The Warcasters Dilemma: Focus vs Fury

Several months ago, Phil and Bobb put up some very interesting blogs centered around PP’s flagship game, Warmachine/Hordes. Up until that point, I had been kind of boycotting it because in my eyes it was taking away precious company attention from the giant monsters that stole my heart. But with the durth of any news on the monpoc front, and a couple of gamers that I respected singing it’s praises, I decided to give it a look see. Lo and behold, I found that it is as rich and deep a game that everyone was saying it was. I spent some time looking over the different figures, and settled on Cryx as the ones that looked the coolest, and then jumped in with both feet.

I’ve now gotten over a dozen games in (all email, unfortunately), and I’ve had time to digest the rules, see how they work in action vs theory, and get a decent amount of experience and fun in the process. During all of this, some views that I initially had have codified, and I wanted to discuss them with the community.

So, the big thing I’ve noticed is the difference between how Warcasters (Warmachine) and Warlocks (Hordes) work. It’s pretty obvious that Warlocks were the second generation rule set. From my understanding, the game has always been about a leader unit running around with big honkin’ robots/beasts. Before there was Hordes, it was a Warcaster and his warjacks. The problem is that the mechanics behind this setup made the player choose between using his spells or making his ‘jacks more potent (or even just nominally effective). At least partially because of this, the game moved more towards a leader and a bunch of unis / solos, with ‘jacks falling into the support role. While still fun, this wasn’t what PP was looking for as the “theme” of their game. So along came Hordes, and the Warlock / warbeast mechanic, where the caster needs to have beasts to be able to cast spells at all, and to build up his spell points, he needs to use his beasts pretty aggressively. It’s a beautiful solution, really. The problem is that it is fully compatible with the Warmachine rules, thus you can have one type of force go up against the other type of force (as has been the case with most of my games). It is this disparity that I want to talk about.

Even the Legions of Death have turned to the power of technology

Warcasters are centered around a stat called Focus. This is their magical ability, what they have to roll to successfully cast an offensive spell, and how many magic points they get each turn. They can use these magic points (just called Focus, although this is separate from the Focus stat) for a number of things. First, they are used to cast spells. Each spell has a cost in focus that must be paid before the effect can take place. For offensive spells, the caster must also hit the targets defense by rolling an attack using his Focus stat. Focus can be used to buy extra melee or ranged attacks, at one Focus per attack. It’s used to boost attack or damage rolls the caster makes (one point of Focus will allow the caster to roll an extra die on whatever he boosts). It can also be used to heal damage on the caster on a one for one basis, and a single focus can be spent to shake off an effect such as being knocked down. Any unused Focus increases the casters armor, also on a one for one basis. These are all the caster centric things that Focus is used for. But it has another very important use. It can be allocated to the caster’s warjacks at the beginning of the turn for them to use to enhance their capability. Double the caster’s Focus stat is called his control range, and he can distribute up to three Focus to each ‘jack in his control at the beginning of the turn. Focus on a ‘jack can be used to buy extra attacks and boost damage, or shake off an effect, similar to the caster. It is also used to allow a ‘jack to make a special attack (throw, slam, etc) or to charge. Warcasters automatically generate a number of Focus equal to their Focus stat at the beginning of the turn, which then needs to be allocated before any figures in the force can start taking their actions.

While the warriors of the wilds tame the power of nature...

Warlocks are centered around Fury, which in many ways is analogous to Focus. They have a Fury stat, which is used both as the maximum amount of magic points they can “generate” at the beginning of a turn, and the number added to a roll to hit with an offensive spell. It’s also used to determine their control range, which, like Warcasters, is double the stat. Fury points are to cast spells, boost attack and damage rolls, buy extra attacks, and shake off effects. So far, pretty much like a ‘caster, but from here, things diverge rather drastically. Instead of adding to Arm, unused Fury can be used to transfer damage done to the ‘lock to a warbeast they control that is in their control area. One Fury will transfer all damage from a single attack to a warbeast. And as a way to say “sorry” for injuring their beasts, a Warlock can spend fury to heal a warbeast on a one for one basis. This is important, because unlike a Warcaster, a Warlock does not automatically fill up his fury pool at the beginning of the turn. Instead, he gets his fury from leeching it off of his beasts in his control area. Beasts generate Fury by boosting attacks or damage, buying additional attacks, casting their anami (which are beast spells), or just riling and getting mad. To do any of these things, a beast needs to be in its ‘locks control area and be forced to do so, either directly by the Warlock, or by another figure that can control the beast. If there isn’t enough fury on a Warlock’s beasts to fill up their fury at the beginning of the turn, they can cut themselves, and generate Fury by inflicting damage on themselves on a one for one basis.

Warbeasts have a Fury stat, which is the maximum amount of Fury they can have on them at a time. They also have a threshold stat, which is used to see if the beast goes berserk. At the beginning of the turn, the Warlock needs to siphon the Fury off of his beasts. If after this, a beast still has Fury on it, it needs to pass a threshold check, or else spend it’s turn attacking the nearest figure with a single boosted attack. The threshold roll is done by adding the Fury still on the beast to the threshold stat, and trying to equal or exceed that roll.

So to keep a Warlock going at full throttle, they need to run their beasts pretty hard, but not too hard, or else risk having the beast run amok. They also have to worry about having their beasts (and thus their main sources of Fury) killed out from under them, although when one of their beasts dies in their control area, they can suck off any Fury on that beast at that time.

An easy way to describe the dichotomy between a Warcaster and a Warlock is that the ‘caster does resource management, while the ‘lock does risk management. The Warcaster can play the longer game, trying to win through attrition, although from my experience, if a game gets to turn five it’s a long one. In general, what this means, though, is that the Warlock gets twice the Fury to use that the Warcaster does every turn. The ‘caster decides if he wants to cast spells, or have his ‘jacks run harder, or just camp on his Focus an hope that the extra Armor saves him. The Warlock gets to use a full Fury to cast spells and boost rolls, etc, while his beasts get to run, charge, boost, etc just as much. It’s this magic point mismatch that has me wondering how balanced things really are. Warlocks also have a lot more options for keeping their beasts running at full strength with their ability to heal them. If you don’t kill a beast that’s breathing down your neck on your turn, odds are it’s going to be hitting you at full strength on his. Warjack damage is more permanent. They can be repaired, but that takes an action, and more importantly, a unit with the repair ability right up next to them. And even then, it’s not a sure thing, as the repair has a roll associated with it to see if it works at all.

What goes better with robots than big guns?

Now, PP has put effort into trying to achieve balance. From what I can see, it seems like a Warmachine force has more access to units and spells that will generate free Focus for the Warjacks, which helps balance out the double Fury that a Hordes force is running around with. Warmachine forces like to steal the souls of the slain and use those as Focus. So on a particularly brutal turn, a Warcaster might start with double their Focus, although more common it’s only a couple of extra. Warcasters also have access to arc nodes, which are items mounted in ‘jacks that let the ‘caster cast spells through the warjack. This greatly increases their threat range, and let’s them play the stand off game. There are some analogous abilities on the Hordes side, although these bio-arc nodes tend to be single use and on units. Warcaster spell lists tend to be larger than a Warlocks, but the Warlock can not only cast their own spells, but the anami of their beasts as well, so I’m not sure this balances things out all that much. Especially since they can cast the spell, and the beast can also cast the spell, each from a different resource reserve.

Beasts like their toys too....

Perhaps the biggest balancing factor is straight from the rules, in that as a Warlock’s beasts die, he loses access to his magic source. And as this is a game of combat, that’s rather expected to happen. In reality, though, this doesn’t come up all that often. Beasts are as tough as Warjacks, so it takes quite an effort to kill one. And if you don’t, it gets to heal. And a Warlock worth his salt will have enough beasts to cover the loss of one or two, and still keep running at full strength. Even the risk management side of things can be worked around. Now, don’t get me wrong, it takes quite a bit of skill to make sure you have just enough Fury on your beast to have a full pool next round without losing control of a beast that’s gone berserk. But it can be done, and once you get that skill level, it’s done almost all the time. Even a berserk beast isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If it’s in the middle of the opponents forces, it’s going to attack one of them. So a Warlock can even plan to have a Berserk beast as part of his battle plan.

Now, I’m not sure if things aren’t balanced, because I’ve won about as much as I’ve lost, and I’ve mostly been playing Warmachine. But the Focus/Fury inequity was a big pill to swallow as I was learning the game. I wanted to start a discussion here to see what other people thought. So what have your experiences been? How about you theory crafters out there? Are things balanced with the rules alone? Are they balanced with a combination of rules and figures? Or are things out of whack and slightly off kilter? Do the Iron Kingdoms stand a chance, or will the Hordes overrun Immoren?