A lot of wargame designers spend a lot of time coming up with the lastest whiz-bang mechanics but there are only a certain amount of ways you can resolve combat. But game mechanics are just means to an end. I've already talked about Design Philosophy " - having an overarching goal with a series of self-imposed success criteria; but this article is more "Gameplay" Philosophy.
Gameplay: the features of a game, such as its plot and the way it is played, as distinct from the graphics and sound effects.
Sid Meier calls gameplay "A series of interesting choices."
I think a very important (but often neglected) question is "how do you want the game to play"?
-How does the game unfold in your mind? What would a game "look" like?
-What decisions do you want the players to be making? What tactics should they use to succeed?
In short - how do you want the players to play your game?
A. The game designer needs to decide what the gameplay should emphasize.
B. Then the designer has to reward the behaviours it wants to see, and punish those that do not "fit."
C. The designer must realise some "game engines" are better suited to facilitate certain gameplay styles then others. (This seems only logical, but a lot of wargame designers ignore this, or create "reasons" why their engine works for every period or scale)
In Warmachine, memorizing special rules and knowing the best combos and synergies between units is important. This gives a big advantage in breaking through to kill the enemy caster (and thus win the game), so players naturally gravitate towards working with cheesy combinations. Knowing an enemies special attacks/combinations is likewise very important. Knowledge of these rules mechanics and interactions is thus more important than maneuver, flanking etc.
In 40K, army building and deployment can virtually decide a game before it starts, and games seldom last more than a half-dozen turns. Some armies are helpless against certain other army "builds." So army building becomes an important skill valued by the players. A player who throws together a random army will be unable to compete with one who has "min-maxed" his forces. It has army lists with strict structures. "Gaming" the army-building system becomes a mini-game in itself.
These are factors of the game's design. The way the game was made encourages and rewards players to play that particular way.
Realism is relative. A space fantasy might have more gameplay in common with medieval fantasy than modern warfare.Realism vs Complexity
I've discussed this at more length elsewhere, but gamers often confuse realism with complexity. Complexity = complicated, slow game. Realism = players act in a historically sensible way. Whatis "realistic"varies for period or genre. For a Star Wars game, "realism" could encompass force powers, and deflecting shots with a lightsabre. In a Napoleonic game "realism"would include firing by ranks, with relatively short-ranged, slow-firing weapons.
People say "pah, realism - it's only a game with toy soldiers" - but imagine a Napoleonic game where muskets fire three times a turn, hitting on a 2+ roll out to 96"; and models moved only 3" a turn. People say they don't want realism, but what they are really rejecting is complexity - not the same thing.
Your "gameplay philosophy" includes you defining "realism" within your game. How do you plan on making your viking players want to fight in a shieldwall? A modern game should make using cover important, along with suppression and move-and-fire "bounding" tactics. Can your favourite game engine actually do this, or are you just justifying to yourself a reason not to start afresh?
Not all Game Engines are Good for All Gameplay Types
A common trait nowdays it to create a wargame engine (say 2HW "reaction"system, or the SoBH mechanics) then apply it to every combat setting under the sun.
PC games devs also re-use game engines - but they realise the game engine for a shooter like Call of Duty is not ideal for a strategy game like Civilization or a RTS like Starcraft. Or even if you can shoehorn it in, the game engine is not "optimised" to perform well in that role.
Some eras do interchange more easily i.e. modern & near future sci fi; or fantasy and medieval - but the scale of game needs also be considered. A system designed for 1:1 squad skirmish does not necessarily excel at company-level actions.
Rewarding Good Gameplay: Example
Now we've pictured what we want our game to play like - how do we make players play this way - in a way realistic to our genre?
Infinity is a 1:1 based squad-level skirmish game that rewards good positioning of models and use of cover, and punishes models crossing/left in the open. Missile weapons are very dominant over melee.
When a player activates a model, every enemy model in LoS can fire on it. This means you have to think very carefully about which model you choose to move, and where you want to leave your models positioned/facing at the end of your turn.
To make this even more important, consider: 1. guns can cover almost the entire table, 2. models die very easily to even a single bullet, and 3. cover offers major benefits both "to hit" and "defence" rolls - far in excess of any difference in the skills/defences of the respective units.
Put this together and you have a game where players move in quick bursts from cover to cover, and leave models positioned where they can cover open spaces, but have partial concealment themselves. Using multiple turns to cross open ground toward a prepared foe will lead to almost certain death, even if you are using an uber-wtfbbqwn-mechsuit.
In the case of Infinity, the designers encourage the sensible use of cover and "covering" of fire lanes.
How did they do it? By allowing models to react to active models, firing in a very lethal manner, AND by giving generous cover modifiers that makes good use of cover almost mandatory to survival.
The importance of game modifiers > unit stats means "army building" is not so important as in-game decisions - in fact the Infinity players have a saying "It's not your army list - it's you" - i.e. you lose because of poor in-game tactics, not because of the models you bring.
What Engines for What Genre
You can see the Infinity (sci fi) engine could probably be easily adapted to a modern 1:1 skirmish game (perhaps even WW1/WW2) but is not necessarily suitable for a Napoleonic game, or a medieval/fantasy one. And whilst it works for skirmish, it may not necessarily make a good game for platoon level or higher actions where complete squads of troops work in unison.
Some engines work better for melee (i.e. SoBH and Flying Lead use the same engine, but it is not optimal for the shooting-orientated Flying Lead); some better for shooting (Infinity) over melee. Some handle certain quantities of bases (i.e. LoTR:SBG is best at 20-40 minis, but Infinity works better with less than 10).
Written orders might be acceptable for a age-of-sail game but not for a fast-paced skirmish. A system that emphasizes a leaders'' "command radius" might be less relevant in a game with modern long-range radios.
Reaction systems might be implemented differently in 1:1 skirmish compared to a platoon game where the reacting unit is not one man but a group of soldiers.
These are just random examples. The important thing is that a game dev considers if his systems main "emphasis" fits with the main emphasis of the era or genre being gamed.
Rewarding/Punishing Player Choices
You can see from the Infinity example it is possible to use both game mechanics (in this case, reactive fire) and modifiers to guide players choices and "shape"the tactics players use.
Another option (used notably by Two Hour Wargames) is to take control off players by using dice rolls to determine unit reactions to situations. This works to a degree, but I feel it is the lazy way - your game should not prescriptively force players to do x or y as it reduces gameplay choices, or, as I call them "decison points" that allow players to interact with the game.
Instead, the game design should influence players by making it common sense to take certain choices. You COULD simply make it so infantry small arms cannot hurt tanks OR you can design your game so yes, you can run 100m in the open to attack a Tiger tank by firing your Colt .45 into the viewports but the game mechanics should (if it is a standard WW2 game, not a pulp/superhero game) make this near suicidal.
In videogames they have "XP" (experience points) and stats to reward players - something that may also be available in wargame campaigns where minitaures can improve stats and gain traits and abilities. I call this a "soft"reward - they are hidden but nonetheless influence behaviour.
In a popular PC sci fi shooter I once played, power armour suits were running rampant - often downing entire platoons of troops before dying. Their weapons and armour were "nerfed" repeatedly with little effect, but then the company increased the XP for killing one from 200 to 500. It solved the problem as every player within view range of the mech would instantly concentrate fire on it, quickly bringing it down. Mechsuits focussed on other mechsuits rather than squishier enemy forces. The mechsuit plague was ended. The company simply used a reward to change the players' behaviour.
Commercial Choices > Gameplay
This is a little off topic, but I notice in some cases gameplay is driven by commercial purposes; i.e. Games Workshop encourages players to experiment with their army lists as it results in more miniatures sales. In fact one may cynically suggest their codexes - supplements that regularly update a particular army or faction - deliberately "improve" factions over others, creating a never-ending "arms race" to own miniatures of the best faction/s.
I feel the gameplay of Bolt Action and Flames of War has been diluted due to a desire to incorporate mechanics familiar to 40K and Warhammer Fantasy players. These mechanics are not necessarily the best choices to give realistic WW2 gameplay, but were chosen to facilitate players "converting" over from popular GW rulesets. (It worked well, I might add)
Gameplay Shapes Player Behaviour
I notice wargamers tend to split into several "camps" - the competitive crowd who play popular games like 40K or Warmachine in tournaments or points-based games; the historical crowd who play scenarios and like things to be accurate, and the indie crowd who play more casual games, with a focus on story and "background."
I've noticed the latter two player types tend to hate games with "points systems" - but I would suggest it is more the competitive players the points systems attract. A competitive player simply views the points system as another part of the game in which to compete and excel in. An "indie" player who is looking an outing for his cool, themed army (which had been designed for a its interesting background story, rather than its winning potential) can quickly get frustrated, and swap to games where they are less likely to encounter the player type (or his where his min-maxing is less "legitimized' by the system.)
A player who is constantly exposed to a particular type of system tends to have their expectations shaped by it - hence the success of Flames of War and Bolt Action who have collected competitive players (who have never previously been historical players) into the historical camp, due to their game design.
Remember: if a game makes performing an action attractive, people will do it. Gamers are not some uniquely altruistic species of human. The game design needs to encourage desired behaviours which are "common sense" for the genre, and discourage others. For example, in a PC game the mechanics allowed people to run around at top speed, firing a RPG into foes within touching distance. Naturally this amusing and effective tactic caught on fast. Players were banned for doing this - but it was the games fault - it allowed point blank, hipfired RPG shots with 0 splash damage to the shooter or his comrades.
Wargame devs often focus on a cool game mechanic, without consideration to overall gameplay.
Gameplay is the choices you offer the player, and good game design can make players act a certain way or emphasize a certain aspect of the game, i.e. army building in 40K, or use of cover in Infinity.
PC devs know game engines are not universal; wargame designers also need to learn this lesson: i.e. using the same mechanics for multi-base battalion-level Napoleonics as for modern 1:1 skirmish and spaceship combat is not always optimal. Rather than rationalize why you should re-use your game engine - consider, are there reasons you shouldn't? When you originally made the game engine, was the type of warfare similar to what you are trying to simulate now?
You can reward and punish players in a variety of ways through your game system, so it becomes simply common sense to play a particular way. "Realism" is not = complexity, and is relative to your genre.
Certain styles of gameplay attract a certain type of player; and regular playing of a particular gameplay style can alter a player's behaviour. Players are not altruistic, and they will often chose the winning move over the one you think/expect them too.
Final thought: It's important when designing a game, designers not only to consider how to play the game, but how the game should actually be played.