Dev Blog #7: Video Games versus Boardgames

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While what we are calling DH: Battlegrounds is a re-imagining of a tabletop experience, that original experience was obviously based on a video game. We started with a balanced system, and are trying to keep and maintain that balance, which is easier said than done.

There is no shortage of boardgames that have inspired video games, the most famous in my mind, is the world of Battletech and the spin-off Mechwarrior first-person shooter/simulators, and various turn-based adaptations like Mechcommander and the fairly recent Battletech. The Warhammer 40k world has more than its fair share as well, the excellent Dawn of War series, first-person shooters like Space Marine and Boltgun, and a whole slew of Space Hulk adaptations (not all of them good), Bloodbowl and a bunch off associated Warhammer and 40k properties.

Video game adaptations are also increasingly common in the tabletop space. Games based on the Fallout franchise, World of Warcraft, Doom, Pac-Man, Mario Kart, and the list goes on. Many times, these board games are developed under license, with the original creators far from the process, if even involved. Some of them are obviously quick cash grabs bearing little resemblance to the original source material. Some of them are faithful recreations of the experience, and some are surprisingly thematic without trying to replicate the video game they were based on.

I have played a lot of them. I’ve even played them with my kids as part of trying to get them away from their precious screens by tempting them with their favorite characters or concepts. With the launch of this project, I mentioned we played a lot more games to see what worked and what didn’t, and this included seeking out tabletop experiences similar to what we are attempting with Battlegrounds.

Games Workshop has released, as far as I can tell, an in-house developed version of its Space Marine video game, cleverly titled “Space Marine: The Board Game” and I want to talk a little bit about it from a design perspective, since it is closer to what we are doing than some of the other offerings out there, with lessons I am taking away from it, both good and bad (and, spoiler, there is some bad).

The box is solid, similar to their many other bookcase games which have traditionally contained high-quality miniatures and solid, lightweight rules for battling with them in various contexts. Tha manual is polished, the board is durable and thematic. It is beautiful. It contains some pretty awesome miniatures and is priced well below what those miniatures would cost if you went to the Warhammer store.

Their bookcase games have been consistently fun, sometimes outright skirmish wargames, sometimes simplified versions of their full caffeine games, with clever mechanics, interesting scenarios, and oftentimes (in the case of games like Fire Team and Blitz Bowl), additional resources in the box that allow you to go get more miniatures and play with new squads of units.

We played it, it is not BAD, but Space Marine does very little of what those other games have done so well. The counters are printed on the box insert and require using scissors or a razor to cut out to be used. There are 4 missions, ostensibly two of them are training and the other two are meant to simulate the game’s hero fighting swarms of aliens, and the rules are, from what I can tell, just 10th edition Warhammer 40k without toughness values (fewer dice rolls). One of the missions completely lacks instructions on starting forces, leading most of the people to have tried it using every model in the box (and there are A LOT of aliens), further leading to the game ending before the Space Marine player even gets to take a turn. The second “mission” isn’t much better, starting with half the forces in the box, and still beating up the Space Marine character, frequently killing them before they get a turn. And if that’s not supposed to be the case, the pretty rulebook needs to be clearer.

I can’t imagine they did much playtesting. Even their bookcase game Doomsday Countdown came with three marines and they were only fighting cultists, and they built tension as you explored. This is just “stand and fight” which, is, less fun. And there are ONLY stat blocks for the units that come with the game, so you can’t easily add units from your collection (Blitz Bowl comes with the cards for like 6 different complete teams, even though it only comes with two teams in the box).

Our playthrough

My playthrough of this went better than many of the other YouTube folks, but I made changes to the setup for the mission without setup guidance, and we actually forgot to give the aliens some counterattacks they were due because of the confused turn order when the marine is forced to melee and unable to shoot or take their full turn.

Lessons I am taking away:

  1. Strong IP can’t make up for a game that’s not fun.
  2. While it’s cool to open a box and see a bunch of cool stuff including miniatures, even that can’t make up for a game that’s not fun.
  3. Obsessing about play testing and balance is worth it, each player should feel like they have a chance, or at least enjoy the beating.
  4. Making sure the game is a complete experience, even if it doesn’t include a bunch of cool models, is important. Battletech gets this right, the game comes with a few miniatures, but then a bunch of standees and the rules to make them playable.
  5. Give them lots of variety of scenarios to actually play the game, or some context in which to easily create new ones.
  6. The rules should be complete, players should not have to wonder how to set up a game, how many units to use, or where to place them.
  7. Don’t make players do too much work to unbox it. Games Workshop is famous for its quality models, but they need assembled and then painted, which is expected but the DIY counters and it’s just insult to injury.
  8. Explaining the lore of the game is pretty important (Space Marine gets this right, actually) so folks know who the sides are and why they’re fighting/playing.

Interestingly, we already have planned on avoiding 3 and 4, and a recent playtesting experience by streamers and other playtesters has helped us flash out ways to avoid 5 and 6. So hopefully we can avoid the rest if we keep remembering what’s important (spoiler alert: it’s fun, fun is important).

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