Saturday 4 February 2023

Game Design: #91 - Victory Conditions (Devaluing Death)

 I've decided to do some game design posts with a series of shorter sections with different topics, labelled "Discussions", rather than one big, in-depth article. This is because sometimes I change my ideas or adjust slightly over time, and it isn't worth a major update or post in itself. Or, it's just a simple concept that isn't worth the effort of a major post.

The following is a bunch of concepts that have been prompted by playing Mechwarrior:Online. A PC game, sure, but the concepts definitely apply to tabletop wargames.

Victory Conditions - how to avoid "Kill Em All" (MWO examples)

Often we have many varied scenarios, but in the end the best way to resolve them is to kill the enemy faster than they can kill you. They can't complete their objectives while they are dead, right?

Most of MWO game modes are just deathmatch. First side to lose all its mechs, loses. This results in "deathballs" where sticking in a big blob and overwhelming the other side = victory 99% of the time. The side that stays together inevitably beats the side that trickles in one by one. Simply sticking together isn't very deep tactics.

There is a very complex mode where you have to conquer the enemy base. You collect battery cells, return them to your base, and you can choose to power-up base defences or give your side buffs like radar boosts. This sounds cool except... one ever bothers to.

It's far easier just to blob up, kill all the enemies while they are scattered doing busywork, then you just have to roll up to their base unopposed with your remaining mechs, and do a single point of damage to the base. Playing the mode the way it is intended to be played is a recipe to fail. Deathmatch blob tactics win again.

The only mode which avoids this is conquest mode; you capture 'bases' by standing in a designated area. Once you have 'captured' a base it accrues points for your team; once a set amount of points are accrued, your side wins.  While the deathblob can roll from base to base, it's possible to defeat it by delaying/avoiding it and capturing bases instead. The battle usually devolves into 2-3 smaller fights with far more maneuver and decision making involved.

Implications for Wargames

So.... implications for wargames are - there has to be a victory condition independent of killing enemy troops. There has to be a sort of time limit (or mechanism that works similarly) - to stop enemies from focussing on killing then accomplishing the objectives at their leisure.  Objectives need to be spread over the map to prevent focussing firepower to always be the best tactic. It has to be a trade off - focus firepower (local success) or gain more map control (strategic success).

Time limit should variable and unpredictable, to avoid players 'gaming the system.' It a battle always ends on Turn 5, then you can do a silly, risky move on Turn 4 to gain that lead in victory points, knowing the game ends next turn and you don't suffer for it. If the turn is variable, you don't know if you'll have to stick around on Turn 5-6 and be annihilated. 

Here's an example scenario:

(A) There are 3 'capture zones' in the middle, left and right of the map. Each is blocked off from the other by either LoS blocking or impassable/rough terrain to force players to choose to split their forces. If one capture zone can easily fire into/access another one, then there is no reason not to 'blob' the dominant position. The zone could be a building or simply anywhere 6" from a nominated area like a hilltop.

(B) You 'capture' a zone by being the only one with troops within it, or the last person with troops inside of it. (We want to avoid having troops glued to a specific spot). For example, if you have troops between enemy troops and the objective you also control it; so you can capture a base and move on to a better position. If both have troops within the zone it is 'contested' and neither benefit from it.

(C) Once a zone is captured it accrues points. This could be wildly random - say d6 every turn, or more predictable - perhaps roll d6 and 1=0pts, 2-3-4-5 = 1pt, 6 = 2pts.  Once a set amount of points are gained, the game ends. The amount could vary - a "recon" scenario might only need 15 points while a "take and hold" might need 40...  You could base this on the average points/turn to give an idea of how many turns you'd expect to have.

Devaluing Death: Respawn aka Reinforcements

In short, killing enemies needs to be devalued vs accomplishing an objective. A real battle (from almost nay period of history) averages 2-5% casualties. Amounts higher than this tend to occur during the 'mop up' stage - after one side has lost/routed. Many wargames, however, don't even bother morale check until they take 50%+ casualties!

Another idea to help devalue killing is to allow respawning. OK, that's a videogame term that may make old farts twitch a bit - let's call them reinforcements instead. Losing a unit is not the end; you may get more units later. It may even be worth sacrificing a unit for an objective.

Actually, reinforcements/respawning could lend itself well to a resource-management mini-game (perhaps even tied into victory points - i.e. reinforcements are triggered every 5 VP gained by conquering objectives, or maybe can even be sacrificed directly to get a unit of your choice or seed up the process).

Devaluing Death: Pushback vs Removal

I'm not going to go too far into morale, as this is another can of worms entirely, but morale rules tend to be very loose and flimsy in most wargames. I mean - 50% casualties is a bloodbath but sometimes we don't test until then...  

Also, the majority of 'casualties' IRL are not dead, but merely out of action/nonfuctional. Victory tends to be couched in terms of movement and location: pinning enemies in place (modern suppressive fire or heck even longbows) or pushing them back (shieldwall Greeks, Vikings etc) and ultimately driving them off/breaking them (fleeing for their lives, pulling back and leaving the vicinity). Generally, battles are in terms of 'seized the objective' or 'pushed back the enemy from x'.  I.e. movement or position orientated. The casualties taken/inflicted tend to be a afterthought or addition to this.

"A squad tests once it has taken 50% casualties, then every casualty thereafter. If it ever fails a roll it counts as routed and the remainder of the squad is removed." <- this is a bad rule - well, the opposite of everything we have just discussed! It's pretty common though!

In short, morale rules may need to trigger much sooner for most wargames, and result in movement - involuntary pushbacks/fallbacks - much more readily.   

"Any hits (even non-wounding) on a squad triggers a test. If it fails they are Stressed; they cannot move towards the target, are harder to hit (better defence) but also output less damage (worse attack). A second failure while Stressed results in the unit falling back towards the closest cover." <- this is a better rule; it is more about movement options and may occur without a unit even taking any casualties!

Hmmm. This section probably can be a standalone article as there is enough here. I'll put the other ideas together elsewhere. As usual, others' thoughts appreciated:

What game do you think does a good job of promoting maneuver and tactics vs deathblob 'kill em all?'


  1. I grew up playing Avalon Hill and SPI hex and counter games. Most modern wargamers look down on those games - they all use IGOUGO for activation - but they were nearly all objective based victory conditions where unit elimination was only a viable strategy for victory if your opponent was really terrible. To destroy a unit you had to force them to retreat in a situation where they were up against a river or were surrounded, otherwise they fell back out had their effectiveness reduced (by flipping the counter over, no extra markers needed!). Combat was also very straightforward, add up the combat power of the attackers, compare it to the combat power of the defenders, find that difference on a chart, roll one dice and check the result. Straightforward, consistent, maneuver based, rewarding good command rather than lucky rolls or super units. Those games are the guiding star I've been chasing in miniature wargame design.

    1. Where I get tripped up is my loving nostalgia for WFB 5th. I like rolling for hits and blocks, feeling like each miniature is a soldier and the blocks aren't abstract representations of units. All my attempts to merge those two approaches have failed.

    2. I suspect that some part of the problem may be using WFB5 as the base, as it's really hard to balance the power units. Maybe move forward to 6th? If you're playing BRB & Ravening Hordes, it's very good! OTOH, if you really love the cheese and chrome of 5th, you'd probably find it a bit sterile.

  2. One way is to prevent a "death match" is to go the A Billion Suns route: you can enlarge your fleet as much as you want, but each "requisition point" counts against you in the VP tally. So going in too strong is not good. I've been reading about the COIN series of boardgames (which I don't think I'll ever play, but for ideological reasons) and in the Vietnam one -- if I understood the reviews correctly -- every military unit the US commits counts against them, since one of their goals is to withdraw; so they can bash everything with military force, but overcommitting counts against them.

  3. You touched on this, but in some games the enemy has infinite numbers, so "kill them all" is not the way to win. In some cases even the satisfaction of seeing downed enemies is removed from the player; I'm thinking of the oldie Charlie Company where beaten VC "evaporate in the bush" carrying their fallen comrades, you don't get to see their corpses.

  4. Not a miniatures game, but the board wargame Combat Commander by Chad Jensen does a really good job with victory conditions.

    There are both hidden and secret objectives - some of which involve holding territory and some that want you to exit your troops off the enemy's side of the board. Winning by inflicting casualties is also possible, but not easy. And the end of the game is always variable.

  5. TFL's "Chain of Command" is an example of using morale to dictate many scenario victories. As mentioned above, casualties represent 'hors de combat' through any/all reasons (not just wounds/death) and the cumulative effect of events (that the writers term 'bad things') on a side's willingness to continue fighting (and the player's ability to control/direct them) determine when the game comes to an end - in the case of a scenario within a campaign this can be a voluntary withdrawal to preserve units instead of allowing them to be chewed up in a futile 'last stand'.

    1. For my own horror sci fi rules I've tried a 'morale track' where terrifying events/encounters/deaths/suppression all moves a marker along a track for the whole force, which means the whole force bugs out when it hits x threshold.

  6. I played some napoleonics with local gamers and they refused to have victory conditions of a scenario. It was inevitably "whoever loses more troops than they kill" was the metric and it resulted in the most boringly defensive bean counting combat I've ever experienced.
    I've been a fan of table site objectives for a while.....whether they accumulate points, or move or slowly disappear or whatever, I absolutely agree they need to bust up death stacks

    1. One thing that miniatures wargamers consistently fail to do is to let the gam "breathe" with open space. Most TTWGs pack far too many figures on the board, giving grossly excessive killing capacity. Cut the numbers by half (or more), and it becomes harder to maneuver and engage for effect.

    2. The "too many troops" is actually something I noticed in MWO that contributes to the 'deathblob". It is 12v12 but I feel 8v8 would work better; as less firepower means more freedom to move without fear of being nuked. Probably a point I should have made in the OP - thanks!

    3. It's a TTWG problem because they want to sell proprietary figures versus generic terrain. The more figures you buy, the more money they make. The problem is that the board is of finite size, and at some point, it just gets overcrowded to the point that you can't avoid blobs of death as an inherent side effect of packing the entire DZ full of models.

      IMO, wargames need to offer "standardized" terrain that can be purchased as part of one's force, above and beyond whatever generic terrain is included by the organizer. Allow players to purchase faction-specific trenchworks, bunkers, dragons' teeth, etc. in addition to some amount of generic terrain (eg. forest, river) with appropriate in-game effects.

      Heck, go the next step and offer off-board artillery / missile bombardment, para/teleport reinforcement, and so forth which require nothing more than a spotter and comms.

    4. In the tabletop Battlegroup you can buy terrain as part of your force. For artillery, you can choose whether to have it on-board or off-board, providing different advantages.

  7. It's interesting that GW does a lot of this in 40k, with multiple (secret?!) objectives, variable scoring random game length, Troops returning, etc. And yet, for all that, players are still about killing stuff with a giant blob of death.

    Or, the game turns into a thing that is much too often won or lost entirely on the arbitrary luck of the cards or dice when scoring objectives. One player just happens to draw objectives that are easily and immediately scored for big points, when their opponent gets stuck with unfavorable ones that are worth very little. This is even less satisfying than playing for VPs or kills.

    1. "...multiple (secret?!) objectives, variable scoring random game length, Troops returning, etc. And yet, for all that, players are still about killing stuff with a giant blob of death.... "

      -- Exactly. Just like MWO. An elaborate game mode/VP means nothing if the simplest way to win is still to kill them all. It needs be designed so killing them all is not a good option.

  8. Re the final paragraphs..
    "Beyond the Gates of Antares" and "Warlords of Erehwon" utilize Pin Markers on squads/vehicles - the more pins they have, the harder they are to activate, and if they receive too many pins they're eliminated. Rally Orders can shed the Pins in d6 batches, and they lose 1 Pin if they successfully complete an order to slowly shrug it off. Simply being hit by gunfire (not even taking damage) can cause Pins and indeed is the main source of it.
    Mechanically, it's -1 Command per Pin, and if you have Pins >= Command, it's eliminated. Units will have ~8 Command. If you have any Pin you have to roll-under your Modified Command to act.
    Break Tests come up when you have Pins >= Models, >=50% of its squad wiped after being shot at, or after losing in melee, and are modified (by Pin) Command tests where failure means your squad is dead much of the time. So this is sort of an example of the 50% claim, but it's possible to happen earlier, and you'll be losing effectiveness before then.

    The basic gunfire rules for infantry-to-infantry are about ~50% hit rate, ~50% kill rate, but the hit rate can quickly get modified down especially by Pins or terrain. Infantry squads are ~5 models. I'm not actually sure how lethal it ends up being versus Pins.

    1. I did a post on "Lethality" where I reckon 50% hit/50% kill; - 50% cover is the 'norm' for wargames i.e. 4+ on d6. 12.5-25% death each trigger pull/shot is still extraordinarily lethal....

  9. You should really put your game design posts in an ebook. I’d buy it.

  10. "Sudden Death" scenario types are quite interesting, where achiving objectives ends the game immediately.

  11. The biggest problem with many wargames is 0-1 morale system. In PMC 2670 (and earlier PMC 2640) I used the system there the morale is reduced graduately when unit suffer losses, which makes the unit more fragile to pinning/breaking/routing.
    Especially when hits normally cause much more suppression than kills.