In my last article, I championed fluff as a force vital to Wargames individually and corporately, but fluff is not all good. The best and most successful Wargame systems are nearly generic, and the more specialized they get, the more constrained they must be in order to be functional—often to the point where they need to focus themselves to one scenario or one particular conflict. Otherwise, you get rulebooks that need their own binder(s). For those who like hundred-plus pages of rules, enjoy your feeling of elitism now.
Still, there are good games in many sizes and with many elements that are balanced in their presentation and system, and using those limitations well can result in very, very good games nonetheless. So here are three general complaints I have about fluff:
One of my nearly-instant turnoffs when I look at a Wargame for the first time is whether hero or commander unit design—if they are present—has made for a fantastical and unrealistic disparity. Where heroes are so much better than ordinary units that the regular Joes can’t cut it, or where their special rules break out of the game’s mold so much so that they redefine how the game is played, I see systems that ignore the basics because the “cool” factor makes the basics obsolete anyway. While fun for a little while, or for the great moments when your special character triggers their feat or stomps through fifty enemies like main characters in a fantasy movie, these things make the game unsatisfying to play more than a few times.
When you have a fewer number of high-impact units, it is far too difficult to even learn what you’re doing right or wrong in matches because of the high bar of entry. If there are any dice to be rolled, that makes it even harder for a new player to learn! There is a lot of flash factor in good hero fluff, but they are difficult to design in-line so they are satisfying and keep games on an even keel, where hero units can be added without being mandatory in an army.
Fluff can take over the game completely too, such as with the popular Warhammer 40K tabletop. Mind you I haven’t played in a while but the awesome fluff and amazing art of that franchise keeps you from seeing the full potential of the Wargame: A designer has to be willing to discard even the choicest fluff if they want to make a good game. In some places the design team did a great job of this, such as with their Necron army design.
In the fluff, Necron weaponry would all ignore all armor, and even their infantry’s basic weapons would be effective against the most heavily-armored vehicle in the game. These were reduced to pretty vanilla numbers and given a special rule to capture the feel of their guns. Good choice, the rule still felt good. In other ways, not so good. The fluff decision to generally make elite close-combat units more effective than all but the highest-grade shooting, like in the books with their chain-swords and daemon-bound weapons, really took a great deal of the fun out of the game for an army like Necrons who had almost no close-combat units at all and highly ineffective shooting. Still, they sell a lot of product with each new release so they’re hitting a sweet spot with customers.
The biggest problem I see, though, is how fluff can overcomplicate rules and reduce fun just as easily as it can add it in. If every unit has a specialized rule, or blocks of text to read, the game becomes very opaque and frustrating—any decent Wargame has enough to think about without trying to recall wording as you learn the game. Clarity gets lost, just like in the special rules for the Necron guns above: If everything is special, they all become frustrating, not better. Warhammer 40K already had several potential outlets built into the game for specializing weapons for effectiveness against vehicles or armor, and the repeated fluff concessions convolute understanding.
Love it, hate it, fluff makes and sells games, but what are things that irritate you about fluff? What are your least favorite ways it gets in the way? What are some good examples of fluff that could be improved?