Wednesday 20 December 2023

Game Design #103: Worldbuilding

There's a lot of differing opinion on how much fluff, background and world building a wargame must do.

Few people are attracted to a game based on mechanics (the how); usually, they are attracted to the game by the background/world/miniatures (what, why). Often we play a game despite the rules - or merely put up with them. So we could argue background/world/aesthetic is more important than mechanics in attracting players.

There is a huge range of personal opinion here: some will prefer "just the rules, ma'am" and no more than a paragraph or two orientating them to the wargame world; others love deep background narrative and lore to drive their games. The most popular wargame (40K) makes it hard to suggest that innovative rule mechanics matter more than shiny toys and cool lore. 

Now we've established lore and world building will be very subjective, but are usually very important....

My shower thought I am exploring is: How much worldbuilding is too much?

I am a huge reader; my personal man cave has many thousands of books, and my kids are huge readers too. I often read them "older" books and we like to discuss elements of the text. My kids like Brandon Sanderson, and while I don't enjoy his writing style, I do admire his worldbuilding, which tends to be consistent to its own internal logic and he seems to recognise his own enthusiasm for worldbuilding and make an effort to reign himself in. In contrast to say the magic of Harry Potter (which I'm reading to my 8 year old) which has no logic to it whatsoever.

However, thinking about this question (in context of books) lead to a second question:

Is the worldbuilding for the readers (aka player's) benefit, or the writers benefit (aka game designers)?

World building seems pretty self indulgent. The minute you have your own languages, and whole pages of maps, and your own encyclopedia - that's too far.  Maybe when you're a legend like Tolkien who pretty much invented the genre and it's published after he dies due to the demands of fans... then OK.

A lot of time in books, world building is an excuse for a writer to waffle on, to create for his own enjoyment, oblivious to the eye-rolls of his readers. 

Can there be too much world building?

I find Star Wars guilty of this. Everything has a name. Everything is explained in detail. Everything has its own Wookiepedia article. The more TV shows and movies they churn out exploring every last detail or every character, the less magic there is, for me anyway. Half the shows premises "What did Obi Wan do between Clone Wars and New Hope" answered questions no one really cared about to ask. 

Background and aesthetic (cool lore, cool minis) is supposed to stimulate your wargaming. But can worldbuilding be harmful to creativity and imagination?

Googling around I found this wonderful quote by a sci fi editor:

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically neccessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.

When I use the term “worldbuilding fiction” I refer to immersive fiction, in any medium, in which an attempt is made to rationalise the fiction by exhaustive grounding, or by making it “logical in its own terms”, so that it becomes less an act of imagination than the literalisation of one. Representational techniques are used to validate the invention, with the idea of providing a secondary creation for the reader to “inhabit”; but also, in a sense, as an excuse or alibi for the act of making things up, as if to legitimise an otherwise questionable activity. This kind of worldbuilding actually undercuts the best and most exciting aspects of fantastic fiction, subordinating the uncontrolled, the intuitive & the authentically imaginative to the explicable; and replacing psychological, poetic & emotional logic with the rationality of the fake.

~ M. John Harrison

Most wargame fluff is badly written. Usually by enthusiastic amateurs. So yeah, we don't want to give a bad writer "unecessary permission to write." Probably the only wargame-related books I've not minded were by Dan Abnett - which were fun - but only 'decent.' Harsh reality: Most wargaming background lore is just an excuse for an author to subject us to their bad writing.

Too much background removes the players ability to invent. If all 21 space marine legions have their entire history, heraldy and paint schemes - then it may constrain my creativity in making my own custom legion. It undercuts creativity. I enjoy MESBG but (because of the strong lore) I tend to feel compelled to either follow the movies or the official GW schemes - everyone knows what Gandalf and Aragon look like. It's why I'm unenthusiastic about Star Wars minis. Whereas I've never got into the Warmachine, or Confrontation much so my minis tend to be whatever the heck I think looks cool. Way more creative and fun.

Is worldbuilding technically necessary in wargames? To what degree? What is needed?

I'd say that RPGs, specifically, need world-building. In order to roleplay as an elven sorceress in Middleheim is; you need to know about elves, sorceresses and Middlehiem in general in order to properly inhabit your role. Like a method actor, the more you understand your role, the better you can play it. So players books exhaustively explaining every aspect of the RPG "world" seem quite sensible.

But a wargame is not quite the same. You are a commander, a general, a squad leader.  You may need to know why you are fighting - although "cost wargs are cool" is all the reason my son needs - and that's fine. You probably need to know what tactics work best - what actions you take (input) will get the best result (output). But how much more do you need?

If the game is about WW2 and the game mechanics accurately represent this genre (this is where mechanics matter - it's called metaphor) you may not need much "how." Cos most people (especially the average wargamer) will have a fair idea of who is fighting who in WW2, and why. And they probably have a fair idea of what tactics will work, too. You probably don't need a lot of background if the topic is familiar and the metaphor (game mechanics/results match theme) works.

For more fantastical settings, you probably need more orientation/background; but what is actually needed?  We know Cygnar and Khador are fighting. Do we need a series of maps of their countries topography? Are we 'exhaustively surveying a place that does not exist?' Do I really need a list of all engine brand-names in Battletech to have fun firing lasers at giant robots? It's indulgence on the part of the rules writer. Do they think their game universe is worth "dedication and lifelong study?" The Infinity guys (who admittedly are RPG fans first and foremost) are making a fantasy game (Warcrow). They obviously are passionate nerds but reading their design posts made me roll my eyes so hard I'm crosseyed. I really need to know the Inauguration of New Doctors for the Hegenomy of Embersig? To play a game where warbands hack each other up? This is The Great Clumping Foot of Nerdism. (Bonus irony points for them going to all this hassle, explaining their onerous worldbuilding - yet churning out mostly generic elf, dwarf, human factions)

Show Don't Tell - how do you do it for Wargames?

My daughter loves to write stories and has a great descriptive vocab and solid dialogue (for a kid.) However she loves to describe names, friends, places in exhaustive detail. When she shares her story:

"Excellent expressive words here, good dialogue here... but..." I pause.

"Show, don't tell?" she finishes.

Carnevale did a great job drawing an atmospheric, menacing Venice with Cthulhu, mad scientists and vampires, and heretic witch hunters. It did that well. It inspired me to paint many miniatures, and create custom warbands and terrain - it got me playing - success! ....But took 150 pages to do that. 

Turnip 28 (Napoleonic horror with root vegetables - yes you heard correctly) rules were found on a free patreon after reading a Goonhamer article. I visited his artstation and found some more pics on another website. I probably viewed a few dozen pics all told, and read a few pages of text.

I'd say they created comparable atmosphere. Even if Carnevale did a better job, it took 20x more effort to get a similar result. 150 pages of background reading?  Placed before the actual rules?

Show Don't tell means avoiding description (lots of exposition),  you don't tell the reader outright, but allow readers to infer. You allow them to paint a picture using their imagination.

"Did you sleep last night? You look shot." <-show, infer, appeal to senses

Fred was tired. <- tell.

So how do we do this in a wargame?

I liked this pic from Carnevale. They didn't need to tell me there's some weird, unpleasant shit in the sewers and waters of Venice.

The tell you need to avoid is obvious. Pages and pages detailing each and every last detail of each faction, technology, map, magic system. Anything more than a paragraph, that is not directly linked to playing the game (actual rules) I'd scrutinize very closely.

You can infer a lot from just the names and types of gear. "Flechette gun" vs "shotgun" I infer the game is sci fi. "Uplink node" vs "Sacred Crucible" gives you an idea of the genre without even looking at the cover. Renaming of stats into "Bashin" Shootin" "Guts" in custom way  (much as it annoy me) can transmit info of the game theme (is this an orc game?). This is an example of how little things can transmit a 'feel.' (Aside: I wonder why rulebooks don't include more comic-styling, text boxes etc (which would allow more links to visuals) vs uninterrupted walls of text *cough* En Garde! *cough*)

For authors, to "show not tell," writers recommend appealling to senses (describe what the character sees, tastes, hears, smells etc) - in wargames, it's obviously all about what you see.

In a wargame, the "show" is obviously a focus on art, minis and style.  It doesn't have to be done with elaborate artbooks (Infinity) or glossy magazines (40K) or amazing tabletop displays. Cool eye candy minis help - but are not essential.

Take "Space Weirdos" and Forbidden Psalm. I bet people have bought those books and built warbands  and played - purely on some hipster artstyle and font that gave them a 'vibe.'  I personally found neither the vibe nor gameplay of either appealed; but they are a great example of showing not telling - maximum 'feel' with minimum effort.

What are some of the tools (usually visual) that a rules writer has to engage readers in his background/world without reams of text? How do you 'show' and not 'tell?'

It's late, and I haven't really got a final conclusion here; everyone is going to have their own opinion on what is enough or too much background/lore/fluff. I guess I can do a TL:DR looking over all my current thoughts:

-World building/lore/shiny is probably the main hook into a game/reason to play; more than mechanics/rules; it's very important

-While lore/background is a main stimulus to players; too much world building can harm imagination/creativity; when the map is filled in, you can't imagine what might be in the blank spot

-World building is often self indulgent, unnecessary, and (in wargames) nearly always badly written: for the writers benefit, not the reader

-While RPGs might need detailed background info, wargames will need a lot less

-Show Don't Tell: convey the background/lore with as little text as possible (explore methods?)

-Pictures (artwork/visual elements/minis etc) do say 1000 words

Tuesday 19 December 2023

MDF Terrain - Stage 1 (Organising)

I am working on both sci fi and Japanese terrain to finish two projects. I opted against the pizza box technique for the sci fi as I thought the walkways, piping and grates etc would be too fiddly.

So I bought my first laser cut mdf terrain (TTC cos its cheap and I'm poor). This will speed things up, right?  Sweet summer child. 

An hour or so later:

Are we there yet?

I then read the box time estimate. The diagram is either "set aside an afternoon" or "you're in for the long haul." Lucky I'm on holidays or there would have been swearwords. You do get a lot of stuff for $30USD/$50AUD.

I used the bits of MDG sprue to decorate my Tohaa bases. That takes my Infinity painted minis count to 40 for the week and ticks off another faction. Mercs, Ariadna, Aleph, Yu Jing, Tohaa all finalized.  Pan O, Haqq, and Nomads still to go.  This burst of painting is sponsored by Zone Raiders as I finally have sci fi rules I can play with my kid. The game is also responsible for my terrain purchase, as my usual stuff lacks the verticality needed for the game where wall running, power jumps and grappling is commonplace.

I can pretty these bases up with washes, highlights and maybe some wire pipes, but they look serviceable with just a gunmetal basecoat. Waste not want not!

I'm also mentally preparing myself for superhero gaming as my kids, after years of being indifferent to Marvel etc, are suddenly "into" superhero stuff. Luckily I have a secret stash of rebased Heroclix so this may not be as wallet-damaging as you'd expect...

Monday 18 December 2023

En Garde! Rules Review

These rules were a purchase to encourage myself to finish my pike and shot 28mm project.  I remember testing Ronin and being fairly impressed at a game that tried to make melee a bit more interesting; adding decisions and resource management into the process. En Garde! is very similar, pretty much v2 (but less shooting than Ronin, from my recollection). But have my tastes changed?

The Shiny

It's an Osprey Blue Book with all that entails. ~60 pages long, most of it rules. Just enough art - the minis shown are a bit chubby (we can charitably call them 'characterful')- are there any good musketeer lines? and some Osprey art. I didn't have any trouble using the book. I reckon most folk who read this blog have an Osprey book by now, anyway.  It doesn't hook you in and sell you a cool game universe like Zone Raiders or Carnevale, or Gamma Wolves - but Zona Alpha did better, with a similar layout. 

Not great, not terrible.

Overhead (What you need to know/have to play)

You throw 2D6, and will need a few counters (reload, combat pool tokens, wounds etc - about a dozen or so each), Models are classed Rank 1 (wimps ) to Rank 5 (OP hero) - each with a combat pool corresponding to the rank. There is Move, Initiative, Fight, Shoot, Armour stats and some special rules.

Overhead is pretty simple - you don't need a lot of kit, and there's not a lot of stats or special rules to memorize, but games will have tokens scattered about.

Activation & Movement

Players alternate moving models until all have moved, then alternate shooting until all have shot, then come to the combat phase which is a bit trickier. 

I quite like the activation - players can skip movement in favour of reloading, or hiding, or aiming, or giving an order (leaders can do a joint move with nearby allies). Lots of decisions. They also have a facing which is a good way to add tactics (rather than the 'everyone sees 360 noscope' of many games). You can jump and climb and fall and all that skirmish-y stuff you'd need in a swashbuckling game.

There are lots of decisions here and it is simple yet interactive. I like it a lot.


The minis in the book could charitably be described as 'characterful' - are there any good musketeer/swashbuckling miniature lines?


Ok,this is where I nope out. Hitpoints? I hear you ask. No. This is a game where the mechanics (resolution) of combat is simply so convoluted and slow, my 2023 self is simply not interested.

Shooting. You roll (add) 2d6. Add your Shoot. Then add or subtract up to 13(!) modifiers, some of which rely on you tracking if you have moved or aimed this turn. Then subtract 6. If the score is 1 or more, you may have wounded them. But wait - you now need to use this number for the wound table. To do this you take the number, then add your weapon strength and subtract target armour, then consult the wound table*. *I don't mind stun/light/grievous/kill wounds, but even this is not straightforward; needing differing amounts of stuns/wounds before you go 'up a level.'

Phew. A few things to do there. But that's EASY compared to melee combat.....

Now I applaud any attempt to make melee meaningful, beyond just pushing models together and rolling dice til someone loses. Ronin and En Garde! use "combat points" a resource you can allocate to attack or defence. Better troops have more combat points. I'll do my best to explain, but the examples and explanations in the book took up several pages of dense text, so not sure if I can do this in a few paragraphs. Here goes:

The players secretly draw counters equal to the combat pool (total) of the models in melee, assigning them to attack or defence (I used black or white Go counters for Ronin). They then reveal them to each other. Each model in the combat then rolls for initiative (d6+stat+modifiers). Models can opt to attack or pass (in order of best->worse initiative), rolling off in case of draws. This is the rough combat sequence.

However there's also a fair bit involved in actually making an attack (attack resolution). Pick the attacker, remove an attack counter from the pool. Defender declares Ploys. Attacker declares Ploys. Attacker rolls 2d6 + Fight +/- any modifiers (usually to do with weapon type or wounds), then Defender rolls 1d6 + Fight +/- modifiers. Subtract the Defence total from the Attack total. Just like shooting, if you get a 1+, you may have caused a wound. You then add any weapon modifiers and deduct defence, and voila! You have resolved a single attack. In only 8-9 steps!

Ploys are things like parrys, feints, ripostes or powerful blows - which allow you to modify rolls or even regain attack/defence tokens. (Cool, but other games do similar stuff, much faster)

I love the idea of the resource management (do I go all out attack? defend? balance?), the hidden counters, picking ploys - it's just the resolution is so bloody convoluted I'm not actually interested in playing. The mechanics are getting in the way of the game. The rulebook example (between three models) goes for a whole page - hundreds of words of dense text. To call it a RPG-lite is unfair to many RPGs which do combat much more efficiently.

Morale tests are triggered if 25% of the warband suffer a wound (or the just leader) in any given turn*; then you test in a way about as complex as you'd expect (*I'm curious: if a 10-man warband loses only 1-2 guys each turn; could they all die without ever needing a morale test?) Maybe I'm reading it wrong, exhausted from the preceding pages. There's plenty of modifiers, and there's different states (Wavering and Routing) which have different effects. Removing stun tokens is different again.

The combat ideas are good, but there's so many steps - so much adding, subtracting, modifiers. I could completely resolve a fight between 3 guys in ME:SBG in the time it takes to just allocate attack counters or roll for initiative in En Garde! - and there'd still be another 7-8 steps to go. It's just not worth it. Not only are the mechanics clunky, the extra tactics and options it gives are not worth the time.  I'm sure the process could be streamlined but if I pay for rules I'd like them to work 'out of the box.' The 20-model 'cap' is very optimistic. I'm a bit sad - I wanted to like these rules.

Chrome (Gear, Special Rules, Scenarios, Campaigns)

There is a sensible weapon and armour list which covers major types used (you could probably use En Garde to play Ronin's Japanese period). The ~20 special rules are also reasonable. There are extras rules for mounted combat and cannon. There are sample warbands - from landsknechts to aztecs, conquistadors, ottomans - even the musketeers: and 5 scenarios.  Enough to get by, but not lavish (probably as expected in a limited size book). There is some 'campaign rules' but they are very very limited - a paragraph or so of how to level up - nothing like the full-fledged Mordhiemesque campaigns of Burrows and Badgers or Zone Raiders. I did like how some extra rules for magic and monsters were included - you could have a witch hunter, a mage, a werewolf, a witch etc.

The best bit is there is a point system allowing you to build a model from scratch. I do like this. It means you can fill the gaps yourself, if you think the warband or unit lists are lacking. It's great.

I'd label this "competent but unspectacular." It's does the job, but doesn't really sell me on the setting and the campaign is a token gesture. Although the 'create stats for your own mini' building system is pretty sweet. More rules should do this.

Recommended: Not for me, thanks.

En Garde! does a lot of things right. The activation and move sequences are good; interactive with lots of decisions. The special rules and gear lists are sensible and clear. I love the points system allowing you to make units from scratch - true freedom! I applaud the idea of making melee a series of decisions - something more than just deciding to push models together. But after seeing these mechanics? If that's what it takes to add depth to melee, I'm cool with just pushing models together and chucking dice, and doing it 10x faster. The mechanics get in the way of me playing. It makes a sword-fight slow.

Not sure if you will like it? Read the above section on combat. If you think it sounds cool and cinematic, like the idea of secretly assigning attack and defence points - and you aren't bothered by the processes involved - then grab this game. I recall playtesting its predecessor Ronin and finding it interesting but slow: 10 years later, I am less tolerant of multiple steps, modifiers and math. Others may disagree - I'd say the general vibe on the net about Ronin and En garde! is positive.

Admittedly this game has inspired some more game design musings (melee)/(elements of a game that are dealbreakers) and it has inspired me to rework on my own homebrew Middlehiem rules and experiment with melee stances. So I am getting some use out of the rules...

Thursday 14 December 2023

Game Design #102: Game Feel (Reloaded)

 My last post on 'game feel' was, on reading it again, a bit of a mess. I didn't orientate folk, link my points, or summarize it properly. Although the comments as usual were interesting and useful I don't think I was clear at all. So rather than add to the wall of text I'm back to attack the topic differently..

Game Feel: Intangible Feeling based on Tangible Elements

Game Feel is an intangible sensation when interacting with videogames. They use words like "immersive world" and "weighty gunplay." I'm relating this theory to tabletop wargames.

Game feel is made up of several tangible elements, such as:

input (how you control the game; i.e. moves you can make, dice, templates, measuring/movement rulers, available choices)

response (how game responds to your actions i.e. lethality of shooting)

aesthetics (visual details - like cool minis and terrain)

metaphor (how game mechanics suit the theme; i.e. Infinity has lethal sci fi shootouts, MESBG has strong focus on heroic actions)

A game should be fun and engaging even if some elements are removed. I.e. I used to play Battlefleet Gothic and Blood Bowl with tokens not minis and had fun - I felt like I was steering a slow ponderous spaceship or footy team regardless - so they had good game feel even when you remove the aesthetic element. A game should be fun if you just plonk down the minis and fight a 1-off game without a fancy narrative campaign to "carry" it.

I'd say game feel is something which can be somewhat objective "Infinity is lethal shooting, reactive and reliant on cover - about making the best of bad choices" which we can probably agree on, but is ultimately mostly opinion: "Warmaster is the only game that makes me feel like a general"

TL:DR The main point I am making is: we can have intangible feelings about a game as to how immersive, engaging and satisfying it is, but these intangibles are made up of several rather more concrete game elements. The exact categories don't interest me that much. 

Point 1: Design Elements - We have Preferences

So games are made up of several design elements which combine to give this rather intangible, vague game feel.

-They can be physical (the minis, terrain, even the dice you use - in the last post I described the feel of 'swingy d20s, sterile d10s, satisfying buckets of d6s, weird d4 non-dice)

-They can be game mechanics (aka rules) such as saving throws, or reaction mechanics.

We as gamers can have strong obvious preferences towards these. While it can be hard to define and explain your feelings towards a game (which can be a bit vague and will differ from person to person) we can usually easily explain WHY we don't like particular mechanics or physical elements;
"The minis suck"  "I hate using d20s and rolling low" "Saving throws add drama"  "IGOUGO seems silly sitting around while the enemy flawlessly executes their moves".

TL:DR While overall game feel is a bit vague and intangible, the individual physical elements (dice, minis etc) and non-physical elements aka game mechanics (be it activation, rolling high vs low, etc) are much easier to explain. We usually have clear preferences.

Point 2: Our Preferences in Game Elements are not Always Best Practice

We sometimes conflate "I like this" with "this is the best" - or worse - "this is the only way." I hate recording in games such as tracking hitpoints or writing orders. But sometimes it may be a good choice. Reaction mechanics may be cool but they don't belong in every game. Sometimes we need to use a d10, d12 or bigger, not a d6: even if we don't like the other dice. Napoleonics are boring and samey for some; others hate anything sci fi. Sometimes rolling low is the only way to guarantee a consistent dice mechanic across a game. Not every game can be made without measurements. Games don't need to reinvent the wheel with unique mechanics to be fun/tactically interesting. 

Some design elements are objective: lots of special rules/rules exceptions or modifiers are harder to remember than a few. Limiting models to 180 vision does mean more decisions than allowing models 360 vision at all times. But most are preferences.

I enjoy saving throws but usually they are kinda a repetitious, needless extra roll which can "undo" damage. Why roll for damage if you're going to roll another, extra roll to undo it? Saving throws are objectively, needless extra rolls which slow the game (and probably frustrate some!)

TL:DR We often have strong preferences in game elements - what we enjoy. However they are in most cases subjective and are not the best - or only - solution available.

 Point 3: Game Feel can be greater or less than the sum of their parts

I enjoy MESBG although I feel its game mechanics are in general, distinctly average - aka 20 year old streamlined 40K:

Strong aesthetic and lore

Average (simple) input - 6" moves, 24" shooting, roll high on d6 - vanilla as it gets

Output centres on heroic actions and melee for decisive action

Good metaphor - game emphasizes heroic combat of movies

So the game is mechanically unremarkable but has very good metaphor - matching gameplay to strong aesthetic/lore.

Infinity the Game has strong aesthetic and metaphor - with very complex input (vertical learning curve) and output that emphasizes either (a) stay in cover (b) use a cool gadget (c) die fast. 

Again, the elements don't have to follow videogame 'game-feel' convention - but I'm using them for consistency. I also really like the term 'metaphor' - how the gameplay of a game matches its theme/fluff. I've actually identified metaphor recently without having a word for it.

Sometimes a game can be very strong in one or two elements which overrides deficiencies elsewhere.

40K/Warhammer has a very strong aesthetic - visuals, lore etc.  I think 40K has pretty weak metaphor in parts - space marines are just +1 humans where in the lore they are terrifying one-man armies who can throw a grenade so hard it will cause more damage than the explosion itself, and the input/output gameplay is pretty meh in terms of tactics etc.

In fact I'd say aesthetic is VERY important (see link above) - there seems to be an increase in games that recognize this - very strong lore, a cool campaign, amazing kitbashed grimdark minis - but not much actual gameplay attached? I.e. super-simple, almost nonexistent 'rules' but strong aesthetic. I remember one post I pretty much describe the rules of The Doomed to someone in comments and they think I'm winding them up.  I think an interesting test of "is this a good game or is it just relying on the theme/aesthetic/fluff" is would you play the game with just tokens rather than minis? (i.e. if you removed the aesthetic element, would the game itself still be fun?) Is this game fun without the campaign?

Other times, a game has great game-feel (to us) while using mechanics we personally dislike. Perhaps the mechanics merely "do the job" - contributing suitably to the overall feel of the game even if we don't enjoy them/think them optimal. Or perhaps they just don't 'get in the way' of us enjoying other, stronger aspects of the game such as the aesthetics.

TL:DR Sometimes game can be more than the some of its parts - probably because a strength in one area compensating for other elements. Or while we may personally dislike a game element, it still 'does its job' in contributing to the overall 'game feel.' You can enjoy a game which is universally recognized as "clunky" or has individual mechanics you dislike. 'Game feel' can transcend individual elements.


1. Games can have a 'feel' which is fairly intangible - satisfaction, immersion can be quite subjective. "I felt like a general" "The game feels like a fast paced shootout where you watch angles" If you can remove elements and it is still good (say playing with tokens rather than minis) it has good 'game feel.'

2. This hard-to-define 'feeling' is created by several elements (input/output/aesthetic/metaphor etc*). *The individual definitions don't matter as I stole them from videogame design.

3. We have clear preferences on individual physical elements (dice, minis etc) and game mechanics

4. Sometimes these preferences are not most efficient or most tactical. Or the only option. "I like this best" is fine - "This is the best and only solution" - less fine.

5. Sometimes a game 'feels' great despite defying our preferences or even objective analysis . Perhaps it is so strong in one area (aesthetics, lore, for example) it glosses over weakness.

Identifying game feel and elements

 Where I am going next?: Some games have a strong "game feel" but dated mechanics, or maybe a poor link between lore and gameplay. There seems to be a strong nostalgic push back towards Necromunda, Mordhiem, Battlefleet Gothic etc - even in my out of the way part of the world. I reckon every game designer has started with 'making a better 40K.'  If we can identify:

a) games we like (do they have elements that we dislike? i..e games we like "in spite" of x and y)

b) what is the 'game feel' we enjoyed

c) what are the individual elements that contribute to game feel

d) are there poor mechanics/game elements we can 'swap out' with better

...then we can replicate (or even improve) the game-feel of favourite games, transfer the game-feel of one game to another, or even align game-feel more with the lore/enhance realism (aka improve metaphor).

Last post I asked "what games do you enjoy - why?" which was pretty vague. If you think about a favourite game in terms of points a) to d) it may be a bit easier....

Tuesday 12 December 2023

Game Design #102: Game Feel

 In videogames there is something called gamefeel or game juice - the intangible 'feel' when interacting with videogames. It's a mix of control response, visuals, and sound - kinda perceptual feedback. It's the sense of immersion, control, satisfaction in a game.  All pretty intangible. (Worth a google if it sounds interesting)

Note: I feel the following post is rather poorly explained without a good orientation, linking and labelling key points, or conclusion.  For a more coherent attempt on this topic, see here.

I tend to like to pry apart wargame mechanisms. I know what I like, which colours my opinions (and conclusions), but I am interested in X + Y = XY - coming to conclusions like "reaction mechanics increase engagement, but increase complexity (more "if-then") and can actually slow the pace of the game."  I may LIKE reactions (my preferences) but they are not always the best solution if you want to keep things simple and snappy. Generally, I explore things you can check, or debate.

But gaming with my 8 year old has me thinking about intangibles. Preferences. 

My wee lad likes chugging lots of dice. I tend to regard big piles of dice with suspicion - a bit of a chore. Was there a more efficient way to do this? But he says: "lots of dice - w000t - this is gonna be epic!" For him, there's something about the feel of flinging handfuls of dice.

Take dice types. For example, I dislike d20s. They seem so swingy, so tiny, so hard to read. I get WHY they can be used (lots of variables in a single roll, convenient 5% increments, good for say fantasy where stats can vary vastly) but I just don't like the feel of using them. I can acknowledge they may be the best option in many games, but I just don't like the feel of using them.

I like d10s a bit more. Easier to use, nice 10% increments, a nice middle ground. My opinion: More games should use d10s. But I find myself thinking in % in a more clinical math-y way when I use them. 

I like a nice handful of d6s. They're familiar, friendly, cube-y.  There's something when you see snake eyes (1s) or box cars (6s) that evokes a feeling of thrill/dread that a 0 or a 9 on a d10 just... doesn't. Likewise I don't enjoy games where rolling low is good. Especially on d6s. I just have a weird moment when I see the dreaded '1' and then realise "oh - that's good - I succeeded? Riiight."

d4s are just crap. Little pointy pyramids. They aren't dice but bunches of numbers painted on triangles.

These are my feelings about dice. Objectively, there are games/mechanics when using each dice may be best practice - but I'd prefer never to have to use d4s - ever.

I also dislike adding dice together (2d6). In fact any major adding or subtracting kinda pulls me out of the game while I 'math.'  

I'm not a fan of the rather common 2d6: it's worse, as it creates a bell curve of results, which if rolling to beat a target number, kinda goes 3%, 8%, 17%, 27%, 41%, 58%, 72%, 83% etc - rather than a smooth 10%, 20%, 30% etc - where modifiers can push you past a certain break point i.e. the difference between a 2 and a 4 (+2 modifier) is 15%; the same +2 gap on a 6 would make a 31% swing. A +2 bonus has a variable value. That would be fine if the game was designed around a bell curve (like Fudge dice) but sometimes 2d6 are a carry over from when d10 were not invented and it's an unwanted side effect.... (*cough* Battletech Alpha Strike *cough*) which point I'd say it is objectively bad.

But these are preferences. What I think 'feels right.' 

I'm not just talking about physical interactions and dice. This includes mechanics.  


My son tosses dice haphazardly. A dice box is $30+. So I made my own using a $3 wooden picture frame. My daughter: "Why is the blade broken?" My son: "Umm - it's Isilduir's sword, the one they reforged?"  ...I have amended my Will accordingly.

My guilty admission:
Saving throws are usually, objectively, a needless extra roll. Clunky, bad design. 

You know the pattern: #1 attacker roll to hit #2 attacker roll to see if damage; #3 defender roll to save. I'd say objectively this is clumsy design. Why do an extra step? It's like #2 and #3 are kinda duplicating each other. Why roll to do damage, when you then roll again and undo it?

I'd say extra saving throws are generally a sign there's something wrong with step #2 (doing damage) - perhaps there's not enough variables on the dice - you should be using d10s not d6s, for example.

 However I love the feel of a saving throw - it has drama. To pick up the dice and deny your opponent with a '6' and see the anguish on their face is pretty funny. The tense feeling you have when your opponent picks up the dice - DID you kill his hero or is he about to Houdini? I feel kinda gives the player being attacked a sense of agency. (Note: it would be objectively more streamlined if you could allow the opponent to roll the damage dice from #2 and skip #3 - similar effect, without an extra roll). However many players will hate saving throws, and I totally understand - logically, they're probably correct to want them gone!

With saving throws, I have the guilty feel when I read a Lee Childs novel or watch something like The Meg. I feel I'm losing brain cells when I do it - but it's kinda fun.

I hate things that drag me out the the game. If I have to stop to look up a rule, or consult a chart, or (duh duh dah) tick off hitpoints (<- you all knew this was coming) it kinda kills the flow. Chatting with opponents, commiserating over dice rolls - fine. Expected of a social game involving chance. Paging frantically through a rulebook to look up an obscure special rule? I curse the game designer. This actually links with videogame gamefeel - immersion - akin to having to pause and check a menu every few minutes, or having an obtrusive HUD or annoying cringe voice over.  I'd argue this can be objectively bad, if it was avoidable by the game designer.  

Anything that drags me away from the table, my toys, or makes me do maths/writing feels like work.

Hopefully you have an idea of what I am trying to describe. The feel of the game. 

It's not something tangible.

We're largely talking about preferences here (which we can measure) - or perhaps the conjunction of a range of preferences and mechanics that makes a game 'feel' right for you. Sometimes a game has a good feel but the mechanics run contrary to your preferences. Why is that?

There are lots of elements that contribute to the overall feel of a game. It could be anything from the dice you use (buckets), immersive mechanics that 'get' the spirit of the genre (reactive shootouts in a modern firefight, grinding Greek shieldwalls), flowing gameplay, or even a favourite mechanic (like saving throws) that you might say is objectively bad.

Q1: What is a game you enjoy - that you really 'feel' immersed in? That 'hits the spot'?

Now, because I can't resist analyzing... can we quantify why

Q2: What elements of the game make it so?

For example, blog readers will know I enjoy ME:SBG. This is a good example as it's nothing impressive. No mechanics stand out. It does nothing innovative. It's a 20-year-old, streamlined 40K-esque game with a more interactive activation, individual minis moving rather than squads, and a resource management system for heroes (might/will/fate) grafted on top.  

I like it because it is simple (I preferred the even leaner LotR:SBG) but has 'just enough' depth - there's decisions but not the relentlessness/lethality of say Infinity. It allows you to play scenes from the books and movies, emphasizing cinematic, heroic deeds which even non-gamer Tolkienites can appreciate. There are few 'gotcha' rules and you can usually guess what a mini is capable of. It has a point system so you can balance your own homebrew scenarios. It handles a wide range of 10-40 minis easily - sitting flexibly in a weird spot between true skirmish (Necromunda) and platoon-ish games (40K). As a bonus, you can use the rules to play ancients, medieval and even pike/musket with little adjustment and you actually use shieldwalls etc. Official GW support is 'barely there' but there is a vast supply of 3D printing to fill every gap; and it's probably good in a way, as we've had 2(?) editions in 20 years which means no perennial arms race.

Is it a good game? Eh. I'd say it is objectively more streamlined and balanced than say 40K, and has more strategy, decision points, balance and less 'gotcha' moments. But it isn't really an amazing game. I could say there are, objectively, better mechanics for most areas - and the methods aren't consistent. However, it has the right 'feel', it's fun and its simple old-school mechanics combine fine to do the job. For me, it's greater than the sum of its parts. Maybe it's nostalgia? 

The game-feel is good, although the individual elements do not necessarily align to my preferences.


Sometimes I think we conflate with what we like with what is most logical or best practice. Just because you hate stats doesn't mean a game with one stat and many hundred special rules is objectively simpler/better. Just because you might hate hitpoints doesn't mean there isn't a place for them. I like reactions, but not every game benefits from them (most, arguably, don't). I like new fresh mechanics but I acknowledge most folk prefer familiar ones - they are easier to learn. I think activation is one of the most important aspects of the game. Many people don't care. Some people hate having any morale rules.  What we like isn't always the most efficient/innovative/simple/tactical option etc. And that's OK.

When I dig into games, I tend to view 'best' as the smooth, consistent rules with a good balance of decisions for the player. But best is actually the most fun. So...

What are your favourite games? Why?

This is more about what you like. What has a good game feel? What games are immersive? And what elements do you think makes it that way? Also: Does it have flaws? Is the game good despite itself?

Monday 11 December 2023

Hit or Miss: 2023 Edition

I'm going to briefly summarise some of my best/worst 2023 purchases and projects, for the amusement/as a warning to others. Let's play hit or miss.

Carnevale Starter Box: Hit

The rules had hitpoints (boo) and I didn't love the resin the minis were made of but its enjoyable fluff and background (all 150 pages!) prompted me to paint all my pirates and a bunch of random cultists. Also I played the heck out of the included Venice card terrain, and I plan to paint even more pike/muskets to use on said terrain, before the years end.

Ragnarok Rulebook: Miss

Vikings hunting god-fragments to give them powers sounded epic. Just a bit clunky and bland, with a single warband of generic vikings to play as. The most interesting thing was the monsters but they were a pain to source given how unenthusiastic I was about actually playing.


These Infinity Combined Army will be used with simpler Zone Raiders rules, which will be much simpler to teach/play...

15mm WW2 Tanks: Hit

The tanks were fun to make and easy to paint. I made my own dieselpunk setting and rules where roaming tank pirates raid fortified villages, and mutants, scarred by gas, roam the post-WW1-apocalypse-landscape. Me and the wee lad had fun poring through tank reference books and visiting the Cairns Tank Museum. I doubled down on this (I now have ~50 tanks) when my plan to play Battletech fell through.

Middle Earth:SBG : Hit

My most played game, I taught a few people to play as it is a good intro game with familiar lore and simple enough mechanics. Also read Hobbit and LotR to my kids and watched both movies. My kid (who seldom watches TV or movies) now quotes Gollum to the bemusement of his friends. Discovered resin printing which can make a $80 GW model look lame - for only $10.

Gaslands: Hit

The rules are quite gluggy but still cinematic; I've played only a few games but my son and I had lots of fun kitbashing cars. My son is still collecting cars and visiting my old Ender 3 filament printer...

Zone Raiders: Hit

Motivated me to start painting my ~80 undercoated Infinity and will serve as a "gateway" ruleset to sci fi and campaign games. Far simpler than Infinity and its learning cliff curve, less 1980s than Necromunda....

The Dump Shop/Thrift/Charity Shops: Hit

I have acquired a shed TV, a DVD player, and 100s of DVDs (the latter often for cents each) which I use to curate old war movies for my son (check if suitable) and inspire my painting - i.e. I watch period-appropriate movies when painting i.e. Pirates of the Carribean, Master and Commander, Black Sails when painting pirates, for example. I can do ~8-12 minis per movie depending on how complex they are...
Also scored lots of plastic castles and a table full of castle terrain for only a few dollars.  Watching Last of the Mohicans on my $30 thrift shop TV reignited my French Indian dino wars painting...

I used an Excel spreadsheet to catalogue my man cave and identify what elements I am missing (rules/terrain/minis) to finish projects or resurrect unused minis... I now need more sci fi terrain...

3D Filament Printing: Miss?

I'm not sure. I dislike the hassle of 3D printing and wouldn't recommend: but it did help me complete Cruel Seas and Gaslands projects I otherwise would not have. My friends all have much newer 3D filament printers and they swear by them...  *looks around for wife* maybe I just need to upgrade... but as it is it is a pain in the bum and a time sink...

Cruel Seas (WW2 coastal forces): Miss

The PT boats are snazzy but the Warlord rules are far worse than I recall and the prohibitive costs make further collecting unfeasible. Kinda on hold until I sort better rules.

Burrows and Badgers: Miss

Expensive boutique models and hitpoints (boo) contributed to my non-playing this rather charming and otherwise decent set of campaign rules of warring woodland animals *cough* Redwall *cough*. 

Battletech: Miss

Models are cool designs but kinda low grade plastic. The OG rules are hideously clunky and dated and the Alpha Strike rules need too many house rules to be playable. Was expecting to play this lots with my lad but we opted to play mech games on the PC instead...

Homebrew Modern Jet Rules: Miss

Still haven't solved the riddle of how to abstract air combat enough to play fast while retaining the energy management/maneuver/detection/pilot factor/plane performance interactions. It's not impossible but certainly pulls in a lot of different directions. I think I'm stuck on activation mechanics at the moment - I'm struggling to find something chaotic yet favours better pilots with more energy... 

Blog Consistency: Hit

I've tried to post each month (traditionally I have gaps and bursts of energy aligning with holidays) and have had my 3rd most prolific year (now 13 years - originally this was just a repository of rules reviews as I got sick of answering everyones questions - I still own a vast rules library...)

I've painted 27 Infinity this week. That's 27 more than the last 10 years... Yu Jing, Combined Army, Ariadna are finally finished, now embarking on Mercs/Haqq/Nomads/PanO/Tohaa...

Homebrew Sci Fi Horror Rules: Miss

Kinda made a decent modern skirmish shooter but the interactions and reactions kinda sidelined the horror aspect and I've revised and simplified a few times...

Terrain Built: Hit

My 'no pizza unless you use the box for terrain' has resulted in a few tables worth of terrain, which has in turn prompted more mini playing and painting. Terrain plays a strong but kinda unnoticed role in motivating you.

The Excel Spreadsheet: Hit

I colour-coded all my toys into "complete projects" or "incomplete" based on a) do I have minis painted b) do I have terrain c) do I have rules? ...and set about highlighting then remedying any gaps. Having clear ideas of what I need to finish projects did wonders for my work rate - (I have painted ~450+ MESBG minis and ~400 other minis in 2024) and my games played. Everything has been sorted into small tackle boxes with an orange sticker denoting incomplete/unpainted boxes. The average gamer has 100-500 incomplete minis but my mum always said I was above average ;-)

Saturday 9 December 2023

Zone Raiders Rules Review

Alternative title: Infinity is far too complex, Necromunda is too clunky and dated....

These rules were purchased as a result of seeing my Infinity models going unused for years. Infinity itself is excellent and the models superb, but the learning curve is almost vertical, with fairly complex gameplay and extreme special rules. It's a game I'd like to play, but don't feel like teaching to others. So...

...Zone Raiders?

Fast-paced modern gameplay, campaign rules and a setting cool enough inspire you to play?

The Shiny

I had to get a pdf which I printed in B&W. A nice hardcover is $78AUD (OK) but +$89 P&P (not OK), so not many options there. Bit sad I missed out, as I suspect it is quality. The illustrations and pics of models looked good on the pdf. I found it pretty easy to find info just flicking through the book - it is very easy to read and very well laid out. 

The background and world building is excellent. Megastrata - world of metal and gigantic machines, where unknowable and alien AI rearrange whole sections of the planet. Automated technology has gone wild, with sentient machines prowling the Dark Zones. Survivors hunt for food and resources. It kinda reminds me of Netflix's Blame! but you can easily link it to both Necromunda (underhive vibe) and Infinity (tech) which is surprising as they seem opposite ends of the sci fi spectrum.

The setting info is engaging, inspiring and intertwined a page or two at a time through its layout, but is never obtrusive. It's there to help drive the game, not dominate it (cough Carnevale 150-pages-of-fuff-before-you-get-to-the-rules cough.) It's about ~30 pages of core rules, ~40 of gear/weapons/campaigns, and ~50 pages of factions and optional rules.

Overall, I found this rulebook excellent in layout, easy to use, and good but 'balanced' use of background. A good role model in how a rulebook should look. It feels far more professional and proofed than many Osprey rules I've used. I struggled with using Gaslands, but this was a breeze to use.

If nothing else, the rules have inspired me to paint Infinity models which have sat dormant for 10 years....

Overhead (aka Barrier to Entry)

How complex are the rules? What stuff do I need to play? It uses a d20 (probably as a nod to Infinity as a d10 would also work). You roll equal or below your stat to succeed i.e. if you have Shooting 11 you need an 11 or lower on a d20 to hit. No opposed rolls or fancy stuff.  Stats are sensible: Speed, Shooting, Melee, Defence, Survival (resist damage and radiation etc), Aptitude (training+awareness, initiative - kinda troop quality). It meets my criteria of "must be able to easily teach to others."

While it is not as brutally lethal as Infinity it is a game designed around lots of terrain and vertical terrain at that. A few pieces of 40K corner ruins won't cut it. Grappling hooks and servo-assisted legs are common gear; making wall-running and giant leaps are a regular part of the game and giving a bit of a Titanfall vibe. There are also some special terrain pieces (hazard zones, sentry guns, fabricators, cyro-chambers - that you don't need but are technically part of the game). 

There will also be a significant amount of tokens - wounds, downed, armour fail, no ammo, marked, overwatch, suppression, hunker down - which will a) need to be made and b) clutter the table.

TL:DR - Rules are simple, logical and easy to learn, but there are significant terrain requirements, and plenty of tokens laying about.


It's "alternate activation plus"; basically players take turns activating their minis. Sometimes models can act together and you usually have a few "command points" to allow for an extra action; force an injured model to act or allow you to move two models in a row.

Models get the usual two actions, but Zone Raiders is interesting in its strong emphasis on mobility (wall run, grapple, super leap) as well as reloading - firing single shots is fine, but a burst of gunfire usually requires a reload.

TL:DR - Simple standard alternative activation, with command points and mobility skills elevating it above the norm

My 2013 self said: "I don't have skill to do justice to the sculpts, plus I'd like scenic bases" 

My 2023 self said: "I don't have the skill or the bases, but the whole faction will be table-ready tomorrow."


Simply roll under your shoot/melee stat on d20 to hit (low rolls=good), then defender rolls under his defence to block. There are a decent amount of modifiers but range bands are "point blank" "effective" and "further than effective" meaning their is no complex Infinity range bands to track. 

Once injured, there is an extra step where you roll against your Survival. A fail = model dies. A pass = model is wounded. A model can have two wounds - each wound means a player must dice against their aptitude or lose an action. I like this as they are not 'meaningless' hitpoints - a badly wounded model with two wounds might not move at all if he fails two rolls. 

There is suppressive fire (which places a big 'to hit' penalty on the suppressed mini) and players may opt to Hunker down (and get a major bonus to avoiding fire). There also is the ammo factor - many heavy weapons only have 1-2 shots before reloading and spraying bursts of automatic fire emptying magazines (risk vs reward). 

In melee if an attacker misses the defender may disengage and get a free short move away which was interesting and a simple way to add a decision. Some powerful weapon hits can push models back which could lead to some cinematic falls.

There is no conventional morale but there is Extraction (call escape vehicle, preplanned escape tunnel etc) where models can place an AoE template, and any model in the template (Extraction Zone) can spend an action to leave the battle - with any loot they gained. A force with less than 50% of its men may choose to "bug out" but they loose any loot, and enemies within 8" can force a roll to see if they are wounded. I.e. its better to leave at your own terms...

TL:DR - Simple mechanics, with injury rules, and some extras like reloading/suppression/hunkering. Clever extraction/bug out rules means there is no forced morale but players will probably choose to leave when it is advantageous. Downside: This game will have tokens.

 Terrain, Missions

There are ~10 missions (good) but many centre on a special piece/s of terrain (say sentry guns) which means you have to source them (bad). Terrain is pretty important, and quite interesting with various hazards, low vis,  as well as jump plates, vast chasms, ducts that allow you to teleport between them, explosive drums, zip lines, drop platforms etc. Some terrain may even summon AI enemies to the battlefield.

The terrain requirements will be a barrier to entry to some, but add a lot to the game. If you already have lots of Infinity or Necromunda terrain you will be OK - but if you only have a few 40K corner ruins..

TL:DR Plenty of missions, and interactive terrain and random events add lots of interest but could be a pain to source. 

Weapons & Gear, Campaign

There is plenty of weapons and gear - and - even better - assigned a points cost to allow you to balance forces. The stats are simple: An automatic carbine/SMG has (effective)Range 12, Strength 0, Ammo: Auto, and the Rapid Weapon, Burst special rule which means it can move and shoot easily, and fire two shots (at same or nearby target) at the cost of needing to reload. 

My criticism is the naming "Pneumatic jezzail" and "Mag driver" is not obvious what it is and sometimes they are weapons unique to the setting. I'd rather weapons linked more obviously to archetypes. I suspect the game is strongly aimed at the Blame! universe with the penumatic guns etc.

Most armour gives you a super leap, wallrunning or grappling. Gear is thorough and I like the "battery" a token that allows you to boost a piece of powered gear or give a free action with that gear. There is also rare artifact weaponry and gear made from lost tech.

This was sensible and not overwhelming with 6-12 choices in each category BUT most weapons are designed for the in-game setting; i.e. it allows you to adapt your models to the setting - it's not a completely generic toolbox allowing you to, say, play 40K with different rules.

There are casualty tables, advancement, and team "doctorines" - special rules that allows a team extra loot, better new recruits, biotech augmentation, easier access to artifacts etc. These are proper campaign rules a la Necromunda, not the normal campaign-lite that is in a paragraph of an Osprey book.  There are underdog bonuses for balance and rules for competitive play.

There are also rules for co-op missions which will be great for newcomers; using simple patrol/alert/hunt rules similar to old Kill Team (or Black Ops) stealth missions and a separate hostile Marauder faction. There's 6 specific co-op missions so this is far from an afterthought.


Warbands and factions fit "archetypes" you can fit existing models to. Warbands kinda fit the Necromunda template - leaders, gangers, juves, specialists etc.

The factions are obvious stereotypes. There are technomads who wander scavenging for parts and food. Zone stalkers who stealthily explore ruins for relics. Reclaimers are more heavily equipped "government forces" such as they are. Morlocks are mutant hybrids. Atropics are true alien beings of melded tech and flesh. Nthgens are synthetic replicants who are lesser copies of the leader (like Frostgrave wizard/apprentice). Exanthrope posthumans (space marines?) enhanced by nanotech. You can easily figure out common miniature lines to adapt.

There are also AI controlled creatures who act according to a series of priorities in-game including harvesters, flying reapers and behemoths.

In addition there are rules for vectors - aka mech suits - allowing you to use Infinity TAGs, dreadnoughts, Tau Battlesuits etc as well as the possibility of 'dataplane manifestation' aka cyber attacks in the virtual world using incorporeal avatars 'data shadows.'

My 2023 Infinity painted count now stands at ....17. Let's see how many get done by year's end...


This appeals to me as it hits the sweet spot of fast play/simplicity vs depth/decisions; far simpler and more accessible than Infinity and far more modern and less clunky than Necromunda. It's also better than the obvious alternatives - Reality's Edge is much clunkier hitpoints and 80 pages of special rules - and Rogue Stars (one-stat-that-does-everything but a thesaurus-ful of special rules each mini) stretches the SoBH engine in weird directions.

Zone Raiders was quite similar to my own homebrew  attempts to simplify Infinity for my son and wargaming newcomers, so I'm delighted to avoid having to reinvent the wheel.

The rules are evolution not a revolution - adding slight improvements or twists to conventional mechanics - command points to alternate activation, vertical manuevers, reloading to add risk vs reward to burst fire, extraction rules removing forced morale checks.... 


(+) It's simple, and easy to teach, and the rulebook is easy to use. Free sample rules here.

(+) Strong and interesting background, reminiscent of Blame! anime but takes elements from many genres

(+) Can easily be adapted to use existing models (Infinity, Necromunda etc) - even mechs!

(+) There is a proper campaign system (not a brief paragraph as an afterthought at the end of the book)

(+) Co-op and AI rules; including purpose-built scenarios


(-) Weapons and gear are focussed on the 'megacity' setting; it's not a completely generic toolkit to allow you to play other backgrounds of your choice; i.e. while you can easily adapt your 40K or Infinity minis to Zone Raiders setting, you can't as easily use Zone Raiders to play a 40K or Infinity setting.

(-) You will need lots of terrain (vertical as well), and there will be some tokens messing up the table. Lucky I have lots of spare pizza boxes...

(-) Hardcopy rules are not cheap

Recommended: Yes. Finally inspired to finish my Infinity and Tau minis...

Thursday 7 December 2023

There is but one Lord of the Ring...

 ...and he does not share power!

I was momentarily disrupted in my quest to work through my unpainted pile, thanks to the arrival of some 3D print lads.

$10 for a 3D print sure beats $78 from Gee-Dub. I dislike resin but in a model this large it's sturdy enough. 

$15 not $84. The mace is cool but a bit iffy - fragile. I glued the mace head to the base to strengthen it. Oh well, if it breaks I can buy 5 more and still have saved money...

I can upgrade my scratch-built goblin drum, and get a 'non essential but cool' dwarf unit. I must say I really hate the changes with MESBG (a ruleset which has pretty much had 2 editions in 20 years). 

Dwarves got kinda screwed when they were split up into two sub-factions and then Iron Hills (Hobbit) powercept them with more flexible/better in pretty much every way.

While MESBG is one of the few GW games I recommend, unfortunately GW doesn't release many new models (or even base 'core' models) but they ARE now releasing these 'supplements' with 'legendary legions' - usually OP sub factions which you need the codex supplement to play.

A few barrow-wights... my son likes Angmar and its mix of ghosts and monsters....

He also loves wargs, so I boosted my warg pack. $4 for a warg chieftain, $1.50 per warg? That's an easy impulse purchase... Also the relatively solid sculpts are good in resin, compared to the more obviously flimsy wights. But  the 3D company sent me double the wights for the same price so *shrugs* who cares?

I wanted a mounted Elrond (mounted heroes are always better), but at $84 for an official model that was a hard no. $12, on the other hand...

While the official GW support and pricing is pretty crap for MESBG, the mix of secondhand ebay minis for base units, and 3D printing heroes/specialists means I can collect without selling any kidneys...

One of my self-imposed rules is "before buying any new models, have to have painted double that from the existing pile" and "all new buys must be painted in a week." Well I finished these with 5 days to spare and since my fortnight model count is 205 (now 226) I'm Ok with buying new toys as I know they will be quickly table-ready.  I also know they will get "table time."

LotR "painted" count for the entire year is 466, as I continue to slowly build balanced forces for all the LotR factions (not the Hobbit, that movie is not canon!. Only Dunland remains though I need to paint some of my existing vikings before I buy more (I want wilder and more varied Victrix, not the sensible-but-bland Warlord ones I have already)....

Tuesday 5 December 2023

Game Design #101: Overload - Pushing the Rules Past Breaking Point

Wargamers like to add more toys. But the rules don't always support that many on the table at the same time. They are trying to do too much with the rules. The rules start limp along, as they get overburdened.

However some rules are designed overloaded, out of the gate. Born with a limp, so to speak.

How do we know when the rules are overloaded? 

....Does your game drag on? Do you often forget to activate units (or can't remember what is supposed to occur next). Do you find yourself wandering off while someone is taking their turn? Are there big pauses while actions/moves are resolved?  ....Obviously, some of these could be attributed to middle age....

How do we avoid overloading/bogging a game - and what design elements need to be considered?

Now you can't stop players from using more miniatures than intended. That's unsolvable.

But what we can consider is if the game is overloaded for what we intend to use it for: i.e. you can make a game that is already overloaded at a "normal" size game: by choosing the wrong mechanics and mechanisms.

How can we avoid designing a game that is overloaded by default?

Although I haven't kept up with 40K, my original copy was a quasi-RPG (Rogue Trader) which slowly evolved into a platoon+ game. The original game was at Warmachine scale - heck it had more in common with Necromunda than modern 40K. However as the game added more and more toys, it retained many mechanics which did not fit its new role/mini count. There were various attempts to streamline it, but it really needed a more significant revision (Starship Troopers points to what it could have been). Warmachine worked well at around original box set level but the mechanics bogged as they increased the game size.

Sometimes a game is already overloaded, at it intended "troop level." It's already bogged down.

There are a few linked concepts - level of control (what should you the player directly micromanage) and abstraction (what to detail, what to ignore).

If you are controlling a tabletop platoon (3-4 squads, + vehicles) you are the platoon commander. You should be moving/activating squads and fire teams, not individual soldiers. Grouping minis in some sort of forced coherency (the classic "everyone in the squad must be 2" from each other etc) in fire teams or squads is logical AND keeps play moving along (not need to track if Fred from Delta squad has activated - he moves with his squad). The level of control is only 1-2 steps down. If you are a platoon commander, you should be able to command squads; or at best, fire teams/specialist squads. Not micromanaging each and every individual soldier.

If you are playing a skirmish game with ~4-8 soldiers, it is likely you may individually direct soldiers. Maneuvering each mini independently makes sense. Moving them as a single unit would restrict maneuver. Think about real life soldiers and the level of control - how many elements (be it squads, fire teams, or even battalions) is a leader expected to control?

There's a few PC games that suffer from this. Men at War: Assault Squad has you playing as a platoon commander, yet you can (and should) set the stance for each soldier, throw individual grenades... basically you can directly control ~30+ individual guys, as they scatter around like lemmings. If the total men was capped at 8-12, it would work fine. As it is, it is micromanagement hell. 

The Total War series caps your army at ~12-16 or so units at a time. As they have a predictable and mostly static front line, in reality you are only micro-ing 4-6 units, and your attention is only in 1-2 places at a time - most of which you can see on your screen. This works. In contrast, WW2 epic Steel Division could have 30, 40, 50 units scattered all over the map. It's much easier to forget you have that tank in the corner of the map....

So the level of command/amount of units has a historical aspect (i.e. if you are a company commander, you will not be directing the exact location of each and every grunt under your command) and a practical aspect (how many units can you the gamer effectively control) which should roughly align anyway...

It should be obvious when, for example you need to move/activate models as a squad, and when to move them individually.

Likewise, the level of abstraction should be evident: if you are a platoon commander, you don't need to track if Private Parts had his morning coffee so is +1 to his individual "to hit" roll. Instead you might simultaneously roll a handful of firepower dice for the whole squad, adding or removing dice at various ranges. If you are playing a quasi RPG game with 4 elite operators, then individual modifiers probably should be significant.  I'd say it's possible to abstract to oversimplification - say a fire team level skirmish game where everyone succeeds at everything on a 3+ (hero), 4+ (regular), 5+ (newb), with no measuring or no modifiers...  and lose too much tactical choice/naunce. It's taking platoon+ level abstraction, simplifying/abstracting it even more - and applying it to a RPG...

The problem for a game designer is what mechanics handle miniatures best at that scale - and how it aligns with the level of control.

The dreaded IGOUGO technically handles large groups of units better than alternate activation. You can just activate your units left to right until you've done 'em all. With alternate activation, with too many units you may forget who has already activated as you go back and forth taking turns activating dozens of units. However - too many units in IGOUGO can lead to boredom - as the non-active player will sit for ages, passively awaiting their turn. 

Obviously, tracking/recording can cap units. If each soldier has 10 hit points - then where do all the unit cards go to record these? Could you have 30 models, each with its own card?  

Detailed/unique rules can cap units. If each model has its own special rules, there will be a lot of flicking through rule books - slowing the game to a crawl. 

Many modifiers can cap a game. If you have to remember 101 modifiers of +/-1 every time a model (or group of models) shoots or melees or whatever, it can slow things down. 

Gaslands has lots of "steps" in a turn. This slows a game which is supposed to be about frantic car combat and limits the amount of cars/players/special gear (rules) you can use. My solution is to have only 3-4 players, with very simple cars. 8 players, even with one vehicle each, is already 'overloaded'.  There's a lot going on.

Gaslands actually prompted this post, as players said it was "fun, but just a bit much" and naturally I want to question "OK, why? What is it exactly that is the issue?" 

Even physically moving lots of models can slow things - which is why mass battle games tend to base many minis on a single base - you might have 6-12 minis which only need to be picked up/activated/attack once. Rolling lots of dice (lots of "steps" to mechanics) can slow things - roll to hit, roll to beat armour, roll to wound, roll for cover save - all this slows things down.  We could call all of this "action resolution" - once you the gamer make a decision - how long does it take (moving models, chugging dice) to carry it out/determine the results.  Even how you roll matters - take Warmachine - roll 2d6, add the together, then compare to a defence factor and note the difference - a bit clunky, a few steps - yeah fine for a RPG or small skirmish game but not so cool if you have lots of big 10-men squads against each other.

This is obviously not an exhaustive list of all factors, but gives you an idea of what you need to consider when 'scaling' a set of rules to the amount of minis intended to play it.

In short, you need to choose game activation/mechanics appropriate to the scale and amount of units you are intending the rules to handle.

The Hard Cap. Infinity is a pretty detailed skirmish game. It has many special rules (100+), and complex reactions where one or more minis can react to (interrupt) an active mini. It is a game that has all the traits to swiftly bog down and is hard capped at 15 miniatures - which is already probably too many. Unfortunately.... each mini brings a valuable "order" (activation) so more minis is better - a bit of a problem. Given the complexity, the game should be played with far smaller forces; and indeed the designers have made a simplified version (Code One) in recognition of this and seem to be slowly trimming rules bloat).  War Cry also has a 15-mini hard cap. It has hitpoints (boo) to track, but compensates by a much, much simpler ruleset and less special rules - so should play much easier with less "load". Hard caps on max units show the designer recognizes when the rules "break down." I haven't played the new Kill Team, but given it ALSO uses hitpoints AND has more special rules AND a large hard cap (20) I am confident it is a much slower, gluggier game than War Cry - probably already overloaded "out of the gate" and would probably take ~double the time to play.

This begs the question: How long should a game last? 

This is akin to asking how long is a ball of string. I will note - I think we are seeing a shift towards shorter (45-60 minute) wargames over the traditional "all afternoon" affairs.  Some games lend themselves to short format - its wise if a campaign skirmish game lasts only 45-60min so you can squeeze in multiple games in an evening - as campaigns are notorious for petering out after only a few meet-ups.  I think this depends on the genre of game you are aiming for, but it's a question you should ask yourself.

Middle Earth: SBG - Example

MESBG (the best rules GW has ever made) as it seems to break a key concept.  Models move and fire individually yet the game handles ~30-40 comfortably (and only starts to overload at ~50+ which is mostly due to physically positioning all those models - and positioning matters).

So why does it work this way?

The melee centric nature of the rules, and how models touching each other's base can give bonuses in fights. This tends to create natural "shieldwalls" - lines of minis moving together.  Each army has several heroes who act as "leaders" allowing models in range of them bonuses/activation benefits which again tends to create unofficial, organic "squads." 

Activation sequence is simple and somewhat interactive - Side A moves, Side B moves all, Side A shoots all, Side B shoots all, Both Melee. This gives the management benefit of IGOUGO with less waiting around and more interaction.

Mechanics are very simple. Shooting is 3+, 4+ or 5+ to hit (depending on who is shooting) with no modifiers. Just a "cover save" of 4+ if needed. Melee is highest dice wins, with better Fight stats breaking ties (and extra dice from each ally supporting). A potential slow down is the Wound chart (compare Strength vs Defence on a chart) but it tends to be swiftly memorized and not needed in-game. Special rules are minor or rare. The only hitpoints are 2-3 wounds owned by a few heroes or monsters each side; so there is little tracking. Most special rules or recording is thus restricted to 3-4 heroes - not the other 30 regular guys.

So you can see although having 30-40 models moving individually seems a lot (and wrong - it's a platoon level game acting like a skirmish game) due to ticking most of the boxes for simplicity/smooth play, it is physically placing each model which is causing the most major slow down. If you placed the models on trays and moved them en-masse, you could probably handle even more (actually there is a OOP spin-off, War of the Ring, which does just that, and simplifies things even more).


Gamers often "overload" rules by using far more minis than the game was designed for. Unavoidable.

However, some games use the wrong mechanics, and are "overloaded" even using their intended forces.

Historical level of command can help give you an idea of what to abstract/how to activate/group miniatures - the right level of simplification/abstraction.

Choosing the right game mechanics is important - activation, grouping of minis, resolution time/complexity of movement/attacks, amount of special rules/modifiers - all need to match the scale and intended play time/speed.

Can you think of some rules that are 'overloaded?' for the size they are intended to be played at?

What element/s of the game is causing the overload?