Monday, July 11, 2022

Wargame Design: Under the Martian Yoke

 The keen eyed observer may have noticed that I have snuck a new game onto my Wargame Vault page during the spring.  It was a little game called Under the Martian Yoke.  This is a survival horror skirmish game set in the days after the Martian Invasion of Orson Welles famous broadcast of The War of the Worlds.  In this game, that broadcast was no radio play..... it was real!  

You play as a group of 4 survivors of the Martian invasion.  The world has been devastated and the Martians roam what is left of the cities of humanity looking for human prey.  It is up to your band of survivors to escape the blasted Martian territories and flee to Free Human territory.  Of course, other survivors, Martian war machines, and simple starvation stand in your way.  

This game initially came to me in a dream.  It started as a nightmare, as Martian tripods destroyed a freeway my family and hundreds and others were using to escape.  Their terrifying red eyes searching for victims as their heat rays swept across and destroyed the cars around us.  It was terrifying stuff, but then my crazy brain thought, "Wouldn't this make a fun wargames?"  The terror ended, and soon my subconscious was showing me how to make such a game a reality.  Dreams are strange!  

When I was approaching this game, I wanted to lean into the horror and the survival.  However, making a horror wargame is tough, because elements of horror are things that wargamers hate in their games.  Some key elements of horror are: 

  1. Helplessness
  2. Degradation
  3. Escalating tension
  4. Race against Time
These are not all elements that gamers like in their games.  So how does one make a game that leans into the horror and the survival aspects for a wargame?  

There were a couple of key design decisions I made early on. First, this had to be a scale and model agnostic game.  Thankfully, I all ready had a nice selection of Copplestone Casting gangster models for my survivors.  Their clothing, equipment, and gear met the period and they were 28mm.  I also had a nice collection of Alien Dungeon models from All Quiet on the Martian Front.  These are technically 15mm, but would do just fine for the game.  Of course, other people would have very different model collections than me.  

Therefore, the game had to be scale and model agnostic.  To do this, I used my usual tricks.  All measurement units are in a generic MU scale, that can be adapted to be used with 6mm, 15mm, 20mm, 28mm, or whatever.  After all, I leave it up to players to match the size of an MU to their existing collections.  I also abstract measurements, LOS, and other factors to work no matter what model is involved.  

I also used a Bestiary of generic Martian foes that can be easily proxied, modified, or built from existing lines.  For example, I have the Martians use modified humans as mindless foot troops to hunt, flush out, and kill human survivors.  These can easily be made out of any Zombie models or even existing "faceless" soldier style models.  Tripods and drones are left relatively undetailed so you can easily kit-bash, proxy, etc to get the foes you want access to.  

Martian Baddies

 After being scale and model agnostic, I had to decide how I was going to lean into the survival and horror aspects of the game.  The game went through many iterations, with the first few drafts being a versus game, where the Martians were essentially Friction and Game-End conditions.  This is a method similar to Last Days or Stargrave.  However, as I tested I found players wanting to team up against the Martians rather than face each other.  From there, I modified the game to be Solo, Co-op, or Versus depending on how the players want to play.  This felt more like a survival horror, the players against the world and trying to survive! 

Second, I decided to tightly structure initial Survivor Band design, and take much of the design out of the hands of the player.  In many games, you can design the survivors that you want in your group.  However, I made this a semi-random process.... you always get 4, your equipment and backgrounds were randomly generated, and then the player was allowed to allocate some profile data around to customize a bit.  However, players could theoretically start with a survivor band that had no weapons!  By taking the mini-maxing capabilities away from the player, it forced them to face the game with what they had, rather than what they wanted.  

I knew this game needed a sense of escalating danger.  Therefore, many of the scenarios would start with Martian foes present.  However, as various actions occur it raises the danger level.  As the danger level goes up, it does two things.  First, it makes activation and Fear tests harder to pass, which can lead to more danger.  Second, it can attract new dangers and foes to the table, making it harder to complete scenarios.  Therefore, as the game continues it becomes harder and more dangerous for the survivors to continue, until they either are taken out of the game, run away in fear, or scatter to the safety of their hide-out.  

To add to the survival horror, the enemies are tough to kill.  Most of your survivors have fists, improvised weapons, and small arms.  These can be effective against some low-level foes but many Martian War Machines are practically immune to such weapons.  Therefore, players will have to decide how to approach the problems of the game, as brute force will not be an option.  Maneuver and focusing on objectives will be the key to success.  

In addition, not all problems can be solved with firepower, players can also use Brawn or Brains to resolve a challenge too.  Run across a locked door?  You can try to bash it down with Brawn or pick the lock with Brains.  However, failing will raise the Danger Level further.  Choose wisely as the wrong choice could slow you up, make accomplishing your objectives impossible, or lead to your death. 

To add to the survival horror aspect of the game, Fear and Nerve tests play a big part of the game.  Running Away is a common response to being faced by the Martian foe.  Most enemies cause fear,  Suppression is also a key element of the game that can cause survivors to be unable to act when it matters.  Survivors are not fearless automata that do what ever suicidal thing the player wants them to do, and they are even harder to control as the Danger Level rises.  

Finally, the campaign part of the game strongly focuses on the survival horror.  Weapons are lost, equipment expended, basic supplies consumed, injuries wrack up, and psychological damage piles up.  Characters tend to get worse faster than they get better as the Martian take their toll on the survivors by injuring them, traumatizing them, or just killing them off.  Players need to balance these resources to keep their survivor band functioning and operational.  

There are a lot of mechanics in this game designed to keep the survival horror front and center.  Some are simple, such as unreliable weapons, limits to carrying capacity, losing your hide-out/stash, and more.  Others are more complicated, such as Degradation from starvations, dehydration, psychological trauma from running away, and lack of supplies.  Unlike many skirmish games, the action is about reducing the Friction, working with what you have as you proceed and gathering resources to stay stable.  Growth and development is short lived with hide-out upgrades, loot pick-ups, and experience gains, but often leads to worse outcomes in the long run.  Most things in this game are a terrible trade-off.  

I hope this gives you a flavor of what you are in for when you pick up Under the Martian Yoke.  When it says Survival Horror on the cover know that it is designed to be challenging.  Survival is not easy, and your survivors will face the Martian horrors largely alone, ill-equipped, and scared out of their minds.  I hope that sounds like fun to you, because I had a good time putting it together over the last 4 years or so.  

Like I said, you can find this game on the Blood and Spectacles Wargame Vault page here

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