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?


  1. If I may advertise, most weapons in StarStrike will be area of effect which should solve some of the problem :-)

    I'll add o nthe terrain front that using a number of medium-to-small features can sometimes be more interesting than one big item on the table.
    Especially for woods and stuff,it tends to make for a very intense game in the middle, if you can move between patches of trees.

    1. "If I may advertise, most weapons in StarStrike will be area of effect which should solve some of the problem :-)"

      I'm surprised more games don't do this. I mean, missile fire of any sort tends to make units scatter. A LMG acts as a AoE weapon, and artillery also forces units to spread out. You always read where "the troops were all bunched up so the slaughter was horrific" in response to both artillery and automatic weapon fire, but rules seldom penalise this bunching (or make it mandatory i.e. 1" cohesion range between minis)

    2. Very few games tend to. The old Vor game from FASA did it for machine guns and it always left an impact (along with the machine guns being extremely powerful in that game) that was bigger than just getting more attack dice.

      Besides, area of effect templates give you another lever you can toggle to create game effects :)

    3. Weirdly enough the last place I saw it was Warmachine. Some of the steam golems (jacks) are equipped with gatling cannon. You could place a bunch of linked blast markers on the table and anyone in it/crossing it had to dice to be hit. It was very interesting how they could be used as an area denial weapon to "funnel" enemy troops.

  2. Scenarios are indeed key for me, possibly with overlapping and separate conditions for both sides and/or multiple objectives for each side - requiring some real thought and decisions about force apportionment to each task.

    The other way around this deployment - hidden ambushes/deployments, flank moves etc all add (realistic) problems and challenges and introduce a bit of Fog of War to erode the 1000 foot all seeing General effect we get as war gamers over a table.

    1. Very good points.
      As an aside, if you ever GM a battle, try telling the players that one player will have reinforcements arriving off the flank during the battle.

      Roll a few dice for yourself each turn and let them slug it out.
      There are no reinforcements arriving but the psychological trick can make for some very tense gaming :)

      (This only works once btw and is best done with players who are your friends)

    2. I always had a suspicion you fell into the "closet RPGer" category. This confirms it....

    3. Now tell me what the motivations are for your general in this battle :)

    4. As a reply to Paul, I do like "secondary conditions" - I found Malifaux (a very convoluted CCG-style game with a whackily awesome setting) to have great mission/scenario generators.

      I always find Dropzone Commander a good example. It seemed designed around the heavy use of terrain, deep-striking to the enemy rear - both from game mechanics and scenarios - right from the outset.

    5. A confession: My underground map was designed so I could start a normal wargame, have a crater collapse suddenly in the middle of the table, set up the underground table, then continue the battle in the underworld - introducing NPC monsters (repurposed Tyrannids) controlled by me...

  3. Good rules for activation go a long ways towards fixing this. Unfortunately not every game can use the same mechanic. For example, Crossfire has one of the best activation rules out there- but only for it's intended purpose: company sized infantry engagements between two players. For space combat, which is generally ship based, the morale and movement rules would make no sense.

    But there is something else that can be considered. With Full Thrust and her imitators the big ship's weapons cover basically the whole board so maneuver is not a big deal especially if they have large turrets. Why move if I can hit you from here no matter where you go? Why risk losing the coverage of my escorts when we can just sit here and turn in place? One guy came up with an answer.

    I can't find it now but a few years back I read this guy's simple home rules for doing ship to ship combat in a TOS era Star Trek setting. The author (wish I could remember who he was) said he wanted his D-7s to move like they did on TV. His solution actually makes sense: Make the weapons range LESS than the ship's Speed. That way ships come swooping in to make their shots. Combine this with making damage from different directions different (maybe the ship has a weaker defenses on the rear quarter?) and you have all the motivation you need to keep moving. Add some terrain and true advantage from cunning tactical maneuvering becomes possible.

  4. Ha! I found it. Fast Play Fleets by Madan M Mitra. http://freewargamesrules.wikia.com/wiki/Fast_Play_Fleets_-_Star_Trek

    1. "His solution actually makes sense: Make the weapons range LESS than the ship's Speed. That way ships come swooping in to make their shots. Combine this with making damage from different directions different (maybe the ship has a weaker defenses on the rear quarter?) and you have all the motivation you need to keep moving. Add some terrain and true advantage from cunning tactical maneuvering becomes possible."

      All of these I've emphasized in my home made space rules.

      The move:weapon range ratio is always something designers have played with. Boosting move range emphasizes the effect of maneuver, boosting weapon range emphasizes weapon ranges.

      That's why we have a almost universal 24" gun range, 6" movement range. It's a "ratio" we are familiar with. Despite the fact it can be silly at times - in Bolt Action 28mm it seems weird for a .303 rifle to fire the range I'd normally associate with bows and slings.

      Recently many modern/sci fi games have tipped this in favour of firepower with unlimited weapon ranges, which favours cover/reaction systems.

      It's why modern naval combat is boring. Move your ship 2", and fire across the table. It's all about detection rolls rather than maneuvering skill.

    2. No doubt others have changed the ratio before. But by reducing the weapons range below the ship's movement you encourage players to move ships more like fighters than battlships- which can be good or bad depending on what you're trying to simulate. The difference in play between 36" weapons with 6" movement and 24" range with 6" speed is significant. The difference between 24" range with 6" movement and 6" range with 12" movement is a completely different experience. It's like the difference between Star Wars Star Destroyers and Babylon 5 White Stars. The major problem with this idea is that without a good activation mechanic you end up chasing tails. He who wins initiative wins.

    3. I'm not arguing the point, I'm just suggesting the gentleman might be reinventing the wheel. One game from the 90s (Starcruiser or 2300AD?) had 1" (yes, 1") range, with 12"+ movement!

      This is an interesting can of worms:
      " The major problem with this idea is that without a good activation mechanic you end up chasing tails. He who wins initiative wins."
      ^ Frankly, I've never played an aerial dogfight (or spacefighter, which is invariably the same thing - WW2 in space) game that satisfied me.

  5. Good one. I am really looking for good spaceship fight (and it needs boarding parties!) I am looking to play Hyperion type of space battles.

    Few comments: Most of existing space games are 2D, while Space has no ground to crash into! Keep it in mind.
    Scenario is key to break the fight to death games that are boring. In Bolt Action, I am trying to move the group beyond 1000pts vs. 1000pts and kill all. Also most of games don't factor losses. Winning a battle by having the last wounded guy standing on top of a pile of dead bodies is not victory for me. Scenario should also benefit commander who don't annihilate their armies in the process.

    There is also the need for asymmetric battles. A defender should have bonus that an attacker has not, while the attacker has a larger requisition value. In no battle somebody attacks an opponent without overwhelming chances to win.

    Strategy cards. In the age of space travel, I am sure that there are lots of opportunity for both side to know/plan tricks. It can come with additional capabilities (equipment card, improved crew), events card (malfunction, sabotage, low ammo, ambushed missile carriers, not-the-ship-you-are-looking-for, commander-on-different-ship)

    Activation: The current mechanics from Wings of Glory works for space ship and kinetic. All player plan their move hidden face and disclose at once. True, it ends up very long preparation phase (that could be sped up with limited time, pre-set token per ship category), but I am sure it may be as fast as playing each ship independently. Shooting/shield became more a mix of reaction to opponent move and prepared plan. I also represent in a good fashion that all happen at the same time. Strategy/Event cards may also spice up that phase (faster, slower, panic,...)

    Scenario Ideas:
    - Rescue the station (= VP each turn). Defender with lower force has to defend a space station against an attacker.
    - Pillage. Same as above, but attacker has to take the station first.
    - Convoy. A defender has to protect a convoy to cross the table to jump point, while the attacker has to board and control. Both player will definitely need to split their forces. The convoy ships move and shoud reach jumping point by turn 6

    1. SPACE
      I'm dead against 3D space as:
      (a) the complexity is not worth it
      (b) most fight are between two points in a plane
      (c) theres not gravity/energy management so not important
      (d) did I mention the complexity isn't worth it?

      I'm 100% for terrain in space
      (a) most fights will occur at a bottleneck (jumpgate) or resource (planet etc) If space is empty why are they fighting over it?
      (b) it adds a huge amount of interest/tactics to the game. Never mind that you could fly over the asteroid - I WANT it to block LoS and be anavigation hazard

      I really like "losing conditions" as seen in the PC game Wargame: EE

      *When you lose xy amount of points you lose i.e. 500 points from a 1500 point army

      This has a few great effects
      (a) you can reinforce one side without changing the victory conditions
      (b) you can change the ratio (i.e. side A can lose 500, but the side B can lose 1000)
      (c) players realistically protect their units i.e. pull back damaged units

      Thanks - you got my mind going with more ideas! As usual, the comments section delivers!

    2. 3D is complex if you use altitude. I mentioned 3D, not to play it, but to keep it in mind as 3D adds more tactical options.
      Most of existing games end up as a naval battle in space because the game looks like 2D, so we play it 2D. While you shoot 2 points in a plane, you may want to include up and bottom points. It may not add additional difficulties, just include a new shooting segment.

      Terrain should be included, I am 100% for it. You may also include "neutral ships" in addition to standard asteroids. Also a wreck in space is a big problem and may trigger strategy to screen a retreating force.

      I am holding buying space ships since you started that topic last week. FFG Star Wars or other have not interested me so far. It seems you are going toward a great direction, keep it up!

    3. It's a good point. You could, for example, represent 3D space by letting ships 'skip' to a new position, or sacrifice distance/speed moving in a particular vector to avoid obstacles.

    4. Some capital ship rules also allow rolling a ship 180 degrees to flip port/starboard weapons, armor, and maneuvering thrusters, as a nod to 3D in an otherwise flat game.

    5. I find that rule seldom gets used unless there is a strong reason too i.e. it's possible knock out weapons one side of a ship or shields are directional.

      I'd tend towards just giving weapons very wide firing arcs as a nod to roll/pitch/yaw, rather than tracking which side of the ship is up/down.

  6. In addition, now that I think about it, you could use three models to represent one ship, with each travelling along an axis.

    1. Interesting in theory, but violates one of my Prime Directives of space games

      #1. NEVER use 3D. The complexity tradeoff is NEVER worth it. :-)

    2. I don't think I'd agree with 'never.' Which is why the notion of using three models to represent one ship intrigues me, is that without exploring the concept further it seems like it would actually reduce complexity.

  7. Phil Barker's rule of thumb was always that armies should only take up 2/3rds of the table if stretched out end-to-end, in order to provide manoeuvre space (particularly if you needed several historically-accurate lines). Sadly of course, up until c. 1900, the scrum in the middle is exactly what most battles were, failing a lethal flanking action which is no fun for the player on the receiving end.

  8. My home-brew takes several of these points into account. Interesting though about MGs as AoE weapons. It would be interesting, and probably more realistic to require rifle/MG hits to be allocated to teams under a template rather than to a specific platoon... may have to try this...

    1. Andy Chamber's original Star Troopers rules did this.

    2. Yeah - apparently Starship Troopers was the direction some in GW had wanted 40K to go. It would have worked better for the platoon+ game that 40K became. Had a few interesting evolutions (rather then revolutions) in gameplay.

    3. Wasn't it written by Andy Chambers or am I making things up again?

    4. Yes. Remember when a bunch of 40K devs left GW? Andy Chambers among them? Amongst the rumours was that there was "creative differences" i.e. some including Andy Chambers wanted to (sensibly) streamline 40K and alter the basic mechanics. I read somewhere he said Starship Troopers was the direction he wanted 40K to go.

    5. Yeah, Im sure they wanted to do something more with the system.

      Heck, look at some of the things Rick Priestley has said in recent years.

    6. Although Rick Priestley has only ever made 40K clones since he left, so I don't know how they suppressed his creativity.

      I actually chuckled when he got excited about his new Warlord game (something Antares?) where he was "we use d10 - we're so excited about the possibilities!")

      The d10 may have been cutting edge back in the early 90s, but now....

    7. This is true but I am going to be charitable and say he's being realistic about what will sell to that same market. We've had that talk before.

      And well, the man wrote Rogue Trader, Necromunda and Warmaster.
      All his future creative output could say "FIVECORE SUCKS" on every page and I'd still give him the benefit of the doubt ;)

  9. Plus, I have a soft spot for his very "British" style and the way he writes a rulebook.