Sunday, 7 November 2021

The ROAD Warrior

Not long ago I wrote a blog that was broadly very critical of AMG's proposed changes to X-Wing, and what we know as ROAD (Random Order After Dials).

Quite a lot has changed for me over the past week, in what is increasingly looking like the post-apocalyptic wasteland of X-Wing.

Today I'm going to write a blog that is broadly pretty positive about AMG's proposed changes to X-Wing.  If you don't want to read about why people might think ROAD is good then you can stop right here, or if you do want to read on then please remember all this is one person's personal point of view, not a manifesto.


My last blog was met with a lot of nice words but far more importantly it triggered my involvement in a lot of interesting discussions across Facebook, Reddit and Discord which helped to hone my personal opinions on the best route forwards.

If you read that blog you may remember this graphic, which had the sliding scale of possible options for X-Wing's future format that everyone was discussing.  After I posted my blog I started to whittle a lot of these options down as we talked them through.

On the left-hand side of the scale we have the rules that X-Wing currently runs to (Bidding determines initiative, bids are the last thing that get scored when MOV is calculated).  As I prepared to play in an event that was the next option along - bidding but with your bid points being handed to the opponent for their MOV at the start of the game - I quickly came to the conclusion that the two options were *extremely* similar.  The squad I wanted to use wanted to move second and was going to bid whatever I felt I needed to in order to force that situation in the majority of games.  Whether my bid was the first thing the opponent scored, or the last thing, simply wasn't a significant contributing factor in my decision making.  I think switching to deficit scoring is a quick & simple improvement on the current rules, but I'm happy to lump them together and say they're basically the same thing.

On the right-hand side of the scale were lots of options for how we could shift Initiative every turn over the course of the game, with ROAD (deciding after dials were set) being the most extreme version of this possible format.  

If I'd had a favoured option at the point I wrote that blog it would have been Alternating initiative between players each turn but as we talked through how that would work I was quickly convinced it was a bad idea because it's too easy for players to 'game' that situation to their advantage.  Imagine two alpha strike lists and the complicated positional dance they would have to do as both players tried to stall the engagement until a turn when they were the ones moving second and could get target locks for their torpedoes.  Or imagine an aces dogfight where players take turns flying defensively and negatively then trying to win on 'their good turn' when they would move second.  

Games where players were only spending 50% of their time trying to move the game state forward sounded like a recipe for boring games where very little happened.  Incredibly tactical games where the best players would almost certainly navigate planning ahead for initiative shifts better than their opponents... but also really fucking boring.

Many players seem to like the idea of ROBD (random order before dials) but I was also talked around to the idea that it was actually the worst of both worlds.  You keep all the feelsbad of rolling for initiative and losing, but in ROAD you at least have the equality of having planned without knowing and thus your moment of bad variance may not be completely punished.  In ROBD not only do you get the feelsbad of losing the dice roll but you also know that the opponent is now going to try and make that bad variance destroy your chances in the game as much as they possibly can.  Rather than mitigating the problem with ROAD, I think ROBD actually doubles down on it.

And, finally, I couldn't ignore that the vast majority of feedback that I saw about ROAD from people who had tried it was... actually pretty positive.  X-Wing was still X-Wing, maneuvering still mattered, it affected a couple of turns but otherwise didn't make too much difference.  I thought there was probably a correlation that the people who were first to try ROAD were probably those who had not been utterly disgusted by the concept of it and they were more likely to see positives in it as a result, but as I read more and more of the same type of feedback I felt like I couldn't really ignore it completely.

(Note: I've also since played a game with ROAD myself: the impact was much smaller than I expected, though we didn't use any of the additional rules changes AMG have hinted at that would make it more impactful.  One game is a crappy sample size, though it's better than zero games, but so far I have to agree that ROAD isn't a big deal).
So... I was increasingly sure that ROAD was one of only three viable options - Current Rules, RPO decided in turn 0, or ROAD.  I shifted my focus a little bit to trying think of what the major problems with ROAD were and how you could mitigate them.  Mostly it came down to wanting to fly things with passive mods if possible - most of the time ROAD games would be exactly like normal games as you'd not even be overlapping initiative to make it an issue, in some games you'd be overlapping and have to cope with uncertainty about moving first, but the biggest issue would come in games where both of you wanted to be in the same place on the table and you didn't know who were get their first.  It seemed like ROAD would create a lot more unavoidable/accidental bumps so having ships who weren't completely dependent on taking actions to survive had an advantage.

Bumps are a big deal in X-Wing, and as somebody who plays swarms a lot I know that landing a bump is often a matter of life of death and it can swing the results of games.  It occured to me that in a ROAD world with lots more unavoidable bumps you might want to try to shrink the delta between being bumped and not being bumped.  Maybe if you could take a red focus action or something?   At least then every ship got access to some sort of mitigation for being bumped instead of being led towards including passive mods on everything when squadbuilding. 

But that was just blue sky thinking, kind of like a 'ROAD+' that made other changes to the game that would smooth out a lot of the biggest problems I could see ROAD causing.  It wasn't real.
If the initial announcement about ROAD had left me at liking it with a score of just 1/10 then by the time I'd reflected enough to write my last blog I was up to 3/10, and the discussions that followed my blog being published chipped me up a little bit further to a 4/10.  


A couple of days ago AMG finally got to share the Livestream of playing a game with us, and during it they fielded some of the thousands of questions from the community while sharing more details about what they were going to change, and why they saw the need to change at all.

There's a lot in those notes but I've pulled out some of the bullet points that I think best encapsulate the new ethos of X-Wing that AMG are proposing:
  • Why Deficit  Scoring?  Because  bidding  hides  points,  that  wasnt  fun.  And  you  should  be  incentivized  to use  ALL of  your  points 
  • Why ROAD?  Tried  back  and  forth  player  order:  didnt  accomplish  what  they  wanted  the  idea  that  x-wing  needs  to  go  back  to  its  roots  -  it's  a  dogfighting  and you  are  not  supposed  to  have  perfect  information,  They want you  to  have  choices  in  the  game  that  doesnt  have  perfect  information.
  • You may not like  this.  Old  x-wing  may  have  been  the  game  of  your  dreams. maybe  you  like  tower  defense  games.  That  is  not  the  game  we  belive  it  should  be,  and  not  the  way  of  the  future.
  • New OP and tournament scoring pushes  the  needle  away  from  being  conservative  - less worrying  about  how  many  points  you’re  giving  up,  and  rather  how  many  you can  score 
  • The most  fun  and  enjoyable  for  the  widest  range  of  people..  Wanted to  lower  the  skill  floor.
As far as a declaration of intent goes, I could not agree more with every word of those bullet points.

Bidding wasn't fun, it may have been tactical and it may have rewarded people for making very tight decisions after spending a log of time watchng what everyone else was doing, but it wasn't *fun*.  You should be able to build your squad and use all 200pts and not be punished for it, that's both more enjoyable and (coincidentally) it makes more sense from a games manufacturer to not have rules that incentivise people to not use the products they manufacture.

I've already said that I feared Alternate initiative was just giving strong players even more information to outplay weaker players with and that's  how AMG's designers feel too.  Most of the time oilots with higher initiatives will move after lower initiative pilots with all the advantages they've ever enjoyed, but when initiatives are tied ROAD does leave both players in a similar state of uncertainty and I had already seen that was actually potentially a desirable trait, not a problem.

A lot of people seem to have been offended by the Tower Defense remark, but if you look at some of the ways that a minority of players have exploited tournament rules to win games - stalling engagements, playing the clock, fortressing, sitting in your corner with StarVipers or Vulture Droids, diving in to score a half ship then running away... the Tower Defense remark seems pretty much on point.  Every single one of those things has always felt distateful to me, personally, and if AMG feel the same way and are confident enough to come out and say as much so clearly... fuckin' A.  They got my vote.  I think the vast majority of X-Wing players didn't play the game this way and shouldn't have any reason to feel targeted by the Tower Defense comment... AMG are on our side on this one, chaps!

And "the most fun and enjoyable for the widest range of people" really just makes it so simple.  How can you disagree with that being the ultimate goal of game design?  

Make more people more happy.  Boom.

I started out at a 1/10 with my opinion of ROAD and the changes AMG were proposing and after reading all that I was up to a 6/10, even before I got into the details of any extra changes they might talk about..  They may not be experienced in X-Wing, they maybe don't know the game very well and could be about to screw it up, but their head and heart is aligned 100% in the direction that mine is.  
The open, exciting, tactical and attacking X-Wing that AMG want people to play is the X-Wing that I want to play.
But wait, what was that they also said?

Possible  Changes  to  Bumping  and  Range 0:
  • Looking  at  that  you  can  still  take  actions  if  bumping, but  it  MUST  be  focus  or  calculate
  • Blocking  was  a  discovered  mechanic - there's  limitations  of  a  3d  game  on  a  2d plane. 
  • Looking  at  allowing  all  ships  to  shoot  range  0  (no  range  bonus)

I agree with them completely on this, not only about changing bumping rules because it'll happen more often, but because bumping itself is an artificial interaction that only happens because two squares of plastic can't overlap on a 2D plane.  Ships not being able to take actions or shoot at each other kind of ignores all the rest of the time that is supposed to have happening during the period that a turn represents - the ships didn't instantaneously crash into each other, there was a whole periodof time when they were flying at each other where acitons and shooting could happen.  It makes perfect sense.  I also remember the first time that the guy who was teaching me to play deliberately bumped my ships... it felt like cheating.  I still remember that feeling 5 years later. 

Not only are mine and AMG's hearts in the same place about what the ideal style of X-Wing should be, but we were right in each other's heads about looking at reducing the impact of bumps now that ROAD would be generating them more often.  That these changes were mentioned as being explored gave me a lot more confidence that the AMG design weren't desperately playing catch up in a game they didn't really understand, but that they were actually out front and leading the way with how they could be required to adapt the game to provide a better experience.

I want to reserve final judgement until I see the rules they decide to implement: is it a white focus or red focus action?  Is it for any bump?  Is it only if you bump into an enemy ship?  Is it only if you bump into an enemy ship of the same initiative?  Bumping is a huge part of X-Wing strategy, and denying repositions and other actions means it still WILL be a huge part of X-Wing strategy going forwards should this rule come into the game. I'm comfortable with toning it down a bit.

But the end result of the AMG livestream moved me sceptical to cautiously hopeful.  Excited, even.  Mark me down as a 7/10 in favour of ROAD, and I'm hoping the detail of those rules changes will push me even higher.


This is the last outstanding question, really.  If X-Wing isn't broke, why fix it?  Why is AMG messing with it at all?

Well, I think this answer has two facets that take the discussion in two very different directions, and both get very contentious very quickly so I'm not going to do either in much depth because I think they're just lightning rods for disagreements.

1) X-Wing may not have been broken, but it was probably bent.  For all the reasons that I discussed above I think AMG are addressing things that aren't perfect in the current game, and often are exploited to reduce the enjoyment that average players get out of X-Wing.  You may disagree.  You may STRONGLY disagree.  But I agree with that and AMG believe it's true too.

2) As a product line, it's highly likely that X-Wing was dying.  We used to be a big deal, we used to outsell basically everything but Warhammer 40k, but those days are a long long looooooooooong way back in the past.  I think X-Wing has been in significant decline since as early as mid-2017, which has continued right through the Second Edition relaunch and then obviously wasn't helped at all by a global pandemic either.  I've blogged about this before, and I think we're still on the narrative that I outlined in that old blog.  A key element, for me, is that the fates of competitive play and the sales revenue have long since disconnected and while competitive play is continuing in rude health sales have crashed.  Hardcore tournament players may be playing the game as much as ever (more, arguably, thanks to TTS) but there's very little that they actually need to buy (again, partly due to TTS).  

Worse yet, I think pandering to that hardcore audience - of which I am a card-carrying member - has been an obstacle to any efforts FFG made to try and reinvigorate sales to the wider audience.  Conversion Kits bridged us all into Second Edition but meant we didn't need to buy anything after we jumped on, while older ships being strong remained a big hurdle for newer players jumping in and for stores who might want to support X-Wing but couldn't stock the ships their customers wasnted to buy.

Hyperspace might have been intended to force us onto new ships and fix the problem but a lot of the community refused to really engage with that format and it failed.  Serious hardcore tournament players aren't enemies of the game, but they're not exactly helping it very much either.  Their opinions were arguably given far too much value by FFG and it's stood in the way of making major changes that were radical enough to at least stand a chance of turning around X-Wing's sales decline.

Will it work?  Probably not.  I think X-Wing is nearing the end of its useful economic life to Asmodee.  But at least they're giving it a wild punt to see if it does work.


AMG seem very confident their changes are for the best.  I don't think they're going to back down or will be made to back down.  ROAD is going to be in the official rules very soon, tournament scoring will be uprooted, bumping will change, cats and dogs will get along... it's going to be wild.  When ROAD was first announced there was a chance that they didn't really understand the scale of the changes they were making or that some people would really hate them.

I think it's much more clear that they knew this all along and were ready to piss a bunch of people off to make the significant changes to the game that they believe make it better.

ROAD is going to be real, probably by the end of the year.

The only question that's really outstanding is what the community will do about it.  Can the people who are really pissed off with ROAD assemble enough of a critical mass that they can launch a valid splinter group who remain on the old rules of X-Wing.  I'm not sure if that's ever happened to a game before.  There's been times when communities have kept games alive after manufacturers dropped them, like the Blood Bowl Living Rulebook, or the NISEI community for Netrunner, but I'm not sure there's been a time when anyone managed a successful breakaway while they still had to compete with the game's designers.  The closest I'm even half aware of is Age of Sigmar vs Warhammer Fantasy Battles, and although I'm the wrong person to talk with much confidence about the state of Games Workshop AFAIK it's Age of Sigmar that's won that battle.

I'm starting to believe that for 80-90% of the X-Wing playerbase the changes AMG are making will work out just fine, and maybe even make the game a better experience.  The 10-20% of players at the top of the game - the players who are most committed and spend the most time on the game, often with the loudest voices, most followers and who wield the most sway... they need to decide what they're going to do.  They've a choice either to head off ROAD coming in by breaking away, learning to deal with the changes to the game and remaining the best players in X-Wing's future, or in moving on to play something else instead.

I'm still on the fence, and I don't need to make a decision.  I'm waiting to see what the final version of ROAD is but I'm confident I'll enjoy playing it so I'm not worrying about selling my ships.  I know I enjoy playing the current X-Wing rules even though they're flawed so I'm happy to play in a breakaway too should one come about (though if I'm honest the idea of a breakaway led by players who specifically value & enjoy all the things about X-Wing that I don't necessarily enjoy isn't ideal).

I don't know how it plays out.  But I do think the recent frenzied tempo of revelation and reaction should now calm down a lot and players can reflect and plan.  AMG have shown us as much of their hand as they currently can and this little moment of calm will be good for everyone, I think.

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