Monday, July 13, 2015

VBAM 2e Review

Victory By Any Means, Second Edition, finally came out a bit over a week ago now.  It was originally scheduled for winter of 2009-2010.

There's some good news and some bad news.

The bad news is that it's close enough to 1e that I had trouble finding the places where the core rules definitely differed (admittedly, it's been a while since I looked at 1e).  The things that immediately jumped out at me were:
  • The way Intel Points works has changed a fair bit.
  • Trade fleets now operate in a single system, less work plotting paths and less potential exploitability of convoy escorts.
  • Constructing ships now takes time and there are a limited number of construction slots on shipyards.  Civilian fleets are exempt from construction time and slots (they're just contractors).
  • Colony fleets don't have to pick up census in order to establish a new colony (but get a bonus if they do).
  • I think the Reinforcements Pool in space combat has changed but I'm not really sure?  This is also true of the system morale changes table.
  • Leftover damage changed in space combat, in a way which produces more satisfactory outcomes but also requires a little more bookkeeping.
Those are about the only things in the core rules that I could point to and go "I would bet you money that this changed."  This was not a half-decade and a new major version number's worth of update.  It's entirely possible that I'm missing plenty of small numerical changes to things like tech investment thesholds or phases being slightly reordered or something, but overall it all looks pretty much the same.

(Also, the editing isn't great - there are some sections that are organized poorly, and the phrase "imperial thrown world" drives me mad)

The good news is that you can probably still use most of the Menagerie and the Moderator's Companion material from 1e in 2e.

The actual good news is that there are some new and improved optional rules (though the WMD rules seem to have gone missing), the new unit design system looks pretty good, and there's a lot more advice for moderators on setting starting conditions and generally making the game work.  The provided scenarios have been improved; starting force values are higher (meaning you can skip or reduce the boring buildup phase of the early game) and there are more victory conditions across the board.  The changes to Barbarians at the Gates are particularly well-done.  The new starmaps are really aesthetically pleasing, too.

At the end of the day, though, VBAM2 has failed to escape 1e's "World War II in spaaaace" nature.  Its economics are solidly Industrial Era, its navies are along battleships-and-carriers lines, and the whole game structure is of War for Vast Territorial Conquest (which van Creveld has argued in both Rise and Decline of the State and The Transformation of War to be obsolete in the Age of the Nuke).  Admittedly space changes that dynamic some, but if you're willing to allow ships with stealth and FTL (as these rules do), second-strike capability with nukes or grey goo bombs or whatever is possible and a MAD situation seems likely to follow logically.  Overall it feels rather like a Pacific Theatre island-hopping game with some colonization rules and "FUTURE" stamped in front of it in big red letters.  The 2e draft materials that I recall reading back when bore some promise in this regard - more custom tech, more interesting things like planet destroyers and Homeworld-style nomad fleets, stuff like that.  But as a consequence of sticking close to 1e, 2e has failed in this regard.

It's a pity, too, because computers are generally inadequate for science fiction and fantasy grand strategy games.  Computers handle historical games well because they're tightly scoped with limited possible deviation, but in a scifi/fantasy grand strategy game, breaking the rules is sort of the point.  If I can't build ringworlds and planetary disassemblers and industrial-scale cloning vats and targeted bioweapons...  why bother?  You could write all these things into the rules, but it'd be a bloated mess.  My understanding is that this is sort of what happened to the 2e I was hoping for.  At the end of the day, you have to have plenty of human discretion in the loop to run a game like that; codifying infinite diversity is self-defeating.  But the assumptions in VBAM's core rules, things like "population is a meaningful factor in determining production", make it kinda hard to use as a basis for exploring interesting universes.

In conclusion: It is difficult to compare the work to the author's intent, because that intent clearly changed substantially over the course of development.  Speaking personally, I will probably never play this game.  It is an upgrade from 1e, but not in any of the areas that were keeping us from playing 1e.  It'd be a fine computer game, but there're still too many rules and too much paperwork for any of the potential players I know to be interested in playing it manually, and once you automate it you lose the flexibility to do interesting things (which the system already doesn't support without some elbow grease).


  1. John, thanks for the review! As you encountered in reviewing the book, what 2e ended up becoming was more of an updated version of 1e compared to many of the earlier drafts. Part of this was a reaction to what the 2e draft rules had become, and balance issues that were becoming problematic. It was also becoming clear even in more recent drafts that some of the concepts that we were trying to introduce would end up working better as optional rule modules rather than core rules because it made them easier to explain.

    A considerable amount of the development cycle was taken up bashing out star system and tech/unit design prototypes that ended up being abandoned for different reasons. In most cases it was because they became too unwieldy, or only worked under a specific set of rules conditions and once one area of the rules shifted then it caused a reset elsewhere that led to an endless cycle of iteration that didn't end up gelling.

    Some of the content that you noticed missing between the 2e drafts and the final Campaign Guide are still milling about in the background and will be revived in the game's supplements. Things like the advanced tech and planetkillers, for example. One of the takeaways from the project is that when I was trying to stuff everything into a single book it made it very difficult to parse the rules or figure out what was going on -- you had pages of special rules, conditional rules to cover edge cases, etc.

    Also, thanks for pointing out the "imperial thrown world" typo! I've updated the working draft to quash that. We had dozens of playtesters looking over the rules for the last 6 months, and still things like this made it through. I'm taking a dead tree version of the rules with me on vacation next week and try to hunt down more of these sorts of issues and clean them up for the next rules update.

    Oh, and the WMD rules are the Mass Driver rules, just they are now rolled into a unit ability rather than as separate purchasable consumables. The reason for this change is that it was impossible to balance the WMDs from a cost perspective. At one point I even had them as a one-use bombardment value bonus and it still became too easy to reduce the ground warfare portion of the game to "nukes drop, everyone dies" which is thematic in some settings but not terribly fun for the players.

    Thanks again for the review and your input as to where you would like to see the game go in the future!

    1. Thanks for the reply, Tyrel! I quite understand; I've been on a few projects that overextended and had to cut back to their core priorities myself. I am glad that some of the experimental material will likely make its way into supplements! A solid, extendable core with modular expansions goes a long way in a lot of fields.

      I think I saw a few other grammar / spelling issues during my readthrough; I don't think I documented all of them, but I'll see what I can find.

      A fair assessment of WMDs; I'd've expected their costs to be primarily diplomatic rather than mechanical. Still, there are situations where diplomatic costs won't cut it (Classic Duel, for example). I suppose morale costs among the civilian populations of the deploying empire might be usable in that case, but that presumes a fair bit about alien psychology.

      Saw the email to the list about Colonial Battlefleet and Full Thrust - another pair of games that I rather liked but have yet to get my group to play :P I look forward to seeing your tactical integration for those.

  2. I actually like the idea of "Imperial Thrown World" as a kind of mass destruction weapon. If you have more worlds (and power) than you know what to do with, why not fling one at your enemies?