches my experience.

As such, a pretty table with pretty models will draw people in and give them a flavourful first game, which is always worth doing because nobody ever plays a second game unless they enjoyed the first. However, as Thomas Cato says, one needs to examine the abstract game which lurks behind the prettiness. If you play any game for long enough you start to see the maths which lies behind it, and if this maths isn’t fun then the game isn’t fun – as you have memorably pointed out with Warhammer and mental geometry.

In this case, with small model counts and large open spaces, my intuition is that this abstract gameplay will be mostly about first-move advantage and firepower, rather than about morale or maneuver. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but needs to be deliberate on your part rather than an emergent property of the assumptions you made.

Jake replied in detail in this post. Thanks for the detailed reply, Jake. Let me give it a longer response in turn.

Firstly, I very much agree that a game can have both good aesthetics and good mechanics. I’d hold up Battlefleet Gothic as an example of that: the models are great fun to paint, the combat feels like space warship combat should feel, and the gameplay is dominated by emergent issues rather than optimal strategies. (It’s also a low-model-count game, thinking about it – it may be relevant in more than one way here!)

There is a caveat here, though. Most of the games I’ve played have very obviously been designed either starting with the aesthetic and moving towards the mechanics, or starting with the mechanics and moving towards the aesthetic. Neither is obviously the “right” answer, and depends upon the audience you’re working with. If you’ve started with the aesthetic (for example, a game based on World War 2) then your players will tolerate clumsy rules which preserve their sense of actually commanding panzer divisions, and won’t mind if the pieces are just cardboard chits, but will balk at elegant rules abstractions if those abstractions prevent them from doing what actually happened historically. On the other hand, if you’ve started with the mechanics (for example, Dominion) then your players will tolerate a setting which doesn’t really match the gameplay if the mechanics are tight enough and the game flows elegantly, but will balk at clumsy rules which attempt to represent some real-world occurrence.

In other words, we need to know which one we’re starting with. Once you’ve done that one properly you can deliver the other one, but woe betide you if you don’t deliver the one that your players have been attracted by.

In this case, you’re very much starting with the aesthetic: the game has to feel old-skool. That’s a very attractive aesthetic right there, and as a man over 30 who used to buy lead miniatures with his pocket money when he was a kid, I am the right audience for it. You have drawn me in with your aesthetic. Congratulations. However, beware: you will probably alienate me if I discover that the aesthetic is only skin-deep. In fact, that will probably alienate me faster than if I discover that the rules are terrible. (One might say that terrible rules are part of the nostalgia value of the genre.)

If your rules are elegant and beautiful then I will play your game more and longer, of course. But that’s secondary, because the pitch for OSS is based on its aesthetics rather than its gameplay.

Secondly, my comment about first-move-advantage-vs-maneuver was more about the terrain you’re building to test it on than about the low model count. In my experience, open terrain like deserts or plazas leads naturally to a firepower-based game in which the only movement consists of getting into a good firing position. By contrast, enclosed terrain tends towards games of maneuver and trying to predict your opponent’s moves.

It’s also been my experience that one’s playtest environment informs the game which comes out of it tremendously. For example, my wargames terrain is mostly modular tunnel-fighting stuff. If I design a game on that terrain then it will end up having a good set of rules for shooting at targets which appear and disappear quickly, and a weaker set of rules for shooting at targets at very long range. This isn’t a good thing or a bad thing, and it certainly isn’t a conscious decision – it’s just that those sorts of situations will happen enough that they’ll end up informing the core concepts of the game.

I’m excited to see the extent to which the plaza shapes the DNA of Old Skool Skirmish, and the extent to which it doesn’t.