Monday, 12 February 2018

Domina - Gladiator Management (PC)

This is an awesome game. 

It's also a good game if you're more wargamer than PC gamer. 

You manage your own ludus, with a stable of gladiators who rank up with training and successful fights.  Besides choosing their training regime (modifying their stats) and equipment through your doctore, and allocating gladiators to fights, there's a lot to do between fights; keeping nice with the town magistrate and military commander, organizing exhibition matches and pit fights, as well as organising an array of specialists (doctors, augurs, architects, spies etc).  It's a simple game with a lot to do. There are constant random events (usually with funny stories) that crop up in a RPG fashion.  I like how you can turn your gladiators into specialists, so you have a tool for every fight.

You can upgrade your ludus significantly with baths to assist healing, practice dummies, etc.

Unlike football management games where no one watches the boring actual games, the "games" in Domina contain hilarious and unexpected pixel violence.

If you want to control a gladiator in fights you can; I personally let the AI control the hilariously bloody pixel violence.  The bouts are varied; gladiators chained to the ground, lions, uneven numbers or gear. I haven't even explored the chariot racing yet.

Domina has a vaguely roguelike vibe (keep characters alive/fed/happy/permadeath) and I found myself trying to keep a few better gladiators alive while heartlessly feeding others to the meatgrinder. Everyone, though, is ultimately disposable, though (like X-COM) ending up with only rookies left late on would be punishing.

It's meant to be played in short bursts - there's no full-featured save; so you can't go back to an older save undo your mistakes - and wipe outs do occur (everyone starved to death in an early playthrough when I ran out of money...).

Why chariot race when you can fight instead?

Buy this game. You need no "gaming" skills. You don't need a good computer. You could download it on dial-up (it's 500MB). It's fun.

Do you like campaign or narrative wargames (Mordhiem etc)
Do you like gladiators?
Do you have a dark sense of humour?

If you answered yes to any of these, buy this game.  The downsides are: I suspect it could get repetitive/would be easy to "cheese"/min-max. It's also more a casual game than mainstay of my gaming time.

Recommended? Yes. A blood-spattered thumbs up!

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Shadow War: Armageddon - The New Old Necromunda

"the more things change, the more they stay the same," (Alphonse Karr, 1849)
The "new Games Workshop" has returned with lots of new Specialist Games-style offerings.  Too many for me to afford or test, that's for sure.  Whilst the company policy apparently has changed,their pricing certainly hasn't - $70AUD ($55 USD/40 pounds) - for a softcover rulebook when Privateer is moving to free pdfs - I could buy a Malifaux or Warmachine starter box (with rules) for that price.

Since Shadespire is looking more like a CCG/boardgame hybrid than a miniatures game, my hopes of a "New Mordhiem" seem dashed. But what about the new Necromunda

Well, it's out. But paying  $250AUD for the box set...  ...THEN having to folk over another $50 book to play the campaign (wtf?!)... that's the old mercenary GW at it's best.  It's the equivalent of removing a faction in a PC game (like, say, Warhammer: Total War) so you can sell it later as a DLC.
The old Games Workshop style gouging at it's finest.  About to walk away, I paused when I came across a copy of Shadow Wars.

Campaign skirmish in a hive world? ....sounds familiar. 

That's because it is. Shadow War IS the old Necromunda, with standard 40K factions replacing the gangs, and a lot of interesting campaign options trimmed out/dumbed down.  In fact, you can pretty much stop reading now, as that sentence pretty much summed up these rules.

Shadow War is simply the Necromunda rules (now feeling clunky and outdated) rebadged as an expensive softcover.  They kept the worst bit (the rules themselves) whilst removing/simplifying much of the best bit (the campaign system.)  There's probably some subtle differences (I'm sure there's detailed blow by blow details on some 40K fansite somewhere) but from what I can recall, it's the same game. 

For those pining for Necromunda, Shadow Wars allows you to use your 40K models. Sadly, the rules are dated, and the campaign is simple and bland.

The Shiny
It's comparable to a $40 Warmachine softcover, but just $30 more expensive. It's pretty, but somewhat unintuitive to use.  Unlike the New 2017 Necromunda, it has 15 kill teams AND the campaign rules included (like you'd expect) - so there's that, I suppose.

Activation & Stats
Remember this is Necromunda (aka modified 2nd ed), pretty much word for word. So typical IGOUGO (ignoring any advances in the last 20-odd years) - you do everything with all your dudes, before the opponent can respond. And my goodness, the nostalgia - I haven't seen a stat line as long as  this:  M  WS   BS   S   T   W   I    A   Ldr - outside of a RPG, for years.

Movement
Remember when charging was a double move, rather than a random dice amount added on?  And - yay - not everyone moves 6"- some factions are faster or slower. Like the old Necromunda, there are rules for climbing, hiding, falling etc - and like the old Necromunda I'll still have to houserule what you can do if halfway up a ladder.

Combat
Yup, old-school tables which you need to consult before you can make rolls. And modifiers - lots of modifiers. I'd forgotten just how many. Shooting is very much old-school 40K - but models if hit are automatically pinned. Then there's the roll against toughness. Then a saving throw.  It seems clunky - there's too many steps and modifiers.  Tracking ammo is a pest, as is "flesh wounds"- that is a -1 to BS/WS for the rest of the game. There's good old-school overwatch. Models can usually fire 360d (wasn't the old Necromunda 180? not sure - if so it's the fist change I've noticed). Melee is a different mechanic - roll 1d6 per attack and add the best to the WS. Difference in score is the # of hits scored by the winner. 

Morale
Again, a new mechanic (well, the same as the old one, but this is the third or fourth dice rolling mechanic so far - very inconsistent design) - 2d6 and must roll = or under Ldr to maintain nerve.  If a friendly goes down close by, allies test morale to see if they break. Once 25% of the warband is downed or fled, a bottle test is made for the whole gang - if they fail the game ends.

The art and graphics are nice, but the rules are a bit unintuitive - nice to look at, not particularly handy for actually searching for rules...


Warbands & Campaign
You get up to 10 guys, (more if Orks) including a leader and 2-3 specialists.   Different factions get access to different skill trees.  You can use pretty much all the 40K factions - great! This is why I bought the rules - to reinvigorate many 40K dusty 40K models lying dormant since... 5th ed? 

But Shadow Wars is disappointingly streamlined - as there's no XP, territories, or sending guys out to do odd jobs. You can choose between recruitment or new gear; and you can choose exactly what you want - no need to roll for availability etc.  Even serious injuries are simplified to a d6 - I can see a lot of models will end up with Frenzy. You choose exactly which one character to get a new skill/advance each game. Sounds totally not open to being abused.....  Even on the skill rolls, you choose the type of skill and then roll twice on the table, choosing your favourite - so you have a great chance of getting exactly what you want...  No min-maxing opportunities here, no sir. 

So basically, the best part of Necromunda got dumbed down and ever easier to min-max; though it is much less likely you'd get the "snowball" effect where a winning gang becomes an unstoppable juggernaut after a few games. 

Finally, promethium replaces cash (it's kinda a mix of cash+VP) which you can use to win (once you accrue 15) or hire "free agents" to bolster your force. It feels odd.  Also, when replacing losses you can spend up to 100 points on a new recruit; but many troops cost over 100...   ...so you can't replace elite troops when you lose them?  Again, feels a bit "off."  The scenarios seem the same as the old Necromunda ones.

While I can finally get some use out of my dusty 40K models again, Shadow War leaves me feeling vaguely cheated. 

TL:DR
Well, you could have stopped when I said "exactly the same as old Necromunda, with 40K instead of gangs, with the campaign dumbed down." The new GW hasn't got better at writing rules, that's for sure - and why would they, when they can lazily rehash the older ones?  Worse yet, they streamlined the wrong thing - keeping old clunky game rules, whilst gutting many characterful campaign mechanics.

+ Does allow you to use 40K models to play a campaign game
- You could probably find fan-made 40K gangs on the net for old Necromunda and have the same experience (example links) if GW hasn't shut them down
- Same chaotic rule writing from original Necromunda; dated rules design
- Overpriced for what it is.
- Campaign overly dumbed down; easier to min-max... (seems more league rules than narrative campaign)
+ .....BUT less likely to get overpowered teams after a few wins
- I have to go looking for funky dice like scatter dice, artillery dice etc
- Quite a lot of token clutter for such a simple/old game
 - It feels like it needs house rules (and after spending $70, I'm resentful) 

Recommended: a guarded and resentful Yes merely as it allows you to re-purpose 40K models in an acceptable skirmish campaign; the small numbers needed to play make it affordable; even if the rulebook is a ripoff. But if you have old Necromunda you could probably find house rules on the net that do the same thing, for free. Worse: instead streamlining and modernizing the games rules themselves, GW mistakenly kept the old ones verbatim, but opted to trim the once characterful campaign system to be rather generic, McDonalds and bland.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Fighting Sail: Rules Review

Not sure what it is. Maybe it is the subject matter.  Naval wargamers are notorious rivet counters.  Napoleonics players are so anal retentive they can argue for hours about uniform buttons.  Mix them together in "age of sail" and perhaps it shouldn't surprise that the age of sail rulesets tend to be more chore than game. In the past, I've found the most playable ones tend to have more boardgame than wargame in their DNA.

A typical Osprey, Fighting Sail has a good mix of colour photos and pictures. 

Fighting Sail tries to capture the "feel" of age of sail without the book keeping.  It aims to allow squadrons and fleets rather than 1v1 ship duels.  It has a hint of old-school Warhammer about it; if you hated Trafalgar and Man O War, you are unlikely to approve of Fighting Sail, which is a streamlined descendent; where the odd damage counter is the most book-work you will need.

It is interesting as the victory conditions is to reduce the morale of the entire enemy fleet.

Templates and counters are in the back of the book. Old school!
The Shiny
Fighting Sail is an Osprey book - and all it entails.  Decent pictures, photos and illustrations, standard softcover 64 pages.  A quick reference and photocopy-able templates are at the back. The index isn't great but the book is so small you barely need it. Not a lot to add.  As usual, the price point ($15) is good and makes it hard to criticise.  The author is evidently enthusiastic and includes background info to "set the scene" at the start of each chapter.

Barrier to Entry
A handful of d6, some turn/wind templates (found in the back of the book), and 4-5 colours of tokens for damage, cannon, anchor which is all you need.  As for ships: I regard them as playing pieces, not elaborate models (rigging them with thread etc = sadomasochism) so I recommend Tumbling Dice's 1:2400; they are sturdy and cheap at ~$4ea.

Even in Langton's "Fast Play" rules, you can subtract literally hundreds of hit points in different locations...
 
...and consult charts.  If you love this sort of game, then Fighting Sail - with its odd token to record damage and minimal bookwork - will not appeal to you. Games can occur in an hour, rather than a day. 

Activation/Sequence of Play
Roll d6 to see who goes first.  It is not quite IGO-UGO (or "20 minute dick punches" --thanks for the quote MagicJuggler) - as it is broken into movement and shooting sub-phases;  Player A moves, then Player B moves, then Player A shoots, then Player B shoots.  

Movement
You have wind template to check the ship's angle to the wind. This matters, as each ship has "Sailing Points" - the amount of dice you throw, or "potential" speed.  The success chance depends on the wind angle: a agile frigate might have 5 Sailing Points. It rolls 5d6.  If it is reaching, it gets 2" movement every 4+ rolled.  If it is close hauled to the wind, it might only get a 2" each 5+; if in irons a '6' might be needed to move...    Ships can tack or wear; using a template provided in the back of the book.  There are rules for collisions, entangling, grounding etc as you'd expect.

Ship stats from GW's now-OOP Trafalgar.  Fighting Sail strips back and streamlines this still further - you don't need to record damage anywhere. 

Shooting
It's pretty simple; a 3+, 4+ or 5+ to hit on a d6 (at short, medium and long ranges) as long as the target is not within 30d of your bow (a template is available if needed).

A high roll can cause an "explosion" or critical hit - short range fire causes explosions on 5,6 and medium range on a 6. An "explosion" causes a hit and you get a re-roll.  Normally you only get one re-roll, unless it is raking fire, in which case you can keep rolling as long as you get explosions.

Squadrons of 2-3 ships can combine their fire under the right conditions.

Boarding combat is pretty quick and simple; both sides roll 4+ each boarding dice, and if the attacker wins he captures the ship; if he loses he is beaten off.

Damage
Ships get to roll d6 "saves" - as many d6s as they have "hull" points (so a 3-hull frigate would get 3 rolls) with a 4+ "saving" the damage.

Check the combined hits and consult a list; a single hit might just "disrupt" a ship's sailing ability; all the way to five hits that can cause catastrophic sinking damage.

Hits also cause damage to fleet morale; even if the ship itself is not sunk. This makes sense, as in this era ships were more likely to flee or be captured rather than decisively sunk. I like the focus on morale as a victory condition.

Ships can attempt to repair damage (remove a token). Accumulated damage can also cause a ship to strike as well as halving gunnery and sailing points etc.

A criticism: I think the damage section is the only area I had to re-read to understand; I think key info was spread over too many pages.

It's nicely laid out, but I'd have preferred less illustrations and some campaign rules added...

Morale
This is very important - morale is 10% of the fleet's total VP value. It can be lost through damage, sinking ships, boarding, collisions or capture - the latter is the most vital as captured ships ADD morale to the capturing fleet. Once morale reaches 0 the player loses.

Weather & Special Rules
There are "advanced" rules for weather, grounding, fog, squalls etc which are so straightforward they might as well have been part of the main game. There are rules for shore batteries, fireships, bomb ketches and multi-player games.

Fleets & Scenarios
This has a vibe of "40K army list" - you must have a commander, and you may have x amount of points to spend (Ships cost points: ~100 for a 1st rate, down to ~20 for a frigate.) Admirals and captains may have special abilities; a "Disciplinarian" or "Gunner" admiral can automatically pass a Morale roll or get an extra broadside once per game for his whole fleet.  There are also captain skills for individual ships:  a; a Navigator can re-roll '1's on sailing dice, and a Marksman can do the same when firing cannon.  There are also "legendary" captains and admirals with unique traits, and even some legendary ships such as the Bellerophon, Constitution or Victory with their own special rules.
Even fleets like Russia and Portugal are included.  There are six missions or scenarios ranging from protecting convoys to blockades to pursuits.

Tumbling Dice are my go-to brand for small scales; they are designed as gaming pieces first and foremost; they are very sturdy, practical, and have exaggerated features that "pop" well at tabletop distances. 
No campaign rules....
I really feel these rules would work great as a campaign, and I really felt their absence. The 64-page limit of Osprey probably is an issue here, but there was plenty of stories and background info included; surely even a simple campaign could have been squeezed in. I really feel this was an opportunity missed - my first reaction after reading the rules were "this would work great as a campaign...  ...oh, phooey."

The rules are simple, but there's still plenty of examples to show what is intended...

TL:DR
It has a definite "old school GW/Man O War" vibe and I'm sure age of sail pedants purists will find something to nit-pick, but it's a very playable set of rules for this era, without the book-keeping and fussiness that plagues most non-boardgames rules from this genre.  I found myself comparing it to GW's Historical's OOP Trafalgar - but Fighting Sail is much more streamlined than its forebear.  I'd say it's two biggest flaws are that the streamlining would make 1v1 duels a bit dull (the focus is squarely on fleet/squadron actions of say 6+ per side) and the lack of a campaign.

Recommended: Yes.  I'm actually painting my 1:2400 sailing ships at the moment. The other rules I've played I was content to try once with bare metal ships, and then quietly shelve.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

War Thunder: A PC Game Review for Middle Age Gamers (Air Arcade)

War Thunder is free.  It is about WW2 tanks, planes and (soon) coastal forces like MTBs and S-boats - sometimes mixed together on the same map.  It runs on a laptop or a complete potato PC.  It is undemanding on the reflexes, and favours tactics and cunning.  It comes in a range of difficulty from arcade (5 minutes of pew pew with a keyboard and mouse; minimum controls) to full sim (spend 5 minutes starting the plane's engines using joysticks etc).  It can be played single player, co-op or multiplayer. Perfect for the middle age gamer.  Actually, there's something for everyone.  It's even relatively kid-friendly (my 4-year-old spectates and offers advice like "shoot that one, daddy!")

I signed up back in early beta. Back then, I was a bit of a sim snob, and disliked the keyboard and mouse setup of arcade. I preferred IL-2: 1946 (which still is better if you want to just try 400+ WW2 warbirds).  Fast forward to November last year.  I now have kids - and my ability to play games is measured in minutes not hours.  Faced with the choice of a 5 minute game with human players, or no game at all (as long games are out of the question) I tried it again.  And was pleasantly surprised.

I am going to focus this review on Air Battles, Arcade Mode as that is the one I have the most experience in, though there is tank battles and (soon) coastal forces.

Fellow Aussies seem active in War Thunder. Quite a few Youtubers come from down under. 

What is it about
In teams of a dozen or so, players contest territory (occupying "hotspots" or capturing airbases) or try to destroy ground targets or similar.  There is arcade, realistic and sim modes - each with increasing complexity (and game length).  In arcade (which I play); I can fly with a mouse, spacebar (bombs), mouse click (shoot); right click (look around) and extra controls (WASD - elevators and rudder) with throttle bound to mouse wheel.  Super easy to pick up and play.  Tanks are even easier and more intuitive.

Graphics
Good without being amazing.  You can import custom skins if you have a favourite pilot's paint job you want to imitate.  I'd rate them as satisfying rather than mind blowing, although there is something that just feels "right" as sparkling tracers pour into a 109 which suddenly belches white smoke, or your plane glinting in the sun as it rolls, contrails feathering behind at 6000m....

Gameplay
I've found this to be pretty fun. In arcade you can mix up planes of all nations (i.e. 109s and Zeroes flying alongside and against Spitfires, Yaks, Mustangs etc), while realistic and sim stick to historical line-ups. My focus will be primarily on arcade, as I think it is friendliest to the time-strapped dad gamer with 5-10 minute games. Realistic and sim games can exceed 45min.+

Real air combat maneuvers work - yo-yos, Immelman/Split S, scissors all seem to come intuitively, and I am working on spiral climbs and hammerheads.  Energy management matters; a player with a height advantage has a speed and manoeuvre advantage; I tend to climb energetically whenever it is safe to do so.

Having a friend on voice comms is a huge advantage - such as dragging up pursuing enemies to drain their energy for your wingman to finish with an easy shot.  Aircraft are balanced by "battle rating" (BR) which is an average of your best three aircraft. If you die (in arcade) you can respawn up to half a dozen times if you have suitable vehicles.

In short, gameplay is good, fun, and you can play the mode that suits your taste.  Tactics and commonsense are more important in War Thunder than teenage twitch skills and fast reactions.

Italian and French forces are recently added, but vehicle choices are limited. 

Tiers & Balance
Sometimes you can face higher battle rated vehicles. This is more an issue in tanks where a high tier heavy can bounce your tank to easily (think Sherman 75mm vs Tiger); BR is less an issue in aircraft, piloting is the major factor as all planes tend to fly apart with a burst of gunfire, regardless of tier.

You "unlock" aircraft by playing games and earning XP (by destroying enemies, capturing zones etc); starting with biplanes and ending with Korean-era jets.  For example the British begin with the Gladiator and end with the Meteor, Hunter, Vampire and Venom; the Americans going from the P-26 Peashooter to F-86 Sabre.

Each tier has a different gameplay "meta" - early tiers tend to be swirling low-level dogfights pecking away with ineffective machineguns; higher tiers tend toward energy fighting and high altitude, fast boom-and-zoom with deadly quad cannons.  I enjoy the mid-war era of Spitfire IXs, early F4Us, 109Fs, P-38Ls and the P-39 Aircobra - which has a mix of aircraft types and combat styles.

If you only want to fly jets straight away; I recommend you spend $5 and buy IL:1946 instead; it will take months of regular gaming in War Thunder to "unlock" them.  However, most people will progress through a nation's "unlock" tree to enjoy all the aircraft and flying styles from all eras. Most of the players in multiplayer tend to hang around the middle tiers anyway, playing the iconic prop fighters like Mustangs and 109s.

The Tier system can be annoying; you have to own six aircraft from an era before you can progress to the next era; for example I might want to progress to a late-war Griffon Spitfire, but have to unlock a Beaufighter and Firefly first, even though I am not interested in them.

There are quite a few Youtubers dedicated to reviewing aircraft or teaching gameplay.

Damage Model
Planes don't have health bar; each bullet is modelled and impacts things like controls, pilot, wings, radiators, oil coolers, fuel tanks etc.  It can be annoying to spray an aircraft with bullets only to have it fly away as you didn't hit anything vital; and annoying to have your pilot sniped through the head by the lucky single 7.62mm round at 800m - but it's awesome to see a wing torn off by your P-39s 37mm as well....

Bomber Spam
A few complaints - in arcade most games are won by bombers (aka spacebar warriors) who just charge the target, dump bombs - and die. Bombers are easy to fly - just head level for the target and press spacebar.  The problem is, they can do this half a dozen times.  It's like a cockroach plague - and they can make the game end too quickly if they destroy all the targets fast enough. If you want to win games - fly a bomber. If you actually want to learn to fly and fight - fly a fighter.  It's a bit annoying that learning to be a good pilot and winning seem mutually exclusive.

I'm going to spam a lot of "how to" videos here in case anyone ends up trying War Thunder.  Most Youtubers have guides/channels dedicated on "how to fly" etc.

Killstealers/Accidental Team Kills
I don't mind someone swooping down to secure a kill. I DO mind when I have friendly cannon shells tearing into my plane from oblivious team-mates shooting "through" or past me to a target I am tailing.  This is mostly arcade; less common in more serious game modes.

Uptiering/OP Aircraft
Sometimes veteran players "game" the system and use, for example, under-tiered P47s to get into games against beginner planes such as CR.42s.  The tier system is far from perfect as it takes into account player results across the server as well as raw stats. Apparently, American players in general have eggplant level IQ as US planes tend to be very under-tiered given their performance, and Japanese players must be geniuses as their planes seem be rated much higher than their capabilities.

Lag/Ping
I live in Australia and play on US and Asian servers.  The game is very playable at high ping. About once every 10 games I have a game with packet loss; bullets disappear, or require way more lead than usual, but I can play around it. I've found the game very tolerant of bad ping/bad computer.

Air combat maneuvers work as they do in real life...

Hidden Costs
The game is free, but you can speed your unlock progress by paying for "premium" getting bonus XP, and buy "premium planes" usually captured or lend-lease aircraft (Soviets have P-39 and P-63; British have F4U and F6F, etc) but sometimes unique aircraft (not so good, as if they are unavailable except for money, they can be called "pay to win" if they are any good).  So you can pay, and progress faster to late-war planes, but it's perfectly playable without paying a cent.  I've bought a few premium planes including the P-38K (I love Lightnings) and some experimental planes like the XP-55 (because I love cool and weird planes; things like pusher prop designs are my "thing").

Remember, all the comments above apply primarily to War Thunder Arcade (Air) - I've played tank mode a bit but have far less experience (and have only played at lower tiers).

You can even get guides on control layouts... 

Why you'd play it
It's free
It's WW2 - aircraft, tanks AND coastal forces (sometimes in the same battle)
Play it co-op, solo or multiplayer
Choose your level of complexity/realism/time commitment (arcade/realistic/sim)
Huge range of planes from biplanes to jets.
Child friendly (no blood/guts/swearing if a young one wants to watch)
Real tactics work
Works on poor computers and laptops; pretty good netcode
You don't need expensive joysticks and gear to have fun

Why you'd avoid it
Sometimes frustrating matchups with people gaming the system
Annoying team mates
Unlock system/grind to get to a favourite plane
Bomber spam ending the game too soon
Russian company (i.e. never admits mistakes, censors forums)

Recommended?  Very much yes.  Try this game.  It's a free, flexible game that can be played how you want. It has all sorts of awesome and iconic WW2 aircraft and tanks.  If you want to manage every cowling flap and manually trim things, you can. If you want to mindlessly pew-pew with guns that magically reload in mid-air, you can.  Like Silent Hunter and IL:1946, it's hard to criticise, as if you don't like something; just change the setting or mode.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Game Design Index Update (2018) - Some Rambling Included

The series of 76(!) articles on game design are indexed properly and up to date.  On the side bar or click here. 

It's interesting that this blog has shifted its focus over the years.

Delta Vector started out as a place to store rules reviews so I didn't have to explain them every time to friends - (yes, I was 'that guy' who always had 101 rulebooks and whatever the latest thing was... obviously no kids then!) - I could just say "check out the blog." My aim was for critical, accurate reviews that explained the mechanics my friends could make up their own minds.  Too often, reviews were sycophantic and gushing, or simply showed photos of a game, giving you no idea what was happening or whether you would like the gameplay or not. Or they spent 90% of the review talking about how glossy the rules were, not how they played.  I did 114 reviews (probably more - my indexing is not crash hot) and still occasionally churn one out.

The post that started it all - my rant against spaceship games and consequent attempts to make my own piqued my interest in game design.

Occasionally I show some simple paint jobs (I'm not very skilled, but as an anti-nude-minis crusader - I like to encourage people to just paint em to a tabletop standard) similar to the LOTR D'Agnostini magazines that inspired me years ago. Other times I venture into PC gaming reviews (a more easy/affordable option, with kids) or even book review, with the odd guide to cheap-and-nasty terrain

I'd say the main focus of this blog now is game design.  I couldn't find articles about wargaming I wanted to read, so I wrote my own.  Mostly, I just question why we design games the way we do. Things like:  
Why have special rules replaced stat lines?
Is true-line-of-sight really best?
Why do we still use IGO-UGO?
Why aren't area of effect weapons more popular?
Do we give enough thought to morale and deployment rules?
Can points systems ever be balanced?
Pre-measuring or guessing?
Why don't we use ground/time scales any more?
Does "realism" really mean "more complicated" or is this a misconception?
Reaction mechanics - essential or waste of time?

I don't claim to be an expert, or insist my conclusions must be "right" but I try to show my thought process, trying to cover topics I'd like to read about. If a game design post makes even one set of rules better by making someone stop, question and revise their rules, then it is worth it.  I soon noticed the comments are usually better and more insightful than the posts; so there is now a google group that folk can join to more easily share ideas (ranging from napkin sketches and standalone mechanics, to quite polished pdfs) - there's about 50 rules there now from a wide range of authors, with some really interesting mechanics. Along the way I have started to make my own homebrew rules (initially I did it unwillingly, merely to encourage others - but now I enjoy it as a pursuit in itself) aiming for genres where I do not enjoy the available rules - such as Mordhiem/Necromunda campaign imitators, squadron level tank games, space and mecha, aeronef and my personal weird interest, supercavitating submarine fighters. 

Anyway, this is kinda my "self indulgent look back" post that replaces the usual New Years post most bloggers do. 

My interest in super-cavitating submarine fighters is weird but persistent; shared only by my separated-at-birth twin Paul from the Man Cave.

I'm not making any new resolutions - as I'm still pegging away at my last year's one: "buy no new models in a genre until all others are painted" which has seen the unpainted lead mountain shrink a lot, but it still remains dauntingly large.  I would like to be more active on the blog - due to two toddlers my gaming activity in 2017 was the lowest ever - and perhaps finally finish some of my homebrew rules to take them out of the 'playable beta' stage. 

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Game Design #76: Uncertainty in Activation

From the start the initiative and activation mechanics have fascinated me. Even as a teenager, I always wondered why games like Warhammer had simpler/less interactive activation than games like checkers.  Most rules were clear on the how - how to shoot, move, melee etc - but tended to cursorily skip over the when.  And the when is just as important. When someone shoots matters a lot to the target; if his head in below the trench at the time, or above it....

This topic is in my head at the moment as I experiment with aerial/space dogfight games.  More precisely, the certainty in activation. How predictable is your turn? How far can you (and should you) plan ahead?

Let's skip through a few common activation types, to orientate ourselves. Blog regulars will probably skip this next bit and go to the next main heading.

Common Activation Systems
IGO-UGO
This has a high level of certainty. You get to move, shoot etc - resolve all actions with all your units - without the opponent being able to intervene. Your opponents stand around like dummies as you can act with everyone, without any interference.  The upside: it is simple to track whose turn it is. And you can go off for a toilet break in your opponent's (usually long) turn.  Popularized by 40K, this was once the default activation, but is less common now.

Alternate Move (aka similar to Chess-style move)
This has less certainty then IGO-UGO.  Each player takes turn moving a single unit each, until each side has activated all its units. This allows more interference and organic "reaction" to your opponent; he moves and makes all the actions with a single piece, then you respond. It's still pretty predictable as you know who is going next, and you get to choose which (of the so far un-activated) units go next. Probably the most popular nowadays. (It's not exactly like chess, as chess allows you to move any single piece as long as it's your turn; alt-move requires you to act with every piece in your army before you can act with a unit - aka piece - a second time),

Group Move 
This is a mix of the above two styles; players take turns moving clusters of units (i.e. 3-5 bases in a platoon, or squad, or even members of a fire team).  One player moves a group of 3-4 models, then another player activates with a group. Usually each group makes all its actions, then the next player acts with his cluster or group of units. Unsurprisingly, this method is more predictable than alt-move, but less so than IGO-UGO.

Reaction Moves
Some of the above methods have some sort of baked-in method of reacting to opponents;  often forfeiting their turn to fire later (overwatch). However some games have strong reaction mechanics where units can react quite often (sometimes an unlimited amount of times) to enemy actions, giving a huge scope for interrupting enemy turns  and making them less predictable.

Momentum (chaining activations)
I've explored this topic in more depth, but basically it is alt-move, but offers the player to "chain" or "follow on" by acting with a second unit without allowing the opponent his action.  A bit like player A moves a unit, but he does not want Player B to have a turn with one of his, so he (in some way, maybe by passing some sort of leadership roll) "follows on" and Player A then acts with a second unit in a row, without letting Player B have his turn. A bit like in, say, chess, if the white player moved a piece, then move another piece without allowing black to move his - basically, messing with the "normal" move sequence.

Okay, now we know some common systems. Let's talk about sequencing.

Predictability in Sequencing
What I mean by sequencing, is the order units activate. Is the order units activate dictated by the player, or by chance?  How far can you plan ahead?

Games like chess have a predictable sequence - you freely choose which unit to activate. A game like Savage Worlds where each unit is assigned to a card and acts when its card is drawn is random. You have to act when your card comes up; you don't get to plan ahead for the best time to activate the unit, you have to do the best you can if and when your card turns up. Whereas most games, you can choose which unit acts next. Some game devs like Too Fat Lardies allow semi-random sequences; they roll a dice and you can choose between certain (but not all) units which meet the dice roll criteria.

This topic has been one I've considered a bit lately, due to many aerial games making initiative/move sequence in order of best pilot->worst pilot or vice versa.  This is a quick, easy way to emphasize good pilots, but makes dogfights quite predictable - you know the move order ahead of time, allowing Chess-like "thinking ahead" and squadron-wide teamwork in a way that is nothing like the chaos of a real dogfight, facilitating cheesey tactics like co-ordinating and focussing down rookies first, so you can outnumber the enemy elites.

Enemies (from the non-active player) can also interrupt the sequence with reactions - in many cases reactions are limited (i.e. you trade entire move for the ability to fire in enemy turn aka "overwatch") but sometimes they are very strong - in Infinity reactions are unlimited; each time a unit activates in line of sight, every opponent can fire at him. They can do this every time, every opponent acts (unless prevented by being suppressed etc). 

Sometimes units can seize the momentum by becoming the active player; perhaps if an active player is hit, the other side becomes the active side. This really messes with the "expected" sequence - we've already discussed this under "chaining" and "following on."  Allowing the status of the active player to switch at least semi-unpredictably between players within a turn removes chess-like planning ahead and forces players to "live in the moment."

Predictability in Actions per Turn
I've explored this before; it's how many actions a unit can make when it is their turn. Most units, in most games, can move and shoot; that is two actions per turn, or 2APT as I will abbreviate it. If a unit is guaranteed to be able to move and shoot each turn, it is very predictable. But in some games, actions per turn vary quite a bit.

In the post linked in the previous paragraph, I posited that too many actions-per-turn is bad; in making the active player too strong, and allowing them to do too much in their turn. It "freezes" everyone else too long.  It's like watching the Flash; he zips around and does all this stuff while they are frozen. But in a wargame, we want to reduce the "Flash" effect and make it seem more fluid. In contrast, a model that can take one action per turn (move or shoot) is more limited. We've broken the turn up into smaller chunks. 

However, sometimes we can allow a few actions per turn, but make them unpredictable.  Song of Blades and Heroes does this by allowing players to roll between 1 and 3 dice. Each dice that beats a set score (typically 3+ for elites, 4+ for average, and 5+ for rookies) allows an action.   There's a twist as well; two failures means the turn ends, and the other player player gains the momentum, becoming the active player until he too fails in his turn. That said, actions per turn are semi-predictable, but not completely so. A rookie is unlikely to roll successfully and get all 3 actions, and is likely to get only one. A hero might average 2 or 3.

Besides my dogfight homebrew rules, another reason for this topic is Inquisitor. I found an secondhand rules set from 2001.  It's a RPG/narrative wargame, with d100s and dashes of Necromunda. But what caught my attention was the activation system.  Players activate in order of Speed (this is quickness of movement and thought); i.e. Speed 4 would move before Speed 3 or 2. So quite predictable. However, each Speed allows you to roll a d6. (I.e. a Speed 4 character rolls 4 d6). If you get a 4+ you get to perform an action. I found it interesting in that actions had to be declared in advance (I've done this in my aeronef rules) and if you run out of actions...  ...you just don't get to do all you said you would.  It makes the amount of actions unpredictable. I.e. you might say "my gunner will move to cover here, crouch down, then shoot."  The Speed 4 gunner only rolls, 3, 6, 5, 1 - so he only moves, and crouches - but does not have a third action to fire.    There is a predictable move sequence - i.e. fastest Speed to slowest - but an unpredictable amount of actions per turn.   I think these rules neatly illustrate the difference between the two.

TL:DR
So - we have uncertainty in activation, uncertainty in actions per turn, and the ability for opponents to interrupt.  All these add unpredictability.  So which is best? More predictabilty, or less... 

Is war predictable? Plans always survive contact with the enemy, right? The ability to react to the unpredictable and impose order/execute plans within the chaos of war is a hallmark of good commanding.  For example, allowing perfect co ordination in the swirl of a WW1 biplane dogfight seems silly. A more random method such as a random card draw seems indicated.  With radios in modern aircraft, co-ordination with wingmen seems likely. Perhaps the ability to "follow on" to a wingman or make a group move would work better here.

However, some games need predictability.  Take Warmachine. It's a game focussed on super-OP-combos which often need to be "chained." It's more CCG than wargame. Using IGOUGO makes perfect sense - or you'd find it impossible to execute any combos or sequence attacks. 

In summary, it's not as simple as unpredictability good, predictability bad - the amount of predictability can (and should) vary depending on the genre and era. Even how this unpredictability is introduced - be it from unpredictable sequences or amount of actions, or reaction mechanics. 

I think the key takeaway is determining where your game fits on the spectrum and picking the right activation to suit.

Game Design #75: Weapon Range vs Terrain Density

I think I've somewhat covered this in the past in a topic on scale (I recall ranting about how Bolt Action's 24" rifle range, gives them an absolute range of about 50 yards/metres "in scale" - resulting in weirdness such as 28mm paratroopers who could not shoot the length of the Arnhem Bridge model Warlord themselves supply.)   I also have looked at move:shoot ratios (how movement ranges compare to weapon ranges; i.e. Bolt Action copies the 6"/24" (1:4) ratio made popular by fantasy Warhammer - which can be jarringly short with modern firearms. 

However I've been thinking about it a bit lately and would like to come in from a different angle. First of all, let's look at why ranges are compressed.

Restricting weapon ranges can be done to promote maneuver; short-ranged weapons cover less area, leaving plenty of room to move about without taking severe casualties.  In a 2:1 game (say 12" movement, 6" shoot) maneuver is very strong - units can duck in and out of engagements almost at will.  In a 1:12 (say 4" move, 48" shoot) then the firepower tends to dominate - it's hard to move out of range or close with the enemy without being shot to bits. Units will probably camp in cover. 

This obviously is much impacted by the lethality of weapons (the chance of death per attack; a typical 40K-esque roll of 4+ to hit, then 4+ to hit has a 25% chance of causing a casualty and I often use this as a benchmark) - if it is a '6' to hit with a '6' then required to kill (5%?), maneuver is unlikely to be impeded as death would be caused more by luck than firepower.  This is lethality is multiplied by "rate of fire" - attacks per turn - I assume a RoF of 1 for a baseline; but 2 or more is possible with many weapons, and likely with modern warfare.

Terrain and Weapon Range
While playing with my homebrew Tankmunda, I was struck by how much of a role terrain plays in this as well. Using 15mm (1:144) tanks on a 6x4 table, I didn't want engagement ranges to look silly and nerf-gun short, yet I wanted differentiate between the long range capabilities of say a 88mm and a 2pdr. I also did not want tanks able to hit each other from the very first turn shooting between deployment zones.  If I kept the ranges strictly to scale, ranges would be unlimited on the tabletop - a route increasingly taken my many games. Even assuming a 2-3" long tank is say 5-6 metres in scale (2 metres per inch); a 1500 metre gun range would reach 750 inches or 62 feet... a tad longer than most gaming tables...

My solution was to compress ranges as much as I could without them visually looking silly, but also to ensure there was terrain every 8-12" (the distance of the "sprint speed" of most tanks).  And I was thinking - how often do wargames specify how much terrain or how it should be set up?
Not often.  I do know Infinity is very specific.  It has higher than usual lethality (30%+) with a high rate of fire (3+) for most weapons; an attack on a unit in the open is very very lethal. Move:shoot favours shooting with 4" vs 36" for normal rifles (many reach across a table) giving a 1:9+.  Infinity wisely has detailed setup instructions. Setting up a table like traditional 40K (with 3-4 terrain pieces and much wide open space) will see everyone dead in short order. Sight lines must be kept short (8-12") - even a single tall building can offer a massive field of fire, completely unbalancing a game.

 Obviously, the "traditional" 24" shooting range for a 28mm figure assumes little cover; and is handy for a gamer with little terrain. Like a typical 40K table. Games like Infinity with very lethal, long-ranged weapons demand a huge investment in terrain or the game is very un-fun. That said, a WW2 game where bolt action rifles shoot as far as a garden hose look silly.  Warmachine (admittedly steampunk) even has sniper rifles with 14" range (vs handguns that shoot 8" or so). Yikes!

But what can we do to mitigate this?  How can we make it so weapons shoot further without messing things up?  Well, weapons can have their lethality tuned down.  Want to double ranges to 48"?  Make it so it hits on a 5+ and kills on a 5+ on a d6; now instead of 25% chance of killing per attack, it's more like 10%. This compensates for the doubling of the range.  Maybe units can be stunned or suppressed; instead of outright removed.

It's all about terrain, baby
However I'd like to focus on terrain (or lack thereof).  On the importance of making it clear how much terrain is expected - how far apart, and the impact of the terrain.  I'll assume that being in cover gives a 4+ d6 (50%) save.  If terrain is no farther apart than the average unit move (say 6") we have effectively halved the lethality of the weapon (down to ~13%).  We could double firing ranges with no major issues.  If terrain is farther apart than units can move in a turn (say 12"+) then lethality is less impacted (it will also encourage camping).

The effect of cover (modifier to "to hit" or saving throw) is also worth thinking about. If we assume a 4+ (50%) saving throw for the average cover - what effect would a 2+ (83%) save have? It would confer near-invulnerability on units and discourage them from ever moving.  In contrast, a 6+ (17%) save would make the cover barely worthwhile. This ties with rewarding and punishing players; using saves and modifiers to direct them in the way you want them to play.

TL:DR
Weapon ranges, movement distances and the lethality of weapons are all used as balancing methods.  They dictate particular playstyles and most game designers adhere to pretty common formula.  This can result in silly looking games (modern rifles shooting the same range as bows or slings; the average elf archer would handily outrange a Bolt Action grunt with a Mauser).

Terrain however is also a major balancing factor with as much impact as any of the above methods. And few wargames rules actually address this. How much terrain? Where? Even - what effects does the terrain have - many times terrain modifiers seem to be copied-and-pasted regardless of genre. Should "cover" (and it is often genric; or divided into "soft" and "hard" at best) have the same 50% save to a M60 as it does to a sling?  How often is terrain actually addressed in rules.