Monday, August 10, 2020

Wargame Design- Detection and Stealth in Miniature

As most of my readers know, I have been thinking a lot about some of the lesser observed parts of wargame design lately.  Things like movement, Terrain placement, Deployment, etc.  These are areas that are fundamental to game play but frequently get overlooked.  Today I want to dedicate some time to talk about detecting your enemy.

What is This All About Then
Many wargames take it for granted that if you can draw a Line-of-Sight to the target, that the model has detected them and can take action against them.  However, isn't one of the key aspects of fighting to see the enemy, but not let them see you?  Therefore, before you can take action against an enemy, you need to know they are there.

Detection is a process often taken for granted in miniature wargames.  In some genres it makes more sense than others.  Games that feature a restricted line of sight make a ton of sense.  For example, a game like Black Ops where everyone is sneaking around demands one.  A standard, sci-fi shoot-out may not as everyone has tech to highlight where everyone is.

In addition, something to consider is that "detection" is another element that adds a layer of complexity to a game.  Some game designs this complexity is needed to get the correct feel for the game, such as a submarine game.  In others, it is just additional mechanics.  Does a game of Greek Phalanxes crashing into each other head-to-head need detection?  No, it just adds complexity to the game that does not drive the theme or needs of the game.

Therefore, before deciding to include detection, the designer must review their goals and objectives for the game and decide if it is the right tool for the job.

The Problem with Stealth
Tabletop Games just do not have a great way to handle detection in an authentic way.  For true stealth situations, the opponent should have no idea where the enemy is until they attack or give away their position.  This is a problem for three main reasons:

1. No one likes to get "Alpha Striked" where they have limited options to respond, and instead just die.

2. Player's have come to expect a God's Eye view of the table.  They expect to see everything that is "in play" on the table.

3. It is hard to control of manage an asset that is not physically there.  Where are they, what is their facing, where are they going, can they attack now or later?  The stealth unit is like Shroedinger's Cat.

Typically, the easiest way you handle stealth is that you don't.  You assume that by the time a fight breaks out, stealth has been discarded and it is time to start fighting.  The Stealth was a pre-game element that has been discarded once the game begins.  However, this solution seems incredibly unsatisfying. 

With all that said, Stealth is not impossible.  It can be achieved despite the challenges that a designer faces.  That may be what makes a "stealth" focused game even more interesting from a design perspective.

What is in the Tool Box? 
Let's assume that you have decided that detection is a necessary and relevant mechanic for the game you are going to build.  Awesome!  How are you going to get it done?  There are several well worn methods to help you iron out detection.   

1. Blips/Blinds
The classic answer has been to use blips and blinds.  We have talked about those in my series on Solo-wargaming.  The blips are markers that represent the approximate location of the enemy forces.  They could be revealed by various actions initiated by the players or the opponent.  Once revealed, the blips are replaced with actual models nearby or at the exact same location or are false decoys and no enemy is there.

This is a good solution, BUT the opponent still has a general idea of "where" an enemy is and what it could be doing.  Plus, it can be a bit fiddly in execution.

Game Example: All Quiet on the Martian Front, Blucher

2. Unseen Units as Reserves
In this scenario, the undetected models are placed in reserves.  Once a detection check is passed, the unit is moved from reserves and deployed on the board.  This could be in a deployment zone, or a board edge.  Once detected the unit can act as normal.

The undetected unit can often just feel "late to the party" unless the deployment zone also changes as the game progresses.

Game Example: ???

3. Deployment Points
Deployment Points are placed or moved about the board.  When a Detection Check is passed, the model can then be deployed at or close to any deployment point on the board.

This allows some idea of how the enemy will arrive, and a canny player can mitigate their appearance and avoid an Alpha Strike.  In addition, the deployment of these Points themselves could be a decision point or game process that adds tactics to the game.

Game Example: Chain of Command

4. Detection Checks
A unit can not interact with another unit until a detection check has been passed.  They may then fire on the detected unit.  An added twist could be that various actions by the target or firer could augment the checks target numbers.

This is a very simple solution, but does not solve a true Stealth situation.  The model would still be available and move around the board.  It would be visible to the opponent and countered even though it is "undetected" in an unnatural way.

Game Example: Battlegroup, Battle for the Depths

5. Deep Strike
The model is left off the table.  Once it is detected, the player can choose to place the model anywhere they wish on the board.  Added variations may have some sort of deployment uncertainty with a scatter roll, or a similar randomizing mechanic.  The model could be revealed by either players actions.

This allows true "stealth" where an opponent can not react.  However, many players do not like to be potentially Alpha Striked in this manner.

Game Examples: Aquanautica Imperialis

6. Double Blinds
Both players are either set-up on opposite tables with a referee, third party, or mechanical system that determines when contact has been made.  models can only move models on their board, and they are not placed on the opponents boards until detected.

This obviously requires a great deal of set-up and work to create effectively.  However, it is the closest to true "stealth" with command and control retained by the players. 

Game Example: Battleship 

7. Fog of War
In this situation, a block is placed across the two players dividing the board.  Players only have a God's Eye view to their own models until action commences.  Then, parts of the board are revealed as their forces interact with them.

Again, a challenging situation to create on the game table that requires specialized components for game play.

Game Examples: Heroquest, Space Hulk, Various Dungeon Crawler games

Not every game needs detection or stealth elements to be successful.  However, it can provide a unique Hook, Chrome, or Soul to your game.  Some genres benefit more from these mechanical tricks than others.

The key point is that a designer needs to have a clear idea of what they are trying to achieve, and then pick the best tool for the job.

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