A Three Legged Horse: How Final War was Almost Good

Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve been listening to me ramble for a couple of years now. So far, I’ve managed to keep a fairly level head, and find the positive in most things.

Today is not that day.

We are currently one year out from the commercial release of Final War, and the strengths and weaknesses of the game have become evident, and it is time to deliver a verdict.

The Good

Following the Grand Melee at PAX Australia 2017, I have a great deal of respect for how well the tournament was run. As someone who has run quite a few competitive tournaments at my local game store, I know that it can be a huge trial to have a tournament run efficiently. The Final War team managed to keep to their posted schedule for the entire tournament that I was there for, which is very impressive. As well, the staff that I interacted with were positive, friendly, and knowledgeable when it came to rules questions and queries.

At both of the PAX conventions I have attended, the Final War area has been well taken care of by friendly and helpful staff. Demos I attended and watched were well-run, and did a very good job of demonstrating the game.

Finally, I have been a fan of the affordability of Final War products. Starter Kits, Onslaught card packs (which include a set of some of the most powerful cards in the game, which you can read about here) and booster packs have all been reasonably affordable, especially for someone who plays a great deal of competitive card games.

The Bad

Rules

The rules documents for Final War are very dense and hard to access. The rules are spaced out in such a way that it can be difficult to access the section you want quickly, and you will also have to have both the Rulebook and the Ability Guide readily at hand to play the game. As well, the Rulebook includes a great deal of supplemental information that helps with world building and the lore of Final War, as well as quite a few hints and tips for play. These things should not be in a rulebook. Finally, the Official Tournament Rules were not promoted, linked or recommended before the Grand Melee (to the best of my knowledge). The OTR document includes several very important rules variations, including timing changes that fundamentally alter how several very important cards are played, and deck building changes that were updated a week before the Grand Melee. These core changes to the rules of the game were buried 27 pages deep in a PDF document hidden on a back page of the Final War website. The FAQ document on the Final War website is very limited, and does not answer a lot of the main questions I have had, or that I overheard at the Grand Melee. This includes such basic questions as ‘What is a player’s maximum hand size?’ or which variation of the Fate Deck would be played at competitive level tournaments.

THE SOLUTION

Final War should release an updated version of the rule book, that does not include the supplemental lore and advice sections. This rules document should take a design cue from the comprehensive rules for Magic: The Gathering, and be written in a way that exhaustively covers any and all rules interactions. As well, several cards – primarily the Warlords – have rules that are not printed on the card, such as immunity to Fear and Mental effects. These rules are present only in the rules document. If a card has an effect or immunity, this should be printed on the card. The FAQ document should be extended to answer more questions, even if they seem very obvious.

The Grand Melee

While the GM itself was run in a manner that was efficient and kept to schedule, there were several very important issues at the core of the tournament’s structure. Players knew what Warlord and Faction each and every one of their opponents were playing, well before they sat down to play a game. As well, players had a ‘sideboard’ of up to ten cards available with which to freely customize their deck in-between matches. These two things mean that you are able to bring in silver bullet cards and pre-sideboard, before you sit down for your game.

Pairings were randomly determined before the tournament begins, and were not affected by a player’s progress during the course of the Grand Melee. Players who had not yet won a game could therefore be potentially matched up against players who were undefeated. As well, points for the tournament were determined as follows –

“Players accumulate 3 points for a 2-0 win, 2 points for a 2-1 win or a
1-0 win, 1.5 points for a 1-1 draw, 1 point for a 2-1 loss and 0 points
for a 2-0 or 1-0 loss.”

Final War Official Tournament Rules, updated 20/10/17

-Accessible here

THE SOLUTION

Of the Big Three in competitive TCGs – Magic: The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokémon – none of them allow pre-sideboarding. As a person who has taken part in many competitive tournaments, the idea of allowing players to know what deck their opponent is playing before they sit down, and to make changes to improve their match-up against that opponent is very concerning. The only reason this rule did not make the tournament almost unplayable is that the card pool available for Final War is not yet deep enough to include the large number of game-ending ‘silver bullet’ cards that we see in Magic or Yugioh. However, there were still cards present, such as Nature’s Fury or The Were Totem that are hugely effective against one and only one Faction. As well, every player who was taking part in the Grand Melee had access to those cards, as they were included in the Onslaught Epic and Vanguard sets that were supplied before the GM to each participating player.

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Players should still have access to and be encouraged to sideboard in-between games against each opponent. Pre-sideboarding promotes and encourages one-sided and unfair play, and if this rule remains in effect during future tournaments, this problem will only get worse as the Final War card pool gets deeper and includes more ‘hate’ cards.

Swiss pairings have been used for pretty much any competitive tournament that does not involve physical effort -and many that do – for over a hundred years. Swiss pairings offer the most fair way for players to determine who is the best out of a large pool of players, and means that each player will have theoretically fair games at every stage of the tournament. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

The system used for points was unnecessarily complicated, and disadvantaged Factions that made games go longer, primarily the Werewolves. Similar to how the pairings were determined, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. Scoring games on 3 points for a win, 1 each for a draw and no points for a loss is widely used in almost every major TCG, and is intuitive and effective for determining the best players in the room.

Card Availability

Final War players have three different routes available to them to get their hands on more cards. The first and easiest way is to purchase the Starter kit. In fact, if you want to play Final War at all you will have to purchase the Starter kit, as it is the only product to include the base Warlords of the game, at least one of which is required for each player. The Starter kits also include three pre-constructed decks, which are usable for play – if not competition – straight out of the box.

The second route to acquiring more Final War cards is to purchase booster packs. Similar to just about every other TCG, these booster packs include a randomized selection of cards taken from the three available factions, as well as Generic cards. However, due to Final War having a one-of deck building rule for cards other than Common and Uncommon Units, you will very quickly find that you can open a pack and have every card in that pack be useless. As well, the cards from the Starter kit – which you have to have to play Final War – can also be found in booster packs, which means more cards that are functionally useless from booster packs you spend money on.

Finally, you can get more Final War cards from the Onslaught Epic and Veteran sets. These sets together include a copy of every Legendary and Elder card for the three Onslaught factions, as well as most of the Heroic cards available. While it sounds like this is the perfect solution, there is one major issue with the Epic and Veteran sets. The cards included in these sets come stamped with a special faction symbol, and come with additional deck building restrictions (which I go into more detail here). These restrictions mean that while you have access to the full library of Final War cards, you are only able to use a few of them in your competitive deck.

THE SOLUTION

A Living Card Game distribution system similar to that of Fantasy Flight Games would solve the current issues with Final War‘s card availability. If, instead of randomized boosters, you were able to choose from a selection of non-randomized card packs, you would not be wasting your money on booster packs containing useless cards. As Final War already has a huge issue with too much variance, removing at least one source of it would go a long way to increasing the competitive viability of Final War, which leads me to my next point.

Variance

There are several reasons that chess has been considered one of the finest tests of intelligence for well over a thousand years. Every game of chess is the same, and will always be the same. Because there is no variance in-between two games of chess, the only way you will beat your opponent is to be more skilled than them. However, Final War has not two, not three, but four sources of variance. Before you sit down to play your game, each player will have had access to a different card pool, based on what – if any – booster packs they have opened and if they purchased the Epic and Veteran packs. As well, during the course of your game, you are not only drawing from your own player deck, but you are each drawing from the Fate deck. Finally, interactions in the game are resolved by dice rolls. Because there is so much variance present in Final War, games are less about who is the better player, and more about who gets luckier during the course of the game.

THE SOLUTION

Without fundamentally altering how games of Final War are played, it would be impossible to remove the variance present during the course of a game. However, by making the full library of Final War cards available to each player without having to get lucky with booster packs, another source of variance would be removed and games would be more about being better than your opponent, rather than being luckier.

Conclusion

I have enjoyed playing Final War during the previous year. However, in its current state, I do not believe that the game is viable for further competitive play. The rules documentation currently available for the game is dense, difficult to follow and contains too much non-relevant information. An updated version of the rules should be released without the lore and world-building details, and be written in a more formal manner that leaves no room for interpretation. The current rules that have been used for tournaments – including the recent Grand Melee – are unnecessarily complicated, and would benefit from being simplified to the same or similar system used by other competitive card game tournaments. Finally, an LCG-style distribution system would solve the two core issues of card availability and excessive variance. Once these problems have been resolved, I believe the future of Final War will be looking very bright indeed.

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