Tuesday 24 October 2023

Game Design #100: Rules Complexity vs Tactical Decisions and the "No Measuring" Wargames

I've been thinking about simplicity, abstraction and streamlining due to my own homebrew jet rules. I guess the question I've been asking is "where do I sit" and "is abstracting this a good tradeoff? Do I lose too much depth by doing x?"

Personally, in my gaming preferences - I've decided Infinity was too complex, although it has many decisions and depth. I've decided Song of Blades was too shallow. I like ME:SBG level - while not great at anything, it is just simple enough and has just enough decisions/depth.

It's certainly not a crusade to say "simplicity bad" (actually it's the opposite for me) but as usual, question why certain mechanics are used and what the implications are.

The Rules Complexity (Mental Load) vs Player Decisions (Tactics/Depth)

The board games are, obviously not directly comparable to the wargames, but are just to help make the graph axis make sense.

Whenever I look at rules, my question was usually 'is the complexity the extra rule/mechanic adds worth it? Does it bring enough new tactics to justify the mental effort?' but lately has been 'does the simplification remove too much depth?'  

I.e where is the rulebook on the x & y axis? And which way is it moving?

The complexity ("lots of rules") equates to mental load on the player. Infinity (100s of special rules) and Warmachine (lots of interacting special rules and potential 'gotchas' have a higher mental load than average. Necromunda has a higher rules complexity than War CryGo is much simpler than Chess but has similar high levels of decision making and tactics (and thus serves as my 'ideal').

A good 'complexity' criteria is: do players pick it up fast OR do you need to consult the rulebook a lot?

Player decisions are how often and how important player decisions are in influencing the outcome. Are there opportunities for the player to impact the action through their decisions? (Tactics/Depth). Or is it just random dice rolling, where we could remove the terrain and miniatures altogether and get a similar, random result. 

A good 'tactics' criteria is: Do good players win consistently? Do positioning of units and player choices matter? Or does luck control the game?

I personally prefer low complexity, high decisions - buuuut lots of decisions aren't always desirable either. I liked the movie Inception but I wouldn't want to watch it tired on Friday arvo after work.  Sometimes high complexity seems needful or desirable - e.g. naval/age of sail gamers seem to require a certain amount of 'crunch.' So obviously personal preferences determine what we play.


No Measuring: Unlimited Movement/Shooting

I've been thinking about this lately as I work out what to abstract in my homebrew jet rules and it has popped up a few times lately on this blog, so I'd thought I'd share my musings.

I've covered "single stat" mechanics ages ago (and why they do not necessarily add simplicity, esp in genres requiring differentiation between units). I'd like to explore the concept of unlimited movement and firing ("look ma, no ruler!") and I'm going to go against the cool kids by questioning their value.

The 'no measure' ideas has been around forever: first for me was Crossfire 10-15 years back. No measuring tends to need a heavy investment in terrain to add tactical choices, and games do play differently, but there are other aspects to consider.

No ruler does simplify and speed up things (good) - but it does not completely eliminate bending over the table checking LoS etc - and it may come at a cost. It's not an automatic improvement.

Unlimited Shooting vs No Measuring

Unlimited weapon range is not automatically a bad thing. It's logical, if weapon ranges exceed the table. A 28mm (1" tall) man with a modern rifle should be able to range very effectively across a 4' table (which if viewed to scale is about 50-100m).  A company of 6mm musketeers might not. So the answer is "it depends." 

No measuring at all is where I see some problems.

Having unlimited range puts the onus on the importance of terrain to gain an advantage, vs say the 2' threat 'bubble'  created by the generic 24" shooting range. Removing the threat bubble does remove tactical choices.

Also, if you truly go 'no ruler/measureless' it can impact other things. From personal experience, it's difficult to shoot a pistol or bow at 25m (24") let alone 50m. In both history - and even tv shows - range (measurement) has a major impact on lethality. Musketeers might be able to hit targets at 100m - but should they be as effective as they are at 25m? How do you show this without measuring?

If there is no measuring, you may lose important differentiation and tactics between weapon types. E.g. what stops a semiautomatic pistol outsniping a semiauto rifle across the table?  What extra rules (complexity) will need to be put in place to prevent this?

So while 'no measuring' does speed up play, there are gameplay disadvantages.

Unlimited Movement

This is usually not truly unlimited. If you could teleport anywhere on the board, you kinda remove the difference between melee and missile troops and make an argument for removing the board altogether!

Usually, 'measureless' movement means: you can move unlimited distance in a straight line until (a) you hit an obstacle/terrain (b) want to pivot (c) are interrupted by an opponent reacting - or some similar combination of the above.

The Danger of Doing too Much

When a unit takes its 'turn' every other unit on the table is frozen in place while it does its business. This is usually bad. I've discussed this in posts about actions per turn. To recap:

The more a unit does in its turn, the longer everyone else is effectively frozen and the less fluid and realistic a game is. Basically: we limit what a unit can do in its turn, otherwise it can rambo around the board killing everyone unopposed. I.e. traditionally a unit might move 6", shoot 24" and roll a single dice with 5+ to kill. If we increase what a model can do - moving 48", shooting 48" and rolling 6 dice with 5+ to kill - a model might be able to wipe out multiple enemies in a single activation, without much way for the other player to prevent it. Even if this was 'realistic' it is not fun for the inactive player. The active unit is unreasonably powerful. Unlimited movement can obviously have this effect unless it is artificially constrained.

Unlimited movement abstracts the implicit time/ground scale, potentially to the ridiculous

A unit's "turn" is a 'slice of time' - even if not explicitly stated.  E.g. we can suppose a Necromunda turn is measured in a dozen seconds or less; while a Jutland-size WW1 naval battle may be measured in a dozen minutes. We can sense when a scale is "off" i.e. in Bolt Action 28mm WW2 rifles shooting only 24" where bullets cannot reach the length of a bridge. There is an implicit scale in all wargames, which is shown by what your minis can do in that timeframe and the distances involved. Removing measurement messes with this implied scale.

If a unit can move unlimited distance, we could now have a unit whizz across to the enemy baseline, getting behind all the enemies; while 30 opponents stand around doing nothing. Now typically 'unlimited' rules avoid this by making units move in a straight line, until they hit something. Or when they want to pivot and head a different direction. The implied scale is thrown out the window. It's like a man sprinting 250m+, but in the same time another guy runs 25m until he hits a waist high hurdle, and stops dead. Also in the same time, a second guy runs 50m, then turns and stops dead. Simply turning 90d or vaulting a fence should not make that much difference/take that much comparative effort. Cinematic... ....or silly?

Unlimited movement, like unlimited shooting, relies heavily on much carefully laid-out terrain to create tactics. 

On a featureless board with unlimited movement, there is little difference between shooting and melee - you can either shoot or - equally easily - zoom across the board to melee them. A sword and a sniper rifle are the same. You may as well remove the board and minis altogether. A game with unlimited movement or shooting tends to rely on the players to have (or be willing to make) significant terrain.

Reaction mechanics - adding complexity to solve a self-made problem?

A common workaround to stop units zooming around unopposed are reaction mechanics. These allow non-active units to respond and 'interrupt' the active players by shooting or perhaps charging them.  However reaction units adds a whole new layer of rules, slows the game and detracts from the 'simpler + faster' argument. It also feels like it is fixing a self-created problem: adding a reaction mechanic (complexity) to fix a problem created by the unlimited movement mechanic (attempted simplification).

Neither 'measureless' mechanics completely eradicate the need to stoop over tables with a ruler to check line of sight/if a move is straight - half the time all you are doing is eliminating the need to read the numbers on the ruler.

But.... measureless/unlimited range games play differently and I like it! If this is the reason (or it pushes some desired aspect of gameplay) go for it! Removing measuring or movement does not make a bad game. It just makes it different. 

However, my caution is removing measurement simply to 'streamline' and 'simplify' a game (or just cos it seems cool) may be false economy: losing too much in tactical depth/realism/gameplay - i.e. unintentionally moving the game down into the Yahtzee corner of my sketch above - or countering this by adding in extra mechanics like reactions and thus ending up in the same spot...

TL:DR So... unlimited/measureless anything bad?

No. I'm not saying that at all. I've had fun playing many unlimited range/move rules. However from a game design sense I'd be wary of making them a core 'feature' of the game - although it may be a major selling point for some folk. I.e. I'd make it 'a' feature (like in Rogue Planet which had an interesting resource pool as well) not 'the' feature.

-I think unlimited range weapons make sense in modern+ settings, but it may be difficult to remove all reference to range (no measurement) without losing important depth or differentiation. 

-Unlimited movement I am more ambivalent about - within a narrative RPG and similar it's fine, but in a wargame - and that's what we're discussing here - it makes a lot of tradeoffs for its benefits. 

Again, it's not 'x mechanic is best' and 'only play x game, your choice in games suck' - game preference varies wildly - but rather from a design standpoint:

 'What should we abstract?'...   ...'is x mechanic really that good?' 

Is too much 'lost' in the simplification/abstraction?  Are the benefits of adding complexity 'worth it?'


  1. * When I say "equalizing melee & ranged combat" I don't mean that a sword gets unlimited range, what I mean is that melee fighters can charge over unlimited distance to balance missile fighters unlimited range. Of course there's still a difference in that a melee fighter has to move into actual contact with his opponent.

  2. I don't disagree with you at all, as to measureless games offering a different, more unpredictable (more fun, for many) gaming experience.

    If it is marketed as simpler AND more tactical (or realistic) then I'm currently unconvinced.

    Once you start introducing templates, movement sticks, is it really 'no measuring' though? I.e. SoBH measuring triangles mixed with unlimited shooting might offer a decent amount of differentiation.

    As to the "allowing unlimited measurement units to do too much" I probably wasn't clear in my example? My example was for a conventional wargame unit with a RoF 6 weapon (far more than usual) that can move many times further than the conventional. I agree most unlimited wargame units ARE pretty limited in their 'actions', but what I was trying to say was unlimited is a similar form of 'active unit can do too much' - i.e. move too far, even shoot too far (depends on genre) - unless constrained by terrain, pivot rules, reactions etc.

    I do get the idea of turns being flexible increments of time (there's lots of boring downtime in battles - though I would imagine turns in say Rogue Planet would all be in varying amounts of seconds), and indeed 'traditional' wargames do similar by allowing extra actions/AP etc for better units. However the way measureless often uses it (one guy sprints the length of the table, the other moves 2", pivots and freezes or runs into a fence and halts) feels awkward. I can rationalise it, but it gives the feel of 'everyone standing around while one guy runs 200m'

    I'm home today so off to throw out some of my kids junk while they are away....


  3. Nunca jugué un juego "sin medidas" y de entrada, no me parece la mejor opción.
    Creo que la forma de que algo no tenga medida es ponerle límites por otro lado para compensar el no usar mediciones.
    En el juego de mesa Heroes of Normandie, la mayoría de armas tienen alcance ilimitado aunque reciben un penalizador a partir de x casillas. Para compensar esto, el movimiento es limitado y hay mucha cobertura (entre otras cosas).
    Y me gusta ver el turno como una fracción de tiempo y el movimiento/disparo limitados. Juego ambientaciones de antiguos, medievales y de fantasía y creo que funciona bien en estos géneros.
    También hay que valorar que no medir, desde mi punto de vista, es algo que me frena. No puede ser igual disparar a distancia corta que larga, no puede ser igual maniobrar a poca velocidad que a toda velocidad.
    No obstante, esto es muy interesante y escucho cualquier opción.

    1. Measureless games can be fun. They certainly are different, and can appeal after a diet of 40K etc - quite 'trendy.'

      It's just by abstracting key gaming elements like time and space, there is of course an impact on gameplay - which is not without significant drawbacks, and does not necessarily simplify play.

      I certainly suggest you try a measureless game, like Rogue Planet. I just like to explore the mechanisms behind games - e.g. I spent ages whinging about 40K's IGOUGO and held out alternate movement (like Chess) as a better option. But then as games increasingly switch to alt move, you can see the drawbacks in that! (more units = more tactical choice).


    2. No soy muy de ambientación futurista pero echaré un ojo a Rogue Planet, aunque de entrada soy un poco escéptico.

    3. I'm not 'selling' Rogue Planet in particular (It's good but I don't play it much personally), but it does have some unusual mechanics worth looking at if you are interested in game design - resource management, pawns and unlimited movement.

      More detail:




  4. Personally, I don't like unlimited movement because I like wargames to be grounded with some sort of time-motion limits that correspond to the real world. Remove certain flavors of 'realism,' and I'm out. IMO, movement probably ought to trade speed vs safety. If you are sprinting, you aren't using cover, and risk tripping.

    OTOH, in a modern game, I like unlimited range with limited effectiveness. Distance should trade in an 'iron triangle' against accuracy and/or RoF where a shooter can only pick two, lol.

    Short answer, I don't like unlimited movement and unlimited range, because the real world generally doesn't work that way.

    - GG

  5. You're right, it's better to talk of unlimited movement & range rather than "no measuring" but that doesn't really change the rest of my argument. As for, moving many times further than conventional, sure, that's the whole point. It's exactly this possibility that makes these gamees tactically more interesting. When it comes to "realism" and "feel", I understand that someone firmly entrenched in the more conventional approach finds this hard to get. You do have to make a mental switch and some gamers can't or just don't want to. Which is again fine, but says more about them than about the rules really. I don't mean that in a negative way.

  6. I would like to point out that shooty games with measured movement also require a lot of terrain, because typically the weapon ranges are much longer than the movement allowances. In some skirmish games guns can shoot so far that given the limited size of the tabletop, the measured range is just nominal, in practice it's unlimited with only miniatures at the edges of the battlefield being out of range. You can say that is realistic, but unfortunately it can also be boring and very inappropriate to some fantasy & sci-fi genres.

    1. Unlimited range is extremely realistic for skirmish games, but effectiveness, accuracy and recovery/reaction speed will still vary between weapons and users. It's also very realistic to require a LOT of terrain when you look at the real world, anywhere from 50% to 100% coverage. 25% coverage (which might not block LoS) as in GW games simply isn't sufficient. If we're playing skirmishes on a 4' x 3' field, then it's really not out of the question to require each player to bring 2 square feet of terrain for 67% coverage.

  7. A TL:DR to refocus....

    The OP refers to measureless games which claim 'look ma no measuring' as a feature, implying simplicity and improved play.
    The premise is measureless can be interesting and fun and are not 'bad', but are not without flaws, nor are they necessarily simpler.

    Some areas highlighted include:

    1. Measureless games are very reliant on terrain to stop units whizzing across the whole battlefield AND shooting across the battlefield
    2. They lack threat/weapon effectiveness bubbles of measured games which removes some tactics
    3. They can struggle to differentiate between weapon types (not just rifle vs pistol but even melee vs missile)
    4. The more an active unit does, the more obvious that every other unit is standing around = bad in sense of less realistic/less fun for passive player. Measureless movement can allow units to do/move too much unless constrained by say running into a hedge or turning 90d or something equally arbitrary.
    5. Wargames all have an implied time scale - be it seconds, hours, minutes per turn; usually shown by what you can do in said turn. Obviously, measureless movement stretches/abstracts this chunk of time available to each activation, to an extreme that can appear more 'cinematic' and boardgamey than intuitive - as per 4 above
    6. Adding in reaction mechanics can fix some of the (self created) issues above but reduces simplicity

    It's not "I like y" or "x is more fun" but concerns from a game design standpoint. Any solutions for the above? Maybe it's a just a mechanic suited to certain genres?


    1. I was just thinking why unlimited movement seems 'off' or 'gamey' to me and I think I just realised why.

      If time is flexible, fine - but in a measureless game it ONLY applies to the distance you run, not the amount of actions you take i.e. as someone said in comments, the actions themselves (shoot, melee, etc) are usually fairly limited.

      If a turn allows me to run 48" because the flexible turn 'time' has allowed me to do it - why can't I stay put and fire 5-6x instead? It's kinda logically inconsistent. The time you have to move varies but the time you have to shoot does not.

      "Time is abstract- but ONLY in relation to how far you run - nothing else - not shooting your weapon.... it's not THAT abstract!"

      RANDOM NONRELATED SHOWER THOUGHT: I wonder if measureless movement has an effect like terrain pieces are 'nodes' you can travel between (like planets in a X4 game) with line connecting them, and the rest of the board is less relevant....