The 40k blogosphere is vibrating from the recent rumor mill output. Warhammer 40,000's 6th Edition is rumored to be a massive step away from the streamlined principles we came to know in 3rd, 4th, and 5th. I'm therefore interrupting the scheduled Shawn Abreu Treasury program this week to share some thoughts on the rumors while they are still fresh.
The overall tone of the rumors suggests a far more complicated tabletop game. Being able to control your units beyond the move/shoot/assault basics is a HUGE leap toward realism. Maneuvering will actually mean something now with units switching between flying and non-flying states and passive actions such as overwatch negating enemy advantages.
From a design perspective this is incredibly challenging. How can you playtest and ensure balance across millions of possible interactions without resorting to global beta testing? Software-borne games have veteran Quality Assurance teams working around the clock and they've only recently managed to keep players from escaping the map in multiplayer. That's with real-time "invisible" updates available to them through the internet too.
It's great to have choices and to feel that those choices reflect what you might expect real combatants to do or feel at any given time. Yes, a flying rocket-powered motorcycle should be more difficult to hit than a Monolith. Yes, there are battles taking place apart from the one in the immediate area that affect the arrival of fresh troops.
But have you ever played one of those games against someone who is constantly second-guessing themselves? Have you ever had a seemingly straightforward player turn degenerate into a 40 minute movement phase that sees a paranoid Ork player agonize over the placement of every Boy?
What if we doubled the phases in each turn as the rumors suggest? Add variables that require the full spectrum of characteristic tests and odds of success or failure that goes beyond the simple computations that one can make on the spur of the moment. Simple possibilities of being pinned spiral out of control with new modifiers to shooting, cover, wound allocating, possibly characteristic tests and tiered leadership tests.
Certainly knowledge of the rules - both codex and main rulebook - would have to be impeccable (they seldom are even "good" in my opinion) and the game would be virtually off-limits to those players that don't roll dice often enough to get a feel for complex probabilities. The tiniest diversions from the main book (house rules) would widen into gaps that two players playing a pick-up game will never be able to solve.
I am comfortable with a ruleset that strains even the best players to their limits whilst providing a cinematic tabletop experience. Such things as mainstream flyers and implacable tanks speak to the wargamer in me - I want the tabletop to feel like an Abnett novel. Stratagems even give me a way to respond to the army across from in a meaningful way before the fight begins - just like a real army!
Sadly I just can't see how these rumors could be true. There's virtually no hope of selling such a franchise to the casual gaming market or even the short-attention-span/short-tempered "core" gamer screaming obscenities into his XBL microphone. With so much choice the average game length would stretch far beyond the capabilities of the one-game-a-month player.
We've been asking for more complex rulesets for a while now. It really has felt as if most of GW's recent rules attempts have been aimed squarely at 15 year old boys to the exclusion of even the 20 year tabletop veteran. But this rumor post is just unlikely. It's difficult for change on this scale to be made successfully to begin with. Large scale change with a view toward realism is a recipe for disaster.