Let us talk, my friends, on the subject of Starter Sets.
Imagine you or your friend has stumbled across a new tabletop game, say a mini wargame or CCG. It’s a hobby designed to be customisable and collectible, one that you’ll feed a lot of money into if you like it, like 40k or Warmachine or M:tG. Of course, jumping right into the deep end is intimidating, so you pick up the Starter Set, which will usually contain decks/armies for two players so that you and your friend can play the game and learn the basics, and hopefully get hooked and therefore spend more money on the game. It should be noted that I classify a “Starter Set” as a thing for a hobby with a collectible element to it; chess, for example, doesn’t have a Starter Set; it’s just the game in its entirety. Some games like Fluxx or High Command or Settlers of Catan have expansion packs, but again the “base” game isn’t a Starter Set, it’s the game in it’s entirety.
I guess the best way of clarifying if something is a Starter Set is the question; “Can I play the game without buying the Starter Set?” For 40k or Warmachine, I could go out and buy the rulebook and some minis. For MtG, I can build a deck out the cards in my collection; I don’t need to pick up one the intro decks.
Right, that’s the vegetables out of the way. Now let’s get to carving the meat of this hot word-roast.
I bloody love Starter Sets, because I’m at the point in life where I prefer to have a variety of games to introduce to friends rather than one game which I’ve sunk a lot of money into. In my opinion, a good Starter Set should tick the following boxes at minimum;
1) Effectively teach players the basic rules of the game
2) Introduce important variants to those basic rules
3) Provide armies/decks for the players that are balanced against each other, and that utilise different tactics
4) Be affordable, or otherwise a good value for money
Seems simple enough, doesn’t it? Let’s apply these to one of the Warhammer 40,000 starter sets, Assault on Black Reach, which is generally regarded as the best 40k Starter Set. Now, if you’re a regular reader, you know that I don’t see eye-to-eye to GW these days, but I still love the lore and the models, so it’s a weird love-hate relationship I guess. Anyway, let’s look at the set
AoBR nearly ticks all the boxes mentioned above.
The mini-campaign book (which was fucking awesome btw) gradually introduced new players to the basics of moving, shooting, and fighting. You’ve got the important variants on those basic rules; different weapon types such as the flamer and missile launcher which use the various templates or the Warboss’s power klaw which effects close combat differently, vehicle rules, Invulnerable saves, characters, and units with different movement rules. The forces are slightly unbalanced, and this is something GW can’t ever seem to get right in their Starter Sets (or keep intentionally weighing in favour of their cash cow $pace Marine$); the Orks have a disadvantage of about 100-150 points. Hrm. The upside though is that this set was astounding value for its cost at the time, and even now it’s good if you can pick up a copy on eBay; if you bought all those models individually as box sets, you’d be looking at spending at least twice as much, and you still wouldn’t have gotten the rulebook and other gubbins like the templates and those measuring sticks that NO ONE EVER BLOODY USES.
AoBR isn’t perfect though. The most pressing one is the issue of points imbalance; I get that Marines are awesome and amazing and need to win every time so more people will buy them, but Jesus. It’s no fun for a new player who takes the Orks and slowly realises that his force is disadvantaged. The Orks really could’ve used a third Slugga Boyz mob, or another 5-guy “special” unit like Kommandos or Stormboyz. Or a Weirdboy, because my other quibble is that there’s no psyker, so new players aren’t made aware of psychic powers and psychic tests and stuff. Also, some terrain would’ve been nice; not to the extent of the excellent crashed Aquila lander in Battle of Macragge, but just some basic walls and ruins, but that’s a minor quibble.
Dark Vengeance had similar problems; good value for money, excellent teaching tools, but again the balance hurt it. So let me get this straight; the Dark Angels got two HQs (one of which was a psyker in the new “psykers-matter” edition), a Terminator squad, a plasma-heavy Tactical squad, and a Bike squad, and the Chaos Marines got… six Chosen and some Cultists?
You know what would’ve been awesome to balance out the Chaos side? A small unit of Raptors (so new players learn about jump pack infantry), a bump in numbers to that Chosen squad and changing the (admittedly badass) power axe guy to a melta-gunner (the melta-gun being a good counter to the DA Terminators), and… I don’t know, a single Chaos Spawn, because why the hell not? It’s a cheap, individual model with some fun rules, and it’s a Beast, so that would’ve been another different movement variant for players to learn about. Those changes would’ve balanced things out a bit and given the CSM force a bit more bite.
And then there’s this nonsense…
“But Gareth!” you may say, “Stormclaw is a campaign pack, not a Starter Set!”. To which I say “it has a rulebook and two armies intended to be played against each other, therefore until Dark Vengeance is available again, it’s a Starter Set.” Just one that comes with no dice. Hrm. Anyway, this thing looks like a mess. The first clue that something is wrong is that the Orks aren’t outnumbering the Marines 2-1. The second clue that something is wrong is that the Orks have Gretchin while the Marines have FUCKING WOLF GUARD TERMINATORS. But I hear DV is being retweaked for 7th, so this is is serving as some weird hybrid get-you-by until then. I don’t know. People are saying it’s good value (Wolf Guard and Killer Kans, plus the exclusive hero sculpts), but this is £75, nearly twice the cost of the old AoBR, and seems to have only half the content.
It’s not just GW that get it wrong, Privateer Press make mistakes too. Now, the Warmachine Starter Set which I picked up aaaaages ago is excellent (though I would’ve preferred having the Butcher instead of Sorcha as the Khador caster, because I bloody love the Butcher), but back in the day at my old FLGS, we only had the Battleboxes to make do with, which was fine, because they were good for Full-Metal/Tooth and Claw games, i.e. casters/locks and jacks/beasts only.
Apart from the Trollbloods. Oh my god, the fucking Trollbloods.
Let me set the scene. Ian has got Everblight (because Ian is a bad man and enjoys the taste of my tears) and I’ve got my Trolls, ready for our first game of Hordes. Right off the bat I realise something is weird because I don’t have a heavy beast, just two Impalers and the Axer. This is bad news when Ian’s rocking a Carnivean, one of the best non-character heavy beasts in the game. “Maybe my lights are just really good!” I think. AHAHAHAHAHA. While the Impalers are admittedly fucking ace, the Axer is a waste of time. You see, the Axer has an ability called Thresher which hits all enemies in his reach; it’s a great crowd-control ability, useful against massed infantry; you know, the thing I’m not fighting against. “Maybe my warlock has an awesome feat!” I think. And while Madrak hits like a truck in combat, and has a decent range of abilities and spells, his feat is not great in a straight-out-of-the-box Battlebox game of Hordes. You see, his feat “Crusher” lets him or an ally advance and make an attack if they kill a dude in combat, until they stop killing dudes. Again, against infantry, it turns your trolls into fucking combine harvesters, but when you’re up against warbeasts…
Basically what I’m saying is that the contents on the Trollblood Battlebox were poorly chosen. What they needed was a Dire Troll instead of the Axer, and a warlock like Hoarluk to turn him into a big blue murdermachine (the Dire Troll’s Rage animus would’ve had good synergy with the Impaler’s thrown spears too). But I didn’t have those, so I had a game where I got munched by Shredders.
In my opinion, Wizards of the Coast are the ones who usually get it right with their Intro packs for MtG. They’ve come a long way since I used to get them; now you get booster packs in with the deck so you can start customising it right off the bat. Okay, there’s some precons that are generally better or worse than others – trust me, I could do a whole post on the whole “Rat’s Nest” fiasco of the Kamigawa days – but they’re generally balanced amongst one another. Back in the day, my group and I would all of the latest set’s precons and have a big throwdown; good times. These days, with my interest in Magic waning, I’m looking at getting a stash of precons (or building decks to precon standards) as a way to introduce friends to the game so we can just have casual pickup games.
While on the subject of Starter Sets, I’ve ordered the kit for D&D 5th edition, which I am ridiculously excited about. The Basic rules are available as a free PDF on the D&D main website, and I’m suitably psyched and ready to take a group of RPG newbies through the Lost Mine of Phandelver. RPG Starter Sets are always a bit different from wargaming or CCG, but as long as the basics of combat, magic, exploration, and NPC interaction are covered, you can’t really go wrong.
So here’s to Starter Sets; after all, without them, many of we gamers probably wouldn’t be where we are today.