Monday, October 29, 2018

Wargame Design: Thinking Through Activation for your Game

Welcome as we progress through the process of creating Only the Strong Survive; a game of dinosaur combat.  In previous posts we have discussed how to flesh out the conceptof your game, build design goals, and use these to flesh out your 4Ms to create a skeleton of a game.  At this stage you have a very good concept of what you are trying to accomplish and how you intend to do it.  You could start doing some rudimentary play tests of the game system to see how it hangs together. 

We have not discussed a key element.  This element is possibly the most important component to creating tactical game play.  If the 4Ms are the skeleton of your game, this element is the muscle and sinew.  It holds the component pieces together as a whole.  It is the last element needed to create a playable game.  I also find it to be the most compelling feature of many game systems.  What is this sacred ingredient?  It is the Turn Sequence.  How and when models can act in relationship to each other. 
$10 at Wal-mart got me these and many more for testing

There are as many ways to handle activation as there are games to play.  Below are some basic ideas to get you started on the path of thinking about this mechanic:

1.       I-GO-U-GO- Basically, both players take turns and do all actions with their entire force.  One player does all their actions, and then the other player does all of their actions.  There are many famous games with this structure.  Contrary to popular belief, this method is not inherently wrong.  Like all mechanics there are advantages and disadvantages to this method. 
a.       Advantages- Easy to understand, simplicity
b.       Disadvantages- Can have down time, Opponent has few counters
c.       Examples: Warhammer 40K and Warhammer Fantasy Battle

2.       Alternating Activations- In this method, a model/unit is activated by a player, it completes its action, and then the opponent gets to do the same with their model/unit.  Play alternates back and forth until all models have been activated.
a.       Advantages- Players exchange play frequently to stay in the game 
b.       Disadvantages- Forces act disjointedly, react “in the moment”
c.       Examples: Dystopian Wars

3.       Activations by Phase- One player has all of their units/models perform one of their available actions such as move.  Once complete, the opposing player can then have all of his models/units complete the same action.  Once complete, the first player can then have all of his models/units perform the next action. 
a.       Advantages- Play goes back and forth, Units can coordinate actions
b.       Disadvantages- Can have downtime, Opponent can have limited response

4.       Activation Order- At some point, an order of who can activate when is established and then followed in a linear way.  For example, all units of a certain type can activate, then of another type can activate, and then a third type, until all units have performed an activation.  The order can be set in advance or fluid and changing, but there is a clear order of activation.
a.       Advantages- Used to differentiate unit/models, Play typically moves between players
b.       Disadvantages- Establishing or recalling proper order
c.       Examples: Dux Bellorum, The Games: Blood andSpectacle

5.       Act/React- A player can choose to activate or use a model/unit.  However, if certain criteria are met then the opponent player can try to activate or use one of their own models/units as a ‘reaction’ to what the acting player is doing.       
a.       Advantages- Leads to dynamic game play
b.       Disadvantages- Complex, mechanic heavy, not intuitive
c.       Examples: Infinity, Rogue Stars, Force-on-Force

6.       Push-Your-Luck- A model/unit that is active can continue to do stuff until they fail.  Then activation moves to a different model/unit OR the opponent can start activating their models/units. 
a.       Advantages- Forces player decision, Create friction
b.       Disadvantages- Artificial outcomes
c.       Examples: Blood Bowl, Black Powder

The above is just a flavor of the general styles out there.  In addition, there can be multiple small variations to the specific mechanic or combinations.  For example, the main mechanic maybe I-GO-U-GO with an Overwatch mechanic that allows an Act/React system to come into play, or a resource that is spent in order to interrupt.  Again, this is where research and being familiar with a wide variety of game systems and mechanics comes in handy.  You can see exactly how other designers have tackled similar challenges to the ones you are facing.

As you consider the activation method or turn sequence for your game, it is a good idea to refer back to your Design Goals.  In the case of our dinosaur fighting game, Only the Strong Survive; they were:

1.                   Interesting battles between Dinosaurs 1-on-1 or in very small groups.
2.                   Gameplay that flows quickly and easily between players
3.                   Lots of decision making for the player
4.                   Clear differentiators between Dino types
5.                   Scale and model agnostic
6.                   Combat that flows freely, not locking you in
7.                   Positioning is key

Reading the design goals, I can immediately eliminate some of the options from our list.  Activation by Phase and I-GO-U-GO do not seem to be a good fit.  However, I-Go-U-Go could work with small model count games; I am going to steer away from it for now.  Those typically have some longer wait times as players complete their phases.  My design goals specifically call out quickly flowing game play and free flowing combat. 

Alternating Activation and Activation Order seem like they could work fine.  However, I also want to force decisions on the player.  The key decision in these activation methods is simply who to activate when.  If it is a 1-on-1 fight, there will be no decision making using these methods.  On the other hand, how they fit into an activation method is a good way to distinguish between dino types.  However, I am going to eliminate those from our final list as well.  The positives do not outweigh the negatives right now.

This leaves us with Act/React and Push-Your-Luck.  I have successfully used Push-Your-Luck mechanics before in Combat! Starring Vic Murrow.  It allows for models to differentiate themselves and potentially “chain” there efforts together, but a successful chain could disenfranchise an opponent’s ability to act.  I have also seen Push-Your-Luck mechanics lead to some bizarre outcomes in games like Black Powder, Hail Ceasar, and Lion Rampant that have been off-putting to some reviewers and players. 

When I take a closer look at Act/React in games like Arena Rex it seems like a strong fit.  Arena Rex is also a model-vs-model (or small group) melee fight.  There, certain actions allow clearly defined reactions, and different fighters can have unique reactions for differentiation.  This seems to fit what I am trying to accomplish pretty closely.  On the other hand, in games like Infinity or Rogue Stars I have seen it lead to one model doing all the heavy lifting while the rest of the team just sits and cheers the biggest, baddest model on. 

After reviewing my design goals and the skeleton of the game I have put together so far, I have decided on trying to build some sort of Act/React system.  Obviously, I will need to build in some sort of limiting factors so players will need to “manage” their dinosaurs and their ability to react.  The exact nature of this mechanic is not clear yet, but it could simply be a dice pool that reduces as they use it, and a success indicates they can react and no successes indicate they can not.  Then the number of successes could dictate the list of available reactions.  The more successes the more aggressive the reaction?   These reactions could also vary by dinosaur with more nimble and reactive dinos able to do more aggressive reactions, while bigger, slower dinos might need more successes to do something less aggressive.

Now, with the skeleton and muscles of the basic game in place, it is time to move onto the next steps. With the basic elements in mind, you need to start putting together some basic profiles for the units in your game. You can’t build a unit profile, until you have an idea of how the game is going to work. If you go back and review the post on fleshing out the 4Ms and combine it with this post, you can see a shadow of the profiles being created. Next time, we will look at the process of building two Dinosaur profiles for Only the Strong Survive based on the core mechanics we have discussed here.      

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