Archive for Game Design

Challenges Faced By Miniature Game Tournaments


Tournaments are common in the gaming world. Magic Protours give away cash prizes, Hearthstone tournaments are taking off in the esports world, and basically everything from My Little Pony to Warhammer can be played in a tournament setting if that’s what you’re looking for. However, miniature games face some particular challenges when it comes to creating a fair, competitive environment.

The first and foremost difference between miniature tournaments and those held for other games is the need for terrain. As we all know, terrain has a huge impact on the game, so how it is set up in a competitive environment is very important. It needs to be fair to both players while still being interesting and varied from board to board. However, this means that the table a player is assigned to can actually affect his or her performance in the tournament. Think about that for a second. Imagine for a moment that a Magic the Gathering tournament was held where, at certain tables, red decks would get an advantage while at other tables blue decks would get an advantage. The tournament organizer would be lucky to escape with their life. Yet this is something we take for granted with miniatures tournaments. If you have a shooty crew and end up on a forest table, you just have to deal with it. The heart of competition is measuring your skill against your opponent’s and, the more elements that are outside of your control, the more difficult this is to do.

All of that said, terrain also adds a lot to the miniature tournament scene. Although varied terrain can sometimes mean that the results of the tournament don’t perfectly reflect player skill, it forces the player to use that skill in new and creative ways. Take the shooty player stuck on the forest table as an example. Although this player may have reduced odds of winning his or her match, they will also be challenged in different ways and, if they overcome their unfortunate situation, they will have good cause to be proud. So while the results of miniature tournaments may reflect player skill less accurately than tournaments for other gaming genres, they also encourage players to apply that skill in more interesting ways than simply how to play their list to counter the current meta. How would your gremlins deal with a sniper on the magically floating water fall?


Another huge factor in miniature tournaments is time management. This is, of course, a huge issue for any tournament, but miniature games frequently require an hour or more, putting significantly more time pressure on an event than a fifteen minute card game would have. In fact, in most card games, a round with one opponent is usually determined by best out of three games. The more games two players play, the more often that the skilled opponent will come out on top as sheer bad luck is ironed out over a number of games. This is another reason that the tournament systems for other games are generally a better indicator of skill; in miniatures tournaments, players will be lucky to finish one game which means that one round of bad luck is more likely to skew the results. Also, due to the serious time constraints, certain lists are more restricted than they would be in casual play. For example, you may not want to take a 300 model ork army to a 40k tournament as the sheer amount of time it takes to move and manage all of those models will result in your games coming to time more often than not. This means that sometimes the best list to win a casual game is not the same as the best list to win a tournament game. For years Games Workshop has even claimed that 40k was simply never designed to be a tournament game and, although I believe in supporting players fully in however they choose to play the game, I can understand the basis for this statement.

Miniatures games also have a heightened level of imprecision compared to other games. Players can move the wrong distance, have differing opinions on whether a model has LoS, accidentally bump something with their elbow, etc. These all create situations that the tournament organizer potentially has no concrete way to judge. For example, if the organizer is called over and two players are arguing over whether a model was moved too far, the organizer has nothing to go on but the conflicting story each player presents; the model’s original position is already lost. The same can be true of situations involving LoS, etc. This doesn’t mean that anyone is cheating, these situations can come up completely unintentionally. This would never happen in Magic the Gathering, there is no point where the organizer is forced to take a player’s word for anything unless blatant cheating is involved (for example, one player claims the other looked at his hand, etc). Nobody cares if one of the players moved one of their cards a quarter inch too far.

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. One place where miniature games (particularly Malifaux) really shine is in their win conditions. Most competitive games (particularly card games) have a hard coded win condition. Playing Magic? Deal twenty damage and get the kill (yes, I know stuff like Poison Counters exist, shut up). With miniature games, the win conditions tend to vary from round to round. This forces players to adapt, which is always interesting in a competitive environment. It also gives tournament organizers a powerful tool to influence the meta. Are static, shooty crews too dominant? Pick win conditions that require movement. This is a tool most games simply don’t have access to.

Tournaments provide many benefits to players and to the community as a whole. They force players to meet new opponents and deal with new situations, they encourage everyone to play at the top of their game, and they make a great excuse to give yourself a painting deadline. They are a ton of fun, and they are an (admittedly imperfect) indicator of player skill. However, the results of any single tournament for any gaming system are never a definitive statement about the players or the meta, and this is even more true for miniatures games.

Designing Showdown


Originally posted in Wyrd Chronicles Volume 10.

Showdown is a fast-paced, bluffing card game. To find out more about it, watch the Tom Vasel review here. At the moment the Shodown game is set in a dark, futuristic world featuring the “Icons.” This was not always the plan. Showdown was actually originally designed to be a Malifaux product. However, at that time our Malifaux artists were busy getting art ready for M2E so Showdown needed a new theme. I am very happy with the dark, sci-fi theme that we ended up with. It’s a fun twist and something a bit different for Wyrd. But Malifaux is something I’m passionate about, so today I proudly announce that five new Malifaux themed Showdown decks are in the works. To celebrate this, I wanted to talk a bit about the Showdown design process.

I was originally inspired to pitch Showdown to Wyrd after playing Yomi ( Yomi is another fast-paced card game focusing on bluffing. Each player has a deck of cards (which doubles as a regular poker deck) which represents a character in a martial arts battle. As soon as I saw the concept, I was intrigued because I saw the potential for Malifaux. If I could design a game that would fit onto a regular deck of cards (aside from the traditional games like Hearts, etc) then we could produce Malifaux fate decks which players could use during a game of Malifaux as their fate deck while doubling as a totally separate game. It would give Malifaux players something to do in between rounds at a tournament, while waiting for a pick-up game, etc. Additionally, if it was simple enough, it could help introduce more people into the Malifaux universe.

After playing and getting to know Yomi I got some ideas for where I wanted to take the design as well. In Yomi, each player plays a single card face down and then flips them up simultaneously. A “rock, paper, scissors” system is then used to resolve combat: attack cards beat throws, throws beat blocks and dodges, and blocks and dodges beat attacks. The winner assigns damage and play continues until somebody is knocked out. Based on that brief description play may seem random, but there is a lot of depth in reading your opponent, knowing the decks, and trying to get off combos. If you haven’t played it, I highly suggest checking it out. However, there were two things about Yomi I felt that I would personally like to see changed, so I set out to design a system that was inspired by Yomi, but created its own unique system.

My first issue with Yomi was that it involved a bit of tracking. Characters generally have between 80 and 100 health, and players need to keep track of where it is. This means that the game requires a pen and paper (or one of the slick Yomi play mats and a counter) to keep track of health. For Showdown, I wanted players to need absolutely nothing other than two decks of cards; this would make the game much more accessible after a game of Malifaux. So I came up with the system of using the Aces in the deck for health. Basically, each player removes the four aces from their deck at the start of the game. Every time they lose a battle, they flip one of their aces face up. When they have no more aces to flip, they lose. This solved my tracking issue in a neat little package, and allowed players to need nothing other than the cards. It also opened up some fun design space. As aces are flipped face up, they grant the player some special abilities, which created a fun “catch up” mechanic for a player who was getting steam rolled. It also created some nice variety in play, as the order in which your aces get flipped up will change up the game play. Finally, having such little health created a fast (15-20 minute), intense experience that was very enjoyable during testing and perfect for the “in between” space a game of Showdown was designed to fill.

The next place that I wanted Showdown to be differentiated from Yomi a bit was in the bluffing. Because Yomi only uses a single card during combat, knowing your opponent’s deck is critical. For example, if you know your opponent has a deck with a lot of throws in it, you will be more likely to play an attack. This is great, but for Showdown I wanted to emphasize knowing the player more than knowing the deck. To do this, I used a two card system. In Showdown, players each play one card face up, and then one card face down. This means that when you play your face down card, you will have some limited knowledge about what your opponent is trying to do, as you will be able to see their face up card. The two card system gave players just enough information about their opponent’s plan to make bluffing interesting without making it predictable. There is, of course, a bit more to it than that, and if you’re interested I would highly suggest watching the Tom Vasel video I linked above or checking out the free online rules.

I think it’s interesting that I was able to create an entirely unique experience by tweaking two of the dynamics in Yomi. This is a fun way to look at game design in general, and I think it shows the flexibility in the model of game which Yomi pioneered: a single deck, asymmetric bluffing game. Personally, I would love to see this catch on and become its own genre, much like the deck building games. But, even if it doesn’t, I’m proud to have helped add to this space.

With many of my decisions hinging on selling this as a Malifaux product (the fast play, the lack of any resources other than the deck itself, etc) I was a little hesitant to retheme the game. But once I saw the amazing sci-fi art that was going on the game, I was all the more excited for it. Even so, I can’t wait for the next five Malifaux decks we have in store for you.

I also want to note that I wrote this article from my perspective: David Hanold and Redd Cohen were instrumental in designing this game, and I don’t want to leave them out here. In fact, they designed the five Malifaux decks which are coming your way with only playtesting input from me, and they did an amazing job.

The Language of Games


To a certain extent, I see rules as a language. The strength of having clear, well-defined rules is that two players who have never met before can come together and play a game without any arguments about what their models do.

This is why I will never condemn a player for wanting the rules to do exactly what they say. Only when players interpret the rules as they are written, not as they think the rules *should* be, can a game accomplish that level of clarity. This goes back to the old argument of Rules As Written (RAW) vs. Rules As Intended (RAI). A player who wants to play the rules exactly as they are written is a fan of RAW, where a player who tries to guess what the designer intended is a fan of RAI. The issue with attempting to guess another person’s intent is that not everyone’s interpretation of that intent will be the same, so house rulings and patches crop up, making it more difficult for gamers from two different groups to play a game together. In other words, as time goes on and more house rules are made, those two groups of gamers will slowly evolve separate rules languages until they are ultimately unable to communicate.

Now, I have no issue with house rules, so long as players recognize them for what they are. If it isn’t obvious, I’m more of a fan of RAW than I am of RAI, although I would never judge another person for how they choose to play the game. I just think that playing the game as it is written leads to the least amount of confusion.

This may be a bit of a surprise to some of you, after all, I wrote the rules (well, good portions of them, it’s a group effort). Why wouldn’t I want people playing the rules as I intended them? And haven’t I been seen on the forums calling for a “common sense” interpretation of the rules? Doesn’t all of this point to more of a RAI point of view?

Not necessarily. While I most certainly would like the rules played as I intended them, I find that when people guess at my intentions they are rarely correct (no hard feelings – I probably wouldn’t be able to guess about your intentions either). Also, in my experience, telling the difference between RAW and RAI can actually be more difficult than it seems. Rules As Written tends to have the bad reputation of being the most lawyeresque, strict, knit-picking interpretation of the rules possible. I would argue that this isn’t always the case and that, frequently, Rules As Intended arguments end up being far more strict and counter-intuitive. Let me give you an example.

In this thread the following question came up: Does Lilith need to be able to draw Line of Sight (LoS) to a Silurid in order to target it with a Ca Action?

The reason for this question was that Lilith and the Silurid have the following abilities:

On Lilith: Master of Malifaux: This model is not affected by severe or hazardous terrain and does not need LoS to target models with Charge or Ca Actions.

On the Silurid: Silent: Models cannot ignore LoS or cover when targeting this model.

Taken at face value it would seem that Lilith would indeed need LoS to target the Silurid, as her Master of Malifaux ability is negated by the Silurid’s Silent ability. This makes the most intuitive sense, because otherwise there is seemingly little reason to have the Silent ability at all.

On the other hand, the argument was made that Silent stops models from ignoring LoS restrictions, but Master of Malifaux simply states Lilith does not need LoS. In other words, Lilith doesn’t ignore LoS, she simply doesn’t need it, therefore she can target the Silurid. At first, this would appear to be the proper RAW interpretation of the rules. However, I would argue that it is not.

This entire argument is predicated on “ignoring” a restriction being different than “not needing to adhere to” a restriction. Although slightly different wording is used, they do indeed mean the same thing, and that’s the important part. Because they mean the same thing in the literal sense of the English language (although not necessarily the exact wording used) the two rules do interact with each other, and Silent will effectively negate Master of Malifaux, forcing Lilith to draw LoS as normal. The best argument against this interpretation is that if the designers had intended these two rules to interact, they would have been sure to use the same language; in other words, it’s a Rules As Intended interpretation (and an incorrect one) which is the more strict and counter-intuitive of the two arguments.

I think I have shown how trying to guess the designer’s intent can actually lead to the less intuitive conclusion. But it begs the questions, why don’t we just always use consistent wording to avoid this? And when does strict wording matter?

Strict wording matters when you are dealing with game terms. Game terms are definitions which are strictly outlined in the rulebook and which have a different definition than the usual English definition. For example, in Malifaux, “killed” is a game term. When a rule says that a model is “killed,” it does not mean the model’s heart stopped beating, it means the model is removed from the table and drops any applicable markers. This is very different than the English definition, so we spell it out in the book, and it means something entirely different than other terms (like sacrifice). Placement is another game term (call out box pg. 51), because in Malifaux “placement” is different than “movement” (when in the literal sense placing something is generally going to involve moving it). Reducing damage is different than preventing damage, etc. When the rules use a specific game term, they are speaking very strictly about that term, and that term will be defined in the book. However, when the rules use the English language, they are referring to the literal definition of that language, but the exact phrasing isn’t as important (this is why “ignoring” a restriction is the same thing as “not needing” a restriction).

Alright, now we know when to adhere to strict wording and when not to. All that said, what about the first question, why not just use perfectly consistent wording in all rules which the designers intend to interact? Why use “ignore” and “does not need” at all? Why not just choose one and stick to it? Part of the issue is sheer manpower and deadlines. With enough people and enough time, we could certainly do a better job of this. But, even with infinite time and manpower, there are still very good reasons to rely on the English language definitions as opposed to making everything into a game term. I give an example of this in the thread I linked above:

This is hardly the only example in the rules (NOTE: speaking about the Silurid/Lilith debate), it’s just the one the forums have latched onto for the moment. For example, a model which is inflicting damage usually “deals” damage. A model which is taking damage usually “suffers” damage. Ideally, these would have been the exact same term. But it would have lead to weird sentences like this:

“When another model is suffering damage, this model may discard a card to force the target to suffer 1 additional damage.”

Compare this to:

“When another model is suffering damage, this model may discard a card to deal 1 additional damage.”

You can see the economy of space there, if nothing else. And, before people pick this apart and start trying to show how they could have used the exact same wording while saving space AND making sense, keep in mind this is only one example. You would have to do that hundreds of times, no two the same, and screwing it up even slightly means nobody understands the rule.

The dealt/suffer wording in regards to damage is just one example. And it’s one which could have a weird rules interpretation, if the RAI route is taken. For example, the Armor ability states:

Armor +1: Reduce all damage this model suffers by +1, to a minimum of 1.

This could lead to the argument, “If the designers had intended Armor to reduce damage from this *insert action or ability here*, they would have used the wording ‘suffer’ instead of ‘dealt.’”


Clearly this is not the interpretation we wanted (nor is it the correct one) so why did we leave ourselves open to it? Two reasons: grammar and card space.

Depending on which model is the subject of the sentence, the appropriate word changes. For example, if the model taking damage is the subject, then “suffers” is the appropriate word to use (i.e. this model suffers damage. The model being damaged is the subject). However, if a model is inflicting damage, then “deals” is the appropriate word to use (i.e. this model deals damage. The model doing damage is the subject). Keeping the wording consistent for all situations would have involved some creative writing to change the subject of the sentence, which would have led to some strange (but totally consistent) wording. Unfortunately, this wording makes less sense in the context of the English language, and English wins, because it’s what we speak. Ignoring the language we speak makes this game a lot less accessible to new players.

Economy of space is equally important. Ultimately, a card is a pretty tiny space in which to write a complex rule. You have no idea how many hours I have spent tweaking, rewording, and adjusting kerning to make the rules fit. That extra line or two does, absolutely, matter.

And, at the end of the day…nobody has ever (to my knowledge) made this argument about Armor (yes, I know, they will now. Shut up.) The rules are intuitive, players get it. And that counts for a lot.

Armor cat

Armor cat laughs at your rules arguments.

I think I have made my position about as clear as I can, but there is one more question I would like to address. Why don’t we just add a few extra lines to make the rules as absolutely clear as possible? Well, first is manpower and deadlines, of course I wish we were better at this. Even with unlimited resources, we still run into the card space issues I mentioned above. However, there is one more reason we don’t always do this: Every line is a line that can be misinterpreted.

I almost want to get that tattooed on me somewhere. It would just be awkward quoting myself.

Every line is a line that can be misinterpreted.

-The dude who’s elbow this is

I could write paragraphs about how each individual rule works. But somewhere buried in that paragraph would be a line that is either ambiguous or which people really want to mean something else, and a whole new argument starts. When writing rules, you just need to keep them succinct, clear, and then encourage the player base to interpret them with a grain of common sense.


After thought: how many pages are the official Magic the Gathering rules? If you don’t already know, take a guess before you click.

Running The Malifaux Beta


There are two key skills to game design; predicting human behavior, and running the numbers. Games are played by humans, so predicting how they will react in the game (and how they will feel about the game) is absolutely key. That’s not something you can figure out just by calculating statistics, because people don’t always make the logical choice (or even play a game for the same reasons). On the other hand, you don’t want a system that can be broken and manipulated, so you also need to run some hard numbers and know your statistics. This is important both so that you can make sure that the most intuitive choice is also the most statistically viable choice, and to make sure that six months after release someone who does understand hard statistics doesn’t release a net list that dominates your meta.

A single game designer only needs one of these skills; but a game will need people with both skill sets to function. I’d like to think I’m capable of doing the tight rope walk between both of these skills, I would argue they’re pretty much the only two things I’m good at. Luckily, running a public beta falls very heavily into one of these areas: predicting behavior.

The past four months of public beta have been a hell of a ride. If a beta like this goes bad, it can go VERY bad. Every time I mentioned to another game designer that I was running a public beta, I always detected a little bit of a cringe. All too often it can just turn into a non-productive hate fest that nobody wants to talk about once it’s done. I think we can all agree that was not the case for the wave two testing, but why not?

First, I need to give credit to the community. You guys are awesome. The Malifaux community is one of the most mature, respectful gaming communities out there, and I don’t know if I could have pulled this off with another fan base. Also, I need to give credit to the hard working moderators who kept an eye on things.

That said, we are all gamers. We were all on the internet. And we all showed up to the beta to argue a point. Even with an amazing community, that can be a recipe for disaster, so I needed to get ahead of the game. I needed to provide an environment where the great community we had could live up to its full potential.

First and most importantly, I set a schedule and I stuck to it. Updates would come once a week, every week, on the same day. This is something I instituted in the Showdown playtest, insisted on continuing during the wave 1 beta, and kept up here. Updates for this beta came every Tuesday. Even the day was no accident. I poled a number of people behind the scenes and found that Monday was the most convenient day for a beta update (followed by Tuesday). Unfortunately, Monday didn’t work for me, because most playtest games are played over the weekend and I don’t even see them until Monday, so Tuesday became update day. This gave me enough time to input the data, and gave the player base enough time to digest the rules before their games on the weekend. I stuck to this schedule rain or shine, posting updates on Christmas Eve and New Years Eve. I did post two updates at odd times in the morning the day before my daughter was born and the day we came home from the hospital (yes, we spent a week in the hospital, that was fun) but that was pretty much the only thing I let get in my way.

I kept to such a strict schedule because a predictable schedule is probably the best behavior management tool you can ever have. When people don’t know when things will happen, they get antsy and, worse, they get bored. People *want* to be productive but, if they can’t have that, they’ll always settle for a little destruction. I can’t point to examples of this in the beta because I didn’t let it happen but, after five years with the school district, I can assure you it would have (and no, I’m not comparing you to children. It’s just how people are. I’m the same way. How many horror stories start out, “So, I was bored one day…” Internet flame wars are no different.)

My next most powerful tool was allowing people to feel heard. I accomplished this in a number of ways. The first and most effective way to allow people to be heard in the beta was simply to put in the changes they were asking for. How many of you can proudly point to an ability and say, “That was my idea!” That’s an awesome feeling, even if you were just pushing for a slightly lower/higher stat. I say that this is the easiest way because…it’s the entire point of the beta. People showed up to influence the game, allowing them to see that influence kept the beta a positive experience. It’s what I wanted, and it’s what the players wanted (efficiency!). Now, that’s all well and fine when the ideas people were pushing were good. Obviously, that can’t always be the case. However, more than once I put a change in I knew would probably be removed just so people could tell I was listening, and try it out for themselves (and, hey, sometimes I was wrong and those things stuck).

Of course, sometimes I reached a point where this wouldn’t work. The suggestions were too varied or there wasn’t enough time to test things I knew might be dead ends. In these instances I jumped in, brain stormed with the community, and did a “mid-week update.” Basically, I tried to distill what people were saying and actively worked with them to come up with something when there wouldn’t normally be an update. This was beneficial when there were a lot of voices going in different directions. It focused the discussion and made it more productive, rather than simply allowing fifty different lines of argument to continue until there could be an update (which is obviously a recipe for negativity).

My final tool for allowing people to feel listened to was to simply…respond to them. I know this may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many professionals just don’t respond to emails or private messages. I tried to always respond (admittedly, at the height of the beta, with my daughter being born and spending a week in the hospital, I probably missed a few). Of course, I didn’t just wait for people to reach out to me. If I wanted a better understanding of where someone was coming from, I messaged them.

No matter how you do it, letting people know that they are being listened to is incredibly important. Because if they feel like they’re just yelling at a wall, they’ll get frustrated, worked up, and then just start yelling at each other.

My next tool was preventing escalation by hyperbole. Escalation by hyperbole is something you see a lot on the internet. One person comes in saying, “Yan Lo is a little weak.” The next person responds, “I’ve never seen him lose!” Cut to ten pages later and one guy claims Yan Lo shoots lasers out of his eyes and levels Tokyo on the weekends, and the other guy is claiming that Yan Lo is the worst model ever made and if he goes to print like this he will melt his models down into a point and jam them into his eye because at least then they’ll be able to deal damage. This sort of progression is terrible for the beta, both because it gets people insulting each other, and because it seriously dilutes feedback. I combated this sort of escalation in two ways.

First, I put a lot of emphasis on battle reports. This kept the discussion on hard facts (VP differences, models killed, etc). Hyperbole is a lot more difficult with the truth sitting in front of you. It also gave either side an “out” if they got into a hyperbole war. They could always just politely say, “Well, I’d like to see the battle report.” Of course, keep in mind, I’m only commenting from a community management point of view, battle reports were incredibly useful for a myriad of other reasons (which made them all the more efficient).

Secondly, I put a stop to the escalation when I saw it, and I never allowed any one thread to carry on too long. Usually, if I locked a thread where this sort of thing was happening, neither party bothered starting a new thread. The battle ground had been closed, and both parties wandered away. Granted, not every thread I closed had this problem, but any thread that goes on too long runs this risk, so I made a habit of pruning them. (This also made it easier for me to read feedback. Again, we’re back to efficiency. If you want to run a public beta by yourself, efficiency is something you’re probably going to want to keep coming back to).

Another great tool was recognizing passion for what it was. Sure, a lot of the time that passion was frustration pointed at me. And on occasion I got frustrated right back, and I had to say sorry once or twice. But, at it’s core, everyone was there for the love of the game. If I could take that passion and let people legitimately help influence the game, I won twice. I had one less person unhappy with me, and one more person helping me.

Finally, I encouraged people to give me feedback privately if they wanted. This allowed a number of people who weren’t comfortable with the forums to have a say. Opening this line of communication was very important. It allowed me to get feedback I may have otherwise missed out on while also preventing other, less productive, communication.

For most of the beta, I tried to maintain my distance. I didn’t want my opinions influencing feedback. If I came in and told people how to use a model, that’s how they would use it. Unfortunately, the players who get that model a year from now won’t have me sitting at their table telling them what to do. So, to a certain extent, I needed to let people struggle to see where the system broke. On the other hand, I sometimes needed to pop in and say, “test this.” Or, “calm down guys, here is the story…” When I worked for the school district I had a teacher who told me, “Everything is a moment in time, and you will need to make a judgment call. You won’t always be right, but you do need to make a call. Learn from it either way.” I definitely heard that voice in my head a lot during the beta.

Of course, there was a lot more to the beta. I didn’t even touch on…game design. Or analyzing data, or managing my time, or, well, a lot of things. But I think this beta was unique in how positive it was, and I wanted to spill some light on how I worked towards that. And, again, most of the credit goes to you guys. I provided an environment where the community could be productive, but you’re the ones who did it.

Anyway, this whole process was a great experience, so I want to wrap this up with a sneak preview of one of the first masters on which I had some say on the art direction and character.

Meet Ironsides

(Click image to enlarge)



Sleep Now In The Fire…

Resource Design In Malifaux


Today’s post is on resources, and how to design resource mechanics for Malifaux. By resources, I mean something that will be spent when using an ability in such a way that it limits the use of that ability. For example, discarding a card to take an action, etc.

Fundamental Resources

There are a few resources which I qualify as “fundamental resources.” These are resources which basically every model in the game uses. There are three fundamental resources:

Cards: The cards which make up a player’s hand can be spent on almost any model.

Action Points: The action points which dictate how much a model can do throughout the course of the game. I have a whole post on viewing AP as a resource.

Wounds: The number of wounds a model can take before it dies, which can also be spent by certain models on some abilities.

Without these resources, the game simply wouldn’t function. While using them as a limiting factor for certain actions is common, relying on them too much can make the game collapse (I’ll get into this a bit later).

Secondary Resources

Secondary resources include anything which can function as a resource, but isn’t one of the fundamental resources. This can include almost anything from a condition on a friendly model (Chi on Yan Lo) to a condition you put on an enemy model (Poison for McMourning) to things like scrap, corpse, and scheme markers.

Crew Mechanics

Many crews are themed around a specific resource. McMourning is themed around poison, Colette is themed around scheme markers, etc.

However, a fundamental resource can never be used as a crew mechanic. If a fundamental resource is used, there will be too many other models which interfere with the functioning of the crew. This is something we have tried a number of times before, and it has never been pretty.

For example, Jack Daw went through a period in the beta where he used the cards in hand instead of wounds to stay alive. Basically, he only had one wound but could always discard a card to prevent any incoming damage. This was neat and unique, and a throwback to 1.5 Jack Daw. But it had the severe limitation of Jack Daw having to save his hand to stay alive rather than cheating fate, which hampered the rest of his crew. Additionally, any model which allowed Jack to draw (or forced him to discard) cards caused huge fluctuations in his survivability. For these reasons, we needed to abandon this mechanic.

Similarly, Kirai went through a period of using her wounds as her primary summoning resource. Of course, opposing models were continually trying to take this resource away from her by attacking her, which both made her easier to kill and weakened her summoning. On the other side of the spectrum, run of the mill healing abilities made her summoning too powerful. Again, this caused huge swings in her power level. (Now, to an extent you could say that Kirai still uses wounds as her summoning resource, but I would argue that she is primarily designed to use Seishin as her resource with wounds as an option. But that’s a topic for a Kirai design post.)

Using a fundamental resource as a crew theme resource always causes wide swings in power because so many models interact with them. Additionally, playing with them too much can cause issues for all of the models, not just the ones playing in theme.

Of course, there are lots of models that use cards and/or wounds as a resource, and that’s fine. But it is a question of degree. A single model which has a zero action that requires a discard to function isn’t going to bog down an entire crew. In fact, minor discard abilities help to even out the luck inherent in drawing a hand, as low cards can be used to make these abilities work if you drew a bad hand (or, conversely, if you drew a really good hand, you now have a tough choice about which high card to discard). I like these abilities because they even the playing field a bit. But a master which revolves completely around one of these resources is going to become a black hole that the whole game has to revolve around.

In my experience there are two kinds of resources that work very well as a crew themed resource:

The first are resources that are obtained in a manner that allows the opponent a resist. For example, McMourning can summon after he applies poison to enemy models. Poison is McMourning’s themed resource. However, the enemy models will always have a chance to resist being poisoned. To an extent corpse markers fall under this category as well, as the most efficient way of getting them usually involves killing enemy models.

The second are resources that are totally unique to that crew. Take Chi on Yan Lo as an example. Chi generation is not limited to being gained by killing enemy models (although that is an option). However, because Chi is so specific to Yan Lo, I never need to worry about another model having an ability that grants Yan Lo an insane amount of Chi. Every model that gives out Chi was tested with, and intended for, Yan Lo.

The only exception to this rule that I can think of is Colette. She uses scheme markers as a resource, which are neither specific to her crew nor gained through conflict with the enemy (although I would still consider them a secondary resource). The catch here is that the things Colette does with scheme markers are, generally, a bit less powerful than the things other masters can do with their resources. Resurrectionists can bring in brand new models, Yan Lo can gain all sorts of upgrades, etc. Colette tends to use scheme markers for movement and damage mitigation, areas that other models often have built in. This makes her a very tricky and very unique master. However, it also means that I have paid very close attention to her in the beta, as she took on a mechanic I knew would be difficult to balance. But, I think we pulled it off.

Anyway, those are my notes on how to apply resource consumption in Malifaux design. The easiest way to design a broken model is to make it revolve around one of the fundamental resources.




The Problem With Summoning Part 1


Summoning is a major part of Malifaux, but it comes with some unique issues. There are very few (if any) other table top war games where actively putting new models on the table plays such a major role. Generally, all of your actions are focused on removing the opposing models from the table. While summoning makes Malifaux all the more diverse and unique, it creates some issues which other similar games never need to worry about.

I mentioned in another post that AP should be viewed as a resource. In this view, the winner is the player who most efficiently turns his or her Action Points (AP) into Victory Points (VP). This makes actions which either remove opposing AP, or add friendly AP, very powerful. Removing opposing AP is the more common of the two, and is most easily seen in killing models. The vast majority of models in the game have the potential to remove opposing models from the table (or are specifically designed for that purpose).

Summoning friendly models is the logical opposite to killing enemy models. Both forms of action hinge on changing the AP differential between you and your opponent in your favor. If you’re only looking at the AP differential, there is very little difference between deleting an opposing model and creating another friendly model. So it would seem that, on the surface, these two strategies are inherently balanced. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

To remove an opposing model, you almost always need range and Line of Sight (LoS). This inherently implies that there is a positioning element, which allows your opponent to react to you; either through positioning (running away) or counter attacking (killing your stuff first). Additionally, the opponent will generally have an opportunity to resist (because actions that can kill opposing models almost always require an opposed duel of some kind). This further adds to the counter play.

Summoning, on the other hand, can be accomplished in a vacuum. There is nothing inherent about summoning which requires positioning or opposing models to pass duels, etc. You can just do it in a corner without worrying about what the opponent is doing. Imagine if Lady Justice could sit in a corner swinging her sword and cheating in high cards every so often while removing opposing models from the table. From an AP differential standpoint, unchecked summoning is just as powerful. And, in addition to being too powerful, mechanics which don’t encourage interaction are simply less fun and more frustrating.

Of course, I am only talking about how summoning plays inherently. There is nothing specific about its design which forces player interaction and positioning, but that’s precisely the sort of problem we go about solving when we design summoning mechanics. This is why summoning actions usually require another resource (such as a corpse or scrap marker) which lessens the power of the ability, adds a positioning element, and forces interaction as the best way to get those resources is for models to start dying. I don’t think any of our wave 1 summoners are too powerful (and their beta counterparts are shaping up), I’m simply noting what I look out for as a designer. There are a number of other creative solutions which I will talk about in a future article, but for now I’m just laying out the problem.

Balancing Models In A Dual Faction Environment

Second edition has introduced a lot of cross over between factions; new mercenaries, new dual faction models, and new hiring rules. Not to mention the options that upgrades add. But, with all of the potential combinations, how do we maintain a balanced environment? I think, on the whole, most people agree second edition is a relatively well balanced game, so how did we do it?

I’ll get into a few specifics down below, but the most important thing is a shift in philosophy. The goal is not to create a balanced system by hammering down problems as they pop up like some infernal game of whack-a-mole; the goal is to create a system that is capable of correcting itself.


Some people look at a game system as a machine that requires constant maintenance. But, over the years, you’ll end up with rubber bands holding the whole thing together and duct tape keeping the fender on. I see a game system as a living thing. My goal is to give it the tools it needs to survive and then let it correct itself.

So, when we go about balancing Malifaux with all of those models switching factions, everything needs to be looked at through that lens. Accept that the system is larger than you. Accept that you won’t catch everything. Trying out every single potential combination is simply impossible unless we want to beta test for years. Instead of worrying about the whole, we worry about the parts. A healthy system is created from the ground up, so first we want to make sure that models are balanced individually. Maybe, during the beta, nobody ended up testing a crew with Seamus, a Showgirl, Killjoy, and Taelor all together. However, even though that specific list wasn’t tested as a whole, so long as each of the models in it is balanced, we will probably be fine.

This is the first lesson: balance models individually. We can’t balance the game by saying, “Well, Resser masters are weaker than those of other factions, so we can give them stronger minions.” (This is an example I am making up, by the way, Resser masters are fine). If we follow that line of thinking, what happens when other factions start hiring Resser minions? Similarly, we couldn’t say, “Arcanists have weak 4 stone options, so we can give them stronger 7 stone options.” (Again, making this up). This has the exact same issue. What happens when Arcanists can hire 4 stone models from other factions? What happens when that 7 stone model ends up elsewhere? Not to mention, this would probably just lead to Arcanist players spamming 7 stone models.

I’m not saying that the factions need to lose their identities; they all still have distinct areas of strength and weakness. Guild have more range options, Ressers have more summoning, Neverborn have more movement, etc. What I am saying is that each model in a faction needs to be balanced as an individual. If all of the parts are working, the crew you create from those parts should work as well.

Of course, this doesn’t cover everything. We’re all gamers; we’ve all seen what happens when there are two models/cards/whatever with rules that work individually but, when combined, create some stupid infinite loop or other silliness. How do we avoid that? Well, models which are capable of being broken like that tend to have some warning signs. As a designer, you need to learn to recognize those warning signs and work them out even if you haven’t found a specific model which causes a broken combo. Generally, anything which copies an action from another model can prove problematic, so we keep a very close eye on these abilities. That’s why they frequently restrict the use of copying abilities which mention a model by name or using triggers. Anything which adds suits can be problematic as it can result in unlimited triggers. Models with these abilities are usually closely watched (for example, the Daydream can add suits but, being the Dreamer’s totem, we know exactly which model he is adding suits to. Somer can add suits, but he can only do it to gremlins and pigs so we don’t need to balance all mercenaries around this ability, etc).

Finally, the last thing to watch is simple language. Anything which is too open ended can end up being a problem. Let me give you an example. Here is Shenlong’s Burn Like Fire action from the beta a week ago:

(1) Burn Like Fire (Ca 6 / TN: 10 / Rst: Wp / Rg: 6): Target enemy model suffers 1/2/3 damage. If the target has a Condition, this model may choose to gain that Condition.

Here is his Burn Like Fire action from this week:

(1) Burn Like Fire (Ca 6 / TN: 10 / Rst: Wp / Rg: 6): Target enemy model suffers 1/2/3 damage. End all instances of the Defensive, Focused, Fast, and Reactivate Conditions on the target. This model gains all Conditions ended in this way.

See the difference? This week’s version is much more restrictive, spelling out exactly which conditions he may gain. Now, did I find some broken combo involving this? No, but I acknowledge that there very well could be one I’m not seeing, if not now then in the future. Keeping the wording tight keeps the game healthy.

The other thing which you really need to watch is the number of debuffs available to a crew. Although watching the whole system is impossible, you can track how many models have an ability capable of debuffing (lowering the stats of other models around them) that may be taken outside of their native faction. If a crew ends up with too many of these models, it can make for an unfun game. This is why Montresor lost mercenary, and Iggy is being watched very closely.

If you follow all of these rules, you should have a relatively healthy system. But I mentioned earlier that I see a system as a living thing, and a living thing is going to need some tools to survive. The final piece of the puzzle is creating a few answers to potential problems which are available to absolutely everyone. This is where the mercenaries really shine. Each of the named mercenaries adds something unique which can be very useful from a meta perspective. Let’s have a look at them.

Johan, in addition to being an efficient model, has Rebel Yell which can remove conditions from a model. Conditions are a huge part of second edition, and it’s very possible that a player could run into a situation where they really need to get rid of some of them. Having a model available to every faction with this ability really helps level the playing field.

Taelor has Welcome To Malifaux (my personal favorite action that I designed in Wave 1, just as a side note) which gives her some good anti-summoning tech. Summoning is another big part of second edition and I think it’s necessary for all crews to have an answer to it. Keep in mind, this isn’t something we put in to answer a specific problem. We didn’t look at the meta and say, “Nicodem’s summoning is too powerful, so we’ll let everyone use Taelor. Problem solved!” That would be terrible design. However, we acknowledged that playing against a summoning crew can be a big shift in thought for people new to Malifaux (after all, most wargames only remove models from the table, they don’t come back on). And, in a small playgroup where a player may end up facing the same crew over and over again, it’s good to give that player an answer if they are getting frustrated. It’s also good from a tournament perspective if a player is familiar with the meta in their area; everyone always playing summoners? Pest control is on the way!

Hans can snipe upgrades off of models. Now, he is definitely the most controversial of the models listed so far. People seem to be worried about his ability to remove upgrades from masters (since upgrades are usually a big part of a master’s playstle). While this is a valid concern, we were aware of it when designing Hans, and Leader models can mitigate this ability by discarding cards. I have never personally seen a Leader have an upgrade removed by Hans unless they felt the cards were more valuable (in which case, they weren’t too attached to the upgrade anyway). People are more worried about the idea than about how it actually functions. However, perception is important, and with Hans filling this role, I have no intention of adding more models with this capability. Alright, controversy out of the way, Hans plays a role just as important as Johan and Taelor. Upgrades are a big part of second edition, and it’s good to have an answer to them to shake up the meta a little bit. Hans was never designed to take upgrades off of Masters; he was designed to take upgrades off of enforcers and henchmen (and he’s good at it). Like the other two, Hans isn’t an answer to a specific problem. However, if a player finds themselves facing an opponent who takes the same list over and over again, he can be used to shake things up. Sick of your friend always taking Decaying Aura on Bete Noire? Hans is your man.

That’s all I have for right now. Just remember the goal. The goal is not to create a machine and keep it running forever, the goal is to create a living thing that takes care of itself.

Swimming Against The Tide


Comparing two models can be tricky, because when you do it, you need to consider everything the model can do and not just a single ability. It’s human nature to pick the two things which are most alike and compare them side by side; however, this is dangerous from a game design stand point.

This has been cropping up with Leveticus in comparison to the hanged. The Hanged has an action (Whispers From Beyond) which is very similar to the Unnatural Wasting action on Leveticus’s Pariah of Iron upgrade, except The Hanged doesn’t need to make a damage flip where Leveticus does. This led to a number of people requesting this action get a buff just because it wasn’t as good as the one on The Hanged. So, I posted this in the Leveticus thread:

I’m not worried about Whispers From Beyond on The Hanged. The Hanged being able to do something better than Leveticus does not make Leveticus worse. Nekima has a weak melee damage of 4, but that doesn’t invalidate Lilith as a melee piece. At the end of the day Leveticus gets one more AP to use the Action, has a longer range, and has a higher Ca with the opportunity to cast it on a +. Also he tends to be able to last longer to get more use out of it. Of course, all of this is academic, because I am not concerned with comparing Pariah of Iron with the Hanged; I’m concerned with comparing Pariah of Iron with Pariah of Bone.

Comparing models is difficult, because a single aspect of the model can’t be cherry picked and compared to something else, the model needs to be considered as a whole. But that’s not how people tend to operate.

At the end of the day, a good model can have a bad ability; it doesn’t make the model any worse, it just won’t come up that much. However, sometimes when a good model has a situational ability, that causes people to lower their perception of the model as a whole. It’s an unfortunate quirk of human nature, but since we tend to design games for humans, adhering to human nature is pretty important.

A good example of this was the Hunter ability on Samael Hopkins in the wave 1 beta. Hunter allowed Samael to ignore cover while within 6″ of his target. This is situational enough, but he also had Visions of Flame which was a better ability so long as the target had burning. However, Hunter may have come into play every once in a while. Because Hunter wasn’t very appealing, people got stuck on that and under valued Samael as a whole. All sorts of replacement abilities were suggested (which would have made him broken, since the rest of him was perfectly fine). Ultimately, I just removed Hunter and didn’t replace it with anything. Once the sub-par ability was removed, people focused on the better aspects of the model and I haven’t heard a single complaint about him being under powered, despite the fact that he is technically a smidge less powerful than when he had Hunter.

Human nature is an awkward thing to work around sometimes, but fighting against is is like swimming against the tide. Human nature wins.


I Kill All The Models!

A problem which is common to tabletop wargames is that of balancing the importance of objectives against the importance of simply killing models. Actually, this may not be so much of a “problem” in most games as it is a simple design choice; objectives are the excuse to get the models into a position where they kill each other. And that’s great fun at times, but it’s not what we were aiming for with Malifaux.

I think that most people would agree that second edition is just as (or more) objective oriented as first edition, but getting there was difficult. After all, killing all of the opposing models both makes accomplishing your objectives a lot easier and prevents the opponent from accomplishing his or her objectives.

It’s sort of like that scene in Starship Troopers.

“Sir, I don’t understand. Who needs a knife in a nuke fight anyway? All you gotta do is push a button, sir.”


“The enemy cannot push a button… if you disable his hand. Medic!”

If there is a lesson which can’t be learned from Starship Troopers or Tremors then…well, then I haven’t learned it. I don’t get out much.

Anyway, it illustrates the point well. Keeping your eye on the goal is all well and good, but if you can just disable the enemy, that essentially becomes the goal; making objectives irrelevant. We did a number of things to tackle this problem.

First, we made sure that most of the game’s objectives were active rather than passive. What, exactly, does this mean? Let’s compare the old version of the scheme Breakthrough to the M2E version:

1.5 Breakthrough: “If you have more models in your opponent’s Deployment Zone than he or she does at the end of the Encounter, you score 1 VP.”

M2E Breakthrough: “At the end of the game, this Crew earns 1 VP for each of its Scheme Markers within 6″ of the enemy Deployment Zone.”

In 1.5, you just needed to make sure that you had more models hanging around on the other side of the board than your opponent did. And what’s the easiest way to make sure this happens? Make sure you have more models than your opponent does at the end of the game. This leads to a war of attrition, which is how most wargames tend to play (and there’s nothing wrong with that). In second edition, you need to get to the other side of the board and then take an interact action. This pulls the game away from being a war of attrition in a few ways. First, once you have planted your scheme marker, it doesn’t matter if the model that planted it dies. This clearly takes some of the emphasis off of killing. Second, you have to actually choose between spending AP on your objective and spending AP gunning down your enemy. (And AP is a resource more valuable than any soulstone, but that’s an article for another day.)

The next thing we did to combat the war of attrition was to shorten the game length from six turns to five. Models do damage to each other over time. That’s what happens in a wargame. On a long enough time-line, eventually one of the players will be wiped out. And, once one of the players is gone, the other player can run around accomplishing all of the objectives. The new Breakthrough does a great job of forcing players to choose between killing and accomplishing objectives, but if a player has enough time to wipe their opponent and then run around placing Scheme Markers, then we didn’t really accomplish anything with it. Through simple trial and error we determined that five was the optimal number of turns to provide a good game without either side having time to wipe out the other. Ironically, when we initially presented this to playtest, people rallied against it. It was seen as a “bandaid.” But I think it’s one of the major improvements in M2E. Six turns is the norm in most tabletop wargames, but that seems arbitrary to me.

The last thing we did was to make sure that models which excelled at support and taking objectives were actually worth taking in comparison to models which could simply do large amounts of damage over time. The key to designing a successful support model is to constantly ask yourself, “if I had spent that AP to attack, would I have gotten more value out of it?” (Again, we come back to viewing AP as a resource, which is very helpful in design.) By constantly weighing the value of support against damage I designed models like the Nurse and Fingers who have to make up for their lack of killing power in other ways.

Of course, we have a few Schemes and Strategies which emphasize killing, and plenty of models which are good at it. We never set out to eliminate combat. However, the value placed on scoring objectives instead of on killing models has always been hailed as a selling point of Malifaux, and with second edition I feel that we maintained that legacy, if not improved on it.


Designing The Avatar Mechanic

Today I wanted to talk a bit about the design of the Avatar manifest mechanic. This was a particularly difficult mechanic to design, largely because of design decisions from 1.5 which we needed to keep in the game. Essentially, Avatars needed to “pop” into play, but balancing this in the current edition was very difficult.

Here is part of a post I made in the closed beta when we were designing the manifest mechanic:

Sometimes, when designing a game, it helps to look at the design process as a game. Here are the rules for avatar design:

1) Every Master needs an avatar
2) Manifesting rules need to be in the core book out in August
3) Masters need to “turn into” their avatar during the game
4) Avatars need to be purchased at the start of the game with soulstones
5) Avatars can’t screw up the game (obvious, but it’s one of the rules, listing them helps)

Here is my current issue:

Avatars are supposed to be big, flashy models. Additionally, by their very definition, bringing them into play removes your most powerful model (the master). And, on top of all of this, they only are in play for a very limited number of turns. To make up for all of these drawbacks, they need to have an inflated significance on the game.

Unfortunately, this generally puts avatars into two camps: useless because they simply couldn’t achieve enough considering their limited time on the board and removal of the master, or totally game warping. The line where they can be balanced is incredibly thin, and although I’m sure we can hit it with a handful, I’m not convinced it’s possible for every master in the game. In other words, rules 3 and 5 (above) aren’t playing well together.

That post was the basic core from which we started the manifest design. The issue was that Avatars, by their very nature, were an “all or nothing” mechanic. Meaning, they either failed horribly or dominated the game. An all or nothing mechanic can be balanced in the sense that it succeeds as often as it fails, but it frequently leaves players with a bad taste in their mouths. Close games are generally more fun, and a mechanic that will either sink or swim is just generally less fun.

Following those principles, we came up with the current design (rulebook pg. 56-57). Basically, Avatars are upgrades. When you purchase the Avatar upgrade, you select a manifest card (there are five to choose from). The manifest card tells you under what conditions you “manifest” your Avatar. If you meet your manifest requirements, flip the Avatar upgrade over and you get access to some new abilities.

This new system fixed the issues which we previously had with Avatars. The manifest mechanic was linked to the upgrade system, so we had an easy way of introducing it into the game. Because the Avatar was an upgrade, the master immediately got something for purchasing it, which makes the mechanic a lot less “all or nothing.” In this way, the Avatar adds something to the crew even if it never manifests. Also, since the Avatar upgrade simply flipped over and added a few new abilities, the master was no longer “removed” from the table when the avatar came in. In other words, manifesting only added to what was there, it didn’t take anything away. This made it much more reasonable to balance.

Designing balanced models is very important, but it’s impossible to do if the core isn’t there. Creating an environment where you can tweak models without sending their power levels soaring into the atmosphere or scuttling them completely is key (and was a large reason for the recent Levy changes, but that’s another topic). And sometimes even if things are balanced, they still aren’t fun. Mechanics which cause a major swing in the game can be very problematic, and removing them here was the right move.

And, no, just because I made this post doesn’t mean avatars will be out next week. But I was working on them today and I thought this would be a fun topic for you to be able to reference when they do find their way into the public beta. Aaron Darland did a lot of work on the individual designs, and I hope he can give you some insight on them at some point.