Monday, July 26, 2021

Wargame Design: Strategic Choice in Wargames


On this blog in the past, I have spoken about adding Tactical Depth and about creating meaningful choices in your games.  To do so, I intentionally created a definition of what Tactical game play meant that focused on the events that happen on the tabletop.  This left space for commentary on the alternative type of Depth in a game, that I will refer to as Strategic Depth.    

As I observe and interact with more players, I am slowly learning the value of this Strategic Depth for players.  They crave these options in their games.  If you watch internet interactions, engage in conversations at your FLGS, or talk with your fellow game club members almost all the discussions they are having revolve around Strategic Depth and NOT tactical depth.  Therefore, your games ability to drive Strategic Depth is a key ingredient to enhancing its "Fun Factor" and replay-ability for a large number of players.  In fact, I am starting to believe that Strategic Depth is more important to players than Tactical Depth. 

Strategic Depth is decisions that a player can make for your game that are not actually taking place ON the tabletop.  In wargames, this can take many forms but the most common examples include list building, resource management, and campaign choices.  Normally, Strategic Depth plays a larger role in campaign games, but can play a role in one-off games as well.  Strategic Depth is just another layer of choice you can provide for a player.  Essentially, it is details of your game that players can talk about and discuss outside of actually playing the game!  

So, how do you add Strategic Depth to your games?  The high level answer is simple enough.  You must add choice.  After all, if we learned nothing else from this blog it is that:

Choice = Fun

As we all know, there are some fundamental elements to adding choice:

  1. Choices must have consequences
  2. Meaningful choices are a trade-offs
  3. They must have an impact on the game
The criteria for meaningful Strategic Choices are no different than criteria for meaningful Tactical Choices.  The same ideas apply.  

Then, where is the space in your game to add Strategic Choices into your games?  Here are some ways I have seen it done, and I will try to list games where I have seen it in play.  

1. Unit Choices/Army Lists
The most fundamental and basic Strategic Choice a player can make is what units do they bring to the table.  This will dictate what they can then actually accomplish on the table.  If you do not have the right units for the mission or game play, then that was a Strategic error, not a tactical one.  By not provided set forces for a scenario, and asking the player to choose you are introducing a Strategic choice.  

Clearly, many game use this approach.  It is very common in most sci-fi or Fantasy games. It is also increasingly popular in Historical or Historical-esque game systems.  Players like to pick what units they are going to field rather than being told what they will field.  Some common examples include Warhammer 40K, Warhammer Fantasy Battle, War Machine, Legion, Battletech and Flames of War. 

This one is so common, that most Wargames allow this level of Strategic choice at a minimum.  However, some Historical games use other methods to determine which units to use such as Land of the Free or even Blucher's Scharnhorst campaign system.  In this case, either the scenario or the campaign somewhat dictates who is available to fight.   

2. Synergies/Combos
This is when the design intentionally creates units in the Army List that are intended to work together in various combinations while on  the battlefield.  The game systems encourage the units to work together in this way in order to maximize the potential of the units.  Alone, they are less effective than when they work together.  

The simplest example I can provide is Napoleonic warfare.  Artillery works best on clumped up infantry, so you threaten infantry with cavalry so the infantry will form square, then you bombard them with artillery fire until they break, and then sweep the remnants up with the cavalry again.  Individually, the Artillery or the Cavalry would struggle with the infantry, but together they can clean them up.  This is a simple example of synergy while on the table.  

These synergies are a strategic choice as a player may or may not take the right units to create these synergies.  If they fail to take units that synergize together, than they are making a Strategic error, not a Tactical one in a Wargame.  

These types of strategic decisions can be found in all types of wargames.  Perhaps the game most famous for them is War Machine

3. Resource Management
In this situation, the player can choose a number of extra "resources" they can bring to the table.  The use of these resources then allow players to perform extra or boosted abilities on the table.  However, the number that a player can bring to the table may be based on other factors.  Trying to manage or maximize the number of resources you can bring to the table is a Strategic Choice. 

For example, in Dux Bellorum you can assign Leadership Tokens to help units get better saves or have more attack dice.  The number of Leadership Tokens you can bring depends on the number of units you have.  In addition, you can choose to "purchase" more tokens instead of more troops as well.  Deciding the right combination of troops to Leadership tokens then becomes a Strategic Decision.  

I have also seen this technique used in All Quiet on the Martian Front and Men of Bronze.    

4. Objective and Scenario
For this situation, the player is paying points or some other price in order to dictate the scenario or place the objective.  This provides them an advantage as the Player can then prepare for the scenario or Objective by choosing units, deploying properly, etc.  

For example, in the Batman Miniature Game many models allow the player to place or choose special objectives.  Therefore, if the player uses the right group or members they can gain some special rules advantage during the actual game play.  This is more common in skirmish based games than big battle games.  

5. Buffs/De-Buffs
Frequently a Buff/De-buff comes into play during campaigns.  However, they might also come into play as a points buy or as part of list building.  In this situation, the player is purchasing a bonus to their force or a limitation to the opponents forces before the game even begins.  This may take the form of re-rolls, stats mods, situational, equipment, etc.  

For example, in Blood Bowl you could purchase Dirty Tricks or Random Event cards that the player could use during the game play.  The opponent would frequently have no real counter and could improve a team's chances, or reduce their opponent's chances.  However, the number of cards a player had was limited based on their team rating or treasury purchases.

6. Off Board Choices
This is a catch all for various other off-table decisions either pre or post game such as deployment, board side, terrain set-up, etc.  These are decisions that will impact the game play on the table, but are made prior to any units being moved.  However, the decisions here will impact how the game plays out.  

For example, in Monsterpocalypse building placement is done before any models hit the table.  However, the placement of the buildings provide cover and other benefits latter in the game place.  These choices are Strategic choices as they occur before any models can take actions on the tabletop. 

7. Campaign Choices
This represents choices made that will impact a model or forces ability to perform in future games as part of a series of linked games.  This often takes the form of Buffs/De-buffs but can also take other forms such as Off Board choices.  

For example, Last Days: Seasons is a good example of Campaign Choices adding Strategic Depth.  In the campaign phase of the game, the player needs to make a number of choices such as who gets food, water, and who does what tasks post battle.  Models who are not fed are less effective, and different tasks allow players to take different campaign actions.  These actions act as buffs and de-buffs to survivors in future games.  

Another example is in Turf War you need to bid a territory on the game.  The choice of territory will impact how much cash you can generate in the end phase.  In addition, the turf with the most value allows you to be the attacker/defender and choose the scenario.  Therefore, a careful choice here is required or you could hamper your gang in the game, and also the campaign.  

Final Thoughts
Strategic Depth is choices that players make either just before or just after the actual game has taken place.  They often have longer term impacts on how you can play future games.  They can also impact the resources and tactics you can use in the game you will be playing.  Therefore, these "out-of-game" decisions can play a big part of the game itself. 

Players really enjoy talking about these pre and post-game decisions.  It gives them the ability to "play" a game when they are not even playing.  This builds player engagement as they can discuss what units are best, what resources to use, and how to utilize your buffs/de-buffs.  These are the conversations players engage in with their fellow players.  As a result, you MUST put good strategic depth into your game play in order to foster player interest and replayability. 

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  1. Looks like fun! Sadly I don't have any suitable gangster minis (well I do; but most now wield samurai swords due to a weird kitbashing project ages back)

    Sent you an email to see if you are willing to do a "interview an author" post on the Delta vector design blog?

    1. Love to! Glad you are back in the blogging and design game!