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.


  1. Re 3. LaSalle 1e has something like this.
    Each turn starts with a "Reaction" phase where units react to enemies close to them. This usually means shooting, changing formation, or possibly counter-charging?

    This is then followed by Combat where the fight, if the "close" units are in contact, then Activities/Movement, and finally a Status phase for rallying and so on.

    I'm not sure how much of a difference it makes, but it does work pretty well.

  2. I always go back to the hex-and-counter wargames ala SPI and Avalon Hill. They published a lot of trash in their time, I'm not saying they're a gold standard, but most combat effects were no effect or a retreat and units were almost only ever destroyed by retreating into enemy units. It made for dynamic battle lines and maneuver being the most important aspect of the game instead of RNG luck.

    For your problem with game lethality does it make you "feel better" to think of casualties as small morale failures instead of kills? It's not even a cosmetic change, but would you prefer a game to couch combat loses as fleeing or fleeing + WIA/KIA?

    1. I'm not a fan of 'routed models magically beamed up and vanish' in games like LotR so wording won't make me feel better about it! If I fire a gun and the model vanishes it has effectively removed the model as if it was dead, and it's 'lethality' or ability to deplete an enemy force is the same no matter how you slice it.

  3. I know you've said it before, but I felt it needed being brought up given the last paragraph in your post. If the purpose of the game is to kill everyone the optimal strategy for a side with ranged weapons will be to hide in cover and hope the other guy exposes themselves, if melee is your factions thing then the scrum in the center will be how to win games. If there's no point to the game beyond killing the other side creating interesting mechanics makes little difference as most of the game will end up being the same.

    In addition to setup being largely unexplored, meaningful scenarios (ie. Killing your opponent isn't the best way to achieve victory) are another largely unexplored aspect of movement in miniatures games - the why behind movement that should drive all the other decisions a player makes.

  4. I am glad you mention set-up and terrain placement as an actual part of the game play. I have a few posts exploring this idea myself, as so much of a wargame is dictated by starting position and terrain.

    I have been experimenting with a game that using LOS as a resource and random terrain generation in game. You start the game with a barren table. The game "develops" as you play it. The downside is that you lose the "spectacle" of a wargame though. Not sure if it is worth the trade-off to be honest.

    1. Agh it seems I remain "anonymous" (eM here) - blogger has been weird lately - but funny you should say this I've just cut out a few dozen MDF sheets 30x30cm to make a board that I "lay down" like dungeon tiles as they are revealed.

      I plan on using it two ways: one, for a dungeon-crawl where I lay down tiles as my sons' warband explores (kinda picking up/removing them as they move, keeping the map 'centred' on them like a top-down PC RPG) and....

      ...where they are laid down from each sides' baseline and placed as the models advance i.e there is 6 rows and the middle rows are placed last as the models move towards each other....
      (is this second method a bit like what you are doing?)

  5. Much worse! LOL

    I use a randomization method where tokens are placed on the table to represent a place where terrain maybe located. Then, when models get within LOS, it randomly determines the terrain from a pool set aside at the beginning of the game. Relatively clunky as there are also tokens for potential enemies and spawn points as well. Still for sure in the playtest stage.

    Revealing tiles seems like a better idea. However, is the terrain 2D mostly?

  6. A random thought on movement and morale.

    I frequently "evaporation" as a pretty common element to games now. I guess people got tired of wasting time and energy on moving units that were "broken" with little or no chance of rallying and just preferred the unit "disappearing" off the battlefield. Realistic? No, but tidy, simple and didn't interrupt the spectacle of it all.

  7. Hello to all
    In Conquest, the fasters units start from the first round and the others will arrive later.
    I think the best is do 2 actions and don't think if it is better move after o before attack.
    I was in the army and one platoon moves while other is firing and after that the platoon that was firing moves and the other overwatch (more or less).
    Sorry for mu english