Friday 3 January 2014

Wargame Design #2: The Fifth Element

The Fifth Element
No, this is not a review of a cheesey Bruce Willis movie.  Rather I refer to the "X Factor" which gives a game depth.

Most games have the four "M"s in common - Movement, Melee, Missiles, and Morale.  It's quite possible (though I don't recommend it) to make a generic game engine for these areas and apply them to different eras. Heck, Games Workshop have been doing it for years. Legends of the Old West, Legends of the High Seas, and Lord of the Rings are practically the same game, and cover 1860s cowboys, pirates and medieval fantasy skirmish. WW2's Flames of War and  Bolt Action bears some startling similarities to the sci fi giant Warhammer 40K and the Gruntz is obviously Warmachine in a sci fi skin.

However to make a game "stand out" I think you need a fifth element.  It is that "something" that makes the game stand apart and adds another dimension to the gameplay, outside the usual Movement-Missile-Melee-Morale staples.

This post has absolutely nothing to do with the movie. Sorry, disappointed fans!

The obvious choice for fantasy and sci fi games, a good magic system adds a completely different dynamic to combat.  In sci-fi, this is usually some form of "psy" powers.  I think magic should not only be another form of missile or melee attack but offer more gameplay options. For example, the magic in Song of Blades and heroes offered only a "fireball" (aka missile) or a "freeze" attack.  That's pretty limiting and uninteresting.  On the other hand, magic should compliment the other elements of movement, melee, missile etc and not overwhelm it. It's the "fifth element" not the "only element" of gameplay. (I remember friends whinging about certain edition of WHFB which they labelled "Magichammer" as whoever brought the best wizard tended to win).   I'd probably favour a magic "minigame" with risk v reward where you have to manage magical resources.  Which brings me to another option:

Resource Management
Malifaux utilises a card deck which you use for combat. You can keep a "hand" of 5 cards which you can use to boost your attacks.  Managing your "hand" adds depth to gameplay - a player who makes poor movement and combat decisions might be able to save himself through clever management of his "hand" - but using his good cards to extricate himself from trouble will leave him vulnerable later.

"Command Points" can be used, which can be spent to allow extra actions or boost actions with dice modifiers are also common - for example in the DP9 mecha games Lightning Strike and Heavy Gear. 

Infinity gives players an "activation pool" of counters equal to the number of troops, but allows a player to use the activations any way he chooses.  I.e. a player with 8 miniatures has 8 activations, but can could choose to spend all of them on a single figure (i.e. one mini activates 8 times in a row) or any combination, up to the total of 8 activations. Choosing how to manage your activations adds a lot of depth to gameplay.  Games like Battlefield: Miniature Modern Warfare and Mayhem take this further by using the same activation "resource pool" idea and penalizing additional activations by the same unit.

A "dice pool" as seen in games like Confrontation, Ronin and Bushido can make melee interesting. In the Conan-eque CROM rules, all actions and movement are governed by the "dice pool" and you can "burn" a dice for a guaranteed success.
The pulpy Conan-esque CROM rules by Matakishi (his website is a fantastic source of wargame inspiration) use a "dice pool" which adds resource management to every action you take

This is often overlooked.  The activation method or initiative system for moving models is often an afterthought in game mechanics. A simple IGOUGO or even an "alternate move" system is equitable method, but completely sacrifices interesting gameplay potential.

The obvious contenders are "reaction" systems like those in Infinity and Tomorrow's War, but it could be as simple as what I call "evil alternate move" - you can choose to activate one of your own units, or force an opponent to activate one of theirs!

There's also the "risk vs reward" system of Song of Blades where you can roll dice to act with a model - more dice means more potential actions, but more risk of failing and passing the turn to the opponent.  GW's Warmaster (and I think Black Powder?) used a similar system - being able to activate units in sequence until a leadership roll is failed makes for interesting risk vs reward decisions.

Activation can be combined with the "resource management" such as in Infinity. The activation/initiative portion of most games have huge potential, as games rarely push beyond the "IGOUGO" or "alternate unit activation" envelope. Making this part of the game exciting and interesting will make the game stand out compared to others.

Potentially clever "command and control" rules could fit in this category but since I avoid games with written orders (laboriously writing stuff down just doesn't "gel" with  my usual modus operandi of pushing models around making pew-pew noises) and ancients and Napoleanics where command and control systems seem common (I find both periods rather bland and cliche, heretic that I am) I don't have a lot of comment to make in this area.

Special Orders
I liked how in Battlefleet Gothic ships or squadrons could (if they passed a leadership test) be given "orders" to boost their speed, agility, defence or firepower.   It was the "X Factor" which made me enjoy a game that was  essentially WW1 naval combat for goths.

Set-Up... and other things
This is an area I had never previously considered until I tried Chain of Command.  The "setup" phase of most wargames usually consists of one side choosing to go first or choosing their table edge and then deploying 12" (or some other predetermined distance) from said table edge.

Chain of Command has a very neat mini-game in which deployment area for troops is determined by maneuvering counters around the tabletop until they are "locked" in place by an enemy counter which comes within range. The position of the counters once they are all "locked" in place then determines potential deployment zones for your troops.  This means deployment is very "organic" and avoids "gamesmanship" where you set up deliberately to counter a particular enemy unit, such as placing your anti-tank guns on a hill directly opposite his tanks. (In an extreme example, I remember a 40K game where one guy spaced his forces out so his enemy (who had only drop-capable troops) had nowhere to "drop" his troops and therefore had to forfeit the game.)

Anyway, kudos to the Two Fat Lardies for this idea, as deployment is given even less consideration than activation and initiative in most rules. 

So - what things give a game "zing" for you - what is the "X factor" or "fifth element" that makes a game stand out beyond the "usual" Movement-Missile-Melee-Morale mechanics?


  1. Interesting series of articles. For what it's worth I like resource management in a game. I love the new Lardies deployment rules. I like the ability to react to what your opponent does but I would like it to be more limited than in Tomorrow's War, perhaps half as many reactions as you have troops, something like that.

    1. Interestingly, the Tomorrow's War rules DO bog down despite their simple premise. The underlying mechanics are simple but....

      I review a LOT of rules, and the average book has ~30 pages of rules, and 30+ pages of other stuff - army lists, fluff etc. In some of the mass market games, its well over 100+ pages of "other stuff."

      A typical AAG ruleset has 130+ pages of rules. Then, maybe 100+ pages of other stuff. That's over 4x more actual rule content than the norm!

      I enjoy the Tomorrow's War (my "goto" 15mm sci fi set) but it is far from as simple and smooth-flowing as it seems "on paper."

    2. I'd agree with your opinion on TW. They claim it's very simple and you only have the troop quality and morale dice to use but by the time you have units with multiple special abilities it gets just as complicated as something like 40K! It isn't as clear to use as I first though but having said that it's still a very good game and the one I tend to play most often.

    3. Along with Infinity, probably my most played game as well. 15mm sci fi ftw!

      I always sell these rules as being "realistic" and "tactical" - definitely not simple! I always have to look up rules on CC assaults/vehicle attacks, despite having played game for ages....

  2. One of the few mechanisms I liked about a GW rules set was the Fate/Will/Might ratings for heroes in their Lord of the Rings series. Not exactly Nobel Prize ideas, but these were basically extra or reroll points that could be used to make an attack more certain,give a possible save, or enhance a magical attack/defence. When I was playing these rules a lot with my teenage son I was always impressed by his ability to use this rule at critical moments, and it made the game seem more fun than it really was.

    1. Great minds....

      ...I've actually already included LOTR in another article (not yet published).

      You've given a perfect example of the "5th element."

      A little OT - I found "Might" was underused for one of its most game-changing traits - the ability to move and fire units out of sequence. (i.e activation AND resource management)

  3. I think the style of system you use will greatly depend upon the type of game your designing , the better systems IMO are those that have have a command based activation mixed with action points that allows you to activate a couple of models at a time keeping the game fluid and fully allowing for reactive actions. The issue with this is it will quickly become way to complicated the more the system scales.

    For wargames I am loving All quiet on the Martian fronts 20mm scale - big enough for painting details but small enough for Real armies. Sadly I missed the kickstarter so have to wait for Alien Dungeon to finish making it. ready for general release.

    I also cannot stand fixed/standardised Ma rates models should be able to have different Movement ranges, and planning the use of that movement to out smart your opponent is an area of gaming I hate that the mainstream systems are trying to take away that and pre measuring - but I wont start a flame war on that subject. :p


    1. I DO like 20mm - but the problem is terrain (I already have 6mm, 15mm and 28mm) and I'm to keen on starting a new scale. The ability to gel with cheap 1:72 model kits is awesome though.

      I'm ambivalent on pre-measuring. Being to halt exactly 1" from enemy weapon range or charge range and be "immune" is stupid, but so is the idea that soldiers would be utterly ignorant of the effective range of their weapons or the distance they can run in a set amount of time.

  4. I have just been reading your various games design posts and you seem to be echoing many thoughts I have put up on Quirkworthy in the discussion threads, its actually shocking how close to what I have said over the last year on there to what your saying here, I feel we are very much on the same path of thought when it comes to games design though sadly such a philosophy is very Unfashionable currently as games are pushing further and further way from it almost to board game level lack of depth.

    Thanks Crimsonsun

    1. I think there are a lot of like-minded people out there. I was just sent a few articles by Richard Clarke of TFL, from a wargame magazine. He even used some of the exact same analogies I did! (and whilst I own his rules, I have never been in contact with nor read his articles before now.... I was pretty shocked. Obviously the British are smart too - they just can't play cricket!)

    2. Actually saying "a boardgame lack of depth" may be a disservice to boardgames - I have friends who are into them, and some are far more "deep" and involving than the average wargame, with far more "decision points" and far less time spent die rolling.

      I think the main reason wargames are getting simpler is a push by MINIATURES MANUFACTURERS and is linked directly to sales strategies.

  5. This is geared more toward starship games than the ground-pounding sort. Would you consider energy allocation like in Starfleet Battles to be Special Orders? Resource Management? Something else? I thought "resource management" initially, but most of your examples are things that can be assigned to multiple units or don't come from any particular one.

    Even though the theme and mechanics are different, energy allocation and special orders often serve equivalent purposes in a game's overall design. They allow a unit more flexibility without just being better at everything, and they add more decision points (hopefully interesting ones). For example, Renegade Legion: Leviathan straddles the line between allocation and orders. You don't have fine control of every energy point. Your only choices are "double thrust/0 guns", "normal thrust/1 gun", and "no thrust/2 guns". Depending on how the rulebook is written, I can see this mechanic being presented as either Element.

    The orders in BFG and actions in X-Wing/Attack Wing are clearly Special Orders, but they offer tradeoffs between offense, defense, and movement that are similar to what you can achieve in SFB by varying your energy allocation among weapons, shields, ECM/ECCM, and engines.

  6. I'd definitely consider "energy allocation" to be a "X factor" addition that gives depth to the game.

    Your Renegade Legion example is a good one - it adds "depth" and "decision points" without having to track every energy point (a la SFB). Likewise BFG (a very underrated game).

    They offer a layer of strategy (or "tradeoffs") you need to make, beyond the normal vanilla Move-Shoot-Melee-Morale mechanics.

  7. I have just released a set of WW2 rules, from the comments above I think you would like them. Contact me at Veni Vidi Vici if you would like a copy.

    The one thing that we disagree on is scale of firing to scale of figures. Just think of figures as game markers, play with whatever markers you want, The game remains the same and yes we are playing games.

    1. "The one thing that we disagree on is scale of firing to scale of figures. Just think of figures as game markers, play with whatever markers you want."

      Indeed. I tend to swap out 28mm for 15mm if playing the usual 24" rifle, 6" move rules, simply so it does not look like the bullets do not magically disappear 50 yards from the .303 muzzle.

      "The game remains the same and yes we are playing games."

      I agree. However I would expect a difference in firing and moving ratios between a WW2-themed game and a Napoleonic one, for instance, and for different tactics to apply.

    2. "I have just released a set of WW2 rules, from the comments above I think you would like them. Contact me at Veni Vidi Vici if you would like a copy."

      Oh - and congratulations, btw! Releasing a game is a tremendous achievement. Well done for your hard work.

      Is this a skirmish game (10 minis), platoon + (Bolt Action) or company+ (FoW) as I currently only have single-based minis available at the moment.
      I can roughly test mechanisms using 6mm scale or card cutouts but there would be no shiny AAR.

      Only Veni Vidi Vici I know is the decals/stickers folk. Is that you?
      Alternatively email me on maj underscore lovejoy at hotmail dot com

  8. Commenting in on an old thread, but hey;) The first 5th element I came across was just after I moved from 40K to historical battles (never looked back either). "The Clash of Armor" set of rules had a "fatique" option where you could push your units further by gaining fatique. Each consequtive order after the first that caused fatique would be harder to get, so the max extra actions you'd get would be around 2, sometimes 3 for german units with very skilled leaders.

    This meant that you could get some of your units to a safe place or make a push for a strategic peace of terrain. The downside were that they would require some time after this push to recover from the fatique..

    This has been a pet peeve of mine when I have been reading rules and whenever I have tried to make my own. I really like the idea of being able to push your troops (at a cost of course).

    1. In my home rules I've been experimenting with this
      (a) allowing a unit to reserve an action to spend in the next turn
      (b) suppression/stress removing actions
      (c) a LOTR-style might which can be used for various boosts

      I like the red (health) blue (mana) green (stamina) of RPGs and I've been using red/blue/green counters in my fantasy games - in a sort of binary system where if you fail a mana roll, say, you get a blue token and cannot do spells unless you spend an action to restore it (or perhaps trade a fatigue/health token)