Saturday 29 July 2023

Game Design #96: Minimalist Indie Rules: Style over Substance

I've noticed a trend towards stylishly presented games with a strong mood and evocative imagery - but not much game behind it. No, this is not GW or the big companies. These are indie games. 

Usually the world is grimdark or whimsical (or a mix of the two) and it is well served by excellent photos or art (often with kitbashed minis). They tend to advertise minimal rules as a bonus.

A new age of style over substance - for indie rules designers?

I wonder if the 'draw' is just the excuse to be artistic?  For example the weirdly compelling world of Turnip28: Napoleonic-Medieval W12-trench warfare with tubers! I am struck with the urge to kitbash some of my plastic kits - but I can't see myself actually playing the game more than once or twice. My initial fiddle with the rules was - "it's OK"....  but  there simply wasn't much to 'hold' me to keep playing. It was just minimal d6 (roll to hit, roll to save) homebrew rules with 'stress' tokens that build up, and a phase where leaders can move units first. 

I'd also include "Forbidden Psalm" - 1980s metal/horror vibe (I don't know how to describe it but I recognize it) but it's another very minimalist game where rules (stat+d20 vs 12 to do everything) are very much an afterthought to the quirky setting - helping a mad wizard find forbidden tomes - and lost socks.

Flicking through Osprey's catalogue I see an upcoming title "The Doomed - Apocalyptic Monster Hunting." Monster Hunter Necromunda? Bands of hunters fighting each other and giant monsters in an abandoned, fallen world? Sign me up! My imagination is already running wild with possible warbands and scenery. But hang on a minute. The author seems familiar - he once did a ruleset called "Grimlite?" I find an article on the Osprey blog that confirms it's a similar game.

Now the final product may be a lot shinier. But the rules are basically you roll above 3+ (hero), 4+ (average dude), 5+ (rookie) to do everything. Roll hit hit? Roll to save? Sprint? Climb a wall? Everything is this one stat. Like Song of Blades - but with even less going on. Special skills tend to just allow you to re-roll failures in certain situations (i.e. 'agile' = re-roll a failed climb roll). I'm pretty sure the game is similar to Grimlite as I recognize the "No measuring, No Stacking, No Tracking." Now I love a good game design philosophy, so I'm going to quickly look at these even if it is slightly off-topic:

No measuring. This means unlimited movement and firing. However it necessitates a LOT of terrain. If you don't have it already, that's a huge commitment to an indie game - and such a barebones one at that. 

No stacking. This basically means no stacking modifiers. There's only four in the whole game: -1 if the target is in cover, melee attacks get +1 if the target is knocked down, extra movement gets +1 if you can see your leader, and recovering from being knocked down gets +1 if you have an ally next to you.. It's good to keep modifiers to a minimum - agreed - but most players can remember more than four. Has the game lost too much in ability to differentiate situations?

No tracking. This is a topic I have often wrestled with. Do you allow counters to mess up your table? Do you have a unit card on the side of the table to track stuff? Regular blog followers will know my hatred for hitpoints. The author says I can’t abide seeing a beautifully landscaped table, adorned with lovingly painted miniatures, despoiled by cardboard tokens saying things like “pinned” or “poisoned” and the dreaded red die acting as wound counter. I wanted to make a game that just didn’t require tracking at all.... I agree with the sentiments, but ackshully the game does require a way to show which units activated so this isn't "no tracking."

I do remember one cool thing - a "2d6 Shock Table" where when a wound gives a range of cinematic effects i.e. you may die, be able to crawl off, have a friend return fire - a bit like an injury table in Blood Bowl; but it is applied as it happens which was quite cinematic. Again I'm just going off my test run of Grimlite but from the blog it sounds pretty much the same.

Now my intent is not to assassinate a yet-to-be-released game (I want indie authors and Osprey to do well!) and hopefully many readers will go "this game sounds right up my alley!". I just want to use it to illustrate the rules-lite ruleset. There's not much actual rules for a $50+ hardback which is self-proclaimed rules-lite. Are you paying mostly for a nice book with a cool concept and atmospheric, evocative minis and art?

I presume the new published book has a much more fleshed out campaign and scenarios so I'm not going to comment on them but...  ...even if it ended up with a Mordhiem-esque deep campaign, I wonder how much I'd actually play the game?  No measurement = lots of terrain to make and store. That's a commitment. There is very basic mechanics (beat 3+ 4+ or 5+ on everything) with no modifiers as such (less tactics needed to manipulate %).  I quickly tired of Song of Blades and it was a mechanically deeper and more involved game. It was also a $5 pdf at the time - not a $50 hardback.

I guess this has prompted a few questions in my head:

When does a ruleset become too minimalist?

Is there a link between replayability and depth (is there a point where a wargame becomes too basic (or complex) for prolonged play)

I loved Infinity. But I no longer play it. But there was a point when the rules bloat became so crazy (5+ rules for stealth, 5+ rules of advanced deployment) I just gave up. I couldn't be bothered memorizing the possible combinations. There was so much depth and interplay between rules but they may as well not exist if you can't remember them. Also, the high-stakes nature (insta-death for a misplay) meant I found it mentally draining to play.

I loved Song of Blades. But I no longer play it. Well, I loved building wacky thematic warbands from Confrontation minis. But I quickly lost interest in actually playing the game which revolved around a single do-everything "stat".

I continue to play ME:SBG. While I think every aspect of its mechanics could be improved on, and there is nothing revolutionary in it (compared to the two rules above which in their time were quite progressive) it is a mix of familiar mechanics, and 'just enough' depth in all areas to be simple enough, yet hold my interest. 

The Doomed feels a bit like my Quar rulebooks - a very cool coffee-table talking point and a brief piece of painting/terrain artistic inspiration - but will it get long-term play? I probably wouldn't be concerned if it was a $5 pdf. But if it was a $5 pdf without the 'style' and 'art' - would I be as interested and inspired to play?  It's a bit "Catch-22."

 Are STL files and 3D printers influencing rules?

It seems weird for indie rules to actually make the minis (kitbashed or home-grown) and art their selling point with the rules themselves being an afterthought (it seems a tad ironic as that is what moved many away from GW into indie games in the first place!)

I feel that 3D printers and also the proliferation of cheap plastic kitbash kits (Warlord, Mantic, Perry, Victrix etc) might be enabling creative folk to make their own minis/world. Perry plastics are my go-to but I saw some Victrix in the flesh the other day and I was very impressed - they seem on a par with GW offerings and you get a huge bag of toys. If matching toys are cheap and readily available, the focus can be more on the setting.

Is this a new dawn of "Setting Driven" Games?

Ages back I think I discussed the importance of having a focussed thematic setting which does not restrict your minis - I think the Doomed and similar games do this well. The game is focussed - hunting monsters in a post apoc world - but allows a range of warbands to allow you to use your existing (say 40K) models as factions in the setting. If you have a generic setting and generic rules - there's nothing to differentiate them from the 101 similar rulesets that exist already.

All the examples I've given are very much theme/setting as the main draw, with rules tacked on as an afterthought. Basically the rules merely exist to allow you to participate in the setting rather than a deep tactical system of their own. (I've thought for years this is how GW has always viewed their own rules - and they are confused by competitive players/serious players expecting deep gameplay).

I enjoy games with a strong setting or 'hook' - like Turnip28 - but The Doomed seems to allow you to use your own minis within that strong setting which is a major plus. It reduces the initial investment in a system but retains the 'pull' of an interesting world/narrative. For example, the Five Parsecs rules allow you to use any sci fi minis but the generic setting doesn't have the (more specific) lure of hunting monsters in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.


There seems to be a increase in indie games which are all about an inspiring creative 'setting' and not gameplay. The rules are minimalist - more to allow you to participate in the setting. 

They are inspiring and artistic but is there enough depth and replayability? Is there a point where a game is too simple to be replayable - or a 'sweet spot' of simplicity vs crunch and depth? 

Is the advent of cheap plastic kits and 3D printing enabling this trend, by allowing designers to more easily recreate/display their game world?

Thursday 27 July 2023

Game Design #95: Deployment - More than Just Plonking Down Models

I often feel both terrain setup and deployment are seldom emphasized in wargames. Terrain is vital in most IRL battles - often, who arrives at said terrain first to achieve the optimal position. I'm going to cover the deployment here, discussing my thoughts within my homebrew post-apoc dieselpunk tank game. (Mortal Engines meets Mad Max with Tiger tanks and zombies)

Most wargames are "place your units within 6" or 12" of your base line, then opponent does the same" with the only rules being who places first (or alternate) or who gets what baseline. Usually it's a 50/50 d6 flip. Not very tactical.

Two influences on my thoughts at the moment are TFLs Chain of Command and a PC game called Steel Division.

Chain of Command is one of the wargames that made me really think about deployment. It has a pre-game phase where you move 'scout' tokens towards your enemy. The tokens cannot be more that 12" apart and once within 12" of an enemy are 'fixed' in place.  This then allows 'deployment points' to be placed in cover where units can spawn further up the battlefield rather than the usual baseline. Basically, it is a prematch minigame to determine deployment points.

Here is a copyright-free sketch:

Once your tokens get in range of enemy tokens they lock in place and you can place a deployment zone in the angle formed by two enemy tokens (shaded area). I really like the idea - just the implementation is meh.(<-this describes my opinion of most Lardies games to be honest)

I have a problem with this. The abstract tokens are pretty lame. Why not use real units? Why not make deployment part of the game not a separate minigame?

Historical games often have units arriving at different times in scenarios. I was always impressed by the PC game Steel Division which abstracts the concept in an elegant way. Most PC RTS have (ridiculous) base building, manufacturing units on the spot. You can 'tech up' your base, producing weak T1 units, then, with enough resources, average T2 units and finally, with enough time and effort, superheavy epic T3 units. Steel Division sweeps away the building and gives 3 phases - at the start, light vehicles and infantry are cheap, then after 10 minutes medium units (PzIV) become more affordable and finally after 20 minutes you get your Tiger IIs or whatever. It simulates the tech trees without bothering with the buildings. It also matches how light recon units would arrive first, and usually heavy assault units be brought to bear once contact is made. Now, you can bring heavy tanks in at earlier stages, but you get less of them - you might get 4 heavy tanks after 20min, 3 heavies after 10minutes and only 2 if you want them at the start of the game. Risk vs reward.

So let's do this in a tank game, with similar "stages"

1. Scout/Paratroop Phase (Turn 1). There may be no troops on a side that fit this category.

2. Light tanks, infantry and their APCs may deploy in Turn 2. Maybe they must roll Skill to arrive on time.

3.Medium tanks may deploy on Turn 3 (skill roll?). Light vehicles/infantry automatically arrive. 

4. Heavy tanks and assault tanks may deploy Turn 4 (skill roll).

5. Heavy tanks and assault tanks automatically arrive.

Cool. Now instead of tokens we have lighter units arriving first and then slowly the big hitters arriving. Maybe we can give some units a "Scout" trait to allow them to arrive the phase earlier than usual i.e. scout infantry can arrive turn 1. Maybe "Paratroops" can be pre-deployed in the scout phase using a scatter dice. I'll probably rejig this a fair bit after testing, but you get the idea. Light units arrive first, the mediums a bit later and heavies last of all.

Now some risk vs reward like Steel Division. Maybe all units can try to arrive sooner like a scout unit, but they must "Push It" - roll a skill roll and if they fail, their vehicle takes a mobility hit and is reduced to half speed all game - they cooked their engine or de-tracked themselves while pushing their machines too hard. Maybe then vehicles could get a "Reliable" trait that allows this to be re-rolled or "Unreliable" which gives a penalty. Anywhoo, you get the idea.

Chain of Command has the 'deployment zones' placed behind cover in a 'angle' formed by two enemy recon tokens and one of your tokens. 

I'd prefer to base off actual units, so maybe you can drive a unit off the nearest side table edge closest to your foremost unit.  You could deploy anywhere behind your foremost unit. That would encourage two scout units - so you can deploy from both sides of the board. 

Stylish artwork below to help explain the  idea:

You can come in off the baseline (A) like usual or... come in from the side (B) as long as you are behind your foremost unit on that side of the table ....and out of LoS of any enemies.

Obviously you'd have to make it so you couldn't just pop onto the board and start firing, or the reverse - get instantly spawnkilled - so maybe the unit could only be initially placed where it is out of LoS of any enemy.

I like this as it would encourage the sides of the board to see more play, helping avoid a scrum in the middle, and make having forward units on both sides of the board valuable (to make deployment more flexible). 

Perhaps a further variation could be added - allowing reinforcing units who walk in off the usual backline of the board a 'free' move up away from the baseline - maybe up to half the distance of the farthest forward ally i.e. if a unit was 28" forward then reinforcements could move 14" for free. However, at no point in this free move can the tank cross the LoS of an enemy tank and it must end the move out of the LoS of any enemy.

Variation below. 

You aren't stuck coming in from the baseline or the side but maybe get a free move from your baseline up to half the distance of your farthest unit on that flank (C), but must never be in LoS of an enemy on the way....

I'm not claiming this is an ideal or original solution (heck I haven't even properly playtested it) - I'm just trying out ideas. 

The aim is to make deployment a part of the flow of the main game using cool models rather than a Chain of Command mini-game with tokens. Also at same time it can make light units and scout units serve a useful, realistic role (arrive early, secure deployment zones and deny enemy using LoS rules) to set them apart from the heavy hitters. Hopefully it may also give a sense of 'stages' of the game where you may be trying to hold back light units with your light units while waiting for backup to arrive....

I don't play a lot of historical games any more but I suspect there may be a lot of good ideas lurking there based in deployments for specific scenarios, etc.

I may come back to this post when I've explored the idea more thoroughly - so I reserve the right to amend this down the track. I just hope I get others thinking of creative deployment solutions too!

TL:LR Deploying your forces should be more tactical than simply plonking down models 6" from your baseline.

Sunday 23 July 2023

Pizza Box Challenge: Cheap Medieval Terrain

The nearest foamboard supplier is 30min away, and it's $10 an A2 sheet. The actual pink foam other modellers seem to effortlessly obtain for sculpting cliffs etc - well here in a rural Aussie town, I've never even seen it in person.

Enter the humble pizza box.

Relatively heat and water resistant, and comes in convenient sheets with a rip-on-the-dotted-line. A quick visit to the local dollar shop and I had obtained a few packets of coffee-stirrer thingies - you know, the better option than paddle pop sticks for doing wargaming boards for a dollar each. My biggest expense - 3x $5 balsa sticks in 5mm. One I got for $2 as it was broken. Yay! I was intending on breaking them anyway... OK to work...


My initial challenge: Any pizza bought, the boxes have to be turned into terrain, of a sort I can use for more than one project.

Unfortunately I hit a snag. My son keeps winning pizza vouchers from coach awards at hockey. He's not the best player, but that mix of industrious and well-mannered that attracts awards. Normally these awards are shared around a bit; but the lad has a new coach each week lately and thus picked up about 3 in a row. So I am waaay busier than expected and my paint projects have been put on hold as I deal with the pizza box onslaught...

I decided on some medieval terrain - ruined towns a la Mordhiem (or more strictly speaking, Vermintide 2 on PC). For a non-stickler for detail like myself, it can be "European" from any era from medieval to modern day - so I should get some use out of it.

Next, I decided to use a uniform base size. This is so I can use it for experimenting with terrain rules - which probably will feature in a game design post soon (#remindme) -  allowing consistent coverage within grid squares. I kind had a 6x6 or 4x4" in mind but ended up with these 90c Bunnings coasters cos I'm lazy. So far I've spent $6 on stirrers, $12 on balsa wood, $10 on coasters and $5 on black spray paint. So my terrain isn't free - but it should be only a few dollars per terrain piece.

I got quite a bit of terrain made. Obviously this is not finished - but the all-black board is going to feature in an experiment with LED lights.

I've also involved my children.* *(well, they invited themselves)

This tends to triple the work time and also will reduce my available materials as my daughter will inevitably hijack some of my stuff for side projects (I predict she will also make her own houses and terrain according to her own specifications and it won't match my intended table at all.)

                                Wood Elf sentinels. More 3D print goodness....

On the other hand, it IS just pizza boxes. Not like it's foamboard - which conceivably could be worth it's weight in gold. Also, with my kids involved, precision is impossible which kinda removes the onus of doing a careful job.  So some time will be regained there...


not-Galadhrim guard. In hindsight I'd have liked different proxies as they give Hobbit/Mirkwood vibes...

 1. I cut the pizza boxes using templates I found on "Devs and Dice" Youtube, and just cut extra holes/access points. I probably should have glued the boxes back-to-back to add thickness but I'm working with kids. We ain't waiting around for glue to dry!

2. Hot glue to the bases. Foamboard would definitely work better here as it's easier to hide drips. If so, I'd probably wrap the walls around the coaster instead of sitting it on top. 

3. PVA internal balsa beams to support floorboards. My daughter is 'queen of floorboards' and enjoyed artistically arranging coffee stirrer 'planks' atop the balsa beams in a manner that met my "wrecked with gaps but can hold a mini, must be able to put a ladder to the next level" guidelines.

 4. Back to dad then for external scaffolding and wood bits. The most annoying and fiddly stage. Foamboard would have been much easier. You could just drop a 5mm balsa in the corners of the building rather than using two coffee stirrers like I did to be the 'corner posts.'

5. Some PVA and sand for the outside of the base. I'll probably do some bits of scattered boards/junk/rubble inside the buildings but right now my aim is to use up the pizza boxes, not win an award for most detailed terrain. 

6. Spray with el cheapo black spraypaint.

What? No further work? Well there will probably be a second post where I pretty them up, but right now it's all I need for night scenarios.  I'm experimenting with light/darkness/vision mechanics for my horror homebrew rules and a night board just seems apt. It'll get coloured down the track.

Anyway, might as well show my latest painted LoTR. Like the terrain, they need a touch-up down the track.

Black-Guard of Barad-dur - again 3D proxies. 
Dual-wielding corsair reavers aren't even available from Gee-Dub.
Arbalesters and various heroes/command, again 3D printed.

The arbalesters had no pavises but as usual Perry WoTR plastics save the day. 
I don't think Dalymyr/captain/bosun are available for GW either... it's insane how understocked MESBG is... many factions missing important units....

Still more buildings to make but tis a freezing 13 degree celsius night here in Queensland. I am driven inside! 

My LoTR models painted is now 331 done in 2023. Only a few more to eclipse my total of 335 in 2022. I tend to spend 15-20min each night as my kids are in bed, applying a single colour to a dozen or so minis. It's pretty unsatisfying for a week or so then *boom* all of a sudden another unit is ready...

It's a far cry from when LoTR was my "Moby Dick" - a project which headlined my lead pile of shame... Now my secret shame is Infinity* - I have probably 200 models bought back when I loved the game in 1st ed - back before 'rule bloat' killed it.

*Random thought: Infinity seems to do OK - has it weathered the new "Dark Age" brought on by the resurgence of GW - that is (in my opinion) in the process of killing off bigger games like Warmachine, or Malifaux or X-Wing? Maybe it's just quietly puttered along, having never overrreached itself like Warmachine or rebooted itself quite so often as Malifaux? Also I notice X-Wing seems to have died off - has the SW:Legion etc killed it or was it the publisher change?

Saturday 15 July 2023

Game Design #94: Boring & Unfair - Campaigns & Skills

 When thinking about Ragnarok and its identical vanilla human warbands, it reminded me how the first few games of a campaign (or specifically a Bloodbowl season) are a bit dull.

The reason? No one has gained any skills yet and so they they tend to be boring and vanilla. Usually then there is the fun patch of a few games until warbands pull ahead/fall behind and folk lose interest. It reminds me of a PC RTS - there's a boring stage where you build up your troops, a fun bit when you are actually fighting/the game is in the balance, and the 'mopping up' stage - also boring - when one side has obviously won and you are just razing their base. It's why I rarely play RTS (I'm only having fun 33% of the time) and also why I think campaign games can be improved.

Boring Warbands

Simple solution - allow everyone to have a roll on a skill/level-up chart BEFORE the campaign starts. In fact, we could take a leaf from RPGs and allow a themed warband i.e. I like how Bloodbowl (also Battle Companies) has "groups" of thematic skills. I think skills should be randomized to prevent OP combos being created but the player might choose say two skill 'trees' to roll on.

Also, warbands should level up more often.  Every game! Why mess around with xp and kills. If you were in a battle, and you survived, you get to roll. Win or lose. Videogames give a constant stream of gratifying 'levels' and 'unlocks' - why should wargames choose to be more boring if we don't have to? MMOs often reward playtime over skill. Why not do the same?

This also simplifies things. Want to add a new warband 3 games in? Just make 3 extra skill rolls. Missed a game? Just make a skill roll and you don't fall behind power-wise.

But it's safer to just skip games and level up! Ok, perhaps roll to randomly wound =50% of the minis each game you skip. I.e. in battle companies you might randomly dice to select 5 of your 10-man warband, and roll a Str 4 wound against each. 

TL:DR The cure to boring warbands: give thematic skill rolls BEFORE the game borrowing from RPGs; then 'level up' and award new skills/stats/toys consistently and often thereafter.

Unfair Campaign

Campaigns often snowball quickly. Winning warbands quickly gain an insurmountable lead and a few losing games can make it almost pointless for some warbands to continue. This is because many campaigns punish losing several times. It's double jeopardy.

a) You probably have more wounded/dead, so you are disavdantaged/outnumbered in the future.

b) You gain less XP, so your heroes and mooks don't level up and are less powerful in the future.

c) You gain less gold, so you have less cool toys/weapons and are thus less powerful in the future

Losing is excessively punishing. It's like a soccer game where every time you concede a goal, you also get a player sent off. So let's make things less unpleasant, responding to a-b-c with fixes.

a) Give a free random unranked reinforcement. Perhaps if you lost a powerful model, you get several reinforcements equal to his points value or one just slightly less powerful i.e. if you lose a hero with 4 skill upgrades you get one with 3 skill upgrades. Losing your cool characterful model is punishment enough. Or - you actually always have more men than you can deploy.  So then you choose which men and basically losing men just removes choice from the lineup. Like how a soccer team has a 25 man squad even though only 11 play. Losing a man injured doesn't mean you have to play with 10 men next game. If a model is injured it does not 'skip a game'  - instead it has the option of playing while injured (say -1" speed and -1 to all dice rolls) and if he survives, he gets a bonus skill or +1 morale for being so gutsy.

b) Everyone who participates and lives (wounded or not) levels up.

c) More powerful warbands get less to simulate higher wages they pay out. Newly hired rookies are cheap.

Buuuh - I want to be rewarded for winning! Balancing is for special snowflakes who want participation awards! Competitive people like winning, period. They don't need extra incentives. They'll be counting their win-loss ratio anyway. All we are doing is trying to keep it fun for everyone by making the games themselves competitive. Imagine if in a pro sport, a loss meant you had to play with a man down all next game. As a spectacle, that would suck. It would quickly make the season of many teams both un-fun and uncompetitive. But this is common in most wargame campaigns.

Fully exploring campaign balance is beyond the scope of this post (I also want to talk about skills in a second) but I'll conclude by suggesting campaigns should have a set length. Leave them wanting more. I'd say ~6 games offhand - my reasoning; so you could play 2 games per night, and meet three times. 

You could also allow some sort of structure - where you know you will likely play x sort of mission at least once. Kinda like a branching 'tree' of decisions - if/then - with some limited randomness thrown in so it is not too stale/predictable. I was noticing in MESBG when making a force it is wise to have a couple of fast units to seize objectives; if you know there is good chance of such a mission coming up you can balance warbands better. 

I am also aware properly playtesting and balancing a campaign is almost impossible. Even a quick glance often shows most wargames rules themselves are badly balanced or poorly playtested. How are designers (especially indie ones) expected to play through campaigns many times and find every possible permutation?  It would be a huge time sink. However, we can use common sense - such as not encouraging the "snowball effect" (above) - and trying to balance the game/skills itself, which IS reasonable.

TL:DR Balancing campaigns is almost impossible, but we can aim to counter the 'snowball effect' by not punishing losers in so many ways. When we do this, we may also gain the ability to 'catch up' newer warbands who missed a week or missed games/byes.

Boring Skills

Speaking of MESBG, I've noticed the most commonly used spells are quite negative and dull. Transfix. Compel. Blind. These are boring skills. They all stop your opponent doing something. 

Throwing fireballs? Cool. Having your mini freeze in place and do nothing for a round? Boring.

Example: I play a co-op PC game called Warframe with my kids. It's over-the-top robotic space ninja jedi with magic powers.  The robots you control are crazy fun and powerful. You can backflip, slide and slash with katanas, dual-wielding machine guns while blasting hordes of foes with powerful space magic. 

To make the game challenging, the devs came up with nullifier bubbles. These are bubbles around enemy units where your magic doesn't work. This is very unfun. Imagine being told "you are a robot space jedi but your jedi powers don't work most of the time.  ....Instead of, say, giving enemies a powerful attack I could actively dodge, they just disable my toys. This is an example of a negative skill.

TL:DR Where possible skills should give you cool options and actions, not remove options and actions from opponents. Perhaps the latter is more realistic but it's less fun. 

Unfair Skills

I think stat changes and skills should be low-key both in games AND campaigns. A quick way to eyeball the value of the skill or stat is to consider:

Skill Strength. (How powerful) In PC games, I recall a rule of thumb being any stat increase over 20% could be insurmountable for player skill. Especially if this applies to more than 1 stat. Having 20% more dps, 20% more speed and 20% more health is a huge advantage. In a wargame, this would translate to max +1 in a d6 based system or +2 in a d10 base system. 

Skill Opportunity (How Often). A super powerful skill you can cast very rarely can be both (a) kinda unfun as you never get to use it and (b) a bit of a 'gotcha' for opponents. A weaker skill which you can (and will) use regularly both gives more flavour AND is more predictable for opponents.

Above I mentioned having semi-structured somewhat predictable campaigns of a set length. For example, if you know how often you are going to get a 'capture the objective' mission vs 'defend your baseline' it is easier to correctly value fast units. 

I think 'opportunity' is the right place to mention terrain - wargames often don't specify how much or where. This is an oversight, as some skills and stats can differ hugely in value depending on the terrain.

"No penalty for moving in rough terrain/forests/water" -> meaningless if you are playing on a perfectly featureless board. I recall in LoTR:SBG goblins always did really well on my terrain-heavy boards, where their ability to freely scale vertical surfaces without penalty was quite powerful. However it was never a 'gotcha' - it was their main gimmick.

Infinity has very strong gun range and lethality, as well as opportunity (you can react to all enemy movements in LoS so lots of chances to shoot). A tall building or excessively large open LoS 'lanes' can mess up the whole game or make vast swathes of the board 'off limits.' It is a good example as its rules have diagrams explaining expected terrain coverage and also points out the effects. 

Probably a final mention: that skills should be few, and 'shared.' I.e. there are no more than 20-30 skills in a common rulebook, using common tropes. There should be no excessive memorization or secret knowledge. Unlike Infinity, there should not be 5 rules all doing the same thing; instead they should be lumped together by effects (like Savage Worlds) i.e. super hearing and radar could both be lumped under "Supersenses" and have the same effect = automatically detecting/targeting any enemy within 8" regardless of LoS. Reducing the mental burden. A magical beam (be it heat, energy, or psychic force) would be called "beam" and have the same effect for all. Basically: skills should be predictable, shared knowledge. ME:SBG does this well - you expect a goblin to climb walls and a troll to toss enemies around - and the climbing and tossing rules are shared.

TL:DR Skills should be weak, and easy to use regularly. Shared knowledge for both players with no gotcha moments or unreasonable memorization requirements. Terrain and mission types need to be predictable (i.e. specified in the rules) in order for skills and stats to be reasonably balanced. 

This is far from a thorough explanation of skills and campaigns (I've done this elswhere): just my current musings, based on messing around with Battle Companies and Ragnarok.

Friday 7 July 2023

Middle Earth/Lord of the Rings SBG - Great Entry Point for New Wargamers/Kids?

 Anyone who reads my blog will notice a heavy ME:SBG influence in my painting and playing the last year or so. This is mostly due to painting and playing with my kids. I spent a while deliberating what games I would choose to introduce my kids to wargaming, and LotR was my choice*. Bear in mind I'm not a pro LoTR player and merely approach this from the point of view of someone who is introducing kids to wargames.

Here is why I think Lord of the Rings is an ideal entry point to a new wargamer:

Media Recognition, Strong Background & Lore. Given it's based on the #1 fantasy book of all time, and it's probably second only to Star Wars as a movie trilogy, there is instant recognition and interest. As a bonus, models in the game act like they do in the movie. I watched the movies with my 7-year-old and he would joke 'that orc beserker has at least 2 wounds' as he takes a few arrows in the movie. "I bet Legolas has a 2+ shoot score" as he snipes a Moria goblin or "Aragon must have lots of melee dice attacks" as he carves up half a dozen orcs in seconds as Amon Hen. "Gimli must have only a 4 or 5" move" as he pants chasing Uruk Hai. There is a very strong background and lore and the rules lean into this very well. The minis act like you'd expect.

There is also a wealth of material to work from for modelling and terrain. The later Hobbit/ME:SBG version has added excessive special rules (bad) but it was done to make it even more thematic and cinematic than the original (nice idea). While ME:SBG is GW's unloved redheaded stepchild and is inexplicably (to me at least!) much less popular 40K/AoS, you'd at least have a chance of finding others nearby who are interested in playing with you in Tolkien's world. While GW puts 1% of the effort into LoTR as it does to 40K/AoS, there is still a slow trickle of releases.

Simple, Clean, Familiar Core Mechanics. Easy to learn.  Easy to explain. Only real aid you need is a wound chart. And there are plenty of great free printable rule summaries online - you barely have to touch the rulebook.

Roll a dice to see who has priority (Side A). Side A moves, Side B moves, Side A shoots, Side B shoots. Most move 6" unless you are short.  Shooting? Roll a 4+ to hit, 3+ if a good shot or 5+ if a bad shot. For melee roll a dice each (duel). Best Fight stat wins ties. Loser is pushed back 1". Once hit look at the wound chart Strength vs Defence (usually 4+ or 5+ to wound). Any unusual situations roll d6 - '1' bad, 2-5 normal, '6' good. Heroes have Might/Will/Fate which add extra re-rolls/moves/interrupts, magic or wound rolls respectively.

Boom. You now pretty much know all you need to start playing. My 7-year-old easily grasped them, and even could predict them i.e. "Dad, I want my archer to jump down off this ledge - so I roll a dice, and if it's a '1' I splat, '2-5' I land, '6' I can run off fine?" as most climb/jump/fall/dismount/special action rules followed a similar procedure.

The GW rules have been relatively unchanged for 20 years, testament to its design. The 2018 MESBG improves the game in some ways but generally adds unnecessary special rules and fluff. While I see it attempts to add cinematic flavour, I'm generally not a huge fan of new extra special attacks/monster attacks/heroic actions/special rules. The new 'Legendary Legions' - armies with bonuses - sail a bit close to the wind a la 40K 'meta.'  The game, like the movies, has aged well. I used to enjoy Mordhiem and Blood Bowl back in the day but they are jarringly clunky when I retried them.

In contrast, LoTR rules I did not originally like years ago have since grown on me.  The duel - "Roll a d6 each, best wins ties" seemed too 'rough' . The most attack dice had a bigger difference than the Fight stat. I originally house ruled this with variations of "d6/d10/d20+stat" but the original way is just so fast. Roll dice. Highest wins. Tie? You know without looking if a weedy goblin or noble high elf is going to win. Hero or monster? Get extra dice. It resolves combat in seconds with no mental effort - useful if you are using 40 or so troops. 

The movement order was also something I messed with but reverted (I tend to like elaborate activation mechanics) but the default breaks the turn up into 4 phases (move/move, shoot/shoot allowing a modicum of  'reaction' to foes) which is further interrupted by heroic actions (which can add extra phases). I haven't found anything that handles large amounts of individual minis so well with so little mental effort and no need to have tokens etc, yet retain a modicum of 'reaction' to enemies.

I've used LoTR for the French-Indian-Dinosaur War, merely noting muskets are 18" range, Str 4 and take must skip moving to reload. (I place a cotton wool ball next to them to show they have fired). Dinosaurs were 'statted' based on size vs various LotR beasts like cave trolls, giant spiders or mumaks.

Homebrew/Houserule Friendly. It's a good template for melee-centric games - GW's now-defunct historical arm did wild west, pirate and gladiator versions back in the day. While easy to adapt, it could be used for almost any medieval/dark age/ancient/early gunpowder skirmish with little or no change. You can 'stat up' models in your head - for example offhand I can tell you e.g. human defence 3. +1 if shield, +1/2 for light/heavy armour, +1 if especially tough or elite soldier - you don't even need the rules, it's so consistent. So making a viking version, a pirate version or 100 Years War version would be easy - if people hadn't done this already. With ME:SBG you are getting a toolbox to easily play most melee-centric eras. 

It's also the best and cleanest of the many '40K-a-like' rules - including Flames of War, Bolt Action - major historical games. So its mechanics and style makes it a 'gateway game' to worse other popular games. The familiar mechanics make it an ideal gateway game. If you are just interested in experimenting with the rules - then I suggest the A3 "Blue Book" of the original LoTR:SBG (2005ish) as the cleanest, has plenty of LoTR profiles built in and is about $10 secondhand. I have used LoTR variants for cowboys and pirates and am currently making warbands of samurai, vikings and English Civil War pike/shot.

Macro AND Micro Strategy.  Besides the overall strategy moving bands of troops there is kinda a mini-game in positioning/order melee of individual match-ups and pushbacks as well as managing heroic actions (you can move out of sequence/bonus move by spending the "might" resource of heroes). The models are all moved and fight individually like a small skirmish game yet can form larger formations such as double rows of pike/spears and it is sensible for form 'battle lines' with no artificial enforced unit coherency making models into hitpoints. Notable heroes/monsters have a resource of 1-3 each of 'might' 'will' and 'fate' - kinda corresponding to stamina/power, magic and health bar in a RPG. They can 'spend' this to boost dice and more interestingly, interrupt the move/fight order or lead groups of allies in range.

(Relatively) Cheap entry - a A3 softcover 'blue book' from 2005ish is about $10 from ebay.  More pricey if you want official latest MESBG- two books are $90AUD each. It is, however much better than 40K's constant codex creep, and an army book pretty much gives you ALL armies from a movie. So you can move from collecting Gondor to Mordor without buying a new book.  

There is also strong support from 3D printed models which certainly 'fit' thematically with official models (and in most cases are far superior to the 20-year-old sculpts).

(Relatively) Cheap and plentiful minis. Unfortunately, many official GW sculpts are 20y/o and show their age, but secondhand stuff is relatively plentiful and cheap (especially if you aren't in Australia!)  

But you don't need official minis. You can use cheap plastic boxes from other manufacturers (Fireforge, Wargames Atlantic, Victrix, Warlord - and Perry Historical are original GW sculptors) where you will pay only a few dollars a mini max. Also there is a huge range of 3D prints which fit well with official sculpts and recasters as well. Tolkien's books were very 'Dark Age' so many historical minis work well. In addition, you don't need many to start - and the game itself caters well to small-sided games: 30-40 models seems a good spot for a normal force and Battle Companies maxes out at 15 minis.

Competitive, Scenario, Narrative Campaign. The game was designed for 3 levels of play. Can't speak for competitive, but seems more balanced that my average expectation of GW. I'd also suspect you are more likely to get LotR nerds with thematic 'cool' armies than sweaty meta try-hards. There are many and plentiful scenarios from books and movies and 'what ifs' - there are extra books full of battles and scenarios. As mentioned above, the minis tend to match their movie counterparts well - if you've seen the movies you probably have a rough idea how good the unit is. Finally, there is Battle Companies - LoTR Mordhiem which appears to be far from balanced but gives you rules and narrative campaign mechanics for a quasi-RPG where warbands of up to 15 minis 'level up' gain XP  skills and stats, get injured/die, swap gear etc.

Scales 10v10 or 50v50. The game is very impressive in how well it scales. You move each model individually (like skirmish games), but due to each model having a 1" control zone (blocks enemies) and a 1" pushback rule, you can (and usually should) create workable shieldwalls. The game makes you take a hero for every handful of mooks and heroes can buff/activate allies within 6" so you can organically form 'squads'  yet it avoids silly 2" forced coherency rules. So you can use the rules for 10v10 skirmishes or 50v50, or the 9 Fellowship heroes vs dozens of goblins. It kinda covers two levels of battle (squad, platoon+) that you'd normally need two different rulesets for. I'm sure from a competitive standpoint many models are over/undercosted, but having the points system is very handy for balancing random one-off battles.

So...'ve turned into a Games Workshop shill in your old age?

Far from it.  I think their prices are insane (I have a suspicion I would really like Titanicus but it's $240AUD for a box to try the game), and I dislike how the all-pervading presence of 40K actually stifles a lot of other more creative wargaming content especially those reliant on Youtube clicks. 90% of my LotR minis are secondhand, and I'm mostly switched to 3D resin prints and converted plastic Dark Age historicals in LotR going forward (Victrix vikings=Dunlendings, Perry Agincourt infantry=fiefdoms are my next buys). You'll never catch me at a GW tournament and I'm mostly playing 'what if' scenarios with my kids....   ...our next game is Deep Rock Galactic Moria where a scout party of dwarves have to explore post-Balrog Moria and maybe grab some loot before goblins swarm them.

But the official rules themselves are simple, familiar, and despite all minis acting individually can scale up to large battles: it hits a sweet spot of just enough depth and just enough simplicity. They've stood the test of time and have remained relatively consistent, clean and unchanged; aging well over 20 years. LoTR is Monicca Bellucci to 40K's Pamela Anderson. Not only does it have a very strong background and lore of its own (Tolkien's universe is arguably THE fantasy benchmark to the wider world) but you can use the rules as a toolbox for everything from gladiators to musketeers with very little adjustment (and most times someone has done the hard work already). While it shines best in scenarios and narrative battles, it's also got that GW aspect where finding opponents isn't impossible, and if a new player wanted to go 'competitive' and find tournaments you could.

*For those interested - some generic 'finalists' rulesets I tested with the kids were the Goalsystem method (varying amounts d6, count successes of 4+) and also the multiple dice of  Savage Worlds (TN of 4+, use different dice d4-d12 depending on stats) which I initially preferred for more consistent mechanics, but the very strong LotR lore, ability to handle large groups of 50 as well as small warbands, and ability to easily adapt to settings such as pirates, vikings, samurai and cowboys anyway meant ME:SBG won out...

But for me, Lord of the Rings is a great entry point to wargaming. Read the books, watch the movies and then roll the dice...

Thursday 6 July 2023

Game Design #93: Musings on Movement

Movement makes games fun and dynamic. Think of the reverse: a camping sniper in a FPS. Or a stationary artillery unit who simply clicks on enemies to delete them. They can be effective, but are not 'fun.' Not a lot of 'tactics' are involved.

Imagine a wargame which is just two armies facing each other across a bare table. Neither side needs to move. They just toss dice until one side is destroyed. Not much fun or tactics involved.

Actual warfare is mostly about maneuver. Forcing the enemy to vacate and give you possession of 'something' (be it a strategic building, oil reserves or a whole country) is usually the end goal of a fight.

I've been thinking about movement in games of late, and I'll try to tie the random ideas into a coherent whole.... 

My son's 6mm Irregular 100 Yrs War. A weird birthday present for an 8 year old, but it's what he asked for. Perhaps not surprising, as his current favourite PC games is the LoTR mod for the ancient Medieval Total War 2. I also realize how much I hate painting multi-figure units even in a tiny scale...

1.Movement not Massacre

Most wargames are too bloody and focussed on killing enemies. I've discussed this elsewhere, but a normal round of fire in an average wargame has a 10-25% chance of killing. In most cases, lethality is way too high.

I like in MESBG how most melee results in a 'push back' - disordering the enemy line, handing the winner an advantage positionally and allowing 2v1 'gang ups' later - a losing isn't necessarily lethal now but creates a positional disadvantage which results in lethality later.

This is historically accurate - most casualites occur AFTER an enemy has 'broken' and is in retreat. After the shieldwall has been pushed back or broken apart (movement) then comes the slaughter (massacre).  Even the bloodiest battles in the rifle era - ACW for example - would have fatality rates under 5% for the entire battle.

TL:DR Wargames have too many troops re-moved (dead) vs moved. Should there be less removal, more movement as an effect?

1A. Morale and Movement

Piggybacking onto the above - morale is rarely an area where wargames put in much effort. Admittedly, it's not particularly fun - it's probably more fun to kill a bunch of enemies then be killed yourself rather than your unit spend half the game hiding in a ditch.

A typical game tends to have a few states - firearm-era games tending to have more.

"Suppressed/shaken" - units won't move forward, maybe -1 to hit/be hit

"Pinned" - units locked in place, can't retaliate, maybe fall back into cover

"Legging it" - unit makes forced sprint towards own table edge

"Evaporate" - remove the whole unit - the survivors have left the fight completely never to return

90% of games use some or all of the above. For example, fantasy-medieval MESBG mostly has 'suppressed' - a mini can't move towards terrifying enemies if it fails a roll, and 'evaporate' - if a mini fails a morale roll once you have 50% casualties, your dude is just removed. 

Overall, there doesn't seem to be much innovation in this area. If most of the time battles result in forced movement rather than outright removal of troops - why don't we have more robust mechanics for this?

TL:DR Morale rules (which could address the movement vs massacre) tend to be basic and lacking innovation.

1B. Movement vs Missiles

Another factor on the movement vs massacre: The relative gun range+effectiveness vs movement speed can impact movement. The usual 24" shoot, 6" move - with say 4+ to hit and then 4+ to kill (25% lethality). Now, what if gun range was reduced to 12*" and movement was increased to 12". Would we see more maneuver? Or, if lethality of missiles were toned down - sat 5+ to hit, 5+ to kill (10% lethality). *(Reminds me of the ludicrously short gun ranges in Warmachine or Bolt Action) 

Terrain is also a factor in the effectiveness side of things. But how many games specifically discuss terrain? (size, % of table, distance from each other, firing lanes). Terrain can have a big impact on army balance, but it is also not often discussed (this kinda links with #2 below).

TL:DR When missile weapons are involved, their range/effectiveness impacts the movement vs massacre

2. Setup: First Movement

The setup of miniatures is in effect the first movement or starting positions for the first movement. Or even to setting up terrain which blocks or aids movement (by blocking missiles). Most games put very little effort into this.

"Roll a dice - winner chooses the baseline or whether to deploy first or second.  Units are placed 6-12" from your baseline. Or players take turns putting down models 6-12" from the baseline.

There. I just described 90% of rules' setup phase.  

This could be a very tactical phase. Very few games do this. Too Fat Lardies Chain of Command has a pregame phase where you move contact markers until they are 'locked' in position by enemy contact markers - kinda like scouts locating each other. This then determines the 'spawn points' where units arrive.

I've been experimenting with simpler systems i.e. in my homebrew tank rules, light tanks/infantry arrive turn 1, medium tanks turn 2, and assault/heavies on turn 3. Units can dice to arrive sooner but risk arriving with a damaged engine (reliable vs unreliable traits help here).  The spawn point can be anywhere out of LoS of enemy units and can be anywhere up to sprint move from the table edge (reward more mobile vehicles).

Game designers spend a lot of time trying out new mechanics which are basically new ways to roll dice and have the same end effect. Dice are just RNG. 

In boardgames, games like Catan and Carcassone - the setup (placing tiles) pretty much IS the game. Why not a 'placing terrain' mini-game? Why not a minigame including scout units where they duel for position? Why not some sort of resource management mechanic for setup/deployment/terrain?

TL:DR The setup phase of a game (where you first introduce and move models) is pretty unexplored.

3. Movement Order - Move->Fight or Fight->Move

What if you resolved all the shooting and combat and then saw who could move? Try not to get bogged in specifics but think big picture. I'm not saying one method is best but think how many games do this:

Move, then shoot and resolve effects. 

Units can do this all one side (All Side A, then all Side B), or alternately within individual units (like Chess); but usually movement occurs first, and combat effects second.

Why not resolve all combat results first, then see who can move after the dust settles? Maybe make combat effect movement (pushbacks, pins, etc) rather than killing. Then, if the model/unit is free from 'status effects' may it move. I'm thinking specifically modern combat where I see (IRL) soldiers shooting/suppressing, THEN moving across to the next bit of cover.

Maybe I'm overthinking things and there's no overall difference? Or I'm just hyper-focussing too much on one relatively unimportant aspect of the 'initiative/move order' spectrum?

I've been playing with this in my "Tank Mordhiem" rules where you usually move first, then shoot; but can opt to shoot (snapshot) in the move phase for a penalty/under severe limitations; or move in the shoot phase at half/quarter speed. I probably need to dig out Crossfire - I'm pretty sure movement was abstracted/limitless until stopped by combat - an interesting angle on movement vs missiles.

TL:DR Most games always have movement first, then resolve combat - whether as whole armies or individual units. Are there situations/eras of warfare where it would be good to reverse this?

This post may be a bit of a rambling collection of semi-related points, but I'm currently really interested in movement in games at the moment, probably because of playtesting my own homebrew rules. In one sci fi skirmish system, I had a (overly) complex reaction system that resulted in paralysis (the lethality was fine, but there was too much opportunity making missiles too effective). In my tank game, I'm trying to balance the fact slow/stationary tanks should shoot better and sooner, while avoiding static gameplay where two tanks simply peek from cover and exchange fire until someone loses. In addition, I'm playing a lot of ME:SBG with my son, and really noticed how the very simple 'push back' rule adds some interesting 'micro' the overall game.