Monday, April 27, 2020

Wargame Design: Solo Gaming the Opponent

With this Brave New World of Covid-19, a topic that is on everyone's mind is how to successfully do "Solo" wargaming.  A few of us maybe lucky enough to be quarantined with a fellow wargamer, but most of us are not that lucky!  So, that leads to the question of how to enjoy our hobby in this new environment?

Of course, there are a lot of answers to that question.  It includes things like digital replacements (like FUMMBLE or the Cyanide games for Blood Bowl), spending time painting and building terrain, or trying to do the venerable Play-by-Email.  However, I am writing more from a designers perspective.  How do we make a Wargame that is suitable to solo-play.  Recently, there have been several attempts to answer this very question with games like:

  • Horizon Wars: Zero Dark
  • Rangers of ShadowDeep
  • The "4 Against" series
  • Spellslingers and Sellswords

There are also some older models to look at such as The Men Who Would Be Kings. The Walking Dead and Chain Reaction from Two-Hour Wargames.  So, this is not an entirely novel new approach to wargaming.  I even gave it a try with Combat! Starring Vic Morrow.

Your Greatest Enemy is Yourself
When you look at the challenge posed by "Solo" wargaming, the biggest is getting your enemies to act like another player and not just a Zerg rush with no sense of self-preservation bot.  You want to add some nuance to the way your "automated" Opponents think and react.  At the same time as the player, you do not want to "know" what your opponent is doing.

There are a few ways to go about this process:

1. Action Flows
2. Card Decks
3. Escalating Action
4. Randomized Actions

Action Flow
The Opponent units or models have a "script" that they look at to determine their actions.  Typically, you move down the list and complete the action.  Some games have different "scripts" for different types of opponents.  Typically, they look something like this:

Are there opponents in range to charge in Melee?
- Yes: Charge Them and resolve the Charge as normal
- No: 1. Are there opponents in range and LOS?
-- Yes: Shoot at the target
-- No: Is there a target they can see?
-----Yes: Move into the closest cover that can still see the target
-----No: Move towards the center of the board at full move

Games that involve Zombies opponents that behave on instinct such "programmed" action flows make a lot of sense.  These types of flows also work well if the "enemy" has a defined time to act in the turn structure such as a "Monster Phase" or the like.

Advantages: Opponents can be programmed to complete a range of "assessments" and "actions" based on a hierarchy of actions.

Disadvantages: Such "programs" can be too complex, OR too easy to predict after a few games.  For example, you know this enemy will move to the center of the board, so I will hide and set up a shooting gallery.

Example Games: Rangers of ShadowDeep, Frostgrave, Last Days, The Men Who Would Be King

Card Decks
A process that uses a card deck uses certain cards that turn up to "trigger" actions from the Opponents.  These triggers could be to activate certain monsters, shoot or act with certain monsters, or trigger a pre-programmed action flow of their own.  Many times, these are combined and built into the activation process of the game, or pulled when the unit itself is chosen to activate. These games may have a customized deck or use a standard Poker Deck depending on the game.

For example, the player pulls out a Black Two-eyed Jack.  Typically, only "bad guys" use the Black cards, and the Jack corresponds to the Mini-boss of the board.  The Two-Eyed Jack means that he is shooting, while the single eyed jack would have triggered a charge attack.  Of course, if the enemy can not shoot or charge, the default would be to move towards the objective.

Advantages  This process adds an activation element into the Opponents actions, so they maybe able to "interrupt the plans of the player by doing something a bit unexpected.  This works best with random activation or alternate activation style games.  The Opponent is a bit less predictable and a number of cards can be used for a number of actions such as Hide, Hack, Cast a Spell, Self-Heal, Etc. 

Disadvantages: Opponents might doing strange things at strange times such as Hide when you are within charge distance.  This can lead to a loss of immersion and a randomization of the games challenge.

Example Games:  Black Ops, Horizon Wars: Zero Dark

Escalating Action
In this scenario, as the player does things, it increases the aggressiveness of the enemy.  As the game begins, you have more freedom of action as the player.  However, as the tension ramps up and player act then the threat level of the enemy response also increases.  Early in the game an enemy may simple move around as a sentry, but later they are willing to attack, call for more enemies, etc.  This ramps up the tension as the game moves along and allows for player action to manage the potential enemy response.

For example, as the player's units move in on the enemy camp; the sentries move around looking for intruders.  As the player's unit cuts through the wire, eliminates a sentry, etc. the tension is heightened and other sentries decide to shoot first and ask questions later.  They can shoot at targets within 8 inches.  Once the Player starts shooting of blowing things up, more enemies can arrive and shoot with abandon!

Advantages:  This is a great way to ratchet up the tension and add a Resource Management element of the game, as the Player is trying to keep the opponent's reactions "down".

Disadvantages:  It adds another layer of tracking and book keeping to the game.  In addition, to the "danger" levels you also need to keep track of different levels of opponent reaction at different times of the game.

Game Examples:  Black Ops, The Walking Dead 

Randomized Actions
In this process, when an Opponent becomes active, they roll on a series of tables to help determine how they respond to a given situation.  The model will then carry out this action to completion.  This can be used with a variety of activation methods and the action charts can be as detailed or loose as the game requires.

For example, when the enemy model is activated it rolls on a d6 "Morale" chart.  That chart comes up as "Aggressive" and another dice roll is made on the "Aggressive" Chart.  The model scores a "charge" result.  It runs towards the nearest enemy intending to bludgeon it about the head and shoulders.  resolve the action as normal.

Alternatively, the next monster gets activated and rolls on the d6 "Morale" chart and gets cautious.  It rolls again on the "Cautious" chart and score Overwatch.  The model is asked to move into the closest cover and try to reserve a shooting action for when an enemy comes into sight.

Advantage:  The charts can be as elaborate or simple as the designer wishes.  This allows a number of actions for the enemy to take.   

Disadvantages:  The process of completing an opponents action can become very involved, and players feel like they are spending more time managing the Op-For than their own models.  In addition, this type can lead to even more nonsense responses than the other options.   

Game Examples: Combat! Starring Vic Morrow, Chain Reaction

The Best Tool for the Job
Of course, there is no right answer for this question.  It depends on what the designer is trying to create and the best way to model that reality.  It might make sense to combine some of these options together, or scale them back to the most basic actions.

Like I frequently preach, one of the best assets of a game designer is to go out and see how other games do it.  Take a look at the Game Examples I provided.  Look at how Board Games accomplish similar goals.  A strong knowledge of existing mechanics gives you a tool box of ideas and methods to choose from which is key because Innovation is Over-rated.

There are no right answers.  What is right for a zombie game won't make sense for a Ninja Stealth game.  Ultimately, the choice is up to the designer and what their design goals for the game are.

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Monday, April 20, 2020

Review: Dracula's America- Osprey Games

A long time ago, I started some preliminary work on a Weird Wild West game.  It never really came to fruition, and instead the core mechanics morphed into something else entirely.  Eventually, the mechanics did make it into a game called Turf WarHowever, the itch of Weird Wild West was still sitting there in the back of my mind.

Then, along comes Osprey Games with this game.  Dracula's America: Shadows of the West.  I wanted my wild west game to take a more Mythos approach similar to Strange Aeons, but after reading those rules I know I couldn't out Mythos them.  So, then I started to think about other "Horror Tropes" to use.  Dracula's America clearly settled on applying Gothic overtones and North American themed genre tropes to the Wild West.  Good choice!

It took a bit of time, but I eventually picked up all the books.  Sadly, I have not had a chance to read them or review them.... until now!  There was always some other work just taking a bit of priority over them.  Now, with the Pandemic of 2020 going on, it seems like the perfect time to break out these rules and settle in for a read.

Let's open the casket and see what is moldering in side shall we?

Things I Liked
When a player wins activation, they have two actions to complete.  At first I was unimpressed, as many skirmish games love this dual action/action point process.  I am not personally and fan, but realize I am in the minority.  However, I was interested when the player had the choice to spread these activations over more than one model.  So, you could have two models each take 1 Action, or a single model make 2 activations.  Now we have a decision point!  Very simple, yet elegant.

Models have 180 degree line of sight to the front, so facing matters in this game!  That is a simple and effective way to create Tactical Game Play.

When shooting, you must target the closest enemy.  However, you can decide to make a test to override this and shoot a different target.  However, if you fail you loose the chance to shoot at all.  A simple decision point that adds more Tactical Play.

Models are either Novices, Veterans, or Heroes.  This indicates the type of dice they use to make tests with.  Novices use d6, vets a d8, and a Hero uses d10.  This indicates improved skills and abilities in a simple and elegant way.  Most shooting and fighting is done with a three dice test looking for 5+ for success.  This is pretty straight forward with modifiers removing dice in the test.  The more success, the harder it is to resist the damage later.  The more you fail a save by, the more injury you take.  Therefore, Novices are more prone to injury than Heroes and Vets. 

Instead of hitting a guy in Close Combat, you can "shove" them.  This allows you to break combat, knock them off a mount, or over a cliff.  This is a fun little bit of rules and adds a simple decision point to hand-to-hand. 

If half of your Posse is down, you need to start making Bottle Checks to stay in the fight.  For your boss it is a simple 3 dice test.  However, if your boss is down, the test is reduced to a 1 dice test.  Therefore, you actually have to decide how to use your boss to maximum effect.  Normally, he is one of your Heroes or Vets, so a good fighter too.  However, if he goes down your chances of running just went way up.  Oh no!  More decisions!

All of the Weird Wild West rules are a completely separate part of the rules.  This is a Wild West game at its core, which allows you to "bolt-on" as much fantasy as you want.  That's pretty cool.  It adds supernatural creatures such as Zombies, Vampires, demons, etc.  It also adds a different event table, Income encounters, bystander rules, new hired guns, gear, and bestiary. 

Things I Did Not Like
I was not a fan of the card based activation process to determine initiative.  Essentially, each player gets a number of cards in their hand based on the number of models on the table at the start of a turn.  Players than place a card face down and flip it over.  High card wins, except Black cards go before Red cards.  It creates a bit of resource management and decision making around activation, BUT I do not feel it is worth the time this process takes for what could just as easily be an alternate activation system or some other system.  If cards were used as a larger part of determining action results, I could see this activation process having more value.  However, as it is the cards are ONLY used for activation purposes.  Sure, cards are very Wild West, but I am not convinced that this adds much to the game beyond novelty in activation mechanics.

So, I am a fan of the Novice,Vets, and Hero delineation for dice used.  However, I find the stat line and keyword combination to be less than satisfactory.  I tend to favor stats over keywords.  However, these game seems to have an okay balance.

This game allows pre-measuring.  Typically, I am not a huge fan of pre-measuring, but especially in time periods where man-portable range finders and other distance measuring devices were not common.  If the actual human has to estimate, I think the player should too.  Again, an old-fashioned and minority opinion I have.

Meh and Other Uncertainties
The game clearly covers your most common rough and tumble movement like going through windows, climbing ladders, jumping gaps, etc.  Disengaging from combat is interesting as you make a test.  If successful you leave combat, but if failed you immediately make a save from damage.  They just assume the enemy hits you instead of giving free attacks and the like.  Much easier.

The game does have an overwatch mechanic that a model may choose to go into as an action.  I find this useful in skirmish games.

The game makes use of complications such as Bystanders and Events built into the core mechanics.  If two player try to activate using the same card, it triggers and event.  In addition, models can interact with bystanders during the game by grabbing them, holding them hostage, protecting them, etc.  The game comes with 7 basic scenarios.  In addition, each scenario will have each faction having a secondary "agenda" to try and achieve in addition to the scenario objective.  All of these features add to the replayability of the game.

Of course, the game also has a campaign system.  It follows the usual campaign system elements of injury, advancement, income, etc.  Of course, you can also recruit and hire Hired Guns too.  The income section rolls 4d6 or 5d6 depending if you won or lost.  Interestingly, on duplicate results you can have different post-game encounters that add flavor to your games.  In addition, there is an underdog mechanic which seems to be a must in campaign games.

Final Thoughts
This game is really two games in one.  It is perfectly suitable as a Wild West game, and all the rules allow such a game.  In addition, there is Dracula's America which is a Weird Wild West game.  That is value right there!  Two games for the price of one!

Overall, this is a really well done game.  The balance seems pretty solid, even in the campaign game.  The flavor elements are well done as well.  I look forward to digging into the supplements to see what I find there too.  The rules are pretty straight forward and there do not seem to be many If This Then This scenarios.  Some more scenarios would be nice, but those can be developed by players pretty easily, and agenda, bystanders, and events can probably keep things interesting for a while.

Now, I am really unsure what to do.  My family wants to play Burrows and BadgersHowever, I think it will be easier to start a campaign game of this locally rather than Frostgrave.  I can easily see getting people to play this game, especially ones who liked the old Necromunda as it had a wild west, sci-fi flair.  I may change the basic premise to gangsters though.... I have a lot of gangsters...... not so many cowboys.  We will see! 

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Monday, April 13, 2020

On the Painting Desk: Gangsters, Greeks and 6mm Madness

My corporate masters decided to close down the office and send us all to work from home.  My kid’s school also closed down and sent her to homeschool too.  My wife was working diligently with her client’s to get them as online friendly as she could.  I imagine many of you are in the same boat thanks to COVID-19.  I hope as you read this that you and your loved ones are healthy and whole. 

This has not really given me more time to paint, but I have been painting a lot more anyway.  I don’t know why.  However, my main painting goals haven’t changed.  I still need to paint gangsters, greeks, and anything else I can find that is unpainted in my collection. 

In the Men of Bronze rulebooks there are a number of sample armies to help get you started.  I have always intended on having model versions of the Spartan and Corinthian sample armies for demo games and on the blog.  Last year I managed to finish painting my sample Macedonian army list.  I wanted a couple of “true” Greek armies too.

After two years, I have finally done it.  Here are the last units I needed to complete both of those armies.  There is one unit of Spartan Hoplites, one unit of Corinthian Hoplites, and 1 Peltast unit.  These are all 28mm Victrix models.  These were great sets to assemble, paint, and I got a lot of units out of each box.  I think I could still make one more unit out of each box if I wanted too! 

In addition to the Greeks, I have been working diligently on my Copplestone Casting models for Turf War, Strange Aeons, and other game systems.  These models are all metal.  They are a joy to paint due to solid sculpting and deep detail.  They accept basic techniques easily and each one is full of character.

I have been working on finishing off the last handful of models I have from these selections.  I have more than enough to play a variety of games, but I want them all to be painted!  I did the same with my gladiators.  I had plenty to play but I painted them all anyway.  They look great on my painted shelves.

I have also been working on a few Fantasy models my fellow RPGers picked out for the group.  I finished the group a while ago, but I have a few stragglers I have been working on.  Most of them are not handy as they are with the DM, but here are a few shots I took of them.  I am hoping to use them for a game of Rampant Swords in the near future too.

Finally, I have turned my attention to my 6mm armies from Baccus.  These guys intimidated me.  I was not sure where to begin.  However, Baccus has a variety of helpful tutorials on their website, and I watched a couple videos.  With my confidence boosted and some tips and tricks under my belt I decided to get to work.  They were not going to be painting themselves after all.

I decided to start by painting the three bases of archers.  Each base was 60mm x 60mm.  I intended to use these to play Heirs to Empire.  Therefore, I base would be one unit.  I put 32 models on each base to make them look like a big unit. 

The hardest part of painting them was actually the base!  Only in wargaming do you put real dirt on a base, and then paint it to make it look like dirt!  This stage was murder on my brushes, but I had a few set aside for sacrifice.  Good thing I mostly use cheap, big-box retailer brushes

So, that’s what I have been painting.  You can see it all aligns closely with my 2020 goals.  I have painted 45+ miniatures this year.  That is a pretty good pace for me.  I look forward to continuing to work on my painting goals for 2020. 

As a random aside, I spent some of my time creating a new wargame and posted it on our Wargame Vault page.  It is called Foam Force FiveIt is a mash-up of Little Wars, Castle Defense games, and my other Dexterity based wargames. 

What you need to play is a dart gun, sling shot, rubber band gun, etc. and a variety of targets such as green army men, flats, paper templates, etc.   It is silly, simple fun and suitable for ages 5 to adult.  Check it out and let me know what you think. 

Have fun in self-quarantine.

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Monday, April 6, 2020

Wargame Design: Terrain Placement is a Tool

For much of my career, I was blinded by resolution mechanics and activation processes as the key to fun game play.  This was a mistake.  As I explore more games, design more games, and just think a lot more about games I realize that there are a lot of other places to look at that help make a game fun and interesting.  For example, I have been rethinking how Movement can be more innovative, how to create tactical game play, and building balance into your games.

An area that very rarely gets looked at our discussed is board set-up and creation.  As I playtest the rules for Wars of the Roman Republic I have again realized the importance of terrain placement, and the mechanics around how this is completed.  Terrain is an X factor that helps make games much deeper and more interesting.  It can restrict movement, add defensive benefits, and change where and how interactions occur. 

Good board lay out can do the following to enhance game play:
  • ·       Help balance a scenario
  • ·       Add thematic elements
  • ·       Restrict or shape movement
  • ·       Provide tactical options
  • ·       Force decision making on the player

Traditionally, I have seen Terrain Placement mechanics follow a wide range of styles.  Here is a sample of some of the methods I have seen used in various games:

Follow the Map- This is a common approach in historical games.  Players are given a specific scenario and a map.  They are then supposed to lay out the board matching the map. 

  • Advantage: The designer can use the map to “balance” the scenario with a known terrain configuration.  In addition, it can be used to match an actual historical scenario

  • Disadvantage: The Players need the right shape and type of terrain to play.  In historicals, the scenario is often decided and the terrain made to fit before the game.  That is not true for more pick-up and casual play games.  There gamers tend to use what they have.

One Player Sets- In this situation, one player (often the host) gets to set-up the terrain anyway they want.  Then the other player arrives and chooses the side to deploy on and/or the force they are using.  This is a method that I use frequently in my home games. 

  • Advantage: Quick and easy.  It allows you to get to playing quickly.  Often, a player builds the game to a theme and lays out terrain accordingly with this method  

  • Disadvantage: The terrain is laid out purely at the players whim, often with no input from the opponent.  Not ideal for a casual or pick-up game.

Randomized Terrain- In this method, the game typically has some sort of terrain chart that is rolled on to generate a specific piece of terrain.  Placement can also be randomized using a scatter chart method or sections of the board. 

  • Advantages: No player has definitive control over the terrain placement.  Where it goes and what it is is determined by an element of chance. 

  • Disadvantage: Boards can be disorganized and look randomized.  Players may not have the specific terrain being called for. 

Alternate Placement- The players have a certain number of terrain pieces that they can place.  Each player takes turns putting the terrain on the board where they wish.  They can combine terrain pieces to make bigger or larger areas if they wish. 

  • Advantage: Players take a role in placing terrain, which allows some tactical or game play opportunity in the set-up phase.

  • Disadvantage: This can lead to terrain hampering game play.  Players can either place it all where it does not matter, or in the direct center of the board.  The board may look unfocused.

Fill the Grid- The board is divided into an arbitrary number of grid squares that all must have at least one piece of terrain in the grid space.      

  • Advantage: The terrain is placed “evenly” around the board.

  • Disadvantage: This can lead to a very “symmetrical” placement that no longer looks natural. 

Of course, these are just a flavor of possible ways to lay-out terrain.  Many games will use variants or combinations of the methods listed above such as Alternate Placement via Grid Square with Random Charts, as an example.  Of course, players can always choose to use whatever method they prefer despite what the rules say. 

By adding Terrain placement rules to a game’s core rules the designer gives themselves yet another tool to help shape the game experience.  They are a great tool for balancing scenarios or adding more decision making before a game even begins.  Setting up your board can be just as important as deployment or in-game decisions to the flow of the game.  Good general’s always use terrain to their advantage.  Game designers should follow their lead.    

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