Saturday 17 July 2021

Game Design #79: Alternate "Unfair?" Activation - Bigger Armies Get Better Tactics

My first post about game design was a rant about "decision points" - moments the player could meaningfully influence gameplay. I singled out IGOUGO activation as "bad" as meaningful decisions only occurred during your move. All your decision points were lumped together and really you were only reacting once - to the entirety of your opponent's move. I remember going to the toilet, getting a coke and chips and chatting to other mates during 10 mins or so of an opponents 'turn' in Warhammer. Any game where any players are not making decisions and completely unengaged for 10mins is just bad game design.

That was 7 years ago. Since then, most wargames have gravitated away from IGOUGO.

Something that also bothered me about it was the sense of "flow" i.e. a wargame attempts to breaks up a real-time simultaneous event into a series of chunks - turns or actions. Having all of one side (30 soldiers, for example) run around and shoot while the opposing 30 sat around like mannequins feels wrong. 

Two Actions Per Turn - A Privilege, not a Right

More recently, I was considering how most games allow units or minis to take 2-3 successive actions in their "turn" or "activation." I.e. most units get to move and shoot as a minimum, or perhaps even melee, hack or cast magic as well.  Allowing units only one action (move OR shoot OR melee) broke the chunk of time down still further, and allow MORE decision points and player interaction, with no extra complexity - which sounds like good game design to me. Since I covered that in more detail in the link above, and this potentially links with a future post, I'll move on to my main point....

Unfair Alternate Activation - Favouring Bigger Armies

Most games since then have moved away from IGOUGO, and I'd probably say alternate activation is the new standard. Instead of each player moving all his forces, he only gets to move a single unit or a single figure, then his opponent moves a single figure or army. Just like Chess has been doing for 1000 years.... *shrugs*

This seems better; you are reacting to a single enemy unit, there are many more decisions and both players are involved with little down time - there are more innate reactions and better "flow"- with no extra complexity. Seems great!

But there is a downside. Bigger armies have an advantage, no matter how you slice it. More units means you get more activations. I.e. Side A "Soviet Conscripts" has 10 units; Side B "Elite SS Grenadiers" has 4 units. It might go:

A B A B A B A B A A A A A A <- you can see Side A gets to move 6 units in a sequence at the end without the opponent being able to react

or, let's say you make Side A move 2 units to every one of Side B, like this

A A B A A B A A B A A B A A <- still Side A benefits, being able to co-ordinate a pair of units without reaction at predictable intervals.

When I say "alternate activation" I'd also include I call the "Bolt Action" method - where you get a dice/token for each unit you have, and both players put them in a bag - when you draw out one of your tokens the owning player gets to choose a unit to activate.  While less predictable, Side A still gets 10 activations in the bag and Side B gets 4 activations. More units = more activations = more reactions/moves/ability to co-ordinate. This method still favours bigger armies.

If units have specific tokens (say playing cards, like Savage Worlds) assigned to them, it's not the same. It is almost random - you are being forced to activate the random unit assigned the card you draw, and aren't choosing the unit - so you can't reliably co-ordinate more complex strategies by virtue of your numbers. (But is truly random activation a good thing? Perhaps food for another blog post -  how much should chance influence your games?...)

Basically, my issue here is with alternate activation (and it's stepsibling, Bolt Action activation) the 10 Soviet Conscript squads can reliably co-ordinate and execute more complex maneuvers unopposed than the 4 Elite SS squads.  In a wargame as in real life, superior numbers will definitely allow you to occupy more ground, and probably give you better volume of fire and staying power; but should not automatically confer better co-ordination and tactics. From my experience, the reverse is often true.

Simple Solutions that Create New Problems

OK, here's one which is brutally simple, but neither unique or elegant. Let's say you are playing the Bolt Action method/alternate activation, but when you draw a dice "token" or choose to move a unit, you actually have to roll the dice and beat a score to see if the unit actually activates. The conscripts need a 4+ on d6 (50/50 even chance) to actually activate, regulars need a 3+ (67% - good odds) and elite units need 2+ (83% - almost certain). If the unit doesn't pass the roll, it just sits there. (Note: variations of this idea are pretty common in historical games)

In the above example, probably all 4 of the Elite SS would activate and only ~5 (50%) of the Soviet conscripts would activate - leaving the other 5 conscript standing around or frozen in place - effectively missing their 'turn'.

Now I said it was simple (all you need to do is roll the dice you picked up) - and now we have a bit more parity - the 4 elite SS activate almost as much as the 10 conscripts which is actually probably fairly realistic - green troops don't like moving around when enemy are near.

It's not necessarily good game design though - as no one likes to have units they lovingly painted just sitting around.  When you have those ~5 unactivated Soviet units sitting around doing nothing each turn - it almost seems like the IGOUGO problems are back - the ones that alternate activation was supposed to solve.

There are actually many solutions to this issue - quite a few better, but most more complex. You could certainly tweak the above idea quite a bit. But I just wanted another example to show how 'fixing' one problem (like the general shift from IGOUGO to alternate activation) can create another. 

*Note: This post was courtesy of me reading Warlord's Cruel Seas rules, realizing it had the "innovative turn sequence first seen in the award-winning Bolt Action rules" (their words, not mine), and exclaiming "Not this f---ing system again - since when is pulling tokens out of a bag innovative?!"


  1. Replies
    1. I've done a game design rant, so I'll try to do a rules review tomorrow just to balance things out!

  2. Excellent as always! I like to do one guaranteed action plus one action for a passed morale check - and I like d10 instead of d6 as it gives more options for troop quality and modifiers.

    1. Funnily enough that's what I've been using for my modern pulp/Middlehiem iterations (d10, with a action + possible 2nd which I modified from SoBH + Infinity); however the NUMBER of actions doesn't still compensate for the lost ability to REACT to opponents.

      I.e. the elite SS may always get 2 actions, but that doesn't stop the conscripts getting to sychronize 6 unopposed actions with 6 unique units.

  3. This is a great point. And food for thought, thank you 😊
    The big horde army against the small elite one makes for a fun engagement.
    It can be justified with point costs, with conscripts costing half points than the elite SS.
    I like the balancing rolling, but this brings in chaos…
    The German player could fail all 2+ rolls, and the Soviet player could succeed in 9 out of 10 activations. This could make for a really unpleasant turn for the Germans (it can also happen the vice versa, with the conscripts going dormant and the Germans activating).
    A possible way to solve this could be: the Germans get 3 tokens and the Soviet get 5 and that’s it. No chance here, we always get the average result, but we are perhaps back to unbalancing again 😉

    I think the main point is that, as you say, Units are not mannequins. So it perfectly plausible that they don’t think is the good moment to do what higher command (the player) wants (situation represented by the failed activation) BUT for the same reason, they don’t seat idly while the enemy is near, they will REACT (counter attack or flee if charged, shoot back if fired at, etc.) with ability commisurated to their skill/training

    Just my 2 cents

    1. In Gamma Wolves (reviewed elsewhere) the player with less units chooses when the player with more units gets to activate them back to back, which is another simple solution.

      In my house rules, I often let the player with the initiative choose an opponents unit (i.e. forcing his opponent to activate and move a unit when he'd rather not) rather than activating his own unit.

      There's many, many solutions (reactions, activation dice pools,etc). I'm just pointing out some of the simplest.

  4. I came to comment suggesting that players choose their opponents units to activate, and then see that you beat me to it :)

  5. The activation you mention at the end sounds like fubar skirmish game. If the unit fails the activation they go onto overwatch which is a reasonable work around

  6. It's sometimes instructive to break free of game concepts and focus on the "reality" we are attempting to create.

    Veteran troops in general: React faster, are more likely to obey orders and may be more able to coordinate units.
    There are also a few non-activation differences: Generally harder to kill or suppress.

    How might we reflect our veterans in a game?

    Reacting faster and obeying orders is covered by an easier activation roll (described above).
    A less fashionable alternative allows the better troops more actions on activation.

    Better group tactics could be reflected by allowing several units within radius to attempt activation at once.
    Maybe 1 roll for green, 2 rolls for trained and 3 rolls for veterans.

    Returning to our reality: Small numbers of highly trained troops could and did defeat larger bodies of less trained enemy.
    They usually did this by seizing and maintaining initiative, leveraging surprise, and keeping the enemy from organising effectively.

    Too much delay, and the "mostest" could organise and get an opportunitty to defeat the "bestest".

  7. A unit passing its command roll could get a friendly unit to "follow on" or select an ENEMY unit which is forced to activate.
    Really, there's 101 ways how - it's just that alternate activation does not do this. The bigger army gets more actions/orders/maneuvers; and even if forces had identical training; it's always easier to co-ordinate fewer, not more.

    There's also capacity for independent action?
    I.e. elite units are more flexible and independent from command. This is often done by "command radius" where elite units can co ordinate when farther apart; whereas conscripts need to stay close in a human wave. Or penalties when out of "command radius."

  8. Batman Miniature Game also uses a "pass" system.

    I actually LIKE the Unfair activation of taking a horde of troops. After all, your conscripts may get to do more, but they are going to do more much worse than those elite units will do. So you are making a strategic decision to get more activations, but be less likely to do what you want to do effectively in those activations. Now, if those lesser units are almost as good as the elite units, then the point is moot.

    For example, in Men of Bronze if you take 3 Peltast units instead of 1 Elite Hoplite unit that is fine. It will give you more mobility BUT those three Peltast units will struggle to put a dent in that Elite Hoplite unit. Those three Hoplite units would have to be really clever with flank or rear charges to even scratch them.

    However, that is the strategic choices you are making before the game, and then the tactical choices you have to make in game.

  9. Maybe in rank vs rank historic games melee stats < all? I don't have much experience with them.

    Alternate activation is allowing conscripts to outmaneuver and flank veterans without response. Whether it is fair in a game or not, it doesn't seem to fit historical "realism."

  10. Yeah okay, I see where you are coming from better now. The elite units should have the initiative and not be reacting to the conscripts maneuvers.

  11. " The elite units should have the initiative and not be reacting to the conscripts maneuvers. "

    Yeah, it's the ability for the conscipts to move around unopposed, or co-operate in a way veterans cannot, i.e.

    A B A B A A A A <- the sequence of conscript side "A" getting to act without the elite "B"s being able to do anything. Even

    A A B A A B A A <- the "A"s get to co-operate with paired units unlike "B" (who as elites should control the initiative sequence or dictate the pace of the fight) AND get 2 unopposed activations at the end.

    Alternate activation, sans any "extra rules" benefits more numerous sides (as does Bolt Action). Even from a logical standpoint, it should always be harder for a commander to micro-manage 12 units than 6.

  12. Hi,

    Have you looked at Malifaux third edition? I think you would probably not appreciate the game as a whole due to hitpoints, statcards and the numerous special rules, but they have a clever mechanic for balancing out alternating activations.

    The side with fewer models get a number of pass tokens that they can use in lieu of activating a model. If a side has any leftover pass tokens at the end of the turn, they get to add that number to their score when determining initiative (deciding who goes first) next turn.

    I really like this approach and am applying it to my own homebrew rules for micro armour.

    1. I used to play Malifaux 1st ed, and yes the special rules/cards/hitpoints weren't my thing (actually I remember what bothered me most was named models facing each other i.e. Lady Justice's squad vs her clone and their squad!)

      I can't recall activation, but the "get pass tokens" is a variation of "smaller side chooses when the larger force gets to activate in sequence" which is another pretty straightforward method.

      What you describe is a very sensible idea (I have heard of pass tokens, but not "saving" them for next move.)


    2. Yeah, the clone wars is something that i find annoying too. However, since I have diverged a bit more into competitive gaming it bothers me less and less.

      Malifaux is a strange beast, because it is so convoluted with so many minute interactions that it almost slips into abstract territory, but at the same time it has such a strong narrative component. I'd say it's fairly unique for what it does.

      The pass tokens idea is a new addition to third edition, and they have started to use them for various effects. One crew has a theme around manipulating time, and they can actually spend pass tokens for various effects (all tied to specific actions on the cards). I like when a single resource in a game is used for multiple purposes, especially when it is tied to faction identity.

      Happy to see you back to the blog by the way. I have read it for quite a while, but never gotten around to posting anything. I think you have a very sensible approach to reviewing games and generally talking about game design philosophy.

    3. My old Malifaux models form a core of my homebrew "weird west" rules.

      I think Malifaux was also innovative with missions/secondary objectives - I used to steal their missions for other games.

      It's nice to know the blog is useful - it's just hard with kids to have time to paint+play+test rules + write about it as well. I can usually only manage the first few steps but I am trying harder in 2021.

      I still have an embarrassingly large unpainted pile that predates my 8 year old :-/

  13. As the kids get older, it gets way easier. Trust me! ;) Now, my daughter and I try them out together! Just a few more years.

    I have to admit, I am not a hug fan of pass tokens. I think I have tackled this issue in the past by having more experienced troops get additional activations they could chain together by making a command test. Most of my games you can only do one thing, so passing an activation and making a chain allows you to "link" actions immediately, or save them for later if you wish. For example, aim and then fire or move and then hide. Less skilled units would not be able to pull it off as they would not have the activations.

    On the downside, it can be a bit complex in actual execution.

  14. Bumping this thread from the dead. I am toying with an idea where - in your SS/Conscript example, after both sides have activated 4 times (the number of units in the small elite army in your example) then on each subsequent activation the turn may suddenly end. This means that the conscripts probably won't all get to act and which you activate first becomes important. Its a variation on your suggestion of rolling to activate each conscript, but in this case some activations would be guaranteed.

    I know you could argue "but this means that I have units sitting around" but I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing. It means the elite troops aren't being encircled by 10 *active* conscript units each turn, but the conscripts still have enormous strength-in-depth as the first wave of them inevitably gets defeated.

    1. In my current homebrew rules, it is something like this.

      "...After one side has activated all its troops, the other side must pass a "troop quality" roll to activate. ANY failure automatically places the remainder on overwatch."

      Effect: Basically, it's unlikely conscript leftovers can move around much, but they will be able to fire later next turn. This means the conscripts aren't denied the opportunity to fire (i.e. massed firepower is fair enough) but they are unlikely to manage complex flanking maneuvers.

  15. Just thought I'd add a worthwhile look at another activation method, from Alternative Armies Patrol Angis game. Each side rolls a D6 for initiative each turn. The side with the higher roll gets initiative. Both sides then receive a number of activation tokens equal to the winner's initiative. The side with initiative gets an additional activation token for winning the initiative.
    All in all, despite the rules being a bit thick to read through in parts, it's quickly becoming a favorite game ruleset for me.

    1. While I understand why it is done, I've never been a fan of units doing nothing at all in a turn (aka standing like a frozen mannequin) from a game design sense.

      It's a 'negative' rule. An unsatisfying Chekov's gun. I painted all the damn minis, and now the rules say I don't get to use half of them. I don't mind better units getting an extra action, but if units get no activation at all...

      I think I explained it elsewhere

      So if I had a D6 roll for initiative, and it gave me equal or more actions than the amount of units I had (i.e some units get to act a second time) - fine - you could even modify it by the army skill or commander skill (+/- 1 action). If it means units regularly miss out - not to keen.

      It reminds me of Konkordia (which I think I reviewed somewhere)

  16. Glad you're back at it Monkeigh. I read all your articles to date and even took notes! Some very useful things I would otherwise have overlooked.