Saturday 15 July 2023

Game Design #94: Boring & Unfair - Campaigns & Skills

 When thinking about Ragnarok and its identical vanilla human warbands, it reminded me how the first few games of a campaign (or specifically a Bloodbowl season) are a bit dull.

The reason? No one has gained any skills yet and so they they tend to be boring and vanilla. Usually then there is the fun patch of a few games until warbands pull ahead/fall behind and folk lose interest. It reminds me of a PC RTS - there's a boring stage where you build up your troops, a fun bit when you are actually fighting/the game is in the balance, and the 'mopping up' stage - also boring - when one side has obviously won and you are just razing their base. It's why I rarely play RTS (I'm only having fun 33% of the time) and also why I think campaign games can be improved.

Boring Warbands

Simple solution - allow everyone to have a roll on a skill/level-up chart BEFORE the campaign starts. In fact, we could take a leaf from RPGs and allow a themed warband i.e. I like how Bloodbowl (also Battle Companies) has "groups" of thematic skills. I think skills should be randomized to prevent OP combos being created but the player might choose say two skill 'trees' to roll on.

Also, warbands should level up more often.  Every game! Why mess around with xp and kills. If you were in a battle, and you survived, you get to roll. Win or lose. Videogames give a constant stream of gratifying 'levels' and 'unlocks' - why should wargames choose to be more boring if we don't have to? MMOs often reward playtime over skill. Why not do the same?

This also simplifies things. Want to add a new warband 3 games in? Just make 3 extra skill rolls. Missed a game? Just make a skill roll and you don't fall behind power-wise.

But it's safer to just skip games and level up! Ok, perhaps roll to randomly wound =50% of the minis each game you skip. I.e. in battle companies you might randomly dice to select 5 of your 10-man warband, and roll a Str 4 wound against each. 

TL:DR The cure to boring warbands: give thematic skill rolls BEFORE the game borrowing from RPGs; then 'level up' and award new skills/stats/toys consistently and often thereafter.

Unfair Campaign

Campaigns often snowball quickly. Winning warbands quickly gain an insurmountable lead and a few losing games can make it almost pointless for some warbands to continue. This is because many campaigns punish losing several times. It's double jeopardy.

a) You probably have more wounded/dead, so you are disavdantaged/outnumbered in the future.

b) You gain less XP, so your heroes and mooks don't level up and are less powerful in the future.

c) You gain less gold, so you have less cool toys/weapons and are thus less powerful in the future

Losing is excessively punishing. It's like a soccer game where every time you concede a goal, you also get a player sent off. So let's make things less unpleasant, responding to a-b-c with fixes.

a) Give a free random unranked reinforcement. Perhaps if you lost a powerful model, you get several reinforcements equal to his points value or one just slightly less powerful i.e. if you lose a hero with 4 skill upgrades you get one with 3 skill upgrades. Losing your cool characterful model is punishment enough. Or - you actually always have more men than you can deploy.  So then you choose which men and basically losing men just removes choice from the lineup. Like how a soccer team has a 25 man squad even though only 11 play. Losing a man injured doesn't mean you have to play with 10 men next game. If a model is injured it does not 'skip a game'  - instead it has the option of playing while injured (say -1" speed and -1 to all dice rolls) and if he survives, he gets a bonus skill or +1 morale for being so gutsy.

b) Everyone who participates and lives (wounded or not) levels up.

c) More powerful warbands get less to simulate higher wages they pay out. Newly hired rookies are cheap.

Buuuh - I want to be rewarded for winning! Balancing is for special snowflakes who want participation awards! Competitive people like winning, period. They don't need extra incentives. They'll be counting their win-loss ratio anyway. All we are doing is trying to keep it fun for everyone by making the games themselves competitive. Imagine if in a pro sport, a loss meant you had to play with a man down all next game. As a spectacle, that would suck. It would quickly make the season of many teams both un-fun and uncompetitive. But this is common in most wargame campaigns.

Fully exploring campaign balance is beyond the scope of this post (I also want to talk about skills in a second) but I'll conclude by suggesting campaigns should have a set length. Leave them wanting more. I'd say ~6 games offhand - my reasoning; so you could play 2 games per night, and meet three times. 

You could also allow some sort of structure - where you know you will likely play x sort of mission at least once. Kinda like a branching 'tree' of decisions - if/then - with some limited randomness thrown in so it is not too stale/predictable. I was noticing in MESBG when making a force it is wise to have a couple of fast units to seize objectives; if you know there is good chance of such a mission coming up you can balance warbands better. 

I am also aware properly playtesting and balancing a campaign is almost impossible. Even a quick glance often shows most wargames rules themselves are badly balanced or poorly playtested. How are designers (especially indie ones) expected to play through campaigns many times and find every possible permutation?  It would be a huge time sink. However, we can use common sense - such as not encouraging the "snowball effect" (above) - and trying to balance the game/skills itself, which IS reasonable.

TL:DR Balancing campaigns is almost impossible, but we can aim to counter the 'snowball effect' by not punishing losers in so many ways. When we do this, we may also gain the ability to 'catch up' newer warbands who missed a week or missed games/byes.

Boring Skills

Speaking of MESBG, I've noticed the most commonly used spells are quite negative and dull. Transfix. Compel. Blind. These are boring skills. They all stop your opponent doing something. 

Throwing fireballs? Cool. Having your mini freeze in place and do nothing for a round? Boring.

Example: I play a co-op PC game called Warframe with my kids. It's over-the-top robotic space ninja jedi with magic powers.  The robots you control are crazy fun and powerful. You can backflip, slide and slash with katanas, dual-wielding machine guns while blasting hordes of foes with powerful space magic. 

To make the game challenging, the devs came up with nullifier bubbles. These are bubbles around enemy units where your magic doesn't work. This is very unfun. Imagine being told "you are a robot space jedi but your jedi powers don't work most of the time.  ....Instead of, say, giving enemies a powerful attack I could actively dodge, they just disable my toys. This is an example of a negative skill.

TL:DR Where possible skills should give you cool options and actions, not remove options and actions from opponents. Perhaps the latter is more realistic but it's less fun. 

Unfair Skills

I think stat changes and skills should be low-key both in games AND campaigns. A quick way to eyeball the value of the skill or stat is to consider:

Skill Strength. (How powerful) In PC games, I recall a rule of thumb being any stat increase over 20% could be insurmountable for player skill. Especially if this applies to more than 1 stat. Having 20% more dps, 20% more speed and 20% more health is a huge advantage. In a wargame, this would translate to max +1 in a d6 based system or +2 in a d10 base system. 

Skill Opportunity (How Often). A super powerful skill you can cast very rarely can be both (a) kinda unfun as you never get to use it and (b) a bit of a 'gotcha' for opponents. A weaker skill which you can (and will) use regularly both gives more flavour AND is more predictable for opponents.

Above I mentioned having semi-structured somewhat predictable campaigns of a set length. For example, if you know how often you are going to get a 'capture the objective' mission vs 'defend your baseline' it is easier to correctly value fast units. 

I think 'opportunity' is the right place to mention terrain - wargames often don't specify how much or where. This is an oversight, as some skills and stats can differ hugely in value depending on the terrain.

"No penalty for moving in rough terrain/forests/water" -> meaningless if you are playing on a perfectly featureless board. I recall in LoTR:SBG goblins always did really well on my terrain-heavy boards, where their ability to freely scale vertical surfaces without penalty was quite powerful. However it was never a 'gotcha' - it was their main gimmick.

Infinity has very strong gun range and lethality, as well as opportunity (you can react to all enemy movements in LoS so lots of chances to shoot). A tall building or excessively large open LoS 'lanes' can mess up the whole game or make vast swathes of the board 'off limits.' It is a good example as its rules have diagrams explaining expected terrain coverage and also points out the effects. 

Probably a final mention: that skills should be few, and 'shared.' I.e. there are no more than 20-30 skills in a common rulebook, using common tropes. There should be no excessive memorization or secret knowledge. Unlike Infinity, there should not be 5 rules all doing the same thing; instead they should be lumped together by effects (like Savage Worlds) i.e. super hearing and radar could both be lumped under "Supersenses" and have the same effect = automatically detecting/targeting any enemy within 8" regardless of LoS. Reducing the mental burden. A magical beam (be it heat, energy, or psychic force) would be called "beam" and have the same effect for all. Basically: skills should be predictable, shared knowledge. ME:SBG does this well - you expect a goblin to climb walls and a troll to toss enemies around - and the climbing and tossing rules are shared.

TL:DR Skills should be weak, and easy to use regularly. Shared knowledge for both players with no gotcha moments or unreasonable memorization requirements. Terrain and mission types need to be predictable (i.e. specified in the rules) in order for skills and stats to be reasonably balanced. 

This is far from a thorough explanation of skills and campaigns (I've done this elswhere): just my current musings, based on messing around with Battle Companies and Ragnarok.


  1. I like Frostgrave's syatem were you have some lower soldiers that are free. Solves the being outnumbered problem but also allows for succesful warbands to have better soldiers

    1. Notably, this was done in Frostgrave 2 because Frostgrave 1 was very prone to "runaway leaders" otherwise.

  2. Great article once again mate.

    In terms of balancing in a campaign, I also liked Blood Bowl's mechanism for the underdog to 'buy' special cards for the difference in points cost, that allowed actions and events that weren't normally possible. This ability to try the unique really added to the fun!

    PS I've been looking at playing some games with the very simple (and free!) Ravenfeast Viking rules. I think they could be a great return to simple (and quick) gaming. Was wondering if you'd seen though before? I think adding a Campaign system to those would be great

    1. Age of Blood has campaign rules. It's a freebie. I have it on my HDD if you want.

      Personally, I'm using MESBG/Battle Companies for campaign. It's super easy to stat up vikings as LOTR = Dark Ages pretty much.


    2. Thanks Mick - I had forgotten Age of Blood. That has some nice campaign flavour in it. Wish a 3rd edition had been developed, it deserved a little more love!

      I'll have to take a look at Battle Companies too - thanks!

  3. I find the "samey" factions is a problem mostly for fantasy or scifi wargames. They are otherwise the norm in historical wargaming, where they are the norm and not considered a problem: variation is instead provided by asymmetrical goals and scenarios. Historical wargamers enjoy gaming scenarios were the contenders are more or less the same.

    The "historical" games were forces have different "powers" (e.g. Flames of War, Bolt Action, etc) actually have a fantasy pedigree and their designers come from a place of being used to playing with Wizards and elves, and wanted to recreate it in historical wargaming. They are also mostly derided by historical wargamers.

    1. I think when you are playing a campaign wargame (aka quasi RPG) making interesting warbands through gaining new skills (or injuries) is a key point of the game. Regardless of historical or not.
      I'd expect to RPG my warband of vikings or ancient greeks.

      I think it's not 'historical vs fantasy' but 'narrative-RPG vs non-narrative'. The difference between say a FPS (Quake) & a RPG (Skyrim) in a PC game.


    2. Its absolutely the narrative that it the point of skirmish gaming for me. I want the models to have personalities, be part of their tabletop stories, and build their saga across a campaign. That can happen in any setting, historical or not.

      In terms of 'sameyness', access to different training/fighting styles (eg Berzerkers, Mounted Archers), or equipment (Tiger tank vs Shermans) can make the forces feel very different

    3. Yes, that's true. Narrative vs non-narrative makes a big difference. It's true the historical scenarios I'm thinking of are those of, e.g., Little Wars TV (possibly the best historical channel these days), where they are either a single battle or a series of linked battles (as in their Phyrric wars campaign, which I recommend watching because they even have role-playing). But yes, for skirmish RPG like games, you want personality in your figures!

  4. I am probably an outlier, but I like those early, samey games the best. Everyone is on a relatively equal playing field, and you have a good idea that guy A with gun is in fact just Guy A with a gun. I maybe an outlier.

    One "solution" to samey initial lists is to give each faction a unique unit to start with. This is the approach Dracula's America uses and it is enough to give each starting a gang a bit of spice and differentiation. Alternatively, each model could have a role and unique specialization at the start of the game such as in Reality's Edge. Finally, the third way is more the Frostgrave approach where really only 1-model (or a handful) will really have the RPG-Lite elements added to them.

    Just some other random approaches I have come across to the problem of "samey" starting lists.

    1. Being unique to start with is good. Not just vanilla boss, vanilla mook but 'scarface brute' with +1 str.

      I think I personally prefer the ~3-4 customisable heroes (your RPG party) and rest are mooks (Startrek redshirts) who can be 'green' 'rookie' 'veteran' 'elite' etc - with a locked statline for each level.

      Customizing each and every model is fine but limits you to ~6 per warband or you can overlook their skills.


  5. An alternate thought on approaching Campaigns as a designer. Instead of the focus being on the units in the campaign, the focus could instead be on the "Outcome" of the campaign. The units need never actually repeat, but the overall factions involved stay constant.

    For example, I played a Sci-Fi Air campaign that was a bit of a ladder. The success in one mission lead to the next mission. So if Side A won then they had an attack mission, but if side B won they got the attack mission. As you said, the campaign had a pre-set length of missions. Each mission had a different set of objectives and the players had new lists each mission that was appropriate for it.

    The Campaign was focusing more on the "narrative" of the outcome of the campaign. Did the Allies manage to push the attack or did the Pact manage to push them back and counter-attack? Individual models and participants were less important than the outcome of the "campaign" leading up to a "Final Mission" to end the war!

    1. As much as I like good ladder campaigns they are generally one and done. You might get two or three playground before players reach a sense of having been there and done that. One of, of not the, drawing factors in Mordheim's formula is that the campaigns can progress so wildly differently from campaign to campaign.

    2. I was thinking 'semi predictable' missions. Random, but high chance you will play each mission:
      Round 1=A or B
      Round 2 = C or D
      Round 3 = E or F
      Round 4 = A or B
      Round 5 = C or D
      Round 6 = E or F
      ...or something similar. A 'tree' with 2 branches each round maybe, and a 50/50 dice roll you can influence with skills. Controlled randomness.

      Not just rolling 1d6 against 6 choices - there is at least a 50% chance of playing each mission, so you can't roll A, A, A, E, E, C

  6. Blucher has a great campaign with the Scharnhorst system you may want to check out. I think the campaign part is available on Sam Mustafa's website for download IIRC.

  7. I think campaign length and variance are preference spectrums that gamers find themselves on.

    My suspicion is that gamers prefer campaigns to be longer and more random than is desirable from a design perspective; in the same way that gamers love putting too much on the table at once and over tax the game system.

    All that being said, my preference is for tighter, shorter campaigns with just a handful of ain characters yhat are customizable and then a larger pool of supporting characters that come as is.

    Keeps the complexity at a manageable level for me. Forgotten rules and abilities may as well not exist, after all

  8. In terms of 'unfair campaigns' one idea I've mentally toyed with is something like awarding more exp. to the losing side, to represent them learning from their mistakes, counterbalanced by the winning side still getting more loot/territory/etc.