My first post about game design was a rant about "decision points" - moments the player could meaningfully influence gameplay. I singled out IGOUGO activation as "bad" as meaningful decisions only occurred during your move. All your decision points were lumped together and really you were only reacting once - to the entirety of your opponent's move. I remember going to the toilet, getting a coke and chips and chatting to other mates during 10 mins or so of an opponents 'turn' in Warhammer. Any game where any players are not making decisions and completely unengaged for 10mins is just bad game design.
That was 7 years ago. Since then, most wargames have gravitated away from IGOUGO.
Something that also bothered me about it was the sense of "flow" i.e. a wargame attempts to breaks up a real-time simultaneous event into a series of chunks - turns or actions. Having all of one side (30 soldiers, for example) run around and shoot while the opposing 30 sat around like mannequins feels wrong.
Two Actions Per Turn - A Privilege, not a Right
More recently, I was considering how most games allow units or minis to take 2-3 successive actions in their "turn" or "activation." I.e. most units get to move and shoot as a minimum, or perhaps even melee, hack or cast magic as well. Allowing units only one action (move OR shoot OR melee) broke the chunk of time down still further, and allow MORE decision points and player interaction, with no extra complexity - which sounds like good game design to me. Since I covered that in more detail in the link above, and this potentially links with a future post, I'll move on to my main point....
Unfair Alternate Activation - Favouring Bigger Armies
Most games since then have moved away from IGOUGO, and I'd probably say alternate activation is the new standard. Instead of each player moving all his forces, he only gets to move a single unit or a single figure, then his opponent moves a single figure or army. Just like Chess has been doing for 1000 years.... *shrugs*
This seems better; you are reacting to a single enemy unit, there are many more decisions and both players are involved with little down time - there are more innate reactions and better "flow"- with no extra complexity. Seems great!
But there is a downside. Bigger armies have an advantage, no matter how you slice it. More units means you get more activations. I.e. Side A "Soviet Conscripts" has 10 units; Side B "Elite SS Grenadiers" has 4 units. It might go:
A B A B A B A B A A A A A A <- you can see Side A gets to move 6 units in a sequence at the end without the opponent being able to react
or, let's say you make Side A move 2 units to every one of Side B, like this
A A B A A B A A B A A B A A <- still Side A benefits, being able to co-ordinate a pair of units without reaction at predictable intervals.
When I say "alternate activation" I'd also include I call the "Bolt Action" method - where you get a dice/token for each unit you have, and both players put them in a bag - when you draw out one of your tokens the owning player gets to choose a unit to activate. While less predictable, Side A still gets 10 activations in the bag and Side B gets 4 activations. More units = more activations = more reactions/moves/ability to co-ordinate. This method still favours bigger armies.
If units have specific tokens (say playing cards, like Savage Worlds) assigned to them, it's not the same. It is almost random - you are being forced to activate the random unit assigned the card you draw, and aren't choosing the unit - so you can't reliably co-ordinate more complex strategies by virtue of your numbers. (But is truly random activation a good thing? Perhaps food for another blog post - how much should chance influence your games?...)
Basically, my issue here is with alternate activation (and it's stepsibling, Bolt Action activation) the 10 Soviet Conscript squads can reliably co-ordinate and execute more complex maneuvers unopposed than the 4 Elite SS squads. In a wargame as in real life, superior numbers will definitely allow you to occupy more ground, and probably give you better volume of fire and staying power; but should not automatically confer better co-ordination and tactics. From my experience, the reverse is often true.
Simple Solutions that Create New Problems
OK, here's one which is brutally simple, but neither unique or elegant. Let's say you are playing the Bolt Action method/alternate activation, but when you draw a dice "token" or choose to move a unit, you actually have to roll the dice and beat a score to see if the unit actually activates. The conscripts need a 4+ on d6 (50/50 even chance) to actually activate, regulars need a 3+ (67% - good odds) and elite units need 2+ (83% - almost certain). If the unit doesn't pass the roll, it just sits there. (Note: variations of this idea are pretty common in historical games)
In the above example, probably all 4 of the Elite SS would activate and only ~5 (50%) of the Soviet conscripts would activate - leaving the other 5 conscript standing around or frozen in place - effectively missing their 'turn'.
Now I said it was simple (all you need to do is roll the dice you picked up) - and now we have a bit more parity - the 4 elite SS activate almost as much as the 10 conscripts which is actually probably fairly realistic - green troops don't like moving around when enemy are near.
It's not necessarily good game design though - as no one likes to have units they lovingly painted just sitting around. When you have those ~5 unactivated Soviet units sitting around doing nothing each turn - it almost seems like the IGOUGO problems are back - the ones that alternate activation was supposed to solve.
There are actually many solutions to this issue - quite a few better, but most more complex. You could certainly tweak the above idea quite a bit. But I just wanted another example to show how 'fixing' one problem (like the general shift from IGOUGO to alternate activation) can create another.
*Note: This post was courtesy of me reading Warlord's Cruel Seas rules, realizing it had the "innovative turn sequence first seen in the award-winning Bolt Action rules" (their words, not mine), and exclaiming "Not this f---ing system again - since when is pulling tokens out of a bag innovative?!"