Monday 15 December 2014

"Gameplay" Philosophy in Wargames: Game Design #15

//Massive wall of text incoming// for genuine nerds wargame enthusiasts only. //

A lot of wargame designers spend a lot of time coming up with the lastest whiz-bang mechanics but there are only a certain amount of ways you can resolve combat.  But game mechanics are just means to an end. I've already talked about Design Philosophy " - having an overarching goal with a series of self-imposed success criteria; but this article is more "Gameplay" Philosophy.

Gameplay: the features of a game, such as its plot and the way it is played, as distinct from the graphics and sound effects.

Sid Meier calls gameplay "A series of interesting choices." 

The Argument
I think a very important (but often neglected) question is "how do you want the game to play"? 
-How does the game unfold in your mind? What would a game "look" like?
-What decisions do you want the players to be making? What tactics should they use to succeed?
In short - how do you want the players to play your game?  

A.  The game designer needs to decide what the gameplay should emphasize.
B.  Then the designer has to reward the behaviours it wants to see, and punish those that do not "fit."
C. The designer must realise some "game engines" are better suited to facilitate certain gameplay styles then others.  (This seems only logical, but a lot of wargame designers ignore this, or create "reasons" why their engine works for every period or scale)

In Warmachine, memorizing special rules and knowing the best combos and synergies between units is important. This gives a big advantage in breaking through to kill the enemy caster (and thus win the game), so players naturally gravitate towards working with cheesy combinations.  Knowing an enemies special attacks/combinations is likewise very important. Knowledge of these rules mechanics and interactions is thus more important than maneuver, flanking etc.

 In 40K, army building and deployment can virtually decide a game before it starts, and games seldom last more than a half-dozen turns. Some armies are helpless against certain other army "builds."  So army building becomes an important skill valued by the players.  A player who throws together a random army will be unable to compete with one who has "min-maxed" his forces.  It has army lists with strict structures. "Gaming" the army-building system becomes a mini-game in itself.

These are factors of the game's design.  The way the game was made encourages and rewards players to play that particular way.

Realism is relative. A space fantasy might have more gameplay in common with medieval fantasy than modern warfare.
Realism vs Complexity
I've discussed this at more length elsewhere, but gamers often confuse realism with complexity.  Complexity = complicated, slow game.  Realism = players act in a historically sensible way.  Whatis "realistic"varies for period or genre.  For a Star Wars game, "realism" could encompass force powers, and deflecting shots with a lightsabre.  In a Napoleonic game "realism"would include firing by ranks, with relatively short-ranged, slow-firing weapons.

People say "pah, realism - it's only a game with toy soldiers" - but imagine a Napoleonic game where muskets fire three times a turn, hitting on a 2+ roll out to 96"; and models moved only 3" a turn.  People say they don't want realism, but what they are really rejecting is complexity - not the same thing.

Your "gameplay philosophy" includes you defining "realism" within your game. How do you plan on  making your viking players want to fight in a shieldwall?  A modern game should make using cover important, along with suppression and move-and-fire "bounding" tactics. Can your favourite game engine actually do this, or are you just justifying to yourself a reason not to start afresh?

Not all Game Engines are Good for All Gameplay Types
A common trait nowdays it to create a wargame engine (say 2HW "reaction"system, or the SoBH mechanics) then apply it to every combat setting under the sun. 

PC games devs also re-use game engines - but they realise the game engine for a shooter like Call of Duty is not ideal for a strategy game like Civilization or a RTS like Starcraft. Or even if you can shoehorn it in, the game engine is not "optimised" to perform well in that role.

Some eras do interchange more easily i.e. modern & near future sci fi; or fantasy and medieval - but the scale of game needs also be considered.  A system designed for 1:1 squad skirmish does not necessarily excel at company-level actions. 

Rewarding Good Gameplay: Example
Now we've pictured what we want our game to play like - how do we make players play this way - in a way realistic to our genre?
Infinity is a 1:1 based squad-level skirmish game that rewards good positioning of models and use of cover, and punishes models crossing/left in the open.  Missile weapons are very dominant over melee.

When a player activates a model, every enemy model in LoS can fire on it.  This means you have to think very carefully about which model you choose to move, and where you want to leave your models positioned/facing at the end of your turn.

To make this even more important, consider: 1. guns can cover almost the entire table, 2. models die very easily to even a single bullet, and 3. cover offers major benefits both "to hit" and "defence" rolls - far in excess of any difference in the skills/defences of the respective units.

Put this together and you have a game where players move in quick bursts from cover to cover, and leave models positioned where they can cover open spaces, but have partial concealment themselves.  Using multiple turns to cross open ground toward a prepared foe will lead to almost certain death, even if you are using an uber-wtfbbqwn-mechsuit.

In the case of Infinity, the designers encourage the sensible use of cover and "covering" of fire lanes.
 How did they do it?  By allowing models to react to active models, firing in a very lethal manner, AND by giving generous cover modifiers that makes good use of cover almost mandatory to survival.
The importance of game modifiers > unit stats means "army building" is not so important as in-game decisions - in fact the Infinity players have a saying "It's not your army list - it's you" - i.e. you lose because of poor in-game tactics, not because of the models you bring.

What Engines for What Genre
You can see the Infinity (sci fi) engine could probably be easily adapted to a modern 1:1 skirmish game (perhaps even WW1/WW2) but is not necessarily suitable for a Napoleonic game, or a medieval/fantasy one.  And whilst it works for skirmish, it may not necessarily make a good game for platoon level or higher actions where complete squads of troops work in unison.

Some engines work better for melee (i.e. SoBH and Flying Lead use the same engine, but it is not optimal for the shooting-orientated Flying Lead); some better for shooting (Infinity) over melee.  Some handle certain quantities of bases (i.e. LoTR:SBG is best at 20-40 minis, but Infinity works better with less than 10).  

Written orders might be acceptable for a age-of-sail game but not for a fast-paced skirmish.  A system that emphasizes a leaders'' "command radius" might be less relevant in a game with modern long-range radios.

Reaction systems might be implemented differently in 1:1 skirmish compared to a platoon game where the reacting unit is not one man but a group of soldiers.

These are just random examples.  The important thing is that a game dev considers if his systems main "emphasis" fits with the main emphasis of the era or genre being gamed.

Rewarding/Punishing Player Choices
You can see from the Infinity example it is possible to use both game mechanics (in this case, reactive fire) and modifiers to guide players choices and "shape"the tactics players use.

Another option (used notably by Two Hour Wargames) is to take control off players by using dice rolls to determine unit reactions to situations.  This works to a degree, but I feel it is the lazy way - your game should not prescriptively force players to do x or y as it reduces gameplay choices, or, as I call them "decison points" that allow players to interact with the game.

Instead, the game design should influence players by making it common sense to take certain choices.  You COULD simply make it so infantry small arms cannot hurt tanks OR you can  design your game so yes, you can run 100m in the open to attack a Tiger tank by firing your Colt .45 into the viewports but the game mechanics should (if it is a standard WW2 game, not a pulp/superhero game) make this near suicidal.

In videogames they have "XP" (experience points) and stats to reward players - something that may also be available in wargame campaigns where minitaures can improve stats and gain traits and abilities.  I call this a "soft"reward - they are hidden but nonetheless influence behaviour. 
In a popular PC sci fi shooter I once played, power armour  suits were running rampant - often downing entire platoons of troops before dying.  Their weapons and armour were "nerfed" repeatedly with little effect, but then the company increased the XP for killing one from 200 to 500.  It solved the problem as every player within view range of the mech would instantly concentrate fire on it, quickly bringing it down. Mechsuits focussed on other mechsuits rather than squishier enemy forces.  The mechsuit plague was ended.  The company simply used a reward to change the players' behaviour.

Commercial Choices > Gameplay
This is a little off topic, but I notice in some cases gameplay is driven by commercial purposes; i.e. Games Workshop encourages players to experiment with their army lists as it results in more miniatures sales.  In fact one may cynically suggest their codexes - supplements that regularly update a particular army or faction - deliberately "improve" factions over others, creating a never-ending "arms race" to own miniatures of the best faction/s.

I feel the gameplay of Bolt Action and Flames of War has been diluted due to a desire to incorporate mechanics familiar to 40K and Warhammer Fantasy players. These mechanics are not necessarily the best choices to give realistic WW2 gameplay, but were chosen to facilitate players "converting" over from popular GW rulesets. (It worked well, I might add)

Gameplay Shapes Player Behaviour
I notice wargamers tend to split into several "camps" - the competitive crowd who play popular games like 40K or Warmachine in tournaments or points-based games; the historical crowd who play scenarios and like things to be accurate, and the indie crowd who play more casual games, with a focus on story and "background."

I've noticed the latter two player types tend to hate games with "points systems" - but I would suggest it is more the competitive players the points systems attract.  A competitive player simply views the points system as another part of the game in which to compete and excel in.  An "indie" player who is looking an outing for his cool, themed army (which had been designed for a its interesting background story, rather than its winning potential) can quickly get frustrated, and swap to games where they are less likely to encounter the player type (or his where his min-maxing is less "legitimized' by the system.) 

A player who is constantly exposed to a particular type of system tends to have their expectations shaped by it - hence the success of Flames of War and Bolt Action who have collected competitive players (who have never previously been historical players) into the historical camp, due to their game design.

Remember: if a game makes performing an action attractive, people will do it.   Gamers are not some uniquely altruistic species of human.  The game design needs to encourage desired behaviours which are "common sense" for the genre, and discourage others.  For example, in a PC game the mechanics allowed people to run around at top speed, firing a RPG into foes within touching distance.  Naturally this amusing and effective tactic caught on fast. Players were banned for doing this - but it was the games fault - it allowed point blank, hipfired RPG shots with 0 splash damage to the shooter or his comrades. 

Wargame devs often focus on a cool game mechanic, without consideration to overall gameplay. 

Gameplay is the choices you offer the player, and good game design can make players act a certain way or emphasize a certain aspect of the game, i.e. army building in 40K, or use of cover in Infinity.

PC devs know game engines are not universal; wargame designers also need to learn this lesson: i.e. using the same mechanics for multi-base battalion-level Napoleonics as for modern 1:1 skirmish and spaceship combat is not always optimal.  Rather than rationalize why you should re-use your game engine - consider, are there reasons you shouldn't?  When you originally made the game engine, was the type of warfare similar to what you are trying to simulate now?

You can reward and punish players in a variety of ways through your game system, so it becomes simply common sense to play a particular way.  "Realism" is not = complexity, and is relative to your genre.

Certain styles of gameplay attract a certain type of player; and regular playing of a particular gameplay style can alter a player's behaviour. Players are not altruistic, and they will often chose the winning move over the one you think/expect them too.

Final thought:  It's important when designing a game, designers not only to consider how to play the game, but how the game should actually be played. 


  1. (Im not stalking you, I just think you post interesting things, honest!)

    By and large in agreement here. This is part of why I think it's so important to have some sort of description of what you are actually trying to do. Whether it's a preface (clearly marked, instead of spread throughout as commentary), a designers notes page, a short list of objectives in front or on the back cover or something similar.

    I've thought about this often coming from a strong RPG background. The same gaming group will act differently in Harn than they will in Runequest and differently again in D&D.
    D&D explicitly rewards combat (by making it a source of experience points, in some versions, the only source) while a game like Harn discourages it (by making you die horribly from the infected wounds afterwards). This spirals out into a general gaming culture from there.

    1. I'm not thinking stalking, but I did wonder the hours you are awake (I'm presuming you're from a Scandinavian country, and you seem active in my Australian timezone!)

      In the first link "Design Philosophy" I've said this seems to be a dying art - not many games have a "foreword" where designers articulate their philosophy (and make themselves accountable) - this is common in older rulesets.

      A good design philosophy keeps a game "focussed" and gives you something to measure game ideas against.

      Ironically, a few years ago I started making a spaceship game on this blog, but have got frustrated with it as I cannot live up to my own "design criteria"!

    2. Danish, living in the United States and staying up very late, frequently. So.. you know.. citizen of the world :)

      Isn't it the worst feeling when you set out to write something and realize it just isn't going to be what you wanted it to be?

      For every thing I actually put out, I have 3 or 4 ideas that weren't fit to live.

  2. Nice article, I enjoyed it and agreed with 95%. Two quick points:

    - die rolled reactions greatly enable solo wargaming and are a useful mechanism from that perspective. I agree with your premise, though sometimes coping with an outcome other than that intended is a good challenge too.

    - when considering what you want out of a game, consider what is FUN, both for you and your opponent(s). That may change with different players, situations and opponents, but different game mechanisms as you've articulated will suit different circumstances.

    1. -Agree with your co-op point. I should have added a disclaimer. I don't mind dice rolled reactions for games, but not for EVERY game and situation.

      -Fun is always #1, but it's a bit hard to judge as "fun" varies so much, whilst "complexity" and "realism" is a bit more concrete.

      One thing I wish is that all game designers HAVE to play their own game once a week, at a local club against random opponents, rather than a bunch of mates (friends are not always your best critics, and less likely to douche-ily try to break the game).

      Also, they should give the rulebook to someone who has never playtested it before, and get them to explain the rules back to them BEFORE it is published; this would prove the rules are coherent on their own.

      (I.e. The old 2HW stuff might be poorly laid out, but the excellent word of mouth/promotion where most people have it shown to them by another "enthusiast" tends to disguise the fact)

    2. I too like 2HW games but find them less than intuitive to pick up quickly. They are worth persevering with though!

    3. I have nothing against 2HW and have always found Ed to be a great guy. I'm attacking the poorly written rules, not the man (or even the system, which is great for solo play and in some - not all - genres/situations.)

    4. It's funny you mention that. One of the things that make playtesting so hard is that you have to figure out if the testers are actually playing the game you wrote :)

      That depends a LOT on clear writing but I've had feedback come back on early drafts where the tester loved the game.... and it was super clear that they had totally not understood from what I wrote, what was actually supposed to be happening. :)

  3. There are many factors here as you note and the selection of these factors by the game designer (because design is a choice of what you emphasize) will depend on who you think your market is as well as what you want your game to do. I typically expect the game designer who emphasizes "fun" and playability to make fewer selections from the accuracy and history and complexity parts of the stockroom, which is ok unless you value these things. Thus a game like Bolt Action where, I'm told, the range of rifles is less than the length of a popular Pegasus Bridge model is so nonsensical to me that it ceases to be fun, because I want my game designs to have some resemblance to history and reality.

    1. I'd argue "fun and playability" are not necessarily opposite to "accuracy, history and complexity." That's an assumption often made by game designers, but not a correct one. Accuracy/history and complexity are not the same, neither even on the same side of the equation.

      As you say, "history and fun" can (and should) go together. I doubt many players say "The game is very unrealistic, therefore it makes it more fun for me."

      In the case of Bolt Action, the entire design philosophy had nothing to do with any of the above, but rather in ensuring compatibility/similarity with 40K. In this, they succeeded admirably.

      In this case, not only the game mechanics, but also the ranges (24" rifle range vs 6"move) exactly match 40K - a space fantasy where "realism" can encompass a rifle with a 50 metre range more appropriate to a smoothbore musket than a Mauser 7.62mm.

      The sad thing is, the 24"range wasn't needed - changing it to 48" would not have made it less easy to understand for a 40K player (although you might not find it as easy to use similar tactics - you might have to use (GASP) more historical tactics....

  4. I played Flames of War once and it was probably the most unsatisfying game I've played. Despite playing on sculpted terrain with beautifully painted miniatures (and winning by a huge margin) I was puzzled and disappointed at how unlike a WWII engagement it was. Puzzled because so many people don't seem to realise this and disappointed that it not only doesn't reward sensible tactical play for the period but actually prevents one attempting it.

    I played Bolt Action last month too and it was crap (but not as crap as FoW). 'We all had fun though so it was ok' I was told. I didn't have fun but I lied to spare feelings. I'm glad I tried it and I'm glad I won't have to play it again. So much of both games didn't make any sense.

    No reaction fire was a major contributing factor that made the whole thing a joke and an utterly pointless exercise for me. Interestingly I felt more outraged at being able to do stuff that would be impossible in a real situation than I did about not being able to prevent my opponent from doing the same.

    People are entitled to enjoy whatever game they want of course and everyone likes different things. As a game designer I design games I'd like to play and hope there's enough others like me to make it worthwhile and not just an exercise in vanity. Trying to cater to everyone is going to put Sisyphus to shame and I no longer bother giving it any thought during the design process.

    Great blog by the way.

    1. I think your experience reflect mine (and a not-insubstantial subset of gamers).

      I find it a weird, as if I was going to play WW2 I use a WW2 ruleset, not a fantasy one. Imagine pushing WW2 armies around whilst consulting a 40K rulebook. You'd get weird looks. But that, in effect, is what players are doing, and because it has WW2 pictures inside no one seems to dig deeper.

      I think some people will never look beyond the surface and they don't care to. THEY are having fun, so I guess it's fine for them. Pity about the rest of us.

      Thanks for the kind words - your blog is a source of inspiration: the #1 reason that got me interested in scratch-building terrain.