Before I get to the meat of this overly-long post, I want to make two things clear:
1) The people I play a game with matters more than the game itself (as long as it's not GW). I've got some good folks to play Warmahordes with, so I'll keep playing it - and when I move, I'll keep my army against the chance of meeting other good people to play with.
2) I don't expect this post to suddenly make everyone slap their forehead and go, "OF COURSE THIS GAME THAT I LOVE THE STORY, THE CHARACTERS, THE MINIATURES, AND THE GAMEPLAY OF IS ACTUALLY THE WORST THING EVER! Where's my grandpa's Civil War minis, let's replay Gettysburg!" Everyone likes something different, and that doesn't make me right for disliking it and you wrong for enjoying it - and the reverse is also true. Everyone's Fetish Is Different (EFID). I just want to get my thoughts in order to help me persuade several locals to try something different, and as a resource in future arguments about 'which game is better'.
I dislike almost everything about the gameplay of Warmachine. It has multiple aspects of game design that I regard as useless, archaic, annoying, and BAD. The IGOUGO turn sequence, the importance of only one resource, the huge lack of model balance, the plethora of special rules in a big-army battle game, and the averageness of the rulebook editing all grate upon me.
THE BASIC TURN SEQUENCE
The basic turn sequence is 95% non-interactive; on your opponent's turn, it's almost guaranteed that you won't be doing anything to influence the board state. Alternating activations and rank-based systems like X-Wing have their problems, but "IGOUGO" is the worst possible in a wargame. Just the absolute rock bottom.
Why? Because it gives the opportunity for boredom. Who wants to be bored during a game? A game should engage both players as much as possible, and should minimize even the chance of a player yawning as he checks his phone for the time.
If I trust you, there is nothing for me to do on your turn but pull out my 3DS and breed more Garchomps - I may as well hand you my cards/tablet, leave the table, and come back at the end of your turn, because I can interpret the gamestate just as well then as by close observation during your turn.
And then it's YOUR turn to sit with an opposable digit crammed in the most convenient orifice while I do everything.
Compare it to an alternating activation game like Battletech. Every time a player moves a piece, the gamestate changes. A piece that was previously out of reach or had no use during the game might suddenly become important, and even low-value pieces or those whose moves are obvious (slow artillery unit?) can gain value via activating early to eat initiative and observe what the opponent does. It even balances the power of swarms by keeping the ratio intact: If I outnumber you 2:1, I move that many models until I don't outnumber you. Each player is invested in the entire game turn, without the slack moments that IGOUGO provide.
Or Blood Bowl (not 2016, haven't tried that yet and won't until they release Goblin rules), where the mechanic is "IGOUGO" but adds an element of risk in that if a model fails at an action, it becomes the other player's turn - so you have to balance between doing what you need to score and other actions to get Star Player Points for your team, and if it's not your turn you're avidly watching for the other player to screw up.
IGOUGO as a wargame mechanic is firmly rooted in the worst of the 1980s, and is embodied best in Warhammer and Warhammer 40k - though to be fair to GW, at least those games give you something to do on your opponent's turn with armor rolls.
The most frustrating part to me is that Warmachine is well-capable of this style of gameplay (both sides could perform upkeep at the same time, then alternate activations); yet PP specifically chose to keep the archaic 40k-esque activation method intact with the latest version of the rules.
Try a small game - 25 points - using alternating activations. You might be surprised at how entertaining it is.
ONLY ONE RESOURCE MATTERS
Your Warcaster or Warlock is the only piece that actually matters in the game. You can lose literally every other piece you have and it won't matter as long as you take out the other Warnoun.
That's thematic. It makes perfect sense in the context of the setting that the Warnoun is a combination chess queen AND king: Most capable model, but also the linchpin. But at the level most people will play in (25-75), it also means that the scenario barely matters at all, and every single one may as well read "ASSASSINATION - WITH OTHER GOAL TO RESOLVE TIEBREAKER."
The single-scenario Assassination (+Other Goal To Resolve Ties) makes the game feel stale: every time you're playing almost exactly the same game and the only thing that can change is how well you know the opposing side's rules.
Compare that to Malifaux. Even setting aside the Story Encounters (one takes place at a fancy party where you wield poison and bad puns instead of guns!), the basic (Gaining Grounds tournament) rules have five different possible goals for both sides that vary from dragging an informant into your deployment zone to collecting enemy model's heads; also, they have a brilliant sub-strategy system where each side has two hidden goals chosen from five random ones at the start. This means that no two games are ever likely to be the same. Yes, there are killing goals, but there are also non-killing goals - it allows for a much larger design space.
This leads to another problem...
MODEL DESIGN IMBALANCE
No game has perfect balance, and SHOULD NOT. Having some models be better/easier and other models be worse/harder gives noobs room to pick the good stuff to ease learning the game and vets room to pick the bad stuff in order to humiliate their opponent.
Blood Bowl has teams like the Orcs, Undead, and Amazons that exist at the top of the spectrum: capable of doing just about everything well from running the ball to brawling. It also has bottom-spectrum teams, from almost-competitive (Goblins!) to "I'm going to lose and have fun doing it" Halflings.
So, yes. A healthy game should have some tiers available.
But Warmachine's problem here is that it's only got one scenario (with secondary goal to resolve ties), and that means models which are NOT helpful at that one scenario are invalidated. Warnouns fall into three categories: Can do assassinations, can survive assassinations, and can't do either. Stryker1 is recommended only because his Earthquake spell sets up assassinations and his feat lets his army survive long enough to do it. Played well, Wormwood is near impossible to kill via assassination and is one of the top warnouns because of it. Ashlynn is a frontline infantry-mulcher which does not have BLOODY AMAZING (for warnoun) defensive stats: therefore bad by the rules of the game, not as a designed model.
While focusing on steampowered robots and slavering monsters in MKIII is a good thing and what the game should be about, it compounds the problem of model imbalance. Many of the models carrying over from MKII are still influenced BY MKII and its infantry bias: either being anti-infantry or buffing infantry in a now-useless fashion. In a game dominated by multibox models, they're dead weight cluttering the shelf.
While it might be future-proofing design in case of a shift in meta, the problem is that there are multiple units out there capable of killing multibox models AND single-box infantry. Take Stormlances: Capable of killing big single targets, capable of taking out big infantry squads, and it means that the choices in Cygnar capable of doing only one or the other are invalidated. Why take them when you could take the zap-throwing knights?
Making that even worse is the IGOUGO format: a cheap unit might have value as an initiative sink or bait that can't be ignored in alternating activations, but in IGOUGO it's wasted points.
Speaking of that...
THE POINTS SYSTEM
This is a simple one: the points system is anything but straightforward, and filling holes is complicated.
I don't actually mind the "Warnoun gets freebie points just for robots/monsters", that's simple enough in concept and gives a means of balancing the stronger/weaker warnouns without changing their stats (even if they're afraid to do something like give Haley2 15 points and Caine1 30 to balance out their relative power levels); the problem is that it's unclear why certain things are costed the way they are, and the lack of 1-2 point options, particularly solos, to fill holes.
Oftentimes you're either running at a deficit of points to play the 'good' stuff or sacrificing one of the good options for an inferior one because that inability to fill the last few points annoys. The models most capable of filling those holes are both injokes and sources of irritation - the Gobber Tinker is HOW MUCH USD for a 2-point model? More than some Warjacks?
Compare that to X-Wing. Yes, sometimes you can't quite spend all the points, but coming under gives you a minor advantage on the tabletop - and some players actually angle for that advantage by intentionally underbidding.
As far as points pricing, I personally don't care for black box systems, where a unit goes in one end, a points cost comes out the other end, and we players have no idea what the mechanics of that black box is. It's closed source and because of that may have fundamental flaws - Warhammer 40k is most famous for this, but X-Wing springs to mind with so much of their stuff simply not making sense as to why it costs this and that.
Compare such systems to Battletech, where they at least released the (overly complicated) formulae by which they determine points costs, and via open-source input have gotten it reasonably accurate: you pay for something, you can be sure it will give that much value on the tabletop. The special rules are weighed and rejudged in a broader context than just the narrow playgroup of the developers, and valued accordingly.
Oh, speaking of special rules...
TOO MANY SPECIAL RULES
So Malifaux 1e had a HUGE problem: too many special rules per model. Each mini had a little booklet listing all its special rules, some of which were on multiple models like "X" Expert or Harmless, and some of which were specific to that miniature only. In one way, that was bad because it meant too much to keep track of; in another way, it was fine, because Malifaux games had 6-10 models maximum per game.
Warmachine only avoids needing those little booklets by resorting to iconography: if it were required to physically print out the text of each special rule on the card of that unit, many of them would require two cards. All too often, missing one of those special rules when you once-over your opponent's army at the start of a game can make the difference between winning and losing because you lacked information, or momentarily forgot a special rule YOU had during the game.
Yes, that's on you as a player; however, it's also on the game designer for making their system too complicated. For Warmachine it's the worst of both worlds: A lot of special rules to keep track of (like Malifaux), a lot of miniatures to move and keep track of (like 40k).
It also raises the bar for entry when a new player has to keep flipping around and around the rulebook to understand various interactions and how his own models work, let alone his opponent's models. Yes, a good community can ease that, but there are an unfortunate number of wargamers whose hateful emptiness can only be filled for a fleeting moment by the 'joy' of victory, and beating beginners who don't understand anything is the easiest route to that - and that sort of behavior permanently alienates said beginner.
Compounding the problem are rules and attacks which are never, ever used. When was the last time you fired an Arcane Bolt with a Warcaster instead of stacking that two Focus? And yet it's on multiple cards as a 'dead spell' - worthless 98% of the time.
Compare that to Malifaux 2e, where they decided to place a finite limit on what each model could have on their card, that each special rule HAD to be explained clearly on the card, the rules that apply constantly (Defensive triggers, damage reduction, and so on) are on the front, and the rules you only need during the model's activation (Attack/Tactical Actions) are on the back. It was a conscious choice made for clarity and simplicity.
Going on the subject of clarity and simplicity...
WHY NO LISTS OR TABLES?
I don't ask for much in a rulebook, really. Clear rules with as little cognitive dissonance as possible. An index that can at least point me in the right direction. A comprehensive table of all modifiers that can apply to an attack roll if it's that sort of game. A simple checklist outline to follow step-by-step so new players and old can make sure they don't accidentally miss something important.
Warmachine, at least the little rulebook I have, scores on the index and that's it. The rulebook doesn't have any unified table anywhere, something like:
Would be nice.Attack Roll = 2d6
+MAT (for Melee)
+RAT (for Range)
+Focus (if spellcaster with Focus)
+Magic Ability (if spellcaster without Focus)
+1d6 (if boosted)
+/- xd6 (for Special Rules)
+2 (if Back Strike)
+2 (if Free Strike vs Melee)
+2 (if Aim vs Range)
+x (x=models using Combined Attack)
-2 (if intervening obstacle vs Melee)
-2 (if target has Concealment vs Range)
-4 (if target has Cover vs Range, does not stack with Concealment)
-2 (if target has Elevation vs Range)
-4 (if target in melee vs non-spray Range)
The rules also have minor niggling issues throughout - why are some modifiers bonuses to attacker and others bonuses to defender, instead of simply listing the latter as minuses to the attacker? Why is it that ties go to the attacker on Attack rolls, but defenders on the Damage roll? Dropping DEF by 1 universally and making a single unified rule (beat the number on the defender's card) would be great for reducing that dissonance.
The rulebook is also way too wordy. Flip to the section on Combined Melee Attacks and Combined Ranged Attacks. Read them. Then compare how identical they are, and how they could have been combined into a single section called "Combined Attacks" with short sub-paragraphs describing the minor differences between the two.
The only huge issue I have with Warmachine is the IGOUGO turn structure, and aside from that it's... adequate.
But that's the problem: it's adequate, and this just after a supposed design overhaul. In software terms, it's not Warmachine 3, it's Warmachine 1.4 (counting for the introduction of Hordes). That would be fine if the basic engine itself were good, but it's clunky with known flaws and problems - and there exist alternatives that are more than adequate.
For a while I thought the problem might be playing at too low of a point value, not seeing the 'real' game at 10, 25, or even 50 points, but 75 point games are even worse. It's getting harder and harder for me to smile as I belly up to the table and roll for first/second player.