Sunday, March 17, 2013

Why Tough spam is bad for the game

I played another little Beermachine tournament over the weekend, borrowing Skorne. It did not go well for me and I did not really enjoy playing so I won't go into that side of things. I will say that Skorne beasts (especially Titans) and their support are insane and that just made me sadder.

Instead I want to talk about some of the lists there:

- Skorne with dual Gatormans + Task Masters (no KD tough)
- Terminus with Bane spam (all tough)
- Cygnar with mega Stormblade unit + Piper (tough)
- Trolls (tough)
- Circle Morvahna with Regrowth-ed Blood Trackers, who are also Zombified (tough)
- Mercs with Drake McBain (1+ tough for a turn) + Piper
- Some other lists I don't remember, but probably had tough infantry.

The point is, tough is everywhere. At this stage of the game, nobody really takes small-based infantry unless they also have access to tough, or some other similar douchy ability like Self-Sacrifice. You have a Merc solo that gives access to tough (Piper) and a Minion one (Croctor). Factions that don't have access to the Piper (Khador, Cryx) have their own ways to spam tough like madmen. Retribution of course don't have access to any of that, which is probably a big part of why they can't make the big leagues.

Tough is a terrible games design mechanic to spam on a mass scale. It is entirely luck-based in its implementation - if you keep rolling 5+ (or 4+ in some cases) on a single die, your model stays alive and messes with their plans. That's all there is to it. It's basically an invulnerable save from your 40k days. There is no skill or decision making involved in the tough mechanic. It can either be insanely powerful or do nothing. Take the Great Bears as a microcosm of tough - if you make a tough check or two, they become really really powerful. If you don't make any, they are pretty crap. It is that simple, and it's all outside your control.

Why tough spam is not fun

Tough as a mechanic in itself can be pretty cool. I mean, when I go for an assassination on a Troll caster, or someone tries to kill Barnabas, or some hardy merc pirate solo, the tough mechanic adds that little bit of flavourful grit. It makes you think that this guy is actually tough - no matter what you throw at him, he somehow manages to absorb the blow, spit out the blood, and say something about your mother. That's bad ass.

You know what's not bad ass? When every single other infantry model in the game does the same thing.

You know what would make Die Hard films
really lame? If every bad guy henchman was
as tough as John McClane.

Nobody really likes tough spam. They just take it because it would be stupid not to. It is an even easier button than Cryx troop spam (which coincidentally is also often tough spam), and if you get a little bit lucky that will have a massive outcome on the game.
People don't like playing against tough because no matter how well they set up a play, no matter how carefully they have skewed the outcome of their own dice rolls to matter as little as possible, it can all go down the drain because your opponent rolls lucky on tough rolls.
Your opponent (who could be a Troll player) doesn't like tough either. Every time he fails tough rolls, he gets angry because he "paid" for that tough with points, models, abilities or whatever. And when it doesn't work often enough, then it's points down the drain. All 100% outside your control - one die roll (just one die, unlike almost every other roll in the game) to rule them all.

The really annoying part is that the one major downside to tough (being KD) is increasingly mitigated by the growing number of FU auras that grant Steady, that allow models to stand up before activation, or that tough gets put on ranged units that just get up and shoot you anyway.

Ways to get around tough

There are of course ways to get around tough (which I guess is how the development team convince themselves that "it's ok" so they can sleep at night):

1. Kill the model that has a tough buff

As mentioned, a lot of the tough spam comes from support solos like the Piper, Croctor, Kovnik Joe or whatever. You can just kill that guy! Easy as that!
Of course, he will probably have tough himself. And will be way at the back, so you need some ambushers, long-range guns, or a scalpel like the Totem Hunter to get there. Then they will tough, and screw you over. Seems legit. And you still have to deal with that tough unit on your face for that one round. But at least it's theoretically possible.

Also more often than not, the enemy caster is the one with the tough buff, either through an FU aura like Terminus or Irusk, a feat, or an upkeep.

2. Take anti-tough tech:

There is an increasing number of anti-tough tech in the game. Not every faction as some of course, because that would be unfair to Cryx.

There's a couple of anti-tough abilities out there: Grievous Wounds, Take Down, no Tough/healing auras (Gallows Groves, Sea Witch), anti-healing debuffs (eGrim's Mortality), and anti-tough buffs (Silence of Death).
Gators have nothing of course. You might say, "But JS, you play Minions, not Gators. Take Pigs and Slaughterhousers!". To which I will reply that Slaughterhousers are indeed cool, but you should probably jump up your own ass and die. I could take Slaughterhousers in Skorne, where they are far better than they are in Minions. Nice design move right there.

The best part of this hard-counter approach to games design is that you more or less HAVE TO take some anti-tough tech in your list, along with anti-upkeep, pathfinder, ability to crack really high ARM (Gargossals), ability to deal with really high DEF (Kayazy/Iron Flesh spam), in addition to your own support stuff that makes your faction/list work properly (Shifting Stones, Krielstone, Choir, Paingivers, select animi, etc). When it gets down to it, not much of your list is dedicated to what you want to do. Most of your points are used up in dealing with problems that might turn up.

I guess this is why sideboards will become a more common tournament format as the game gets increasingly rock-paper-scissors with these kind of abilities. I think this will eliminate a large chunk of warcasters/warlocks from competitive play in itself. It will also reduce list diversity in some respect since you will have to build a list with the idea that the people you play against will have an answer to almost every problem you pose. But at the same time, it can increase list diversity in that it allows you to build more of a core list with your answers on-call, rather than dedicating 30 of your 50 pts to not getting bent over a barrel by tough spam, Inhospitable Ground, Crippling Grasp, Bart-Galleon or IF Kayazy.

In Conclusion

I would go so far as to say that tough spam is currently one of the biggest problems in the game and should be a priority on the Mk3 agenda. Tough should actually mean 'tough' rather than 'as tough as a every other shitty no-name trooper in the IK world'.
Basing an entire faction (Trolls) around tough is also stupid. Not only is it stupid in itself (because tough spam is stupid), but it is stupid if you're also going to give tough to every single other faction in the game to the point where it is in the vast majority of lists you see, such that any character present in the tough rule has been ripped out, locked into a box, and processed by a crematorium.

Take care on the streets, kids.


  1. Because beermachine is a microcosm of the wider game and its wider problems... yeah right. The followup event the following day had next to no tough.

    Access to tough is not essential to a winning list, and the inclusion of models that make your infantry tough is not a no-brainer decision.

    1. Care to actually address any of my points?
      I don't believe I claimed that you need tough infantry to win. I claimed that tough is everywhere, and for a reason. And it's not fun.

    2. You are incapable of experiencing the phenomenon known as fun.

  2. I feel your pain. There are 2 troll players in my gaming group and tough rolls ruin my plans. So I decided to try out Mercs with a sea dogs death star. I have the luckiest pirates in my meta. Mr. Walls made 11 tough rolls in one game. With the release of Rask I decided to play minions again. I don't even consider playing my gators without a Witch Doctor to Zombify them.

    Since timely tough rolls frustrate your opponent's plan and force him/her to think on their feet to develop a "Plan B," this adds an interesting component to a game. I don't know if PP deliberately built this uncertainty into the game or they are scrambling to fix it by giving all factions access to tough. I know that I wish I could bring a Blood Hag in all my lists.

    Is there really a MK3 on the horizon?

    1. I feel there's already enough uncertainty in the game given that almost every interaction needs a dice roll. I don't feel giving any random trooper a 1/3 chance of living is necessary or conducive to the fun part of the game, which is successfully executing a strategy. Anti-tough and healing is almost a necessity these days, which is why eGrim's Mortality was so well received.

      There will be a Mk3 eventually, or a Mk2 remix at least.