Reaction mechanics are rather trendy. But are they revolutionary or just a waste of time?
Reaction Mechanics – the rebellious cool kid
Reaction mechanics are a revolution against the IGOUGO which Games Workshop made mainstream (many older games used card based mechanics or other ways – heck even chess used alternate moves). As a random note, ranting about IGOUGO actually launched this series of game design articles.
In short, IGOUGO allows a commander to carry out every action unopposed, while his opponent’s troops stand around like dummies. It’s bad game design (i.e. if you can go off for a 20 minute coffee break while your opponent makes his turn, you aren’t really “involved” in the game) and there are less opportunities for decision points (i.e. choices where you can influence the outcome of the game) which means you are more at the mercy of the dice. Imagine a Chess game where you got to move each and every piece without your opponent responding; then he gets to move all his pieces without you being able to retaliate. In addition, what decisions you do make tend to be rather simplistic.
Reaction mechanics allow you to interrupt your opponents turn – at one end is simply adding “overwatch” to a IGOUGO game – at the other end is Infinity which allows every model in sight to react to every action you take, every time. Reaction mechanics are kinda the “anti 40K” and tend to have been enthusiastically embraced by those GW has disenfranchised (i.e. everyone but the most die-hard fanboys).
But are reactions always a good choice?
I somewhat critically compared hard sci-fi ruleset PMC 2640 to Tomorrow’s War due to its lack of reaction mechanic. However the designer deliberately did not include it because he wanted more free maneuver, and faster gameplay than reactions allow. Fair enough. I found it interesting in that he had not blindly ignored the trend, but considered and rejected it based on his overarching design philosophy. I may not have agreed with the choice, but I respected it. It made me consider "are reactions always 'good' for a game?"
Are reactions always appropriate?
I was making an Aeronef game a few days and I automatically included reactions “just because.” Why? Because “it’s good game design.” Actually, no. Any design choice which is done automatically without questioning “why” you do it is a bad one.
In my example, battles between lumbering airships may not need the same immediacy of reaction as say a squad level SAS shoot out vs terrorists. Perhaps they can’t react – in some cases the crew might be still scrambling to implement the last order issued 20 seconds ago. A warship answering the helm to dodge torpedoes cannot occur instantly – it is not as immediate as a commando’s snap-shooting reactions when clearing a building of insurgents. In addition, the somewhat self-contained world of a warship the crew may be reacting more to their commander, rather than the enemy. And when the enemy is 10 miles away, the reactions might be less “forced” and immediate; more tit-for-tat than events blurring together rapidly.I’m not saying it’s wrong to have reactions in a naval or aeronef game – I’m just saying the implications of including extensive use of reaction mechanics need to be carefully considered.
Reactions are slow
I like the Ambush Alley/Tomorrow’s War games but they are surprisingly gluggy for such a simple set of rules. There are a few reasons for this (a) poorly laid out rulebook (b) whilst using a universal mechanic, there are lots of rules for specific instances (c) they are used to handle too many troops but it is (d) I am interested in – i.e. reactions.
Reactions slow things down. Yes, they interject great decision points into the game, but these decisions necessitate time to decide them, and then they need to be resolved (there is often an extra dice roll with modifiers etc to contend with as well as the rules as to how and when the reactions occur). A game of Ambush Alley might take 3 hours to have 4 turns. Yes, in those 4 turns there are more decisions and action going on than 10 turns of an IGOUGO game like 40K, but nonetheless, the overall game time is significantly increased by the reaction mechanics. It's a trade-off.
When playing with my Middleheim fantasy skirmish rules, I was aiming for ~20-25 minis per side. However the game heavily uses reactions, and this slowed the gameplay down. I thought the reactions worth keeping in this instance, so reduced my model count down to 10-12 accordingly.
Reactions are slow. So what are the other options? Alternate Activation?
Most games who want a modicum of “reaction” with maximum simplicity simply use alternate activation and call it a day. (By alternate move I mean a player chooses a unit, takes all actions – move, fire etc – with a single unit and then his opponent likewise chooses a single unit and takes all its actions. I.e. like Chess). This has a certain innate “reaction” and decision points built in. You need to choose which unit, with the awareness your opponent can immediately counter with his own unit after it acts. You also need to choose when to act with a unit – move now, or save the unit and it’s actions for later.
Basically, what you need to do is move as far away from IGOUGO as you can – to break the turn up into “segments” or “phases” where you and your opponent can react with relative swiftness to each other’s actions. Alternate move works well because you usually have about as many phases as you do units. And it's pretty simple to implement.
Breaking up the Turn
The key word here is "many phases."Remember Star Fleet Battles? That broke the turn up into 32 segments (“impulses”). While we don’t want to go quite that far, here are some examples that improved on IGOUGO:
Example A: Lord of the Rings:SBG
Lord of the Rings improved a lot upon 40K, one of the key areas was how it broke the IGOUGO into segments. Instead of Side A does everything, then Side B does everything of 40K, it kept things simple but increased the interaction from two key phases to five – i.e. Side A move; Side B move – Side A shoot; Side B shoot – Both melee. In addition, it allowed leaders to interrupt or change the initiative order, potentially adding a few more phases.
Example B: DUST Tactics
Another game of interest is DUST Tactics. I don’t use the rules because they came with prepainted plastic minis (boo! hiss!) and I already had SOTR to fill my WWW2 niche (build your own mech rules ftw) but they have an interesting sequence again using leaders.
Command Phase A
Command Phase B
Unit Phase A
Unit Phase B
Each side has a command pool (= #of own units) which also helps determine who gets the initiative.
In the Command phase the player can spend “orders” to have troops within 12” of a leader take s single action (move, shoot, rally etc) without reactions from opponents. Player B acts second, but gets more orders in recompense.
In the Unit phase, everyone gets to act. Player A gets to make a two actions* with all his models (resolved in any order). Units which are not suppressed may react if enemies shoot at them move within 12” but this costs them one of their actions.
Taking reactions into account, this means the usual IGOUGO sequence has been increased from two into six phases and an aspect of resource management (and use of leaders) has added further depth.
All the examples (alternate move, LOTR, DUST) have one thing in common – more phases which allow opponents to respond. There are no “opposed rolls” included. This is differentiated from a true “reaction mechanic” where the reactive player acts during (or simultaneously with) their opponent active phase and usually has to contest the action/reaction sequence using some sort of dice roll.
Reaction mechanics are good, where applicable. However, while they might be great for, say, the move-duck-and-cover of a modern close quarter skirmish not all aspects of warfare necessarily demand instant reactions as a core aspect of game play - i.e. slow moving naval combat. Reactions add in lots of decision points and increase player involvement (good) but do slow the game down a lot (bad).
Reactions are just a very obvious way to avoid the stagnant, unrealistic play of IGOUGO. There are many other methods – generally variations on “divide the turn into different phases” which allow players to respond to their opponents with more immediacy – i.e. not having to wait until each and every enemy unit has flawlessly carried out every action, completely unimpeded and without consideration of their opponents. Breaking a turn up into phases allows a certain organic “reaction” to take place as players respond to their opponents.
I am a staunch advocate of reaction of reaction mechanics – in their place. Which isn’t in every game, just because it is “trendy.”