Tuesday 26 July 2016

Game Design #69: Momentum

This post is a flow on from #68, where I looked at the amount of actions per turn a unit can do.
I'm interested in "inherent" reactions; not a specific reaction mechanic like say Ambush Alley or Infinity, but the ability to respond to enemies actions.

In the last post, I suggested we could improve alternate activation mechancics (the new "normal" as IGOUGO has deservedly fallen from grace) by reducing the number of actions a unit can take from 2 (the usual move+shoot, move+move, charge+melee etc) to one.

As units can only take a single action, they impact the game less. Less in-game time elapses before opponents can respond with their own moves.   A unit which can move only 6" OR shoot, obviously has less time on their hands than an identical unit which can move 6" AND shoot AND melee.

By doing less in a unit's activation, we have by inference made the turn shorter, time-wise.

The most extreme example of "chopping up" a move into small increments is Star Fleet Battles. Each turn was chopped up into 32(!) sub-moves or "impulses."   You could only move a single hex (1") at most each impulse; for example a speed-32 ship could move every impulse, a speed 16 ship might move every 2nd impulse, a speed 2 ship might move on impulses #16 and #32...

(I find the idea of impulses interesting - I've considered reviving them for spaceship or aeronef games. Maybe not 32 - that's a bit extreme - but chopping a turn up into 2, maybe 3 bits it could have several interesting effects, such as easily showing the responsiveness of smaller ships, weapon rate of fire, and turn radius, as well as crew initiative.... maybe food for another post)

This is the ebb and flow of a battle - where one side seizes the initiative (the active player) while the other reacts.  The player with the momentum (or initiative) is the one dictating play, forcing his opponent to dance to his tune.  However, momentum can be lost.  Sometimes it is handed over as part of an activation. Even better, some games allow you to wrest the initiative off your opponent - perhaps by command rolls or by combat results.

I like to use the word momentum - it can be used somewhat interchangabley with the terms "the player with the initiative" or the "active player" but the word initiative can be used in a few ways, and sometimes you might have the momentum/initiative and NOT be the active player (see Forced Activation below).

An IGOUGO game has no ebb and flow. It's like two tidal waves smashing each other to bits.  Side A crashes home, with every unit taking lots of moves, actions and attacks.  Any Side B survivors who weather the storm hit back with all their units, attacking with everything they've got. There's no momentum - it's just one giant crash, then another giant crash.

An alternate move game has players dutifully taking turns. It's like toddlers taking turns to splash at opposing ends of the tub.  While there isn't an overwhelming, synchronized response from an army, but rather a unit-by-unit tit-for-tat, nonetheless I don't like the neat, predictable nature of it.  You move a guy, I move a guy, you move a guy, I move a guy. Fine for boardgames, but warfare isn't that tidy.

I suggest a more interesting way is to enable armies to activate several units in a row. Instead of dutifully taking turns with an opponent to activate a unit each (in alternate movement), sometimes a you can "follow on" by activating another of your units, without handing the turn back to your opponent.  However this should not be predictable. Even better, your opponent should be able to interrupt and seize the momentum back.  As you can see, with a game with variable momentum we blur the lines between reaction mechanics and vanilla activation.

Momentum is not New
This is not a revolutionary concept. I think Warmaster/Epic (heck I forget, it was so long ago) had an alternate movement system - players took turns moving a unit each.  However, you could try to "follow on" and move a second unit, if you passed a Command Test.  However, each time you tried to "follow on" reduced the command roll by -1.  So it would be difficult to follow-on three times as you would be at -3 to make the roll.

So instead of normal alternate activation
1. Player A activates a unit
2. Player B activates a unit
3.Player A activates a unit
4. Player B activates a unit

We have instead
1. Player A activates a unit, he then decides if he wants to activate a second unit or pass the turn to Player B. He decides he wants to act again. He passes the command roll.
2. Player A activates a second unit. Again he can pass the initiative over, or move a second unit. He decides to keep the momentum going. This time his command roll is -1 to succeed. For the sake of our example, he fails the roll.
3. Player B now has the activation. After he activates a unit he may choose to pass or follow-on.
...and so on

You can see there are more decision points for the player. Also, command and control is a factor - the leadership/morale/training of commanders and troops can affect the move sequence.

Another example is Song of Blades. A player rolls 1-3 dice to see how many actions his unit can take. If he rolls 2 failures his turn abruptly ends and it is his opponents' turn.  The momentum shift is very abrupt "hey buddy, your turn is over!" but player can remove the risk by rolling only 1 dice (so removing the chance of a double failure) but be guaranteed of being able to follow on and continue their turn.  It also adds a pleasing element of risk vs reward.  I'm not sure it counts as momentum because your turn is completely over.  For me, momentum is more the shift of initiative within a turn.

Crossfire (WW2 platoon/coy) along with its complete lack of measurements, had a distinct momentum system. Units had unlimited movement and unlimited actions.  However opponents could react freely.  So whilst a unit could technically move the length of the table in its activation, it would be VERY unlikely.  If a unit lost an engagement or was suppressed, the turn shifted to its opponent.
(Crossfire is a very interesting and innovative game for its time - I recommend it to rulebook connoisseurs)

Reaction is not momentum. Infinity has a strong reaction mechanic, but no real momentum. The active player has as many activations as he has units (i.e. 10 units, 10 activations). Whilst the reactive player has very strong, unlimited reactions, the active player cannot lose the momentum. He remains the active player until his 10 actions are used up. There is no way for the momentum to shift within a turn.

The Forced Activation
I quite like this and it appears in a lot of my homebrew rules. If you have the momentum (i.e. you have the initiative/are the active player.)  But sometimes you don't want to be the first one to act.  Sometimes acting second is better.  But we want having the momentum to always be a desirable thing.  So... the player with the initiative can force an opponent to activate a unit.  Sometimes the opponent gets to choose, sometimes you can force him to move precisely the unit you want him to.

To recap - an Ode to Momentum
Momentum is the term I used to show the shift of initiative within a turn, or abruptly losing their turn without activating all their units.  Within a momentum system, players do not hold the initiative for the entire turn.  There is no guarantees of when (or even if) they will activate their unit.  A player with momentum is the one calling the shots - but their is no promises he will continue to do so.

Momentum can be lost in a few ways. Sometimes from adverse effects (a la Crossfire) - a unit takes hits or is suppressed - the momentum (initiative) shifts and the opponent becomes the active player.  Other times a unit loses it by failing a roll (command check); other times an opponent might attempt to seize it off him with some sort of opposed roll if he has a command unit within range or LoS.

A system with momentum adds a layer of complexity - instead of players predictably taking turns, it's a game-within-the-game to seize and hold the initiative at key times. It can emphasize command and control - the when (or if) you act is every bit as important as the where.   It can emphasize the value of commanders as actual commanders, not just high-stat rambo killing machines *cough 40K cough*. Momentum can add a ability for opponents to react and respond, without drafting on an extra reaction mechanic.  It builds an element of inherent reaction into the activation itself.

There are lots of games that use a sense of "momentum" - but it is a concept that I think needs wider consideration.  Game designers are belatedly realising IGOUGO is limited, and that there is merit in reaction mechanics (basically extensions of the old "overwatch" concept.) But I think the concept of momentum is still in its infancy.


  1. Random thoughts in no particular order of import:

    *I am wondering if games with alternating activations really need reaction fire to a great extent.
    Some would argue yes and most games do, but I feel like the alternating sequence already manages it fairly well.

    *IGOUGO has one big application still, I feel: Pre-20th century warfare.

    Not universally of course, but when we're dealing with a near-lack of communication ability, very limited command/control options and battlefield philosophies that dealt with armies rather than units in many cases, I find that IGOUGO can actually function very well.

    1. I agree. In the last post (#68?) I looked at alternate activation in the view of "inbuilt" or "inherent" reaction. However I'm thinking by limiting the actual actions per activation to one, it makes it more fluid -i.e. the more minor the tit-for-tat, the better it "flows."

      Not sure about big battle games as its the one genre I currently eschew - but Warmachine-esque CCG-style games work fine with IGOUGO, too.

  2. Crossfire was ahead of its time and so innovative that it wasn't picked up as it deserved. I would love to see a second edition which incorporates supporting arms (Vehicles, Artillery) effectively. I think it could do well.

    1. Agreed.

      I think we've discussed this before with Ivan - the idea that for a successful rulebook, you need to be familiar, yet add a new twist.

      Evolution tends to sell better than revolution. I think we've caught up enough that Crossfire, if it was released today, could be a major success.

    2. I own Crossfire, but have never effectively managed to play a game of it (lack of opponents/desire to base units together/not enough terrain). I am, however looking at it and wondering if I can transfer it to my Sci Fi miniatures and see what happens.

    3. If you want something a bit "out there" in the no-measure no-limits, but with sci fi I suggest:


      I think I reviewed it... yup


    4. Great to see Crossfire getting a mention.
      Some say it took the "Succeed and retain initiative" idea from Subbuteo (A tabletop football (Soccer) game where players "flick" figures at the ball.

      Whether that's true, it's a great mechanism for settings where volume of fire wins the fight.
      It doesn't scale well to larger organisations (There's little sense in a Battalion or Brigade grinding to a halt because one squad got pinned on one flank) - which I think is why supporting arms are very much an afterthought.

  3. In Warhammer 40k, 7th edition, there's both player reactions in all phases of play, and a sense of momentum in how it play. There's also a rhythm that a good player uses so that the back and forth of player turns swings in their favour. As a product that probably sells more than all other games combined, it's probably worth considering what it does right instead of presuming what it does wrong. At least you may have the opportunity to learn about how the game has evolved since the 5th edition.

    1. "As a product that probably sells more than all other games combined, it's probably worth considering what it does right instead of presuming what it does wrong."

      Not sure what part of the article this comment is addressing? Methinks you are white-knighting slights that did not exist.

      Sadly, I live in Australia. At $165 ($123USD) for the rules, or $146USD for the starter box, the chances of me taking 7th ed for a spin is non-existent.

      FYI, the game that sells more than the rest combined (OK, slight exaggeration) is X-Wing which I also cannot (or will not) afford.

    2. You can find the rules for 7th edition online for free, if you want to take them for a spin. I'm not white-knighting; I just feel like your posts are more insightful when you speak from current and accurate information, and I enjoy your insights.

    3. Sure. I thought your first comment seemed to be in response to a statement like "40K doesn't use momentum or reactions" where I am only talking about momentum in general, using Crossfire, Infinity and SoBH as examples.

      My initial response was "why are we making this suddenly about 40K?" Sadly my time spent in the madness of TMP's forums makes me somewhat overly cynical...

      If you want to do an article comparing 6th/7th to earlier editions, I'm happy to link it as I'm sure folk would find it interesting.

  4. I hope you devise a better fix to Star Fleet Battles's weapons "double tap" problem than its own grognardy kludge (which is that you have to wait 8 impulses before firing any given weapon again, and therefore potentially need to track all your guns' firing times individually).

    1. I've got a draft article, and I'm looking at 4 or so impulses not 32 - but for multi-fire weapons I'm thinking you could ONLY fire certain weapons at certain times i.e. slow weapon only fires impulse #1, a normal weapon at #2 and #4, or something similiar - to avoid the tracking.

    2. First... I love SFB, though I understand the frustrations with it and its fanboys making progressively bigger ships with stupidly large numbers of boxes. My preference is the (legally!) free cadet version with only 8 impulses and much smaller ships. Players can easily manage ~3 ships each so you end up with multi-ship tactics in two player games and decent fleet battles if you get a few friends together. The best part is that the weapons do just as much damage as in the original game making scenarios faster and oh so violent.

  5. Just saw this post and was reminded of how Mobile Frame Zero: Rapid Attack has a sense of momentum in the way it handles activations and turns.

    Each turn starts off in "tactical order". Basically the player with the highest score goes first. When he attacks an enemy unit the turn goes into what the game calls "combat order". The action pauses so the defending player can roll all its action dice. Once it has a defense value then the attacking unit finishes its turn. Then the targeted unit is activated and takes its turn. It creates this domino effect of activations.

    If no enemy units or no new enemy units are activated and there are still units to activate on either side then the turn goes back to "tactical order". Capturing objectives or eliminating enemy units affects your score and can enable you to be the player that goes first when a turn shifts back to "tactical order".

    I'm not really doing the rules justice and the system has a number of other interesting mechanics.

    The rules are available here: http://mobileframezero.com/downloads/MobileFrameZero-RapidAttack.d1.pdf

    I'd love to see your review of the system -- time and interest permitting, of course.

    - Jeremy

    1. That's the gundam-with-LEGO? I recall surprisingly dense rules (200+ pages) for a freebie. My holidays start in a week so I should have more time (I'm planning on working on a few projects - aeronef, "Middlehiem", pulp battles, and a tank game. I'll also do Dropfleet Commander, for no better reason to annoy the KS backers who haven't got their stuff yet....

  6. Also interesting is Pulp Alley (Skirmish of 5 or 6 figures per side).
    Without regurgitating all the rules :-
    One player holds "initiative" and can nominate which player (including self) gets to play next.
    Nominated player acts with one figure - and if it achieves a big success, the owner gains the initiative.
    Otherwise the original player retains initiative and nominates again.