Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Deep Thought: Creating More Thematic Games

With my last two articles being more tactically based, I figured it was time to do something a bit different. After all, there are plenty of pieces out there on how to get the most out of your models, lists and positioning, but something that rarely gets discussed is how to improve the overall gaming experience for non-tournament/practice games.
For this piece, what I thought I'd discuss is how to get the most out of creating some more thematic tables and missions! It's all very well to play on "yet another plain hab-block" with a stack of unpainted miniatures, but the longer you play this game, the more the desire to stave off the attrition becomes important to keep your interest going, as well as that of the rest of the group. In other words, it's those really thematic and memorable moments I think that keeps people coming back for more.

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- After all, wouldn’t you rather play on something like THIS?
(A board from one of our tournaments earlier this year)

After all, Infinity has some of the most important terrain considerations out of any other mainstream game, and combined with a line of truly stunning miniatures, it seems a shame not to push that strength right to the limit. Unless you're relatively new to the game and/or on a particularly low budget, let's assume you have a decent combination of having painted models and a bit of terrain collection, but maybe you're still wanting something a little extra to spice up your regular games…

If you find yourself in that situation, then this article is for you!



Setup and Terrain
I think the first and most important step with trying to organize more thematic games is to be prepared to put in a little extra effort with the setup. Most games, people quickly drop a bunch of buildings down, organize them in order to avoid major firelanes, and get to playing right away.
But ask yourself - how many of those boards do you remember? Did you miss out on a good experience just to block a particular firelane? Did you throw out some of the visuals just for the sake of balanced gameplay? Perhaps more importantly - did you HAVE to, or were you simply being lazy?

As part of this, the first step really has to be focused on spending a little extra time putting that special table together. Whether you're playing at a FLGS or home, spend a few minutes going through all the terrain options and boards/mats available to you and limit yourself to only stuff that fits. Avoid creating the usual symmetrical table - most thematic boards can be skewed perfectly fine so long as they don't favor one player over the other. For instance, if one side of the table looks way better than the other, consider rotating everything 90 degrees, so that now all the best terrain is between deployment zones and favors one "flank", rather than one "side". Even then, breaking symmetry doesn't have to create a skew, as it's perfectly reasonable to mix 2 different terrain types along the "edge" of some area, which gives the board a nice mix of terrain without becoming unbalanced.

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- Keeping the terrain consistent is important, and can really help
capture the theme of the environment.

Next you have to work on firelanes. It's important to force yourself out of the mindset where you find yourself eyeing up some firelane in the midst of your suburban village and you put down a giant Icestorm shipping crate to block the road. Instead start thinking of how you can arrange the larger buildings a bit differently, or if you really must block that gap, is there another more suitable piece you could apply instead?

Once you've got your major pieces down, it's time to focus on the details. Is there an entrance point to this "area" that you've created? Then you might want to put down some gates, barricades, tank traps and the like around the pathway. Are your larger buildings largely empty? Then consider some furniture items, even if they're just boxes, crates or barrels, just to break up those big open areas... especially in buildings near objectives which you know are going to matter. Do these larger structures or obstacles serve some kind of purpose? Then add the smaller scenery around them to cement this focus. The idea here is to reduce the "pointlessness" of everything on your boards. Your buildings don't just feel like "yet another 4 walls and a roof", it might have things to duck behind, access points to other locations or just simple details that help capture the environment.
Once in a great while, you're lucky enough to have some really cool scenery at your disposal. Maybe you travelled to another store, a friend made something customized, or one of your locals did a big order for a bunch of sweet MDF (sawdust-crack heh). Either way, take full advantage of these moments when you can and grab the chance to create a really thematic table. For instance, I was really fortunate to be able to play on this board one time...

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- Not what you’d call your “typical” infinity table!

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- View from the other side.

Often though, you need a mix of scenery in order to fill out a board, especially for people with limited terrain collections or when setting up multiple tables at a store event where availability is limited. My number one rule here though is that if you are going to vary scenery types, you need "transition areas" in between them. It's all very well to mix houses and shipping crates, but you might want something vaguely sensible in between them, such as a disused commercial area, or even a dock with a nearby boat to load them. The easiest way to do this is often to mix both natural and man-made elements, so your contrasting settlements vs. a military base are slightly separated by a few trees and rocky outcroppings to indicate that they are really 2 separate locations, rather than just one big messy "hybrid". This also tends to have the wonderful upside of mixing terrain types and creating new tactical choices, allowing you to cluster some areas and have more open spaces in others, or force people to utilize the differing terrain rules on different parts of the board for positioning advantage.
But sometimes you have to get creative. You don't have the right scenery or the right board for it. Below is one such example. Here, only the space mat (for fleet based games) was available to game, and we only had some rather flat, nondescript buildings to play with. Thus, we created a space station!

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- Putting that Zero-G to work...
Of course the best way to jazz up an elaborate game table is to to create some custom rules for it. For that, we're going to need...


Custom Rules and Scenarios
This is one of my favorite aspects of creating an thematic Infinity game, because while I like the standard ITS setup as much as any gamer, sometimes it's worth tinkering with one or two things to make for a more interesting game. The most important thing of course is not getting carried away, because the game is hard enough when played normally, let alone when you start introducing any kind of changes that deviate from the norm. To this end, I usually recommend a few base "guidelines".

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- Obligatory movie reference :p
1.) Try to pick a scenario that fits your setting as closely as possible. For example, our space station was pretty perfect for Engineering Deck, so we ran with that as the basis for our scenario, even though options like Cold Sleep could have worked equally well. The point is to be sensible here - it might look a bit strange if you picked something with a bunch of antennas and consoles in a rural setting, but that could be a great opportunity to play something like Frontline or Quadrant Control if you're fighting over wider open areas.

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­- In this case, Firefight seemed the perfect fit for a desert city battle between
my US Ariadna and my opponent's QK Haqqislam.
If you're less than familiar with all of the ITS scenarios, then picking some of the more simple ones is also highly recommended, especially if you'll be adding additional rules of your own (below).

2.) Modify where appropriate. To this end, don't be afraid to modify the scenario a little for the sake of both clarity and sanity. Sometimes where scenario objectives fall can interrupt the placement of your terrain, so you can always move your buildings, but it probably wouldn't change things too dramatically if you shift the objective placement slightly either. For example, in our scenario, a few of the objectives also needed to adjust their placement to prevent them floating in midair, but all of this made for some fun and effective games.
3.) Use the terrain rules (and create your own, if needed). Custom scenarios are a perfect excuse to break out some of the more exotic rules. Zero-G...check? Flowing rivers...check? Wide areas of jungle...check?

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- Dear Shock Army. Wish you were here?
Doing this can dramatically shake up your Infinity experience, as low visibility, saturation zones and the like can really hamper shooting ability, and most terrain features really hamper the movement of models that lack the appropriate skills. Sometimes though you have to take matters into your own hands. A lot of the terrain rules for infinity simply slow things down (making it take more orders to accomplish things when you move slower or shoot worse) and don't necessarily "feel" right, so you might want to get creative with them.
For example
- On our river table, the gigantic open firelanes were cleverly solved by forcing models to be prone when standing in a river (paying the movement penalty, unless you had the terrain skill) which allowed models to move around a bit more safely.
- On our Zero-G table, aside from the movement penalties (which we only applied to the outdoor areas) we said that models that had the correct terrain skill could gain both climbing plus and super jump, adding to their mobility to represent their adaptation. Touching the "space" area though resulted in being removed from the board, making all jumps inherently "risky" if you misjudged the distance...
- On our jungle table we were mostly playing under tournament conditions, so we just treated all shots in (or through) trees as Low Visibility + Saturation (Nimbus zone) and standing in the vegetation itself counted as getting cover. Suddenly our much more open looking table "felt" a lot more like a dense jungle, which combined with the "Supplies" mission meant some very aggressive firefights.
The general rule of thumb then is to try to work within the rules as best as possible and only homebrew very minimally. Like I mentioned earlier, homebrew rules can inject some real flavor, but it's easy to get carried away, mess up the balance, or create so many extras that they are easy to forget. You can see from all of the examples above that we tried to only change 1-2 things max, and we ensured that it was clear which areas they applied to with an even spread across the board.
However, if you really want to set the mood for your upcoming game, few things help set the tone more than a bit of...


Backstory
Creating a narrative for your games is usually a bit of an extra step for most players, but it's one that many gamers find fundamentally quite rewarding. Crucially though, what most people miss is that you don't have to go into a full-on detailed piece of fanfic to create an interesting bit of narrative experience.
Really all you need to be honest is even 5 minutes of quick chatter before the game to set the tone of your scenario. Why are your forces here? What are they after? Any particular characters that are involved, or some bizarre combination of forces that might warrant a bit of extra explanation? A lot of people skip over this step because they think it doesn't matter, and on the face of it, they're right, in a way. It's perfectly possible to have an enjoyable game with 0 extra back-story whatsoever, especially if you're running pretty skewed thematic forces with a rather self-explanatory scenario. But what some people should appreciate is that this is actually a great way to get the creative juices going, especially if you're keeping your eyes open to possible changes to your table or scenario as a result.

For example, with our space game, it was important to come up with a bit of backstory to explain how and why Ariadna, a relatively low-tech faction, would be fighting on a space station. Because we had opted to make it limited insertion, it made sense to say that a small strike team of Kazaks, led by Voronin, had found themselves an orbital craft and were making an incredibly bold (if perhaps foolish) journey to the station in the hopes of controlling the Engineering Deck (our scenario) and prime it for detonation. Naturally of course, the Aleph defenders in our first game (and Pano Military Orders coming to take it BACK off the Kazaks) made suitable "high tech" adversaries who were interested in maintaining the station's orbit over Dawn. With the limited "access points" for the station (areas where you could deploy in either Deployment Zone) it made a lot of sense that you could only enter the area from a couple of select points that would require pushing forth and taking control of each relevant room.

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- Overview of the second battle underway, as both sides desperately fought to
control the Engineering deck (silver crates marking each of the consoles).

As you can see here, not only did our little bit of backstory help create a decent explanation that helped maintain the "theme" of the board we were fighting over, but it naturally tied into our creation of both the board and scenario as a result. Of course setting up the terrain, backstory, and the rules is only some of the story, and for the best visual impact of a game, what you really want is to...


Play it painted!
Sometimes this is dismissed as a somewhat "snobbish" claim (naturally favoring experienced players who are more likely to have a painted army than people just starting out) but it's hard to argue with the visual appeal of playing with (and against!) a nicely painted army. Fully painted models help capture the environment of the infinity universe, so I think that if you have the opportunity to set up a more "thematic" game, you may as well go all-in.

Now this isn't to say that you shouldn't use that one unpainted/WIP model that you've been dying to test out, or that you should only play with painted miniatures. Rather, it's to say that if you're trying to make a more thematic battle, the more painted models you have, the better. You can always save the games with the unpainted or WIP models for your usual tournament practice games, but for thematic battles and especially against newer players you are looking to draw into the game, it's worth sacrificing a bit of effectiveness for extra aesthetic appeal.

The upside of this of course is that when you're facing newer players, you probably won't want your most ruthless face-stomping creation, so it doesn't matter so much if you end up with an odd list just because you're mostly aiming to play with painted models. This in turn can end up challenging you more as a gamer too, because you learn to play without certain pieces (in case they bit the dust) or because you appreciate different approaches to getting tasks done. It's also a great idea if you ever plan on doing battle reports, as not only do the games with better painted models make for more interesting visuals,
The important consideration here though is to balance things and vary games appropriately. It's a good idea to shake it up between playing fully painted on the thematic tables one week, and allowing yourself the chance to play with a bit more bare metal the next. Doing more of the former might incentivize you to get more stuff painted up, but if you don't focus on the latter at all, you can become bored and frustrated (especially if you don't paint things all that quickly). Varying it up also fits wonderfully with any plans to start a new faction, allowing you to switch it up each week depending on your type of game.
So now we have the basics of the game, but we still need the most crucial element of all. For this, we'll look at...
 


Player Agreement
All of the above makes one very simply, but very crucial, assumption. That your opponent agrees. Each step of creating a really thematic game will be a collaborative approach as you want to make sure that you're both on the same page before you get everything started. To do this effectively, we need to make sure we tick a few important boxes.

1.) Communication. As we said earlier, the more thematic games will take a little bit of extra setup time, and any desire to introduce extra variables like homebrew rules require a bit of discussion beforehand. This is always easier if you know the person beforehand already, but even opportunistic pick-up games can be sorted out in just a few minutes if you're both clear with your expectations.
2.) Intent. You're going to want to make sure you're both after the same goals here. There's no point in trying to shake-up the approach with homebrew rules if your opponent was after ITS practice, or vice-versa. Intent also stretches to determining various agreed upon effects beforehand, such as whether that custom piece of scenery is providing low-visibility, saturation, nimbus, any kind of terrain effect and so-on. Can you shoot "through" the buildings, or only "into/out of"? Not only does this cut down on potential disputes later, but it builds upon everything in step 1 to create a more fun experience.
3.) Collaboration. Setting up the best thematic games should be a joint-effort. If you leave it down to one player it tends to make accusations of "bias/imbalance" easier to level, and so by having the opponent equally responsible for the board, deployment, scenario and rules, you both share the responsibility for any imbalances that might occur. When it comes to generating and remembering house rules, collaboration ensures that you're less likely to miss something potentially game-breaking from the outset, and it ensures you're each more likely to remember what the agreed upon setup was in the first place.

Below is a good example of this, where we set up a team game with 2 players a side. It took a little bit of effort to organize, and only a couple of house rules (such as how one interacts with teammates, and utilizing a back and forth turn order between teams to shake it up!). In the end, we can up with a really cool looking game though.


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- And some pretty scenery to boot…

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- View of the adjusted objectives in each of the chokepoints… I mean, um, “strategic areas”



Sometimes though, opposing agreement just isn't possible. Maybe you both have different ideas for the game, or maybe you just need to dice-off something to decide how something is going down. Either way it's important to keep a level-head about such things, as thematic games require a different mindset than the cut-throat rigor of your usual tournament. If you can't work out something just play a regular game - there's nothing stopping you coming back at it with a different idea the following week, and you might find that more time to think about such things makes for a more fun overall experience.


Conclusion
I hope this article gives people one or two interesting ideas on how to shake up both their games and tables to create something a bit more interesting than the usual infinity table can provide. Setting up thematic games usually takes a little bit of extra time and effort, but the whole experience can often prove to be incredibly rewarding and considerably more memorable as a result.

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- Shot of the board I plan on putting together for my Ariadna
at home, with a brand new gaming mat :)

With a bit of imagination, creativity, and cooperation, you'll soon find yourself putting up boards that are really eye-catching to the casual observer, maybe even bringing more gamers into the fold and certainly providing a couple of amusing stories worth sharing afterwards.
Anyway as a side-note, I know this piece was quite different from my usual tactical articles, but if this more fun/narrative side of the hobby is to people's interests, be sure to let us know in the comment section below and I'll do my best to create some more articles in a similar vein later in the future.

Until next time though :)

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