Thursday 2 July 2015

Game Design #45: "Original" Sci Fi Wargames

I pointed out the tendency of every game designer and his dog to remake Vietnam in Space - i.e. pretty much every "gritty"  "hard sci fi" space wargame is as clone of modern warfare in tactics and equipment. It's dressed up with names like "railgun" and "mech" but it's functionally identical, with all tactics and gameplay the same and weapons simply renamed.  Likewise, every spaceship game is WW2 naval warfare disguised with a fake moustache. In fact, I'm confident I could play WW2 naval battles with most spaceship rules, with minimal tweaking. Even the "imaginative" space fantasy of the Warhammer 40K ilk is pretty much just traditional sword-and-sandals fantasy with space-y terms thrown in.  

What would make a sci fi game interesting?  Well, I suggested using some interesting and original settings, for a start.   But I think I kinda missed the big picture, which is this:

Sci Fi should allow you to use tactics and methods you haven't used before.

Sci fi offers a designer a blank slate to create a unique game.  But they simply remake historical games. Why?  Part of this is the audience's fault. We ask for Alien and Starship Troopers and Star Wars.  So they make what the audience wants.  That's safe.  However, it's not the spirit of sci fi.  I'd like to play a game that is awesome in itself, not simply because it's another set of mechanics I can play "xy" setting with.  The first sci fi writers didn't even know they'd have an audience. Jules Verne didn't go "ah, submarine stories are popular, I'll write one about that." 

I don't mean we need to run around inventing new weapons, powers and technologies.  There's plenty of inspiration there already. We just don't emphasize it enough.  The sci fi bits are simply window dressing tacked on to a WW2 or modern theme. 

Most sci fi wargames treat hacking as a kind second-rate magic spell.  By why not make the virtual world central to the game?

You could pick a recognizable sci fi technology and base your game around it. One of my old buddies is making a spaceship videogame which uses warp technology to "teleport" around the combat area. Ships wink in and out of existence all around the map. This gives a completely different feel to existing space games.  I'd like to see a sci fi skirmish game where there is a heavy use of Portal-style powers - units can pass (and fire) through portals allowing dramatic (dare I say Chess-style) redeployments all over the battlefield. 

I'm personally fascinated by the idea of demons/telepaths "possessing" miniatures.  Rather like Magic the Gathering, you have a "pool" of power tokens which you can place on one mini (giving it super powers) . As "possessed" units are killed/lost/exorcised, you permanently lose the tokens.  So you can concentrate your power tokens to create a few super-powered units (all eggs in one basket) or scatter your influence amongst many minions.    Psychic powers would enable you to manipulate how your opponent moved/reacted, or simply resist intrusion by others.  Again, by emphasizing one aspect of the game strongly, it could totally change up a traditional WW2/modern style game.

After trying the fascinating time travel PC game Archon (which, mindbendingly, allows you to go back in time to counter your opponents moves in the present). I'd like to see if/how it could be incorporated in a tabletop game.

Most sci fi games include robots, but they are usually just heavily armed humans with different/no morale rules, or walking tanks.  Why not base a game around robots?  For example, the movie Surrogates had everyone living alone and interacting through robots.  Completely robot-centric warfare could be interesting - remote-controlled, AI-controlled - with prominence given to EMP weapons (and shielding).  Heck you could even fight every game to the last man if you wanted and ignore those pesky morale rules...

The movie Surrogates had a robots as a central theme. The Surrogates world could make for an interesting sci fi wargame.

Many sci fi games include hacking but usually it's just a mild buff/debuff to a unit or perhaps freezes a vehicle temporarily in place. Why not make hacking the central theme?  Make it much more important than shooting and melee, rather than a poor magic subsitute.  You could even have miniatures battle in a virtual world - it's not like we don't have plenty of inspiration.

You could have "spawn points" where practically limitless reinforcements could be teleported in - (unlimited respawn) giving the game where killing opponents is always secondary to capturing these invaluable objectives. 

Stealth might become important, and a cat-and-mouse battle between small special forces ensure.  Yes, it might mimic a submarine-war style game but on land "stealth" encompasses a totally new range of challenges and environments. 

Ok, enough examples. I admit I got a bit carried away....

I guess the point I'm making is that none of these ideas are new, and they already exist in many if not most sci fi games.  But the technology or "big idea" needs to be the main focus of the game, not a tacked-on special rule to make a WW2 rules set "sci fi." 

With the proviso - it needs to make the game different than any existing setting - i.e. a Dune-eque game with a focus on personal shields might make the game simply melee-centric medieval-with-sci fi-jumpsuits.  A Revolution-style future where all electric circuits don't work might simply mimic late WW2.  That doesn't allow players to try new tactics.

My previous response to "same-y" games was "make cool new settings."  This might be simply disguising the underlaying issue, which is:

A. Does it promote tactics and gameplay I haven't experienced before in historical/existing games?

B. Easy fix = Pick a "big idea" or futuristic tech and base the game around it.  Don't just tack it on to a WW2-style game to add "gloss."  Make it (teleportation, stealth, hacking, etc) the focus of the game. Make it absolutely central to tactics and gameplay.

C.  Make sure the "big idea" (point B) actually promotes different tactics (point A).  Or you haven't gained anything. 


  1. The original Rogue Trader actually had a bunch of this.

    You want to storm a position on a hill? What do you do?

    Well, you can lumber up the hill on foot.
    Drive there in an APC.
    Teleport there.
    Build a remote control robot and fit it with a force field, then walk behind it.
    Build a remote control robot and fit it with explosives, then drive it there.
    Dig through the earth in a tunneling vehicle.
    Drive them out of the position by shelling them with gas grenades.
    Lay down a smoke screen and walk up.
    Flatten the hill with an orbital missile.
    Have a psionic freeze time and wander up.
    Lob some stasis grenades at them and wander up.

    And probably some more that I forget.

    1. Admittedly my remembering of early 40K is a bit hazy, but I think the point I'm making is the tactics of say 40K are basically medieval fantasy. Melee prominent, short range weapons, etc. That the earlier 40K had a wide variety of gadgets, weapons and abilities is undoubted. It was creative, fun, and random. But it's still medieval warfare with the kitchen sink of random sci fi stuff tacked on.

      Take Infinity. It has a zillion special rules, weapons and abilities. But it's strong emphasis on fire-and-cover means it is a modern warfare game at heart, with just extras bolted on. Basically modern special forces with cooler toys.

      Whereas if the whole game is designed around one concept - say, teleportation, it would give the game a totally unique feel.

    2. Yeah, that makes sense.
      Dropzone Commander (Dropship commander? I forget the exact name) did something like that, from what I understand, where the game revolves around ...well.. .the dropships.

    3. Accidentally hit "send" too soon.

      I think a game can generate what I'll call "unconventional tactics" in two ways:

      It can do so deliberately by focusing on a specific ability or technological breakthrough (like the teleportation you mention) or it can do so incidentally (40K as I mentioned, by simply filling the book with weird gadgetry and letting players figure it out).

      I think some of this comes back to the fact that scifi wargaming basically tends to be "Aliens the movie the game". Even the figures we have don't stray too much from that.
      I think we've talked about that before: Do the figures drive the rules or do the rules drive the figures?

    4. I'd like to see a "think tank" where we look at all the minis lines, and suggest different ways of using them.

      E.g. modern pulp (alien invasion, psychic/occult) is an untapped rules area, with plenty of minis, whereas 1930s pulp/Weird War 3 era has been well explored.

      I agree minis tend to drive games (and customers seem to want "aliens the game") but that need not stop innovation with the minis we have. For example, I'm unmotivated to use my 15mm sci fi, so am thinking of ways to make my sci fi models a horror/occult game. I.e. the Rapture has come, leaving only demons behind to fight the unworthy - or all battles fought with AI/remote controlled humanoid robots.

      Again the WoT example - the world didn't know it needed a quasi-historical WW2 tank arena game with RPG-style progression.... but it's now popular. They COULD have made another CoD clone, but they didn't.

    5. DzC DID try to do something different with its focus on objectives, and asymetrical warfare style - although it is a bit similar to a modern airmobile game (for the sake of argument).

      I really think differentiation in tactics/game style is important. For example in my homebrew space rules, I emphasize a lot of things simply to make it different from reskinned naval:

      -vector movement
      -big ships and tiny fighters have similar thrusts and speeds
      -all weapons act fundamentally differently, and aren't simply +1/-1 in different range band
      -no detection at all (would actually be fun, but wanted to differentiate it from naval)
      -speed of light effects initiative (units can react to nearby ships but not to distant ones as their reflected light hasn't travelled there yet) - again, only to differentiate from naval

      Some things, like detection, I would have liked to put in, but decided it was worth differentiating it by removing detection rules entirely....

  2. I always enjoy it when school holidays arrive and we can see what you've been thinking about over the school term :-D

    Great points all in terms of theme and genre. Reminds me of a book series I didnt really like (The Risen series) but which had some great scenes of remote pilots duking it out with nano drones in and around real size humans. Probably more of a revamp of histoprical air combat than an example of what you are talking about, but it was a good example of the sort of innovation you mean

    1. I didn't like the book particularly either, but did like the micro drones and hard sci fi space battles (firing near-lightspeed sand clouds at each other to scrub off sensors etc).

      Ironically, we do have a microdrone wargame (and minis!)

    2. Once again our interests align nicely - its scary how often that happens!

  3. Just to be difficult, I'm going to challenge this:

    "It can do so deliberately by focusing on a specific ability or technological breakthrough (like the teleportation you mention) or it can do so incidentally (40K as I mentioned, by simply filling the book with weird gadgetry and letting players figure it out)."

    No, weird sci fi gadgets simply replace traditional fantasy magic and have the same effect in game. In fact I'm sure I could create spells or magical effects similar to 40K wargear, rename them, put them in a fantasy setting and no one would be the wiser.

    They add interest, and gloss, but I don't really think they alter the fundamental nature of the game.

    1. Challenge away :-)

      Okay, so I think there's something interesting floating just out of reach here.

      When we get down to it, isn't all of this simply an "effect" in the mechanics, regardless of the source?

      If you look at something like warhammer battle, certain spells and magic items become defining for tactics between armies, because everyone either builds around them or builds against them.

      So I guess the question is:
      Is it important whether the impact on tactics is deliberate or incidental?
      F.X. WFB players deploying to factor in flying units landing i ntheir rear or factoring in strategies to take out specific heroes (or big heroes in general).

      I don't know if I am explaining this well, but let's say DZC had just made dropships another unit you could buy in the game, and the player base had seized on their utility to the extent where the use of dropships became the norm (The "meta" as the kids call it nowadays):
      When I sit down on the table, is the experience going to be functionally different for me?

    2. "Is it important whether the impact on tactics is deliberate or incidental?"

      Game design by throwing random elements into the game and seeing what will happen? Unintentional meta?

      I agree the "meta" can unintentionally grow out of circumstance (i.e in Mechwarrior, "jump sniping" dominated as people mixed jumpjets and long ranged weapons in a way the devs had not foreseen or intended).

      However, shouldn't the developer have a aim of how the game should be played? I.e. gameplay should reflect historical tactics if a historical game - or perhaps, reflect nothing historical (as I am suggesting for sci fi.)

      For example, did the Warhammer devs intend x or y magic items to be as powerful as they turned out to be in gameplay?

      " When I sit down on the table, is the experience going to be functionally different for me?"

      It's more likely to bother the designer rather than you - unless they like the accidental meta. I.e. jetpack skiing bug in FPS Tribes was embraced by the devs and remained a core gameplay element.

      My focus is "does it make it different?" - for example, the skiing in Tribes changed the tactics in the game beyond the horde of CoD clones, giving it a completely different feel.

      Yes, you could toss out a zillion special rules and hope one or more makes your sci fi rules better or unique in a hitherto unexpected, but welcome way - but wouldn't it make more sense to set out with a specific aim in mind?

    3. Sure, it's a better DESIGN. I'm just not convinced that to the end user, it ever actually matters.

      That's not necessarily a good thing, but from spending time with stuff like Magic the Gathering, I find that people tend to internalize the "meta" very very quickly to the point where they'll be upset when it changes in some way.

      I agree it's not good design. But looking at the numerous permutations of the Warhammer/LOTR engines out there, I kind of wonder if good design is even the commercially viable option, you know?

      Or is it simply a case where the market buys what it's told to buy, whether it's good design or not?

    4. Is good design a commericially viable option?

      If I may reword that to say "is ORIGINAL design a commercially viable option?"

      I think it has gotten to the point where many Warhammer-esque mechanics are "traditional" and expected. Like moviemakers have discovered - sequels are comfortable and easy, and come with a guaranteed audience.

      Whilst they CAN be commercially viable, I think original ideas are not a SAFE option. A bit like the MMOs have found - repeating WoW is a guaranteed profit. Making something original and unique in its mechanics may be a hit or may completely miss. That's a risk not many are willing to take.

      Tribes may have interesting mechanics, and MAY be a breakout hit or may fall flat. A CoD clone is guaranteed to sell x million copies.

      Appealing to the lowest common denominator IS profitable. A ready made audience IS always handy.

    5. Game design by throwing random elements into the game and seeing what will happen? Unintentional meta?

      If you did this intentionally from the start, it could be the tabletop design equivalent of a true sandbox game like Minecraft. Put out the elements out there for the players without a specific design goal, tactical direction, or concern for balance and see what develops. It could be an interesting experiment so long as it wasn't used as an excuse for a public playtest.

      So I guess the question is:
      Is it important whether the impact on tactics is deliberate or incidental?

      I would say so. A tactic that unintentionally becomes especially useful in gameplay and ends up being central to winning or competitive from either an offensive/defensive perspective is an exploit. It decreases options on both the strategic and tactical level and [since it wasn't accounted for in calculations and list composition] at it's core is unbalanced.

  4. If we are talking 15 mm or 28 mm minis then you have a serious problem in trying to get a game that is functional. We have WWII in space because it is not too difficult to justify weapon ranges and damage from WWII at these scales. If we go into the future the average destructive power of hand held weaponry makes the ranges of a 15 mm tabletop absurd. In effect in trying to create a futuristic game you would destroy the game you are trying to create.

    eg If on orbital laser can take out a city why are grunts fighting in visual range of each other? If you can teleport a disintegration grenade into the opponents helmet from 10 miles away what are you doing with figures on a board?

    1. But it's sci fi. We have handwavium which can justify anything we want.

      We can just as easily say in the future personal shields and protection makes ranged weapons absurd and we have to use knives a la Dune.

      Orbital bombardment weapons are worthless against a Death Star-size shield.

      The particular teleportation tech only works with line of sight, and opens a wormhole to the place you teleported from, potentially risking allied lives in an explosion...


      Trying to argue what is "realistic" in sci fi is a circular argument, and misses the beauty of sci fi - the game can be whatever you want it to be.

      That's why it puzzles me that people restrict themselves to WW2/modern/fantasy mechanics and tactics in an essentially limitless genre.

  5. The idea of tron-style combat fascinates me as a wargame. Infinite units, units that respawn when they die (the code reboots, fragmented and weaker maybe), brute-forcing enemy software and turning it on its allies...

    I almost feel like the transluscent pieces from the remake of Nexus Ops would make for great minis.

    Maybe use a system akin to Gruntz.

  6. Great discussion guys, just want to get some comments in before this gets way to long for practical reading.

    Fantasy and Sci-Fi are effectively the same thing, its just how its skinned over. Did not the great master Arthur C. say that "Advanced tech is effectively magic", I am paraphrasing.

    I too like the idea of Tron-style game.

    And finally a comment on weapon ranges. It really only matters that I can shoot my gun at an effective range of 10km if I'm in an open field. As soon as weapons like this are developed, people stop fighting in open ground and move to areas where you cannot draw a line of sight past a few hundred meters.

    1. Yeah, terrain becomes a bigger factor.
      A while back, I realized that even at 24" range, most shots were at targets that were closer than that, because there's rarely that much open space.

      So I started giving up on assigning specific ranges and just play most things to line of sight, and it still works fine :-)

  7. I have been working through an SF micro-tank rule set published in 1980. Star force 300 had some great miniatures but the rules seem way over complex to me. What makes it interesting is the scenario. Human forces use fast lightly armoured hovercraft armed with guns and missiles. The Ramorian lizard empire have heavy armoured slow tracked vehicles armed with beam weapons. There are various novel weapons and defence systems too allowing for ECM, temporary force screens and other counter measures. There are also lizard riding mystics with the special ability to take possession of enemy troops.

    p.s. When I first saw this post, I thought of the old Metagaming Micro-games Rivets for war between programmable robots and Chitin for war between sentient insect hives...

    1. Is Rivets a boardgame? One where you build your own forces during the game?
      That would be an interesting mechanic to "drive" the game, and push it into videogame RTS territory....

  8. Rivets is a boardgame, but it would not be too hard to play it as a mini's game.

    From what I recall of the box art, I thought you could make representative units from Plasticine or Fimo modelling clay. They were cute cartoonish, the game was intended as silly fun rather than a gritty depiction of post apocalyptic warfare!
    I don't have my copy handy and have not played it (yet). IIRC each player starts with a robot factory and so many points to build their units from a set list of standard combat robots or 'Boppers'. As the game progresses, you get to build more units and program them to attack opposing units.

  9. Checking BGG one of the images shows Rivets models from Martian Metals.

  10. Stuff like Tyranid Tervigons, Necron Monoliths, teleportation in its various forms, invulnerability, summoning, markerlights, and so on tend to belay the notion that 40k is just a re-skin of WWII games and tactics.

  11. I actually said 40K plays like reskinned fantasy. WW2 games tend to have suppression, and and emphasis on gunfire. Fighting with chainswords is rather unviable.

    It's not the addition of sci fi "tech" that makes the game different. It's the gameplay style the game promotes.

    For example, Infinity is a sci fi game with 101 different technologies. However, the game mechanics make it play exactly like a modern warfare game.

    I'm not saying we don't have lots of cool sci fi ideas already. We do. I'm saying we need to emphasize them as the core gameplay - all tactics revolve around them.

    Take Tomorrow's War. It's FoF (moderns) with special sci abilities thrown in. Mechs, EW, drones, railguns.... ...but the gameplay and tactics don't fundamentally change.

  12. Sorry for reviving this thread, but the discussion has brought up so many great points.

    Id like to sum up and say: so is it just attaching new and fresh special rules, ones that are not renamed fireballs and saving throws, that would make a game really feel different?

    Ive been thinking about a 6mm/15mm Matrix meets Godzilla-game a lot last winter. It would need some rules to make "normal" men able to leap over scyscrapers, stop bullets, teleport into other units.

    All can be done from most sets, my fave for this would be SoBH because it already has excellent Kaiju and Giant Robot-rules, but it would be necessary to break up the conventions given by most WW2/Fantasy-sets.

    1. "Id like to sum up and say: so is it just attaching new and fresh special rules, ones that are not renamed fireballs and saving throws, that would make a game really feel different?"

      Hmmm. Sort of. I'm saying that adding a whole bunch of special rules (say fireballs and teleportation) to a WW2 game, just adds on "garnish" without changing the fundamental nature of the game. It's still a WW2 game - with fireballs.

      However if you made just one of the special rules a CENTRAL MECHANIC (say teleportation) - i.e. everyone has it - so gameplay revolves around teleporting in to ambush enemies and positioning yourself so enemies cannot do it to you - then it becomes a "teleportation" game with some WW2 trappings - and brings in entirely new gameplay and tactics.

      If you can still use your usual WW2 tactics, a few special abilities haven't changed anything.

      An example of "we added special rules but it's just the same" - the psychic powers in Gruntz:Spec Ops and Tomorrow's War. The psychic attacks function exactly like a conventional gunfire attack and add nothing to the gameplay at all.