Monday, May 27, 2019

Wargame Design: Playtesting- Only the Strong Survive



Congratulations, you have moved your rules from a Concept, the 4Ms, your Initiative mechanics, and put together some profiles and chrome. You have come a long way and are ready to play your game! Now comes the hard part, seeing if your game actually works at all the way you intended it to work! To find out there is only one way to figure it out.... you have to play.

Typically, there are a few phases of playtesting. Each stage of playtesting builds off the previous level. Through playtesting you are looking to find out the following things:

  1. Do your core mechanics actually work?
  2. Are the rules clear?
  3. Do your rules have blindspots?
  4. What is unnecessary bloat?
  5. Does the game play like you wanted?

As you playtest, you need to be ready to be ruthless. Now is the time where you MUST be ready to “kill your babies”. What does this mean? You must be willing to discard the mechanics you have built so far and go back and start again. This is very, very hard. However, to fail here is to fail your game.

Keep your Design Goals handy. It will be tempting to go into every detail or do something completely unique for each scenario. The Design Goals will keep you grounded and avoid going off the rails. It does you no good if during this stage, you “Kill you babies” but go so far outside of your design goals that the game is no longer what you wanted to accomplish.

Level 1- Just and some Paper
You will probably be doing this as you go, but I wanted to make it explicit. Here you sit down, and just walk through the game in the abstract. You make sure you covered all the 4Ms, that you know how to and when to activate, that you know how to get a result, that you know when the game ends. At this stage, you may grab some dice, calculator or a probability chart and work through each stage looking for gaps you missed or things that are not clear or covered in the rules. This will make sure you covered most of your gaps and nothing glaring is missing.

Some people design Use Cases to test, build programs to run probabilities, or other elaborate steps. It is up to you how rigorous you want or need to be. I will caution you. Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. A game that never gets finished and played is no good to anyone. An imperfect game is better than the game that is never played. Let your creation eventually hit the table.

Level 2- Just You and the Table
You should begin your playtesting very simply. No one knows the rules of the game better than you. So put some templates on the table and start playing. Run through a very basic game with no complications. Take copious notes as you do this. The whole point is to find places where the rules do not work.

As you hammer out the details keep playing. If you want keep adding a few complications or modify the scenario. You want to make sure you hammer out all the obvious things you can find on your own play-through.

At this stage, you need to be willing to go back to the drawing board are start all over again. It isn't easy, but if something doesn't work, it doesn't work. Once you are done with this stage, all the obvious problems should be hammered out and the game should play smoothly.



Level 3- You and your Buddy
You have hammered out all the obvious issues in playtesting with yourself, at least the issues obvious to you. Now, you need to give your rules to some of your preferred opponents. Set-up a evening of gaming or two and let them read the rules on their own before the day of the game. Ideally, they will help you find editing issues but you are really looking for what questions they bring about the rules before the game. These are areas that need to be tweaked and explained better.

Once you get together you can play. Try to not give a tutorial or major explanations of the rules. You gave them a copy, so start playing. Again, as you play take careful note of where you find gaps, your opponent asks questions, and what strategies your opponent used. These insights allow you to see not only if the game works, but does it work AS INTENDED. i.e. do the rules lead to the conclusions you wanted?

If possible, go back and make tweaks; and come back to your buddies with the updates. Let them read the updates and ask questions. Take note of what they are asking and what conclusions they come to from reading the rules as written. This will guide you to streamline and clarify.

If you game does not play the way you intended it you need to go back and re-balance incentives your game puts on actions to naturally apply to the way you want the game played. Again, be ready to “kill your babies” because the game is not doing what you wanted it to do. Refer to your Design Goals to stay on track.
From Wikimedia Commons

Level 4- Gamer vs. Gamer
At this stage, the rules are ready to be given to a group of players without your guidance. Instead, you give them the rules, they read the rules, and then they play games. You make this as structured as you like. Some designers provide briefings and test cases for what scenarios need to be tested, some gather detailed data through observation or after action reports, some use 5 point scale surveys, while others just solicit ad-hoc feedback. The process is up to you, but typically the more rigorous the testing the more rigorous and specific the output from your testers.

Your testers will have plenty of ideas and thoughts about what you should or should not do with the game. Keep in mind they do not have the perspective on the Design Goals and what the game is intended to do. Only you do. At this point, the hardest part is balancing the feedback with the Design Goals. Therefore, not everything a playtester says should immediately become the truth.

It is very easy for a designer to fixate on a single pain point from one player and overlook the positive feedback on the exact same topic from other players. You will need to separate the “wheat from the chafe” and decide what needs updates and what does not. Frequently, you will find things that need to be clarified or made cleaned in the rules.

This is also the most likely stage where “imbalance” will be discovered as players try to “break the system” for advantage. Players can see what the designer and his buddies will miss. They are not wedded to the game and have the right amount of distance to break it. At this stage, you will need to re-balance and re-calculate any balancing mechanics that are in your game. This will require multiple attempts to get to feel right as no game has perfect balance.

From Wikimedia Commons

Level 5- The Big Wide World
You are now ready to release your baby into the big wide world. Be assured, it will be savaged. Every game has detractors and critics. Guaranteed. However, that doesn't mean what they are saying is unwarranted. Despite the best playtesting process, things will be missed. No playtesting group is as good as dozens or even hundreds of people playing your game looking to find the loopholes and exploitable points. They will be found and they will be criticized.

Again, remember that no one has a clear vision of the Design Goals like you do. It is ultimately up to you to determine what to do with the information you are given. Some games do FAQs, updates, or other tricks. Depending on how your game went to the public you might be able to make updates as go. Others will require separate and posted changes.

The thing to remember is, if you get to this level of playtesting; your game is out in the wild! You have made a game. Congratulations!

Via Wikimedia Commons
Only the Strong Survive- Where is it at?
So, we have been following the process for Only the Strong Survive. Where is it at with play testing? Good question. I have completed Level 1, and am ready to move onto Level 2.

Through using level 1, I discovered a couple of issues:

- There was not a great mechanic for dinosaurs to lose without dying. Don't they run away ever? That is probably the most common way for a wild animal fight to end; with one running for it. Just like human battles, this is a dangerous time as they must turn away from the enemy. Therefore, I updated the rules for some factors and tests for when a Dinosaur may decide to leg it no matter what the player wants them to do.

- I made some modifications to the reaction process. Instead, it took Instinct Dice to be allocated for a Reaction test to even be made. Therefore, a player would be forced to decide if they wanted the chance to react or if it was better to put it all into an Attack or Defense instead. Again, another decision point.

- I also made some tweaks to how and when you allocate Instinct dice.

- The method of determining who starts the turn was streamlined and provided for. Before it was unclear.

These were all tweaks or gaps that I found while just working through the game on paper and typing out the rules into a document for playtesting. This found the obvious gaps or clunky bits. Now, it is time to test if the game actually works on the table. Onward to Phase 2!

If you want to help out with the playtesting you can check out the draft rules here.  Feel free to comment on them on the Messageboard.  Thanks for your help! 

S.S. Onward from Wikimedia Commons



Monday, May 20, 2019

Battle Report: Combat! Starring Vic Morrow- Co-op Play


It is surprising the number of times I play and lose games against my wife and against my daughter. I have been playing and designing wargames much longer than they have. Yet somehow, they still consistently beat me. I would say the ratio is 60:40 in their favor. Therefore, I finally figured out a way to not lose. I decided to play a Co-op game with them!



The game we decided to give a go was Combat! Starring Vic Morrow. This is a game I designed in homage to the old (mostly) black-and-white television show of the same name. Therefore, it is set in World War II; but with a twist. It is not designed to be super realistic, but to adhere to the tropes of TV war shows. The game has player-vs-player, Player-vs- AI, and Co-op game modes. In Co-op the player can take control of a number of cast members form the show and play against Decision tree opponents and randomized enemies.

Somewhere west of Paris, the American forces were pushing the Germans closer to the French capital. However, the fighting was fierce and the American troops had to bleed for every mile. 2nd Lt. Hanley was tasked with escorting an Army Air Corp observer into German territory to determine the effect and extent of the night time bombing raid carried out by the British RAF.

This was a mission that would require speed to succeed. However, Lt. Hanley knew he would also need to back-up his speed with firepower to bust through enemy lines. He surveyed the squad and called Sgt. Saunders and Private Kirby to his side.

We decided to pick cast members from the show. In this case, I played Lt. Hanley, my daughter was Sgt. Saunders, and my wife was Kirby.

Forces

2nd Lt. Hanley- Star
Rifle, Pistol, Knife, Grenades

Sgt. Saunders- Star
Tommy Gun, Knife

Pvt. Kirby- Cast
Browning Automatic Rifle, Knife

1 Army Air Corp Observer- Co-star
Pistol, Knife

vs.

Randomized German Stooges!
-Based on the Ratings of the Combat! Cast members we choose, we would face off against about 7 Combat Markers of unknown enemies.

For this game, we used some of my (in)famous green army men to take the game for a spin.

Mission:
The mission was randomly generated, and it was to escort the Army Air Corp Observer across the board. He had to leave the opposite table edge. Lt. Hanley decided to escort the Observer himself.

Set-up:
The board will be a 4 by 4 board for today's battle. There was a road across the board, a hill, and several fields. A stream cut across the corner of the far side. The Combat! Markers were scattered in cover all over the board. Kirby was on the right flank, Sgt. Saunders in the center, and Lt. Hanley and the Observer on the left.

Normally, I have pretty detailed batreps for the games I play, but this one did not work that way. I was busy trying to help my family through the game. Therefore, I only have the general idea of what happened.

The Game
Kirby cut across the field in front of him and found a German soldier with a rifle on the other side. He took a shot at Lt. Hanley and forced him to take cover. However, Saunders moved up and Tommy Gunned him down.

As Hanley and the Observer went up over the hill, they revealed a German with a sub-machine gun. He opened fire on Saunders, but missed. Lt. Hanley tried to get the drop on him, but missed. The German was pinned from the shooting. Eventually, Saunders scuttled over and traded shots with the German while Hanley and the Observer hurried past. Eventually, Saunders managed to gun the plucky German down.

As Kirby approached the road, he was jumped by three German soldiers. They fired wildly and missed him, and Kirby kept his cool and fired back. 1 went down. Things looked bad for Kirby until Lt. Hanley tossed a grenade into the German position and took them all out.


The group scurried across the road, but a group of German soldiers appeared from a nearby field. Saunders drew his knife and charge into their ranks to keep them from attacking Lt. Hanley and the Observer. This kept them distracted as the wildly defended themselves against the Sergeant.

Lt. Hanley and the Observer rushed ahead to bypass the German's in the field but turned the corner and came face-to-face with a German NCO. He fired a quick burst from his sub-machine gun and rushed Lt. Hanley. The Lt. Dropped his rifle and tried to pull his pistol but was too slow. The German NCO bowled him over with his momentum and proceeded to stomp Lt. Hanley into unconsciousness.
 

Lt. Hanley was lucky that Kirby was covering the flank because he turned and fired, taking the German NCO out. Kirby rushed forward and took control of the Observer who had hunkered down into cover.

Saunders was battered but he eventually took out the three Germans he was tussling with. That's why he was the star of the show! He moved up to support Kirby and the Observer. Kirby grabbed Lt. Hanley and slung up over his shoulder. The small group then managed to bypass the last German patrols and make it into German held territory.

Mission a success.

Conclusion:
Eventually, the small group made it to the target area. 2nd Lt. Hanley had recovered enough to take care of himself, but he was nursing a swell goose egg on his forehead. After getting past the frontlines, German activity thinned out and they had made good time.

The four of them huddled in the bushes, as the Observer pulled out his camera and started snapping pictures. Then, he eagerly jotted notes with a grease pencil into a small pad. After about 60 minutes of traversing around the demolished rail yard, the team took cover in a small french bard for the night.

We'll wait here until dawn, and then head back to our own lines.” 2nd Lt. Hanley ordered, “Did you get what you needed?”

The observer tapped his notepad, “All right here. Are you feeling okay Lt.?”

He's had worse,” Kirby chirped in.

Nothing a relaxing walk in the French coutnryside tomorrow won't cure,” grinned Sgt. Saunders.

Music swells and roll credits.

The mission was successful, but not without some tight spots and daring do! My wife immediately noticed that the “Stars” of the show had more opportunity to act and complete objectives than the Extras and Cast Members. Through the adventure we used all the little things that make this ruleset somewhat unique such as extending Screentime for more actions, suppression fire, aimed fire, pinning, Star Power to re-roll a dice, and Plot armor to take more than one hit. I wish we would have thought of using the First Aid action on Lt. Hanley.... Oh well!

Overall, the AI decision tree worked even if it did feel a bit roll heavy on occasion. Also, the activation process using multiple, collaborating players as opposed to Axis vs. Allies was a little bit more challenging. It required us to decide as a group who was going to use Screentime next. Finally, I may have deployed the Combat! Markers incorrectly as I placed them in cover randomly around the board instead of by the letter of the rules. This allowed us to bypass a couple. Despite these minor quibbles, the game worked just fine as a cooperative battle.

My family said they would play again as they prefer co-op games instead of versus games all the time. That means, some of my future design work may try to cater to this preference. Can anyone point out other fun co-operative miniature rules?

Monday, May 13, 2019

Wargame Design: Designing Historical Scenarios

One of the greatest challenges I have come across in wargame design is trying to recreate historical battles for the tabletop.  Ancient battles sometimes have too few sources and force us to extrapolate.  Modern battles can be too large in scope and require a scale that no tabletop can manage.  Perhaps hardest of all, there is always someone who knows more about the topic than you do!  Therefore, trying to build historical scenarios is a unique challenge.

This topic comes to mind as I recently wrote and article for Wargames, Soldiers, and Strategy magazine about the Battle of Delium.  You can pick up issue 102 at the website here:

https://www.karwansaraypublishers.com/wss-issue-102.html



In addition, I added several historical scenarios in Men of BronzeThose covered various battles from Marathon to Charonea.  While creating these battles there were a couple things to keep in mind.

1. Do The Research
2. Know your system
3. Scaling your Conflict
4. Give it a Hook!

Do The Research

Sometimes, I feel like a broken record.  Many of my Wargame Design articles start with this simple step.  Arguably it is the most fun and the most challenging part!  Before you can create your historical scenario, you need to understand what actually happened.

Typically, I try to start with some synthesis of the battle or a high level look.  I need to know who was fighting, what were they trying to achieve, and who won.  In addition, these high level resources often have a bibliography, footnotes, or other useful tools to direct you to further reading.  A nice wiki page or similar is often enough to get you started in the right direction.   

After getting a high level understanding of what happened, it is time to find the primary sources.  This is eyewitness accounts or contemporary commentary on the subject.  The internet is great, but sometimes a visit to the local library or friendly neighborhood bookseller is in order.  I find there is something satisfying about adding primary sources to my shelf as they often cover more than one battle that I am interested in.  From the Primary sources, you can start to get a feel for important aspects of the battle and the events around it.  You need to know the source material before any additional information will add value.

Now that you have a high level understanding of what happened, you know what the participants at the time thought, you are ready to go beyond.  Here you research what others have said about the battle.  If you are lucky, Karwansaray Publishing has some coverage in one of their other magazines.  These will give you a broader understanding of what current scholars and thinkers are saying about the battle you are referencing.  This often gives you context into the wider warfare of the period and help you fit together why the battle played out as it did.  This is invaluable to try and capture the right feel of the battle.


Know Your System

Now you know what you are going to try to model.  That's good.  However, every game system has its own unique mechanics.  These will add possibility and also constraints.  For example, Hail Caesar needs to represent Commanders on the field.  Who were they?  Do they need special traits?  Meanwhile, a game like Pikeman's Lament is not interested in re-creating the big battles of the period and instead is focusing on smaller engagements so you need to scale the scenario appropriately.

The best way to know your system is to read up on it and give it a few games.  Most of us have a preferred system that we know really well.  You probably want your scenario to fit the systems you are most comfortable with.  However, you might not always have that luxury.         

Scaling the Conflict

Games tables can not typically be as large as the actual battlefields that took place.  I have seen valiant attempts at appropriately scaling Waterloo or Guagamela.  However, ultimately you have to make some abstractions.  A wargamer can only have so many miniatures.

For example, at Marathon several tribes of Athenian were present on the field of battle.  It was estimated to be a Greek force of 10,000 men.  However, we only know about three formations.  The wings and the center of the Phalanx.  However, no table will fit 10,000 miniatures.... and no wargamer wants to paint that many!

This is more art than science.  You need to know how many units your system can handle, and how many actual units they talk about at the battle in the history.  Again, at Marathon the Greeks are divided up into three basic units; The Wings and the Center.  Hail Caesar could reflect this with have three separate commanders each with a detachment under them, while a smaller game like Men of Bronze may only have 2 Hoplite units in each wing, and 1 in the center.  The scale and size of the system provides guidelines for the scale of the scenario.

Another classic example of scaling the conflict is Waterloo.  Few Napoleonic games can match the scale of the actual battle.  Therefore, it is often broken down into smaller conflicts for example the final assault on Hougoumont.


Give It a Hook

Your research should have pointed to some aspect or piece of the battle that makes it interesting and worth re-creating.  Then your scenario needs to reflect that element that made this battle stand out in the history books.  This can be done with force selection, special rules, complication, victory conditions, deployments, board set-up, etc.  Each battle has a unique hook or element to it that must be captured in the scenario to make it worth playing.  Without a hook, your scenario will just be another standard line'em up and take off battle.

As I mentioned, there are several ways to make a good hook.  It is the designers job to decide the best method.  I will list off just a few of the ways this can be done below but it is by no means an exhaustive list.

Special Rules/Complications
Probably the most common approach to make a scenario for a historical battle unique is to include some sort of special rule or complication.  These are rules that fit within the scope of the rule set, but are drawn out particularly for a specific battle.  For example, a Scenario during the Winter War between Finland and the Soviets might include a special rule for bad weather, or moving on skis.  The special rule either adds a new element to game play OR limits the options and gameplay to add decisions and friction.                    

Special Victory Conditions
These change up the normal method of "winning" the scenario beyond the usual methods.  The best example I can think of would be creating a scenario for Custer's Last Stand at the Little Bighorn.  There is no conventional method that Custer's Cavalry can win.  However, a good scenario design may alter the win conditions to be lasting a certain period of time.  This is outside the normal victory conditions for wargames but are compelling in the historical scenario.

Deployment/Force Lists
Using unique designs of force lists can make a scenario more interesting and provide the hook or twist it needs.  If a game normally only allows X, then an interesting scenario may lift or change those restrictions to better match the actual tactical situation of the battle.  For example, a WWI scenario in late 1918 may allow the British a larger number of tanks than normal, and the Germans more mines and other tricks.

Board Set-up
The terrain or deployment method itself may be enough to add a bit of twist to the scenario.  For example, the raid to recreate the movie Where Eagles Dare would have to represent the mountain top fortress in the movie.  That alone is enough to inspire gamers and create a unique play experience.


Final Thoughts

As you can see, Historical Scenarios are a big challenge to design.  Typically, they are only a few pages long but require the most amount of effort and research to try and capture the right feeling or sense of the action on the tabletop.  The research is the key first step, but then you need to translate your findings into the game system you are using with the right mix of scope and scale.  Finally, it needs to have a hook to make the game worth playing.  That is a tough combination to pull off.       
      

Monday, May 6, 2019

Men of Bronze- Living FAQ



With the release of Men of Bronze, it is natural that folks have a few questions about the rules.  I have compiled some of these questions from various sources on the internet and will be answering them here.  As I find more questions, I will continue to update and add to the FAQ here.  I expect this article will have a lively comments section, so I will try to keep the main FAQ up-to-date with new material that come up there as well.  You might want to bookmark this page and check back again since you will be often.   

Thanks to all the folks who have been kind enough and interested enough to ask these questions.  I am very happy you bought the book and appreciate your support.  Thank you! 

Is there pre-measuring in Men of Bronze?

In the measurement section on Page 6 of Men of Bronze, it states: “Measurements can not be made until a player has committed their models to act.”  Therefore, there is no pre-measuring. 

Many modern games now allow you to pre-measure.  However, I have opted not to go this route.  I feel pre-measuring is necessary and important in sci-fi/modern games where devices to measure distance are common and built into common wargear.  However, in the days of yore; such devices were not common and had to be judged by eye.

It seemed appropriate for the same to be true for the players of Men of Bronze.  The commander must judge the distance and decide if the time is right to strike, or to get closer first. Another important choice since positioning can be very important.   

Can a Hoplite unit activate in Open Order formation, use an Arete Point to charge, move a number of Base Widths in Open Order, then employ another Arete Point to form Phalanx and complete the charge?

Someone is up to some strategizing with this question.  Here are a couple of key rules points to consider.  Page 15 states that an Arete Point can be used at any time.  On page 18 the rules states that a “Phalanx can change from open order into Phalanx for 1 Arete Point at any time and not impact there activation.” Finally, page 19 explains that you need to use 1 Arete Point to launch a charge. 

With all of those points in mind, the answer to your question is YES.  The only limiting factor is the number of Arete Points you have available to use.  Choices, choices, choices!     

 If a Unit “Comes into Contact” with an enemy unit during their activation they can not engage in Melee.  Are supporting units declared at this time? 

Good question.  Page 14, 18 and Page 21 have the relevant rules.  You are correct that a unit that “Comes into Contact” with an enemy can not engage in Melee immediately.  You can either Move, Shoot, or Melee.  Only a Charge allows a Melee to occur after a Move.

Supporting Units are only declared once a Melee occurs. Therefore, you do not need to declare any supporting units until Melee begins.   

  

If a Unit “Comes into Contact” with an enemy unit during their activation they can not engage in Melee.  Can the enemy unit engage in Melee if they had not activated previously? 

Again, page 14 and 18 are your main guides here.  Yes, the enemy unit could activate and then engage in Melee as normal.  There one activation was Melee and the enemy was obliging enough to walk into them.

You can see why it is much better to try and charge into an enemy rather than simply “Come Into Contact”.  By Coming into Contact you are basically letting them get some free Melee attacks at you. 

Once a unit “comes into contact” they may not engage in any other action other than fighting until the conclusion of Melee.  If not, then could either unit rally from wavering, change formation, and/or shoot the enemy until completing the Melee?

There are couple of key pages to look to for guidance on this subject.  Page 15 and 16 details how and when you can use Arete Points.  Page 20 and 21 talk about Melee, while page 14 discusses Activations. 

If an action can be completed by using an Arete Point, then it can be done.  A Unit can Rally from Wavering using an Arete point, but that counts as its Activation.  Therefore, it does not Fight.
Changing formation is a bit trickier.  By the letter of the rules, the only limit to changing formation is having Arete points to spend.  It can be done and not impact other Activations.

You can not shoot the enemy if you are in Melee.  You either shoot or fight and once you are in Melee you can only activate by Fight.  The use of Arete Points is an exception as they can be used at any time,  with some exceptions found on page 15 and 16.  



Does a Wavering Unit need to take a Discipline Check other than to move?  What is the penalty for a wavering unit to fail an additional Discipline Check?

You found out what a fraud I am as a games designer!  This one suffered from the curse of too many re-writes and some of my ideas around Wavering Units ended up muddled or not in the final rules by accident.  They are still workable, but just not how I wanted them in the final draft.  It was my own idiocy that did me in! 

The rules for Wavering are found on page 26 under rules for Discipline Checks.  Here is the answer as written.  Wavering Units only need to take a Discipline Check to Move.  There is no additional penalty for failing a second Discipline Check. 

Now, here is some rules I wanted in the book but ended up not due to confusion on my part.  Failing an additional Discipline Check while a unit was Wavering was intended to cause 1 additional point of Courage loss.

A wavering unit automatically rallies if an Arete Point is spent to Rally them regardless of being shot at or in Melee?   

That is correct.  The Arete Point allows them to rally from Wavering per page 16.   



Open Order units move in blobs.  Does this mean they are intended to be able to move around and snake through zones of control?

Open Order is covered on page 17 and 18.  The open order unit has to have a friendly model within two base widths of each other.  In addition, no Open Order model can be further forward than the Leader who is the Focal Point of the Unit for shooting, charging, facing, etc.   

Yes, they are intended to be much more mobile than a Unit in Phalanx.  As support units, this helps them get to where they need to be to “support” and add to the harassing effect of light units against phalanx units.   

Are there any rules that limit firepower by model/range?

Page 17 talks a lot about using the Leader as the Focal Point, while page 25-27 detail shooting.  You will notice that if the leader has the right facing, can draw LOS and range, then everyone in the unit can shoot.  Combined with the Open Order rules for moving on Page 17 and 18, you will see that the Leader model should be the farthest forward at any time anyway.  Therefore, long snaky lines of skirmishers are still only limited by what their Leader can target.     

This is intended to abstract the shooting and avoid fiddliness.  The rules all ready reduce the effectiveness of shooting by design, and put much more emphasis on “shock” combat.  Shooting is most effective against other shooting units, and struggles against the high armor values of a Phalanx.  

Shooting Line-of-Sight is measured from the leader and leaders have a 360 degree arc of fire.  Is that 360 degree from the leader only and do members of his own unit block his Line-of-Sight?

You will wan to reference Page 17 and page 25- 26 to cover this question.  The leader is the focal point of the shooting unit.  You measure from the base of the leader model to the base to any model in the enemy unit therefore, the 360 is from the unit leader.  Friendly Units DO block line of sight, but models from the leader's own unit do not. 

Units attacked in the rear of flank seem to have no penalties in combat, is this correct?  

Page 22 covers Flank and Rear attacks.  The unit being attacked does not face any penalties.  Instead, the units attacking get bonus dice.  The only negative modifiers are if a unit is wavering, and that impacts the Target Number not the number of dice.  In general, Men of Bronze is designed to not have any negative penalties and only rewards players for play.    

Flanking is +2 dice and a Rear attack is+4 dice.  However, you will note that these bonus dice are cumulative.  Therefore, a Unit that Flank attacks (+2 Attack Dice) while charging (+2 Attack Dice) while in Phalanx (+2 Attack Dice) gets +6 attack dice total.  In addition, most Flank attacks are not done alone, they typically are supporting a frontal fight that pins the enemy in place, so the support would be an additional +2 Attack Dice, increasing your bonus in Melee to +8 Attack Dice!  You can see how the right tactics and positioning can really pay off!    

  
Can you shoot into melee?

I look around the book to find where it explicitly says that you can not fire into melee.  I looked on page 29 about shooting over friendly units and it was not there. I looked on page 26 to determine eligibility of target under Line-of-Sight.  There it only says that friendly units block Line-of-Sight.  Then, I checked Page 21 on Determining Melee and it does not have anything to say on this topic. 

Therefore, by the rules as written you CAN shoot into a melee provided you can draw Line-of-Sight per the normal rules and no other units block the Line-of-Sight.  In practice this will be difficult due to the presence of support units and other units on the battlefield blocking Line-of-Sight.  Once a unit joins in support, its fate is linked to the main unit per page 21, and these support units will block Line-of-Sight to the main unit and therefore, the unit that can take damage will not be an eligible target.

So, here is my final answer.  Technically it can be done per normal Line-of-Sight rules.  The challenge is who takes the hits?  Therefore, for practical reasons I would say NO you can not shoot into melee. 
   
If a Unit is in Melee due to fighting to its front, but gets charged in the back how can it retire?

When you determine Melee, units that are engaged in the front are the main opponents.  If a Rear of Flank attack occurs it is still a Support Attack per page 21 and 22.  Pushback proceeds as normal and represents the scattered melee shifting around.  So, Pushback against the main unit works as normal.  The Rear Attacking troops simply shift with the rest of the Melee.  Pushback is covered in detail on 25 and 26. 

If the Unit that is being attacked in the rear is reduced to 0 Courage, they are turned about as normal and removed in the End Phase as normal per the normal rules on page 26 and 27.

Does a Counter-Charge counts as a Unit's Activation?

Yes.  The unit use the Arete Point to essentially perform a charge action, which allows movement and a fight action.  Charges are covered on page 18. 

If a Unit is engaged in a melee, and is then attacked by a Rear of Flank action can the Unit choose to spend an Arete Point to then Counter-Charge the newly charging unit.  

The Unit is previously engaged in melee and technically is engaged until the Melee is resolved.  The new charge is just a support unit with additional bonuses to the first attacker's attack dice.  Therefore, the charge of a support unit is not considered a new Melee but part of an ongoing melee even though the results may be determined after the initial unit's melee has been resolved. 

Here is an example of combat that may help clarify things a bit:

For Example: Spartan Hoplite Unit Alpha is charged by Macedonian Phalanx Beta.  Alpha and Beta are in a Melee.  They roll for Combat and resolve the action for Courage loss and Discipline checks.  The Spartans are pushed back 2 base lengths with Courage loss, and the Macedonians also lose some Courage. 

Later in the same turn, Macedonian Cavalry Sigma activates and joins the Melee between Alpha and Beta by charging into Spartan Alpha's rear.  Therefore, Sigma gets to roll 2 Attack Dice for supporting, and plus +4 for charging against Spartan Alpha to resolve additional Courage loss to the Spartans.  This amy also cause Discipline Checks.  Spartan Alpha has all ready attacked so no additional dice are rolled by the Spartans.  The Macedonian Phalanx Beta has also all ready attacked so no additional dice are rolled by them.  

Pushback was originally determined by the Alpha vs. Beta Melee so no additional Pushback can occur.  In subsequent turns, Beta and Sigma will be joined against Alpha in one big Melee.  Their attacks will be resolved together until the Melee is completed.  Once the Melee is resolved, they will become two separate units again for activation purposes.    

Conclusion
I hope that clarifies some of your questions.  Feel free to keep them coming.  I love seeing the ingenuity of players.  Like I said, this is a living and breathing document so I will add more questions and answers as they come up. 

I look forward to reading all about your battlefield exploits!