Friday 16 January 2015

Game Design #23: Enjoyable or Innovative Mechanics Part 1 (Setup/Activation)

Do you have a game where you think something is just done really well?  Some aspect of the game, be it a clever initiative/activation, a cool way of resolving combat, or a good magic or morale system.

If you regularly read my reviews, this will also enable you to predict the "tone"of each section.  Basically red = ugh, not this again, yellow = solid, green = has potential/usually interesting. 

This seldom sees anything too interesting - it's a bit of an unexplored area for designers.  No, min-maxing an army list based on something you read on the forums is NOT what I am talking about.

1. STANDARD.  Players roll to see who chooses the board edge, who places their minis in what order and who goes first.  Both sides place their models a set distance from the table edge (usually under 12") unless they have some sort of special rule shenanigans that allows them to paratroop in later. This is so standard I don't ever bother to comment on this in reviews: it's a given.  If it ain't broke, I guess... ...only I now expect more ever since:

2.  CHAIN OF COMMAND. Yes, this game got it's own section. It's the "name brand" of deployment phrases, as you would.  Both players maneuver tokens about on the table in a "scouting" mini-game. Once the tokens come into contact with enemy tokens they are "locked" into place.  This then determines the possible "deployment points" of each sides' miniatures and the game begins. Deployment is thus both skill-based and organic.
1. IGOUGO. Really, again?  This is for control freaks who like to move and shoot without interruption while their enemies stand around having a coffee and a fag.  Unrealistic, and kinda boring unless you like having an hour coffee/loo break during your opponents' turn.  Straight to the bottom of the rules pile.  Very few decisions to make.

2. Alternate Move. Ah, we've progressed as far as Chess.  They did discover this 2000 years ago though, so Games Workshop may move on to this sometime soon. Still a bit predictable and mechanical, but way more interactive than IGOUGO, and players are equally involved through the turn.  I rate this as acceptable but not that impressive.

3. Card Based.
  Ah, the standard random move.  "Lawful Chaos."  You shuffle up cards, and when your unit's card is pulled, it must act.  Old school. Probably British.   Very unpredictable - you can only plan from turn-to-turn.  Whether I like it depends on how and for what genre it is implemented. I like it when you can keep a card for later - which become more a managed activation.

4. "Managed" Activation (tm).  In the first three cases, when you move is largely decided for you - be it randomly, or in sequence. Managed activation means you make choices that influence how/when your turn ends.  It gives a player a lot more decisions to make. A sub-category I enjoy I'd call the forced activation - when you force an opponent move a particular unit/min.

Song of Blades: You choose how many dice to roll, and thus how many potential actions. If you get greedy (and fail) your turn ends, even if you have models yet to act.

Battlefield:MMW:  You have a pool of command points to activate your units with (a bit like DBA 'pips').  You can activate a unit more than once, but each time it costs more, i.e. 1CAP for the first activation, 2CAP for the 2nd, 3CAP for the 3rd, etc.

7TV:  You simply can only choose half your models to move. Although nominally IGOUGO, it forces more decisions upon the player.

5. Multiple/Extra Reactions.  This is included in activation as this involves activating - usually shooting, sometimes moving - in your opponents' turn, usually multiple times.  This is a step beyond normal "overwatch" when you  "save" your action by not acting in your turn (which is more a managed activation).  Gives a player a lot more decisions.

Infinity. You get to react with every single model in LoS of an activating enemy. Every time.  For every enemy model.  Often you're busier in your opponents' turn than your own.

Tomorrow's War. You get to react to enemies in LoS, but at steadily decreasing effectiveness each time. 

6. Hybrids.  Many rules sets are hybrids of one or more of the above.

One of my "approved" GW games, LOTR has IGOUGO-AltMove-Managed: side A moves all troops, then side B moves all troops, side A shoots with all troops, side B shoots with all troops, etc - but heroes can interrupt (manage) the turn by spending might points.

As you can see, I tend to prefer initiative/activation sequences that place the most decision-making upon the player.  Choosing how/when to activate should be every bit as important as choosing who to fire at. 

Over to the blog lurkers.  What are your favourites?  Feel free to nominate a game - heck, create a new category - and explain what it does/why you like it.  
(The focus is setup and activation.  We'll cover combat, movement and morale at a later stage). 


  1. I am a convert of the Managed Activation system, but also enjoy the dice based system of Bolt Action. For very chaostic games like WW1 and 2 aerial I like the Lardies style card activation where you never know when different elements will move or fire (which are delineated in the cards as seperate actions)

  2. Where does stuff like Warmaster, Crossfire, and Epic Armageddon fall in the activation/initiative scale here?

    1. Epic (presume Warmaster is similar): You take turns activating, but you can take 2 in a row if you roll above Ldr.

      Crossfire: You keep taking actions until an opponent stops you.

    2. So under multiple-actions/reactions?

    3. Epic: Alt Move + managed?
      Crossfire: reactions, also managed?

    4. Hello everyone!
      WARMASTER has a IGOUGO style turn with a variabile duration.
      Before the first turn both players roll a D6 with highest roll going first and then alternate.
      The activation is managed by the characters in the army, who roll under their leadership to order a unit to move and, if successful, it is possible for them to try to move the unit again and again, with increased difficulties for additional orders and distance from the commander. In case of failure the turn of that character is finished, but you may go on with other heroes and different units.
      Your general has the highest leadership, so gives you the highest chances to get important orders done. The reverse of the medal is that when you fail with the general the turn is finished and other minor commanders cannot be used (even if they did nothing until then). So usually the general is kept last to go.
      It is also possible to have units act by their own initiative reacting at the approaching enemy, possible reactions are fire or evade, but some unit could have different rules. Ferocious close combat units must charge for example. If a unit reacts by initiative she cannot then also receive orders.
      After movement you resolve fire and then melee for units in contact.
      Meanwhile the opponent is idle, he at most has to react to charges.

  3. Iron and Honor's Activation is nice: You have a D6 for each model, as does your opponent. These dice are placed in an opaque container, you draw a dice on your turn. Owner of the dice then activates. Alternatively, burn a resource to steal initiative.

    1. The pulling dice out is simply a "random card draw" variant (Bolt Action uses this)... but the burning a resource sounds interesting!

      I think I've come across the game somewhere - it's a freebie on the net, right?

    2. Ayuh. It's over at I'm fairly new to wargames, really, so it's likely that I&H covers ground well tread in other rules systems.

  4. No End In Sight has an interesting hybrid activation system. It is based on alternate activation but you can repeatedly activate the same squad leader in a game turn. When activating, you roll 1d6 to find out how many action points you have available to spend. Each activation adds one point of "stress" to that leader, and stress is subtracted from the action point roll. This adds more choices to the basic alternate activation (who to activate, how much stress to accumulate, what to do with action points.)

    On the solo play side of things, I prefer random move systems because, at the same time, they remove the need for me to decide activation order for the "enemy" and force me to adapt my plans. Sacre Bleu has a particular "flavor" of random move: on each game turn you roll 1d6 to see what kind of action is allowed on that turn: your figures move, enemy figures move, your figures may make ranged attacks, enemy may make ranged attacks, both sides fire or one (random) side makes a sort of morale check. It is chaotic but I find it entertaining.

    1. Over the last 6 months (new baby) I've drifted out of touch (and had several friends move) so solo gaming mechanisms are interesting me more and more.

      I admit I've begun playing more videogames than before and am considering boardgames and phone apps I would have once scorned.

  5. I like fistful of lead's activation
    its card based but each unit is not asigned a card
    each person gets a playing card for each model they have
    you go down through the values starting with kings
    so anyone with a king can use that card to activate a unit
    then you see if anyone has any queens, then jacks etc
    aces are wild
    some cards have special abilities jacks have combat bonuses queens let you recover wounds 6s help with reloading, 2s let you shott twice for 1 action

    you can see your cards and see who needs what and what cards are near each other enabling you to maybe coordinate

    1. That sounds better than random card based - "managed activation." That adds a layer of interesting depth. The name sounds familiar. I wonder if I had it during my wild west 'phase' a few years ago. Some games had crazily detailed hit locations so I ended up playing the LOTR mod Legends of the Old West - I'm a philistine, I know!

  6. I liked the pre-game sequence of PBI with the recon phase and gambling on whether to provide more recon or take the initiative.
    It's almost a game in itself though so it takes a little while.

    1. Is PBI the game which uses squares? (Some British company I think? Peter Pig or QRF)

    2. Yeah, PP. I've only played once or twice since the square mechanic never quite worked out for us but they always have an interesting setup for their games.

    3. I liked that part, too. It's an interesting mechanic to let recon units actually affect the game. But I only played it once because of the squares, too! Might be worth taking another look just for this mechanic.

  7. FiveCore uses a nice hybrid. It's an IGOUGO, but each turn starts with a die roll. Normally, you can activate and use half your force. But 1/6 of the time you can move all your figures, but not shoot, and then your opponent does the same. And 1/6 of the time you can shoot with anybody that has LOS, and then your opponent does the same. You can can plan, generally, but on a regular basis your plans have to change, and on 1/3 of your opponent's turns, you get to do something too.

    And FUBAR uses the same sort of mechanic that the Song Of family does - activate units in any order you want, but the first unit that fails its activation roll ends your turn.

    One game I'd love to try is Piquet, if I understand correctly it uses a card activation system, but not the way you normally see it. You dice for which side has the initiative and then each general gets order cards that he can distribute (or not). You'll never get to order each unit, and some cards let the guy without initiative interrupt the active player. So you wind up with a highly fluid system where you never have full control over your little dudes. Sort of like the Two Hour Wargame system, but designed for mass battle.

    1. ^ Now I know why Ivan likes to hang around in the comments section!
      (On a serious note, kudos with your success, Ivan - it's nice to see someone do well - especially one who might actually vary their game engine from time to time *cough* Ganesha *cough*)

      I keep hearing good things about Piquet, but tend to associate it with the big-battalions and boring blocks of troops era so I've never tried it.

    2. Thanks! They are of course all paid shills paid with the MILLIONS I make from games ;)

    3. I suspected. Well, Andrea Sfiligoi from Ganesha now makes rules full time, so there you go. You already have a game engine or two, now you just need to adapt them to EVERY period of warfare ever.

    4. Hah :)
      This is actually my "real" job now, though it's so far working out to more of a part-time job though that leaves time to actually be an involved parent so I can't complain at all.

      How does caveman skirmish and division level cold war sound?

      (In all honestly, post-apocalypse is next since it's a shoe in for the fivecore approach)

  8. I'm good for division level cold war but would consider caveman skirmish if I could find minis for it.

    On a serious note, areas which suffer from poor rules (i.e. plenty of models, poor rules) are:

    Spaceship gaming (which inspired my first "theory"post and also a half-finished game).* Ironically, it's probably easier to access through Martin's site:

    *The bit that might interest you is the "game design" bit. There is a market for a non-traditional (i.e. NOT lots of record keeping, wet-navy-in-space) space game, and LOTS of minis that can go with it. Most people are using Full Thrust from the 80-90s.

    *Another "opportunity area" is aeronef - a bit more niche, but Brigade Models have a huge mini line and the rules are bad. So bad I've adapted Battlefleet Gothic/Man of War to play it.

    Both areas are niche but there's plenty of opportunity to become the "monopoly" system.

    And of course, the oft-discussed Mordhiem/Necromunda successor. A lot have aimed and missed, but all the indies try to put their own spin/philosophy on it and end up being too radically different. Perhaps it merely needs a "make 40K better" ruleset like we made in our teens, only polished, balanced and official looking.

  9. You know what someone should make? (maybe one day..).
    A space ship game inspired heavily by the old GW "Space Marine" rules. Simple saving throws for most ships, damage tables for the big ones (more like a critical hit table than a big record sheet) and let people put like 50 ships on the table with they want.

    1. The only commerical set at the moment is Firestorm Armada, and the clix games. There is quite a few people who play using smaller scale minis.

      There are a few fast play space games but they tend to have all the tactical depth of yahtzee.

    2. Starfire - hex based but easy enough to use miniatures. One hit fighters anything bigger has a left to right damage track starting with shields and working into the bowels of the ship. Even the biggest Super Dreadnoughts are manageable.

  10. For A Fantasy Game I prefer and order activation based IGoUGo, so that the quality of the general and his range to the unit he is commanding determines how many orders an action costs. Leading from the front then is efficient but dangerous, as like Chess when the king dies the game is over.

    In a Sci-Fi game I prefer something more fluid. Infinity works well, but I am also experimenting with an action point system for a game I am developing. I like both. What I don't like for Sci-Fi is IGoUGo.

  11. For both setup and initiative, I nominate Mobile Frame Zero: Rapid Attack. It’s unique in many ways beyond the obvious one, which is that all units and terrain are made of LEGOs and physically disassembled when damaged. The important one here is that the rules are fundamentally designed to support up to five players in a free-for-all.

    All players have a running score which is dynamically recalculated every time a flag changes hands or a mech blows up. Highest score is the Defender, lowest is Point Attacker, everyone else is an ordinary Attacker.

    Setup goes something like:
    1 Defender places all his flags and two of his mechs anywhere, so long as they’re all close.
    2 Starting with Point Attacker, all Attackers take turns placing one mech each. The very first has to be right at maximum shooting range to a Defender unit. The rest have to be farther.
    3 Starting with Point Attacker, all Attackers take turns placing one flag each. They can go anywhere.
    4 The Defender places his remaining mechs anywhere.

    But initiative is more interesting. At the start of the turn, all mechs become ready. Initiative starts with the Defender, who can either activate one of his unspent mechs or pass initiative to the player with the next-highest score, who must either activate or pass, and so on. Eventually a mech will activate -- i.e. move and/or shoot -- then initiative reverts to the Defender (who may be different now, since scores are always in flux!) and the cycle starts over. Repeat until all mechs are spent…

    Except that if the active mech shoots at a mech that hasn’t activated yet, that mech activates next instead of the initiative resetting. (And if that mech shoots another unspent mech, the chain keeps going.) In fact, the target mech actually does a partial activation during the triggering mech’s attack, because another feature of the game is that mech defense values are random from turn to turn and aren’t set until it activates. So if you choose to shoot something that hasn’t activated yet (say, with the intent of destroying it before it gets a shot off), you have the twin stymies of A) not knowing how hard it’s going to be to hit, and B) needing to commit to your attack strength allocation before the defender rolls and allocates his system dice, which gives him better information than you had on whether he needs to spend his white “wildcard” dice on defense or whether he can save them for something else.

  12. On an unrelated note, many paragraphs in this post used black letters on a dark gray background. It's...not an easy read.

    1. Not sure how to fix that, actually. :-/ My attempt to adjust it just made the text vanish...

  13. CoC dice activation random, but managed giving interwoven turns. In fact you can play a whole game without getting to the end of turn one.