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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  1. That was an interesting trawl through some cool options. Thank you very much for sharing. Have you thought of approaching one of the higher traffic sites (like Bell of Lost Souls) to see if they'd be interested in your work? I doubt it would pay, but it could get your excellent content out to a wider audience.

    1. Thanks Euan. High praise indeed!

      I have some contacts with a couple of publishing houses but they are mostly after works on Wargaming Genres and not so much on Wargame Design in general.

      Maybe I can pitch the idea of a series of articles on the topic?