Thursday 3 July 2014

Game Design #14: "The Forgotten" - Terrain, Victory Conditions, "Deathmatches" and Balance

I've already suggested a balanced "point system" is an impossibility, but I'd like to look at how terrain and victory conditions effect the value of a unit/piece/miniature, and how these are poorly managed in most rulebooks.

The impact of terrain and missions on gameplay are seldom well explained in most rule books. Most rulesets do not even mention their expected "terrain" layout  - which can radically alter the gameplay and game balance between factions.  Most rulesets offer only a very few alternate victory conditions (i.e. "scenarios" or "missions"), and even then, they are added as an afterthought. It's ironic that rules typically devote half their page total to "fluff" whilst neglecting factors that strongly influence the actual gameplay.

The value of a chess piece would change if the conditions for victory change. I.e. "kill half the enemy pieces" vs the usual "capture the king."  Missions/scenarios likewise change the value of war gaming units. 

Alternate Victory Conditions (a.k.a Missions/Scenarios)
Too many games simply have a "kill em all" or "deathmatch" gameplay where the game continues until one side "breaks" due to failed morale checks or simply gets cut down to the last man. Most games don't offer more than 4 or 5 missions at best, and usually it's obvious the mission part of the rules has been added as an afterthought.

Not only do scenarios add to the replay value of a rules set by adding interest and minimizing repetition, but they also alter the balance of units individually, and armies as a whole.

Let's use a chess analogy.  Since in chess the "victory condition" is "capture the king" the king is... pretty much priceless.  However, if the victory condition or "mission" was changed to "wipe out half or all the enemy pieces" then the queen, and probably also the bishop, knight and rook would be more valuable. Changing the victory conditions for chess would radically change the relative value of the piece.

In the sci fi skirmish Infinity, combat hackers are a useful option but not a "must-have" inclusion in most armies. In missions that require hacking, they suddenly assume paramount importance. It's not always so black and white though.  In a mission that requires you to move to and seize objectives, fast units (and thus the armies that possess them) might have a substantial advantage.

Scenarios or missions need to be designed in such a way that accomplishing objectives is attractive.  Too many times, missions devolve into a "deathmatch" anyway - when one player realizes it is simpler to accomplish his mission objectives when his opponent is dead.  For example, Malifaux has a impressive array of scenarios, and also fun "side missions" where player secretly nominate an objective that their opponent is unaware of.  However more than once when someone is spreading out his forces to grab objectives at corners of the table I've seen another player ignore his "mission" in favour of simply killing his opponent with a massed "blob" of troops, then accomplishing his objectives at leisure.

Dropzone Commander is a game that works well with scenarios

Missions/scenarios need to actually be playtested and balanced.  Just like every other part of the game.  I review a lot of rulebooks. The vast majority of rules have a "mission/scenario" section of two pages, maximum.  Sometimes the missions and scenarios are actually written and released after the rulebook as a moneygrab expansion. It's obvious from the writing that most missions/scenarios are hastily "tacked on" after the rulebook was complete.  I strongly doubt most commercial wargames rules are balanced around anything except "deathmatch" games. How often do you hear people say "oh, in XY mission faction Z always wins" or "in this scenario the attacker always loses."  That's a sign of poor mission design.  (Unless, of course, it is a historical scenario, a la Battle of Little Big Horn)

A "Good" Example: A game that does "alternate victory conditions a.k.a. missions) well is Dropzone Commander.  It seems designed purposefully to fit with various scenarios  - you tend to need infantry to capture and hold objectives. However infantry themselves are absmally slow and rely on dropships to get them to objectives. Since dropships can bypass enemy forces to go straight for objectives, and, once on the objectives, infantry are difficult to evict, you can't just roll around in a big deathball of mechs or mega-tanks killing everyone to win your mission.  The game mechanics thus support the missions provided. I strongly suspect the designer would have been playtesting various scenarios at the same time he was designing the core game. 

 Lack of cover on a map means long range units will tend to dominate and be more "powerful" relative to their cost.
Anyone who has played Infinity will tell you the importance of line-of-sight blocking terrain. For a decent game, you NEED a terrain piece every 4" or so.  Without it plenty of cover, forces could decimate each other from their starting zones and HMGs and snipers would rule supreme. Their relative "value" would be much higher.  Indeed, even one tall building can totally mess up the balance of the game, allowing one side to dominate the board with sweeping, lethal fields of fire.  Close-range weapons such as shotguns and flamethrowers tend to be only effective on the most cluttered of maps.

In the average game of LoTR, a game where a usual 4x6 table would be very open, with at most 3-4 terrain pieces scattered at random on it, I notice that my terrain-heavy boards rendered archery very ineffective, and thus worth less than their listed value.  My goblin army, which can climb over and around obstacles with no penalty, always did exceptionally well on these boards.    My table changed the value of various units and armies.

Another example: I've been playing a PC game based on the Battletech franchise called Mechwarrior: Online.  In this game,  close range "brawling" mechs equipped with lasers and rockets can only work effectively on the very few cluttered maps where you can close to point-blank range.  However, 80% of maps have very little cover and are full of wide open spaces which allows sniper mechs to easily out-range them and tear them up before they can close. On paper, the mechs are balanced. However due to the nature of maps (terrain), the sniper mech have an advantage the vast majority of the time, and thus in practice are far more "powerful."

On my typical cluttered gaming boards, my agile goblins punch above their weight against bow-armed elves.

Conclusions - Terrain
We can see terrain plays an important part of game balance between armies, and can change the nature of the game itself.   However while all rules explain the bare mechanics of how terrain works "in rough going halve movement" and "-1 to missile fire through soft cover" they seldom explain how much and what type of terrain is required, which can radically impact gameplay.

Games like Infinity the Game need an entire chapter devoted to it, as setting up an Infinity table is something of an art, with great care given to the effective placement of LoS-blocking terrain.  Playing Infinity with a industry-standard "40K" level of terrain would result in an unpleasant, bloody experience with the game likely over by the end of the first turn.

 Most rules neglect to say what a "typical" table would look like and how you should set it up.
 This article gives  good rundown on how to set up an Infinity table.  This information should arguably be included in a rulebook, ahead of "painting guides" "fluff" and other things less essential to gameplay. 

I'd like to see all rulebooks come with a "terrain placement guide" - which could be as simple as a rule dividing a table into 12" squares and making sure at least half of them have a terrain piece in them. Or it could be a dice-based "terrain generator" Or a series of top-down photos or maps of gaming tables explaining how the terrain impacts the gameplay.

"How a Warhammer player sets up an Infinity board" 
(alternate title)  "How the **** Did All My Guys Die in Turn #1?"

Conclusions - Missions (a.k.a. Alternate Victory Conditions)
As scenarios/missions can drastically alter how the game plays, and the relative effectiveness of certain units/armies, they need to be rigorously playtested and balanced just like any other part of the rules.

Scenarios and Missions need considered DURING game creation, rather than being tacked on as an afterthought. In fact, a player who is setting out to design a game should ask himself "what missions and objectives are going to be in my game?" and make sure his game mechanics mesh with those. 

Care must be given to
(a) provide a range of missions that do not just favour one army or one unit type
(b) give both sides in any given "mission" a reasonable chance of winning
(c) make completing mission objectives more attractive than just "killing em all" so players don't just turn the game into a deathmatch anyway

As you can see, that is a pretty demanding set of requirements and would take more thought and explanation than a single page at the back of the rulebook.

TL:DR  Whilst game designers like to think they are budding novelists, I'd like to see them put less effort into "fluff"  and more into neglected areas like terrain layout and scenario design, that actually matter to how the game plays out.


  1. Thanks for talking about this, as I've been trying to get my head around working missions/terrain out first and then fitting time and material into that space instead of just going with the fun stuff and letting the players sort it out.

    It might be worth your time checking out Andy Chambers' 1st edition of Starship Troopers.

    1. I have a copy of Starship Troopers. A good game and an interesting look at the direction 40K could have gone if Games Workshop had an ounce of innovation (or commonsense).

      Now, they're playing mass-battle games with what is essentially a RPG-lite/skirmish ruleset. It isn't a good mass battle game and it would now be too bland and generic for skirmish/RPG.

      A long time ago they should have realized a complete change of rules mechanics was needed to meet the new criteria - i.e. a streamlined game allowing lots of miniatures to be sold.

  2. I may be self promoting somewhat but the system I have been working on is designed around a system of hidden primary objectives that are semi randomly determined and based upon the faction.

    In addition the system features various types of Leader and not combat orientated Specialist options that a factions can utilise in there force, some of these provide bonus submissions (not hidden) that if completed will grant additional victory points and post game resources/reward.

    Finally I am introducing additional mission requirements for factions including Combat Specialists and Mercenaries, these randomly determined missions (fairly standard) inflict a Victory point & reward penalty to players unless completed, the penalties will be minor and the mission geared to the specialist, being relatively straight forward but I feel it will provide a interesting clause to fielding these combat heavy Characters or for utilising Mercenaries to provide access to abilities not normally a feature of your faction.

    This will be built into a system of a variable condition core Scenario template (Skills, Talents and luck can influence the variables) to create what I hope is a extremely variable objective system.

    In addition there will be specific scenarios for set situations but these will use far less variation in there design though they will include a whole host of primary, secondary and tertiary objectives for all the involved factions but these scenarios are something that I will add once the main system and Mission style is play tested and fully functional.

    I hope the combination of secret objectives, alongside the system of bonus objective options and negative forced objectives will not only make games a extremely unpredictable experience but also force players to really think about the forces they take on a mission during a campaign.

    Players have a progressing campaign force like a necro gang but a bit bigger, from which they can choose a team at a team to complete the hidden mission limited by the resource allowance the mission provides. So its not just the missions that are extremely variable but the force sizes will vary due to the mission (which will be listed as a percentage of your entire roster between 40-65%) and also due to the size of your force, since the campaign uses a detailed progression and acquisition system. ( As well as Massive bonuses for underdogs, including bonus experience, expendable budgets, scenario alterations, additional rewards and possibly additional primary mission that allows the player to complete either one or both to win).

    As I hope you can tell these features are a major mechanic of the system and not a add on by any means. Anyway enough rambling, what I need to do is finish my system ( well the core is all done, I need to work on layout, examples and finish updating all the various sections to my play test release :D...

    Thanks for Reading

  3. There will be specific scenarios for set situations but these will use far less variation in there design though they will include a whole host of primary, secondary and tertiary objectives for all the involved factions but these scenarios are something that I will add once the main system and Mission style is play tested and fully functional.Thanks for sharing.

  4. Hey there fellah - long time no posts from you
    Hope you are ok

    1. I have a huge "hobby block"- a toddler who from the moment she could walk was deeply interested in everything dad does. She climbs on my lap, and comments on/is deeply absorbed in everything I do, thus bringing all hobby-related stuff to a standstill. However school holidays will see some "Dad alone" time - I have a backlog of game reviews and a truckload of projects on the burner.

    2. Well that sounds like a quality diversion at any rate. She'll be a teenager and rolling her eyes at you before you know it!

      Maybe this will help you get your Mojo back - THW has released its 5150 Fighter Command expansion, "Carrier Command"

  5. I may grab the PDF for 5150 FC, but I do have a few things which have been waiting the holidays: War of the Roses, LOTR skirmish campaign, ECW/horror skirmish, fighter subs, modified aeronef, Infinity, Heavy gear mechs. I want to do 1:600 coastal forces from modern/WW2 (I have 1:1200 but find them too small to be cool) but the price of models ($8 for a tiny resin ship) puts me off. Some French-Indian wars models await decent forest terrain, so that is a project too. I would like to do a post-apoc wasteland game using Eureka's NBC suited Russians, and I am currenty looking into Elizabethan-Conquistador games but am stymied for lack of models. Also I have some rules copies awaiting review.

    ...Ok that's a bit ambitious, but hey, I've got 6 weeks of holidays....

  6. Without ambition there wouldn't been unfulfilled gaming needs and that just wouldn't be...gaming!

    I've moved since our last emails, drop me a line at my new contact:

  7. Hi, thanks for the great series of articles. Good points, many of which I wholeheartedly agree with.

    You wrote:
    "How often do you hear people say "oh, in XY mission faction Z always wins" or "in this scenario the attacker always loses." That's a sign of poor mission design. (Unless, of course, it is a historical scenario, a la Battle of Little Big Horn)?

    Now it's easy to fix with some thought and playtesting. **Winning the game doesn't have to equal winning the battle.** It's easily adjustable with properly set victory conditions.

    For example even if you assume Little Big Horn cannot be won, you can define victory conditions which will give equal chance of success to both sides - for example hold for a given period of time, inflict enough casualties, manage to save some number of your men, etc.

    So even with overwhelming odds and battles that cannot be won, all that needs to be done is defining victory conditions than simply "kill all the enemies". Do better than your historical counterpart, hold off enemies longer until reinforcements arrive or enemy loses their momentum, inflict more casualties than your limited resources allow to expect, etc.

    All it takes is some more work and creativity. But that's just what you wrote...