My first experience with Matrix Games

What is a Matrix Game?

Essentially, a Matrix Game combines the tactical infinity of role-playing games with control of an ‘actor’ – a faction, organisation or entity – as would be expected in a strategy game. They align with the play worlds, not rules philosophy of the Free Kriegspiel Revival movement, meaning that setting, and the rules/expectations of the setting, takes precedence over a dense system of rules.

A cobbled-together primer:

Open Strategy Game is a term that Chris McDowell coined to avoid confusion with all the other things that ‘matrix’ means. I think I prefer it.

My first Matrix Game

Michael over at lizardmandiaries put out a call for players of his Matrixhammer, a matrix game/Warhammer Fantasy mashup.

We played-by-post over discord and I fully recommend you go and read his play report of the game from a referee’s perspective.

I was the Empire player with the forces below at my command.

The Forces of The Empire: 4 Zweinhanders, 8 Halberdiers, 6 Riflemen, 1 Imperial Captain and 1 wizard. The wizard can summon, manipulate and warp the elements. All units have a general devotion/faith to the emperor/empire.

My forces were camped at a hut beside a lake, it was midnight and an army of evil beastmen could be heard howling. They were about 2 hours travel away. My forces had to survive 6 hours until re-enforcements arrived.

Emotions are tricky

I want to preface everything I’m about to say by making something crystal clear – I think Michael did an excellent job of responding to the inputs that the other player and I gave him. I would absolutely play another matrix game run by him.

That being said, I did not fully enjoy the game whilst I was playing it.

There were some moments where my initial emotional reaction to the update was negative.

My rational brain had to step in and actively overrule those reactions.

After reading Michael’s play report, I am happy to say that my negative initial emotional reactions were founded on flawed premises, as my emotional reactions assumed certain things about the beastmen player’s actions that were untrue.

My after-the-event enjoyment of the game is much higher.

I think the root cause of my negative feelings was the high amount of hidden information in this scenario. Without prompting or suggestion from me, Michael seems to have identified it as an issue as well, as his next Matrixhammer scenario includes player arguments which are completely public for all terms. I think that is a good idea and would have mitigated the majority of the negative feelings I had, though he might not be doing it for that reason.

How I felt and what I thought throughout the game

Again, if you haven’t read Michael’s play report I recommend it. It’s a good read and it will provide useful context for the next section.

Turn 1

I was torn between setting up defensive positions and doing something sneaky. I went with sneaky and set up a flammable area nearby the hut, whilst keeping the area closest to the hut less flammable.

The Forces of The Empire make the are immediately near the hut fire-resistant, whilst making the area further outwards more prone to fire/the spreading of fire
-The Halberdiers deposit dry leaves and twigs in the flammable area to act as good fire starters
-The Riflemen deposit some powder in the flammable area for the same reason
-The Wizard surges the lake water onto the fire-resistant area to dampen it

Turn 1

This was a success so I reasoned I would spend the next hour/turn fortifying, and the one after that triggering my sneaky fire trap.

At this point I was pretty pleased with myself for “doing a tactical infinity”.

Turn 2

I ordered fortifications on turn 2.

The Forces of The Empire make defensive preparations
-The Riflemen make holes in the roof so they can shoot out from it
-The Halberdiers use wood from the trees to create sharp spikes at the edge of the lake, facing towards the water
-The Captain gives rousing speeches to each group of soldiers to steel their courage

Turn 2

I was told that my fortifications were a success, but that the horde had not got closer during the last hour.

…a very faint itchiness wafts briefly over your units skin. Your wizard senses some foul magics have occurred in the surrounding forests.

I inferred from this that a curse had been put on the surrounding area. I didn’t know what the curse was and wasn’t sure how to counteract it – I had a wizard in my forces, but he was tooled for elemental magic.

Turn 3

I decided that since I had another hour to prepare I would summon an air elemental who could take watch in case the pause by the beastmen forces was a trick.

The Forces of the Empire create an air elemental to act as a scout, and sends it to the edge of where they can see, within the flammable area
-The Wizard summons the air elemental using his magic
-The soldiers ensure its sanctity by singing hymns and prayers of the Empire
-The Captain takes the plumes from the Halberdiers and gives them to the air elemental, so it can drop them as a signal if it sees any beast men

Turn 3

I found out that there was a large force of beastmen to my right and a smaller force to my left, and that they had started burning the forest. A helpful map was shared.

An image showing a forest by a lake. A hut on the lakeshore has the lake below it. To the left and right are flags representing beastmen and above it is fire.

Turn 4

I decided that I would try to catch a large portion of the attacking force in my fire-trap. So far my emotions had been steadily positive.

The Forces of the Empire attempt to catch attacking the beast men forces in the flames. If they can split them by trapping some beastly forces with them on the inside of the fires (that is, in the flame-resistant area around the hut) whilst keeping most out then that is a bonus.
-The Wizard keeps the flames at back until the right moment, then surges them forward
-The ground is prepared for fire with powder and dry material, so it should spread quickly to the attacking beast forces
-The air elemental will also keep back the flames before surging them on by adding air as fuel

Turn 4

My trap worked (combined with the other defenses) and the larger force of beastmen were caught in my flames, mostly perishing (but taking two halberdiers and a zweinhander man with them).

Another helpful map was shared.

ALT TEXT: An image showing a forest by a lake. A hut on the lakeshore has the lake below it. On all other sides of the hut there is fire. Beyond the hut, to the left, is a banner representing a beastman army.

I was feeling quite pleased with myself. I’d used the fire trap effectively and only had to survive for two more turns/hours.

Turn 5

I was concerned about the fire, though I remembered that I had constructed a fire break so my forces should be safe. I decided to put the effort of the turn into pushing back the remaining beastman force using smoke from the fire.

The Forces of the Empire will attempt to prevent injury from smoke inhalation, whilst making the smoke a problem for the remaining beastmen
-The Zweinhanders will soak any available robes and tunics with lake-water to act as a mask/filter against smoke
-The wizard will use fire magic to push the fires towards the remaining beastmen
-The air elemental will push the smoke towards the beastmen. It will extinguish/kill itself with the effort if doing so will help.

Turn 5

The results mentioned that magical agents on both sides were trying to control the fires (the air elemental sacrificed itself in the process). Then the fires broke through and rushed over the hut, killing all the riflemen inside. The remaining forces fled the fire into the water, which writhed with demonic influence causing their skin to itch and crawl. They put damp rags over their mouths to protect from the choking smoke, which may have transmitted some illness in the process. Out in the lake, the wizard surged fire after the beastmen, who fell back. Another, smaller beastman force was revealed. Another map was shared.

ALT TEXT: An image showing a forest by a lake. A fire rages across the forest, the hut consumed within. Far beyond the fire, to the left,  a banner representing a beastman army retreats. Another banner of beastmen is on the right. A banner representing imperial forces is in the lake.

When I got the results of the round, I was mildly grumpy. Those pesky emotions.

I had not expected that the fire could spread so quickly over the whole hut area, especially when I was vying for control of the fire too. I felt that the fire going against me was arbitrary, a throw of the dice on which too much had rested.

Let’s examine why that was not true. The beastmen’s goal for that turn was to burn my troops alive, and there was already a fire raging on 3 sides of the hut. Even if I was pushing the left half of the fire towards the beastmen, I wasn’t doing anything with the right half. It was a pretty even toss up between the two, weighted in favour of the beastmen.

Turn 6

So my remaining forces are in the lake water, which is seemingly cursed. I only need to survive another hour until re-enforcements arrive. So I decided to go to the eastern shore and have the wizard use magic to cleanse them all with fresh water. Michael kindly pushed me to suggest more than this, as it would be pretty easy to do and it was the last turn. I reasoned that the forces on the east of the lake must only be a rag-tag group as the main force died in the fire.

The Forces of the Empire leave the lake on the eastern bank and attempt to engage the beastman forces that the wizard sensed there
-The Captain will lead the way to inspire his troops
-The wizard will cleanse their soaked and probably cursed bodies and clothes by summoning fresh new water once they get on land
-The halberdiers will attempt to form a spear wall, with the zweihanders on the flanks

Turn 6

The results ended with a battle, where my survivors fought a shaman, 6 raiders and 20 plague demons. Arrows rained down as a miasmic cloud engulfed the battle. The imperial forces won a pyrrhic victory, and the survivors (the wizard, the captain, a zweinhander and 2 halberdiers) were met by their reinforcements. The beastmen retreat to their camps to fight over who will be their new leader. And finally…

…those surviving men of the empire died of some rotting, delirious fever several days later after setting foot into that diseased lake….

Those pesky emotions again – I was quite grumpy at this.

My emotional reasoning ran thus. The surviving imperial forces had died due to the curse on the lake, which had happened in turn 2. They had been forced into the lake due to the arbitrary decision that the fire had consumed the hut on turn 5. So really, not matter what I did on turn 6 my soldiers could not have survived. It was a forgone conclusion and a wasted turn.

Of course, the fire-hut ruling wasn’t arbitrary, it was very reasonable. But at this point I still felt it was arbitrary as I hadn’t yet seen how decent a ruling it was.

And the lake wasn’t just poisoned by the curse on turn 2. The curse on turn 2 was amplified by the scavenging for dead animals that the beastmen had done on turn 1. And the nurglings (summoned demons) had poisoned the lake further when they travelled through it on turn 4. And the beastman player had devoted most of turn 6 to spreading clouds of sickness and defiling the humans with nurglings. And I had instructed the humans to wrap rags soaked in lake-water around their mouths.

So the stacking of plague was quite reasonable. I could have done a variety of things to mitigate it (for instance, praying to the imperial gods – even during the last turn.

Once I read Michael’s post and saw the actual details of the beastmen player’s turn, my emotions turned around.

What next?

I’m interested in seeing how the next matrixhammer goes. I think that there was too much secrecy in this instance, though it all matched the information our factions would have had. As I’ve already said, Michael’s next Matrixhammer will have all arguments completely public. I think this will improve the play-experience, and I look forward to seeing how it goes.

The matrix games discord is here for anyone whose interest has been peaked.

I’ve toyed with a few ideas for matrix games to run myself, most recently I’ve been considering running a game based on The Battle of the Five Armies from The Hobbit.

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