Wednesday 30 December 2015

Aeronef Playtest 2v2 Destroyer duel

Testing my aeronef rules (available on the google group) I have updated a few rules
(a) new turning mechanic that allows hex or hexless play
(b) damage rules

The contestants were British destroyers - armed with 6 light guns, and German destroyers armed with 2 medium guns and 3 light guns.  Both had speed 6 (-2 slower than the norm) and were agile (a 60d turn at midpoint and end of turn) and had 5 hull boxes (+1 more than the norm).  Both got a free movement order and gained extra orders on a 6+. 

I was mostly interested in the damage mechanics but I messed it up; the German heavy guns should have hit on 8+ and 10+ (not the 7+ and 9+) and this proved very decisive.    On the upside, it shows how powerful the modifiers are, which is good.

 You can see the dice pips denote altitude, but also the colour of the dice denotes the speed - the green dice is flank speed and the yellow is cruise...

The British ships approached at 9000ft at flank speed, while the Germans were cruising at 15000ft. 

The Germans won the initiative and moved to "cross the T" of the British, remaining out of range. The British ships got a great order roll; they used another turn of flank speed and climbed level with the Germans.  A mostly ineffective exchange of fire at 4000 yards saw each side knock out a turret. 

My very sexy ship data sheets; a picture of the ship and a row of hull boxes underneath.  The damage and crit charts are scribbled nearby to remind me....

Now, since both sides were equipped with weapons (light and medium) able to perform reaction fire, I wasn't sure how to proceed so I "rolled off."  The Germans shot first; and since I forgot the -2 modifiers (medium gun vs light vessel) + (target obscured from explosions and smoke of last turn) they scored two heavy hits, smashing the hull of the lead British destroyer who slowed to a half speed and dropped down to 12,000ft, trailing smoke and flames. 

I've adapted many of my games to use a "hex ruler" which allows the same rules to be used for hex mats as well as  plain tabletop (easy to make thanks to online hex-making sites)

The second British destroyer hauled around hard to heroically "cover" her team mate, while the Germans curved around to keep their heavy turrets tracking the hapless British.  Again forgetting the medium gun v escort penalty, the shielding British destroyer had two guns and two hullboxes knocked out, to no avail; more shots hit her crippled consort, reducing her to 0 hull boxes (and raising the question, what does 0 hull boxes do?  Deciding on the spot it mean "sink 1 level per turn while drifting forward 1"), the Germans took return fire that jammed their rudder.    On an interesting aside, the damage caused a British destroyer to "sink" to 9,000ft and below the angle of the German guns....

At that point I realised I had stuffed up my modifiers and decided to restart.   But there was a few lessons learned....

*I need an "opposed roll" mechanic consistent with the "orders roll" - maybe 2d6 + crew skill to beat a fixed TN. 

*I need to check the reaction mechanics; with all light ships there is a murderous amount of gunfire - maybe limit reactions? But that requires tracking who has/hasn't fired.

*Maybe all shots have to take place AFTER all movement?  It may lead to ships "teleporting" past firing arcs unscathed (grrr) but would improve maneuver.

*Basically it denigrated into a murderous brawl once both sides closed to within the magic 4" "close quarters" range as both sides had the agility to stay in range, as well as the reaction mechanics granting extra shots.

*Having only 2 formations meant I couldn't really test initiative rules

*Still no idea how to implement clouds in-game  :-/

*If I had consistently applied my own rules properly, they would have worked far better...  i.e. at various stages I forgot:
- smoke blasts obscuring modifier
- deflection shooting
- medium guns vs escorts
- medium guns in reaction fire
...which could have radically altered the outcome; it would not only prolonged the fight from 4 to 6+ turns and also give the poor British a sporting chance against the heavier German guns....

Verdict: Playtest inconclusive; but game is a "playable" alpha build. A proper test of the shooting modifiers and tweaking of reactions is needed to declare it a "beta."


The game did give an entertaining game with 2v2 destroyers, which was good.  They felt like proper ships. I'd be interested to see how fast it plays with practice; my aim is 12v12 games taking 1.5hrs. 

Tuesday 29 December 2015

Air Wargames - Activation

I dislike the "write down orders" of traditional air wargames like CY6 - so what other activation options are out there?

Skimming through my rules a few days back I noticed two major trends outside the "written orders" trope.

C21, Scramble! and Luft 46 use a d10 + pilot skill to determine the sequence.  I dislike this as recording this needs ANOTHER dice on the table. And knowing ahead of time who moves when seems a bit overly predictable for a whirling dogfight.  So no, for philosophical and practical reasons.

Luft Krieg uses alternate movement (each side takes turns moving a flight of 2-4 aircraft) which can be interrupted by use of command points.  While I like the idea of command points as a resource (representing leadership, initiative, tactical advantage) the alternate movement still, I think, allows you to pre-plan a bit too easily.  Mach Speed Hunters and Angels 20 uses straight alternate move which are even less interesting.  So no, for philosophical reasons.

My other choices are unappealing - Wings at War used IGOUGO (hell no) and Wings of War's cards are too fiddly to duplicate, and also use the "guessing game" mechanics of the order system.  So no and no.

Now, the most interesting to me was Bag The Hun; flights of 2-4 had two cards; one for movement and one for firing. This was very random - a plane might draw a move card and position for a shot, but his opponent might then draw his move card and escape before the attacker's shoot card was drawn.  Aces got an extra card to represent their better awareness/reactions, as did units in formation and the highest flying unit.  I didn't love the semi-abstract implementation of this (the  extra activations might give planes a double move in a turn, effectively doubling their airspeed) but I liked the philosophy.

Further, there was CY6 itself, which allowed better pilots to adjust their move orders after poorer pilots to show their better reactions/awareness. A less extreme version of the "better pilots move last" of say, Silent Death.

So how do I want the planes to activate?

#1. Well, I want the dogfight to be chaotic.  It should be possible to co-ordinate with a wingman, and within the finger-four, but I want players to be "reacting" to a rapidly unfolding situation, not planning ahead like some sort of set-piece division level battle.

#2. I also want good pilots to have a significant advantage.  They have better awareness of the situation, are cooler under pressure and work better with their wingmen.  Perhaps a bit more "graduated" than BtH's "aces get extra activation, everyone else is the same" - divided into rookie, regular, veteran and ace, perhaps.

#3. I would prefer the turns themselves to be unpredictable.  I don't want pilots to know they can do x, y or z perfectly every time.  Under perfect circumstances, a pilot might be able to barrel roll away from enemy fire, split-S and fire at a target - but combat is not perfect circumstances.  I generally dislike games with "random movement" - you know, where you roll 2d6 to see how far you move, and sometimes figures move 2" and other times 12" - as that kinda ignores ground or time scale. I do like games with semi-random actions as reactions and awareness do differ.

This last point ties in with movement rules. If planes are too agile, they can get into good firing positions every turn.  I.e. some rules, the planes take turns circling around onto each others tail.  I have concerns about Angels 20, for example, with regards to this.  Making the turns themselves unpredictable mitigates this as well; perhaps a random roll for the number of actions; better pilots tend to accomplish more things but a rookie pilot might fluke it and pull off a lucky sequence of maneuvers and a veteran pilot might freeze up.

In conclusion:
At the moment I'm leaning towards a similar system I use in my SubWar game of supercavitating fighter subs; pairs of planes (pilot + wingman) are assigned a card in a random draw a la BtH.     However, when their card is drawn, they have a variable pool of action points which they use to perform climbs, turns etc.   The action points vary depending on skill; each pilot gets one action automatically, but rolls 3 dice against a piloting stat for the number of extra action points.   So pilots could have between 1 and 4 actions, with better pilots tending to have more.   Adding in a SoBH-style risk vs reward mechanism where 2 failures results in pilots being "Stressed" and losing their automatic activation next turn - so pilots may choose to "play it safe" and roll only 1-2 dice. 
As well as penalties, I can add extra actions for formations etc - i.e. a pilot gets a free action if a wingman is covering his tail.

However I've got other ideas percolating around; a modified Bolt Action where each side draws dice and can move any pair of planes, but gets an extra action if the dice roll is below the crew stat; or take it further with a Chain of Command-style dice system.  I don't really mind as long as it fits my design points #1 to #3. 

Wargame Design Series - Updated Index

As the "Game Design" series has now stretched to 60+ articles, just a reminder there is a tab (named Game Design Index) on the right where you can search them all and view a summary.

I make no claim to expertise; I simply have a curious mind and like to explore how things work - and why.    The posts can tend towards the ramble or rant, as I'm simply discussing aloud topics I'd like to read about myself but can never seem to find (guess it is indeed a niche within a niche).

For the lazy, I'll reproduce the updated index below:

#1. "Decision Points" 
This is about "decision points"(tm) - the amount of times during a game or turn that the player can make a choice to influence the outcome of a game. "Resolution"" is how long it takes to resolve these decisions.  Lots of decisions + simple/fast resolution = good game.

#2.  The Fifth Element
Most wargames have the four Ms - Morale, Melee, Missile & Movement. But games need something more.  What is the X factor that sets a game apart from its peers?

#3. Special Rules, Stat Lines, and False Economy
In which I posit the modern trend to move away from stat lines is actually complicating matters as well as losing differentiation.

#4. Keep it Consistent
Keeping mechanics consistent vs using 20 different dice rolling methods.

#5. What happened to Time Scale and Ground Scale in Wargames?
They still exist, even if we ignore them.  It's the game designer sacrificing realism for the ability to play 100 genres with the same rule set.

#6.  "Realism"in Wargames
In which the realism-v-fun myth is debunked; it's actually realism vs unrealistic, and simple vs complicated.  Realism is possible, and it's a good thing.

#7.  Design Philosophy
The importance of designers "nailing their colours to the mast" and setting a clear success criteria.

#8. Scenarios for Wargames
The old chestnut. Points systems vs scenarios. Can they co-exist?

#9. Fluff n'Stuff.
A few ground rules for good fluff.

#10.  Pre-measuring vs Guessing
Always a contentious topic.  Do we favour estimation skills or geometry? Or neither?

#11. The Balanced Points System
In which I contend a balanced point system is impossible on many levels - but still worth including.

#12. Commercialism - Supplements, Rules and Miniature Sales
The rise of the "cookie-cutter" one-size-its-all rulebook, and how miniature sales (not fun, playability or realism are driving game design.  The codex arms race. 

#13.  Is Originality Possible?
There are only a finite amount of ways to represent wargame mechanics - and do we really need more anyway?

#14. The "Forgotten" - Terrain, Victory Conditions, & Balance
The often-neglected impact of terrain and alternate victory conditions on game balance. 

#15. Philosophy in Wargames
Game designers need to decide how they want their game to play; then reward/punish using modifiers and game mechanics to "encourage" players to play that way.  For example, 40K rewards good list building and deployment; Infinity emphasizes the good use of cover and positioning of fire lanes. 

#16. Record Keeping, Counters & Bookkeeping
Considering the tradeoffs of "enhancing gameplay" vs ""time/fiddliness." Is it worth it?

#17. Playtesting - is it a fair test?
Using the scientific method of a "fair test" I point out how it's almost impossible to playtest a game properly.

#18. The decline of MMOs, and how it applies to wargames
Drawing parallels between the stagnation of MMO design and trends in wargame design.

#19. "Early Access" ""Pay to Win" and "Wargaming DLC" 
Some less-than-desirable trends from the PC industry that seem to be transferring to wargame companies.

#20. Realism Revisited
I revisit the "realism vs fun" myth and attempt to define it more accurately, in terms such as "process vs results" and "detailed vs abstract."

#21. RPG Resources 
Musing about magic systems, and concepts wargames could borrow from RPGs.

#22. Best Selling Wargames
Analyzing the bestselling games, and trying to quantify what makes a rule set commercially successful.

#23. Enjoyable or Innovative Mechanics 1 - Setup/Activation
Sharing fun and interesting game mechanics.

#24. Favourite Mechanics 2  - Movement
Sharing more favourite game mechanics. 

#25. Mordhiem, Competitive Campaigns, & Balance
No game has filled the Necromunda/Mordhiem niche.  A look at balancing campaigns for the competitive sphere.

#26.  The out-of-game experience
Most successful games seem to have lots to do when you aren't actually playing. 

#27. True Line of Sight
It's increasingly popular, and almost the de-facto for vision rules. But is true-line-of-site really the best choice?

#28.  Morale Rules & Combat Stress
Musing on morale systems.  Is there a "best"method, or can we ignore morale altogether?

#29. Vietnam in Space
Hard sci-fi is everywhere - it's the new "platoon-level WW2" - where has the imagination gone?

#30.  Coherency & Leadership Range
I start to explore command and control, by looking at the ubiquitous 2" coherency rule.

#31. Readable Rulebooks
Writing rulebooks that are user-friendly.

#32. Making Wargames - Ivan Sorenson
Ivan Sorenson (author of FAD, NSiS, 5Core) talks about game design and PDF publishing.

#33. Influences on Wargames
Wargames designers can fall into different categories - from unreformed RPG players, to "British" style rules, to the rivet counters.  

#34. Making Wargames - Brent Spivey
Brent Spivey (author of Havoc, Mayhem, Rogue Planet) talks about game design.

#35.  Game Design & Playtesting - Brent Spivey
Brent Spivey takes a very thorough look at the steps of designing and playtesting games.

#36.  Accessibility, or Why Bad Games get Played More
Popular games aren't always the best. The key? Accessibility.

#37.  The Better the Hit, the Better the Damage: Managed Probability & Modifiers
Randomness is good - or we end up with chess.  However probabilities must be predictable and manageable to promote tactics.

#38. Reactions in Medieval & Fantasy
Can we use the now-trendy reaction in fantasy? What might it look like?

#39. Reaction Moves, Reaction Fire
Defining types/genres of reactions in wargames.

#40. Avoiding the Scrum in the Middle - Manuever & Spacing Units
How do we avoid our games degenerating into a mess of pushing everything into the middle and chugging dice?

#41.  Reactions Again - Types of Reaction
We further explore the reaction move, and classify reactions as they impact gameplay.

#42.  Fluff & Stuff II
We revist the topic of in-game "fluff", with some commonsense ideas regulating its use.

#43. Skirmish Wargaming Means so Many Things
Skirmish wargaming is a bit of a catch all term.  What is a true "skirmish" game?

#44. Random Roundup
A few musings on simplicity, dice and absolute values.

#45. "Original" Sci Fi Wargames
Why are all sci fi games re-badged fantasy or WW2?  They need to focus on a particular new technology and build the game around it.

#46.  Skirmish - Basing, Group & Individual Moves
Many skirmish games tend to be binary - either everyone moves in units or everyone moves and acts individually.  But is there a middle ground?

#47. In Praise of Area of Effect Weapons
"Blast Template" or "AoE" weapons are not as popular as they should be.

#48. Wargames & "Setup":A Neglected Topic?
The setup phase of a game is a opportunity for depth and tactics: Chain of Command shows us how

#49. Musings About Activation Pools & Resource Management
A quick look at how activation and resource management can be merged to add gameplay depth

#50. Focussed Fluff vs Generic Fluff - and the Shiny Factor
 Detailed, rich fluff beats generic bog-standard fluff, but should not be "prescriptive." Production values matter.

#51. Intellectual Theft
Designers miss out on valuable playtesting, feedback and publicity through paranoia someone will steal their idea.  News flash: Get real.

#52. Casual vs Competitive Game Design
What makes a game "competitive" or "casual?"  Is bad competitive experiences the result of bad game design?

#53. The Future of Wargaming
Extrapolating a few trends to guess where the hobby could go in the future....

#54. Special Rules Best Practice: Infinity vs Savage Worlds
A current trend is to avoid a "stat line" in favour of a zillion special rules. Special rules have their place - but what is the best way to implement them?

#55.Solitaire Wargaming. Designing NPC "AI"
Exploring solo wargaming mechanisms, and "AI" flowcharts to direct opposing troops.

#56. Solitaire Wargaming. Part 2
Defines the difference between tactical (easy to implement) and stategic (not so easy) AI.

#57. Asymetry
Wargames are always trying to be "balanced."  But is balance always desirable?

#58. Reaction Mechanics - a Waste of Time?
Reaction mechanics are trendy for adding decisions and player involvement - but are not without their issues.

#59. Unit Count - is there a Perfect Number
In which I attempt to prove there is an "ideal" number of units in a tabletop game.

#60. Movement:Shooting Rations and Scale
How does shooting range relate to movement and game balance?  ...and how it links to ground scale.

#61. Lethality & Modifiers
How likely are units to be destroyed each turn? How this links with modifiers, and how it effects gameplay.

#62. What Should the Commander Know?
How much should the player actually control? What should be abstracted?

#63. Detection, Blinds and Vision Range - an Unwanted Mechanic?
Despite being vital to warfare, detection and vision rules are out of favour.

#64. Wow I need to finish this draft off.... sometime....

#65. Abstraction, Tables & Negative Game Design
They're very 90s, but are we ditching tables too soon?
Also, should you be allowed to move all your toys, every turn?

#66. Designing with Focus: Lessons from The Forest vs Ark
Sweeping, ambitious games that try to do everything are often weaker than a more limited game geared around a strong concept.

#67. Character Skill vs Player Skill
I connect PC MMOs with the concept of army/list building wargames; or "he who designs the best army, wins."

#68. LOTR, Alternate Activation, and Actions Per Turn
Move+Shoot+Melee = Do we do too much in a turn?

#69. Momentum
Or: games that ebb ad flow; that allow you to seize the initiative from your opponent and become the "active player."

#70.  Wielding the Axe: Why "great ideas" are not always best for your game
Harsh truths. Taking advice from others. Keeping the design goals in sight. Realizing that a great idea is not always great in a particular game.

#71.  Zone of Influence, Facing, Arcs and Flanking Fire
A grab bag of topics, exploring firing arcs and unit positioning among others.

...and more, when I have time to tidy up my drafts collection...

Monday 28 December 2015

Game Design #63: Detection, Blinds, Vision Range - an Unwanted Mechanic?

Three very different games (2300AD Star Cruiser, Bag the Hun, and the PC game World of Warships) have me thinking about this topic of late.

The ability to effortlessly locate all enemy units in the battle is as unrealistic as the flawless co-ordination of IGOUGO but we often disregard it in the interests of "playability." Sometimes it isn't about "stealth" or "invisibility" so much as acquiring a lock/firing solution - i.e. 2300AD assumes warships are "blips" as it's hard to truly hide in space - but it's another thing to lock a ship loaded with stealth and EW countermeasures. 

There are plenty of methods to simulate the "fog of war."  Here's two common ones:

WoW/2300AD use a similar method; there is a "fixed range" at which units are spotted, depending on type.  I.e. in WoWS battleship is seen at 15km, a cruiser at 11km, and a destroyer at 7km.   This range can be extended by factors like firing weapons (+4km) or in the case of sci fi, using shields, pinging with active radar, or passive sensor capabilities.  Lightning Strike increases the "to hit" chance for every "noisy" action.   

TFL games like BtH use blinds (cards or tokens representing the unit) which are moved around on the board and are only replaced with the actual model when enemies pass a spotting roll.  Infinity uses a similar method for its stealth units.  In many games there is no blind and being "unspotted" merely gives immunity from being fired on, but that rather spoils the surprise....

It's also usual in many cases for there to be a "auto spot" range at which units are... well, automatically spotted, and then a longer range where a dice roll is required.    Some games go the "whole hog" use plotted movement but they tend to require an umpire/trustworthy opponents, AND a lot more time and complication than I care for. 

I feel activation/initiative sequences can also mesh with the concept of detection, apart from the obvious things like bonuses/better control of activation sequence for unspotted units but let's stay on topic, shall we? (Because every game design topic tends to devolve into a discussion of everyone's favourite activation method in the comments, anyway)

The problem with spotting and detection...

(a) People don't tend to "expect it."  Yes, it's weird, but how many rules (since the 80s anyway) have spotting rules by default?  I know I raise my eyebrows when I "spot" detection rules in a rulebook I am reviewing.

(b) It runs headfirst into the "gameplay depth vs complexity" conundrum.  Or to use my words, "decision points vs resolution time".  Spotting rules add another thing to do.  More measuring, more dice rolls, more modifiers - often *gasp* charts.  Like stats, charts and modifiers, it is a "victim" of the backlash against the overly fussy rules of the 80s and early 90s. In the quest for modern streamlined rules, detection rules are often seen as an unnecessary step.  Let's just skip straight to the pew-pew, shall we?

Since (a) people don't naturally expect it, putting spotting rules into a game is a bit risky, as they may perceive it as (b) adding unwanted "complexity."

So there's the challenge for a game designer:  If you think your genre needs detection rules, detection has to add enough extra tactics and decision points as to make it "worth it" to people who may not see the need for it.

How do we make detection important?
Here's a few example situations that would emphasize detection:
If weapons have a high lethality or can shoot as far as detection ranges.  So not getting spotted is important - if you have a 50% lethality (chance to die) when you are spotted - your players will care a lot about remaining stealthy.  If all weapons can shoot as far as you can see, having superior view range is, in effect, increasing your firepower/"gun range"/move:shoot ratio (perhaps allowing you a "first strike" or to "kite" your opponent; firing from beyond his visual range.)

But my game doesn't need those things?
In your Napoleonic game, muskets might only be effective to 50m - far closer than the range you can see a bunch of guys in bright red shirts.  So really, we can avoid detection rules for Napoleonics as the view range:shoot range renders it moot, right?

Well, that presumes no one was ever surprised or ambushed the Napoleonic wars.... ....and also presumes a lot about the terrain.  The troops in the French-Indian Wars would certainly beg to differ on the importance of detection and concealment.

I'm not saying detection rules are mandatory.   For example, if you do think detection had relatively minor or rare impact on your genre you could incorporate detection/ambushing into scenario design and game setup or as a special rule rather than make it an ongoing rule throughout the game.

There is a lot more to explore in this topic, but family life intrudes in the form of a bored 2-year-old....

*Detection is a vital aspect of most eras and types of warfare, but most wargames ignore it
*Detection can link with activation mechanics
*Detection does slow down gameplay; especially as most players are trained not to "expect" detection rules, designers need to ensure the extra depth makes the tradeoff worthwhile
*There are a few ways to emphasize the importance of detection; e.g. lethality/weapon range among others
*Not all games require a dedicated detection mechanic; if it has rare/minor impact a dedicated detection mechanic might not be needed and can be replaced by other things

I guess the aim of this post is to bring awareness about an oft-overlooked area.

2300 AD Star Cruiser - Design Philosophy Done Right (Restrospective Series)

I may make this as the first of a series of "look back" articles discussing games that are not the "new hotness" or mainstream. Older titles, usually, perhaps OOP or relatively recent games which rapidly faded (or are fading) from view. Remember War Rocket and AE: BountyMercs? What about Vor? Rezolution?  These are not proper reviews, but more a discussion of the rules.

So what's this one about?

Traveller has as much fanboy-nostalgia as anything with the word Cthulhu in it, and I suspect many readers will also at least be familiar with the "harder"sci fi 2300AD setting.  (Owned by those incompetents at Mongoose - when is Blue Shift being made, eh?) 

I've discussed the importance of having a strong design philosophy - what do you want your game to play like? and have you made this clear to the player?  and Star Cruiser 2300 is a great example of this, explaining their approach in the approved fashion (i.e. non humorous, and not getting in the way of the rules).

Interesting in concept, 2300AD Starcruiser did not quite live up to my expectations....

I feel a game which focuses on a particular style of gameplay tends to be stronger than a "generic" rule set which attempts to be all things to all people.*   Nothing beats a tool specifically designed for the task. I.e. Swiss Army knives are handy, but if I had to attach a screw or fight for my life, a proper screwdriver set or a K-Bar combat knife would be preferable. 
(*In an era where everyone seeks the Holy Grail of "one ruleset to play every conceivable era/genre", this point might be worthy of its own post)

Anyway, back on track. In its somewhat long philosophy statement,  Star Cruiser decides:

The primary focus of the game is getting a targeting solution.  This means the focus is on detecting/locking a target and maneuvering into good positions, with an emphasis on precision rather than volume of fire.   The feel of the game is intended to be similar to antisubmarine warfare or "hide and seek with bazookas."   The primary long range weapons are missiles (of which a limited supply are carried), though fighters and drones make an appearance.  Through ship positioning and angling and detection/stealth opponents try to manipulate the odds to their advantage.

Hard Sci Fi. It deliberately keeps to  relatively "hard" sci fi with one exception - the stutterwarp drive that propels the space ships.  This is not Newtownian movement but a quantum tunneling drive that makes millions of microwarp jumps per second.   The weapons are lasers, missiles or particle accelerators. Submunitions are disposable bomb-pumped lasers.  The "screens" are not magic force fields which block all fire, but electromagnetic fields which absorb 'some' laser energy.  Ships use radars and infra-red scanners.  There is a definite lean towards plausibility.

Detection is vital.  Ships can switch between active and passive sensors - active sensors also "light up" the ship using them.  Ships have sensor ranges at which they automatically spot enemies, which can be extended by their opponents 'signature' which can increase with battle damage, use of shields, and angle to the detecting ship etc.  (I think the upcoming Dropfleet Commander will mimic this?) 

Maneuver is important.  The angle of your ship can impact its stealth signature; and maintaining or closing range is key.   Direct-fire weapons are relatively short ranged (a maximum of 2 hexes); in  game where warships move 3-4 hexes and fighters and missiles travel 6+, this 1:1 move:shoot ratio tends to favour maneuver more than many similar space games.

Mechanics.  Movement is 1MP to move 1 hex or change facing.  Weapons hit on 2D6 (+/- crew skill, # weapons in a mount, range, target rating, and weapon accuracy/rate of fire); screens provide a d6 saving throw; however each hit "saved" reduces the screens.  Armour works similarly, only it is halved when the ship takes enough hull damage.  Missiles and drones are treated like mini ships.  There is the usual traditional complicated damage charts and hitboxes typical of most space games ever made.

While you can't judge a book by its cover, I DO judge a space or naval wargame by the complexity and record keeping inherent in its "ship data sheets."

......Don't rush out to buy these rules.   Whilst they have interesting design choices and a strong philosophy, the gameplay didn't live up to the promise.  From my hazy recollections of playing it, whilst very '70s' outdated and gluggy, Starcruiser also "fell down" in balance between the Earth nations and the Kafers (who eschew the detection-based gameplay the game was created for and simply had ships with more armour and weapons); stealth was fiddly AND less impactful than it first seemed (or at least, than i expected). (GDW, according to old timers, are notorious for their "playtesting" or lack thereof)  The overcomplicated ship design rules need a math degree. In fact, I reckon the "game design notes" are possibly the most interesting thing about the rules.  The fluff and game universe is excellent though, and this spin off site inspired my interest in high speed fighter submarines (among other things).

Reading through the ship design rules gave me a mild migraine. 

TL:DR  There isn't a moral to this post; just a description of an interesting but flawed set of rules with great fluff and philosophy.  (Although the moral could be: it's all well and good to have a cool concept, but playtest the bloody rules They rules will always have a space on my shelf (or HDD rather) due to their interesting nature, but they've got 0% chance of making it to the tabletop....

Re: "Retrospective series" - if there's a old game, be it OOP or just weird and obscure you'd like to see discussed, put a note in the comments.

Thursday 24 December 2015

Aerial Wargames Manifesto - House Rule Musings

I must admit, after publishing a manifesto, I usually go off and make some house rules (which usually never get completed) but I usually have a clear idea of how to "fix" most of the issues.  Not so aerial wargames.  I'm going to repeat the manifesto from my last post, with my thoughts underneath.

*Pilot skill paramount   Not difficult.  Many rules can do this.  Bag the Hun perhaps the main one that springs to mind. 

*However, planes SHOULD be differentiated i.e. P47 dive, Fw190 roll rate, Zero wing loading/turn Hah, BtH falls down here.  Easy enough to do; perhaps pull out some of the dreaded "special rules."  Consider high/low altitude performance and high-low speed turns, as well as dive, roll rate and horizontal turn-n-burns.

*Spotting important - most fights won without the other side even seeing them; obviously this is not overemphasized as it isn't too much fun, dying before you can react; but it's an important element  Again, not a big deal. Some sort of simple decoy/blind system with unspotted planes having initiative/activation advantages.

*Energy management - trading of height for speed and vice versa; extreme maneuvers bleeding off energy Okay.  Now I'm stumped. Most games tend to have some sort of movement points, subtracting.  Wings at War have the explicit energy-management system I've seen, but it's a bit jarring and I don't know if I can fit it into a "unified" mechanic. 

*Represents chaos of dogfight; no "tail chasing" where players take turns being on tail/shooting Pilot checks for sharp turns; restrict maneuvers; basically playtesting will sort this. Also consider m:s ratios; I'd say a 4" shoot to a 8" move would be about right. 

*Does not require stat cards etc (a la Wings at War) + unit builder for balancing scenarios  This is more a directive for commercial sets than for me; cards of no more than Warmachine complexity should be OK.

*Can track stuff without expensive fancy bases or (preferably) hex maps
Might be a good idea to base all angles on 60 degrees to keep options open for both hex/hexless.
 I like the idea of using d6 to track energy/speed and a different colour d6 to track height. Again Wings at War springs to mind.

  *No written orders or guessing game mechanics; consistent mechanics
Written orders are easy enough to avoid - have to come up with a good activation system that represents pilots sensory overload/reactions to craziness of dogfight; consistent mechanics simply something I need to be aware of during design phase. I do like the random card draw of BtH, but maybe link it to some sort of dice pool for pilot attention/action points

*Minimal record keeping/fast to play - a game about high speed dogfights should play fast; preferably no hitpoints  Lightning Strike is inspiring; crew are simply "Stressed/Stunned", "Light Damage"  "Heavy Damage"  "Destroyed".  So many rules overcomplicate this.  Do we really need to know if one of the 8 .303 MGs is knocked out?  Is the pilot stressed/under fire?  Is he cautious in face of light bullet strikes to his plane "what's that knocking sound?", or nursing it home with significant engine or airframe damage - or perhaps with a serious personal injury? How much detail do we need?

*Allow to handle a decent amount of planes (or I'd simply play a PC flight sim)   Keeping it fast playing is really tricky.  The 3D movement; tracking height/energy.  There's a reason 90% of aerial games are designed for 1-2 planes per person.  

How abstract do we go, and in what areas?  If we're aiming to handle 4-12 planes per side (the "sweet spot" for units) do we really need to micromanage each individual pilot?

*Inexpensive (not a boardgame?)  Well, duh, homerules. Next point please. 

*Campaign system to allow the players to "run" a squadron Easy enough.  Using d10s in the design phase should simplify a "points calculator" but to be honest this is so far in the distance I don't care at this point in time. 

Ok, so where can I draw inspiration?  Well I'll consider all my collection, but I'm going for the more "left field" games - Luft Krieg (consistent mechanics, handles quite a few planes, complicated cousin to Lightning Strike); Wings at War (energy system, victory points); and Bag the Hun (willingness to abstract/break convention, blinds, activation).  I'm also going to look at Angels 20 as it is an example of a modern "commercial" game, with less emphasis on 'simulation' and more on playability. I'm going to avoid  dwelling on "conventional" aerial games like CY6 as they have their roots in 1970s games.

Summing up my initial thoughts:
A semi-random, perhaps card based activation
Two D6s to mark altitude and energy? Too messy?
Maybe some sort of SoBH-style roll where "actions" for pilots are semi-random based on skill
Can the WaW energy system be streamlined, or should I go a simple Angels 20-style movement?
Make turns/angles in 60d increments to allow both hex and hexless
Keep movement speeds low (say 6-8") so plenty of room on table; also make gun ranges lower (4"?)
d10s to make mechanics/balancing simple?
Can we avoid damage on a "data card" altogether and go with tokens for stun/damaged/crippled (with maybe a d6 denoting systems hits if we reaaaally need the extra "grittiness")

I must say, the movement/energy management is what really concerns me.  Games like Bag the Hun have good non-plotted manuevers but simply give a fixed movement + a d4. I like the unpredictability of not being able to perfectly "judge" your move relative to other planes, but the lack of proper energy management is almost as annoying as C21s disregard for altitude. 

"Never run out of speed (energy); altitude and ideas (maneuvers/reactions/action points) at the same time."

The gameplay should reflect these three points.  Energy is a resource that can be managed, by trading it with maneuvers or altitude.  Better pilots react faster and can process more information; they can execute maneuvers more efficiently, spot and stalk enemies better and shoot straighter.

However more than other genres aerial warfare tends to be quite complex in the factors to consider - it's easy enough to make another 1970s ripoff where one guy controls one plane; fast-playing simplicity is always harder to design than complexity.  As I consider this I have new sympathy for those who omit energy management or altitude from their ules - it makes things much easier to manage - but ignoring them ignores key facets of aerial warfare. 

Wednesday 23 December 2015

Why do Aerial Wargames Suck?

I own quite a few aerial rules, and a quite embarrassing number of 1:600 aircaft (a surprising number of them painted; they're rather easy and fun to decorate).  But I rarely play - there's always something in the various rules that mars my enjoyment. 

They don't even have to be hardcore historical.  I'd love to have pulp games where 1930s or 1946 weird fighters landed on Sky Captain/Avengers style flying carriers, or Yukikaze-style modern jets flying through a wormhole to duel in alien skies. Sky pirates, Crimson Skies style.  Dogfights amongst Last Exile style flying battleships.   Campaigns interest me - be it a squadron of Flying Tigers, a Battle of Britain squadron or a rag tag bunch of sky pirates, I'd like to see aircrew develop and be replaced, Mordheim-style.  

Here's some of the games I own.  They range from WW1 to modern jets.  I'm going to go through and check/re-read my collection again in the next week, but here are my offhand recollections. 

You've probably heard of....
Check Your Six
(+) Great scenarios
(+) Consistent and sensible mechanics
(-) Few planes per player (1 or 2, 4 at best)
(-) Written order/guess (pretty much old school Canvas Eagles/Blue Max)

Bag the Hun
(+) Card activation adds uncertainty
(+) Spotting and blinds are important
(+) Movement is not precise
(-) Eccentric assortment of houserules rather than consistent mechanics
(-) Weird abstraction of height/formation
(-) Planes are very same-y
(-) Damage overcomplicated

Algernon Pulls It Off
Same comments as Bag the Hun, only even more chaotic and irritating.

C21: Air War
(+) Good selection of aircraft
(+) Handles decent amount of planes/plays quickly
(-) No altitude(!); this is the wrong thing to abstract!

Wings of War/Wings of Glory
(+) Card based movement is interesting
(-) Guessing game mechanics
(-) Expensive/stat cards required i.e. "decks" for aircraft
(-) Only 1-2 planes per side

 Hands up to those who remember Crimson Skies?  
But never mind pulp air wargames, ANY good aerial wargame will do...

A bit more left field....
Luftwaffe 1946
(+) Whacky pulp planes
(+) Handles more planes (8-12?)
(-) Track moves from turn to turn; too many altitude levels (24)
(-) Pilot skill merged with plane performance/shonky stats

Luft Krieg
(+) Too many altitude levels
(+) Handles similar quantities of planes as Luftwaffe 1946
(-) Overcomplicates DP9s usually good damage/spotting

Sturmovik Commander
(+) Free
(+) Handles 8-12 aircraft
(+) Lots of aircraft choices
(-) Reminds me a little of Imperialis Aeronautica, but has written orders 

Mach/Mig Hunters
(+) handles decent amount of planes
(+) Sensible damage system
(-) Lots altitude levels (?20) or none; + speed recorded

(+) Blinds like Bag the Hun
(+) Very complete toolbox
(-) Dense, hard to read rules
(-) More complex end of spectrum without offering anything amazing

Wing at War (Tumbling Dice)
(+) Free demo
(+) Best energy management
(+) Handles more planes
(+) Clever victory conditions
(-) Energy managment needs 2 dice to track/a bit complex?
(-) Game is so bare bones it makes a skeleton look plump/poor differentiation between planes

Angels 20
(+) Quick to play, handles 4-6
(-) Issues with initiative; tail chasing/all plane too agile

I've heard of, but either don't have or can't recall....
AH's Flight Leader (OOP), Speed of Heat (too pricey), Birds of Prey (too complex, too slow); Fox Two Reheat (same guys as Scramble!) - also, I have in general dismissed any board games as the buy-in is too high to merely "test" a rules set on someone's say-so. 

 So, after all those games, what are you looking for?

*Pilot skill paramount
*However, planes SHOULD be differentiated i.e. P47 dive, Fw190 roll rate, Zero wing loading/turn
*Spotting important - most fights won without the other side even seeing them; obviously this is not overemphasized as it isn't too much fun, dying before you can react; but it's an important element
*Energy management - trading of height for speed and vice versa; extreme maneuvers bleeding off energy
*Represents chaos of dogfight; no "tail chasing" where players take turns being on tail/shooting
*Does not require stat cards etc (a la Wings at War) + unit builder for balancing scenarios
*Can track stuff without expensive fancy bases or (preferably) hex maps
 *No written orders or guessing game mechanics; consistent mechanics
*Minimal record keeping/fast to play - a game about high speed dogfights should play fast; preferably no hitpoints
*Allow to handle a decent amount of planes (or I'd simply play a PC flight sim)
*Inexpensive (not a boardgame?)
*Campaign system to allow the players to "run" a squadron

Like naval (and to a degree, space) combat, aerial games seem to resist the innovation sweeping through wargaming; many rules are just a re-polish of rules from the 70s.  Is aerial combat just too complex a topic to be successfully shown in a wargame?

Aerial wargames, for me, invariably fall into what I call the  "PC Game/Tabletop Overlap." Sometimes I'm playing a PC game and I think  "this might as well be a tabletop game" or  "I'd love a tabletop version of this"  -  other times, the opposite is true - when playing tabletop games like, Star Fleet Battles, Battletech, most age of sail and aerial games, I think: "I'd be better off playing this on PC."   Often (in the case of Battletech) this is to do with recording - i.e. who really enjoys tracking all those damage boxes in Battletech?  Other times, I prefer big battles between big blocks of troops (ancients, Napoleonics) on PC so to avoid tedious painting.  But other times, I feel that the rules for the genre simply aren't particularly good or enjoyable.

Perhaps my tastes have changed - maybe I'll find an aerial wargame I enjoy; after years of giving up on the genre.  Maybe I will finally find one to my taste.   Do you have any favourites you recommend that might meet most of the criteria?

But here's a broader question - are there any good aerial wargames, really? Are aerial duels a genre that are by nature ill-suited to the tabletop?

Monday 21 December 2015

Descent: Underground - PC Game... ....Tabletop Inspiration

Equip your nostalgia goggles, and sit back for the ride....

Yeah baby, Descent is back!  For those who have no idea of what the original Descent is, I sincerely hope you don't play PC games, you filthy casual.

For those still on dial-up who didn't watch the trailer, it is a PC game where you pilot a space fighter through tunnels within an asteroid, a disorientating blast where up and down have no meaning. 

I'm always trying to shoehorn more terrain into my space games (I hate empty space boards - if space was empty, why would anyone bother to fight over it?) to add interest - and what could be more interesting than flying space fighters underground?

So my EM4 fighters (an awesome bargain @50c each), fresh from their services as 300-knot submarine fighters in SubWar, resume their traditional starfighter role...

They could also mine for minerals to make different missions/objectives, as well as destroying reactor cores and infected robot ships....

Although the original Descent had rather precise controls, I'm thinking about using vector and drift a la Delta Vector the Game to give less cautious players a chance to "wipe out" into the sides of the caverns....

Sunday 20 December 2015

Lightning Strike 2nd Ed Rules Review (Space Wargame)

I've broadly described the game here but I noticed no real detailed reviews when trawling the internet recently. As this is a potentially excellent game, I'd like to remedy this deficiency.  The game has been around in 2nd edition form since 2000ish... so why haven't more people heard of it?  Glad you asked.

Firstly, how do you make an awesome wargame IP?

#1.  Create a rich, deep background (RPG roots); supported with good art. Include epic-looking mecha to channel Gundam as well as to BSG/Star Wars tropes.

#2.  Create interesting mecha and ship miniatures; design the game in the "sweet spot" where capital ships can share the same board with individual mecha or fighter aces (think X-Wing meets Armada)

#3.  Make sensible, innovative rules that allow players to choose their level of complexity, add in campaigns allowing you to "rank up" mecha and fighter pilots, Necromunda-style and run your own fighter squadron.  Have links to a deep RPG universe. 

Wow. Sounds great!  Okay, now how do you f**k up such potential?

#1.  Make those cool mecha and ships jarring out of scale. I'm talking X-Wing bigger than a Star Destroyer out of scale. So jarring, few actually want to buy the minis, however nicely they are designed.

#2. If that doesn't put people off, overprice the minis, then toss in such high postage it makes GW look benevolent. (Admittedly, probably not overpriced compared to X-Wing)

#3.  Genuinely don't support the product by not making the miniatures.*  I.e. release data cards for 100s of ships, fighters and mecha classe; then only turn 5% into actual models over 15 years.  That's "lack of support."  Then only do limited production runs where the minis are only available every 6 months.

#4. Finally, for those who don't care about the minis, and think the fluff is awesome enough to forgive anything, change the game's timeline/fluff around several times to put a final nail in the coffin.
Okay, okay, you've made your point. DP9 are retards.  So what about the game review you promised?

Lightning Strike is one of the best space rules to come out in the last 15 years... unfortunately it is a sad tale of unfulfilled potential
 The Shiny
It's pretty solid.  Colour cover and centrefold (which shows minis and modelling tehcniques) and a very detailed table of contents and index.  The art is very good.  The book is divided into standard, intermediate, and advanced rules. The three primary fleet lists (i.e army books/codexes) are included.  Much easier to use than the Heavy Gear rules (admittedly not a high bar to jump step over).  My only gripe is the small text.  At 110 dense pages @ $15 it is a Osprey-like bargain (never thought I'd say that about a DP9 product!)  It also comes with any game counters and markers you need to play for recording damage, lock-ons etc.  At that price it might be worth picking up the Lightning Strike Companion (also $15) which has campaign rules and extra fleet lists (the latter of dubious value sans miniatures).

Exo-Armour (mecha/gundam), exo-suits (power armour) and fighters work differently than ships and are much simpler, allowing them to be fielded in numbers. These "standard units" have a normal movement and an overboost speed, weapons (with arc/accuracy/damage), avoidance (a too-hit modifier) and defence (a stat that attack need to beat), plus any perks/flaws (yes, it was originally based on a RPG.) which can include ECM/ECCM.   Furthermore, units have an electronics (sensors and comms) and actions (how many actions/attacks they can make).

Ships also have an avoidance (which works differently to fighters - this can spike or drop depending if the ship is firing, using silent running/ECM etc), damage control to repair damage, and also components (turrets, weapon and hangar bays, point defence) which can be damaged individually.

The players act alternately within many sub-phases - it's alternate move, divided up sensibly.
Independent ships move
Grouped ships move
Independent units (exos, fighters) act
Ungrouped units act
Independent ships act
Grouped ships act
Ship missile launches/hits
I've simplified it a bit but you get the idea. I like how ships move first, but only get to shoot after mecha/fighters move and shoot.

This cleverly differentiates between mecha, fighters, and ships.  Mecha are supremely agile. During their activation they can be anywhere within their movement radius.  I.e. they could move to once side of a 10cm circle, shoot, then move to the other side before ending its turn. Their facing is fixed only at the end of the activation.    They can "overboost" (i.e. increase their radius of the circle) at a -3 to shooting/actions.  Fighters are faster but less agile; they get a free 90d turn, but halve their movement for any other turns.  When overboosting they are blazingly fast, but may only make a single 90d turn at the start of their move.  While small craft are abstracted, ships turn more ponderously but can move in both their movement and action phases.

While mecha/fighters use actions for attacking, ships can also use theirs for damage control, extra thrust, and to ping/spoof enemies (light up enemies with active radar or jam enemy targeting).

Line of sight is only blocked if you are in base contact with something bigger.  Range bands are divided into close combat/short/long.  Most interesting is avoidance - 2300AD fans will like the submarine-warfare feel of this, as ships can increase/decrease their detectability (and thus enemy to-hit modifiers). Firing weapons, thrusting, active radar pinging and laser designators reduces avoidance, whilst cover and spoofing increases it.

Both attacker and defender rolls 2 d6, compare their single highest dice, +/- modifiers, and check the margin of success over their opponent.  This margin of success is the multiplier for damage, i.e. attacker wins 6 to 4, the MoS is 2 - so any damage is x2.

Small units like mecha and fighters are either stunned, crippled (halve stats) or destroyed.  This is very sensible and can be recorded with a token next to a unit. Ships have a more detailed data sheet and can have individual components like turrets blown away. I really like the lack of meaningless hitpoints.

The basic rules are ~30 pages and strike a sensible balance between abstract-yet-interesting mecha and fighters and more detailed capital ships.  There is also rather useful modelling information on how to build asteroids and star maps as well as miniature assembly.  The next 30 pages are intermediate and advanced rules.

 Sadly these are most of the ships available out of 130+ ship designs with published data cards. 
The ship in the top right is a carrier of the mecha... ... which are larger on the tabletop....
Even if you do like the weird scaling, they are only randomly available...

Intermediate Rules
These add in a lot of combat options for your mecha/fighters, like evasion, aiming, and reaction attacks (yay!).  Simple vector movement is added for ships, allowing them to drift one way and fire another.  Melee combat gets a lot more fun - mecha can counter-attack and grapple with foes.   Grappling allows the winner to drag enemies, hold them immobile for an ally to shoot(!), or stun them, in addition to simply attacking them.  Command Points are then added into the game, awarded both to the loser of the initiative and at a rate of 1 per 5 units.  These can be used to take extra actions, free facing changes, or defensive bonuses.

Advanced Rules
Ace Pilots with unique skills and perks (and their points costs) allows you to add heroes with Skywalker or Starbuck-esque skills; as well as ECM/ECCM which allows you to alter your ships avoidance levels.   Normal infantry are added and the ability to perform boarding actions, breaching into ships to fight the units on board.

There are also terrain rules for asteroids, dust clouds, debris fields, factory complexes, installations and dense rock fields, as well as rules for fighting in low orbit.  There are conventional minefields as well as cloaking mines.

Finally, there is rules for ramming and performing lightning strikes - abstracted 'drive by' attacks by units off-board, rather like aircraft are used in ground combat games.  There is also some simple campaign rules (as well as four scenarios) regarding resupply and support ships,  using abstract movement and focusing on battles.  There are tables for random terrain, salvage and the survival of aces, repair costs and reinforcement rolls, and campaign roster sheets, as well as an extra nine scenarios.  I say simple, but they are quite detailed compared to most rulesets. However if you love that sort of thing, the Lightning Strike Companion does a Rolls-Royce version of the campaign. 

The remaining pages are devoted to hardware - perks and flaws - like energy resistant armour or exposed sensors; gear like cloaking devices, and EW (ECM/ECCM) suites.   There are also lots of weapons and their characteristics.  This also elaborates on how weapons work (i.e. point defence can work in standard or shield mode), as well as detailed rules explaining how drones operate.   In addition, it explains the ~30 optional weapons and gear that units (especially mecha) can equip - from advanced sensors and thrusters, to a shield or missile pod or combat claws. 

Weirdly, this is where info for launching and recovering fighters/mecha is found, as well as how to "tag" (laser designate) targets for others.

Finally there is the fleet lists - short and sweet fluff explanations about the navies and main combat units of the Jovian, Venusian and CEGA space fleets, as well as special rules specific to said fleets such as weapon and unit availability, morale and any special rules.

There is also a quick reference which summarises key rules, followed by data on ~130 ships...   ...of which about a dozen actually have miniatures.  Grrrr. 

 (+) Occupies a sweet spot where individual fighter pilots can fly alongside capital ships (most games tend to focus on either solely fighters a la Silent Death or capital ships with fighters as soulless "squadrons" of 6+ - aka Full Thrust)

(+) Cleverly differentiates between ships, mecha and fighters; well-thought-out movement and damage mechanics

(+) Campaign system, ace pilots and cool maneuvers - want to stand on the deck of a battlecruiser in your mecha, ripping off turrets with your fighting claws?  Want to grab an enemy mecha and swing him around for an ally to blow his head off? You can do that...

(+) No meaningless hitpoints! Recording is minimal for fighters/mecha (tokens only) and component-based for ships

(+) Possibly the most innovative rules for the space genre in 15 years (admittedly not a high bar) - mixes submarine-like EW-esque capital ship combat with blazing anime/Star Wars dogfights; capital ships and individual fighter aces both occupy the same tabletop

(+) Rules are well priced and well presented; worth perusing for the ideas alone, even if you have no interest in the game itself

(+) Rich, deep game universe with RPG tie-ins. Companion book has deep campaign system.

(-) Like Battlefleet Gothic, Lightning Strike is too wedded to its game universe for general use; a generic unit builder would skyrocket the versatility of this cheap and innovative set if rules.

(-) What's the point of having mecha and ships in the same battle when the official miniatures are so stupidly out of scale? Also it's hard to source proxy mecha...

(-) Genuinely unsupported, in the "only 10% of ships ever got a model released for them and there's been no progress in 15 years" and "models available only sporadically" way....*

Recommended: Yes Probably the best space rules to come out in the last 15 years, at $15 it is well worth a look, even if you never intend to get the minis.  Poor handling from DP9 prevented this from having the prominence it deserves - a market that was begging to be filled (as evinced by X-Wing/Armada) ....but that ship has sailed...

*Off-Topic Rant: I've talked about supported/unsupported - recently I came across a guy saying "I want to get Dragon Rampant so I can still play with my LOTR minis, since LOTR is unsupported."  Wtf?  Do you still have the LOTR rules? You obviously have the minis.  So if you have the rules and you have the minis, why can't you still play? It's not like GW comes and confiscated your rulebook... How the hell is this "unsupported" nonsense stopping you continuing to have fun with rules and minis you already own...    "I have all the minis and all the rules, but I can't play anymore because GW isn't going to 'support' it anymore." Ridiculous.

Have never produced half the core models and shown no sign of intending to over 15 years - now that is unsupported!

Friday 18 December 2015

Game Design #61: "Lethality" and Modifiers

This is a follow up of the previous move:shoot ratio post and ties in with the post on how you should influence players to play a particular way (i.e gameplay/tactics philosophy).

There are two topics I'm covering - "lethality" in wargames and how modifiers interact with them, and the "proper" use of modifiers (i.e. how much is too much), and the impact of both on gameplay and game balance.

I feel a few of my recent topics have a "teaching your grandma to suck eggs" vibe, but they may be useful to at least highlight how these factors interact, and to articulate aloud what most wargamers instinctively understand.

This is the chance of killing an enemy soldier after all rolls are taken into account.  Usually there is a "to hit" roll and a "to damage" or "saving" roll (sometimes both of the latter); other times hits eke away at a percentage of the units total hitpoints.

Example A1: LOTR
In LOTR, an average archer hits on a 4+ on d6 (50%) and then kills on a 5+ (33%).  33% of 50% (i.e.  .33 x .50) is a 16.5% chance to kill.  That's about average, perhaps a little low.  

Example B1: Infinity the Game
For example, in Infinity a solider has an unmodified chance to hit of 12 in 20 (60%) and then an  chance to kill of 10 in 20 - 50% - (presuming assault rifle and +2 armour).  50% of 60% is a 30% chance to kill - very high.   Given the average assault rifle shoots 3 x - that's a 90% chance to kill an unprepared enemy - unbelievably lethal for a wargame.  If the opponent can react and fires back (RoF 1) using similar stats (30% lethality) it's even more likely someone will die.  Note - in addition many Infinity weapons (48"+) handily outrange LoTR bows (24") further emphasizing the shooting lethality.

Note in both cases I am rather simplistically ignoring modifiers like range bands and cover. We'll get to that.

These are a key way to "influence" players to act in a particular way - a carrot (positive modifiers that increase the chance of success) and the stick (negative modifiers that decrease the chance of success.)

As we're talking about wargames, this primarily involves shooting and melee, though it can extend to movement (though movement tends to be pretty formulaic i.e. 6" move, halve for bad going and is seldom as influential or interesting).

There are a few common ways modifiers work. e.g.
(a) reduce/increase the target number to beat/go under on a dice i.e. beat 4+ on d6 reduced to beat 5+ on d6.
(b) the flip side of (a) i.e. add or subtract a number from the dice against a fixed target number i.e. beat 4 on d6, or beat 4 on d6 -1
(c) increase/decrease dice size.  Beat 4+ with a d8; reduced to beat 4+ on a d6, increased beat 4+ on d10.
(d) add or remove dice (usually tied to "bucket of dice" method) i.e. roll 4 d6s, each 4+ is a success.  Reduced to rolling 3 d6s, each 4+ is a success.

This isn't an exhaustive list, but you get the idea.  Negative modifiers make it harder to accomplish stuff (usually but not limited to killing your opponent); positive modifiers make it easier.
(Note: I know sometimes a "negative" -1 modifier is a "good" thing depending on the mechanics; but I'm using positive and negative in the sense of how it benefits the unit/mini carrying out the action)

Not all Modifiers are created equal
In a game like DBA or SoBH (which use a d6+stat vs d6+stat mechanic) the effect of +1 to a d6 is not the same as a -1.  The -1 has a more powerful effect as reducing the number makes it easier for your opponent to double or triple your score (which is how actions are resolved).

In a more obvious example, a -1 and -2 modifier on 2d6 are not a linear progression like it would be on a d10; the -2 modifier is much more powerful; the modifiers themselves can vary significantly compared to the target number.  I.e. if your target number is 7, a -1 modifier is not the same as a -1 modifier against a target number of 11. (Couldn't be bothered doing the exact math - I'm on holidays! - have a google if you are interested, i.e. like the example here).

Too many modifiers
There is a bit of a backlash against modifiers.  This is because many of us were raised on games like WRG moderns which had a modifier for every situation, e.g.
Machine gun platoon had a bad night's sleep: -1 to hit rolls
Captain got a "Dear John" letter: -1 to his saving throw
Extra coffee ration: +1 RoF, +1" move
Too many modifiers means you can forget to use them.  A bit like charts and tables, and stats (I've ranted on the latter before) there has been a bit of a backlash against modifiers and many games avoid them or limit them altogether - to the detriment of gamplay.  Like how stats have been minimised, actually increasing the amount of rules to learn, and how movement has been needlessly simplified and homogenized to everyone moves 6" - it's one of those "throw the baby out with the bathwater" situations.  Modifiers serve an important purpose, used sensibly.

Well, how many modifiers, then?
Well, what tactics and behaviours do you want to encourage?
If you really want your players to use their troops a certain way, encourage/discourage them with modifiers.  So as many modifiers as behaviours you want to encourage/discourage.

If you had to back me into a corner, I'd say 3-6 or so is easy enough to remember.  Infinity does a good job of this; modifiers strongly influence play, and it only uconsiders two - cover, and the range band of the weapon.

Lethality & Modifiers
Now modifiers are used to change the behaviour of players by making certain tactics more desirable. Let's consider the use of cover.

How useful is cover in LOTR?  Well, it gives a 4+ on d6 save (50%) to the "to hit" of the shot; so when in cover, a bow's lethality is reduced from 16.5% to 8%.

So how useful is cover  in Infinity? Well it imposes a -3 (15%) penalty to both the hit and the damage roll.  So it becomes 45% to hit, with 35% to damage.  In the end, it also halves the effect, dropping the lethality to 15%.   Fired in a burst of 3 shots, 45% lethality is still comparatively high.

 It halves the lethality in both games.... so cover is equally important and desirable in both?

No.  Whilst the effect of cover is the same (halving the lethality) due to the 'absolute' lethality values of 90/45% vs 16/8% cover is far more important in Infinity.  You must have cover for even a 50/50 chance to survive in Infinity.  Whereas in LOTR you have a good chance (83%) of surviving a enemy archer's shot, even standing in the open.

Lethality strongly impacts gameplay,  You can see how shooting in Infinity (45%+) is 500% more lethal than LOTR (8%) which makes sense - one is a modern/sci fi game dominated by automatic weapons where cover is paramount; the other a medieval fantasy where melee is supposed to be decisive - and the lethality levels and ratios regarding shooting means this is how they play out..

The high lethality of Infinity shooting (45%) has other effects besides making staying in cover very desirable.  Due to the fact very few opponents survive long enough to close to melee range (as opposed to LOTR, where a unit could expect to survive 3-4 turns of enemy shooting while closing to melee range) melee stats and skills are proportionately less valuable.  Presuming the shooting has equal range and you move the same distance (more on that later) you are 5x more likely to be killed before you get into melee - so melee stats are proportionately less useful. 

I call this "opportunity" and it's important when balancing stats, skills and abilities.  The key question is "how often can I be expected to use this stat/ability?"  For example, you can expect to use movement every turn, and shooting most turns (depending on the range.)  A magic spell that can only be deployed after killing a specific enemy hero might be less valuable as it can only rarely be utilized.

Opportunity is linked with many things, like the move:shoot ratio, e.g. if we wanted to make melee viable in an Infinity-like game, we could simply ramp up the lethality of melee. E.g. in modern PC shooters, a rifle takes 4-5 body shots to kill; a melee attack is an instant 1-shot kill.  The melee attack is 4-5x more lethal, which balances the fact guns are effective at 4-5x longer ranges, making melee a viable option where it otherwise would not.

Lethality, Modifiers and Terrain
We see how cover can radically alter the lethality in both LOTR and Infinity.  This underscores the importance of terrain and that devs need to make clear how much terrain is expected (like Infinity does) i.e. how much terrain was the game "balanced" against.   Obviously, having more or less terrain than what the designer regards as "normal" will unbalance the value of missile and melee units, for instance.  I.e.  I typically have very crowded boards, with lots of terrain. Far more than the 'average' GW layout.  As a result, in my LOTR games, goblins tend to beat elves rather handily.  This is because the elves superior bows are rendered less effective than on a 'traditional' board and and increases the value of goblin's  movement modifier (that freely enables them to move up/over obstacles without penalty). As you can see, terrain type/density messes up the balance of the points system.

Range Bands, like terrain, this another factor to consider.  LOTR rather simplistically has only one range band - shooting is as effective at 24" as at 1" - missing out on a layer of tactics.  Infinity has multiple 8" bands - a shot at close range (0-8") might have a +15% modifier and one at extreme range a -30% to hit modifier which significantly impacts the lethality.  This adds depth to gameplay as you want to be in the best range for your weapon - be it short (handgun or shotgun) or long (sniper rifle).  Interestingly, heavy or unwieldy weapons (like sniper rifles or LMGs) attract negative -15% modifiers at close ranges.  Combined with +15% or +30% boosts to close quarters weapons; and a sniper rifle might be at a combined 45% disadvantage to a shotgun in close quarters.

As you can see, by significantly altering the success chance of an action, modifiers can be used to by the game designer to "guide" tactics. 

Lethality, m:s, and Points Systems
Logically, it seems to me this is a good place to start as any when designing points systems to balance a game.  Take LOTR, which is a relatively simple, familiar game.

We know a bow has a 16.5% lethality, and it works out to 18"(? forgot precise range)
A melee weapon has similar lethality (16.5%)  and works to 0" but you can move 6" per turn.
So... bows seem 3 x more valuable than melee weapons due to the m1:3s ratio.  (Interestingly, the ratio of bows/melee only troops is capped at 1:3 when making an army)
Since boosting your Defence from 5 to 6 by +1 would drop lethality to 8% to both bows and melee.  This means Defence perhaps twice as valuable(?) as boosting the lethality of your melee weapon or bow.  However going from defence 4 to 5 goes from 25% lethality to 16.5% lethality; whilst it offers a similar 8% jump in protection, is not proportionately as valuable.  I.e. going from Defence 4 to 5 improves defence by 50%; going from 5 to 6 doubles it (100%).

Anyway, that's just a quick example of how lethality and m:s can be used as a math-based basis for point systems - whilst also showing there is a lot to consider.

Disclaimer: I write this on the balcony of an apartment at Tin Can Bay, so my math might be a bit dodgy - the ocean view (and my 2 year old) are a bit distracting to my ADHD*...  However the "theory" is sound enough.  So what was that again?
 *Alleged by my wife; not clinically proven

Here's the main "thrust" of this post, for those who got lost amidst the wall of text:

Lethality can influence gameplay (both relative/ratio and as an absolute)
Modifiers can influence player behaviour (tactics) in making certain actions more/less desirable
Modifiers are not all equal; a -1 can vary in significance due to differing dice mechanisms
Modifiers, lethality and m:s ratios are important to game balance; they can form a useful basis when designing a points system
Modifiers are important and very useful when kept within sensible boundaries
"Opportunity" is how often a stat or ability can be used
Many factors such as terrain can impact game balance and mess up your points system (but we aren't naive enough to think points systems can actually be balanced, anyway)

Again, this may be a bit of a "duh that's obvious" post, but it may be handy in "breaking down" rules so when designing we can articulate deliberately what we understand or "get" instinctively.