Friday 31 July 2015

Game Design #49: Musings about Activation Pools & Resource Management

Most game designers are now aware that IGOUGO doesn't cut it anymore.   They (in the least) do alternating units (like Chess discovered 2000 years ago) and most are experimenting with other ways to activate troops.

I think a lot of promise lies with combining activation with resource management (another currently "new" concept), you know, like the PIPs from DBA-esque games from the 80s.  

I'd like to highlight my two favourite systems I've seen recently.

Good = Robotech: Tactics
...may have had the most fiddly minis I've ever had the misfortune to assemble (basically a 1:72 Revell modelling project in 1:285 - i.e. 6mm - scale), but I did like the ideas in their activation system.   Basically, it was stock alternate move, and each model got the usual move/shoot action, but you got Command Tokens (=1 per model) which you could spend any way you want.  You could attempt to steal an activation, dodge or mitigate incoming fire, move extra range (afterburners) - it gave a complete new layer of resource management and activation choices, elevating a otherwise bland set of rules.  And the pool of tokens (kept off table) is easy to track, adding a lot of depth to the game for very little complication/slowing of play.

Good = Lords & Servants
...this medieval game has some unusual mechanics, but I thoroughly approve of their activation system.  Each player gets 3d6 of activation "tokens."   You can keep up to 6 of them to use in reaction to your opponent in his turn.  This adds an interesting decision right off the bat - how many points do I keep to mess with my opponent in his turn?   Units then have an activation cost equal to that of the leader and a single mini i.e. a group of 5 AV2 troops + a AV2 leader would cost 4AP to move - 2 for the group and 2 for the leader.  Moved individually, they would cost 12AP - using leaders is thus optional but very attractive. These rules create a lot of decisions on how to best to move leaders in order to the most economically employ 'grunts' in a way that is organic rather than "forced."  Also, units may make extra activations, but at an increasing cost i.e. the 1st action might cost 1AP, the 2nd action 2AP, and the 3rd action 3AP.  So there's another cost-vs-reward to factor in - do I move a second time, at an increased cost?  The activation pool and the way Lords & Servants have used it create a lot of decisions for the player. 

Meh = Bolt Action
Basically you have a token for each unit, and draw them randomly out of a cup to show who moves next.  Basically a randomised "alternate move" that sits somewhere between card-based activation and alternate move. A bit meh. It's got the same tokens as the first two examples, but there's no "resource management" or extra decision points being introduced.

But wait....
I've been thinking about ways you could add depth to it.

1. You can "set aside" tokens next to a model to store an action (aka overwatch) to react to enemies. Ok, nothing new here. Bolt Action sort of does that already. But what about....

2. You can use these "set aside" tokens to do a group move with a group of minis who are within a certain cohesion distance. This means a group move might take a while to collect and "build up" enough tokens to move all the guys you want to, and enemies could kind of see it coming.   

3. A "leader" would allow a group move without buildup. I.e. you only need one token to activate  the leader, then you move as many as you want within cohesion distance.  Of course, you'd then have to remove some tokens remaining in the cup equal to the extra minis you moved.  This makes leaders useful, as they can spontaneously order group actions without waiting to "build up" enough tokens. 

Why Don't Actions "Carry Over?"
Most rules have a section saying "any unused actions/moves/shots etc are lost and do not carry over until next turn." But why not?  Yes, you would need some way to track this.  But we're already using tokens on the tabletop from the example above, so let's add:

4. One unused token can be used to give a model an extra action in their next move. So you can "build up" or "store" momentum.  This represents models psyching themselves up for a charge, or pausing to collect themselves.  That way you could store momentum in a "lull" to spend it later in a frantic attack. 

There. The tokens, which were only serving as a random activation, are now clearly a "resource" to be managed.  Hmm. Might work for my homebrew medieval rules, actually.

Anyway, those are some samples of resource management-meets-activation, and an example of how random activation tokens like in Bolt Action could be adapted to add an element of resource management to a game.

....I've got some further thoughts on resource management but it's my 2 year old's bedtime*... another day, perhaps.  (*Am I the only one who thinks Dr. Seuss was definitely on drugs back in the 60s?)


  1. Some interesting mechanics there indeed, interesting. The Robotech one sounds very good indeed. EW etc could then add additional tokens for different actions perhaps

    IMO, activation also needs to reflect Leadership and Training. 1941 Russians operated very differently to the Germans, for example. This can also be reflected in unit organisation. For example in "Battlegroup Kursk" a Russian infantry squad operates as a whole group, needing one order to move or fire. The better trained German Squads are spit into a LMG team and a smaller Rifle team. It needs 2 orders to activate them both (though the German usually gets more orders through better Leadership) but it allows the LMG to fire and suppress the target while the rifle group move separately and assault. Thus, the better small unit tactics and training is reflected in organisation but also delves into C2 and resource management (orders)

    Of course there balance is finding new decision points for players without inducing 'analysis paralysis' or slowing game play down excessively.

    1. Another very interesting example is Infinity, which I think you'd find interesting. (I think I've mentioned it before - but download the free quickstart rules - they are not complicated like the main rules - the modern homebrew rules I'm fiddling with which you've read simply simplifies them/adjusts them slightly)

      You get a similar "pool" of activations (1 per mini) which you can spend any way you want (i.e. even activate the same mini 10x until he is stopped, a la Crossfire) however Irregular troops can only use their own activation and do not contribute their token to the pool - giving irregular forces a distinct flavour.
      Impetuous forces allow for free actions as long as they are offensive/toward the enemy.

      You also get "commander" activations that allow you to form fire teams and act simultaneously (very useful in a game with strong and unlimited reactions).

      It's the most extreme of the dice-pool activation mechanics, and well worth a look for anyone interested in game mechanics.

  2. PS I recently visited the Dr Seuss statue garden in Massachusetts and I agree with your analysis...

  3. Dr Seuss gave me nightmares as a kid. He not only took drugs, but certainly those kinds of drugs you only see in movies like fear and loathing in las vegas...

    Id love to hear more about your homebrew infinity rules. Ive been looking for ages for something less 40kish for my 15mm scifi collection. Recently read 5Parsecs away and found it quite refreshing, though a bit too simple. Ive difficulties to see how Really alien aliens can be put into i (maybe the author, who I think is a reader here, sees the potential in including a barbarian space ork-race, a space elf-race, some bugish aliens and a deep one/not-genestealer cult) :)

    Lords and Servants sounds interesting too. But doesnt all this math slow the game down too much?

    1. Do you have the 2nd edition FiveCore rules or the original ones? I added a bunch of alien traits and weirdness in 2nd edition :)

      Though I tend to be pretty minimalist when I play scifi games. Humans in rubber suits as they were.

    2. Hello Ivan, nice to have you respond. I bought the rules pretty much right after they were available. So i guess I have just the 1st ed.

      Well human in rubber suits habe their own charm (give me Lane Mastodon vs. The Leather Goddesses of Phobos any time, Baby!), but from time to time, it nice to have some variety...;)

    3. You might be better off with Ivan's Clash on the Fringe rules. They're a sort of Rogue Trader homage and are a bit more stats-y (and thus would handle more varied critters better). I'll review it soon, once I finish painting and playing with my rebased superhero clix. (Who have defeated the Necrons and are now lining up against a Tyrannid threat)

    4. Thanks. I already bought them, the moment he described them as "Rogue Trader if it was made today"...wasnt it even here, where I read that?

      I have sadly very limited time for gaming and due to a variety of things it was worse in the last months. So I simply havent gotten to try them. Reqd: Pleas write a review soon! :)

  4. I like Lords & Servants Activation Pools & Resource Management but throwing 3d6 it's too random. It could be a better Resource Management if a player could buy EXTRA Activation token with Army points: 10p = +1 Activation Token; 30p = +2 Activation Tokens etc...

    I know 3d6 results are a nice BELL CURVE but I prefer more control on the ALEA.

    Infinity has a nice activation points system but normally all players put on the board 10 minis only to get 10 orders and use it all for one ( ...why? nomally more people = more complication to coordinate...)

    1. The 2d6++ system is a little odd. It's what i was referring to with

      "...this medieval game has some unusual mechanics"

      I don't think players have to be babied like 40K seems to think, but adding 6d6 the dividing it by a number like 9 is just a bit maths-y and odd.

      And yes, if they wanted random, I reckon you roll one dice per mini, and 1 = 0 activations, 2-5 = 1 activation, and 6 = 2 activations. Something like that.

      Perhaps you need to place the dice beside the minis BEFORE you roll the dice, to add some uncertainty to your activation.

      In my version of Infinity, you can't spend more than 2 consecutive actions on a mini before you must activate someone else, and a single mini can't make more than 50% (rounded up) of the total actions. I'm considering tying extra actions to heroes or leaders, or requiring some sort of stamina test.

  5. Another way to add depth to action management and reflect differences between armies.
    In Space Crusade, each player could allocate equipment or order cards. Order would give a one time possibility to use the whole squad in a coordinated manner, same as what a unit may reharse in training
    Using that with Bolt Action for example, the German and Russian could access 2 equipment cards and 1 order card. Russian and German order would be different, and player could select from an army deck.
    Order card could prime over standard action management for 1 turn, and give some tricks a player could hide and bluff until activated.

  6. Nice take on the topic as usual! I'm certainly going to consider buying Lords & Servants.

    I think SAGA should be mentioned as it has a clever resource management system. Its a dark age skirmish game with around 40 miniatures per side. You can find a review of it on this blog. The game is centered around two mechanics: activation pool /battleboard and fatigue tokens. Each unit basically produces activation points to the pool that are spent on activations and abilities. A unit can be activated multiple times but it will accumulate fatigue tokens doing so. Once a unit has too many fatigue tokens, its attack will weaken. The tokens can also be used by your opponent to debuff fatigued units in various ways.

    The fatigue accumulated in your units become a resource for your opponent. It is in my opinion an innovative concept and I can't think of another game that has a similar mechanic. It blends resource management with risk versus reward.

    1. SAGA is a game which I've tried a few times, but never really got "into it."

      I do like the battleboard mechanic, but I think having only a few types of troop in kinda set group sizes seemed a bit... gimmicky and samey. I dunno. It just never seemed a big enough advancement over LOTR:SBG - which has points systems to generate your own heroes, simple campaign systems to level up troops, etc. SAGA always seemed more of a "club game" for one-off encounters.

      I do like the fatigue (or even a failure on a roll for example) to give an action or advantage of some sort to your opponent.

      One activation mechanic I like is when its your turn, being able to force your opponent to move a specific unit (rather than choosing one of your own) - an interesting twist on "it's my turn."