Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Booster Packs full of Gamma Rays

UPDATE:  I've been directed to a video that gives more information about the game and it's randomized components, so after my original post I'm adding my thoughts on the new info.

Within the past week or two Wizards of the Coast released a new edition of the classic RPG Gamma World. I played a lot of Gamma World back in the day, and would be happy to try out a new edition, at least in theory. As it turns out though, there's one fact about the new edition that leaves me really cold. In general, when people grouse and complain about how expensive gaming is, I just roll my eyes. When they claim an RPG company is just in it for the money, and doesn't care about doing what's best for the game, or doing what makes the gamers happy, I tend to stand up for and defend the publishers. But in this particular case, I'm on the hater's bandwagon. Clearly, somebody at Wizards put profits  above functionality.

They replaced the mutation charts with a deck of cards.

Actually, at first glance, I really like the notion of cards. I've been a fan  of using card decks instead of charts and rulebooks for a long time.  It saves you time looking things up in the books, because you can keep your most commonly used cards at your fingertips all the time.  For a mechanic like mutations, or other special powers that help individualize PCs, using cards instead of charts can help with "niche preservation" (if you've already drawn that card, no one else can draw the exact same special power). Another reason I like the idea of mutation cards is because they let me tailor the "charts" on the fly. If there's a mutation I think is unbalanced, or too goofy, I could theoretically cull it from the deck. If there's one that I'd like to make more common, I could add an extra copy (assuming I'm not too hung up on the "niche preservation" mentioned previously). In short, I could really like this. When FFG used cards for the latest edition of Warhammer FRP, I really found it awesome.

The problem with the cards in Gamma World is that Wizards put them in random booster packs, selling an RPG like a CCG. By offering the cards in random boosters, most of what I like about cards goes away.  I'm almost certainly going to end up with multiples, so niche preservation goes out the window, unless I'm willing to waste some percentage of my investment.  I may buy a booster that's full of cards I already have and wouldn't want to put multiple copies of in the deck.  I may want to include an extra copy of some particular card, but can't reliably get one (cheaply, any way). Just bad all around, in my opinion.

If they were complete sets, decks of 50 non-random cards available for $10 or even $15, I'd happily embrace this game. Instead, it's boosters of 8 random cards for $4. Too pricey for my blood. 50 cents per line-item that could be on a chart in a rulebook sounds a little overpriced in and of itself, but knowing that past your second or third pack you'll be looking at a lot of random repeats just sours me to the whole idea. (As an aside, it's 8 cards for $4, whereas Magic: The Gathering by the same publisher, is 15 cards for $4.29, so even by their own precedents this is nearly double the average cost per card.)

Worse yet, the packs aren't just mutation cards, there's also technology cards. While I could perhaps warm up to random mutation card boosters (though it would have to be at a cheaper price to compensate for the frustrating duplicate cards), I don't imagine myself, as GM, being happy with restricting the weaponry of my NPCs (or the treasure to be gained, or the macguffin central to the plot) to whatever happened to be in the handful of boosters I might be willing to buy. So, rather than run a high risk of making a purchase I'm not going to be happy with, I'll just be steering clear of this new Gamma World entirely.

If they weren't random, I'd probably buy quite a few of them. Paizo Publishing does a "Game Mastery" series of card decks with just pictures of fantasy equipment and magic items. I buy a copy of nearly every deck they put out, because they come in set decks at reasonable prices, and you can look up the card list online first to see if any given set has cards you'll be likely to use. If Gamma World followed that business model, I'd certainly pick up the main game and at least the first two expansion decks, but I'm not willing to drop money on boosters.  For the record, random packaging is what eventually drove me to stop buying prepainted miniatures, too.

UPDATE:  I've been directed to a video that gives more information. I'm a little less up in arms about it now, but I still think it's a weird decision to make, and can't help but feel it was a business decision first, and a game innovation second. So while I'm less upset about it, I don't think it would be a good match for me.

Video link:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fccpiG09YbU&feature=related

In particular, the stuff I don't like:
  • The idea that your mutations change every day is a little weird to me. I imagine I could warm up to that, but my initial reaction was not positive.
  • The fact that players build their own technology decks bothers me. For one thing, this could lead to weird imbalances if one player buys more boosters than the others, or just has better luck. Even assuming a play group that shares a single card pool, though, I dread the metagame issues that come up from players making their own treasure decks. It seems like suspension of disbelief is likely to suffer as well if I describe you're fighting mutant chickens armed with clubs, and after the battle 1 PC finds a death ray and the others all find nanotech. 
  • At the end of the video, they specifically address play balance, and say that the various mutation cards are not balanced against each other, some are just better than others. If that's the case, then why would a player put that in the deck they build for themselves? Maybe I'm missing something, but this seems like a really bad idea, for largely the same reasons I just mentioned about metagaming the Technology decks.
  • On a related note, I am also a little worried by the statement that you'd draw a new Cryptic Alliance card each session to find out which secret society you are working for this week. Suspension of disbelief gets tricky when a mechanic forces weekly randomization of setting/flavor/fluff/conceptual information. Who the PCs are working for seems like it should be dictated by the needs of the scenario or the actions of the characters, not by a weekly random card flip.

What I do like:
  • The commons (5 out of 8 cards in each booster) are not random, but preset so if you buy four consecutive boosters straight out of a fresh display they won't have any duplicate commons. However, having managed a game store for years, I suspect this won't in practice work as well as it does in theory. All it takes is one customer selecting a couple random packs out of the middle of the display pack to disrupt that for everyone that shops after them. A customer might do so out of ignorance, a desire to get duplicates of a particular common, or a desire to grab the pack that "feels lucky". That last one is something I'd see all the time when I ran the store.
  • The general formula that each adventure adds new components and rules as well, like the Cryptic Alliance cards being added in Famine in Far-Go. I was apprehensive about a similar approach in Warhammer FRP, but eventually decided I kinda liked the "potpouri" "cornucopia" "hotdish" "mixed bag" method that gives you a lot of little expansions in each Warhammer product. I could live with that in Gamma World, if the rest of the concept weren't scaring me off.
  • They rewrote the end of the world to blame it on the LHC. That amuses me. The reality implosion also justifies the weirdness of the Gamma World setting, and could plausibly explain the wonkier of the new setting/mechanics stuff such as mutations changing every session. I'm still not at all happy with randomized boosters or the metagame issues that come from players building their own decks, but they at least make some effort to justify some of this weirdness in the setting.


rbbergstrom said...

Thank you for the information, and the link.

Lee 'Spikey' Nethersole said...

It is starting to knock its head against the same issues the 1st edition of White Wolf's Changling: the Dreaming game had with its cantrip cards (which we use exclusively now to great delight). Bloody great idea if they can be bought as a set (or come with the original book) otherwise a bloody aweful idea. However if the basic set comes with the game and boosters are just fluff, not so bad.

Pity the rest of the set up sounds so naff!

rbbergstrom said...

That's odd. The first comment on here (which directed me to the video explaining the design decisions) has gone missing. Anyone else finding Blogger to be really buggy lately? I've had not just comments but whole blog posts go missing.