Version Control: What Should You Play?

by Allen Stroud

Version Control: What Should You Play?
October 6, 2019 Allen Stroud

Roleplaying games, tabletop war games, video games, and board games have come a long way since their experimental inception in the 1960s and 1970s. In many ways, it’s hard to remember that these different types of game originally drew inspiration from some of the same source material.  

The 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons (known as 5e) was released in 2014 and is now well established as being the most popular roleplaying game (RPG) in the world. In roleplaying games, Call of Cthulhu is in its 7th Edition, the Generic Universal Roleplaying System (GURPS) in its 4th Edition, Pathfinder in its 2nd Edition, and Vampire: The Masquerade in its 5th Edition. 

In war games, Warhammer 40,000 is the world’s most popular. The 8th Edition of the rules was released in 2017, replacing the 7th Edition which lasted only three years. X-Wing is in its 2nd Edition and then you have Bolt Action, Warmachine, and Star Wars: Legion, amongst many others.

In board games, new editions mean new boxed sets. Only the most popular tend to survive. Some get resurrected and revised from antiquity by companies like Fantasy Flight Games, whereas others can be redesigned to incorporate a theme or licensed brand.

With each iteration comes a new release of supplements or expansions to accompany the new core rule books. Usually, as part of the tradition of RPGs and war games, the core books are gorgeous hardbacks replete with page after page of wonderful full colour illustrations; but as electronic devices have become more portable, PDFs and other quick guide formats have become more popular. This in turn has driven down the price for consumers who have vast libraries of content to draw from for their war games or roleplaying nights. 

With Warhammer 40,000, the first edition of the rules was very much driven by the sculpts that were available. Warhammer: Rogue Trader, released in 1987, was a bit of a hybrid, trying to be a roleplaying game whilst actually providing a coherent game system for the array of different lead sculpts being produced at Citadel Miniatures. Gradually, the game found its niche and Games Workshop turned away from making an RPG. It was to return to this arena later with a dedicated set of books produced under license by a variety of partners, who each created a different version of rules and source materials. 

The innovations in multi-part sculpted plastics and mass production of sprues at 25/28mm has also allowed gamers to expand their collections of miniatures. So whether you are putting an army together for a battle, or just building up a bestiary/adversary box for your adventure modules, there’s plenty of options to find what you need for your game. Sources for miniatures have expanded even further to include an array of board games too, often funded by Kickstarters as they look to deliver a bulging oversized box full of imaginative fun.

New editions of board games have certainly looked to jump onboard this particular aspect of cheaper and better-quality production. Some of the spaceship designs in games like Firefly and Battlestar Galactica are excellent. Star Wars: Rebel Assault, Dark Souls, War of the Ring, Deep Madness and many others provide the same modelling and painting opportunities for hobbyists as war games do. 

The compatibility of these miniatures is often pretty good too, which means model enthusiasts can spend a lot of time ‘kitbashing’ or converting miniatures to create a particular character for an army list or a special figure for a roleplaying game. Kneadatite, or ‘greenstuff’ — an epoxy putty that can be moulded to fill in gaps, add cloaks, or replace items — allows for some excellent interpretations, as does a careful use of plasticard to make vehicles and alternative weapons. With the innovation of 3D printing, scenery for games is being produced in a variety of different ways with lots of opportunities for small businesses to start up and produce great stuff for gamers too.

However, there are some boundaries between ranges that have become more pronounced as the commercial markets for these products have become more and more popular. Many companies run successful commercial tournaments, with regional, national and international championships held at conventions all across the world. To ensure fair play, these tourneys often insist on the use of miniatures that are sourced from the company whose game you are playing. So, for a Warhammer 40,000 tournament game, you can’t field some space elves from another range, no matter how well you painted them. 

Similarly, tournament play tends to involve using the latest edition of the rules. This was a particularly difficult transition for players of X-Wing, the first edition of which was a massive commercial success. The game rules had always been included in the boxes, so the release of the Version Two rules meant issuing conversion guides for existing models in the new release boxes. This kind of additive war game means you might need to hunt down a lot of material to create a framework for a tournament game.

During Warhammer’s fantasy incarnations Warhammer Fantasy Battle and Age of Sigmar there was a significant setting change. Warhammer Fantasy miniatures are still compatible with Age of Sigmar, but a variety of new creatures have been introduced and Games Workshop products have undergone a subtle transformation, with each army type being renamed to something the company can trademark or brand. This process has extended to Warhammer 40,000 too, with Imperial Guard now being known as ‘Astra Millitarium’ and Eldar becoming ‘Aeldari’.

There is some inevitable ‘rules inflation’. New army lists are produced that escalate the power level of weapons and armour on the table. New editions of the rules tend to rebalance this each time, but then another set of miniatures and vehicles come out — and so on and so on.

There are two main agendas which drive the continuous cycle of new features and new editions in many of these brands. The first is the economic agenda: these companies need to produce products that their players will buy and use. The second is the perfectionist agenda: the idea that a rules system can be improved; made better, faster, or more immersive.

Many companies see both of these agendas as complimentary. Revisiting the core rules and giving them an update allows for new ideas from the supplements to be incorporated into the heart of the game. Dungeons & Dragons was certainly a beneficiary of this as the player-base expanded, with a variety of ideas coming from player suggestions and new designers coming in with their own interpretations. 3rd Edition and 5th Edition are incredibly popular game systems. 3rd Edition spawned a variety of conversion games with d20 Modern — an open-rules system used by a variety of different designers to translate different fictional properties into RPG games. Dungeons & Dragons had a massive user base who were already familiar with the rules. New game settings could be ‘plug and play’, for gaming groups without anyone needing to learn too many new rules, or even portal visits for particularly adventurous multi-world campaigns. Games like GURPS had already broken some of this ground with a variety of properties licensed and converted to run under the GURPS rules, but d20 Modern reached a lot more players. With an expansion of potential settings for games, players could just learn one system and play in many different settings.

But even then, the rules needed to be revisited, with a 4th and then 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons being produced. Now, 5th Edition stands in a similar place to 3rd Edition, with an open license version available on the Internet and a variety of franchise RPGs coming out that will use it.

But is this version of the rules better?

Perhaps. But, fundamentally, the perfectionist agenda can be a relative point. All of these games are about creating an experience and having fun with people you choose to play with. The quest for the perfect game is really about your perfect game, not replacing the pretty book on your shelf. Roleplaying games in particular are vehicles for storytelling in a group. The rules are there to create that experience. When they get in the way, they might need a tweak or two — but that doesn’t mean throwing everything out and starting again. It does mean finding the best solution for your group.

Sometimes the best solution is rooted in nostalgia. Computer games like Runescape by Jagex evolved through a long period, but Runescape Classic remained popular for seventeen years before closing in 2018. Blizzard, producers of World of Warcraft, recently released a classic version of that game using the same aesthetic and controls as the original 2004 version. Star Wars Galaxies ran from 2003, and, before the servers were shut down in 2011, players got together to form the group SWGEmu. They wrote unique code to set up an emulated server which neatly bypassed the intellectual property issues that may have arisen if they’d just set up an alternative hosting when the game shut down.

Additionally, sometimes an adventure supplement isn’t available for your current rules edition. In the RPG Call of Cthulhu, the excellent campaign Beyond the Mountains of Madness was released for the 5th Edition (5.5) of the rules. The print version of the supplement is very rare, but Chaosium still sell the PDF. To make it work with the 6th or 7th Edition the campaign will require a couple of tweaks anyway, as well as some familiarity with Lovecraft’s eponymous story upon which it is based.

‘Homebrewing’ rules might have seemed a bit niche a few years ago, but now everyone’s doing it — particularly with smaller game systems. Improvements in desktop publishing and print-on-demand services mean anyone can produce something of high quality for their own use if they want to. 

The website Boardgamegeek was founded in 2000. It’s always been a haven for players, designers and modders. The forums are a great place to discuss playing games and ‘home ruling’ anything that doesn’t quite work for your players. There’s also a set of discussions on creating beautiful home-produced versions of old games, like the 1979 titles Magic Realm or Dune from Avalon Hill, and other out-of-print products. 

Sharing content on social media groups helps keep people’s games rich, relevant and interesting. There’s an interesting tension between producing that kind of free content, and waiting for the official versions produced by the brand owners. Games need to be played to stay relevant; but, as mentioned earlier, they need to develop, release and sell content to stay profitable. Retaining customers and fans is about balancing these requirements.

The second-hand market is also a vibrant place to find great games. Conventions often run a ‘bring and buy’, which can give you a chance to pick up a bargain. Massive epic board games like Twilight Imperium and Axis and Allies have multiple editions that remain relevant. Twilight Imperium’s newest 4th Edition is an excellent game, but many people have taken advantage of its release to pick up a copy of its 3rd Edition on the cheap, second hand. Meanwhile, Axis and Allies has a multitude of different versions that are still up on the shelves in game shops. These can be focused on Europe, the Pacific, the First World War, or even incorporate zombies into your game!

For Games Masters and players, the important thing is that everyone enjoys themselves. So, if you want to get into playing a game and have a good time, don’t feel you have to run with the latest version of anything. A great gaming experience depends as much (probably more) on the players you invite as it does on the version of the game you play.