Saturday, 14 March 2015

Games Design #33. Influences on Wargames

This was inspired by a recent visit to the M42/Warstrike page.  Basically, Warstrike is an attempt to make a "better 40K" - you know, a totally original idea no one has ever tried to do before.  Admittedly most people try this in their teens and abandon it when it is evident no one wants to play a non-kosher 40K (or those free spirits who do, are willing to play other, better games).

I call this "40K" syndrome.  Everything they do is reflection of 40K. Even when they are trying to do the opposite of 40K, they are still thinking about 40K.  It's a constant benchmark and reference in everything they do.  Quite often you get the feeling they haven't played any other games besides 40K
 (or have, and dismissed it instantly without assimilating any ideas.)  Unsurprisingly, many ex-GW designers fall into this category. (Alessio Cavatore, Rick Priestley)  It's a popular niche, as many mass market games have aimed to emulate 40K's success (Flames of War, Bolt Action).  This emulation can extend to other popular games (Gruntz borrows heavily from Warmachine, for example).

I've noticed I subconsciously classify rule authors into such categories.  I've attempted to articulate a few:

There are the unreformed RPGers, who are influenced by RPGs played in their teens.  They're all about story, and the mechanics/balance can be a bit ropey as that's not their priority.  Expect fluffy campaigns and many, many special rules.    Despite the unusual  mechanics, I'd almost put Infinity in this category (I'm almost certain the designers were ex-RPGers). 

The Tolkien.  This is often an offshoot of  the unreformed RPGer. J.R.R. Tolkien was a great world builder, but only an average author.  The "Tolkien-esque" game designer is in love with his universe and the world he has created.  His wargame is only incidental - just a way of sharing his creations with the world.   Sometimes it is hard to find the game amongst the enthusiastic sharing of "fluff." The Quar series (This Quar's War, Song of Our Ancestors) are good examples of this genre.

15mm hard sci fi is very "Stargrunt" - troops tend to have a quality level, no stats, and an emphasis on morale/suppression.  That's why games like Tomorrow's War translate badly to space fantasy (and skirmish, for that matter) - because it's based off a platoon-company level rules.   Aliens act just like humans in rubber suits.  Weapons tend to act just like modern weapons, with added chrome/fluff.   Remember, when I say "based off" I don't always mean slavishly copied, but that the designer subconsciously had the game at the back of their mind when making their own game. 

Space naval games are all about WW2 in space.  Big ships move slow, as if through water. Fighters move fast, like modern jets. I presume this is because of Star Wars.  They ignore the fact they are both in the same frictionless medium, which dictates other tactics.  The few that buck this trend are too simple/random/rolling of handfuls of d6s (Firestorm Armada and many free rules) or they are super complex 3D sims that are better off on computer.    Space naval games tend to share many traits with WW2 naval, including dozens of hitboxes and an emphasis on the resolution of the players decisions rather than offering many meaningful decisions themselves. Recording the damage and resolving fire is usually the most complex and "deep" part of the game. 

The pet system approach.  This is usually in conjunction with one of the other methods.  This is often when an indie designer stumbles upon a cool or interesting mechanic.  The designer then re-uses it ad nauseam, for every genre under the sun (even ones for which it is not inherently suited).  Two Hour Wargames  and Ganesha Games are prime examples of this, though most smaller PDF published authors like to "play it safe" in this manner.

The amateur historian.  They are usually deeply obsessed about historical accuracy and tend to have a big bibliography of books they researched in the appendices.  Expect lots of little text boxes with historical information/tactics dotting the pages. General Quarters and Too Fat Lardies games are familiar examples.   They can often be confused with:

The wild-eyed philosopher.  These are usually wildly creative individuals who are deeply interested in the "philosophy" of their game. Often contains many offbeat/original mechanics crammed into a game.   Crossfire falls into this category, as does anything by Brent Spivey.

The rivet counter.  These are designers who focus on the resolution of the action, often to a very complex or involved extent.    Every bullet is accounted for, and there are a 100 modifiers to every action from the wind direction to the curry the sniper ate the night before. Usually found in historic games.  Naval wargames seem to collect more than their fair share of these. 

Yahtzee!  These designers are mostly interested in allowing you to push lots of models around on the table - and often say as much.  They often have taken this philosophy from a bad encounter with a set of rivet counter rules.  The problem is that in the pursuit of speed and simplicity, often too much tactical depth is sacrificed.

Stats are Evil/Charts are Evil.  These designers boast about how they simplify their games and eschew all charts and stat lines.  This is usually because of a bad experience in their youth (Wargames Research Group and D&D respectively, in most cases).  They simply replace the stats with 100+ special rules exceptions that actually complicate the game even more; and replace the charts with buckets of dice which take even more time to  resolve.

Results-Orientated.  These players are willing to abstract the rules in unusual ways, but unlike the Yahtzee! authors they have a goal in mind besides simply "fast play."  They often abstract things to simulate a particular aspect of warfare. Sometimes the focus on results can make gameplay a bit jarring. For example, the Bag the Hun rules allows aces to have a double move in order to show how effective they are at getting on the tail of enemies - effectively doubling the move speed of the aircraft that turn (which some players may find odd), but having a result that shows an ace's superior positioning skills.

Rule 1.2.4 or "I play a lot of historical games".  These designers tend to be a bit anal-retentive (due to being scarred by arguments over unit facing/formations/wheeling and prolonged exposure to grumpy Napoleonics players).  Besides numbering their rules (Rule 1.2.5), they are scale agnostic and tend to use "Measure Units" (MU) or some similar euphemism instead of cm or inches like ordinary people.   Obvious in games like Fields of Glory or similar, but even Koncordia (sci fi skirmish) obviously has a historical-minded designer.

The British method.  This is usually a simple set of rules, with a wide, eccentric range of mechanics. It's very inconsistent and not at all "elegant."   The designer has an end goal in mind and just randomly uses whatever mechanics that work.  They have the feel of a set of "house rules" and are often written for a wargaming club/group of buddies and published later.   Too Fat Lardies rules fall into this category. 
 So what's the purpose of this post?
It's to remind us we can fall into a "mindset."   A particular way of doing things/looking at the world.
Each of the approaches has merit, and also its own drawbacks.  I'm sure there's more categories - heck, feel free to suggest more in the comments - but the point is, there are certain patterns a designer can get locked into.  And not every approach works for every situation.

If you can look at the categories and go guiltily "heh, that's me!" - think, what are the drawbacks of that approach?  Do I count every rivet and bog my game down - or do I abstract so much the game seems odd/jarring to the players?  Am I very "British" - perhaps I should restrict myself to only 1-2 types of dice roll?  Have I got carried away writing the fluff?

People are creatures of habit. Rules writers are no different. But it would be great if we can examine those habits from time to time and see if they are all beneficial. 


  1. What you call "the British method" is the one thing that stands out for me about Battlefleet Gothic (but no other GW game I know, and they're British). It has few different weapons, yet they all operate by special rules and/or break standard ones.

    (And a tiny nit: it's "Too Fat Lardies", not "Two".)

  2. Well... it is Too fat lardies but... considering that they recent offerings are extremely well researched, not at all cobbled together, and certainly not inconsistent, maybe he was referencing to something else...

    Said that I think there is a great deal of truth in this post. I have only some minor qualms... in WW2 big ships were not slow or lumbering (Yamato 27 knots full speed, her turning circle smaller than the one of a Fletcher destroyer). It is just a reflection of:

    a) myth and reuse
    b) tactical turning radius (the radius of suggested turning for tactical maneuver that included other thing, more often than not was based on destroyers to allow for them to keep their position in a formation with larger ships)

    But I think a lot of influences are based on what we are trying to do. For example if you, like me, envision (due to a combination off education, experience, personal ideas, exposure to British Army gibberish...) that until the basic relationship between fire and protection will stay the same, science fiction has to be similar to modern platoon/company warfare. Fire is the enabler of maneuver and everything flows from this. Aliens... well aliens are supposed to operate in the same physical world and tactical paradigms. To be honest, if you want to do platoon or company actions even in a science fantasy setting you tend to rely on a contemporary setting and paradigm because if indeed the aliens are so powerful and different probably things will change and you will indeed need a different game approach. If, let's say, the "Gamebreaker" from planet WG have extremely powerful psionic abilities that made our firepower useless what is the point to do a conventional platoon action against them? We humans need to develop counters... or we are out of the game...

    I think a lot of rule writers do not even ask themselves these basic questions and simply go all the way with a game mechanics they like or they think it will be useful (or will sell figures). I do not think it is a coincidence that all rulesets supported by large (largish) figure producers tend to be more or less iteration of the 40k soup.

    1. "Every gamer that fails to understand 40K is doomed to reinvent 40K..poorly" (mangled from an old quote about Unix :) )

    2. I think it is a good quote. There is also the fact that, while there are many ways to skin a cat... there are a definite number of them not an infinite one.

      I think that right now the market tend to be over-saturated by rules that in the end are very similar to certain "role-models". Well sometime it is good (often rules need improvements and similar sets at time build up and improve their role models), but it also lead to over-evolution. A lot of the problem is that few designers set out with the idea: "I want to create this or that world in a plausible and entertaining way (historical, fantasy, or sci-fi)" but rather "this mechanic looks cool".

    3. There's also other constraints, like trying to build a commercially viable product, and figuring out how to monetize those game rules. You know, for support...

    4. define support (there is an interesting conversation on Lead Adventure on that). I assume you mean support = putting out army books to have players spending more... or creating constantly changing environments to have player buying more stuff and revising their lists (I think on this blog the problem has been highlighted in the past).

      I agree that some rules are this way and are conceived to be this way (again copying from role models). One has also to define what is a commercially viable product. It is a product designed to make you filthy rich or at least to support you for an indefinite period of time or something you put out because you think it is valid and can even out expenses? In the former category I would put FoW, WH, and even Bolt Action, but in the latter a lot of rules fall neatly in, including a lot of the latest Osprey offers.

  3. On the money with most of these, and it's kind of fun to go through and see which games fall into which category.
    I certainly see myself in a few of them :-)

    I'd add in "The American" (as a counterpart to the British) - Tournament style army lists, exclusive line of miniatures, written with the assumption that it'll catch on and become a big competitive game even though it probably won't be.

  4. Where do FiveCore and No End/Stars In Sight fit into all this?

    1. Are you asking me or Ivan? I think I'll pass the question along to him :-)

    2. I'd say a mix of "Results oriented" and "Stats are evil" :-)
      As a person, I definitely carry over the Unreformed RPGer, because that's my foundation as a gamer (Those old Fighting Fantasy gamebooks as well).

      No Stars in Sight is my lovesong to "Vietnam in space".

  5. Interesting, very interesting...
    I would have to say that I and Slammer probably fall into the British Method and Hard SF (like Stargrunt) camps. Having said that I can't recall ever playing Stargrunt but I did go through a phase of reading and/or acquiring any rule sets I could find.

    1. I can definitely see a lot of "British Method" in Slammer. Not in a bad way, mind you but it has some of that same "get some tea, get some figures, let's play a game" sort of approach.

    2. A significant part of Slammer's motivation was reaction against 40K and only using the latest authorised figures. We play tested it on Space Hulk corridors with assorted 15/20mm figures, mainly Micro Machines Imperial Storm Troopers and Stan Johansen lizardmen and any aliens figures we could get our hands on. The idea was to get some figures then work out their stats. If one side was losing too heavily, another player could drop in with a squad of reinforcements. I have a tendency to make up a ruling on the spot for any odd situation and I'm not always consistent! Some bits got posted on the support group, then added into the game without adequate testing because I thought they were an interesting idea and wanted to see how they worked. So it's rather a patchwork.

  6. I was working on re-jigging Adeptus Titanicus as a lark, and eventually it morphed into a board game rather than a war-game, mainly because there's only so many interesting ways of playing a wargame. The genre is pretty specific, and I think that's why so many people run into that "Re-invent the Warhammer" wall.

    I think it's also because so many people start from the perspective of simulating something, rather than finding out what's game-able about conflict, so you end up making sets of mechanics for people to count rivets in their own games, rather than starting with important things like terrain, objectives, and choices.

  7. I've played mostly historicals, but now focus on 3 skirmish systems with a regular group: Frostgrave, Song Of ..., Pulp Alley.

    I've pretty much given up on inventing battle rules, though I have a couple of sport related boardgames under development (The phase that never ends).

    I read this post with horror as I recognised myself in 5 or more of the design styles.
    I shall ask the nurse to increase my medication.

    1. If you still dabble, check out!forum/delta-vector7

      There's always playtest rules and ideas that could do with input...