Saturday 31 January 2015

Game Design #26: Wargaming - The Out-of-Game Experience

I was looking into Magic the Gathering as a easily-transported game to play with my wife, and while researching it a bit, it triggered a few random thoughts, relating wargames to CCGs:

*Warmachine has, for me, a real card-game mentality. With its emphasis on special attacks and combos is certainly not my favourite wargame, but if I view it as a card game with minis it is pretty cool. 

*MtG has a "collectibility" that Games Workshop would envy - players seem to obsessively spend hundreds if not thousands on pieces of cardboard* (*an even better return than finecast!), and talk casually of "budgeting" x amount of $/week to stay "competitive."

*Skylanders has mixed miniatures and videogames; admittedly only in a shallow, gimmicky way (you scan your miniature and 'import' it into the videogame as a playable character.) Could this be expanded on in a more meaningful way?

*Most CCGs have a resource management aspect, which seems to be filtering through into wargames (I'm certainly seeing an increase in the number of wargames that have it).

*The fun of "deck building" can occur even when you are by yourself, and it is an outlet for creativity and competitiveness - a game-within-the-game, of sorts. Players hunt down bargains of special cards on eBay and trade amongst themselves. You can discuss and share deck ideas online - it even has a social aspect.

It's the latter point I'd like to focus upon - the concept of having fun outside of the actual 'sit down' gameplay of a wargame. 

Painting & Modelling
Obviously most wargames share the painting/preparing of miniatures. I'd point to this as a key differentiation from boardgames where everything tends to come "preprepared" in box ready-to-go; which is why I find it mystifying when players field completely unpainted metal armies week after week.   The modelling aspect is quite important - nearly every "big" rules set has heavy reliance on selling shiny toys, and the shiny toys themselves help "sell" the game system.  Though the increase in prepaints and the presence of "clix" style games blurs the line a bit, and you perhaps rename this category "cool toys".  Assembling them, painting them, or simply "having" them. (Remember the wargamer's litany: he who dies with the most toys, wins)

....Army Building - aka "List Warriors." Made popular by Warhammer but arguably perfected by Warmachine (where finding broken combinations of units/abilities is actively encouraged).  This occurs where players have an army builder. An example might be each army can have x points (say 2000).  Each unit is worth a set amount of points - for example, a squad of 10 grunts might be worth 10, and a uberwtfbbqpqwn mech-of-doom might be worth 200.  This army building usually further refined by "capping" certain types of units. For example, this might restrict an army to 1 HQ unit, 1-3 "core"(standard), units, 0-2 support (heavy/vehicle) units, and 0-1 "special/elite" units.

Players are then free to exercise their creativity within these strictures to "maximize" their army to create the optimum combinations, and "build" their armies toward a specific strategy.  In more extreme examples, this can create a situation where games are won and lost in this "list building"stage; there is an obvious winner before a dice has even been rolled.

Unit Building aka "Stat up your random models".  This tends to be a points system allowing you to create stats for a specific model or group of models. Ironically, although the potential for min-maxing is even greater, this tends to be less likely to be abused.  The reason is that as the models created are not "official" it's harder to claim players are taking a legitimate strategic advantage rather than simply being a powergaming douche. This is far more common in indie games (Song of Blades and Heroes comes to mind as a prime example) where they are not trying to "sell" a specific miniature line.

Historical Interest.  Obviously this is particular to historical games, but learning about a particular historical period can be very enjoyable.  Wargaming can inspire historical reading, and historical researching can inspire wargaming.  For example, I bought some 1:600 PT boat models, and while reading a rulebook came across reference to "The Battle of the Narrow Seas" (Peter Scott) - which is now one of my favourite books.  In the reverse, reading the historical novel The Religion (Tim Willocks) inspired an interest in wargaming the Ottoman empire.  You could perhaps lump this whole category together with....

....Fluff.  In the more extreme cases, this can spawn a publishing house (The Black Library) with hundreds of titles, or perhaps consist of few novels alongside RPGs (The Iron Kingdoms). Sometimes it is simply included as a section of the rule book - or even as an "art book" (Infinity).  In some cases, the 'fluff' is historical - WW2 games like Bolt Action/FoW can draw on a colorful selection of factions and units.

Anyway, I was thinking that most successful "games systems" tap into most of the above points. (The usual suspects - Warhammer, Warmahordes, FoW, Bolt Action, Infinity, etc). Even the most rabid 40K fan seldom holds up scintillating gameplay as the main attraction of the game - rather they praise fluff, army building and cool models.  Even indie hits tend to follow aspects of this formula.  For example "Tomorrow's War" and "Gruntz" are tapping into the increasing growth in 15mm sci fi to source their  'cool models.'  Gruntz does 'unit building' well and kind of relies on the different models lines and the players themselves to generate "fluff." Tomorrow's War is more directly developing fluff in concert with independent 15mm mini manufacturers like GZG.

Looking at the "most popular wargames" I'm wondering - is deep, interesting gameplay even necessary for success, as long as you have a good "out of game" experience?

Anyway, I was thinking - are there other ways to create a better "out of game experience?" - since this seems a key factor behind popular wargames.  I can see "e-rulebooks" with inbuilt video being useful, but wonder what place mobile devices (like smartphones) might play in  the out-of-game experience.  I've seen a few games with "apps" but so far, mobile devices seem an untapped resource.  It's almost like they are a solution in search of a problem.  

Anyway, are there any other "out of game" aspects that are enjoyable? 

And more broadly - What else could wargames  learn from CCGs?  Are mobile devices a way forward?

Thursday 29 January 2015

Book Roundup #2: Fantasy with a Twist

 These are books who put a twist on the usual fantasy genre.  They often "crossover"with other genres like westerns, detective noir or pulp. If you are tired of noble heroes, impossibly beautiful princesses and mighty dragons you might try:

Red Country/The Heroes/Best Served Cold (Joe Abercrombie) Score 5 Stars
Whilst his initial trilogy is probably the best entry into his work, his standalone books are his best; each one a mimicry of a genre: war movie, a western and a revenge thriller respectively.  He takes sly digs at fantasy tropes and his characters are interesting shades of grey.  His crippled torturer antihero Sand dan Glotka is more interesting than Game of  Thrones' Tyrion.

You'd take it: The best writer of grimdark realistic fantasy going; with interesting plots, great characterization and dialogue.  A much tighter writing style than the somewhat bloated prose of GRR Martin.

You'd leave it: His somewhat dry grim tone can get wearing if you binge-read 3-4 books in a row, which you'll probably end up doing. 

Nights of Villamanjur (Mark Charon Newton) Score 3 Stars
A rumel (nonhuman, reptilian?) investigator will discover a web of corruption leading into the heart of a dying empire. 

You'd take it: Interesting ideas, themes and concepts.  Banshees, birdlike garuda and rumel share a world with humans.  Human hybrids and monsters stalk the streets. An otherworldly enemy approaches.

You'd leave it: A little on the weird side (China Melville-style).  I only read 3 of the 5 books so I wasn't that enthused.

The Black Company (Glen Cook) Score 3 Stars
A bit of a cult classic, one of the original "gritty" fantasy novels about an elite mercenary company.  Very down to earth, it is more a war documentary as told through the eyes of soldiers than a epic fantasy. Reading it is a bit like a box of chocolates - there is some dodgy flavours of chocolate but some good stuff too. Personally, I thought it was OK but not as amazing as I'd expected.

You'd read it: A weird modern classic that arguably launched the gritty fantasy genre.  It has a realistic feel as the author was a Vietnam vet. There are many shades of grey - and no true heroes or villains. 

You'd leave it:  The writing is sloppy, choppy and has inane dialogue. It adds to the "realism" I guess, but can grate at times.

The Last Wish (Andre Sapkowski) Score 3.5 Stars
Tolkien who?  This is the first collection of Witcher short stories, and in Eastern Europe Sapkowski stands above Tolkien and GRR Martin.  Based on slavic mythology, some of his stories echo traditional fairy tales - I particularly liked the alternate version of Beauty & the Beast. 

You'd take it: A unique style. The short stories are standalone, but if you enjoy the series 3 others are translated into English. A master of gritty fantasy, with a unique "voice."

You'd Leave it:  The translation work missed the mark a bit at times.The other full-length books are even worse.

The Straight Razor Cure (Daniel Polansky) Score 3.5
The 'hero' is a disgraced intelligence agent, a sort of a 40K Inquisitor/secret policeman who has quit and become a drug dealer and local criminal boss.  However when local children are found murdered, he plays a double game against his former intelligence bosses and the local underworld to find the murderer.

You'd take it: Hustlers, pimps, turf wars, corruption. Hard-boiled noir thriller, with a "twist" ending.  Reasonable length book that works as a standalone and as the first in a trilogy.

You'd leave it:  The drug-dealing antihero pushes the gritty boundaries. The book is a bit of a mishmash of ideas and is occasionally a bit sloppy.

The Lies of Locke Lamora (Scott Lynch) Score 4
Basically a medieval-fantasy heist movie set in not-Venice. Oceans 11 with swords.  Gentleman con-artists fight to take over the local underworld. 

You'd take it: The book is clever and witty and the world is well done. You like Oceans 11 and The Godfather, and you think mixing them with sorcery and Renaissance Venice would make them even cooler. You like good dialogue and plotting.

You'd leave it:  You don't like the use of the f-word.  The book has a bit of a "soft patch"early on.

Retribution Falls (Chris Wooding) Score 4.5
A glorious mish mash of tropes. Awesome airship battles, fighter planes, golems, undead, dune buggies. Six guns, sword fights and demonologists.  It has the rag-tag pirate crew lead by a captain with a heart of gold. The author had fun writing this book, and strings cliches together in a polished way. Firefly meets Pirates of the Caribbean meets Stardust meets Indiana Jones meets The Last Exile meets Crimson Skies. A solidly written fantasy in an engaging world.  Will not win a Pulitzer Prize but neither did Star Wars. Good old fashioned fun, which raises the bar in the pulp genre.

You'd take it: A swashbuckling romp full of pulpy goodness. No deep concepts - pure escapism. Easy to read, and if you enjoy it you can follow more adventures in the 4-book series.

You'd leave it: If you have no sense of fun. If you hate pulp/steampunk.  If you only like serious highbrow arty books (like the stuff in high school everyone else thought was boring.)

Wednesday 28 January 2015

Reading Roundup #1 - Recent Fantasy Books

I love reading. I love wargaming. I love rulebooks.  However, my collection of hundreds of rulebooks are dwarfed by my thousands of normal novels. A lot of the readers on this blog share similar opinions in wargames, so I thought I might expand into short book reviews in hopes something might "catch the eye." I'm going to keep the summaries short, so these will be compendiums of "suggested reading you might enjoy" rather than full-length  reviews. 

For future reference:
5 star = amazing, must have
4 star = a very good read - get this for your collection
3 star = generally sound, with some provisos
2 stars = significant flaws - only if you really like the topic
1 star = useful for toilet paper or starting fires

Here's the last month's round-up:

The Abhorsen Trilogy (Garth Nix)  Score 3.5 Stars
At a glance:  a medieval fantasy kingdom and a WW1-era industrial nation are separated by a sort of Hadrians Wall.  North of the wall, controlled "Charter" magic is opposed by chaotic wild magic and the restless undead.  A hereditary line of necromancers called Abhorsen are at the forefront of this fight.  It's a coming-of-age story, aimed at teens, but totally free of teeny-stuff and romance.  It's no more kiddie than the Hobbit.

Why you'd read it: Easy reading, unpredictable, and interesting world. Although focussed on the traditional fantasy kingdom north of the wall, I like it those times the undead head into the south.  Lewis guns vs undead for the win!

Why you'd leave it: It largely has female protagonists.  It also has a simpler layout than most adult fiction.

Gardens of the Moon (Steven Eriksen) Score 3 Stars
At a glance: A sprawling and complex epic fantasy, with the grit of Black Company and plenty of gods and terrifying magic. I think it was based on a RPG world and although the author claims he "does not baby his readers" sometimes I think it's just poor exposition. It mixes the grit of Saving Private Ryan with floating castles and dragon-elves with soul-taking weapons.

Why you'd take it: 
Complex, realistic worlds. Involved plots.  Solid writing.  If you like your epic fantasy with a dash of the mundane, you'll enjoy it.

Why you'd leave it: Hard to "get into." Lots of stuff unexplained.  Can be frustrating.  Quite wordy - there's a 9-book series that follows it.  Definitely not for the casual reader.

The Free (Brian Ruckley) Score 3.5 Stars
At a glance:  This would be fun to wargame - follows a mercenary company called "The Free"- about 60 guys with their own sorcerers, archers and cavalry. Has a bit of a Hundred-Years-War feel.  Interesting magic system where magicians ("clevers") have to give of their own life to power their magic - so magic can be powerful but is sparingly used.  His best book to date, with good action. (His other books had an interesting dark age vikings-v-indians vibe but could drag on a bit).

Why you'd take it:  You could totally wargame this, and you'll want to.  A good blend of interesting magic and bloody war movie.  It's a standalone book, a good quick read in a genre dominated by trilogies and long series. A bit of a spaghetti western vibe.

Why you'd leave it: Mr Ruckley is not as polished as some of the top-tier fantasy authors and not all passages of the book are as strong as others.  I didn't feel the ending delivered as well as I hoped.

The Thousand Names (Django Wexler) Score 3 Stars
At a glance: Napoleon-in-Egypt-with-magic.  I initially struggled to get into this book but it improved as it went.  If you like the idea of black-powder Napoleonics clashing with rebels lead by powerful cult leaders.  Has a bit of a Sharpe-with-magic meets Foreign Legion feel.  The story hints at a wider plot in which this story is just the tip of the iceberg. I also think I read on the dust jacket that Mr Wexler is a fellow wargamer.

Why you'd take it: Sharpe with magic anyone?  Seems "researched" despite fantasy setting. The not-Egyptian background is well done. Improved as it went.

Why you'd leave it: I think this is a debut novel and it shows at times. A bit slow to start. Tends to follow predictable tropes/cliches.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things (Patrick Rothfuss) Score 1 Star
At a glance:  The author (who did the brilliant Name of the Wind 4.5 stars) warns readers this isn't for everyone, as it "doesn't do the normal things a book does." I wish I'd listened. Nothing happens.  It's kinda a literacy wank-off vanity project. I'm sure arty folk will love it, but they also call it art when people spew on a canvas. Basically, a weird girl wanders around, and does a bunch of feng shui in the sewers all day. I'm not kidding. He claims his publisher told him to do it, but I prefer this quote: "....Patrick Rothfuss may be getting lost in the echo chamber of his fanboys' squeeing adulation..."

Why you'd take it: If you'd like to encourage an otherwise excellent author to do more pointless vanity projects, when he is 5 years overdue for the next book in his trilogy - which he said was ready for editing in 2010...

Why you'd leave it: Because you prefer to read actual stories, where there's a plot.

City of Stairs (Robert Jackson Bennett) Score 4 Stars
At a glance:  A city that once used the powers of god to enslave the world, is now occupied by an Eastern power.  The gods are dead, but their miraculous works and architecture remain.  A spy (and her very lethal norse secretary) are dispatched to investigate. But things are not as they seem.  I found this book original and interesting - part fantasy, part spy story. An interesting crossover genre.

Why you'd take it: Dead gods, a mysterious city, and hidden histories and agendas. A great sidekick.  A spy story and a fantasy in one. A really interesting and original book, by a talented author I'm sure will grow in prominence. Again, a standalone book which doesn't require you to read a 10-book series.

Why you'd leave it:  It kinda crosses genres so much it might be a bit jarring. Unusual in style. An "indie" hit that might not appeal to everyone. 

That's the last fortnight or so - I get through quite a few books (I like to practice what I preach - library is my other subject area).  If there's interest, I can do more (perhaps a "top 10"), and while gaming time can be limited (i.e. shed renovations) overall reading time seldom is.

Tuesday 27 January 2015

Dropfleet Commander: New and Improved Battlefleet Gothic?

I quite liked Dropzone Commander rules (they do combined arms rather well) and I have often agonised over their excellent resin model range. In the end I went (to my regret) with the equally pricey Heavy Gear models, though the Hawk Wargames card terrain was a great buy and works fine for 15mm too.

Anyway, I am interested in a new space game. Firestorm Armada is a poor rip off of Battlefleet Gothic (inferior in almost every way) with stupidly oversize models and Full Thrust is old, tired and hitbox-y.

I stole this photo from Hawk Wargames' Facebook.  The epicness of a 10mm scale strike carrier announced Dropfleet Commander with a bang.  They have some great concept art and I must say I like how they communicate with players.

Andy Chambers did a great job on Battlefleet Gothic which had some interesting ideas (Orders and Blast Markers) that are still worth a look for space gaming.  Heck, I liked it so much I made silhouette ships out of ice-cream lids (even then, GW was overpriced!) and played it extensively (Chaos vs Empire, not the unbalanced stuff like Necrons).   I like the "big ideas"shown in Dropzone Commander (the mutual dependence/synergy between units, and the consideration given to terrain and scenarios).  With the solid DzC team mixed with Andy Chambers' BFG hindsight, Dropfleet Commander is surely shaping to be a major challenger to shake up the stagnant space wargaming genre.

Also, I admire Hawk Wargames - a one-man show without any Kickstarter (which even established companies seem to "need" these days) started a complete miniature line and rules from scratch. And they're solid rules and very nice (if pricey) 10mm miniatures, at that.  Would like to see them do well with this. 

Warhammer 9th Edition: Skirmish?

I've noticed a few rumours going around about Warhammer Fantasy.  Probably the biggest discussion is going on here.  Given that most people who read this blog are, like myself, far from GW fanboys, I'm wondering what the thoughts are.  For those who couldn't be bothered, here's a quick summary:

*The setting is getting a complete reboot (more grimdark, more skulls?)
*Races are getting amalgamated, new religious "space marine"faction added
*The game is shifting from mass battle (aka painting 100 minis to shovel off a movement tray) to skirmish/Warmahordes scale
*Round bases (though WoTR style trays to house them in if needed)
*Unit rules in the box (so less reliance on codexes); limited runs for special model types
*15+ Army books shrunk to ~4 compendiums which are more regularly updated
*Rules change, new mechanics, special rules reduced

I'll take it with a hefty pinch of salt (or perhaps cocaine, which most of the rabid forum denizens of Warseer/BoLs seem to use...)   ...however there are a few points in favour of this move....

*Warhammer Fantasy has to high a buy in (so shift to smaller, but more regular purchases)
*It is relatively stagnant - a dying user base, and small (~10%) of revenue - it makes sense to breathe new life into it
*Space Marines sell big so fantasy space marines make sense
*Forces players to get new minis (most WFB I know already have all the models they need)
*It makes a good test run for 40K changes
*Though GW resist change, they don't seem to mind outraging their fanbase in pursuit of profit
*They sell more $$$ "heroes" and annoying to paint less rank and file (i.e. more tanks, less infantry)
*Cycling products means you can save on molds/shelf space and pump out more new shiny things
*Doesn't necessarily supersede 8th Ed but provides an alternate way to play
*Cleaner WoTR/LoTR rules were intended to be used for Fantasy

I must admit, given I like LOTR (but dispair of ever getting reasonably priced models on eBay any more*) the idea of a LOTR-style game with a bountiful secondhand market (from all the rage-quiting 8th ed fans) somewhat appeals.

Anyway, ignoring that this is probably pure nonsense:
If Warhammer was "Warmachined" into a 40K-size or smaller game with cleaner mechanics, would you try it? 

(*GW does seem to be succeeding in trying to be a "collectible" company. I impulse-bought a few big boxes of LOTR stuff years ago when it was dying off - you know, 50 orcs for $10 kinda thing....  I think my collection amassed for about $200 would sell for about $1000 now... Some metals (which I refused to pay more than $5 for) eBay now for $15-$25ea. Now I wish I''d "invested" in more.)

Game Design #25: Mordhiem, Competitive Campaigns, Stats (again), and Balance

I have often wondered why no game has attempted to follow up the now-defunct Mordheim/Necromunda series of games with a more streamlined, modern version.  There is a lot of nostalgia, and a player base who are hankering for a similar style of gameplay.  The closest I can think of offhand would perhaps be West Wind's Empire of the Dead, written, not coincidentally, by an ex-GW designer.  But that was just a watered-down VSF LOTR with d10s. To my disappointment, skirmish top-gun Infinity really missed the mark with their Paradiso rules (only 1 mini per army could level up.)

There are a lot of skirmish-RPG lite rules with campaigns/advancement, spearheaded by Song of Blades & Heroes, and it is a growing genre.  However they all share a similar assumption of a co-operative, friendly mindset, of like-minded players, with a story focus.   However Mordheim leagues could also be competitive.  Basically, the game catered to different types of gamer.

So is it possible to make a campaign game "Balanced" - so it can appeal to both narrative (I call em the 'RPG crowd' and competitive gamers?  What are some of the issues preventing the rise of another Mordheim?

I think if having a campaign system as an integral part of the game (rather than tacked on at the end or added as a supplement as is the norm) you need to consider it when designing the game - right at the start.  So what to consider?


Stat Lines vs Special Rules (or "this dead horse again?")
I've often championed the now-unfashionable stat line. I'm not talking excessive RPG/D&D style stats, but using a sensible amount of stats to represent the most often-used attributes of a mini.

Stats are a shared language. No one needs to look up what "Speed 5" means.   In fact it's as easy - or easier  - to use Speed 1-20  than Very Slow, Slow, Average, Fast, Very Fast, Superlatively Quick.  (and offers more graduations).  Because you have to work out what Superlatively Quick is on the tabletop  - it actually adds another step.

Stats are numbers. Numbers can be easily compared against each other.  A 9"move, barring complications, is worth 90% of a 10"move.  A 20"move is twice as valuable as a 10"move.

When should something be a stat? 

When you use it a LOT for the level of game (skirmish, platoon, company+) you are playing.  The more stuff you do with an individual mini, the more likely you are to want differentiation for specific abilities.

For example, melee would be a vital stat in a fantasy/medieval skirmish game but might not be necessary in a modern combat game where melee is rare.  A modern platoon game (where all combatants are human and use very similar weapons) "Troop Quality" and "Morale" might be all you need.  A fantasy game where ogres face off against pixies might need more stats to "describe" key facts about the game.    

Mordheim had a bloated stat line, but one (Agility) which at first glance seemed uneccessary, is arguably worthwhile given the vertical nature of the terrain (a lot of jumping and climbing on/over ruins, rooftops, ledges etc).  This is not a stat that would belong in most games, however.

Take a modern platoon level game. If you are moving stuff in groups, you may abstract the speed of the individual models, perhaps by troop quality, in favour of a "group" speed.  However, if you are moving soldiers individually in a 8-man skirmish game, then movement speeds might vary markedly both by physique and equipment carried. A speed stat makes sense here.

I've read a few rules lately where game designers have made interesting choices to abstract many traditional areas - I think "abstraction" is worth a topic of its own.

How do you measure a "Special Ability?"
Most modern skirmish games not only do away with stats, but they overcompensate by adding in the lost detail with a plethora of special rules.

How do you measure the effect of stealth on a battlefield?  Let's say it works like in Warmachine - no one beyond 5" can shoot at a stealthy model. Simple. Now, if your game has everyone with guns that only shoot 5" it's effectively worthless. If most people have guns that shoot 10", its useful.  If everyone's guns go 48", it's very powerful.  And what is the chance to hit?  How lethal, on average, are the weapons? A 2+ on a d6, or do you need to luck out with a '6' to hit?  This also effects the value.

As you can see, it's difficult to assign an accurate value without a lot of playtesting.  And if you have lots of special rules (by "lots" I mean more than 20) then the job becomes exponentially harder as you also have to judge how the rules interact with each other.    E.g, how many models have access to "X Ray Vision" which cancels stealth?

Limiting Skills: Cutting down on confusion
A further aspect is how many special abilities a player can possess. Later in a campaign it can get confusing to remember what skills your characters actually have, when everyone has 10 skills each. It's annoying when you have so many skills you forget when you can use them in a game.  "Oh, I forgot I had "Great Balance" - I could have re-rolled that fatal fall into a lava pit."

Skills definitely need a cap on how many can be taken (I'm talking 2-3) and/or how many people can take them (see Heroes & Minions).

The 20% rule.  
I remember a FPS MMO developer (I think Planetside?) who said they did studies where they said the maximum "level up" boost was 20%.  I.e. they could only add say 20% HP to a character, and have a non-boosted player still retain a reasonable chance to beat them.  Any more than this and it was simply too hard for a new player to overcome an experienced one.

I'd say this would apply to "advancement" in a campaign game.  The bigger the stat change, the more the chance of imbalancing the game. The 20% benchmark seems reasonable - an edge, but not an overpowering one. It also results in campaigns where a warband with early wins can "snowball" into an unstoppable juggernaut (and make it hard for new players to join an existing campaign). 

For example, in Mordhiem, models could choose the skill "dual wield' and get an extra attack.  This doubled the chance of a hit (and getting kills, gaining XP, and winning). Unsurprisingly, this 100% boost in offensive power was somewhat imbalanced in practice and became a contentious rule.

The D6
Game designers seem wedded to the d6. It's like they think they use anything else they'll drive people off.  "These new-fangled d10s!"     The D6 has a few issues.  It can fit less "stats" modifiers and results "on the dice." I.e. a soldier who hits on a 5+ whose target has a -2 cover modifier has an impossible shot (needing to roll a '7' on d6).  The game might require a roll of '6' then an extra roll of say 4+.  However this requires more rolls and the math can get murky (For example, I noticed in Bolt Action that the US Infantry bonus to move-and-fire means they have a 17% chance to make difficult shots others need a 1% on - making them 17x better at difficult shots - which is not the best way to show a semiauto vs bolt rifle).

It also has dramatic graduations of 17% (see the 20% rule above) which means stat changes have dramatic effects.  A veteran who hits on a 3+ (67%) is literally twice as good as a rookie that hits on a 5+ (33%) and half as good again as a regular soldier.  That's a BIG improvement.

A d10 not only fits more numbers on the dice, but fits with the decimal system which makes building/balancing points systems easier.

Handicap the Min-Maxers
No points system is balanced. However you can limit abuse by ensuring there is a degree of randomness in upgrades and advancements. 

I quite like "controlled randomness" - i.e. allowing players to use specific advancement tables so you don't get skills that are complete nonsense for that type of character - I.e. a blind ogre with a huge axe getting sharpshooter skills - but prevents players from "cherry picking" the best skills or combinations of skills. 

Remember how Blood Bowl had skill categories for Stength, Agility, Passing, General etc?  I'm suggesting players should be able to choose the category, but not the precise skill, which should be decided by a dice roll.

This of course applies to stats.  For example in Infinity, BS (Shooting skill) can also be used to avoid enemy fire as well as reliably inflicting lethal damage at massive ranges. This makes it at least twice as useful as "armour" stats which is used for defence only.

Heroes and Minions
Whilst I don't agree with the "only one guy levels up" of Infinity, having every man (and his dog) using non-standard stats and umpteen special rules can get confusing.  Weapons are simple enough if they are WYSIWYG, but everyone having different stats and a zillion unique skills can be confusing.

I liked how LOTR's Battle Companies worked.  You might have a few heroes with special skills, but most of your force - the "minions" - simply could swap equipment or "level up" to a similar but better model (i.e. Gondor men at arms becomes an elite Guard of the Fountain Court).  Minions likewise did not roll on special injury tables but simply missed a game or were removed outright.  This removed a lot of record keeping and hassle.

Going the "Minions" route would mean there would be range of different types of models, which come in rookie, regular, and veteran versions.  They can thus "rank up" to the next level (i.e. rookie to regular, regular to veteran) without acquiring a plethora of stat changes or special rules.  Veteran versions could perhaps then roll to become heroes themselves.

Start with the Points System
This is a bit controversial, but if you are aiming for a balanced point system (yes, I've said it is impossible) then you need to consider your points system while designing your game mechanics.  Designers often try to come up with the wackiest ways to resolve shooting, melee, etc - but using weird dice resolution methods can complicate the balance process.  3D6 vs 2D8s might seem cool, but it's difficult to balance, given the statistical "curve"of results.  Having to roll a 4 or less on d10 is undeniably a 40% chance to succeed - a lot easier to balance.

Don't think this is important?  Look at the success of Song of Blades - it's basically a points system with a game attached to it.  Think about 40K and Warmahordes - people often spend more time "building" and discussing army lists than they do playing.  Points systems allow players to have fun even when they aren't playing.

Off Topic: If you want an example of list building taken to an extreme, have a look at this Warmachine statistical breakdown and discussion of all units used in "masters" competitive play.

Have a Set Campaign Length
A lot of campaign games can falter as time goes on as "imbalances" between warbands can become exaggerated and new armies can find it hard to beat "levelled up" armies no matter what artificial bonuses/handicaps you give them.  Having a set campaign length - say say ~8 games - means you can plan for the amount of "advancements" and skills a army might have by game 8.  If the games are 2 per week, that's a month of play.

Advancement not tied to winning (not extra XP for wins)
This sounds a little weird, but it's to prevent the "juggernaut"effects of a few early wins making a warband level up faster than everyone else,  thus making it easier to win, and get more XP/advancement to get farther ahead.  Catch-22.  Players don't need any inducement to win, and losing can be just as character building as winning.  Whilst not everyone is uber-competitive, no one plays to lose. I mean, you look at all the guys with the win-loss ratios of their Warhammer armies as their online avatar.  The competitive are going to compete anyway - they don't need extra inducements.  Furthermore, the loser probably already has more troops injured or out for next game - they don't need extra punishment.

Different Scenarios
If you want to stop every game from turning into a deathmatch, scenarios with varied an interesting objectives are essential.  This is not something that gets done at the end of the rules book at the last minute - it needs to be considered at the start, as some scenarios radically impact a faction's chance of winning and losing.

Playing Catch-up: the "Offline" skill roll or "Bye"round
Weaker or newer warbands are often compensated by extra gold or XP or rerolls.  But they aren't that cool and always seemed a bit contrived to me.  Maybe allow "late arrivals" to a campaign to have a few free skill rolls once, but at a much lower amount to actually playing.  Kinda like a bye in sport.  I've played MMOs (EvE, Planetside) where you can "advance" when you were offline, and they made me play MORE because I'd be keen to spend and test out my new skill points.  Obviously playing should be more attractive, but missing a game night shouldn't leave you hopelessly behind the 8-ball.

Co-Op Option (Space Hulk/Horde mode)
This is not about balance, but might add a bit of variety to a not-so-serious campaign.  I enjoyed Strange Aeons' "co op" feature - their warbands never fought each other directly but each player would take a turn being the "Opfor" and controlling the monsters.  Each players warband could level up without ever directly opposing another players' warband.  This makes things more relaxed as the Opfor player doesn't have as big a stake in proceedings and it would be a fun change of pace.  Two thoughts: a player who had played way more games than the other players might have to be an opfor now and then - he can harm his opponents kinda indirectly, while not increasing the gap in mismatched warbands.  A hopelessly outgunned warband could request a horde game or it might be a random occurrance.  The other idea - this could possibly be automated and allow players who cannot attend games days to play a solo 'catch-up' game, earning XP at a lower rate.
Lastly, a horde game can also be directly balanced against a player's warband i.e. an 300-pt elite warband faces 300pts of foes, and a 100pt warband gets 100pts of foes.

Short Game Times (60-90 minutes)
Two Hour Wargames?  It needs to be faster than that.  You need to be able to play back-to-back games in an evening. Song of Blades does this very well (about ~45 minutes per game).  Games need to play quickly, so you can do the fun advancement stuff between battles, and see genuine progression.  Instant gratification ftw!

Familiar Mechanics (or "different but not too different")
Players seem to like the familiar.  Think how many games use 40K mechanics.  The trick is to be different, but not too different.  Many indie developers like to tear up old mechanics "just because." Whilst I personally enjoy their creativity, I wonder if there might be a bigger market in evolution, rather than revolution. How many of us tried to make a "better 40K?" Honestly, tossing out IGOUGO for a more tactical initiative/activation system with reactive actions, and adding some depth with some sort of easy-to-use resource management would be great.  The basic combat-resolution mechanics can remain 40K for all I care (although a shift to d10 might be nice) and would be familiar to old 40K players (which as Warlord and Mantic know, are a huge market.)  I don't think "no measuring" for example is needed - people seem to like the familiar.  I'd like to see the familiar, but better.

EDIT: Don't delay gratification too much...
I don't like having to play 2-3 games with a vanilla warband before getting any fun skills. I think having a pre-campaign skill roll means you start with flavourful warbands.  Progression should be occuring from the first game. While advancements shouldn't be handed out willy-nilly, you shouldn't have to "endure"though a heap of games before your warband gets interesting and fun to play.

I guess this is a bit of a wish-list of ideas, so let's summarise them:

-short, sweet games allowing the fun "advancement"and "injury" stuff in a gaming sessions
-advancement is not tied to winning (to reduce snowballing)
-special rules are minimized (by either amount i.e. 2-3 per mini, or limiting them to 3-5 "heroes" while the majority get "global" upgrades); special rules are kept to a minimum (~20)
-keep mechanics familiar, but improve key areas (activation, reactions, resource management)
-handicap min-maxers by making skills/upgrades 'controllably' unpredictable
-keep stat upgrades sensible (the 20% rule) to keep warbands from "snowballing" to be unbeatable
-some sort of horde mode/free skill roll for people who start late/miss a game or two
-bear the points system in mind when making the game
-balance campaigns (and advancement) around a set amount of games (~8)

EDIT: I think the main thrust of the ideas are stop "wildly unbalanced/runaway juggernaut" warbands that get a few early wins (or min-ax with certain cheesy combos) and them steamroller everyone (without lots of artificial "balancing" outside the game, like Blood Bowl extra gold etc for weaker teams), and to keep the game simple and clean with few special skills, and only mild stat improvements (max 20% stat boost, not the 100% dual wield boost of Mordhiem, for example).

I'm sure I'll think of some other things, but it's a school night and there'll be plenty of ideas from the comments section I'm sure.  What are ways to "balance" a campaign and keep it fun?  What would you like to see in a "new" Mordhiem?

Friday 23 January 2015

Robotech RPG Tactics: Miniatures Review

For those surprised by my somewhat benign review of the Robotech RPG Tactics rules (verdict: unnecessary hitpoints but mostly fine), you may be asking - is it worth diving into this game?

My response:
Do you enjoy doing 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles?
Would you enjoy doing that same puzzle a dozen times in a row?
Do you enjoy doing Tamiya model kits without instructions?
Do you find having missing/poorly sized pieces a "fun challenge"?
Do you enjoy using tweezers? Were you a legend at playing "Operation?"
Do you like the texture of copious dried superglue encrusting your fingers?

If your answers to all of the above is "Yes!" then you will enjoy the Robotech RPG Tactics models.

Basically, the miniatures are all like mini 1:300 versions of 1:48 Revell kits rather than wargaming pieces.  It's like they have no idea who their target audience is:
Hobbyists - who enjoy assembling stuff are better off with large, detailed kits?
Wargamers - tend to view models as playing pieces, and don't want to spend 12 hours assembling?
Boardgame/RPGers - who tend to have even less patience for assembly than wargamers?

Basically, they've made a product that combines the worst of all worlds.  It's too tiny to be a good display model, and too hideously complicated for a gamer.

There is a ridiculous amount of parts for such tiny models - a Valkyrie battleroid (the same size as a 28mm mini) comes in 16 pieces.  Heck, I've seen 1:300 jet models that had similar detail - cast in ONE piece.

*The sprues are not numbered, and they really, really need to be
*Many fine details (antennae, guns) were damaged on the sprue due to their layout
*The instructions are vague and do not cover all layouts clearly; there's a lot missing
*Some weapons/arms must be assembled in a particular way (this is NOT explained)
*Most of the multi-part pieces are completely unecessary. They split things into 3 bits where one would do. It's a 1:48 model shrunk to a super-fiddly 1:300 scale
*It's obvious the parts were designed by computer software, by someone who has never played wargames (or even assembled a model)

These dozen miniatures took about 5 hours to assemble....  
I'm not a talented modeller, but reasonably experienced.  That said, I could probably work a bit faster with proper instructions

I calculate the models take ~20 minutes each to build (and I'm not very pedantic/particular) - which means I have another 10+ hours to simply assemble the rest of the starter set.  The fact each Veritech comes in 3 "modes" means you have to assemble 3 models for one playing piece simply compounds the issue.   The only upside to the models is they look about right to go with Battletech models from pictures I've seen around (I only have converted clix at the moment so I can't post a scale photo sorry).

The dice, unit cards, and counters (there isn't enough for the UEDF who need more than 10) are pretty mediocore quality so don't add a lot of value to the box. 

Although value wise, it isn't that bad.  My starter box cost $110.  If we subtract the quite decent rulebook ($30 is about usual) and the rather poorly made dice and cards ($10 is very charitable) - we are left with $70 for 34 models - about $2 each which is very good, actually.    Ignoring the rules and stuff makes the pieces worth $3 each which is still good, although expansion boxes seem priced much higher at 4 for $35 ($9 ea mini) which would make adding to your army a tad pricey.

Whilst the value in the starter box is quite solid, whoever designed the minis deserves to be locked in a cell, and forced to assemble them for the rest of his life.

Thursday 22 January 2015

Robotech RPG Tactics: Rules Review (+starter box pics)

My starter box set arrived today in an impressively large box, and I was very excited to open it. I'll spare you a traditional "unboxing" YouTube video* (*I'd find it too tricky to narrate it in the self-important yet monotone American accent usual in such things) and instead focus on the rules. (I'll include a few photos though).

I'm a bit worried my nostalgia goggles will make me kinder than usual, but on to the rules review (bear in mind this is only playtested at a very rudimentary level.)

The Shiny
The book is a 112-page glossy softcover with art and illustrations throughout.  Whilst not in the Infinity category of "shiny" it is nonetheless a pleasant addition to the collection on a par with the better softcover productions. It actually has an index (which seems unusual these days) but lacks a quick reference page.  Only 28 pages are rules - the rest is stats, paint schemes and fluff. 

The rules are not in the "Infinity" level top tier, but are colourful, glossy and pleasant, with lots of nostalgia-inspiring Robotech/Macross pictures.
These are in the ~4 stat "sweet spot" for skirmish games:

Speed = duh
Piloting = how well it handles, dodges, and can melee
Gunnery = shooting accuracy
Defence = how tough/hard to hit

In addition, the 28 generic special rules for weapons and vehicles are straightforward enough and well within the norm, and compare favourably with the 50-100 in most indie rulesets.  However most mechs have quite a few of these special rules each (especially the Veritech fighters which have 3 "modes" as they can transform from mech to jet.)

There was plenty of plastic sprues in the box....
Activation & Initiative
Players roll 2d6 to see who goes first then alternate moving "squadrons" (groups 2-4 mecha) which don't have to be close together (but weaker pilots can benefit from staying in close formation).  Pretty much a standard alternate move.

However it gets interesting with Command Points - you get one per mecha, plus extras for leadership bonuses. These are a resource which you can "spend" in a range of ways - to try to "steal"an activation (i.e. activate 2 units in a row); boost speed (double movement); make extra melee attacks or or fire extra weapons, dodge attacks, shoot down missiles or mitigate damage.

These do not automatically succeed, but better pilots are advantaged - for example to boost speed players add their Piloting skill + d6 together - they need 6+ to succeed.

I do like the Command Points system - they adds depth to an otherwise pretty generic game.

..which looked impressive spread out...
This is pretty simple.  Players roll Gunnery + D6 vs the target's Defence.  If the score is equal or above it hits.  However targets can spend Command Points to attempt to dodge - they roll a d6 + Piloting to see if they beat the attack roll.  Damage can further be halved by spending a Command Point - which as you can see are an important "currency" to manage in the game. There are a few modifiers for cover and bonuses for flying in close formation. 

Damage is inflicted as "hitpoints" - which regular blog readers will realize is not my favourite means of damage resolution (I belong to the "no record keeping, removes model with lots of lots of pew pew and explosion noises" philosophy).  However the game does come with nifty Warmachine-style cards which mitigates my annoyance a little.

Melee is done a little differently - both sides make an opposed roll - they add a d6 to their Piloting stat.  There are a few special moves (body block/shove, grab, kick, power punch, stomp) which allow for some cinematic action and reminds me pleasantly of the criminally unsupported Lightning Strike rules. (Curse you, DP9)

These are pretty usual, except you can destroy buildings (essential in a mech game!) and there are some good special rules that pertain to it:  Aircraft can turn 90d at the start of their move, and must then only move straight (for at least half speed.)  Jets with afterburners must make a second movement at the end of their activation after any gunnery/attacks.

Again, this simple but effective differentiation reminds me of Lightning Strike, and makes a clear distinction between Veritech fighters in mech, hover and full-jet mode.

...however my excitement faded when I realised how fiddly they are to assemble - and how you have to assemble and paint 3 models for each Veritech you want in your army (for battleroid, gerwalk and jet modes)
Other Stuff
Lots of stats of the different mechs, with some rather nice art that made me quite nostalgic (and also recall jealously Mitchell from my Year 2 class, who had all the mechs) along with a character section with their own special rules (i.e. Rick Hunter, Roy Fokker, and the dude with glasses who hooked up with the Zentraedi chick, among others)

There is also an very extensive paint guide with all the colour schemes from the TV show (I might add the starter box comes with lots of decals with emblems/squadron markings.)

A 28mm Mantic ghoul for scale. The mechs were smaller than I expected...

Scenarios, Campaigns & Advancement
There are 4 beginner scenarios that gradually increase in size/complexity, and an army builder of sorts (pretty simple; you must have at least one 'core' unit per 150 points; with a minimum of two).

The seven standard scenarios allow you to dice for the type of deployment allowed, and there are six special rules to add spice (orbital bombardment, space battles, unusual gravity, airborne assault etc).

There are also campaign rules, but they are more examples/suggestions/guidelines on the types (map, tree, narrative) you can do, rather than thorough "Necromunda" style rules.  There are optional rules for advancement but the EXP you earn unlocks skills that last for only one game - it'd keep armies from getting unbalanced, but I reckon it's a little lame.

However there is a  detailed point-system that links to the Robotech RPG. This could be easily jerry-rigged for a more Necromunda-style experience.   The tools are there - with a few house rules you could make a reasonably detailed and interesting campaign system.

The paint scheme guide is handy for those who don't have the time to rewatch Robotech/Macross for
"research purposes."
+ Simple, cinematic combat rules
+ Movement differentiates simply but clearly between mechs and jets
+Activation system has resource management (command points) which adds decisions
+Just enough tools to make your own campaigns

-Most mechs have multiple special rules (though they are simple and generic)
-Hitpoints/record keeping (though offset by nice Warmachine-style cards)
-Not really a  'mass battle' ruleset - it's a skirmish game, which will handle ~12 a side
-Rules are pretty generic - nothing that exciting to be honest
-Assembling the models will be a b***h (not really rules-related, but...)

Whilst I'm not super-excited about the rules, they are a sensible mix of familiar mechanics; and I like the resource/activation system.  They're definitely good enough and I won't be trying to jerry-rig another rules set for this genre (like I do for Battletech, Aeronef, and most space games).  A little off-topic, but I'd add the value/content ratio of the $100 starter box, whilst not "great" value, seemed reasonable enough.

Recommended: Yes.  Whilst I'm not keen on hitpoints, it has solid activation and sensible combat and movement.  And bits of it reminds me pleasantly of Lightning Strike, which tops my underrated-game list.

Friday 16 January 2015

Game Design #24: Favourite Mechanics Part 2 (Movement)


This seldom sees much interesting innovation.  Most fall into #1 and #2, with some historical games in #3. Probably because there is only so many ways you can skin a cat.*

1. "Everyone moves 6."  This is sometimes explained away by "everyone is moving at combat speed" or some such thing.  I find this a needless simplification, as (a) it's pretty unusual to forget how far you can move (b) it is usually amended by adding in special rules like "Fast" and "Slow"and "Very Fast"and "Very Slow" which means you then have to remember how far a Very Fast mini moves (c) it makes the assumption everyone's combat speed is the same. As a PE teacher I know there is massive physical variation within the human race, let alone aliens and fantasy critters.  I'm sure some creatures are more confident in combat, and some are simply more nimble at skulking from cover to cover...  I put this one under the "Needless Abstraction" and "False Economy."
Usually this system involves a free combat action, or you give up the combat action to sprint or charge 9-12." Also known as The Warhammer 40,000 standard.

2. Pre-plotted.  There's nothing that breaks immersion for me, more than writing "I will move forward 6", then wheel 60d left" like a naughty schoolboy writing lines.  I wanna move my stuff around shouting "Pew! pew!", not retire to my side of the table to for silent writing time. It's bad enough that many games are a book keeping exercise, but to make it a writing exercise too is just cruel.  Any realism gained by this method tends to be lost if anyway, if units teleport around without enemies able to react to them any better than IGOUGO. Laying down order cards in sequence such as those used by Wings of War (and Sails of Glory?) are better, but it still is a bit of a guessing game.

3. "Yes, not everyone is equal." This actually allows that some people races might actually be faster than others.  It also adds subtle tactics in movement, in a more graduated way. I'd expect this, but I like to see it combined with other things, such as:

4. The unpredictable move.  This usually involved dicing for how far you move.  I used to hate this - I mean, in real life I can consistently run x distance in a set timeframe, so why would I, who runs say an average of 7", run 4" one minute then 10" the next?  Whilst this is a bit fast and loose with timescale, it does slice through the premeasure/don't premeasure Gordian knot. I now quite like it, as long as there isn't extreme swings in distances moved from turn to turn, like "infantry move 1d6", or 1d10").

This is of a kind with  the unpredictable activation.  This meshes with activation, but basically some troops get to move, and others don't.  Like the Action Pool (and to a degree the unpredictable move) this presupposes a somewhat flexible timescale. Sometimes figures fail to move. A bit similar to the Action Pool but with penalties.   Both of these types can be good, depending on the genre/type of game. 

5. Action Points.  This makes movement and ranges a little less predictable as someone can spend all 4APs on move 24"; or say 1AP to move 6" and use the rest for shooting/other stuff.  This is good as it is controllable yet unpredictable - it makes it hard for an opponent to set up precisely 1" out of charge range.  Good for skirmish games where you can take time to "spend" the AP.  More realistic but less dynamic (and with less decisions) than the:

6. Action Pool. Each player has a pool of actions (which may be fixed/variable) for their whole team which they can "spend" - sometimes repeatedly on the same unit/mini.  This adds a strong aspect of resource management as well as making it near impossible for the opponent to "game" distances.  it's cinematic but sometimes looks a little weird as one guy charges around and the rest just stand about cheerleading.

Example: Lords & Servants get 3D6 actions for their whole force (of which they can conserve half to interrupt their opponents' turn) which can be spent in any manner. Leaders moving groups conserves AP compared to individual movement.

Infinity gets an action every mini in the force - they can spend them in their turn, and get free reactions in the opponents' turn. It's possible for one mini to "rambo" for 10+ turns in a row and move say 80" (to one end of the board and back) - but combined with unlimited enemy reactions, he'd be unlikely to survive. 

I'm sure there's some historical games that do different things...   ....and I have this nagging feeling I have forgotten a category (or two).  I'm sure the blog lurkers will enlighten me though, and I can add them in later.

*I googled this, and it seems there are many, many ways to skin a cat, most of them facetious.  
I wonder if we could do a wargamer's guide to skinning a cat.
Napoleonics cat: You've got the wrong colour skin for 1806. (Wait til cat removes skin, then swipe.)
40K cat:  Get a giant tank. Then drive the tank over to the cat and skin it with your chainsword.
Bolt Action/Mantic cat:  Tell it that the 40K cats are all going skinless this season.
Indie designer cat:  Remove the cat's "skin" stats. Neglect to include "skin" as a special rule
Ancients cat:  Tell the cat you have a cool new game. Tell the cat it's skin has the wrong basing to play.
American gamer cat: Explain the French really won their War of Independence.  Watch as cat's fur spontaneously combusts.

Game Design #23: Enjoyable or Innovative Mechanics Part 1 (Setup/Activation)

Do you have a game where you think something is just done really well?  Some aspect of the game, be it a clever initiative/activation, a cool way of resolving combat, or a good magic or morale system.

If you regularly read my reviews, this will also enable you to predict the "tone"of each section.  Basically red = ugh, not this again, yellow = solid, green = has potential/usually interesting. 

This seldom sees anything too interesting - it's a bit of an unexplored area for designers.  No, min-maxing an army list based on something you read on the forums is NOT what I am talking about.

1. STANDARD.  Players roll to see who chooses the board edge, who places their minis in what order and who goes first.  Both sides place their models a set distance from the table edge (usually under 12") unless they have some sort of special rule shenanigans that allows them to paratroop in later. This is so standard I don't ever bother to comment on this in reviews: it's a given.  If it ain't broke, I guess... ...only I now expect more ever since:

2.  CHAIN OF COMMAND. Yes, this game got it's own section. It's the "name brand" of deployment phrases, as you would.  Both players maneuver tokens about on the table in a "scouting" mini-game. Once the tokens come into contact with enemy tokens they are "locked" into place.  This then determines the possible "deployment points" of each sides' miniatures and the game begins. Deployment is thus both skill-based and organic.
1. IGOUGO. Really, again?  This is for control freaks who like to move and shoot without interruption while their enemies stand around having a coffee and a fag.  Unrealistic, and kinda boring unless you like having an hour coffee/loo break during your opponents' turn.  Straight to the bottom of the rules pile.  Very few decisions to make.

2. Alternate Move. Ah, we've progressed as far as Chess.  They did discover this 2000 years ago though, so Games Workshop may move on to this sometime soon. Still a bit predictable and mechanical, but way more interactive than IGOUGO, and players are equally involved through the turn.  I rate this as acceptable but not that impressive.

3. Card Based.
  Ah, the standard random move.  "Lawful Chaos."  You shuffle up cards, and when your unit's card is pulled, it must act.  Old school. Probably British.   Very unpredictable - you can only plan from turn-to-turn.  Whether I like it depends on how and for what genre it is implemented. I like it when you can keep a card for later - which become more a managed activation.

4. "Managed" Activation (tm).  In the first three cases, when you move is largely decided for you - be it randomly, or in sequence. Managed activation means you make choices that influence how/when your turn ends.  It gives a player a lot more decisions to make. A sub-category I enjoy I'd call the forced activation - when you force an opponent move a particular unit/min.

Song of Blades: You choose how many dice to roll, and thus how many potential actions. If you get greedy (and fail) your turn ends, even if you have models yet to act.

Battlefield:MMW:  You have a pool of command points to activate your units with (a bit like DBA 'pips').  You can activate a unit more than once, but each time it costs more, i.e. 1CAP for the first activation, 2CAP for the 2nd, 3CAP for the 3rd, etc.

7TV:  You simply can only choose half your models to move. Although nominally IGOUGO, it forces more decisions upon the player.

5. Multiple/Extra Reactions.  This is included in activation as this involves activating - usually shooting, sometimes moving - in your opponents' turn, usually multiple times.  This is a step beyond normal "overwatch" when you  "save" your action by not acting in your turn (which is more a managed activation).  Gives a player a lot more decisions.

Infinity. You get to react with every single model in LoS of an activating enemy. Every time.  For every enemy model.  Often you're busier in your opponents' turn than your own.

Tomorrow's War. You get to react to enemies in LoS, but at steadily decreasing effectiveness each time. 

6. Hybrids.  Many rules sets are hybrids of one or more of the above.

One of my "approved" GW games, LOTR has IGOUGO-AltMove-Managed: side A moves all troops, then side B moves all troops, side A shoots with all troops, side B shoots with all troops, etc - but heroes can interrupt (manage) the turn by spending might points.

As you can see, I tend to prefer initiative/activation sequences that place the most decision-making upon the player.  Choosing how/when to activate should be every bit as important as choosing who to fire at. 

Over to the blog lurkers.  What are your favourites?  Feel free to nominate a game - heck, create a new category - and explain what it does/why you like it.  
(The focus is setup and activation.  We'll cover combat, movement and morale at a later stage). 

Thursday 15 January 2015

Game Design #22: Best Selling Wargames

ICv2's Internal Correspondence #86 for Q4 2014:

#1. Warhammer 40K
#2. X-Wing
#3. Warmachine
#4. Star Trek Attack Wing
#5.  Hordes

Whilst the data has to be taken with a pinch of salt, it likely IS somewhat more comprehensive and accurate than your personal observations in your local hobby store (see logical fallacies).  

That said, here are some personal observations:

*I'm curious why #3 & #5 weren't combined (local players seem to play them as the one game) and where they would rate if they did.

*I had no idea the twisty-dial games were so popular. Though I do think clix games should be in the collectibles category.  I expected X-Wing to make the list, but not be #2. (Perhaps wouldn't if Hordes was added to Warmachine?). I wonder though if they will remain consistent (there has been a lot of clix games that have fallen by the wayside).  There must be more Trekkies out there than I thought, as well.  Admittedly I have been out of touch with gaming for about 6 months.

*Warhammer Fantasy is conspicuous by its absence. (It was 3rd behind Warmachine in 2012, 4th behind X-Wing in 2013).  Vague rumours suggest it makes up only 8% of GW sales.  Given how ruthlessly GW has pruned better games, it doesn't surprise me to hear rumours of a makeover, turning 9th ed into a skirmish-type Warmahordes scale game with round bases. Whilst the switch to skirmish from boring, expensive, painful-to-paint big unit blocks interests me, the gut feeling I have - that it will just be 40K with arrows  - does not.

*Who else would make the list, if it wasn't for the clix? (Prepainted "kiddy collectibles" aren't proper miniatures wargaming I say!).  Malifaux made 5th on 2011, 2012, but I cannot see it being more popular than Flames of War for that or any other year (Yes, I know what I said about personal opinions!).  Perhaps Battlefront handle their own distribution.

*OK, this list is officially cr*p.  Dark Heaven by Reaper coming 5th in 2009?  I don't think a rules system was even in print then. I refuse to believe role-players buying singles of Reaper figures had a bigger market share than, say LOTR:SBG, even if it was dying at the time. 

OK, now for "personal opinion"
Top Tier: 40K, Warmachine/Hordes, X-Wing
Second Tier: Flames of War, Bolt Action, Warhammer Fantasy
Third Tier: Malifaux, Infinity, Firestorm/Dystopian Wars.
Maybe there: Dropzone Commander, Bushido

Lessons Learned
What do we notice about these? (I'm semi-ignoring the clix games as they aren't a conventional miniatures game, and are as much akin to CCGs/boardgames.)

They all focus on MINIATURES (and "Oooh, Shiny!")
All of them have an accompanying miniatures range.
All have "boutique" pricing - i.e. minis 2-3x more $$$ than a similar historical mini
All have multiple, collectible "official" factions
All have a points-based "army builder" that encourages min-maxing unit combos (i.e. a list-building metagame)
All of them have extensive fluff.   There's a lot of shiny chrome.  The rulebooks are always polished.
They also focus on ACCESSIBILITY
Most have low equipment requirements (not much terrain, ordinary tape, D6s)
Most of them are 'supported' with (excessive) supplements, codexes, army books and rule revisions.
Most of them use "buckets of dice"
Most of them have rather simple mechanics with little math
All have limited record-keeping
Many of them share mechanics
Most of them are quite concrete (WYSIWYG, line of sight)
Most are points-based for one-off  'pick up' games rather than scenarios
Most of them give the player a lot of control (IGOUGO) free of interference (reaction fire, etc)
It's easy to find and buy the miniatures (online or in stores), and also to find out what you need to buy
Most games can be played in ~2 hours
All are dominant in their chosen fields = convenience in finding opponents

I find Infinity the interesting outliers in that they violate many of the "accessibility" rules, but on the other hand their market share is probably proportionately small. 

So if I was setting out to make money, I would:
*Make sure my rules were polished and include well written (proofread) fluff
*If I did not have a miniatures line, work with a specific miniatures manufacturer (feature their models through my rules); create some 'official' factions
*Use simple mechanics borrowed from existing games with little record keeping, time ~2hrs to play
*Include a points system for pick-up games (I'm looking at you, Ambush Alley Games!)
*Include a robust army builder so players can tinker (i.e. min-max) to their hearts content
*Support my rules by doling out new content in dribs and drabs

I wouldn't use IGOUGO, and I would allow reaction moves/fire (simply because I cannot sacrifice that much of my integrity!) as games seem to be finally moving on from that anyway.

Game Design #20 "Realism" Revisited

I often mention how gamers confuse realism with complication.  A game does not have to choose between being simple OR realistic. They aren't opposites.  Here are some antonyms which I will be using, as I revisit this topic in more detail:

Realistic =v= Unrealistic
Simple =v= Complicated
Playable =v= Unplayable
Detailed =v= Abstract
Consistent =v= Inconsisten

Having defined the issue in a previous post, I'd like to break it down into smaller parts:

Realistic vs Unrealistic Results
Does the results of a particular move/action reflect how it would have happened on the battlefield?
You'd expect a WW2 cavalry charge to fare poorly against Panzers.   A hull-down tank should be harder to damage (and shoot more accurately) than one trundling along in the open.  A medieval army in a castle can defend more easily than one in open ground. A musket volley would not mow people down at 300m.  In fact, "realism" it is more a synonym for "common sense."

A game can give realistic results without consulting 3 charts, applying six modifiers from Appendix C including the gunner's martial status and the amount of coffee the target drank that morning.   The focus should be on the result (realistic vs unrealistic) not the process (which should be simple/quick vs complicated).

For example, many fantasy games allow bows to fire-AND-move, and crossbows fire-OR-move.  The outcome - it effectively gives bow armed units higher maneuverability/rate of fire, and simulates the long reload of a crossbow.   You COULD allows crossbows to fire-AND-move, but track which individual crossbows have fired or haven't, and make them spend a turn to reload.  However the second method (though it has the same result) is less playable and has more complication.

Realistic vs Unrealistic: Perfect awareness, perfect control, perfect precision
Would real commanders from that era have the "God's-Eye View" perfect awareness we have on the table, knowing exactly the location and status of each of their own (and each enemy) unit? How do the rules recreate "fog of war"

Can you always do what you plan, without interruption from an obliging enemy? For example, IGOUGO, with its clearly defined "turns", ability to co-ordinate moves without interruption whilst enemies stand around, hands in pockets, is a clear enemy of "realism."

Did historical battles always go the way commanders predicted?
"Action in war is like movement in a resistant element.  Just as the simplest and most natural form of movements, walking, cannot easily be performed in water, so in war it is difficult for normal efforts to achieve even the most moderate results.” von Clausewitz

 Are you guaranteed of being able to carry out your plans precisely to the nearest 0.5"?   Shooting (dice based) is unpredictable, but what about movement? What about the activation order - is it realistic to expect you always your units when and where you want, every time?

Realistic vs Unrealistic:  Does the game emphasize/reward the tactics of the era?
A Dark Ages game would emphasizes shieldwalls and melee.    A modern game should include lots of fire-and-maneuver, with troops laying down suppressive fire. Hand to hand combat would be less likely. A blackpowder game would include tight ranks of troops firing volleys by rank.
If a modern game made it both safe to charge into melee, and tactically rewarding to do so, it would be unrealistic.

Complicated vs Simple Process (how it gets done)
Sometimes games focus on exactly what troops are doing (process).  I know a lot of my games from the 80s had the exact armour and gun size (to the nearest millimetre), modified by the angle, wind direction, weather etc. Vehicles came in 5-6 "sizes" of target.
I think this a problem - many gamers who grew up in this era are confusing the process with the result.  You don't need a complicated process to get a realistic result.

Complicated vs Simple: Does the game focus on the important bits?
Sometimes games spend too long on what is relatively unimportant or the 'rare exception.'
A WW2 aerial game need not devote 3 pages to "bailing out" rules (it's too complex and detailed= it's not a parachute simulator) but should have an emphasis on pilot skill, awareness and energy management.  A squad-level skirmish game where everyone has radios may not need rules for "communication checks."  Do the rules spend too long talking about unimportant stuff?    I tell students "a good summary is like a bikini - it shows you quite a lot yet covers only what is necessary." The same goes for wargame rules.

Complicated vs Simple: Know what to Leave Out
A good set of rules knows what can be abstracted. For example, most skirmish rules do not track ammo consumption. Is this a correct decision?  If a soldier has enough rounds to last the skirmish, then it is completely realistic to ignore this.  If the time scale is longer (say 1 minute) the time to reload a modern rifle (seconds) is so tiny in comparison it makes sense to abstract this. In a platoon+ level game you should not have to give commands to individual solders - it seems sensible to presume (and abstract) that, if fired on, soldiers will take cover without having to be ordered to a specific stance (go prone etc).

Complicated v Simple: Does the player micromanage beyond their level?  
I think the command level is actually very important for determining the detail and complication which is acceptable/necessary. Are players making decisions far in excess of their historical role? (too much detail which can bog things down and is unrealistic) What are the maneuver units?

Player as Squad leader = control fire teams, individual soldiers
Player as Platoon leader = control squads, maybe some fire teams
Player as Company leader = control platoons, squads, maybe support fire teams

A company commander would be interested if a squad was in cover or not. If Private Parts is hanging out an upper floor window, flaunting himself to snipers, this might bother his squad leader. However his company commander would simply know the entire squad is in cover.  Rules detailing the antics of individual soldiers would be unnecessary detail and complication to a company level game (and unrealistic to boot).  They're just hitpoints for the squad, essentially.

Simple vs Complicated: Poorly Written Rules
A personal bugbear for me is exceptions to rules:
A spear gives a +1 bonus except against elephants, chariots, foot infantry with shields, foot infantry without shields, camels, and sharks with laser beams attached to their heads.

Another form of exceptions is the "special rule" - one that makes a unit special, abilities like "Stealth."  However, they tend to get out of hand (Infinity has over 180, and they can interact with each other) which makes a game complicated and difficult to remember.

Consistency is important to keep things simple.  Inconsistent games which use many different mechanics and methods of resolving actions (like Bag the Hun) also make things more complicated.  Two Fat Lardies are a good example. Their rules usually strive for "realism" and "simplicity" but are often very inconsistent.

Sometimes writers are just not clear in presenting ideas - such as when they don't avoid double negatives.  A dense wall of text or the layout can put make rules less accessible - I've tried to test and review the WW2 platoon game Arc of Fire a few times but each time I've lost patience with the rulebook itself.   Unconventional mechanics benefit from diagrams and gameplay examples which are not as widespread as they should be.

Simple vs Complicated: Poor Game Design
Why are games complicated?  So we seem more sophisticated if our friends ask us about our game using toy soldiers...

Tradition.  Sometimes rules are a certain way because of tradition in that genre, rather than any merit in the approach. Hmm, I think I might do a post on "influential" wargames sometime...

Charts?  Because of my background with 80s WRG games and similar, I tend to think charts = complicated.  I think most designers also make that link, and charts are out of fashion. However sometimes a chart is an effective way of resolving actions.

Resolution of Decisions/Actions
A rule set that requires multiple steps to resolve an action, can add complication.

Stats?  This is another area which designers eschew nowdays, perhaps suffering a backlash from older games with their RPG-like stat lines.  However removing/generalising too many stats in certain genres can actually create more rule exceptions to describe the now-removed stats.

Overusing the D6.  Having only 17% increments means not enough can be done "on the dice." In most games, you end up needing buckets of them, or having to roll a second time (roll 6, then a 5+ to hit). While they have their place, some games are too firmly "wedded" to D6, when a d10 might handle more situations, and allows better balancing of rules, to boot.

Pre-measuring  There are arguments for and against. For example, I'm against guessing artillery ranges (because it's unrealistic to expect a general to personally guess ranges for each individual gun and may give a unhistorical advantage to a good guesser), but pre-measuring can turn the game into an exercise in geometry that is likely unrealistic based on the information which might plausibly be available.  Personally I like unpredictability I can manage.  I've come to appreciate variable moves/activation. You have a good idea of what you can do, but there is no certainties.

A good, realistic wargame can be simple.  It should:

*give detail appropriate for the level and type of game (i.e. squad, platoon, company)
*focus on the key tactics/aspects of warfare of the era - abstract less important stuff
*give realistic results (outcomes) whilst keeping the process simple

Wednesday 14 January 2015

Game Design #21: RPG Resources - Health, Mana, Stamina

I've been thinking a lot about videogames and the link to tabletop wargames, and how the wheel has come in a full circle.  Videogames are now the "big brother" and wargames can look to them for ideas.  Ironic, I know.

I was playing Skyrim on PC the other day, thinking "this would be fun to play co-op" and then "that'll never happen - but this would be simple enough to turn into a wargame."   

Skyrim has relatively simple combat, but Mount & Blade has interesting melee mechanics with directional slashes, thrusts, parries and swings. I wondered how this could be done simply in a wargame (maybe a dice pool?).  Most times we push minis together and throw dice, but what's the best way decision making be added into the melee process (if it was restricted to 3-5 "heroes") without it bogging down? Maybe a dice pool?

The health-mana-stamina resource management seem to be staples of the PC game industry - it's quite usual for a hero to have a pool of mana which is used up to cast spells, stamina is used for special attacks/dodges/sprinting, and health is, well, health.

 I like the idea of "complex heroes, simple minions" used in games like LOTR:SBG.  A goblin is just a goblin. A man of Gondor is just a guy, with average stats.  "Grunts" have a standard profile, which makes them easy to remember - which is good, since there is usually a lot of them.  However a hero like Aragorn has special rules, extra attacks, and the resources Might, Will and Fate - probably the closest I've seen to the Stamina, Magic and Health trinity.  Because the LOTR heroes are few, you can afford to spend a little time on record keeping and add in a little more detail without the game bogging down. However I'd like to do away with tracking stuff on paper altogether.

Ways to minimize record keeping...  If you simply had a binary system (magic/no magic, stamina/no stamina, wounded/dead) you could use but a few counters on the tabletop to track the status - and only place the counters when a character out of that specific resource.   Perhaps all characters have a magic "rating", and they make a saving throw every time they cast a spell; a failure means it might work, but he is out of magic next turn, and must roll against the magic score to get it back and remove the "no magic" counter.  A similar system could be used for stamina, to perform sprints, dodges and special attacks.

In the era of notable for its swarms of RPG-lites or wargames-that-want-to-tell-a-story (usually wargames created by ex-RPGers) I'm surprised we don't see more games paying direct homage to PC/pen and paper RPG classics, using the more streamlined and interesting skirmish rules (reactions, interactive initiative/activation) we have about nowdays.

Bombshell Games' Battlefield: Miniature Modern Warfare was a not-so-sly nod to the PC shooter genre, but I can't recall any really obvious adaptions from PC fantasy and sci fi.   (I do recall a home made X-COM game, but sadly I can't find it since Fantasy Flight came out with its strategic-level boardgame and monopolised all the google search results)

I'm thinking PC MMO terms - "controllers" "area of effect" "buffer/debuffer." A homage to PC games like Baldur's Gate, Guild Wars, The Elder Scrolls, and even WoW, using iconic abilities and spells.    Perhaps with sample classes like rogue, paladin etc, that have a synergy with each other. A optional co-op/horde mode (one player controls the "baddies" and 2-4 players control the "party"- similar to the boardgame Descent) would allow a MMO co-op feel.

I quite like Savage Worlds RPG system and I might see if I can get their generic fantasy sourcebook.  Hmm, I think I recall  Goalsystem Delves does a lot of what I describe. I did play it a few years back, but obviously it didn't "take."*  (*EDIT: And now I feel like an idiot - I even reviewed it!)

Magic Systems
Following on from that, it's been a long time since I played any games with a strong magic system.  You know, serious game-changing stuff, like from early edition Warhammer HeroHammer days. I guess the steampunk warcasters from Warmachine could be classed in this category (though my experiences with that game were rarely enjoyable).

What are games with "good" magic systems?  Or do you have to go to an RPG for that? I confess it's an area I haven't really considered as it's been a while since I played a game with anything but rudimentary magic.  Again, this idea flowed from a PC game I saw - Lichdom: Battlemage - which attempts to move mages away from the frail-pointy-hat-ranged-spells stereotype to a sort of kick-ass fireball-slinging Schwarznegger.

Is it possible to have a "build your own spell" system; i.e. you start with a few basic, generic effects, then increase their potency/combine them with others.  I.e. "forcefield" - when cast on oneself, costs x.  If it is extended to a 3" area of effect centred on the caster, it costs 3x.   If this 3" AoE spell was centred on an area 5" from the caster, it costs 15x.  Perhaps "fireball" costs 2x.  If a forcefield, with a fire damage effect was cast, the two costs would be added together  ......I'm sure there's something like this out there already.

Most wargames I know kinda "bolt on" magic, and it's usually just an alternate ranged weapon or a defence bonus. Warhammer (at least the editions I last played) had scaled back its potency. In LOTR it is more mild buffs/debuffs (+1 defence vs arrow fire etc).  The original SoBH had only two spells!  I wonder if the low-magic fantasy that seems common is due to designers bad experiences with unbalanced magic in early Warhammer?  Are there any games where magic is an integral part of the game?