Sunday 26 April 2015

Mechwarrior Online: 2015 Review

Everyone likes giant robots.  And they don’t get much bigger and stompier than Battletech.  Nostalgia goggles aside, tabletop Battletech (for me anyway) hasn’t aged gracefully – whilst the gameplay is quite good, it’s rather clunky with a lot of things to record.  However the recently released fast play version left me cold – it abstracted all that made BT interesting.      

So – videogames?  Back in 2013 I reviewed Mechwarrior Online – a “free to play” game that allowed you to get into the cockpit of your favourite mech in a 12-v-12 deathmatch.  I drifted away from the game after 6 months due to a few factors – repetitive gameplay, few new maps, pay-to-win clanmechs, and developers who were evidently a bunch of tossers.

Fast forward to mid-2015 and it’s still the only mech game in town – apart from Hawken” which isn’t really a mech game so much as a reskinned FPS like CoD - all mech games are either unfinished or extremely dated.

Needing a mech fix, I jumped back into MW:O recently.   So what’s changed?

Well, not a lot – and that’s the problem. 

The clan mechs are cool, but inaccessible and unbalanced....

Clan Mechs are still largely inaccessible to the average player.  On release, they were blatantly pay-to-win – only available with real money (and at ridiculous prices - $50 to $240) up to 6 months after release.  Now anyone can “grind” them with enough effort in game, but as they are twice the cost of IS mechs, they are restricted to either paying customers, or very experienced players who have accumulated millions of XP.    This is a problem, because although not all clan mechs are overpowered, the three that are (Timberwolf, Stormcrow, Direwolf) dominate online play. 

The game is very grindy. Although your first 25 games accumulate XP at a good rate, after that your in-game “earnings” slow to a crawl.  So it’s easy to earn your first mech, but I hope you chose carefully – as your next one ain’t coming for a while.

The game is repetitive.  Although there are “capture the base” variants, 95% of games boil down to a 12v12 deathmatch.   And with the distinct lack of map variety, gameplay becomes predictable. 

The learning curve is steep.  Whilst the game is slower paced than a FPS, there is a lot going on.  Also, the people who like MW:O really like it, and amongst the mindless lemmings there are players who are quite hardcore with 1000s of hours played.  Maybe learn with a friend? However, there’s a problem due to the…

Matchmaker.  The game has an ELO system, which technically means games should be balanced by skill.  However if you play with a friend, you get put in the “competitive” queue which means you may be facing highly organized teams coordinated over TeamSpeak. 

The game is still a tad glitchy.  You do this weird "warp" through friendly mechs and I've clipped through walls and floors.  Ping is playable here in Australia (~250) but far more noticeable than in comparable games like World of Tanks. 

The Developers are idiots.  Never has a company so consistently alienated such a loyal and enthusiastic fanbase.  The forums are full of Battletech nerds who are happy to throw money at anything with the prefix “Battletech” or “Mechwarrior” on it.  However I’ve never seen so much online vitriol either.  Promises are never kept.  Deadlines are missed.  Development of key gameplay features are ignored in favour of selling more mechs.   Furthermore, for a crowd-funded game, it’s amazing how consistently the devs ignore community feedback in favour of unwanted, illogical solutions.  Never has the “balance team” in a game been so misnamed.  

Wow, so steer clear of this one, eh?
No.  I actually think it’s not a bad game.  I do recommend it, and it’s definitely a must-try for any Battletech fan.  Just want people to go in with their eyes open – whenever I review something I always am on the consumer’s side first and foremost. But I do think you should try this game.

From the minute you hear the computer say “reactors online” to the glow of overheated armour, and the wub-wub-wub of pulse lasers crisscrossing the air… you feel like a mech pilot!

The ability to completely customize your mech and “tweak” it is great fun and adds a lot of depth to the game – you can have fun even when you aren’t playing.

It’s very family friendly. It’s a great dad-and-son or husband-and-wife game, and a good intro to the world of Battletech.

It fairly accurately translates Battletech gameplay.

The online community are hardcore enthusiasts, but they are far less toxic and elitist than in games like World of Tanks. The forums are usually very helpful although there is more than a few whingers.

So… I’m thinking of trying it. I looooved Battletech and the old Mechwarrior PC games….   

It’s free, so go download it now.  While we’re waiting, here’s some advice.

There are about a dozen or so “trial” mechs.   These mechs rotate every month so you can try a wide range of the mechs on offer.  However these mechs have “locked” loadouts and are far inferior to the custom loadouts you can make when you actually own a mech.    Not only can you select better weapons, but an owned mech will eventually have ~15% greater speed, agility and cooling – a significant bonus.  Basically, the mechs you own will be much, much better. 

Play 25 games with the trial mechs. In those games, try a wide range of mechs.  Light mechs are agile, hit-and-run assassins and scouts;  mediums are all-rounders, heavies are slower but hit hard, and assault class mechs are monsters that can tank a torrent of fire.

So what should I get?  Well, use the trial mechs to pick a playstyle you enjoy.  However bear in mind the biggest isn’t always the best, and a rookie pilot in a slow, unwieldy assault-class mech is a recipe for disaster - usually in the form of a light pilot who will 1v1 it with ease.  With about 10-14 million in hand, you can check out what you can afford.  Remember to add +2 million C-Bills to the purchase cost for the mandatory double heatsink upgrade and miscellaneous extra weapons. 

Light (20-35t).   Lights are fast and agile.  They are also not as cheap as they look as they often require a XL engine which can cost more than the mech itself.  Used for scouting, assassinating, harassing.  The most fun to drive, but also quite unforgiving.  Consider: Firestarter (best dogfighter), Raven (ECM/sniper).  Avoid the flimsy Locust or Commando.

Mediums (40-55t).  These all-rounders are a good place to learn, as they use STD engines and are usually cheaper overall than lights. The best is the Stormcrow but good luck affording one.  Mechs that use STD engines (Centurions, Shadowhawks, Hunchbacks) are popular cheap beginner mechs.   Avoid the Kintaro.

Heavies (60-75t).  These are the heavy hitters on the team.  They usually have the same firepower as an assault, but trade armour for more flexibility.  The Mad Cat (Timberwolf) is god-tier, but outside the reach of a beginner.  I suggest a Thunderbolt, but Jagermechs and Cataphracts are still useful. 

Assault (80-100t). A slow as a beached whale, festooned with guns and armour, the assaults look badass.  However they are too-often embarrassingly caught out of position and murdered by 30-ton lights.  Once again, the clan Dire Wolf is the best but unaffordable.  I can recommend a Stalker as being easy to use and effective and the Atlas D-DC carries useful ECM.  Avoid the Awesome –  unlike in tabletop games, they are notoriously poor in MW:O. 

New players flock to big, imposing 100-ton assault mechs... and tend to die quickly to light mechs that are only the height of their kneecap... The Spider is a notorious "troll" mech

Some general advice:
*Most mechs have “quirks” – bonuses to specific weapon loadouts.
*Check loadouts in Smurfy – an online mech builder.  Basically, it allows you to fit out a mech and look at it for weight, heat etc BEFORE you splash the cash.
*Fit most of your armour to the front i.e. my assaults have 90 frontal and 10 rear armour. You can twist your torso and thus should seldom get shot from behind.
*XL engines give you more room for weapons but make you more vulnerable
*Speed is good – it helps you stay out of trouble.  150kph (light), 90kph (medium), 75kph (heavy) and 60kph (assault) are my general guidelines.
*Lasers are the most popular weapon – PPCs and ballistics have been nerfed.
*Upgrade your mech with double heatsinks to add mucho firepower
*Endosteel structure is usually also must-have to save weight
*ECM is useful for your team, making anyone in range of you immune to missile barrages
*An AMS is useful for slower mechs and also blocks missiles aimed at team mates
*Surprisingly enough, the head is the safest place to store ammo
*When firing at a light speedy mech, always aim for the legs
*Come prepared to spend $15-$30 sometime down the track– no “free” game is truly free; expect to pay money to enjoy the best experience (mech bays for extra mechs, champion/hero mechs, XP boosts)
*Don’t sell equipment – you always end up needing it later
*If you own 3 mechs of the same chassis you can get a bonus to stats
*Champion mechs come fully kitted out and are often 50% off ($3 for a light mech and a pricey XL engine seems fair enough)
*Visit the official forums 
*Google and read the many guides put out by enthusiastic MW:O players.

And if you see me around, add me – I’m the Dunning Kruger Effect ingame (I named myself in honour of my team mates…)

Saturday 18 April 2015

Game Design #43: "Skirmish" Wargaming Means so Many Things

"Skirmish" is an increasingly crowded genre.  But the term "skirmish" can mean almost anything.  Whilst a skirmish just means a smaller battle (with wildly varying definitions of "small")...

Skirmish Wargaming is often defined as a figure for each soldier - i.e. a 1:1 ratio.

But under that we could call Warhammer 40K a skirmish game - and I think it passed beyond that quite a while ago.  Heck, under that definition Warhammer Fantasy could be a skirmish game.  For me, WFB is a mass battle/regiment style game.

Infinity is skirmish.  It has ~10 minis that activate independently.

Mordhiem/Necromunda is about pitched at the 10-15 mini level.  It has  models which activate separately. It pretty much defined skirmish.

LOTR:SBG is skirmish. It often exceeds 50 minis - which activate simultaneously but can be moved independently or in groups.  I'd definitely rate it as skirmish.

In The Sword & the Flame, units are 20-man infantry, 12-man cavalry, but minis are 1:1. I certainly wouldn't call that skirmish though.

I mean, Ambush Alley is supposed to be a platoon-level or what I'd call a "small unit" wargame - minis are grouped together as fireteams or 3-5, or larger squads.  But minis are 1:1 so is it a skirmish wargame?

Is skirmish where one figure is a unique unit? I.e. each mini can operate independently (i.e. actions, stats etc are separate) of every other mini and is not part of a fixed "group" or unit.

Why do you care?

Well, I think there are quite a few different types of skirmish, with rather different design requirements.  Calling them all "skirmish" games is a bit confusing, especially when they have a different focus. I'm going to make an arbitrary ruling and say...

Skirmish - i.e. 1 mini = 1 soldier, but each model is activated and moved separately

Small Unit - i.e. 1 mini = 1 soldier, but models are activated and moved around in small groups (fireteams, squads)

.... as I noticed games tend to be either designed for activation with groups or individual units.  It has implications for reaction systems - does an individual respond to a group move; or a group to an individual move?

I think I'm interested in a hybrid of the two -  one that could handle minis moving around independently, but also allows units to be moved in groups.  I think the problem here is it is difficult to make a system that does not favour either group or individual activations, but makes them both equally valuable - i.e. advantageous under different circumstances. LOTR blurred the distinctions well - models could be independently maneuvered but there were advantages to grouping them up within range of a hero.  However the SIDE A MOVE/SIDE B MOVE, SIDE A SHOOT/SIDE B SHOOT style activation is a lot simpler and less dynamic than a lot of current systems.

Heck, you could probably subdivide "skirmish" skirmish into the "semi-RPG" - typically a party of 5-10 with lots of unique stats and skills, and often wound tracking.   

So what does a "skirmish" game mean to you?

Anyway, while I typed this some other thoughts pertaining to skirmish games came to mind:

Another thought it the "fixed unit size" in so many wargames. In Warmachine (admittedly fantasy) it's always 6 or 10.  In fantasy RPGs four is the magic number.  In games like Bolt Action, platoons always seem to be at full strength.  Even in places like modern Afghanistan, where we can airlift people in and out relatively freely, squads and fireteams are not always at full strength.  Far less so on the Eastern Front in 1945. I wonder why more rules don't have randomized unit strength?

Often heroes are simply "attached" to a unit, providing them with bonuses or extra attacks, like a glorified power-up.  Other times they charge around soloing dragons by themselves, with so many "wounds" and "attacks" they are basically a one-man unit all on their own.   TFL with their "Big Men" - inspiring individuals who affect activation - have more realistic heroes.  

Which is another gripe. If someone is "heroic" or a "leader" it does not mean they can take three wounds each of which would fell an ordinary man, or be capable of wrestling a Balrog to the ground despite being a 4' high dwarf.  Personally I think this is a good place for the dreaded "Saving Throw" or perhaps a "Re-roll" - to represent the cinematic narrow escapes or lucky hits.  Just because they're heroic or a leader does not correlate to superhuman strength, size or endurance.  

Although LOTR did do the "three wounds" thing and had more than it's fair share of wackily overpowered heroes, I think they were on the right track - Fate (allowing "saves" from injury), Might (allowing heroic feats and rallying followers) and Will (magic or resistence thereto) were in a finite supply.  A hero could push their luck, but only so far. 

Thursday 16 April 2015

Help Wanted: RPG Settings that Would Make Awesome Wargames

I'm not a huge RPGer.  Whilst I dabble in them on PC my interest in pen-and-paper RPGs is almost non existent.  However they do attract very imaginative world builders who create amazing settings.

I'm vaguely aware over the last decade there's been a bit of an explosion of smaller, indie RPGs with interesting mechanics and settings.  But I've never bothered to go down the rabbit hole, and sift through the terribly written fanfics (aka fluff) and sometimes-inspired-but-often-awful rules to look for the gems.

I'm looking for readers to help me out.  I'm looking for RPG settings that are interesting, and preferably original/a fresh take on a genre.  Specifically, settings that would adapt well to a wargame.

Can you provide the title, a link, a description of what it is, and if you know of any rules/minis that would fit the setting.

Here's an example of a helpful comment:

The Savage World of Solomon Kane

It's based on the Howard books about a puritan witch hunter who fights pirates, witchdoctors, lost tribes, undead, monsters and basically any other occult/cool stuff in about the 18th century. 

You could simply use the Savage Worlds rules as they play pretty fast.  LOTR could be modded.  Song of Blades and Heroes or the Four Colour rules would probably work well. You can use pretty much any historical models like those from Blue Moon in 15mm or Old Glory 28mm, and simply modify a Warhammer witch-hunter for the main hero. Would be a fun campaign game.  May suit the 2HW narrative style rules. 

You don't have to be as detailed as this, but you get the idea.

You can pick any genre or era - it's unrestricted.  However there MUST be miniatures to play it.  You favourite RPG with octopus-armed cat cyborgs is useless, unless octopus-armed cat cyborg miniatures are available.

Our communal hunt for free rules was pretty successful and I'm confident we'll unearth some good stuff. Come out, closet RPG nerds - now is your hour!

Wednesday 15 April 2015

Game Design #42: Fluff n Stuff II

I was thinking about fluff in the context of generic rules.  You know, ones without their own game universe.  This was prompted by a few things:

-The obvious love of the author for the setting of PMC 2640 - and the lack of purpose-built minis for it

-Looking through the Infinity V3 rules (I'll review it one day - it's just so damn big!) which comes with a separate 250-page background book (!)

-40K's focus on Horus Heresy and very "set" history, factions and locations (what I call their "shrinking" of their factions and universe)

In my last fluff post, I mostly concentrated on how to best use it. I.e.
Don't put in fluff in such a way as it messes with the readability of rules
Don't ramble on/be overly detailed or assume everyone loves your universe
Don't use family members as proofreaders and critics
Don't assume you are the next, undiscovered GRR Martin
Don't make fluff prescriptive (i.e. closed universe)

This post is kind of an elaboration on that, and is more "What makes fluff succesful?" and "how can fluff improve my rulebook and be appealing?"

Fluff is pretty important. I mean, how many people play 40K for the engaging, deeply tactical rules?  Of course not.  Everyone I know plays it because of the cool models and interesting universe.

This post kinda follow my train of thoughts, so may ramble a bit or contradict itself.  I'll need to sit back and re-read it later methinks.  But here goes:

Successful Fluff
So what makes fluff successful?  How come we engage with some universes and not others?  Should indie writers even bother with official factions? I mean, they want to sell rules for everyones minis, right?  How can we chose a background that makes our game more appealing - that adds value to the rules?

An appealing, but wide open universe.  
I think 40K has gone away from this compared to their early years.  Even their fanfiction Black Library is heavily proscribed and follows a strict timeline with strict rules.  Early 40K was so wide open - it was a darkly comic playground, using fantasy tropes mixed with sci fi, and borrowing from pop-culture ideas i.e. orks, elves, D&D, Star Wars, terminators, Alien aliens - for its main factions.  You could make your own factions and stuff and add them to the game. Now 40K seems very insular.  I mean, the Horus Heresy narrows things down even further.  It was once energetic and creative, but now the 40K universe is narrow, static and proscriptive. 

Recently successful universes - Infinity and Warmachine - have evolving timelines.  Infinity in particular hints at a much wider universe - yes, it's focussed on inter-human skirmishes, but we know there are other species out there - not all of which have made contact.  A universe needs breadth - to be an open place where players can carve out their own niches, instead of being told where to sit.

Adding a unit builder might encourage "cheese" but it also encourages creativity. I noticed PMC 2640 specifically stated it had no unit creator to allow you to stat up models, due to the risk of players abusing it.  Trust me - douchebag, cheesy players will find ways to annoy you anyway - don't withhold creative tools from the nice guys just because of them.  Open up the universe.

In short: Don't limit the players by having a strict, proscriptive universe. Also, include a unit builder.

Some People Need "Official Factions"

Whilst many people glory in the creativity of making homebrew armies and creating ("statting up") their own factions, weapons, vehicles and gear, some people also need the security of knowing what they have is official. (The same people are often the ones who most cheesily min-max within those official guidelines, secure in the knowledge they are making a "official" army).

However, you need to cater to those people, and good fluff is an additional "hook" to get people to play your rules.  Heck, good fluff can disguise average (or outright poor) rules.  Think how many people would play any crappy game as long as you put "Star Wars" on the cover. 

Whilst I'm not personally that interested, I do think any wargame needs some "official" factions. They also give creative players an example and a starting point.  It's a bit like point systems.

Whilst including official factions isn't going to drive off many players, not including them almost certainly will.  Some players dislike venturing outside the box. So give them a nice comfy box.

How many Factions?
I'd recommend 5-8 "official" factions.  Why that figure?  Games with few factions tend to stagnate. I.e. LOTR with "good" and "evil" needed to break into sub-factions.  Starship Troopers (with bugs vs humans) was never going to fly long term.  Too many factions can lead to imbalance and a lack of focus, and "forgotten" factions.  The rumours that Warhammer Fantasy (15 factions!) will be trimming/consolidating factions seems sensible.  Besides, most of the other top games fall in this category:
Warhammer 40K (8)
Warmachine (6)
Flames of War (7)
Infinity (8) <- the small figure count of the game encourages you to own multiple factions

Personally, I'd follow the tried and tested method: start a game with 4-5 factions and slowly add to them until I had around 7-8. 

Borrow from the Familiar/Ride Current Trends
Warhammer rode the D&D wave, and meshed with terminators, Alien, as well as other movie and cultural influences as they came.  It used existing tropes and adapted to pop culture at the time.   Warmachine was perfectly timed for the Steampunk craze (which also boosted Malifaux, another fluff-centric game) and mixes magic and steam robots. Like the original 40K, it started out with a over-the-top vibe.  Undead pirates lead by a dragon, who use steam powered robots? That's almost trying too hard!
Infinity taps into the anime/mech genre that is now firmly rooted in our culture, and like 40K, adds a mish-mash of random "cool" stuff  - sword-wielding space nuns, Scottish werewolves, transforming robots, shapeshifting aliens, along with staples like religious space knights.  

So on current form, a vampire-werewolf-zombie game will be the next big seller?  Actually I'd say not.  There are already a bazillion games involving the zombie-werewolf-vampires out there.  For example, I don't see Sedition Wars becoming the next 40K.  At the time they were made, 40K, Warmachine and Infinity were "fresh" - they were the first to jump on the wave to ride it.  I think say a game like XCOM/an alien invasion game is more likely to succeed, as though we have the background culture, it hasn't been done to death already within the tabletop sphere.

Pick a popular topic or borrow from pulp culture that hasn't already spawned a million tabletop games.  Be the first guy on the wave, but make sure it's a good, big wave before you hop on.

Fluff with Generic Minis
Most indie rule writers are working with generic minis from multiple manufacturers.  This increases the appeal of their rules.    Obviously, having a nice shiny miniature line to promote your rules is nice, but most don't have that luxury. They work with that they're given. So how can this work?

Making "Official" Factions from an Existing (Single) Manufacturer
I'm surprised more don't do this.   For example, Khurasan has a hugely varied 15mm line-up, from ancients, to pulp, fantasy to blackpowder, and of course its standout sci fi.  It even has heaps of models in 28mm.  Go, visit the site and have a look.  I bet you could make up a whacky, cool faction with just one of the product lines - let alone if you combined them.  Fantasy and sci fi are so flexible.

Aztecs leading lizardman warriors...
Octopus cultists with black-clad SWAT-style special forces...
Shapeshifers (you can mix and match any human + similar size animal/alien model)...
Medieval knights leading packs of demon bugs...

...the permutations are endless.   A common complaint about 15mm is "armies made up of minis from 4 different companies."  Personally, I think this is a bonus, but if you are making a faction, you want to make it easy to buy.  So I'd go with a single manufacturer per faction.

That said, don't limit to ONLY that manufacturer.  More like "you see I used all my models from Khurasan here, but you could also use models from GZG instead."  Make it so players who want to buy their faction all in one swoop, but encourage "proxying" - after all, the writers are selling rules, not miniatures (unlike GW, where it is the other way round).

If it pains you to "shill" a miniatures line, you could do this implicitly by photographing a faction made of all miniatures from CMG "All models from CMG" rather than saying "Only a CMG Arc Trooper can be a Krieg stormtrooper")

I'm pretty sure if your rules are promoting their minis and are sufficiently popular, many manufacturers would be happy to sell unit packages specific for your game, which may be mutually beneficial.

In short: Using a single manufacturer's existing model lines as the basis for a faction is a good move, and makes it easier for players to source them. However don't limit yourself to single miniatures line.

Making Generic Factions Interesting
If you're using a generic hard sci fi trooper in body armour - you know, the not-Stormtrooper/not-Imperial Guard that 100 manufacturers all have made in some form - then you need to make the faction colourful or distinct in other ways.

It could be literally colourful - the grey stormtroopers of Krieg, or the light blue troops of the Solar Federation.  Models with exposed skin could become the green lizardlike Sauri.  That helps units feel distinct.

But I meant more in other ways - equipment, tactics, ethos.  Also, special rules.  Whilst I like to limit special rules (and using them to replace stats for the most basic, common gameplay aspects is false economy), special rules shine when used to differentiate between factions. 

The death magic of the Krieg might means units get a +1 modifier for each foe they kill as they absorb their life energy.  The cyborgs of the Space Federation can resurrect on a 5+ roll, and deploy shield bubbles that linger on the battlefield.

Another issue with special rules is that they can be hard to balance, especially if they are powerful ones. We don't want too many or too powerful special rules. When the special rules (exceptions) are the basic rules, you have a problem.  I.e. a drizzle of chocolate topping adds flavour.  Drinking straight chocolate topping isn't healthy. 

The rules don't have to be that strong or unbalancing to add flavour.  LOTR does this well. Most factions might have a single special rule, with elite units perhaps having an extra rule.  And they are pretty simple too. I.e. goblins can freely move over any surface without falling.  That's very simple to understand.  I abuse use that rule a lot, but it isn't confusing for my opponent, unlike the tangle of special rules/exclusions in games like Infinity and Warmachine.  
Rule of Thumb: If a special rule needs more than a sentence to describe it, it's probably too complicated.

If the rules haven't thrown out stats altogether (like many modern rules do) you can add subtle differences - i.e. a +1" speed here, a +1 melee there - without appearing ridiculous, within the parameters of your humanoid hard sci fi mini. (I always found it odd that a Space Marine captain could have more Wounds and strength than a gigantic demonic cyborg spider).  It's why games like Tomorrow's War can come across as bland. Basically you have d6, d8 and d10 troops, based on a single universal stat, and have to rely on adding a zillion special rules to do the heavy lifting.

Again, keep stats distinct but controllable. A MMO developer once called it "the rule of 20%". Basically, he said any stat bonus beyond 20-25% was beyond player skill to consistently overcome. Give an average player 20% more health and a good player can still consistently beat him.  Give him 40% extra health and the better player will lose most times.

Use special rules (and stats, if you haven't abandoned them with the rest of the fickle mob) and stats to give factions flavour.

Well, there's a lot more to this topic, but my toddler has woken up and is demanding "Daddy play!"
Let's recap what we have so far:

Don't limit players with a narrow universe. Leave it "open" to player creativity.
Do pick a popular pop culture trend for your fluff with the proviso that you...
....Don't pick a genre that is already done to death in boardgames/tabletop format (zombies?)
Do include a unit builder
Do include 5-8 "official" factions
Do make official factions colourful and differentiated
Do use special rules and stats to add flavour to generic factions
Do keep said rules simple and not overly powerful
Do use models from a single manufacturer where possible when making a faction

It seems a lot like common sense,actually - I don't know how I managed to get such a wall of text out of that.  Oh well, over to the readers!

Game Design #41: Reactions Again - Types of Reaction

Reactions have lots of different triggers.  Sometimes there's "degrees" of reaction. I.e. in 2HW's system you toss 2D6 vs a target number.  Thus you can have a "great" reaction (2 pass), a "OK" one (1 pass) or a "bad" one (both fail).

In this post I noted the different elements of a reaction. 

However I'd like to divide reactions into different types.

"Defensive" or "natural" reactions.  These are reactions that would occur naturally, without much thought and require no special orders. They are usually unlimited.
 Example: A unit comes under fire. It would be natural (and require no special orders from the commander) for them to fall back, or scatter into cover.
A defensive or passive reaction is anything that requires minimal training and comes naturally.
I.e I throw a ball at your head, you duck/put out your arm to deflect it. 

"Aggressive" or "unnatural" reactions.  These are reactions that you would have to be trained or ordered to do.  This would not be the natural reaction of the average Joe Blo.  They are limited.
Example: A unit comes under fire. They calmly stand their ground, reloading their crossbows with arrows whizzing around them. Or perhaps they charge the shooters, into the face of a hail of fire.
 A offensive reaction is something that would require forethought, training or an express instruction.
 I.e. I throw a ball at your head, and you actually head it back, soccer style.  That's not an instinctive response, but one my soccer students would do.

Why two different types?  It's useful for toning down reactions.  It also prevents the "reacting" side to take too many offensive or aggressive reactions. I mean, "reacting" should allow you to interfere with the enemy, but the active side with the initiative (or the "move") should actually have an advantage.

The difference
Well, natural reactions occur for free. There is no "cost" or special roll needed. They are unlimited.  The sergeant doesn't have to tell his troops to hit the dirt when the Mg42 rakes their position.  They'll just do it!  They don't need to pass any special tests to do it - common sense applies.

Aggressive reactions are not free.  You may have to pass a morale test, or perhaps forfeit your next activation.  You won't always be able to perform them - they are limited. If the sergeant wanted the troops to rush the MG42, he WOULD have to issue an order - it's unlikely they would all run into a hail of gunfire "naturally."  Perhaps they would fail a morale test and not even do it at all.

Okay, how would this play out?  
In the context of my Mordhiem-Infinity theoretical game, here's how it might look.  Each unit uses an "Action Point" to activate in its active turn, from a common pool. 

Two things trigger a reaction -
(a) if a unit is fired at
(b) if an enemy unit moves/activates within 12"

There are a few reactions to these -

Defensive Reaction (free)
- move away from the firer/moving unit

Offensive Reaction (cost one Action Point)
- move anywhere, including towards the firer/moving unit (including counter-charging into melee)
- shoot back at the firer/moving unit

As you can see, actions that cause harm to the opposing side are rationed (by drawing action points from their own turn).  Maybe they'll even need a dice roll to even attempt an offensive reaction (i.e. archers need to pass a Discipline test to fire on enemy troops charging them, or they naturally fall back).  You could even make units react depending on their type - Impetuous troops must always try to aggressively move towards enemy troops, and Skirmishers would need to pass a test or fall back passively.

I've previously used a variant of this in my Delta Vector homebrew space rules. 

Ships can always make a defensive reaction - i.e. fire back/dodge/deploy decoys when fired upon (i.e. respond to direct attacks). These reactions were essentially limitless.

However if the reactee wants to initiate an attack (the enemy was simply moving within weapons range), it was an offensive reaction and the ship must pass a Crew Check. A failure means no more offensive reactions could be made and the ship was limited to defensive reactions only for the rest of the turn.  The offensive reactions were thus limited/linked to crew skill.

There's Nothing New Under the Sun
I'm sure this has been done before, but I don't think I've seen it articulated distinctly which is why I've explored this in a bit more depth.  Since reactions are actually an aspect of initiative/activation they impact in a significant way and are quite a broad topic. 

Why divide reactions into different types?  It helps tone down the impact of reactions.
The reacting (non-active) side can still move our of the way/avoid/respond to incoming fire, but it can't dominate the active side - the one with the initiative.  One of the charges against reaction systems is that they encourage camping/passivity and this is one way to address this.   Units can still take steps to preserve themselves, but if they want to blast an active unit across the map, it's gonna cost them.

Tuesday 14 April 2015

Game Design #40: Avoiding the Scrum in the Middle - Maneuver and Spacing Units

One thing I dislike is rules that encourage a big free-for-all in the middle, or a bland, linear battle.

The Boring Gun Line
One thing that's always put me off about Napoleonics (besides the amount of painting and rather bland units) is the gun-line that stretches across the board.  This is often even more marked in Ancients.  Both sides arrange their forces in neat lines, advance to the middle, then roll dice until usually one flank collapses and the army gets rolled up.  Realistic or not, it's simply not that interesting to me from a gameplay point of view.  But that pales in comparison to:

The Massive Scrum
That Firestorm Armada game where everyone parks in the middle and chugs dice until one side blows up.  That skirmish or platoon game where everyone converges on the single building.  Any Warmachine game, where everyone is clumped within a 12" radius.  These situations usually degenerate into who goes first, who activates the best special ability, or (more likely) who gets lucky with the dice. 

Admittedly some eras and genres are easier to include maneuver. Dropzone Commander does it well, with airmobile troops within fast APCs able to be dropped behind enemy lines or directly on distant objectives.  Infinity's ability to use stealth, airdrops, and to chain activations can see units break dynamically through enemy lines.

The Problem
But how can we avoid that "big clump in the middle?"  How can be encourage units to maneuver in an interesting way?  How can we make it worthwhile for units to consider spacing out? Concentrating your forces is a good tactic, but when both sides do it, it can be boring.  How can we tempt players to split forces, flank, and hold different areas of the board?  How can we give players the opportunity to create mismatches rather than piling their balanced 1500 point armies into a single evenly matched melee?

I don't think there's a single answer, but here's some factors that can move games away from "everyone stacks on." 

Large terrain pieces break up "gun lines"  and give opportunities for flanking or holding against superior numbers.  A favourite tactic of mine in LOTR was to divide my force into small chunks (i.e. 3+ or so groups of 5-10) and offer one of these little groups temptingly to my opponent near a prominent terrain piece.  They would usually break their force into maybe two bigger chunks of say 15, each outnumbering my small groups.  I'd use the terrain to hold across a small frontage (or in the case of goblins, climb up on it/over it) against his superior numbers, then combine the rest of my small groups into a large group (20+) to outnumber/squish the other half of his army, then proceed to link up with my small "forlorn hope" defensive unit which was by then often using "defensive stance" to survive.  Terrain makes many tactical opportunities for those willing to divide their forces.  

Command & Control
This usually encourages tightly knit forces, but should not mandate it.  I like the games where working with a leader is beneficial but not compulsory.  I.e. units clumped up around a leader may get a bonus to activation or +1 to morale, but there are drawbacks too - i.e. an easier target. Units should not be penalized too severely from being detached from the main body.  "Unhistorical!"
Not necessarily.  It's not like a squad leader is incapable of moving his squad unless he is within 20 metres of his lieutenant.   Detaching units or parts thereof and fighting independently might by slightly disadvantageous, but it should not be impossible, and it should even be advantageous to (gasp!) split your forces at times. 

Activation - get rid of IGOUGO.  This mechanic allows players to perfectly order their attacks and formations without realistic interference, and makes it easy to group forces for orderly, concentrated attacks.  An alternate move allows an opponent to take advantage of a unit that is out of position.  A reaction system allows a unit to be held up by suppressive fire or a unit to counter-charge unexpectedly. A card based system can create randomness to be exploited.

Unit Formations should give different, distinct benefits.  Like the difference between a skirmish line and fire-by-rank; one offers better survivability, the other more concentrated firepower.  Spacing and formation of units should give subtle benefits and drawbacks, so you are encouraged to adopt different tactical stances.  In bigger battles,  I like to offer a "withdrawn" unit or flank - a gap enemies can rush into, or use skirmishers to pull units out of position. Do the rules allow this?  The rules need to make disrupting an enemy possible, and perhaps occur organically i.e. a wild warband making a compulsory charge when an enemy is in range.   

Crossfire/Flanking Bonuses
These rules are rare enough in some genres (like sci fi or moderns) that when I see them I tend to raise my eyebrows.   I'd say being outflanked is as relevant to a WW2 squad as it is a horde of medieval peasants. No one likes attacks coming in from all directions, and by encouraging units to occupy flanking positions we encourage said units to maneuver away from the main body.  It's similar for directional shields on starships - if shields can be boosted on a particular side, it might encourage co-ordinated attacks by ships split up to approach from different directions. 

AoE Weapons
I'm using these in space games, having been inspired by their use in EvE Online.  There's nothing like a big nova bomb template to encourage ships to spread out.  Artillery and magic can likewise put a damper on concentrated forces.  Automatic weapons (like MG42s) can act in a similar method with a teardrop or template to force enemies to spread out or split up.   I'd even consider using a template for unit firing (Battlefield Evolution for example allowed squads to attack anyone within 6" of a designated target figure - so while spreading your own unit out could make some minis immune from attack, it could also take them out of gun range themselves when the time came to retaliate). 

Scenarios & Missions
I can't stress this enough.  If the mission is "kill them all" every time then a "death blob" may be the fastest way to do it.  However simply adding objectives to hold does not always fix the problem.  Most of the time, the guy who spreads his forces to hold the objective gets his smaller groups stomped by the guy who concentrated his into a blob.  I mean, it's easy to capture objectives when your opponent's army is completely destroyed.  Accruing VPs for each turn an objective is held, or imposing a time limit can sometimes help prevent this but I don't have a magic bullet here, except note that scenarios need to be designed during the game design process, and not added as an afterthought. 

Again, over to the readers.  What are some good ways to prevent units clumping up into a "deathblob" in the middle of the table?  How can we encourage units to maneuver?

It kinda comes down to risk vs reward. If trying interesting maneuvers is all risk and no reward - becomes the game rewards tight clumping or offers no potential reward in maenuvering forces - then players will be trained not to take risks.

If making rules, a good question to ask yourself - is there any reason in this game for a player not to push all his minis into the middle and simply slug it out?  What benefits are there to maneuvering?

Game Design #39: Reaction Moves, Reaction Fire

I've always been a staunch advocate of reactions in wargames. I mean, there's nothing worse than IGOUGO.  Your enemy can walk his troops right up to you to deliver a volley while your soldiers stand around like waxwork dummies, waiting their turn. It's unrealistic, and kinda boring.  Do you remember games where you'd walk off to get a drink while your opponent had their turn?  Standing around for 10 minutes as a passive spectator is boring, and frustrating.  I've learned when working with kids that hands on is best, and with "big" kids it's no different.  Reactions allows you to mess with your opponent's perfect plan, and make your soldiers respond to developing events with more realism and fluidity. They provide more decisions for you and thus the opportunity for tactics.

However reaction moves are not without flaws.  The extra interactions, whilst providing many decision points, can slow the game down dramatically.  The "reactions" can promote passive, "camping" gameplay and cut down on maneuver.  The extra rules add complexity.  (Tomorrow's War has situations where units are reacting to units who are reacting to other units... yes it hurts my head thinking about it too....)

Let's define some reaction types first.  The parameters of a reaction vary a lot, from simple "overwatch" mechanics in 40K to full blown unlimited reactions (Infinity) where what you do in your opponent's turn is often more important than what you do in your own. 

How often can you react?
Very Limited (many games)
Each unit gets a single reaction, and then that's it. A token is placed beside the unit to show it cannot react again.

Limited Common Pool (Lords & Servants)
Have activations in a single pool, and at the start of the turn you divide them up to use in either your own or your enemies' active phase.  I.e. you have 12 activations, and you plan to spend 7 of them in your active turn, and 5 reacting to your enemy in his.  This could also include common mechanics like "passing" your turn to acquire an overwatch token, which kinda falls into the "very limited" box.

Diminishing (Tomorrow's War)
Each unit can react multiple times, but it becomes less effective each time.  You track the # of reactions (say with a d6) and the amount of the reactions reduces firing or melee dice or similar - or decreases your chance of a reaction. I.e. lose a firepower dice each reaction.  Thus reactions are limited by initial firepower/combat stats.

Unlimited (Infinity)

You can react with every unit that can see any single enemy unit acting in LoS. As many times as needed. 

What triggers a reaction?
Actions only directed at the reacting unit. Sometimes a unit can only react if the shooting is directed at it, or the charge is made in its direction.

Movement/Shooting/Both (many games).  Sometimes any shooting triggers a reaction. Other times units can only react to moving units.  Often either moving or shooting triggers a reaction.

Anything (Infinity). If a model scratches its bottom, you can react to it. 

How Easily Can You React?
Automatically. If the unit triggers a reaction, you can carry it out.

Pass a dice roll.  You need to pass a target number on a dice roll to react. I.e. 2D6s vs Leadership.

Opposed Roll. (Infinity, Tomorrow's War)  You need to beat your opponent's roll, and a target number as well.

What range can you react to?
Set proximity (many games). I.e. any trigger within a set range - say 12" - allows a reaction. 

Unlimited/LoS (Infinity).  I.e. reactions are triggered by actions in line of sight, with theoretically unlimited range.

What Order do you React In?
Single vs Single - sequentially (many games).  A single unit acts, it resolves any reactions by enemies one-by-one. I.e. Unit A activates, it resolves any reactions by Unit X, then any reactions by Unit Y, then after that, Unit Z.

 Multiples vs single - simultaneously (Infinity). If a single unit acts, multiple units can target it and attack it simultaneously.    Unit A acts, and must simultaneously roll to beat Units X Y and Z.

 How severe is the reaction? 
Weakened (Infinity). Attributes are significantly restricted i.e. rate of fire is reduced from 3-4 shots to 1 shot only.

Diminishing (Tomorrow's War).  Reactions are initially full strength, then gradually decrease in potency.

Full Power (Lords & Servants). A reaction shot is every bit as good and potent as an ordinary shot. 

Other Considerations

Furthermore, the activation sequence can strongly effect reactions.  Many reaction-based systems operate with a modified IGOUGO - i.e. Side A moves his units one by one, then Side B reacts to each unit (cognizant on other factors such as limited number of reactions, etc).  There's an argument that alternate move (Chess style unit by unit activation) allows a kind of organic reaction anyway. For example, in Infinity you can activate a unit multiple times in your turn, so having unlimited, powerful reactions balances the game, preventing powerful units from "ramboing" around and soloing the enemy army single-handed.

Also, unit reactions (i.e. squads in a platoon level game) can be different than individual reactions (i.e. single based minis in 1:1 skirmish).

Finally, are reactions best suited to particular eras? i.e. WW2-modern-hard sci fi rules seem to most commonly have reaction systems - where use of cover and firepower is paramount and melee combat is deemphasized.   In this post I look at how a hard-core reaction system like Infinity may be integrally unsuited to medieval/fantasy because of the inherent gameplay style it encourages.

Also, are reactions better suited to particular "levels" of game? For example, I see reactions commonly used in platoon/skirmish games but less commonly at company/battalion/army level games (admittedly I don't play many of the latter). 

Reactions may be the new hotness, but are reactions always good?  Are they worth the potential speed/maneuver tradeoff?  Does it bring in enough involvement/decision points to justify added complexity?  When should we ditch them?  What is the best way to limit them? Limit the range, the amount of possible reactions, or maybe the triggers?