Thursday 4 July 2019

Gunship Vector: Close Quarters Space Combat

I've slowly drifted away from big ship fleet space combat; my large Full Thrust and Firestorm Armada fleets have laid dormant for years.

However, my EM4 Silent Death starfighters are probably my most-used gaming pieces.  At ~50c each they are certainly the best value-for-use models I own.  Besides serving as supercavitating fighter subs (a niche topic that endlessly fascinates me) they also serve in their original role; as space fighters and strike craft.

A pair of gunships escort a convoy across a moon's surface.  As you can see, they are large craft with multiple crew, capable of carrying a squad of troops or carrying an underslung light vehicle.
My vision of space combat is not majestic, ponderous star destroyers firing point blank broadsides (a la age of sail/Star Wars) but rather ambushes from asteroids, in caves inside asteroids, and skimming over the planet surface.  Inspirations include PC games like Descent, Battlezone 1998, and the chaotic close range MTB vs E Boat duels from WW2 such in books like The Battle for the Narrow Seas.

Sometimes the attackers are not human; here the gunships provide fire support against the carnivorous native inhabitants of the moon.

I've always wondered why (if FLT is a thing) ships would ever duel in deep space; why would battles occur anywhere that was not near a key objective; i.e. planets, stations and asteroid belts?  The coastal warfare of space, if you will.  In this cluttered, close quarters environment, cheap small craft would be viable, able to ambush larger ships who would otherwise effortlessly pick them off in the void of deep space.  Instead of single-crew starfighters who fly like WW2 Spitfires, I envision multi-crew strike craft capable of transporting troops, co-ordinating drones, offering fire support as well as anti-ship capability; similar roles to a present day transport VTOL/gunship. Think a V22 Osprey meets an AH64 Apache meets a naval FAC like an Osa or a PBR. While able to exit and enter atmosphere, they are not "dogfighters" although they would be agile enough in low gravity environments like the the inside of an asteroid or around a small moon.  The Rocinante from the SciFy show The Expanse gives you a good idea of the size of ship; carrying automatic railguns and missiles and capable of transporting squads of troops. (Or about the size of the Milennium Falcon, for those who have not seen the series)

Here a gunship "pops up" to support some infantry emplaced on a hilltop.

At low level gunships are vulnerable to SAMs - here a sneaky scout buggy targets a gunship flight for SAM batteries hidden behind a hill.
Anyway, I've been busy adjusting rules and creating terrain for a range of environments.  I'm working on some space stations (some repurposed ISS kids toys) and asteroids for true space combat, but at the moment I'm playing with low-gravity moon/asteroids. Here, the spacefighters act like helos, transporting/evaccing troops, providing recce, fire support, as well as interdicting ground vehicles and other fighters.  My aim is to have one set of rules for all environments - which means corners will be cut -  however the aim is not realism anyway, but rather realism within my game universe.  That's why we have sci fi and fantasy- to legitimise handwavium! 

Sometimes enemies are both human and nonhuman. Here, a strafing run from a rival merc gunship "brews up" some APCs, forcing the troops to bail out.

Attracted by the vibrations, the local wildlife investigates; but the troops are rescued by a relief column of MBTs as a large transport hovers nearby ready to evac.

As you can see, I used the same simple rubber mats+PVA+sand+paint method I used for my dieselpunk landships game, to quickly whip up some moonscapes.  I'll continue to work on rules and terrain. My tinkering and changing out chunks of the rules has lead to musings on the modular nature of game design - perhaps food for an article - and I should have some space stations and asteroids ready for play soon.

Saturday 16 February 2019

"Adequate" Cheap+Fast 1:300 Terrain with Dieselpunk Tanks

Blog regulars will know I subscribe to the "cheap and nasty" school of painting and terrain - i.e. my theory is it is better to have purpose-built terrain that is made quickly and casually rather than rely on printed paper cutouts, tissue boxes and books under a sheet. Likewise, my painting standard is also pretty poor but I think fielding unpainted or only basecoated minis is a sign of laziness and disrespect for your opponent.  In short: "barely adequate" effort is better than no effort at all.

Here's an example of my terrain for my new dieselpunk tank game  which I whipped up this morning:

French forces approach a stranded landship, intent on capturing it or salvaging it for parts.  

You can see my as-yet-incomplete landship (it's a 1:700 Japanese CV flipped upside down) which obviously needs some turrets and perhaps a control tower (yet to be sourced) and, of course, a paint job.  (My no-unpainted-minis rule does not apply in the privacy of my own solo playtesting sessions!)

From the other direction, Imperial Russian forces have also dispatched a squadron to investigate the stranded landship.

Building the hills took about an hour. With a Stanley knife, I sliced up some of that foam sheeting you get from a camping store (the sort placed under mattresses or tents). I think it cost $10. 

I then coated the top in a mix of water and PVA glue. I sprinkled sand on top (the kids' sandpit comes in handy).

I then sprayed it, using up a $4 can of black spraypaint. Finally, I brushed some el cheapo $2 brown craft paint over the top. 

Whilst it is not amazing, I feel it is very reasonable, for $16 and an hour's effort, and is much better than using paper terrain or books under a sheet or similar.

Russian forces continue to advance on their objective.

As usual, my aim is to show there is a "minimum standard" that is easily achievable, as so much terrain on blogs are amazing masterworks that takes hours and hours for a single piece, that are so detailed that I find them discouraging (I know I can never measure up).  My terrain posts are to encourage the rest of us - the time-poor, money-poor dads who just want to get reasonable-looking stuff on the table, those aiming for adequacy rather than mastery.

A supporting force moves up onto a nearby hill to provide overwatch fire.

The Russians prepare to unload engineers to inspect the landship, but French forces have crested the hill and prepare to engage.

I chose the "flat wedding cake" style layout for my hills to simplify the rules for cover/hulldown/line of sight. It also means the models sit flat on the terrain and don't slide around. 

I may create a matching terrain board (simply a sheet of MDF similarly coated in PVA, sand and painted) to replace the sheet if I have an hour free next weekend.

....Anyway, the kids are clamouring for attention so I'll sign off.  Have fun - and remember, in terrain making there's a broad range between exceptional and awful. There's no shame in inhabiting the "adequate" part of this spectrum.....

Friday 1 February 2019

Dieselpunk Tankmunda - Arrival

Modern MBTs are boring. It's pretty hard to tell one from the other, and they tend to use very similar weapons and equipment.  The "MBT" has been a staple since late WW2.

But back in the 1930s.... tanks were different.  It's a transitional era of warfare, where designers were trying out radical concepts, rather than merely refining the "meta."

Watching Mortal Engines has fired my interest in wacky dieselpunk vehicles, and a trip to Heroics and Ros quickly secured some 1:300s pre-war/early WW2 vehicles.

I'm going to use out-of-scale tanks to be the "landship carrier" motherships for squadrons of smaller tanks. This is a 15mm Landcruiser Ratte but I'll probably use 1:48 tanks with multiple turrets like the T-35.

Mordhiem/Necromunda-with-Tanks "Tankmunda"
I've always been interested in a tank-centric game; most times tanks are either in small numbers supporting a platoon-level game (Bolt Action) or can be present en-masse (division-level Cold War games) or merely are too generic (FoW).

I want a set of rules where tanks are the stars, where individual tank crews can "level up" and have unique special rules and character, and play linked games like a campaign.

This is a typical "squadron" carried by a mothership tank.  Two light tank troops (cavalry and infantry) as well as medium and heavy troop and logistics support.

I've discussed the idea here but by deciding to go dieselpunk sci-fi, I can use handwavium where needed. I want it to "feel" like a tank game but design-wise it will owe much to a RPG/MMO - i.e. tanks are classes with paper-scissors-rock distinct balance, almost like the mage-tank-dps from fantasy genres.

Basically, my rules will not attempt to be a sim, but merely a warband/Mordhiem-style game which (hopefully) "feels" like tank combat rather than infantry.

I've already started this in 15mm and have workable rules, (playtest here) but I simply cannot afford 15mm models like I could in the era BC (Before Children), so I have turned to 1:300 to allow myself to experiment with different tanks eras in an affordable way.

Some T-35 heavies escort some half-track cargo carriers.

Heroics & Ros 1:300
They are perfectly serviceable, affordable gaming pieces but are not particularly inspiring.  With the exception of some AMC.35s (which were rather nasty) they were reasonably free of annoying bits to trim off. I can certainly recommend Heroics and Ros if you want to explore 1:300 cheaply. (Yes, GHQ are much nicer but are 4x the price - almost as much as 15mm!)

 The AMCs I wasn't impressed with, seen escorting some S.35 mediums.  You can see a counter denoting an in-game status effect (mobility, crew, or weapon damage).

Given the low cost, I'll probably use H&R for two more projects: I want to do a dune-buggy game using modern wheeled LAVs (because I think up-gunned armoured cars are cool!) inspired by the Deserts of Kharak. I've already made a scratch-built land-carrier (using an upside-down 1:700 CV model with tracks added).

I like armoured cars. They just look awesome. And the French seem to be the most energetic proponents of them.

 I may also do a 1950s-70s set of rules where mercenary tank companies fight in Africa starring T55s, Centurions etc (i.e. Arab-Israeli/Indo-Pakistan War tech along with cobbled-together WW2 upgrades, without having to follow historical OoBs) or or possibly a WW2-in-1947 set where I can use Centurions & AMXs against King Tigers and weird what-if tanks.  I'll consider any era when I'm not refighting Normandy, Kursk or Cold War Fulda Gap which seems so beloved of every other tank gamer.

Anyway, more info to follow as I modify my existing rules and redefine the philosophy I want the rules to espouse.

Monday 28 January 2019

Aerial Rules Revisited (Part 4) - Activation & Playtesting

As I have a bad habit of starting things I don't fini

...I thought I'd kinda "tie off"my thoughts on air combat with playtest results and comments on the movement/activation system

Adding on the bare minimum:
I played a 1v1/2v2 with two planes with 6"/12" subsonic/sprint stats. Each plane had only a 20mm gun firing 4"(90d arc) which rolled 3 dice (+1 dice if in the rear 180d arc of the opponent). Both planes were identical.

Planes could attempt to "dodge save" using their pilot skill (4+ for an average pilot). Planes were identical on both sides so no agility modifiers.

Each unsaved hit had a 1-2 no effect, 3-4 damage, 5-6 kill. A damaged plane was -2"subsonic/-4"sprint speed, and -1 to all rolls.  A second damage destroyed the plane.
A non-damaging hit "stuns" a pilot temporarily next turn but has no effect on the aircraft.

Basically a cheap and nasty 40K-ish hit-save-damage system. I wanted to concentrate on movement and activation and not the dice mechanics. Neither did I use any of my detection rules (as I wanted to concentrate on what I was testing).

Playtest verdict:
It was a bit too easy to transition between subsonic and sprint speeds. Perhaps a rule where you have to move at top subsonic speed (i.e. no turns or climbing) before transitioning to sprint speed next turn. Planes just seemed to spurt forward and brake too easily and dramatically, like something from a Robotech cartoon.

I wanted to restrict supersonic maneuver partly realism/G-forces and party to make it a trade off i.e. supersonic-limited maneuver, subsonic-very agile. However there's no reason a supersonic fighter can't climb OR dive OR turn - just not both climb+turn at once.  So I'd ease up on my original restrictions - especially if I had a "transition" phase like mentioned in the paragraph directly above.

The subsonic turns seem stilted... ...but perhaps I am just too wedded to oldschool/ hex based plane games

The subsonic turn just seemed weird; to pivot and move directly forward seemed.... unplane-y. However I may be merely carrying over my prejudices from old aerial games.  I could do a 90d-ttun-at-halfweay then 90d-turn-at-end  like the supersonic move. However I'l need to look at the pros and cons of changing this.

Weirdly, the mechanic I REALLY liked was my activation system, a kind of Bolt Action bastardization. I am not a fan of the Bolt Action activation normally, but my system worked well here. What I WANTED was a semi-chaotic card draw, with better pilots having more cards (thus getting more opportunities to act). However I decided stuffing around with cards was too slow (a key design goal was to speed up the painfully slow aerial rules genre).

So I decided to draw dice from a pot instead, a la Bolt Action.

This is what I did:

DICE VERSION - Modified Bolt Action
A dice is placed in a pot for each plane,  + 1 “high” wild dice + 1 ace dice per ace (each faction uses their own dice colours)

When your colour dice is pulled, pick a plane and roll a Crew Check.

(+) If the Crew Check succeeds, you can move and lock+shoot at a target (in any order)
(-) If the Crew Check fails, you may either (a) make any move, but forgo locking/firing; or (b) lock and fire but move directly straight ahead (at max subsonic speed).

Wingman: you may interrupt the turn sequence and move directly after your wingman if you are not damaged or stunned. Simply remove a dice from the pot and roll it like normal.

High & Fast: if you are the highest (or if tied, the fastest) when the high & fast wild dice is rolled, you can act on it. Also remove one of your dice from the pot and roll both it AND your wild dice – and use the best roll.

Stunned/Damaged: If you are stunned or damaged, -1 from your roll.

TL:DR Basically, you pull one of your dice out of the pot, you roll it. If it's not yours, give it to your opponent and he rolls it. If it beats your crew skill level (4+ for an average pilot) you get to maneuver (turn/climb/dive) AND shoot.

If it fails you only get to choose between moving OR shooting. I.e. move straight ahead, but shoot...   ...or make any maneuver, but miss out on shooting.

This worked really well. It added uncertainty (whose dice would be pulled out, and would you get to make 1 or 2 actions) and also choice (which plane to move, and choosing move vs shoot if you rolled badly).

For a quickly cobbled together mechanic, I really liked it and I can seem myself using it again, perhaps in my helicopter or fighter sub homebrew games.

Anyway, aircraft will be left sitting on the bench for a bit as my dieselpunk tanks have arrived... but I'll get back to this topic, I swear!

Wednesday 9 January 2019

Game Design #77: The Dice Mechanics Aren't Important

I'm more and more convinced that the dice rolling mechanics are relatively unimportant as to whether a game is good or not.  Whether you use d6 or d10, whether you add or subtract modifiers, whether you use contested rolls or a fixed target number....'s actually not vital to make your game good. There are other (more important) elements to consider.

The mechanics merely need to be simple, consistent, and (if possible) familiar.

I'm not trying to controversial, just trying to be helpful. I think many game designers overly focus on kewl tricksy dice mechanics where their time could be more usefully spent elsewhere. In fact, when making home rules, the dice rolling mechanics are the last things I consider; in quite a few, I've swapped dice types and mechanics after playtesting, usually to "speed things up" when I realise I could do it simpler, with zero end effect on gameplay.

Why Dice Mechanics Aren't Important
Dice mechanics do not define the style of game. They do not help make tactics more historical.  They do not make players play a particular way, or define the meta.  It's the percentages that matter (lethality) and the activation (who goes first); whether you are using a single d20 or buckets of d6, you can get similar end effects. Dice mechanics don't necessarily make players play a particular way.

Move:Shoot Ratios >>> Dice
Changing the ratio of movement distance to shoot distance can change your game vastly. The "normal" wargame has units move 4-6"and shoot 24-36". The ratio of move:shoot is usually 1:4 or so, favouring shooting. This is mostly (I believe) due to tradition and commonsense impacts of a normal 4x6 game table and small amounts of terrain. However, imagine a game where units moved 1" and fired 20"(sounds like a modern naval wargame).  Now imagine a game where units moved 20"and fired 1"(ancient skirmish/melee?).  The two games would play vastly differently.

Modifiers >>> Dice
The modifiers for your dice rolls are more influential than the dice mechanics and dice types used.
Let's say a game has 3+ (67%) to hit enemies. But if they are in -1 if in cover: they are only hit on a 4+ (50%).  But what if we changed the modifier to -3? They are only hit on a '6' (17%) which means that cover is so massively beneficial that I predict units would seldom move.

Table Setup >>> Dice
Even something as simple as table setup - making your game table devoid of cover vs buildings every 4"with no long sight lines will impact your game experience more than whether you are using a d6 or a d8. A game dev who agonises over which dice size to use but does not consider table setup or deployment rules has made poor use of his time. Even victory conditions (increasingly wargames have ways to win without "kill em all" or "scrum in the middle" can have a bigger impact.

Activation/Initiative >>> Dice
Longtime readers would know how much importance I place on activation and initiative; I was hating on IGOUGO long before it was fashionable. Activation determines the "flow" of the game; the "when" of your movement is just as important as the "where." Simply changing from IGOUGO to alternate activation will make vast changes to your gameplay flow, let alone reaction mechanics, action points/pools. I spend a lot of time on these in other game design posts so I will not rehash their importance here, though I recommend #68 and #69 on momentum and breaking up the turn.

It's the final result that matters: Lethality
At the core, it is the end percentage of success created by the die/dice rolled, rather than how you got there. I tend to look at lethality in combination with modifiers. If your percentages are simple it's actually quite easy to predict how your game will "pan out" before you even playtest.

 Now I'm not saying that the topics above are the only ones to consider; nor am saying what dice resolution you use is completely irrelevant. I'm just saying it should be a long way down your list of priorities.  

Best Practice: Lowering the Barrier to EntryBasically, dice mechanics should keep the skill floor low (i.e. the knowledge you need to be able to play) with very little knowledge needed. You should be able to pick up dice and chug them without much thought. Simplicity, consistency, familiarity are all good.

Simple (KISS)
Basically, as this means rolls are uncomplicated as you can get.  After all, dice rolling detracts from the actual "meat" of gameplay - the decision making. Unless you are using a dice pool or some sort of system where you "game" the dice, every minute spent on dice is a minute not spent on decision making or tactics. Computers can do this instantly, under the hood so to speak. But wargamers manually rolling dice take up a lot of game time.  If you are spending more time rolling dice than moving minis, then something has gone awry.

Ideally, I should be able to absent-mindedly chug the dice while thinking about my next move, just noting the results at the end. 

As an example of what not to do: I remember Silent Death had a dice system using d4s, d6s, d8s and d10s (even d12s and d20s). Each weapon had a different rule and even different combinations of dice.  I.e. "for a blaster, roll 2d6 + 1d8 and use the highest two dice for the "to hit"; then use the middle dice for damage." But a phaser might roll 2d10 + a d12, use the lowest two dice "to hit"and the highest two dice for damage.  They were so proud how they managed to combine the "to hit"and "to damage"into a single roll...  ...but didn't notice they'd actually made it more frickin complicated!
This is a classic example of how trying to be overly clever with dice mechanics actually made the game worse.

I've used the example of Bag the Hun (and almost any TFL ruleset) vs say Warmachine. In BtH, the game uses seven completely different mechanics to resolve actions. That's incredibly messy and you need to remember both how (and when) you need to use a particular method. In Warmachine, you pretty much use 2d6 vs a target number in every situation.  Consistency means you only need to learn one set of dice mechanics.

There's a reason games like Bolt Action and Flames of War merely uses a thinly disguised version of WH40K's dice rolling mechanics. Or why 40K hasn't changed much over decades. Familiarity with a system lowers the barrier for entry - a player instantly can grasp the "feel" of the game and there is little new knowledge needed. You don't need to reinvent the wheel, and in most cases it doesn't benefit your players anyway.

 But.... what about Dice Pools and Probability Curves?  : Interesting but Messy
Obviously a single d10 and 2d6 are not the same. Adding dice together (or using buckets of dice) can "smooth" the rolls, making them more predictable.  The buckets of dice method (throwing handfuls of dice with say a 4+ or 5+ as a success) does something similar.  But for a budding game designer, they can be a pain to balance.  A +1 modifier on a single d10 is 10%. On a d6 is is a flat 17%.  But modifiers on 2d6, for example, are not equal depending on your target number. Changing a +1 from a 7+ to an 8+ on 2d6 changes it from 58% to 42%.  A +1 changing 11+ to 12 on a 2d6 is 8% to 3%.
The +1 modifier does not have the same "value."   If this is confusing, then it's a good reason why these methods are not ideal for the amateur game designer.  Whilst I like managed probability, unless you have a compelling reason to use these methods (or love math), they make game balancing/tweaking far more difficult. I do like dice pools (which can add depth to gameplay through resource management aspects) but they do add to the game's complexity/play time and "mental cost."

Anyway, I hope I've shown how agonizing over which dice to use is fairly unimportant in the big scheme of things.  Focus on other stuff - starting with a mission statement/rationale aka success criteria, consider how all the elements (move/shoot, activation/initiative, table setup, deployment, lethality, etc) will combine to make players play the game using tactics you envision.  Ruthlessly keep to your original goals - e.g. if your aim is a fast play game, consider hard before you add ANY complication that does not promote your core philosophy.  Sometimes a cool mechanic is actually not the best for the specific game. This is especially true of dice mechanics.  Think about the big picture, and keep the dice rolling simple, consistent, and "under the hood."

Aerial Rules Revisited - Part 3 Detection & Distance

I've covered maneuver in the last post - it is a very simple system, far more "gamey" than realistic. The aim was to keep the "feel" of air combat (tradeoffs between speed/position/height) without strict scale besides "it looks OK on the table."

I toyed with "limited fuel" i.e. after say 3 game turns all planes using supersonic must make a crew check or be bingo fuel." However this would mean tracking another token on the table, so instead I made supersonic less attractive by making supersonic planes unable to climb. Technically this is wrong, but it forces the tradeoff between speed/height, and makes supersonic less attractive, so players don't use it so often.  The end effect is the same. (i.e. supersonic not overused)

The player is a flight leader/squadron leader controlling 4-12 aircraft, and the aim is to make the game play no slower than a skirmish game like Mordheim or Infinity.  As a result, we don't need to micromanage each plane, measuring precise airspeed, doing 5 degree turns etc. Instead we are giving pilots general instructions.

I do have a more traditional style of movement (has similar effect to CY6 but without the recording and charts, uses 3 colours of d6 to track 3 height and 6 speed bands) but this slows the game.

Some FA/18s and Tornados. I enjoy painting 1:600s - they are simple, satisfying, and "pop"well at tabletop ranges. 
Besides maneuver trinity of positioning/speed/altitude, detection is the vital element of air combat. Most planes are shot down without seeing their attacker, and nowdays planes carry complex electronics for detection, stealth, countermeasures etc.

I'm going to use the same 180d hemispheres as the movement rules; enemies are either "in front" or "behind" and can be "above" "below" or "same altitude." I like 180d as you can simply eyeball things without measuring - or if needed, hold your ruler in front of the model's base to check. No fancy charts or measurement aids needed.

Radar Detection
To limit the amount of die rolls, players may attempt to spot using radar OR Mk1 eyeball, not both (unless a 2-seater like F14).

I may allow hidden movement - i.e. counters which are only revealed when enemies detect them, with dummy counters etc - but at the moment I'll focus on the ability to engage enemy targets.

Radar range will vary depending on the plane
Radar arcs - the front 180d arc, + targets above or below must be at 4" range or longer
Radar lock is a roll based on the quality of the radar, say 3+ for a good one

There will be penalties if targets are lower, and/or on the deck, and if a target is stealth (F-22, F-117).

A single roll is made and ALL planes in the correct arcs/range who pass the roll will be spotted/locked.

As an example, a plane might need a 3+ on a d6 to lock.  Target A is at the same altitude so needs the usual 3+, but Target B is below, so needs a 4+.  A single roll is made for all targets, so a 4,5 or 6 would mean both planes are detected but a 3 would mean only Target A was detected.

Visual Detection
Visual range - enemies are hard to see, if they are: above and sunward, behind or below or in clouds. Each condition halves the visual range. E.g. if behind AND below, 1/4 usual visual range.
Visual "lock" - the lock/detect number is based on crew skill i.e. say 2+ elite, 3+ veteran, 4+ rookie?  Perhaps add a -1 penalty if to the rear with a bad-visibility cockpit like a MiG-25.

Sunward - an edge of the board is designated as sunward.  Clouds can be seen into/out of (at half range) but not through.

Again, like radar a single roll is made and all targets that roll equal or above are spotted.

Well, this may seem quite detailed compared to my casual approach to maneuver rules, but that is because I think detection is so important to simulate air combat.

These F-14s remind me of Macross fighters. I may do an anime space spin off (eschewing height and adding zany heroic feats and swarms of missiles).

Move/Shoot Ratios
As I've said, scales are pretty loose - it's more about how it looks on the table and the 'feel' rather than precise measurements like 1" = 500m, 1 turn = 5 seconds etc like some rules specify. 

What I DO want is to keep firing ranges relatively low and movement high. A normal skirmish game has a move/shoot ratio of 1:4 (i.e. 6" move, 24" shoot); I'm aiming for 1:1 or better in favour of movement.  I want to encourage planes to move and maneuver, not snipe from long range.

Let's do some examples:
F-14 subsonic move 6"; sprint 16"
= vs =
Cannon range = 4"
AIM-9 HS range = 2"min to 8"
AIM-7 RH range = 4"min to 16"

These are just ballpark figures, but you can see the firing ranges seldom exceed the movement ranges. In practice, this emphasizes maneuver.

Game Mechanics? Bah Humbug!
Well, it's getting late so I'll save game mechanics for another day. Spoiler: I'm actually going to use the Warhammer 40K roll to hit-save-roll to damage using simple d6s.

The older I get the less I care about mechanics. Move shoot ratios, activation, resource management, modifiers, maneuver, etc - all these things matter. The mechanics themselves don't so much (I'll do a game design post on this sometime soon) as long as they are simple and consistent. A bonus if they are familiar, to decrease the "buy in" for new players. I personally prefer d10s (10% increments make balancing the game easy) and d6s (everyone has them, familiar).

Tuesday 8 January 2019

Aerial Rules Revisited - Part 2 - Abstracting Movement

Last post I discussed how aerial rules (simulating combat that takes place over minutes or seconds) tends to be bogged down with written orders, rivet counting and an innate complexity. Most aerial wargames have more in common with doing a tax return than a swirling dogfight.

I identified four factors (speed, height, positioning vs foe, detection) as key elements to track. Now, I'm considering how to simplify them.  Note these rules aren't good, but more an example of my thought process and what I am striving for.

I've decided there will be 3 heights - high, medium, and "on the deck." As I am trying to do away with recording (and also I'm not using fancy bases) I'm simply going to record it thus: high = blue token, low = green token, medium = no token.  I considered using a d6 and having 6 heights (using the dice to record it) but sometimes I bump the dice over, and the token can be fit neatly under the model's plastic base. Besides, I'm trying to abstract here.

OK, now for the speed/height/positioning interactions.  I'm avoiding plotting moves or recording anything (including speed) so I have decided to divide aircraft speeds into supersonic and subsonic.

Supersonic is a sprint move. It's used to transit the battlespace quickly.  A supersonic plane can dive one level and/or turn up to 90d after the midpoint of the move. A supersonic plane has high speed, but poor positioning (maneuver angles) and whilst it can dive it has no ability to gain height. You can see the trade-offs.

Here is an example of a F-14 making a supersonic sprint. It moves quite far (up to 16") and may make a turn after the midpoint.  Interceptors with a high Mach number topspeed (like the Mig-25) have a great sprint ability, whereas light dogfighters (like the F-16) have a lower top speed.
I also call this supersonic sprint extending or pursuit as it is primarily to chase down or flee enemies.

Subsonic speed is where you perform extreme dogfight maneuvers i.e. it is strong in positioning and changing heights but much slower than supersonic sprint . A jet making a subsonic move can move into the front 180d arc and move up to it's subsonic speed (6"in the case of this F-14). 
The jet may either turn OR climb - if it does both its move is halved and it can only move 3". It may dive without penalty.  As you can see, attempting to climb (height) and turn (position) has a penalty on speed. I'm trying to main the trade-off.

The F-14 can make a tight turn (high or low yoyo) combined with dives or climbs (chandelle). The F-14 can even stay still (simulated by a loop). As you can see, I am lumping lots of maneuvers into the one rule, to keep things simple. Whilst I could have had separate rules for all these maneuvers, I've kinda made a single catch-all rule, so you never need to consult the rules or a maneuver chart.  (Savage Worlds does this well). 

I'd like to add an "evade" subsonic maneuver where the plane gains saving rolls against hits, perhaps. This evading would encompass scissors and barrel rolls and probably restrict speed to half. I'll think more about it when I add a combat mechanic.

Reversals are basically half-loop maneuvers into a plane's rear 180d arc.  The main difference from a frontal tight turn is that the plane MUST either climb (Immelman) or dive (Split S) - it cannot remain at the same altitude. The plane's height will impose some restrictions; you cannot Split S on the deck; or Immelman when you are high.

Now last post I mentioned plane performance and pilot skill as being important modifiers.  You might include pilot skill as a "crew check" on a d6, perhaps 2+ for ace, 3+ for veteran, 4+ for rookie - in order to pull off such a violent subsonic turn or reversal.  A failure would see them move straight ahead or 180 behind, and get some sort of penalty (perhaps a "stun" token that gives them -1 on all rolls until removed, or being unable to fire or evade this turn).

Plane performance could be simply movement based - i.e. supersonic movement is based on pure top Mach speed and thrust, whereas subsonic movement is more based on power/weight + wing loading + agility benefits like fly-by-wire). So a F-14 in the example would have 6" subsonic, 16" sprint - while a more nimble but slower F-16 might have better 8" subsonic, but only a 12" supersonic sprint.

I haven't mentioned detection at all, but this gives you an idea of how I am thinking about movement.  I'm not claiming these are even good. Just showing how I am striving to show the interactions between height, speed and positioning in as simple a way as I can. 

+ There's no charts A-F, or complex maneuvers or speed to track. There's no "accounting."
+ There's no fancy bases needed or complex turn templates; the only "clutter" is a token that fits under the aircraft's base (so it's not really clutter) showing if it is on the deck or high. 
+ There's no need to consult rulebooks - you can memorise the rules and move a plane as quickly as a 28mm infantry figure in a skirmish game; so a player can handle 8-12 planes (like a Mordheim warband) rather than 1-2 planes each in traditional aerial wargames, making it a wargame rather than a laboriously slow duel.

Obviously I'm not saying this whole idea works well - or even works at all - (I need to bolt on detection as well as shooting/damage mechanics). Obviously activation is important; I'm thinking something somewhat random (like a card draw?) to simulate the chaos of a dogfight.

But what I hope I've shown is the intent to keep key concepts (height vs speed vs positioning) while abstracting where possible and removing complexity, charts, fancy gear and accounting. I'd like to see aerial wargames evolve similar to skirmish wargames instead of remaining a laborious chore based on 70s mechanics, while retaining the "essence" of air combat.

Wednesday 2 January 2019

Aerial Rules Revisted (2019) Part 1

Longtime readers will know that aircraft wargame rules are an area of wargaming which I generally dislike. Or rather: I love air combat, and 1/600 models are both affordable and fun to paint, but the rules suck.  My run down of the various rules (in 2015) was negative.  I don't think the rules have evolved since the 1970s, and most seem fundamentally flawed. I have lots of lovely plane models but no desire to use them on the table.

I created a manifesto of key things my ideal aerial rules would contain, and looked at activation mechanics. I then kinda left it there, as (like usual) I dallied with other projects.  But I'd still love to get my aircraft minis on the table....

I really like my 1:600 jets. Easy to paint, and they look good at tabletop distances. I admit I secretly like the Su-27/MiG-29 over Western designs.

I revisited the topic last year, making a few points:
*rules are too complex, more accounting than playing. Why am I writing down "orders" for a fast paced dogfights with actions that last seconds?
*the 3D environment seems to necessitate complexity/aka energy management etc
*reusing tired old mechanics from 1970s where other genres have innovated/aka clunky mechanics
*tendency to rivet counting and excessive detail
*rules tend to be more suited to 1v1 duels than a wargame, aka one player flies one plane.
*wrong "command level" i.e. should you be controlling the exact throttle settings and maneuvers for each plane, if you command more than one..

The article wondered what we could abstract, yet maintain the essence of dogfight combat. (With some pretty abstract ideas)

Now I've been playing a lot of War Thunder (a free PC games) and I've identified a few key elements in air combat:

1. Speed (which can be converted into height/favourable position) aka kinetic energy
2. Height (which can be converted to speed/favourable position) aka potential energy
3. Position (relative to enemy aircraft; can be gained by trading in speed or height) attack delivery

A fourth factor which is not as directly related is:
4. Detection (allows planes to position themselves without opposition)

The more boring "good guys". As I was painting them, I was struck with the fact the majority of modern jets have their origins in the 1970s...
Flying my P-51 Mustang on my PC, I'm struck by how efficiently trading speed/height/positioning seems to be so important. Without the fear of real combat, it can be quite clinical in a PC game "I can make a tight turn and get a shot off (position), but I'd bleed off too much energy (speed), so..."  or  "If I dive now, I can convert height to speed, and run down that bomber."  Or choosing between a high or low yo-yo.  I spend a lot of time doing mental calculations of time/speed/distance/angle. Further, detection is vital. I'd say the vast majority of aerial kills occur without the attacker being seen.

Then there are two "modifiers"which strongly impact the above elements:

(+) Pilot Skill (a good pilot finds it easier to convert speed/height/position for attacks/avoidance) and
(+) Plane Performance (a good plane has better potential speed/height/agility to position and even may have better detection).  I.e. things like Thrust/weight and wing loading, the firepower to execute attacks, robustness to resist them, visibility from the cockpit)

While very important, I wouldn't say pilot skill and plane performance are key elements in themselves, but rather impact the elements.

I've always had a soft spot for the much-maligned MiG-23. I like their practical, businesslike look and although they don't have notable agility they have good thrust/weight and speed.

In my April post, I wondered whether height could be removed and simplified into "potential energy" but I think height is integral to air combat and abstracting it could lose to much of what makes air combat what it is. Differing altitudes impact positioning strongly in a way abstract "potential energy"does not. (There are a few rules, notably C21 Air War, which do away with height; incidentally it is a set of rules where you could attempt to fight a decent sized dogfight in a reasonable amount of time).

By the way, I'm not claiming my analysis of air combat (based on a PC game!) is exhaustive or accurate - this post is a kind of "train of thought" exercise showing my evolving thoughts on the topic (and hopefully inspiring someone more talented than me to write a set of relevant, modern rules instead of copying Blue Max for the tenth time!)

Anyway, I'm looking at the "four factors"and thinking "how simple could you make these, while retaining the essentials of a dogfight?" I'll probably start with a trimmed down set of conventional(ish) rules, and contrast it with more abstract ideas.