Insider 4-20-2011

Development UNBOUND: Confessions from the Big Game

Over the past few months I have been playing a lot of WARMACHINE and HORDES –truly large games with great masses of models on each side of the table. Games that engaged me on every level and challenged my over stimulated mind to constantly adapt and refocus on the rising and falling tides of conflict erupting across the tabletop. I have mounted cavalry charges in which three full units of Uhlans slammed into my opponent’s zealot horde. I have faced the massed might of six Wraith Engines (damn you, DC!). I have seen a tabled littered with dozens of wrecked warjack. These were the epic battles I have longed for throughout my tenure at Privateer Press.

Debuting in the pages of No Quarter 36, UNBOUND is a system for large-scale WARMACHINE and HORDES battles in which players each field 150+ point armies with three or more warcasters/warlocks. Unlike standard games of WARMACHINE and HORDES, throughout an UNBOUND game players alternate activating a portion of their armies each turn, activating every model and unit each round. On most turns a player will activate a battlegroup along with a few units and solos.

It is safe to say that UNBOUND is WARMACHINE and HORDES on a whole new level. While using the same rules as smaller WARMACHINE and HORDES games, UNBOUND has been engineered with the big game in mind. The changes to WARMACHINE and HORDES in the UNBOUND system are instinctive, easy to learn, and engaging. Along with a smattering of alterations to individual models, the majority of the rules changes are in the mechanics of the turn/round structure.

We have always known that WARMACHINE and HORDES were capable of resolving large-scale battles, but we grappled with the length of time between turns. In a standard large-scale game of WARMACHINE or HORDES, meaning one with 150-points on each side, it can be a lot of fun to move around and take apart your opponent’s forces with a vast army, but it is not the most interesting part of the game to wait through your opponent’s mammoth turn while he is shooting apart your army. To reduce the lulls in the action between turns, we decided to redesign the flow of rounds so that players would take alternating turns, each activating only a portion of his forces each turn, but activating all of his models each round. In this way UNBOUND keeps players focused on and thinking about the game – we learned from experience that you never know what your opponent will do and how it will effect your next move.

We planned for a long time to do a version of WARMACHINE and HORDES retooled for large-scale battles and kicked around a number of possible directions. UNBOUND finally took shape when Matt Wilson explained his vision for the game to me. After getting past my personal prejudice against “you-go-I-go” systems, I soon saw the wisdom in his proposal and can honestly say, “I am now a believer!”

I personally had a lot of experience with alternating activation systems and have seen few that I felt were done well. Virtually all either bogged down in esoteric rules that relied on constant reevaluation of the forces remaining in play or were intrinsically gameable in their structure, usually giving the advantage to whichever player had the most models on the table. When we set out to create the fundamentals for UNBOUND we took great pains to engineer a system that could not be gamed, that is to say a system that could not be manipulated by a player who chose to play the system rather than fight the battle.

The battlegroup proved to be the obvious force division for turns. It preserved the most appealing aspects of the combos and tactics inherent in WARMACHINE and HORDES while providing the feel of the ebb and flow of battle.

The changes to the turn structure for UNBOUND required a careful examination of every ability in the game to make sure all the rules worked properly. We made a few changes for the sake of balance and flow. However, overall we made much fewer changes that we had initially anticipated. Though an UNBOUND player may discover that some old combos are not as powerful in UNBOUND, they will also discover a wealth of new tactics and dirty tricks. Whole strategy guides could be written on playing UNBOUND and we learned a lot with every game.

I found our proof of concept in the first game. It was WARMACHINE like never before! I was hooked. From there on out we made a few important changes, but really focused on fine-tuning the system. One of the earliest things we discovered during play tests was that established turn orders ran contrary to the ebb and flow we liked about the UNBOUND system. Instead of having one player take the first turn every round, we decided that players would roll off at the start of every round to Seize the Initiative. While this worked out pretty well, we ended up with a lot riding on a single die roll that could throw the most carefully laid plans into chaos. In the end we found a pair of solutions that gave us everything that we wanted. First, players could not activate the models they had activated during their last turn of the round during their first turn of the next round. This kept players from holding their forces back during their opponent’s opening turns of a round only to rush them forward in the last turn of the round in hopes of Seizing the Initiative and scoring a decisive first turn of the next round. Secondly, we took territory holding rules developed for a scenario and integrated them into the core rules of the system so that the control of the battlefield would influence the die roll allowing a player that watched his flanks, went on the offensive, and exploited his opponent’s carelessness to turn the tide of war to his advantage (sadly a skill I am yet to fully master though I have seen Ed and DC put to effective use).

UNBOUND is not for everyone. It takes a lot of models and hearty appetite for destruction. It is a large-scale game and takes some commitment of time to play. It is also not a system geared for high pressure, competitive play. That is simply not the experience we set out to provide. Instead we wanted to create a system for playing compelling large-scale battles for the sheer joy of mayhem. UNBOUND scenarios, which will be debuting in No Quarter 37, hearken more back to the scenarios in Escalation than to today’s Steamroller.

Unbound is about bringing to life the narrative experience of WARMACHINE in epic grandeur. We know there are players who are more interested in immersing themselves in the experience of massive WARMACHINE and HORDES battles than fighting furiously toward a quick and decisive victory, and we've designed UNBOUND for you.