23 February 2010

The Play's The Thing

A guest article from Horus Heresy game designer Jeff Tidball

This week we take a break from our recent sneak peeks of the game mechanics of Horus Heresy, and instead take a look at the game through the eyes of the designer, Jeff Tidball. Jeff was gracious enough to share some of his personal insights into what he wanted to achieve with the game, especially as a long-time player of Warhammer 40,000. Enjoy!
I remember exactly which day I found out there was a deal in the works between Fantasy Flight Games and Games Workshop. It was the day I came back to the office from my two weeks of paternity leave when my younger son was born. I had just sat down to start sifting the massive pile of accumulated e-mail when I was pulled aside and told I'd be in meetings all day because a few nice gentlemen from Nottingham would be arriving at the office shortly (but would I please keep that to myself for the time being).
Fast forward a couple of weeks; the deal was done and we were in release-planning mode. At the time I was FFG's Vice President of Product Development. Given that privilege of place, I had a certain amount of latitude to stand up and shout—when the Horus Heresy project came up and it became clear that we'd do it as a big-box game—“Step away, developers! That game's mine!”
Rewind about twenty years. When I was in junior high and high school, I played a lot of the Milton Bradley Gamemaster games, especially Axis & Allies, Fortress America, and Shogun. You're here at the Fantasy Flight website, so I don't need to tell you about the joy of pushing a mountain of plastic figures across the front line in preparation to grind your hapless opponent into the dust. I also played a prodigious amount of Warhammer 40,000 in those days. I wasn't so hot with the painting and modeling, but the fact that a good half of my bedroom was dominated by a four-foot by eight-foot miniatures table should testify to my dedication.
Given those personal influences, it probably came as no shock to my co-workers that I stood on top of the opportunity to design and develop a “mountains-of-plastic-figures” game set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe and threw my elbows until everyone else backed away. It was clear right away that approaching Horus Heresy solely as a game design challenge wasn't the correct approach. Why? Because the Horus Heresy source material—in addition to being a board game—is a story, originally told in the first edition board game's rulebook, later expanded in Sabertooth's CCG, and even now continuing to unfurl in Black Library's novels. From the beginning, I knew that FFG's Horus Heresy board game needed to be an adaptation of the story as much as it needed to be a game of the proper style.
The challenge in adapting any story (be it a comic, novel, film, or whatever) into a game (be it a board game, card game, or roleplaying game) is that there's a fundamental difference between what a story is and what a game is: In a story, the author tells you what happens. In a game, you decide.
After giving it some thought, I set this goal for myself: At the end of the day, I wanted it to be possible for just about everything that happens in the canonical Horus Heresy story to be able to happen in the game. But at the same time, I wanted lots of other things to be possible, too. As much as Warhammer 40,000 fans love the canonical narrative, I don't think they want to just re-enact those same events blow by blow and die-roll by die-roll. They want to try out different decisions. They want to play “What if?”

  • What if the Traitor forces landed here, and here, and here? (Instead of there, and there, and there…)
  • What if Horus had decided to land on Terra and lead his forces from the front lines?
  • What if the Emperor had taken the fight to the Vengeful Spirit from the very beginning?

While I explored ways to include plenty of options for players to take the “historical” situation in different directions, my biggest fear was that I'd accidentally make it impossible for the game to reflect the real story. I was scared that I'd accidentally develop a game where players could play game after game after game and discover that it was mechanically impossible for a game of Horus Heresy to resolve as the canonical story does. So I kept that parameter in mind, too.
The design process started with fact-finding. In addition to playing Jervis Johnson's original Horus Heresy board game (which FFG frontman Jeremy Stomberg dug up from his personal collection and graciously loaned me for the better part of a year), my cohort Sam Stewart (then an FFG editor, now the Rogue Trader line developer) and I sat down with photocopies of the Horus Heresy narrative and a highlighter and simply marked all of the things in the story that we thought it should be possible to do in the game.
Through that process, lots of the work we needed to do was very clearly identified. It became clear, for example, that the game needed robust rule systems for epic combat between heroes. It became clear that we needed ways for fortifications to be demolished, for Space Marines to be moved around the map, the Emperor to take the fight to Horus's flagship, and more.
But even given the level of general rules complexity I could deploy  while designing a big-box game, it became clear that there couldn't be independent rule systems for all of the things we had identified that ought to be able to happen in a Horus Heresy board game. It would be too much for players to keep in their heads; the rulebook would come out north of 100 pages.
Cards came to the rescue, in two general types: combat cards and event cards. Each provided a structure on which myriad bits of flavorful coolness could be hung. When it became clear that titans needed to be able to destroy fortifications, that necessary capacity became a special effect you could use when you had titans present and drew the correct combat card. Many such events from the canonical stories likewise found their way into the special effects of combat cards. With regards to those canonical events that occurred outside of battle  I discovered that these essential narrative moments could also be reflected just as well (and maybe better) as event cards.
Eric Lang was the one who suggested, after playing a relatively early Horus Heresy prototype, that the event card deck for a given game of Horus Heresy ought to function a bit like an Old One in Arkham Horror, to define the scope and outlines of a concrete scenario. I took his idea one step further, dividing each event deck into acts. The division into acts brought me full circle, back to story. It allowed me to divide events into broad categories, defining some that should generally occur at the beginning of a story (when forces are gathered and the table is set), some for the middle of a story (when the enemies clash!), and some for the end of a story (when the heroes close in and climactic events bring about massive upheavals). Although it had been known from the beginning that a game of Horus Heresy wouldn't always play out just like the canonical story, by having the right kind of events take place at the right times during each game, the overall feeling of the epic narrative could be retained.
So, for example, “Apocalypse Rains Down,” an event card that allows the Traitor to continue his pre-game bombardments, clearly makes the greatest sense near the beginning of the game, and so it occurs most frequently in the various scenarios' first acts. Similarly, “The Righteous Heed the Call,” a card that allows the Imperial player to add forces to the board (called up from garrisons outside the game board proper), obviously also belongs in the “table-setting” portion of play, in the early game. Games of Horus Heresy end most satisfyingly in titanic clashes between the surviving heroes and the units they personally lead. Thus, the event card “Titans Stride the Earth,” which allows a hero and the forces with him an extra movement and an extra battle, is clearly something that belongs in a game's final turns and makes almost no sense at all at the beginning of a game.
Over the course of Horus Heresy's development I came to enjoy, more and more, the challenge of “explaining” things that had happened in playtesting with story beats that either did happen in the canonical story or would be easy to imagine happening in some parallel universe's telling of it. When an overwhelming Traitor force failed to take an Imperial fortification, it was easy to imagine a heroic Primarch standing atop the walls and inspiring an all-or-nothing defense while missiles rained down around him. When Traitor tank divisions proved unable to roll all the way from their landing zone to the Imperial Palace due to some unfortunate arrangement of activation tokens, it was easy to imagine that it was impossible for them to advance due to a massive battle between Space Marines and Traitor Space Marines being waged in their way.
In fact, imagining such scenarios eventually became almost a danger to the development process. It was sometimes more fun to try to explain some gameplay anomaly with an interesting story twist than to figure out whether we had stumbled across an inelegant nubbin of rules that needed to be filed off or even thrown out. In the end, I think I was usually successful in restraining myself. You'll be the judge, I imagine.
My ultimate hope is that when Horus Heresy is released, you'll take the same kinds of cues I did from your games' unfolding events and entertain yourself in the same way, with exciting explanations for why things turned out one way instead of some other way. I hope you'll invent awesome epics for yourself inside your own little shard of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Those stories you tell and that you own, because you made the decisions and you pushed the little mountains of plastic soldiers across the front line, are ultimately where the best features of stories and games meet: in an exciting story that you were responsible for creating.

Jeff Tidball is a freelance writer and game designer. Visit him on the web at www.jefftidball.com 

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