Thursday 29 June 2017

Tabletop Wargames - PC RTS style?

I recently bought the PC RTS  Impossible Creatures to play with my daughter.  Besides marvelling at the inventiveness of old school games (I mean, mad scientists battling using mutated mixes of animals - crocodile lobsters, giraffe eels, bull ants... your own unit at its finest) and making me shake my fist at the sequel-itis that infects the gaming industry (are we up to the 12th version of CoD?).. got me thinking about how wargames look similar to traditional PC RTS (like Command and Conquer and Starcraft) but few actually share the same traits.

Let's look at some features of the PC RTS and how they would apply to tabletop wargames.

This post was inspired by "Impossible Creatures" - an old school RTS where you can create hybrid animals to attack armies of mutated enemy animals...

"Clicks per Minute"
The ability to micromanage units with relatively few sitting idle is a RTS skill.  This could be simulated by having a set amount of activations; i.e. you get say 6 "actions" per turn; an action can be used to move a single unit or group of units which are bunched together. I guess the word "limited actions" kinda covers it.

Resource Collecting
This could be collecting crystals, gas, or whatever unobtanium.  Often there are two resource types - a general resource (mass, such as steel to make tanks), and a rare resource for producing high tech units (unobtanium, to power fusion reactors or tesla cannons etc).

I like the resource collecting aspect; as interdicting resource collectors (harvesters) and escorting them can provide a source of small clashes and a kind of alternate victory condition - deny the enemy the resources to build or replace combat losses. 

Another sort of resource is "control points" as seen in THQ's Dawn of War and Company of Heroes series; dozens of control points that can be captured and provide a stream of resources and an incentive for constant raids.

The resource management puts another layer on top of the game; and allows for base building and unit building meta-games; you basically can "build your army" during the battle, not just before it (a feature of games like Warhammer 40K). 

A further thought is that resource management must be kept simple, perhaps being tracked by tokens of different colours.  

Tech Levels and Research
I think researching new tech would be outside the scope of a tabletop game, but many RTS have several "tech levels" of base - for example tech 1 could be simple grunts and engineer units; tech 2 light vehicles, tech 3 advanced vehicles, and tech 4 mammoth tanks and super weapons or advanced stealth fighters etc.  This "teching up" might cost resources; so you might have the choice between remaining tech 1 and making a cheap "horde" army to attack early; or sitting tight and advancing as fast as you can to tech 4 to beat the enemy down with superweapons. So "research" in a tabletop game might be simple; merely deciding which of several tech levels to stop on.

Bases & Base Building
There are usually a main "command building" which once knocked out, removes the ability to build new buildings (kinda of an "assassination" target); usually a resource-gathering centre, plus production centres for ground and air units.  Sometimes there is power generators (knocking these out is another way to cripple production capacity) and base defences.  There should be a balance; do you try to nibble your way through enemy defences or try to deep strike past them aiming for critical buildings and generators?  Again there is a level of choice - what do you spend your resources on? Base defences? Advanced buildings? Do you eschew aerial units in order to make an overwhelming ground force?

Unit Building Metagame
Units usually have a faint paper-scissors-rock feel; a light minigun tank might easily be gunned down by a heavy assault tank; but the assault tank loses to a sniper tank destroyer which can easily be swarmed by the minigun tank...

Choosing how many of each unit should be an important part of the game.  As min-maxing armies is popular out of battle (a quick google will reveal a zillion army lists for "best practice" in games like Warmachine and Warhammer; creating optimal lists is a popular pastime.)

Unit Levelling + Recon/Fog of War
RTS games sometimes have the ability to level-up units (often hero units or heavy units) which gain accuracy buffs etc as they get kills on enemy units.  Another, more common feature is "fog of war" - anything not in LoS of a unit (or within their "view radius") are blacked out by the "fog of war."  In games like Wargame: European Escalation recon is vital; sneaky infantry recon units can call down indirect fire while remaining hidden, or allow units into ambush range of their RPGs. They can protect valuable units from being interdicted by their counters - i.e. spot SAM batteries to protect valuable gunships, or spot hidden tank units allowing ATGMs to be wheeled into place to take them out. Having good recon should, in the least, allow you to best counter their scissors with your rock, while keeping your paper out of the way.

I'm sure there's more key points to cover here, but my wife has returned from a seminar by author Mem Fox (does anyone know Possum Magic or is it purely an iconic Aussie-only children's book?) so I'll wrap up this post and join her watching Preacher (an awesome show, btw, though not particularly similar to the comics.)

So... where is this post going?
Well, the RTS-meets-tabletop wargame is something I'm going to explore more.  I'm sure there are boardgames that do something similar, but it's wargames that interest me.  I know Brent Spivey did OP4S years back as a RTS homage - but it does not seem to have gotten out of beta (I did a brief review way back in 2011).  I'll dig it out again - I could do another test play as I've pretty much forgotten it apart from it having a nifty activation system. 

In the Delta Vector google group we looked at landships/motherships/megavehicles a few months back (you know, Ogre, or a Cylon basestar, or an Avengers heli carrier) and I'm now a proud owner of a Landcruiser Ratte in 15mm. I keep looking at it and thinking it would make a good giant mobile base factory/landship/landcarrier for 6mm mecha, and I've attached tracks to some WW2 1:700 aircraft carriers to make them into landcarriers...

I've gone with 15mm for my tank project, leaving me with many 6mm sci fi vehicles unused. I feel 6mm tanks are too small to be "main characters" but they make an affordable horde to be spawned from larger "landships" which could be the heroic units which level up.

I also think RTS might be fun with a focus on a different aspect of sci fi than usual - perhaps with nanomachines or similar.


  1. I occasionally try to work out a way to do Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak in 3mm, with a 12" long carrier on each side and cute little buggies mounted two to a penny at the opposite end of the scale, fighting over a rolling desert cloth covering a pile of books and old clothes for terrain. Should give that another go. I just want a nice easy system for it...

    Huh. Maybe Ogre would work as a basis.

    1. I've just purchased Deserts of Kharak, and am already having similar thoughts.

      There's just something about the style of the homeworld games that makes me want to give them a go on the tabletop .

    2. Deserts of Kharak seems to be influentaial; it inspired my "gigantic mothership/landship/hovercarrier" craze which in turn spawned my RTS interest...

  2. Even though I hate RTS games with the fury of a thousand suns, I do like the idea of a "base building" element a lot.
    It'd be sort of like playing a wargames campaign in one sitting.

    We experimented with this stuff way back in the days when Dune 2 was the norm and Command&Conquer had just come out, but never managed to strike the right balance between "tracking a million things" and "not enough detail to be interesting"

    The biggest obstacle was always that the "entry level knowledge" got too big.

  3. The absolute key difference in an RTS is that you don't build your army ahead of time (and find you've brought a close combat list to a terrain-sparse gunfight). It's rock-paper-scissors on the fly.

    Fog of war and APM are two sides of the same coin: they insure it's impossible for the player to know everything or micromanage all units at all times. How thoroughly the player can manage to do those things anyway is a core RTS skill that's difficult to translate directly into a tabletop game where the player has an omniscient presence and the luxury of thinking over his turns unless bound by a literal timer...which might be an idea worth trying if that's the aspect you want to focus on.

    As for adapting in realtime, fog of war, and tech trees: resource collection and upgrades can be done secretly behind a screen. Units can have reference cards with face-down upgrade chits that aren't revealed until it engages. You might know your opponent just deployed a gang of Wyld Bykerz, for instance, but do they have mine droppers or hand grenades? Bulletproof windshields or nitrous oxide?

    One last note regarding different aspects: there's a game called Offworld Trading Company that's entirely about market manipulation. It has no military conflict but still manages to hit all the elements of an RTS. Might be worth looking at.

  4. You may be interested in a game that is currently being developed. There are a couple of guys playtesting it in Canberra at the moment. It's called Absolute Decimation and it utilises RTS concepts like gathering resources, and building new drone vehicles from your command vehicle as the battle goes on. I've not played it but there's more detail on their facebook page:

  5. I'd love to see more discussion about the resource collecting side of things. That could prove an interesting alternative to more traditional methods of establishing a set points limit to scale games. The idea of buying or generating units on the fly would also open up a wealth of new tactical possibilities in gameplay.