Squad vs Platoon
Something I've noticed is the relative incompatibility between the two levels of 1:1 gaming; squad level and platoon+ level.
Squad level games tend to have 5-10 minis per side; with either reaction systems or complex special rules (or both); Infinity and Song of Blades and Heroes are two examples. Minis tend to be moved and fight independently or in small 2-4 man fire teams. They often scale up poorly, as they tend to use reaction mechanics, or have complex special rules, or both. Imagine an Infinity game involving 30 minis per side! Ouch.
Platoon+ level games tend to have minis grouped in several squads of 6-10; plus vehicles - Warhammer 40K, Warmachine, Bolt Action, Ambush Alley are examples of these. They often scale down poorly as they tend to be a bit bland, lacking character or tactically limited when you field small amounts of units. For example, a battle between two 10-man 40K or Bolt Action squads would be rather dull.
I think a "holy grail" is a ruleset where units are not locked into
rigid "squads" who are forced into an artificial 2" coherency; but where
they can act individually or as a group, where a leader can "grab" a
bunch of soldiers and imbue them with bonuses or tactical flexibility,
but where random grunts also have a modicum of freedom and do not have
to rely on their leaders in order to act.
There's not many games which handle small squad skirmish AND platoon+. Warmachine (at least in older editions) straddles the genres a bit, but there is one that sticks out in my mind. Step forward, and Lord of the Rings. Not only does it handle 30 per side with aplomb and can stretch to ~50 at a pinch, it also handles scenarios with a handful of heroes and has spawned a range of skirmish games (Legends of High Seas/Wild West etc).
Why does LOTR succeed?
Well, of the innovations that LOTR did over 40K, one was it added resource management (Might, Will, Fate), it streamlined the stats and combat, but most importantly, it abandoned IGOUGO for a sort of sequenced move.
To clarify, an IGOUGO activation system typically goes:
SIDE A MOVES, SHOOTS, MELEEs
SIDE B MOVES, SHOOTS, MELEEs
You pretty much can do what you want with all your units, without opposition. Your opponents troops stand about obligingly like wax dummies as you enact your plans without interference. There are few meaningful decisions or reactions you need to make. IGOUGO systems are rarely good (except in CCG-style games where building combos/synergy between units is important - for example, I don't see Warmachine working well with any other system).
LOTR broke this move sequence up into sub-sections:
SIDE A MOVES
SIDE B MOVES*
SIDE A SHOOTS
SIDE B SHOOTS*
As you can see, it chopped the game turn up, and gave the other side a chance to respond ("react") twice to enemy actions - there are two "inbuilt" reactions within the sequence*. There is no complex reaction mechanic (a la Infinity, Tomorrow's War) to slow things up.
Designers have drifted away from IGOUGO, and I would call ALTERNATE MOVE the new "default" for wargames. It works thus:
PLAYER A chooses a single unit which MOVES, SHOOTS, and MELEES
PLAYER B chooses a single unit which MOVES, SHOOTS, and MELEES
PLAYER A chooses a second unit which MOVES, SHOOTS, and MELEES
PLAYER B chooses a second unit which MOVES, SHOOTS, and MELEES
...and so on until both sides have acted with all their units
There are lots of interactions - theoretically, as many as there are units - and a player can respond to the actions of a single unit. The tactical challenges change as each unit is deployed.
Basically, the new "cool" rule is what Chess has been using for thousands of years.
So why not alternate activation - there's a lot of interactions and decision points, surely? There's inbuilt "reactions" as well...
Okay, I'm now getting to the "train of thought" that has been boarding at the station for awhile now. I'm going to call it "Actions per Activation" or "Actions per Turn."
In alternate move (or heck in most game systems), when you "activate" a unit or mini, you can do several things. In most rules, you can do things like
Move + Shoot or Shoot + Move = 2 actions
Move + Melee = 2 actions)
Charge (Move+ Move+Melee) = 3 actions
Run (Move + Move) = 2 actions
Shoot + Shoot = 2 actions
You get the idea. Each time you activate a unit (i.e. a unit has it's "turn") it gets to do 2 or 3 things. It might move twice up to 12", or move 6" and then shoot, or charge 12" then melee attack. Basically, when a unit is activated it can do quite a lot of stuff or move quite far.
The "standard" game I illustrated shows a unit has 2-3 actions per activation. What that means is the single unit which is activated can do a considerable amount with his 2-3 actions before the opponent can activate a unit which also gets to do a lot of stuff.
Again, the unit does so much stuff the opponents cannot react to. Yes, it's better than IGOUGO, Yes, it's just a single unit - but it seems unlikely anyone would let an enemy sprint 12" towards them without some response.
Aha, I know the answer to this! You need a reaction mechanic!
I do like me a good reaction system (like Infinity or Tomorrow's War) but they DO bog the game down a lot. The reactions add more dice rolling and complexity; sure, there's a lot going on. I'd estimate more goes on in 3 turns of Ambush Alley than 6 turns of a more "McDonalds" game like 40K or Bolt Action. But it does slow things up at times and adds complexity. I'm trying to avoid an explicit reaction mechanic. How can we improve interactions and "implicit" reactions?
Lets go back to Lord of the Rings example, shall we?
Yes, your whole force moves* (*actually, this is not true - heroes can spend resources to activate small groups out of sequence, which adds pleasing tactical depth) then the opponent moves.
But they are reacting to only one thing - your move.
Then you shoot, and they shoot. Again, they are reacting to only a single action. Your shooting.
Basically, what I am saying is that by limiting a unit to a single action per activation (i.e. when it is their turn they can move OR shoot OR melee, NOT a combination of 2-3 of those actions) you limit the impact a unit can make. There is less in game "time" elapsing before opponents can respond.
Let's call this ALTERNATE ACTIVATION "Single Action" Edition:
PLAYER A chooses a single unit which MOVES OR SHOOTS OR MELEES
PLAYER B chooses a single unit which MOVES OR SHOOTS OR MELEES
PLAYER A chooses a second unit which MOVES OR SHOOTS OR MELEES
PLAYER B chooses a second unit which MOVES OR SHOOTS OR MELEES
By simply restricting the amount of things a unit can do when it is "activated" to a single action, it means the interactions/reactions between units are more fluid. You have effectively reduced the time "lag" between action and the enemy response.
If a unit runs 12" (say 100m in-scale) before a enemy can respond, there's say a 20-second lag. If a unit can charge enemies from 12" away without a response, that's a bit implausible.
If a unit can only travel 6"(say 50m in-scale) before an enemy respond, that's a 10-second lag. It's a lot more plausible that a unit could get "jumped" and caught off guard over a shorter range.
Let's flip it around. What if I decided a unit could take 4 actions each time it activated? In each of those 4 actions it could shoot, more or melee. Potentially a unit with a 6" move could cross 24" of the board, or unload 4 shooting volleys when it is it's turn. A tad ridiculous? That's because it is doing too much in its turn. My question: Is being able to do 2-3 things in your turn too much as well?
Yes, some games (like Infinity, and Crossfire) allow a unit many (potentially 10+) actions each activation. This works because opponents units have unlimited reactions and would get potentially 10+ reactions in response. It's very unlikely a unit would travel 24" (4 moves) or fire 4 volleys - before being counter-charged or gunned down by reacting opponents. This discussion is looking at alternate move activation or activations without an explicit reaction mechanic.
I'm interested in how much (how many actions) a unit can take when it's its "turn." By reducing these actions, we reduce the "lag" before an enemy responds. Do we allow a unit to do too much when it is it's "turn?"
Also, I'm interested in what activation mechanics might best bridge the gap between platoon (30+, squad activation) and squad level (5-10 minis, individual activation)games.
PS: I'd like to explore this "single action" alternate move system further and look at ways we can break up the predictable sequence of ABABABABAB.... but it's late and my toddlers like to wake at the crack of dawn....