Monday 9 October 2023

Game Design #97: 1.5 Actions per Turn and Resource Pools - Controllable Luck

Controllable Luck

My wife, having hated boardgames as a child, is suddenly really enthusiastic about them.  It's cos she has abandoned Monopoly, Risk and Snakes and Ladders and embraced 'newer' games like Catan, Carcassonne - and more particularly, Sagrada and Azul.

It's basically cos new games are much better designed and thus more enjoyable. I could dissect the many, many reasons why they are better, but one in particular they all have in common has stuck in my head.

In many good boardgames, you are dealt your luck FIRST and then you decide what to do with it. A bit like getting a hand of cards - you can see you have a crappy poker hand and plan ahead how to maximize it. This is in contrast to most wargames where you decide on an action and THEN roll to find out if it works or not. Your cool plan may be wrecked by an unlikely roll of the dice.

Now wargames' usual "decide first, then roll to discover you succeeded/failed" is realistic (there is a lot of friction, uncertainty and randomness in warfare) but does it make a good game?

I hate hitpoints, but I understand them. 

Games like the latest '21 Kill Team and Warcry have swapped to use my particular bugbear, hitpoints. 

Hitpoints are fine for some circumstances, like spaceships, but are needless recording (and stupid) in human-scale skirmish games where you can take 9HP from a battleaxe and be perfectly functional, then loose your last 1HP from a rabbit bite and fall dead. /rant

I understand WHY they use them though. Mordhiem or Necromunda could be so punishing - a bad roll or two permanently deletes your lovingly painted mini - or allows an enemy to survive an impossible series of blows. Exasperating. Having hitpoints allows for some incremental progress and less binary dead/alive results. Even with bad rolls, you will nibble some HP off a foe.  Hitpoints - aka having a wider, more predictable spread of results - can ease the swing of luck. I reckon it's why 'buckets of d6' tend to be more popular than a single d20. It may give similar results but seems less punishing and tends to give a more predictable 'average.'

Resource Pools - Controlling Luck

...Anyway, I was talking about predictable luck (or being dealt your luck first). No, I'm not advocating a deck of cards (I haven't found one card-based wargame that didn't seem gimmicky-for-the-sake of it). Nor am I saying you must pre-roll a 'hand' of dice  (although that could be fun). 

I'm talking about resource mechanics, where you get a pool of actions (or bonuses of some sort). Spending the resource allows you to take extra actions or modify your luck. LoTR:SBG (and it's "Legends of" historical spin offs) did this with assigning Might to heroes. This finite resource (usually 1-3 per hero) could be "spent" to allow a mini (and allies nearby) to act out of sequence, perform extra combats, and modify dice rolls to mitigate luck. This elevated the games' rather basic activation mechanics (Side A Move, Side B Move, Side A Shoot, Side B shoot, Both Melee) and added a lot of depth and decisions - to the extent that there is a rule of thumb of "1 Might (resource) per 100pts (6-7 minis)" - i.e. too little Might allows an opponent with more to control the battle too much.

Random Aside: ...Amusingly, as I was designing a sci fi 15mm game for my son, I decided on a similar-to-LoTR activation (as my son knows how to play this), only instead of only heroes with Might the whole army generated 1 "Resource" or "Order" per squad or hero, to be spent universally, in a similar way. I then thought "rather than it be guaranteed, maybe either roll to generate the order or to spend it (with rookie units having less % chance than a veteran unit)....     ...and realised the mechanics I was describing was remarkably similar to FFG's Dust, with extra steps.  A game I haven't seen anywhere since about 2013...

1.5 APT (Controlling Luck through Choice of Actions)

Note: This is more a specific random example to illustrate how luck can be controlled in a different way, rather than a broad recommendation like 'resource mechanics are good.'

Most wargames allow your mini to take 2 actions. Move + Shoot. Move + Melee. Move + Move (aka Sprint). Sometimes Shoot+Shoot. Now for a game to be as 'real time' as possible, all units on both sides should act simultaneously. Failing that, they should do a small action, minimizing the time the enemy spends 'frozen' unable to respond.

The less actions your unit can do, the less time the opponents are unrealistically frozen. However we don't want our lovingly painted mini to do nothing. A few historical games have turns end abruptly, leaving minis 'stranded' without having ever activated. They call it friction, and I see why this mechanic is used - but I just think it feels unfun.  

So my homebrew rules tend to have 1-2 actions - i.e. 1 guaranteed action, and another 'maybe' action if the right circumstances are fulfilled. Now just rolling a dice against say a "Skill" stat does not implement any decision making from the player, but can be used to signal when initiative switches (i.e fail a roll, other player can start activating his minis). This is not ideal, but some decisions can be implemented - say if you take only 1 action you may retain the initiative (risk vs reward). 

I also like to encourage behaviour with modifiers. This is obvious normally, in any wargame. Let's say using a d6, you hit in melee on a 4+ and wound on a 5+. But when shooting you hit on a 3+ and wound on a 4+. There is no incentive to melee and every reason to stand off your opponent - it's more lethal. But if melee was 3+ to hit and 3+ to wound, and shooting was 6 to hit, 6 to wound - you are likelier to go hand-to-hand. Another example is in Infinity that shooting is very punishing unless you are in cover, where you get whopping +4 to both avoiding being hit and also +4 to your wound roll. You are strongly incentivized to avoid standing in the open.

I like to apply this to my 1.5 APT activation - so if you choose particular second action or combination of actions you are more likely to get a second action. In my tank rules, a stabilized US tank gets a +2 to it's activation roll if it moves and shoots. So there is an incentive to roll forward and shoot. A German tank with better optics may get +2 to acquire and shoot but an overworked Soviet crew may get a -2; allowing German tanks to get the first shot off. A tank with bad reverse gear may get a -2 if any movement is a reverse move.You can control your odds of getting a second action by the action/s you choose.

At the same time it allows you to program the way a unit will act most of the time; modifying the action roll to strongly influence the controlling player to choose particular actions - or play a particular way.  I'm fiddling with tying this to a chart for solo play - a kinda if/then tree based off the optimal choice.

....While this seems completely different to a resource pool, it's just another, different example of allowing you to better control your luck - by choosing actions with likelier/unlikelier outcome.  

EDIT: You can also respond the the bad luck (getting 1 action not 2) - which has occurred prior the actions - by choosing which action to keep/or a new action, making the bad luck more manageable.

TL:DR While it may be less 'realistic' having more methods to control luck makes for a better game.


  1. También puedes realizar una sola acción, pero que sea "doble" como que mover sea mover+mover, cargar sería mover+atacar, algo así.
    Estoy creando un juego de guerra y estoy por ese camino.
    Mi opción de riesgo/recompensa no la tengo clara aún, pero espero que llegue pronto mi inspiración.
    Yo también odio los puntos de vida, aunque soy muy quisquilloso y no soporto tampoco las piscinas de dados, los marcadores, etc...
    Actualmente estoy centrado en buscar una mecánica para "niebla de guerra".
    Gracias por este blog, es fantástico. Mi guía espiritual en esto junto a Blood and espectacles. Muchas gracias de verdad.
    Ánimo y suerte en tus proyectos. Un abrazo desde España.

    1. You can make a single action a 'double' - i.e. move+shoot as a single action - but it's still 'two things'. I want it so 'doing two things' is never guaranteed. I.e sometimes you must choose to move OR shoot (decision point) not automatically get to do both. But you always get to do 'something' - if the choice was 0 or 1 action you may effectively miss a turn with a mini - not fun!

      Fog of war is very difficult to do without an umpire. I've struggled with this with aerial wargames. "Blinds" are the most common (a token that represents the unit that is revealed when enemies pass a detection check or similar; but both players can still see the token aka 'blind'.

      It's a lot of work and a bit of a pain as both players can sort of see/guess the blinds anyway unless you have dummy blinds (extra work) or having random forces (difficult to plan for).

      My favourite fog of war/detection is heavily restricting vision ranges/arcs that increase with 'noise' or 'activity' - in my homebrew tank game for example you automatically spot a tank at 18", but +6" if moving, +12" if firing, halve if in cover. Tanks also have a narrow 90d forward vision arc.

      You CAN attempt to spot tanks outside/beyond this range/arc with a dice roll, but it uses up an action which could otherwise be spent moving or shooting.

      This means you can often avoid a dice roll if you can 'eyeball' and guess that criteria are met (i.e. enemy is close and dead in front = no need to roll)

      So my detection/fog of war is more about acquiring/locking the target rather than attempting to hide the target.

    2. Muy cierto lo de las dos acciones, ciertamente tiene razón. Yo trabajo en esa línea aunque para su juego no sea lo que busca. Me chirría un poco el tirar para ver si hago otra acción (como en Warmaster por ejemplo) e intento reducir al máximo las tiradas.
      Lo de las ciegas es como me planteo de momento la niebla de guerra, he de reconocer que en algunos juegos (como Space Hulk) me encantaba, pero siempre intento buscar algo má un necio y un terco, lo sé.
      Muchas gracias por la respuesta, un placer este blog.

    3. I agree rolling for each unit is a bit clunky - I'm certainly not advocating that as the 'best' method - it's just an example of having less than 2 actions. Another way to make things more 'simultaneous' is to allow opponents to 'react' to the active player but that also slows things down...

      Big picture: The less your model does when everyone else is sitting still, the more 'real time' it is.

      Resource pools are another layer of 'work' although most wargames 'need' another layer to add interest - in historical games it might be offboard artillery and airstrikes, in sci fi or fantasy hacking or magic... ...or even a mechanic that limits orders (which kinda acts like a pool).

      I'm not advocating any particular method - I'm more interested in the broader picture: "Does my game have ways to control the probability?"


    4. Interesting. I use a 1-free activation and a roll for additional activations. Therefore, you can always do one, but more is a risk. I see this is a way to create risk not skew probability.

    5. I think you are describing the method I am; but focussing on the risk aspect (fail to get your extra action and it becomes opponent turn or something)

      I agree it can work this way, but I used it as an example of the 'preloaded luck' aspect. I.e. you roll and may get one action or two.
      The 'luck' has already happened (like in a Euro boardgame), now you need to decide how to do the best with it. You WANTED two actions but only get 1 - now which one will you choose? Or do you get to choose another action instead?

      It's like poker (or bridge which I played a lot as a kid<-ok this sounds odd) sometimes you get a crappy hand but can do well with it, comparatively. The luck was PRIOR the decision...
      It's different than having a awesome idea but failing a roll.

      Random roll-player decides action-result (boardgame)
      Player decides action-random roll-results (usual wargame)

      The decision point occurs AFTER the dice roll, not before it...

      I'm not sure if I've articulated this well... :-/


    6. As a former Bridge player, once you get down to actually playing a hand, there's basically no luck involved. There's a certain small amount of guessing and misdirection, but we're taking max 5% variance from optimal play, and almost certainly less than that in duplicate competition. I've topped the occasional hand for big points, but that's less than 1%. Bridge is highly deterministic to the point that one can almost always "claim" the last few tricks. In a sense, the gameplay itself is almost more of a puzzle than anything else.

      There aren't many wargames like bridge, and I strongly hesitate to consider modeling any sort of wargame after it.


  2. My latest battle concept is that players are randomly dealt a few tactics cards, secretly choose one, then simultaneously reveal, with a dice off to determine relative success.

    In a fighting context, I might choose Feint vs your Block, where I succeed on a 2 or less, while you succeed on a 5+.

    - GG

    1. También hay juegos como Clash of Spears donde al realizar más de una acción se acumulan contadores de fatiga, que merman a la unidad y que pueden retirarse con acciones como descansar, aunque no estoy demasiado familiarizado con él.
      Un amigo y yo jugamos con un reglamento casero hecho por él , donde las unidades en el área de mando de un líder tienen dos acciones y el resto una. Hay unidades como exploradores o vanguardia que pueden hacer dos acciones aunque no estén en el área de mando de un líder.
      Sólo ofrezco algunas opciones.

  3. Also, if Monopoly and Risk were her childhood boardgames, there should be an understanding that neither is particularly child friendly. Monopoly is specifically designed to drive most players into bankruptcy, for a total loss - it's much more suited towards older adults who understand financial independence. Risk is a little more kid friendly "winner take all", as I appreciate how it cinemarically ramps into huge sledgehammer plays; however, there's maybe a little too much blaming bad luck for bad strategy.

    - GG

  4. I've never thought about incentivising behavior through improving the chance of follow on actions, that's a really neat approach. I've used "natural" formations - a certain shield unit gains x defense of they are touching another shield unit, or a 2-h weapon unit gets a bonus if there are no friendlies within y inches - so players naturally space and move units in ways that make sense for the setting. I wonder if putting both approaches together would further improve "fitting" okay or create too many things to remember.

  5. It makes me think of the idea of a Permissive Ruleset vs a Restrictive rule set. Permissive rules sets only focus on bonuses and benefits and typically only add good things. Restrictive narrow your options by using negatives and restriction to hone a players approach and options.

    I.e. if you have flankers you gain +2 is permissive. Attacking without a flank attack is -2 is Restrictive. Both are using mods to try to shape a players actions, but in different ways.