Thursday 15 January 2015

Game Design #20 "Realism" Revisited

I often mention how gamers confuse realism with complication.  A game does not have to choose between being simple OR realistic. They aren't opposites.  Here are some antonyms which I will be using, as I revisit this topic in more detail:

Realistic =v= Unrealistic
Simple =v= Complicated
Playable =v= Unplayable
Detailed =v= Abstract
Consistent =v= Inconsisten

Having defined the issue in a previous post, I'd like to break it down into smaller parts:

Realistic vs Unrealistic Results
Does the results of a particular move/action reflect how it would have happened on the battlefield?
You'd expect a WW2 cavalry charge to fare poorly against Panzers.   A hull-down tank should be harder to damage (and shoot more accurately) than one trundling along in the open.  A medieval army in a castle can defend more easily than one in open ground. A musket volley would not mow people down at 300m.  In fact, "realism" it is more a synonym for "common sense."

A game can give realistic results without consulting 3 charts, applying six modifiers from Appendix C including the gunner's martial status and the amount of coffee the target drank that morning.   The focus should be on the result (realistic vs unrealistic) not the process (which should be simple/quick vs complicated).

For example, many fantasy games allow bows to fire-AND-move, and crossbows fire-OR-move.  The outcome - it effectively gives bow armed units higher maneuverability/rate of fire, and simulates the long reload of a crossbow.   You COULD allows crossbows to fire-AND-move, but track which individual crossbows have fired or haven't, and make them spend a turn to reload.  However the second method (though it has the same result) is less playable and has more complication.

Realistic vs Unrealistic: Perfect awareness, perfect control, perfect precision
Would real commanders from that era have the "God's-Eye View" perfect awareness we have on the table, knowing exactly the location and status of each of their own (and each enemy) unit? How do the rules recreate "fog of war"

Can you always do what you plan, without interruption from an obliging enemy? For example, IGOUGO, with its clearly defined "turns", ability to co-ordinate moves without interruption whilst enemies stand around, hands in pockets, is a clear enemy of "realism."

Did historical battles always go the way commanders predicted?
"Action in war is like movement in a resistant element.  Just as the simplest and most natural form of movements, walking, cannot easily be performed in water, so in war it is difficult for normal efforts to achieve even the most moderate results.” von Clausewitz

 Are you guaranteed of being able to carry out your plans precisely to the nearest 0.5"?   Shooting (dice based) is unpredictable, but what about movement? What about the activation order - is it realistic to expect you always your units when and where you want, every time?

Realistic vs Unrealistic:  Does the game emphasize/reward the tactics of the era?
A Dark Ages game would emphasizes shieldwalls and melee.    A modern game should include lots of fire-and-maneuver, with troops laying down suppressive fire. Hand to hand combat would be less likely. A blackpowder game would include tight ranks of troops firing volleys by rank.
If a modern game made it both safe to charge into melee, and tactically rewarding to do so, it would be unrealistic.

Complicated vs Simple Process (how it gets done)
Sometimes games focus on exactly what troops are doing (process).  I know a lot of my games from the 80s had the exact armour and gun size (to the nearest millimetre), modified by the angle, wind direction, weather etc. Vehicles came in 5-6 "sizes" of target.
I think this a problem - many gamers who grew up in this era are confusing the process with the result.  You don't need a complicated process to get a realistic result.

Complicated vs Simple: Does the game focus on the important bits?
Sometimes games spend too long on what is relatively unimportant or the 'rare exception.'
A WW2 aerial game need not devote 3 pages to "bailing out" rules (it's too complex and detailed= it's not a parachute simulator) but should have an emphasis on pilot skill, awareness and energy management.  A squad-level skirmish game where everyone has radios may not need rules for "communication checks."  Do the rules spend too long talking about unimportant stuff?    I tell students "a good summary is like a bikini - it shows you quite a lot yet covers only what is necessary." The same goes for wargame rules.

Complicated vs Simple: Know what to Leave Out
A good set of rules knows what can be abstracted. For example, most skirmish rules do not track ammo consumption. Is this a correct decision?  If a soldier has enough rounds to last the skirmish, then it is completely realistic to ignore this.  If the time scale is longer (say 1 minute) the time to reload a modern rifle (seconds) is so tiny in comparison it makes sense to abstract this. In a platoon+ level game you should not have to give commands to individual solders - it seems sensible to presume (and abstract) that, if fired on, soldiers will take cover without having to be ordered to a specific stance (go prone etc).

Complicated v Simple: Does the player micromanage beyond their level?  
I think the command level is actually very important for determining the detail and complication which is acceptable/necessary. Are players making decisions far in excess of their historical role? (too much detail which can bog things down and is unrealistic) What are the maneuver units?

Player as Squad leader = control fire teams, individual soldiers
Player as Platoon leader = control squads, maybe some fire teams
Player as Company leader = control platoons, squads, maybe support fire teams

A company commander would be interested if a squad was in cover or not. If Private Parts is hanging out an upper floor window, flaunting himself to snipers, this might bother his squad leader. However his company commander would simply know the entire squad is in cover.  Rules detailing the antics of individual soldiers would be unnecessary detail and complication to a company level game (and unrealistic to boot).  They're just hitpoints for the squad, essentially.

Simple vs Complicated: Poorly Written Rules
A personal bugbear for me is exceptions to rules:
A spear gives a +1 bonus except against elephants, chariots, foot infantry with shields, foot infantry without shields, camels, and sharks with laser beams attached to their heads.

Another form of exceptions is the "special rule" - one that makes a unit special, abilities like "Stealth."  However, they tend to get out of hand (Infinity has over 180, and they can interact with each other) which makes a game complicated and difficult to remember.

Consistency is important to keep things simple.  Inconsistent games which use many different mechanics and methods of resolving actions (like Bag the Hun) also make things more complicated.  Two Fat Lardies are a good example. Their rules usually strive for "realism" and "simplicity" but are often very inconsistent.

Sometimes writers are just not clear in presenting ideas - such as when they don't avoid double negatives.  A dense wall of text or the layout can put make rules less accessible - I've tried to test and review the WW2 platoon game Arc of Fire a few times but each time I've lost patience with the rulebook itself.   Unconventional mechanics benefit from diagrams and gameplay examples which are not as widespread as they should be.

Simple vs Complicated: Poor Game Design
Why are games complicated?  So we seem more sophisticated if our friends ask us about our game using toy soldiers...

Tradition.  Sometimes rules are a certain way because of tradition in that genre, rather than any merit in the approach. Hmm, I think I might do a post on "influential" wargames sometime...

Charts?  Because of my background with 80s WRG games and similar, I tend to think charts = complicated.  I think most designers also make that link, and charts are out of fashion. However sometimes a chart is an effective way of resolving actions.

Resolution of Decisions/Actions
A rule set that requires multiple steps to resolve an action, can add complication.

Stats?  This is another area which designers eschew nowdays, perhaps suffering a backlash from older games with their RPG-like stat lines.  However removing/generalising too many stats in certain genres can actually create more rule exceptions to describe the now-removed stats.

Overusing the D6.  Having only 17% increments means not enough can be done "on the dice." In most games, you end up needing buckets of them, or having to roll a second time (roll 6, then a 5+ to hit). While they have their place, some games are too firmly "wedded" to D6, when a d10 might handle more situations, and allows better balancing of rules, to boot.

Pre-measuring  There are arguments for and against. For example, I'm against guessing artillery ranges (because it's unrealistic to expect a general to personally guess ranges for each individual gun and may give a unhistorical advantage to a good guesser), but pre-measuring can turn the game into an exercise in geometry that is likely unrealistic based on the information which might plausibly be available.  Personally I like unpredictability I can manage.  I've come to appreciate variable moves/activation. You have a good idea of what you can do, but there is no certainties.

A good, realistic wargame can be simple.  It should:

*give detail appropriate for the level and type of game (i.e. squad, platoon, company)
*focus on the key tactics/aspects of warfare of the era - abstract less important stuff
*give realistic results (outcomes) whilst keeping the process simple


  1. Why do I get a lingering feeling you LOVE 5 Men in Normandy/5Core?

    1. I break the "special rules and no stats" rule though :-)

    2. It depends on the genre though. Like charts, there is a time and a place for them. For a modern warfare game where everyone is human, a "skill"and "morale" stat might be all you need. However I feel they have a place in fantasy where the exception IS the rule.

    3. I did a list of favourite rules recently, actually, so you can see what influences me:

      5Core is a solid game, and I think it will REALLY appeal to a particular audience. I.e. those who love it, will really love it.

      For me personally, in the 5-10 figure skirmish bracket I really like Infinity, a clever but overly complex and flawed set of rules, which caters to a whole different audience.

      I haven't played Ivan's platoon level rules yet (my 15mm stuff is boxed up due to a shed renovation) but I'm really looking forward to at as that "style" (and level of abstraction) I think will lend itself well to platoon-level combat.

  2. This is as clear and concise a breakdown of this issue as I've ever read. Great insights, not only in this article but in the whole series. Good stuff. Please keep it coming.

    1. Thanks! I like doing the "wall of text" stuff but I am always a bit concerned it is a bit opinionated/a vanity project - as opposed to more useful rules reviews and terrain articles. It cheers me up to know people don't mind them!

    2. I prefer to think of them as "walls of content" as opposed to just filler.

  3. You can do a lot with the D6 beyond roll it and comparing the score to a threshold like success on 3 or more. Re-rolls are neat, for example, particularly if they're applied in interesting ways like only re-rolling 1s, or 2s, or 1s & 2s. You can roll 1D6 as the tens, and 1D6 as the ones. You can have them 'explode' like roll additional dice on a 6, or a 4+, or whatever. You can roll multiples and add them together for curves, and that's when I'd say "no modifiers" because 4+1 != 5+1 on 2D6. What I'm saying is that people tend to be uncreative about what to do with dice, and the range of results available.

    1. I think the trend towards "buckets of dice" i.e. roll 10 dice, score hits on 5,6 - is that adding more dice, is a smaller increment than adding 1 to a single dice.

      In most cases though, they require (as you say) more re-rolls. Which adds to complication and resolution time. D6 aren't bad, but I think designers are too blindly wedded to them, when the game doesn't suit.