Friday 3 January 2014

Game Design #3. Special Rules, Stat Lines, and False Economy

I've noticed  a major trend towards simplifying the "stats" of a unit.

For example, take Song of Blades for an extreme example. There are two stats.

"Q" or "quality" - showing how easy it is to activate and perform actions
"C" or combat ability - combines a models' skill in melee, when firing, his magical power, and his all round defence against any attack (am I the only one who thinks this sounds a little silly just reading this?)

Ahhh, nice and simple. 

But the problem is, 90% of models have a "Quality" of 2,3 or 4 or a "Combat" ability of 2, 3 or 4. That's not a lot of differentiation in a genre (fantasy) where creatures tend towards the weird and wacky extremes.   So how do we make the models different? How can we clearly separate a goblin with a dagger in full plate armour from a undead werewolf in a loincloth with a poleaxe?   
The magic bullet for all modern wargames - the "Special Rule."

Song of Blades is actually a pretty fun game and I'd recommend it. However it's a pretty good example of the "no stats, zillion special rules" brigade

Because Song of Blades "simplifies" itself by using only two of those evil stats which confuse us so much, it now needs to rely on special rules to describe the miniatures (more than 100 extra rules, scattered across 2 or 3 "supplements" you also have to pay for). Most models come with 2-3 special rules by default - which in effect, simply replaces the "stats" with a "special rule."  Even then, it is impossible to describe a miniature with the same accuracy.  

In return from reducing the perfectly manageable stats of say Lord of the Rings (Fight, Shoot,  Defence, Attacks, Wounds, Courage) and its ~30 "special" rules, Song of Blades has not only lost accuracy, but also added an extra 70+ rules.  Adding 70 extra rules doesn't seem like an effective way to simplify something to me. Lose accuracy, and add rules - hardly seems a sensible trade-off.

"Special Rules" are not evil in themselves
They are important as they add flavour to special units or particular factions. They go beyond "stats" and help give units a different "feel" on the battlefield.  I'd go so far as to say a game without any special rules is doomed to failure. Special rules are invaluable when used sparingly.


A special rule is an exception to the norm.  It is an extra rule.  It is something else to remember.  It adds complexity, it does not "simplify."   When special rules become the core mechanic of the game, that's when something is wrong. 

In all warfare, all movement is 6"
OK, pop quiz. Name a set of rules where infantry (foot) movement isn't 6."


Starting from (I think) around 40K 3rd edition, game designers decided it was too hard for gamers to remember that forces can move different distances.  Despite the fact no one had ever complained about it or ever had problems remembering before.  Whether you are a troll, a hobbit, a undead cyborg or a space marine, from now on everyone moves 6." 

But wait. 

It's obvious not all minis are created equal. The speedy biotech space elves should go faster than a shambling plague zombie, right?  Since we can't simply change the digit in our "move" stat, we need to make up a "special rule" or two. 

We'll give the elf a new special rule  - "Fast Runner" and allow him to add +3" to his movement.
We'll give the zombie a new special rule "Slow Mover" and reduce his movement by -3".

If we wanted more differentiation (so far, the only speeds available are 3", 6" and 9"), we'd have to make up even MORE special rules to describe distances like 4", 5" etc.  Wouldn't it be simpler just to have a "Move" stat and change the number after it?

Sometimes, stats ARE simpler.

For all that is its fashionable to bash Games Workshop, their LOTR series is, I feel, surprisingly underrated.  It has a sensible balance and its "might" mechanic adds the "fifth element."  However it is a bit too balanced and subtle for the 40K/WHWB audience and thus remains the redheaded stepchild of the GW stable.  I'm predicting it joins other "good" GW games like Space Hulk, BFG, Epic, Bloodbowl etc in the scrapheap as soon as the Hobbit movies conclude.

There is a trend in game designers to abandon traditional "stats"and replace them with "special rules" to "simplify" games. However this does not actually simplify games, as in effect, the "stats" are simply replaced with a range of "special rules" which aren't even as accurate as describing the character.  It's false economy.

Going from, say, 5 accurate, descriptive stats to 2 very very generic, vague "catch all" stats, then adding 70 extra rules to replace those 3 stats, does not make a game simpler or easier to remember.

Yes, we don't want a RPG-type game where we have stats for everything, i.e. units don't need stats for obscure stuff like Nose Picking and Bum Scratching. However with common stuff all units use - like movement, morale, missile and melee ability - which is shared by pretty much every unit in a game - it makes sense to have a shared "stat."  

In the rush to ditch stats for 101 special rules - let's not toss the baby out with the bathwater. There needs to be a balance.

Disclaimer: I have nothing against Song of Blades and Heroes and I recommend it as a great fun way to revive old fantasy miniatures (it has a strong "points builder" allowing you to make armies of random models). It's just a handy "case study" many people will be familiar with.


  1. Maybe a rule of thumb:

    When should it be a "STAT?" - when every unit in the game uses it

    When should it be a "SPECIAL RULE" - when it is actually "SPECIAL" aka, rare, specific to a faction or particular unit

  2. I totally concur with you assessment regarding SBH. I played it quite regularly four-five year back and ended up buying all the supplements to get the special rules. It became obvious too that some of these special rules had not been adequately play-tested. Matakishi's 'Crom' rules is similarly 'bare-bones' and abstracts virtually everything, but is a much better system in my opinion. I talk about it on the latest post of my blog.

    1. Enjoyed your post. I like the "Oldhammer" concept - I did a similar thing with Mordhiem which is still revived locally from time to time, but like you I couldn't stand the mechanics after a while.

      I also enjoyed SoBH which was a lovely "breath of fresh air" but I found it lacked lasting appeal - most people cited the reasons the "too simple, yet too many special rules" - which seems a bit contradictory, but I think I've explained it above.

  3. First of all just wanted to say that I really enjoy reading your blog, I often run into your posts here while surfing the web and you tend to discuss very interesting and relevant tabletop wargaming topics.

    Anyway in regards to this blog entry, I think it's really important to look at the context of the game and what it tries to accomplish. SBH as you know strives to be a very generic set of fantasy rules to use with any miniatures, which I really think is the reason for the large level of abstraction. I personally really like the minimal stat system the game uses, though I do think "movement" should be a stat (I also think having "unit types" would have helped with limiting the game's special rules clutter but that's a whole other topic).

    On the other hand, games like Lord of the Rings (LOTR) have very specific settings and so really benefit from having more stats, which allow for more granularity and precision. It's easier to represent differences between Aragorn and Boromir by having more numerical stats, while in SBH these guys would both probably be treated as "a human warrior hero" with much more similar profiles due to the generic nature of the game. I do agree with your overall points but I think the context and objectives of a game system have a lot to do with its approach to "stats vs special rules".

    1. I do agree with your point the comparison is a little unfair due to the more generic nature of SoBH, but the general points stands. (Both systems are likely to be familiar to readers).

      Even simple "fixes" such as using a d10 rather than a d6 might have even added more "specificity" to the SoBH rules.

  4. Force on Force and Tomorrow's War are a good example of this. FoF does cut-down stats very well. It's one of the (few) things in the rules I have no complaints about. Two basic stats - troop quality and morale - generic weapon rules and a modest number of special rules (at least in the core game). It wouldn't be hard to set up a game using regular forces without using any special rules. But when I've played FoF I never felt like anything was missing from the statlines, and differences in organisation and equipment can make a big difference.

    Tomorrow's War, on the other hand, starts to come undone a bit. To start with, the limits of the unit profiles restrict what you can do with it (a phenomenon described in your 'Vietnam in Space' post). However to try and get the sci-fi flavour they start adding extra rules and special rules. For example, with weapons, most troops have conventional ballistic rifles or advanced ballistic weapons (a simple +1 firepower). But if you want to be a bit more interesting there are four new classes of support weapons: energy weapons, railguns, lasers and plasma weapons, each of which has different effects at different tech levels! Part of this is just bad design - there's no need for it to be quite so complicated - but it also comes from stretching the limits of a simple system.

  5. I completely agree. FoF feels "right". The stat lines are fine, and lumping weapons together (a 5.45mm AK and a 5.56mm M16 are functionally identical) makes perfect sense. SAW/RPK, LAW/RPG, Makarov/Colt - the list goes on. All combatants are human and training is the determining factor. FoF are my favourite modern rules.

    TW simply means all aliens are "men in rubber suits." They even say somewhere in the rules that they expect all stuff acts the same - i.e. a Zarg with a force shield is much like a marine in power armour, or a blaster works much like a plasma cutter in its effect. This comparison seems a rather "forced" and it seems like they are squishing the setting to fit the rules.

    They then add to the system as you say, with a myriad of special rules which may/may not make sense (and don't add that much flavour anyway, in most cases.)

    1. Interestingly, some games are reverting to a stat line - here, Deadzone introduces a movement stat to "simplify" things and remove Fast/Slow special rules...