Saturday, 5 February 2022

Game Design #88: The Melee Dilemma

Melee is usually done poorly in wargames, even in games where it is the primary mode of combat, like vikings or fantasy:

Push models together, roll dice, remove the loser. 

Once we push the models together, our decision making is done. We just 'roll off.' In a modern combat game in an era of automatic weapons and suppressive fire, keeping it basic makes sense. But shouldn't we expect more in a medieval or gladiatorial game?

Melee has a dilemma. You have to balance speed of play, -vs- interesting decisions and mechanics. It's not sensible to have a complex melee mini-game for a game with 50+ models. If the melee resolution is too complex and time consuming, you may as well remove the models and maneuver factor all together and turn it into a boardgame or cardgame.  Balance is important.

I'm going to make up some hypothetical examples, but don't focus on the precise details, but rather bear in mind the big picture - the need for speed/ease of play/quick resolution vs posing interesting risk vs reward decisions.

Example #1 = "Videogame" Complexity

Nearly all PC RPGs share a similar choice of moves. You could tie this to a resource management mechanic, but it could simply be based on modifiers. I.e. a slow power attack is -1 to hit but +1 to damage, a quick attack is +1 to hit but -1 to damage.

Quick Attack = less damage, higher chance to strike first/better 'to hit' %

Normal Attack = default

Power Attack = higher damage, slower so strikes later/lower 'to hit' %

Dodge/Roll = move to back/side short distance + % chance to dodge enemy strike (agility based)

Parry = stand ground, deflect enemy strike, maybe allow a follow-up counter attack

Kick/Bash = knock back/knock down enemy (strength based)

AoE Stomp/Spin = attack multiple foes, knock back in 180/360 arc

Finisher/Backstab = instant-kill disadvantaged enemy who has back turned/stunned/prone

These are some common examples. As a bonus, they are familiar to most gamers. There's choice but it's not excessive -  you would probably memorize the attacks after a few games. LOTR:SBG (which handles skirmish of 30-50 per side) kinda falls into the simple end of this territory - there is a similar choice of special attacks, tied to the type of weapon (swords can parry, flails & whips can whirl, two handed weapons can power attack). So not every rank-and-file can access every single melee choice which both speeds things up and gives troop types 'flavour'.

This is my personal favourite level of complexity as it adds some choices and cinematic action while still being quick to resolve. 

However, it's still pretty basic. We can delve into resource management and allow far more 'choice' and complexity:

Example #2:  The Melee Management Mini Game

This is some sort of resource management mini-game, using ordinary dice or playing cards*. *Because while bespoke dice/rulers/special bases can be useful, it's usually a dick move based on selling extra stuff to gamers. 

These are ideas I just randomly made up - they are not 'solutions', just examples to help frame the discussion.

2A ="Card Hand" - maybe each player draws cards, perhaps based on their melee skill. I.e. a Rookie gets 2 cards, Experienced gets 3, and a Veteran/Elite gets 4. Players then choose from their cards and place them down simultaneously. Maybe black cards are defensive and red cards are offensive, or some require stamina to play, or maybe you need to have a card below your relevant stat to play it.

You can see that the very nature of the 52-cards deck means this mini-game could spiral into a game of staggering complexity if you don't stay focussed. Kinda like every time two wizards have a spellcasting duel you play a complete game of Magic: The Gathering before returning to your wargame. So you'd need to exercise extreme caution to prevent a card-based mini-game from becoming excessively complex.

Merely for the sake of avoiding the rabbit hole, I probably favour:

2B = "Dice Pool" - maybe each player similarly has a pool of dice aligning with their melee ability - perhaps tossed and hidden under a cup. There's less potential for complexity to get out of hand if you just use a few d6s each. Maybe you 'bid' to perform certain moves, like in Liars Dice (the dice game they played in Pirates of the Carribean). Maybe you use combinations of dice for special attacks or play particular dice to strike first.

Note: I'd only consider the mini-game method if we had less than, say, 10 models per side - think of the potential time sink when resolving each and every melee using even the simplest card draw mechanics. A 4v4 gladiator game, yep! A mass battle game - nope!

Warning: There's a zillion variations of dice and card games, so there's a lot of rich ground to be explored - but while they can add a lot of complex decisions, maneuvers and cinematic action there is a potential time sink in complexity, where the melee mini game becomes the entire game, almost rendering terrain, models and maneuvering irrelevant.


Melee is usually done poorly even in wargame genres that focus on it. Too often, the only melee 'tactics'/decision is who fights who.  Then the dice (RNG) takes over. There's room for simple tweaks - like the 'videogame method' to spice things up without going overboard. However, the dilemma is that all card or dice melee mechanics must be balanced against the speed of resolution. There's lots of amazing potential for card-hand and dice pools to create tactical, cinematic melee duels, at the risk of bloating the game or becoming the sole focus of the game.


  1. This is a topic that I mull over quite often. Most of my games are fantasy with melee being 50-80% of the combat. I only like mini-games (or monogamy as my autocorrect suggests) for rpg or dueling games, in larger scale games it feels disjoint like I step out of commanding a group of soldiers to being one guys corner man each time there's a fight. I struggle with where does the scope of the game scale match the level of input I can have with a single combat. The "realistic" answer is probably too stock with the way things have always been: once your guys in cqc it's out of the commander's hands, but the "screw it I'm playing a game with little man dolls" answer I want us to have non-immersion breaking input into that fight. I may be asking for a unicorn there, though.

    1. ="I struggle with where does the scope of the game scale match the level of input I can have with a single combat."=

      ^ Actually most wargames already allow you to micromanage individual soldiers to a ridiculous degree. If you can position each solider inch-perfect then telling him to punch vs kick actually isn't a stretch.

      PS: If you play PC games, the game Men At War/Call of War is an excellent example of this; you have 3-4 squads and 3-4 vehicles but need to micromanage the ammo, stance etc of each of the 30-40 soldiers. In a videogame it's obvious bad design, but we do it all the time in wargames and think nothing of it...

      I think I've done blogs on command levels, and optimal unit control sizes back in the past.

    2. I'd counter that maneuver is the domain of nearly all real command in combat as a sport or conflict so I would expect a game about combat command to include maneuver. Given that it's a game, and an analogue game at that, fiddling with exact position is expected (at least by me). But only corner men in sports or the fighters themselves have a say in CQC tactics in the heat of a fight, so having the ability to do more than control when and where CQC happens throws me off - much more than the (unrealistic) level of control the player has in movement. Probably personal preference more than solid reasoning, but I get hung up on it never the less.

    3. If it feel right, it feels right.

      ...But given a move is a fluid chunk of time, and both sides should theoretically be moving simultaneously - is the typical true line of sight actually accurate?
      What about charges failing because a model's move was a cm short? It's very 'gamey.'

      Might it be fairer to say the model is in the rough vicinity (say a base length)?

      I like to play devil's advocate....

    4. In my mind, unit vs Unit games should have quick resolution in melee. The tactics is "getting" to the combat with an advantage, not how you fight once in it.

      However, in a model vs model game then I absolutely want melee granularity when who attack first, with what weapon, against which combat style matters.

      For example, Chosen Men from Osprey has units vs units but individual melees are resolved on model-by-model basis. This is not the "correct" combination to me. However, that same combat system would work well in a game scaled closer to The Silver Bayonet. Meanwhile, Osprey's Rebels and Patriots is also unit vs unit and the combat is resolved by a simple dice off between sides. This is the right focus of a unit vs unit game where speed or resolution and getting the result is more important than the tactics of the fight.

      Again, these are my general guidelines and preferences. Your mileage may vary.

  2. I like melee rules where forced movement (in the form of pushbacks) can be the outcome of a combat roll. This can, but should not always, be combined with actual damage. It makes for a more dynamic game, especially if a fight lasts more than 1 round, and is visually more attractive than substracting hit points on paper or putting wound markers next to miniatures.

    1. LOTR:SBG is for me, the poster child for melee done right.

      It mixes quick play with some choice and cinematics.

      It has pushbacks, choosing who fight who in what order actually matters, and it has a limited range of cinematic 'videogame' attacks - feints, spins, stabs - as well as the occasional hero having "might" aka stamina to burn to pull off heroic feats.

      Only a few heroes and monsters had wounds (2-3).

      I'd also consider 'knockdown' as an extra clean, token-less option - tipping a model over.

  3. I have also been struggling with this a lot.

    I think one element that you missed was having a "combat arc" in the fighting. I.e. there is a "positioning" advantage and you can use certain attacks/results can change positioning or even advantage/disadvantage indicators.

    Otherwise, you touch on most of the "concepts" I have tried.

    1. True!

      I guess I view combat arcs as applying to everything, not just melee. I.e if I use it (and I nearly always do with any game where you aren't grouping models in squads) it also applies to shooting, spotting etc.

      Having a simple 180 facing adds a lot of depth without much complexity and I think it's usually always worthwhile unless you are using a lot of models.

  4. "I'd also consider 'knockdown' as an extra clean, token-less option - tipping a model over."

    Only if you remembered to finish the underside of your bases :-)

    Anyway, LOTR:SBG sounds pretty neat.

    1. It's worth getting the 2005 Blue Book ($10-15 on ebay) as not only is it as useful, GW-familiar skirmish base for a range of genres, but it's an interesting look at a direction 40K could have gone 20 years ago.

  5. Have you read the Bushido rules by GCT? I think you would enjoy it.

    1. I did enjoy messing about with the melee resource pool, yes - ~5 years back maybe? Rules were free?

      Never bought into the system though as I disliked the "Everyone is a named specific hero" from Malifaux and didn't want another similar system i.e. where a warband of Gandalf and Aragon and Gimil duel an identical warband made of Gandalf #2, Aragon #2 and Gimli #2.

      Is it still about?

    2. Yep! Still kicking.

      Thankfully there are a large number of factions, so you rarely see the mirror match.

      I don't if it exists already, but I do find it interesting how some games have many, "shallow," factions wherein each faction has one or two tricks and sticks to it; vs the more common, "everyone can do the same stuff to differing levels of success. Here are a bajillion profiles," ie. Infinity.

      How did you like SARA'S approach to Melee?

    3. "How did you like SARA'S approach to Melee?"

      Sorry - never heard of that one! Do you have a link so I can have a look?

      EDIT: Just as I was about to press send, I realized - did you mean SAGA with the battle boards?

    4. Yeah, SAGA.Autocorrect got me.

      I like the idea of having simple, consistent mechanics that you can then modify in unique ways by faction. It's another game with shallow factions. Unit choice doesn't change, but how they behave does

  6. Great blog post. I've been searching for a discussion on this for a long time now. Nobody really seems to care too much and most people seem happy with "streamlined" (i.e. No meaningful player choices) gameplay.

    Games workshop is one of the worst offenders. Even in Age of Sigmar, a fantasy skirmish game, melee is just smooshing 2 blobs together and counting how many dice to roll. You might as well just use tokens.

    What I really want is something that makes positioning and movement important. Like if a model is flanked or outnumbered it has an effect. The whole thing of having everyone in the unit in melee range or a free forced move into melee takes away any kind of player agency.

    1. Adding a pushback mechanic is IMO the simplest way to add positioning in; choosing who fights is important as you can shove the loser back and enjoy 2v1 etc (see LoTR examples above)