Monday, November 28, 2022

Wargame Design - Avoiding Melee Yahtzee

Everyone knows that the basics of wargame design are the 4Ms.  Those stand for: 
  • Movement
  • Missiles
  • Melee
  • Morale
I have spoken about the 4Ms and individual aspects of the 4Ms at various times on the blog.  However, as a designer one of my big fascinations is how to effectively deal with Melee as one of the 4Ms.  In many genres, Melee is the great "decider" and is the crucial mechanics for the period or genre.  That weight of decision for the game should come from Melee.  

Yet, despite the importance of it I have found Melee is often the anti-thesis of fun and instead simply bogs down into a game of Yahtzee where you roll and pray for a better dice roll.  The core of good game play is decision making, and in many games once you get into Melee there are no decisions to make.  As a player, you simply completing the mechanical process of the game to get a result, so you are not playing the game.  The game is playing you. 

The Problem of Melee
To understand why Melee devolves into Yahtzee, we need to understand what is happening and why decision making is stripped from the game once Melee begins.  Here are some common mechanics that I see that strip decision making from the player.  

1. Decisions are made at a Strategic Level
The Strategic Level of a game is decision making that occurs before you even get the miniatures on the table.  This is primarily seen in list building or equipping your models for play.  These choices are made  "Out-of-Game" and the results of these choices impact the game in motion.  However, they do not necessarily allow a player to make a choice at the tactical, or in-game level.  

For Example, Chosen Men from Osprey is a good example of this.  Initiative order for combat is based on what weapons a model is equipped with.  If a model strikes before another and kills them, the enemy is removed and can not strike back.  Therefore, if a player chooses to equip a model in the Strategic list building in a certain way, it will have an impact during the game.  There is no decision by the player on who strikes who when.  

2. Melee Locking
This was an early and common aspect of Melee.  Once a close combat was initiated, it was assumed that both combatants would stay in combat until one of them was dead or incapacitated.  In this scenario, the key decision was when to join combat or not.  Therefore, once the decision to engage was made, there were no further decisions to be made in combat.  Instead, you just roll the dice and see who is left standing.  

Necromunda featured Melee Locking

3. No Options
Melee is often a stat driven activity.  Players had no actual options in combat other than to attack.  There simply was no decisions to be made.  Only dice to roll.  The person with the better Yahtzee roll won.  There were no options to feint, knock prone, parry, etc.  

4. To The Death
Melee was always to the death.  There was only one outcome available once melee was engaged.  One side would win and continue being operational, and the other would lose and be removed from play.  No other outcome was permitted.  Models or units could not disengage, fall back, retreat, or even take moral tests.  They were either killed or not killed.  

5. Comparing Dice
A lot of games have players simply compare dice and select "the best" to win.  There is very few ways to alter or modify how these dice rolls are used or applied.  It is a winner take all type of system, with only the RNG having a say in the results.  

Those are some of the key reasons why Melee has always seemed a bit of an uninspiring portion of many games.  I won't claim to be any better on this front.  In many of my games, Melee is "streamlined" with many of the problems I just outlined above!  However, this has also led me to think long and hard about how to make Melee more interesting.  You can see the evolution of my thinking in my games as well.  
Comparing Dice in The Walking Dead

Choice is Needed in Melee
Surprise, surprise.  I have frequently said that the key to good games is to force meaningful choices on the player.  Melee should not be exempt from this simple maxim.  In this case, I am specifically referring to Tactical or "On-the-Table" choices.  Players need options to execute in Melee to make things more fun!   

The following are some methods or ways to achieve choice during Melee: 

1. Remove Locking
Instead of models getting locked in combat, allow them to move freely in and out of Melee as needed by the player.  This gives the player a choice on whether they want to stay fighting, or leave when it no longer suits their needs.  

2. Attack/Defense Options
There are a variety of ways to do this depending on the genre and scale.  However, it is essentially providing different options to attack that force trade-offs on the player.  The player decides the attack or defense options and this has positive and negative connotations/mods on how the Melee is resolved.  The most common examples are parrying, feints, big strikes, etc. 

These could also be granted by equipment choices, but in game the player opts to use the special benefits or options instead of them automatically applying.  For example, a shield may allow a parry attempt, but at the cost of offensive ability in return.  You can opt to use the shield or not during the game itself!     

3. Critical Options
Instead of a Critical success just doing more damage, give the player more options on how to "cash-in" or use the Critical to gain advantage or chain success together.  Instead, of just doing damage, perhaps it also allows a push, or similar mechanic.

A Steggie can only swing its tail behind and to the side in Only The Strong Survive

4. Positioning
Instead of simply using Base-to-Base as good enough for combat, you could add Mods and penalties for facing and direction when a model is engaged.  This essentially is ranks and flanks with associated maneuver benefits applied on a unit or model level.  This also applies to how models support each other in melee as well.     

5. Not Always Deadly
Provide ways for a player to win a combat that does not involve death and dismemberment.  This could be maneuvering for position, breaking from combat, pushing back. following up, or something more exotic.  

In A Fistful of Kung Fu you can choose to "humiliate" your opponent with a suitable melee success instead of damaging.  This has Victory Point implications in the end game, and allows a bit of narrative flair! In Dracula's America you can convert success into a push that can be used to knock people off mounts, over cliffs, and out of cover.  

6. Force Moral in Melee
People rarely fight to the death.  When possible, they will attempt to flee from close combat.  Allow ways to drive off an opponent without killing them outright.  Morale is one of the 4Ms and should apply to Melee as much as it does or more to Missiles.  

Outremer has an interesting mechanic where in order to charge or engage in close combat, you must pass a Morale check first!  This represents a persons natural reluctance to engage in melee to begin with.  

7. RNG Manipulation
Create mechanics that allow the player to "manipulate" or shift around the results of the RNG.  This could include using them to cancel out an opponents dice, trade-in for re-rolls, swap results, or choose how they are applied on a chart.  This allows a player to make decisions about how the results are actually applied or used in game.  

Survivors face a Martian Tripod in melee during a game of Under the Martian Yoke

Final Thoughts
There are a ton of genres and game styles where Melee is the most important aspect of the game.  Therefore, those games require a greater depth of mechanics and decision making to make the genre fun!  Melee should not be boring and have more depth and interest than a game of Yahtzee!  Thankfully, there are a number of ways to add meaningful decision making to Melee.  Like all aspects of the game, it is about adding choice for the player that have meaningful impacts to the game down stream.  


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