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Saturday, 12 August 2017

The Firestorm Galaxy Expansion Kickstarter

Well I guess it was inevitable, SG release a KS for FA and I'm going to blog about it. Before you read on, this will contain various complaints about SGs current behaviour, so if you're still shackled to Spartan like a ball and chain, then this is probably not the post for you. I will, however, attempt to be as fair as I can regarding this, so people who don't know SG can make up their own minds without just the "Oooh, shiney" aspect, but also the "Oh, I wasn't aware of that" side. So, disclaimer over, let's begin.

Kickstarter Provenance

Firstly, let's talk about Spartan's Kickstarter history. This is the third KS they've launched - the first was for modular terrain, was horrible and absolutely bombed - they pulled it before it closed woefully short of its target. Their second was for Dystopian Wars, which I've talked about before at the start of the year (Here) which funded £136k of a £50k target, but only 858 backers - not a large number, well below comparable niche games. Is this important? Well, I'd argue yes, it is, because that directly affects the active player-base and how likely you are to be able to get a game - this is a miniature wargame, not a board game.

Compare this number of backers to a game like Maelstrom's Edge, a brand new niche wargame released in 2015, and it's about the same - they got 813 backers for a completely unheard of skirmish game from a new developer, rather than for an established game from an established company. Now there are obvious differences in the two, but it starts to give you a feeling of how the KS was primarily backed by a hard core of existing players, rather than attractive a much wider audience.

Again, I'm going to compare this with Hawk's Drop Fleet Commander. Here we have a similar game from a similar sized manufacturer, with an existing install base (albeit in a different game). Their KS bagged just over 4.5 times as many backers as Spartans DW Kickstarter, and should be directly comparable to the FA expansion just launched. Numbers of backers is always a better indicator of Kickstarter success than just money, because there are so many variables in the latter.

As I type, there are 217 backers for the FAv3 Kickstarter, about half of what it needs to fund. I'm pretty sure it will fund, but I'm doubtful they'll get as many backers as their DW project. Why? Well, firstly some DW players are also FA players, and not all DW Kickstarter backers have their pledges yet.

This is probably the Number 1 No-No of ANY Kickstarter - don't release another Kickstarter when the first one hasn't fulfilled yet. It just isn't on - it leaves a bad taste and the feeling that the company is struggling with cash flow. It doesn't build confidence, and it just isn't cricket.

The v3 Ruleset

So followers of my blog and podcast will probably be aware what I think here. Spartan Neil specifically promised the community that v3 would really be v2.5 - the existing solid ruleset with tweaks to address a couple of pretty minor flow issues and make games easier to play, the intent being that you could play existing games in a shorter time or larger games in existing timeframes. Here is the actual quote from his own forums that proves I'm not just making this up:

So to quote "This isn't about rebooting v2.0". This year, he's rebooting v2 because he didn't like how certain bits played - again, his words - and so essentially he's rebooting the universe on a whim. Players did NOT ask for this (or those that did were definitely in the minority). This grates with the continuous references to "This is what you wanted" messages throughout the Kickstarter, which sounds like they're trying to convince themselves rather than the players.

So, SG (or Neil) has decided to produce v3, and have released various "sneak peeks" of these on their community, which have had a VERY mixed set of reactions. They are still talking about re-statting everything (in future tense, which is worrying given the timescale), which means testing must be difficult and it sounds like the rules are all over the place. They are also reacting to announcements - there is a Command Order that gives Terrans +2 Shields (which is plain dumb), which on reaction of "jeez that's stupid" they're saying "oh, yeah, we'll address that". Now I know some of you will be like "c'mon Alex, that means they're listening to their customers". Yes, you could say that, but to me it highlights fundamental issues with the developers understanding of the core game mechanics when they're missing such obvious faux-pas at such a later stage.

So how does this affect the KS? Well, I sure as hell wouldn't want to back a miniatures game KS that has rules so far from being finished. Just what am I buying into? The rules COULD be excellent, or they could be pure BS. We just don't know (though I'd say there's pretty compelling evidence at this stage which way it's heading, and the whiff of excellence is decidedly missing...). So Spartan are asking you to back this project regardless of what it's rules are...that's...well...bold would be one word for it.

The Background

One thing I constantly went on at Neil about during my tenure as Spartan Alex was filling out the background - people want a consistent, deep and detailed universe. I fleshed out a huge amount of this, and no interest was shown. Now it's great that SG are addressing this (at last), BUT....wait, what's this? "a revamped and improved narrative"...uh-oh, that sounds suspiciously like ret-con...and here's the killer line:

"...our major rewrite of past and present events truly sets the scene for the continued evolution of the Firestorm Galaxy."

Ugh - this is one of my personal hates of ANY games company...and the major question it raises in my mind is...why? Was there a fundamental flaw in the prior law (such as it was?). No. So why do it? Just to shoehorn in some more races for people ti buy? Firestorm already has one of the most diverse sets of races for ANY wargame, with over 20 individual races you can buy fleets for. Do we NEED any more? So why do it? Well, one thing is models - more races = more models, and Spartan are banking on people buying new shiny. We'll some to that in a minute.

First, back to fluff. Pathogen are being re-invented (unnecessary), Saurians are being introduced (also unnecessary, but I'll put this one as a "fair enough, some people want that" item), but worst of all, they're being introduced in a 2-player boxed set TOGETHER. Why is that a problem? Look at the Firestorm map - the Saurians are in the galactic Northwest, the Pathogen are across the other side, between the Sorylians and the Relthoza in the Rift. So somehow the Pathogen have travelled across the entire width of the Sorylian Collective, through a massive piece of Terran space and attacked the Saurians? How does that make any sense at all?

"But no, Alex, you've got it wrong - there are new galactic maps"....Oh god, so now they're literally changing the shape of their 8-year old universe to fit with a new retconned fluff? This just burns any background credibility of the universe for me. The problem is that Neil has layered his new narrative on top of a prior background which is wholly incompatible with it - like trying to paint watercolour on acrylic, it just doesn't stick - it feels flaky.

I've always maintained you need to build a universe from the ground up - what are the limitations of the drives used, how does communication work, what do people use for power etc - all of this gives a universe a centralised feel and theme, and frames future story writing. Without that, there are no bounds and it becomes an amorphous entity which feels completely ad-hoc. That doesn't mean you don't have flexibility or have to nail down every plank of wood, but you build the boxes that people can play within.

I'll reserve judgement until I see a copy (which I won't buy, obviously). but this part really turns me off as an existing player of the game.


Let's talk about models. There are two factions touted in this expansion, the Saurians and Pathogen. Looking at the Saurians, Spartan have managed to create an aesthetic that is different to most of their existing fleets, which is a good thing.

The centrepiece of this is the Heavy Battleship, which is the main image shown on the Kickstarter page. There are no additional images of this on the page, though there is one of the BattleCarrier which is available as an add-on in the force pack for an extra £75 (which seems on the high side).

Whilst the aesthetic is not one I particularly like, it is distinctive and I'm sure there will be those out there that love them and we know the models will be nice, that's one thing Spartan are still able to do well. They're also introducing something that I (and many other players) introduced to their games years ago - dice trackers for HP & CP:

Not exactly innovation, but at least they've done this now - will be interesting to see if they have double ones for Large ships with >6 Hull Points and Crew Points. So far not, if their KS page is accurate.

They also show renders for the other side of the Saurians:

These are a more Battlefleet Gothic version of the fleet, and do nothing for me at all, though this is something Neil and I discussed a couple of years back - it would have been funny if they'd have done this before the BFG video game was released - and they may have gotten some uptake from BFG fans, but the timing for this just makes this an in-joke which goes nowhere.

We also see a border station for the Saurians:

Whilst this looks initially OK, I know that all those grey pieces are going to be acrylic, which Spartan does not do well and is pretty horrible for these sorts of models, Its got a bit of a Star Trek Deep Space vibe, but overall it's just going to be a big white elephant of a piece IMO - the thing is huge and I'm 99% sure there will be no decent rules for it on release - we've seen this a lot from SG.

OK, so moving onto Pathogen, let's see if Spartan have been listening since those uninspiring models they previewed at Adepticon:

Ugh! Yes, they listened...and produced Tyranid Turds. Oh dear. These have gone too far in the organic direction for me - first they were just Relthoza ships with some droopy bits, now they're pure organic chompy, which is a shame since Pathogen had such potential. Again, there will be players who like these models, and if I were a BFG player they would probably serve as better Tyranid ships than what I had, but these are once again quite disappointing. I'm not sure whether the tentacled turd Large or the Sperm Smalls are my least favourite, but I'm definitely not a fan of these. I think Spartan could have made some really unique models here - techno-hexagon surfaces with tentacles and angles - a fusion of organic and machine, more Geiger-esque than Mr Crapper.

We get a Battleship in the add-on expansion pack here too, which is less turd-like than the Assault Carrier but still too organic sea-life for me.

We also have some other models:

Hang on -these are the same transport ships that SG have been giving away for free with orders in their regular weekend fire-sales over the past few months! They're ok, nothing revolutionary or innovative here, they look like decent transport models which you can use in any game, but their inclusion in their KS is a bit odd, especially when the tagline is; "Often overlooked by gamers, scenery can be used to enhance not only the aesthetic of gameplay but can also vastly improve the overall gameplay."

Excuse me but "Often overlooked by Gamers..."? Do we, as gamers, overlook terrain? I don't think so, especially in Firestorm where terrain is a vital piece of the game - what are SG trying to tell us? "Hey, you idiots that forget scenery, we're making some so you don't in future". The dialogue is just baffling.

Also, the models are going to be delivered pre-coloured for those of us who don't what to paint. Eh? Tournaments in almost any game usually REQUIRE painting beofre play, and though most of us will admit to not painting enough, I don't know many mini wargamers that don't think this is part of the hobby. This isn't a board game. This isn't X-Wing. If I'm not painitng something, I want it pre-painted so it still looks good on the board, not just a purple-brown of baby-poo khaki lump of plastic. I kinda get the sentiment, but does SG really think its appeal is that broad? If they do, they're kidding themselves - do they really understand what their players want?

It's all what we asked for...

Well, apparently they do. Based on their Survey (that extensive one that lasted for slightly more than a single weekend), this is all what we wanted. Hmm, I'm calling BS on that one. Their survey was (as surveys go) massively flawed and very blinkered. They released a survey that would essentially tick one or more boxes on a couple of pathways they had pre-ordained, it wasn't a properly open survey asking for what players wanted in a way that was ever going to change their direction. 

What do I mean?

Well, I design a survey for a specific purpose - if I ask a question like "Would you like more models?" to an audience of gamers, I know the answer will be "Yes", because we all like models. That doesn't mean that Firestorm players wanted new factions. "Players want more background material" does NOT mean re-write the history of the universe. This underlies my big problem with SG at the moment, because they're STILL NOT LISTENING. Yes, they say they are, yes, people on the forums might be trying to engage people (like Spartan FA Mike), but at the end of the day these people are fans, not Spartan Games, and the core of SG have already made their decision, and then they bend the facts and survey results to support their pre-ordained decisions.

Spartan Neil has told us this already, if you read his blogs. Essentially there he said that he changed elements of the game because he didn't like them. Now that's fine - it's his company, his game, he can do what he likes - but that is NOT doing something "because players wanted it". We didn't. We wanted kins ironing out of what was one of the best minis games on the market, not it porting into a Halo/Planetfall/Firestorm/Dystopian Wars hybrid.

Kickstarter Campaign

The final issue I have here is that even as the most ardent Spartan Fanboy, this KS campaign is a bit of a fuck-up. I mean, they're only releasing the Illosians if they hit a KS goal. You only get a Pathogen Dreadnought as a KS exclusive. The add-ons for the Core races are renders of blank boxes, with a message telling you to go to the blog to find out more, when the blog is empty. That money still burning a hole in your pocket for this project?

For me, this feels like a money-grab, It feels like SG are trying to fund bad business decisions by using Kickstarter to shore up their day-to-day business. It feels like we're being lied to.

Now maybe that is the case, and all is shiny in Spartan's future, but I'm not seeing it. If I were an investor and looking for good growth shares, I'd be looking to GW and not SG right now. I mean, I know if I buy some GW stuff I can find a game nearby, and if I get bored I can shelve my stuff and bring it out in a couple of years and not much will have changed. Not sure I feel that way about my Spartan stuff.

So should I back the Kickstarter?

You're asking me? You know the answer. I'm going to wait a year or so and pick up the models I want in a show bargain bin. But hey, if you're that much of a fanboy and you believe SGs hype, sure, go ahead. While you're there, I've got a great time-share property proposal for you - you can't lose....