In several of my recent reviews, I have talked about the lack of “tactical” combat, especially for skirmish games. If you look at a game like Outremer: Faith and Blood, Frostgrave, etc, your frequently see the focus on the game on the campaign elements, and the game play itself streamlined for quick and easy play. I have no issue with quick and easy play, but I think a skirmish game that fails to create a strong tactical core is hurting itself in the long run as it loses replay ability.
With all of that being said let's take a closer look at what “tactical” game play is. In a word it is decision-making. As a game designer, your core mechanics and design should be a method to encourage decision making on the player during the course of the game. For a broad example, is it better to shoot that enemy model who is nearby, charge them, or move away from them. The more decision-making there is in a game the more a player has to “play the game”. However, decision-making alone is not sufficient, they also need to be meaningful decisions with clear advantages or dis-advantages that force a player to choose which is the best option with the situation they are in. The optimal option should not always be obvious.
Note, tactical game play is all about what happens in the game on the board. Most campaign elements, list building, or force management outside of the game itself is not “tactical”. Instead, it is what I would term as “Strategic”. How to make a game more “strategic” is for another post. However, many people get these two elements confused so I want to make sure we are all on the same page before proceeding.
Now that we know that Tactical game play involves making meaningful decisions during game play how does a designer go about adding “Tactical” play? There are a few ways I have seen people tackle this problem:
- Modifiers- The most common and tried and true method is to add some sort of modifiers to the success test. Things that are harder increase the difficulty of a test, while actions that are easier reduce it. Therefore, a designer can reward or punish the correct tactics by using a modifier. I think we are all familiar with this simple method. The advantages are that Modifiers are simple and easy to create and test for a designer. They simply change the probability curve of any tests either up or down. The downside is that they can lead to False Granularity, If This/Then That rules, or simply become to burdensome to recall them all during play.
- Action Arcs- This is another common and simple way to increase the need for tactical decision-making in a game. Instead of a model being able to see and react to everything at anytime, instead they are limited based on fields of vision, arcs, etc. Essentially, it places an artificial limit on how a model can act which a player must decide how to minimize or maximize to their benefit. Think of the difference between a model that can see and act in a 360 degree arc, versus one that can only see forward 180 degrees. The options available to the 180 Degree unit is limited and therefore the player must make decisions on how to respond or position themselves for maximum effect. The advantages are that this is a very simple and easy to implement design solution, but he disadvantage is how do you designate and easily agree on what is and is not in view?
- Limited Actions- A third simple way is to limit what a model can do in an activation. This forces the player to prioritize what is most important for them to do first. This is another decision. If a model can either shoot, move, fight, or perform another action the player must think about which is best at the moment. Again the advantage is that it is very easy to implement in a game system. On the downside, players can chafe at these artificial restrictions.
- Resource Management- This can be points or tokens that can only be used so many times in an activation, turn, or game. Once they are used, they are expended and therefore the player must decide when is the best time to use their resource or horde it. Games that use decks, dice pools, or command tokens are all using the idea of resource management to increase the “tactical” feel for their games. The advantage is that this is a great and organic way to add tactical thinking to a game that players enjoy. On the downside, they can be difficult to balance and the side game of deck building can distract from the may focus of the game.
- Activation Methods- One of the key aspects to add levels of Tactical Play to a game is through the use of a good activation method. Wherever possible, you should allow a player to choose when they can act and with what units; even if it would “interrupt” another players turn. The more action flows between players based on the decisions they have made, the more “tactical” feel the game will have. Alternate Activation is the easiest and most blunt way to do this, but there are other alternatives such as action/reaction systems like Force-on-Force, push-your-luck systems like Blood Bowl, activation rolls like Lion Rampant, or using resources to interrupt like Robotech RPG Tactics. To me, this is one of the core decisions of a game and once you have made this decision will drive the level of tactical play.
- Paper/Rock/Scissors- I use this to refer to any game where certain units or weapons are designed to be “better” against some units and worse against others. This is very common in “historicals” because that is how it has worked historically! For example, Napoleonic war games use this all the time. Infantry in square is great against cavalry, but artillery is great against infantry in square, and cavalry is great against units out of formation. Therefore, you threaten an infantry unit with cavalry, they form square, and then you pound them with artillery until the break, and let the cavalry sweep them up.... in theory. The challenge for the player is getting the units to interact in the right way, despite their opponent trying to stop them. This level of unit interaction and layering is difficult to build into game and requires a great deal of playtesting, but can also be one of the most enjoyable to play and succeed at. Many games try to create this Paper/Rock/Scissor effect but misjudge the balance to make it pay off successfully.
- Escalation- In this scenario, certain actions escalate the potential risk/reward scale by performing some key activities. Games with a threat rating or doom clock are using this method to force players to decide what actions they should take and when to manage the “threat” or risk/reward calculation as they play. This is a great way to ramp up tension in a game, but again the balance can be difficult to achieve correctly and require extensive play-testing.
I am sure there are other elements or mechanics that can be used to increase the “tactical” play of a game that I missed. Feel free to add more in the comments section, or in the Messageboard.