Saturday 4 January 2014

Game Design #4: Keep it Consistent

This isn't a recent phenomenon, but something that bothers me when I use rules is that they use too many different dice mechanics to resolve actions.

No one likes a billion charts, tables and dice modifiers - I think we will take that as a given - but sometimes games can be confusing in other ways.  So here's the argument for today:

Rules need a consistent underlying mechanic.
What is a consistent underlying mechanic?  This is the dice mechanic you use to resolve most of your activities. It's kinda like the "core engine" of the game.  In videogames, they call it the "game engine" for example CryEngine and Unreal are underlying programming structures used to make a range of games.
Warmachine is awesome - if you like your wargames to be like collectable card games. It does, however, use a consistent mechanic.

One Ruleset to Rule Them All? No thanks!
Now, I deeply dislike the modern trend for a publisher to put out a zillion different rulesets, all using the same "engine" - i.e. the same medieval fantasy skirmish "engine" effectively powers 40K, LOTR, FoW and Bolt Action. Warmachine and Gruntz are share 95% commonality.  Even indie designers fall in this trap (i.e. anything by Ganesha or Two Hour Wargames). It's a seductive. I mean, the system is proven to work, it is familiar (there is a reason movie sequels are so popular) and it is a good way to ease the transition to a new era (i.e. sci fi 40K players can easily convert to WW2 Bolt Action).  You don't even have to do to much work - all you need to do is alter the "chrome." Just swap in rifles for bolters, and halftracks for Rhinos, add a few era-specific "Special Rules" and you're good to go.

However that is often at the expense of realistic gameplay.  Sometimes WW2 company level combat, at a fundamental level, is not the same as melee-centric medieval skirmish and no amount of "Special Rules" will change that. A videogame designer would not expect to use the same programming to make a shooter like Call of Duty as well a strategy game like Starcraft. But wargame designers do it all the time. I call it the "MacDonalds" approach to making rules.


This post is about maintaining consistent mechanics WITHIN a a single, specific game.   In your game, do you roll 2 dice or three? Is rolling high good or bad?  Do we use only d6 or do we use different dice sizes?

My argument is that a specific wargame rulebook should, as much as possible, use a similar mechanic for all dice rolling.  This avoids confusion.  I'll try to frame it clearly:

Using the same mechanic for DIFFERENT games = BAD (generic, bland rules, that do not correctly simulate the era or type of warfare)

Using the same mechanic within the ONE game = GOOD (easy to remember, consistent, less looking up the rulebook)

Ok, some examples. 

Case Study #1:  Warmachine
Goodness knows I dislike this game (it's more akin to a card game like Magic The Gathering than a wargame) but the underlying mechanics are consistent. No matter what you are doing, be it a morale test, a missile or melee attack, here's the universal mechanic:

You roll 2d6 and add your relevant stat (Attack, Morale, etc) and try to beat a Target Number. 

Rolling high is always good. It's straightforward, and consistent.  There's nothing confusing here. Every time you need to resolve something, you take out 2d6 and try to get beat a given number. Simples!

(Disclaimer: There may be more than one mechanic, but I haven't played this in six months...

Case Study #2: Bag The Hun v2
It pains me to use this example, as I love how TFL tends to have a strong design philosophy - they know exactly what they are trying to achieve, and they are never wishy-washy and generic.    However, some rules read like a bunch of house rules randomly thrown together, as they make up a new rule mechanic for each and every possible situation.  Yes, by all means play the period, not the rules.  But let's keep the amount of rule mechanics reasonable, eh?

This, ironically, is my favourite WW2 air ruleset. I highly recommend it compared to the "written orders" (lame!) of Check Your Six.  The card activation system is very clever. But my goodness, the mechanics are all over the place.  Lets count how many different mechanics are used.

#1. Roll 2d6 and compare to a Target Number. Ah, the same as Warmachine. (Spotting)

#2. Roll one d6 and compare to a Target Number. +/- Modifiers. (Maneuvers, tailing, crash landings.)

#3. Roll "buckets" of d6, 5+ hit. +/- Dice. Defender does the same. Compare total successes. (Shooting)

#4. Roll a d10 on a chart (Damage)  Huh? We're using d10 now? This is the only time we need this dice.

#5. Opposed d6 roll. +/- Modifiers.  (Shooting at parachutes) Because shooting at parachutes is so important, it needs its own special mechanic.

#6. Roll 3 d6, count doubles and triples. (Air to air rockets).  Again, such a common occurence in-game, and this is the ONLY mechanic that would work.

#7. Roll buckets of d6, +/- dice AND use different target numbers (Bombing). Just to vary method #3 enough to keep you guessing. 

I'm not counting other "unintuitive" things, like how shooting at V1s does not use the usual shooting mechanic #3, but uses mechanic #1, just to be different.

Confused yet? 

Despite my comments, I do recommend Bag the Hun as the best WW2 air warfare game out.  The card mechanics are good, allow you to handle more than one aircraft each, and are a great alternative to writing stuff down. *cough* CheckYourSix *cough*
So.  Whilst, ironically, I dislike Warmachine and I recommend Bag The Hun, I'd prefer Bag the Hun to restrict itself to, say, a maximum of 2-3 mechanics for resolving combat situations.  Having more than half a dozen unique mechanics within a single rulebook can be confusing and gives the impression of a bunch of house rules randomly thrown together, rather than a coherent game system.  

So here's my Game Design Point #4 (Consistency):

Please, please use different mechanics for different eras and styles of warfare. No, tactics used in medieval warfare are NOT identical to those used in WW2. 

But within a specific ruleset, please keep rule mechanics consistent.  Within a rulebook, a consistent dice mechanic stops confusion and frustration, and that's always good, isn't it?*

*Or maybe not. Perhaps it is a deliberate attempt to confuse gamers and create more battlefield "friction" <- Lardie gamers will know what I'm talking about

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