As noted before, Zomblobs! has three breeds of blobs vying over global control: The Aspirants, the Ferals and the Zomblobs. One of the high level design rules I’ve made for myself is that I want each breed to play differently, but still be as balanced as possible. Call it the StarCraft influence, perhaps. Balance between three factions is inherently more interesting to me than two faction balance. As such, one of the big things I want to change between the factions is the finer details of controlling units in tactical combat.
Some time ago, I purchased the Privateer Press Hordes: Primal book so that I could learn about the game. I have a passing interest in tabletop miniature wargaming, and I really like what I’ve seen of WarMachine, so when I found a great deal on the Hordes sourcebook, it seemed like a good purchase. It’s actually an older version, but that’s fine. All my WarHammer and WarMachine books are older versions, too; that’s how I get ’em cheap. Since I’m not on the cutting edge, itching to play in tournaments, older sourcebooks work just fine. (Aside to Hordes fans… if I mangle some of this, it’s inadvertently. I’m still digging into the system. I welcome corrections.)
Hordes has a curious mechanic they call Fury. Commander/spellcaster units they call Warlocks command a group of Warbeasts who can in turn generate Fury points as they are prodded into combat actions. The Warlocks then can leach those Fury points from the Warbeasts, using them to fuel spells and special actions. At first blush, this is all upside, which is a bit odd considering that WarMachine, the sister game, is one of resource management like the typical mana point system we see in RPGs. Fury-generating actions are useful in combat, and spells the Warlocks cast are similarly useful. Generation and use of fury points provide combat benefits. So where’s the resource management? Warlocks and Warbeasts have Fury limits, true, so there’s an upper limit to what can be done in any given turn, but an upper limit is a different thing from a pool that depletes. It’s also important to note that Warlocks don’t generate Fury on their own.
The significant catch is that Warbeasts can “frenzy” if they fail to pass a “check” performed with a dice roll. Warbeasts who have Fury points on them are more likely to fail this check; the more Fury points, the more likely they are to fail. When a Warbeast “frenzies”, the Warlock (and therefore the player) loses control of the Warbeast. They will tend to still try to attack enemies, but they do so in a blind fury. They can even turn on allies or even their “controlling” Warlock. As such, as the designers note, Hordes is a game of risk management rather than resource management, though there is still resource management on the battle level, as usual (losing units makes your team less effective, losing your Warlock means you lose the battle). Warlocks need Fury to fuel their powerful abilities, but pushing their Warbeasts too far flirts with losing control of their most significant assets. You will want those powerful abilities that come only with the use of Fury, but the more you use them, the more likely the Warbeast frenzy system is to blow up in your face.
So… what of Zomblobs?
Thematically, I really like the notion of losing control.
Aspirants are the most intelligent of blobs, and strive to always be in control. They know that they could slip into the natural, instinctive mayhem the Feral blobs embrace if they lose control, and they aren’t sure they can get back… or if they would want to. And Zomblobs, well… zombies have long represented the loss of control that most humans fear, a primal, deep rooted concern, as the loss of control wouldn’t be a surrender, but a corruption. Aspirants are deathly afraid of losing control, either to become a Feral blob or a Zomblob. They fight not because they want to rule, but because they do not want to be ruled… or corrupted. They know passion, they know fear, but they do not lose control. (Think Spock, not Data, and Trekkies know the trouble an uncontrolled Vulcan can get into.)
Feral blobs love being reckless and dancing on the edge of being out of control. They draw strength from that savage adrenaline rush. They don’t want to buckle down and bow to the sort of control an Aspirant cherishes. They glory in acting, not thinking, the faster the better. They love the hunt, and they cherish the kill. Life is simple for a Feral blob, though they don’t follow directions well, especially once they get rolling.
Zomblobs are corrupted monsters, some were once Ferals, most were once Aspirants. They no longer have full control of their faculties, though they are stronger in some ways for it. They don’t follow detailed orders well, but their single-minded drive to consume and corrupt means they are utterly implacable and totally committed to their course of action. Nothing short of complete defeat will keep a Zomblob from its destination, though they can occasionally be confused once they accomplish their orders.
Mechanically, I’m torn on this. I believe that players tend to like to keep the reins and control their units. Hordes does show that some fun can occur when that control is loosened a bit, and the WarHammer Greenskin army of Ork and Goblin fame thrives on a bit of chaos. It still seems like an acquired taste, though, and I’m not sure how many players want to trade power for a more unwieldy toolset.
I’m thinking of two major design approaches to this.
On the one hand, I’d play it safe and go with a Fury-like system, where each unit has a threshold where they lose control and do their own thing in combat (though just for a turn in all cases; control can be reasserted pretty quickly once the fury is expended). Ferals would have less control than Aspirants, and Zomblobs would be even less controlled. The “frenzy” equivalent would balance this loss of control out, and indeed, it can be a calculated risk to intentionally drive units to go crazy. I like the choices that might prompt.
On the other hand, I’d really like to make playing each breed a distinct experience, really embracing the flavor of the factions. Aspirants would play like normal ‘Tactics games, with full control. Feral units would pick a target at the beginning of a skirmish and begin hunting. Players could nudge them with interim commands, but for the most part, Feral blobs would just go for the kill and then wait for new targets. Zomblobs would just be given a direction and/or a location, then be left pretty much alone. Players wouldn’t have much control at all. It’s almost like the difference between commanding a group of snipers, a nest of rabid trench fighters, or a wind-up flamethrower automaton with C4 nailed to the tanks.
Now, in all this, players can play any of the three blob breeds, so they can always find one that fits their taste, and they would probably still have full control over the RNA layout, so they can prepare loose cannons before a fight. Still, I’m not sure that diverging too much between playstyles, as I’m thinking of in the latter option, is a good idea. I really want to make it work, and I think it could be a lot of fun, but how many players will bother with the Ferals or the Zomblobs then? Might the game be poorer when players don’t like two thirds of the potential units?
…perhaps it’s telling that I’m leaning to the latter design, with elements of the first, though it could be more risky. It seems like it could be more fun.