Monday, 14 December 2015

Game Design #58: Reaction Mechanics - a Waste of Time?

Reaction mechanics are rather trendy. But are they revolutionary or just a waste of time?

Reaction Mechanics – the rebellious cool kid
Reaction mechanics are a revolution against the IGOUGO which Games Workshop made mainstream (many older games used card based mechanics or other ways – heck even chess used alternate moves).  As a random note, ranting about IGOUGO actually launched this series of game design articles. 
In short, IGOUGO allows a commander to carry out every action unopposed, while his opponent’s troops stand around like dummies.  It’s bad game design (i.e. if you can go off for a 20 minute coffee break while your opponent makes his turn, you aren’t really “involved” in the game) and there are less opportunities for decision points (i.e. choices where you can influence the outcome of the game) which means you are more at the mercy of the dice.  Imagine a Chess game where you got to move each and every piece without your opponent responding; then he gets to move all his pieces without you being able to retaliate. In addition, what decisions you do make tend to be rather simplistic.   

Reaction mechanics allow you to interrupt your opponents turn – at one end is simply adding “overwatch” to a IGOUGO game – at the other end is Infinity which allows every model in sight to react to every action you take, every time.   Reaction mechanics are kinda the “anti 40K” and tend to have been enthusiastically embraced by those GW has disenfranchised (i.e. everyone but the most die-hard fanboys). 

But are reactions always a good choice?
I somewhat critically compared hard sci-fi ruleset PMC 2640 to Tomorrow’s War due to its lack of reaction mechanic.  However the designer deliberately did not include it because he wanted more free maneuver, and faster gameplay than reactions allow.  Fair enough.  I found it interesting in that he had not blindly ignored the trend, but considered and rejected it based on his overarching design philosophy.  I may not have agreed with the choice, but I respected it.  It made me consider "are reactions always 'good' for a game?"

Are reactions always appropriate?
I was making an Aeronef game a few days and I automatically included reactions “just because.”   Why? Because “it’s good game design.”  Actually, no. Any design choice which is done automatically without questioning “why” you do it is a bad one.  

In my example, battles between lumbering airships may not need the same immediacy of reaction as say a squad level SAS shoot out vs terrorists.   Perhaps they can’t react – in some cases the crew might be still scrambling to implement the last order issued 20 seconds ago.  A warship answering the helm to dodge torpedoes cannot occur instantly – it is not as immediate as a commando’s snap-shooting reactions when clearing a building of insurgents.  In addition, the somewhat self-contained world of  a warship the crew may be reacting more to their commander, rather than the enemy.  And when the enemy is 10 miles away, the reactions might be less “forced” and immediate; more tit-for-tat than events blurring together rapidly.
I’m not saying it’s wrong to have reactions in a naval or aeronef game – I’m just saying the implications of including extensive use of reaction mechanics need to be carefully considered.  

Reactions are slow
I like the Ambush Alley/Tomorrow’s War games but they are surprisingly gluggy for such a simple set of rules.  There are a few reasons for this (a) poorly laid out rulebook (b) whilst using a universal mechanic, there are lots of rules for specific instances (c) they are used to handle too many troops but it is (d) I am interested in – i.e. reactions.

Reactions slow things down.  Yes, they interject great decision points into the game, but these decisions necessitate time to decide them, and then they need to be resolved (there is often an extra dice roll with modifiers etc to contend with as well as the rules as to how and when the reactions occur).  A game of Ambush Alley might take 3 hours to have 4 turns.  Yes, in those 4 turns there are more decisions and action going on than 10 turns of an IGOUGO game like 40K, but nonetheless, the overall game time is significantly increased by the reaction mechanics. It's a trade-off.

When playing with my Middleheim fantasy skirmish rules, I was aiming for ~20-25 minis per side.  However the game heavily uses reactions, and this slowed the gameplay down.  I thought the reactions worth keeping in this instance, so reduced my model count down to 10-12 accordingly. 
Reactions are slow.  So what are the other options?  Alternate Activation?

Most games who want a modicum of “reaction” with maximum simplicity simply use alternate activation and call it a day.  (By alternate move I mean a player chooses a unit, takes all actions – move, fire etc – with a single unit and then his opponent likewise chooses a single unit and takes all its actions.  I.e. like Chess).  This has a certain innate “reaction” and decision points built in.  You need to choose which unit, with the awareness your opponent can immediately counter with his own unit after it acts.  You also need to choose when to act with a unit – move now, or save the unit and it’s actions for later.
Basically, what you need to do is move as far away from IGOUGO as you can – to break the turn up into “segments” or “phases” where you and your opponent can react with relative swiftness to each other’s actions.  Alternate move works well because you usually have about as many phases as you do units. And it's pretty simple to implement.

Breaking up the Turn
The key word here is "many phases."
Remember Star Fleet Battles?  That broke the turn up into 32 segments (“impulses”). While we don’t want to go quite that far, here are some examples that improved on IGOUGO:

Example A: Lord of the Rings:SBG
Lord of the Rings improved a lot upon 40K, one of the key areas was how it broke the IGOUGO into segments.  Instead of Side A does everything, then Side B does everything of 40K, it kept things simple but increased the interaction from two key phases to five – i.e. Side A move; Side B move – Side A shoot; Side B shoot – Both melee.  In addition, it allowed leaders to interrupt or change the initiative order, potentially adding a few more phases. 
Example B: DUST Tactics
Another game of interest is DUST Tactics. I don’t use the rules because they came with prepainted plastic minis (boo! hiss!) and I already had SOTR to fill my WWW2 niche (build your own mech rules ftw) but they have an interesting sequence again using leaders.
Command Phase A
Command Phase B
Unit Phase A
Unit Phase B
Each side has a command pool (= #of own units) which also helps determine who gets the initiative. 
In the Command phase the player can spend “orders” to have troops within 12” of a leader take s single action (move, shoot, rally etc) without reactions from opponents.  Player B acts second, but gets more orders in recompense.
In the Unit phase, everyone gets to act. Player A gets to make a two actions* with all his models (resolved in any order).  Units which are not suppressed may react if enemies shoot at them move within 12” but this costs them one of their actions.
Taking reactions into account, this means the usual IGOUGO sequence has been increased from two into six phases and an aspect of resource management (and use of leaders) has added further depth.

All the examples (alternate move, LOTR, DUST) have one thing in common – more phases which allow opponents to respond.  There are no “opposed rolls” included.  This is differentiated from a true “reaction mechanic” where the reactive player acts during (or simultaneously with) their opponent active phase and usually has to contest the action/reaction sequence using some sort of dice roll. 

Reaction mechanics are good, where applicable. However, while they might be great for, say, the move-duck-and-cover of a modern close quarter skirmish not all aspects of warfare necessarily demand instant reactions as a core aspect of game play - i.e. slow moving naval combat.  Reactions add in lots of decision points and increase player involvement (good) but do slow the game down a lot (bad).

Reactions are just a very obvious way to avoid the stagnant, unrealistic play of IGOUGO.  There are many other methods – generally variations on “divide the turn into different phases” which allow players to respond to their opponents with more immediacy – i.e. not having to wait until each and every enemy unit has flawlessly carried out every action, completely unimpeded and without consideration of their opponents.  Breaking a turn up into phases allows a certain organic “reaction” to take place as players respond to their opponents.  

I am a staunch advocate of reaction of reaction mechanics – in their place.  Which isn’t in every game, just because it is “trendy.”


  1. You might want to check out the new Iron Cross rules from Great Escape Games. They have an activation system where at the start of the turn each side has a number of command tokens. These command tokens are used to activate units on your activation and to react to your opponents activation. If you use all of your tokens when active you will have none left to react. During your activation you can activate the same unit multiple times but each activation after the first requires you to make a dice roll. The more activations you make for the same the higher the dice roll required.

    You can hand over activation to your opponent the react to what they are doing. The rules have simplified everything else but made the turn sequence/activation the heart of the game. For an in depth interview with the authors of the game that explain the rules check out the Meeples and Miniatures podcast.

    1. I was more giving a general overview of the concepts rather than offering specific examples of "better activation" - but thanks for the tip, I'll check them out!

      ...because another WW2 rulebook is definitely what I need ;-P

  2. I have a fix Tomorrow’s War poorly laid out rulebook, a buddy
    of mine did a quick reference sheet, speeds things up nicely.

  3. I have used a CAP system in the last few games I've worked on. Each unit gives x initiative to the force's pool, and then players bid actions against each other. Chaining actions costs exponentially more, and you need leaders to co-ordinate between units. Poorer units can generally perform fewer actions in a turn. With little tweaks it can be really cinematic, or quite a good representation of how co-ordination under fire is really difficult and occasionally a unilateral rush is the only way forward.

    Like the US Marines say - if in doubt, forward!

  4. The IGOUGO can work, but I find it works best when you sprinkle in a few rules to break it up a bit. You mentioned card-driven systems, but if you add in overwatch or held actions, then you get a limited selection of reaction fire that keeps both player engaged without bogging down into a series of action-counter action. Osprey's Black Ops takes that tack and adds in an decision point for the non-active player in the form of suppression fire. When a unit is fired at by suppressing fire, the non-active player immediately has to decide how to react - run, face the fire, or even wait until their next activation to decide. It seems like an extra subsystem, but it works well in practice.

    1. "The IGOUGO can work, but I find it works best when you sprinkle in a few rules.... break it up a bit."

      Agreed. As a global concept, at the very least, IGOUGO needs to be "broken up" into smaller chunks to provide more decision points, which can be simpler than a true "full reaction" mechanic. Overwatch or held actions provide a form of interruption/interaction to involve the other player.

      Basically, anything is better than a game with so little interaction the opponent walks off to go to the loo/find food for half an hour while the active player makes his turn (I've seen it often among mates).

    2. Yeah, 7th edition 40k does just this. Overwatch, Interceptor, Challenges, piling into combat, and various morale, pinning, and fear tests all mean that an opponent is involved throughout a player's turn. Oh, and manifesting/denying psychic powers.

  5. Interesting post - I quite agree that reaction shouldn't be added 'just because"

    However, I dont agree that it has less applicability in "slow naval combat" - reactions allow one to reflect relative flexibility or agility which may or not not be relevant on how you do the turn or indeed what you allow to be reactive. It might not be movement you allow to react with, but perhaps gunnery only - maybe only lighter guns at smaller targets that scoot in for a cheap shot. Or maybe reaction in only triggered by a 'close combat' mechanism when ships are in immediate proximity at point blank range using rams. Its the effect you are after - or the lack of effect maybe in allowing silly things to happened just because of a lack of it at crucial times.

  6. Actually, I did have reactions only to actions within 2000 yards to reflect furious close combat/ramming/quickfirers duelling but then extended it (I feel incorrectly) to cover more situations.

    That said, I DO think it has LESS applicability (as a core mechamism)than say modern skirmish firefights. I think it is a limited mechanic to be used sparingly (as it is not "needed" for "instant" reactions) whereas in other genres it might be the default mechanic for 99% of situations.

    That said, it's nit-picking I guess.

    The core "message" is that "trendy" reactions have drawbacks and need not automatically be inbuilt into every genre unless there is a good, planned reason for it. Including reactions automatically and unthinkingly is almost as bad as doing IGOUGO automatically.

    1. I heartily concur with that core message!

  7. I think the big question to ask is:

    "What happens if I can move unhindered?"

    If I can move fast AND deliver a really powerful attack at close range / assault, then the defender will need a way to intercept that.

    If my movement is slow, or close combat is not a big factor, they probably do not.

    Of course, reactions don't have to be firing.

  8. In frostgrave they also break it up too.

  9. Something worth talking about might be Pulp Alley's initiative, where the player with the initiative decides whose turn it is next. That has the really neat effect of letting players literally play with reactions, either giving themselves the chance to act without giving their opponent time to react, or letting their opponent play a sub-optimal position.

  10. "....the player with the initiative decides whose turn it is next. "

    I've used something like this in my homebrew space rules - the player with initiative either chooses his own model, or lets his opponent move a model (he may even nominate a specific enemy model within certain parameters)...
    ....he keeps this privilege until he loses it in some manner or his opponent seizes it off him...

  11. Does anyone remember written orders? I'm not just talking about naval and air games, but for land battles. In the 1960's - no, I don't remember those, because I was there, but I've read rules from the era - and even into the 1980's, they were de rigueur, supposedly in the name of realism. Aside from anything else, though, they made solo play impossible.

    Not everything was better in the old days.

    1. I hate written orders with a burning passion that exceeds my crusade against hitpoints and IGOUGO (which is quite a claim, as most blog regulars will attest). I've never bothered to do a rant/article on it as I always thought the stupidity and "lame-ness" of writing down orders was apparent to everyone...

    2. I share your antipathy for the written order abomination, which was never even feasible for me as a solo gamer. It always staggered me that this was never even taken into account when the rationale for the supposed obvious benefits of this process was stated, leaving aside that it creates as many problems as it solves. I recall watching a game of WRG Ancients (probably 5th or 6th edition, for what it's worth) in which the players did not use written orders as mandated by the rules, adopting a compromise of 'sort of simultaneous' movement*. When I queried this I was told, not unreasonably, that the stipulation did not take account of the fact that in reality troops will react to enemy action, rather than blindly follow an order which has been overtaken by events, such as an enemy unit passing close by. It took a long time for rules writers to accept this rather obvious fact, and even now the idea hasn't died out completely, not least amongst 'old school' war gamers. (The revised and updated edition of Charles Grant's 18th century rules still employs it, apparently oblivious to common sense, though Mr Grant and his fellow players often had the benefit of an umpire - frequently a Sandhurst instructor - to iron out the inevitable anomalies - an advantage seldom available to the war gaming masses.)

      *My phrase - TM pending)

  12. As a follow-on to the above, it's worth mentioning that in days of wargaming yore - long before the internet, with vast increase in scope for discussion and dissemination, to say nothing of the capability for instantaneous reaction that comes with it - debate over mechanics, at least in published form, was essentially limited to whether simultaneous movement (with its requirement for written orders) or alternate movement was preferable. The idea of breaking turns down into phases to allow for reaction and greater involvement was, to the best of my knowledge, unheard of (and I certainly never thought of it).

    I first encountered these concepts in board war games such as Squad Leader and, to a lesser extent, Wellington's Victory, though I don't know where they first appeared. Thereafter I tried to incorporate at least the most important of them - e.g. reaction to charges - into my own rules, though I've never had great success in producing a finished set, let alone a good one.

    1. This would be the 60s which you are too young to recall ;-) ?

      As a side note, I hear the guy who made Squad Leader is now working as a rules author for Osprey Publishing

  13. You know what they say about the 60's - if you remember them, you weren't there? Well, I was, sort of. I grew up - in theory - during that decade, and my war games involved unpainted Airfix figures (or pre-painted 54mm) and no rules of any kind, at least on paper. Those were the days...

    I did later acquire a large number of copies of Wargamer's Newsletter from the 60's and 70's, and became familiar with the 'intellectual climate' of the era, part of which I have no doubt retained. I'm therefore ambivalent about the period, and the nostalgia surrounding it, though I've noticed that the term 'old school' can be made to mean almost anything. (I think it was originally meant to be about restoring fun to the hobby, though how that is found in some of the rules I remember is beyond me, unless one's primary form of enjoyment is in adopting a wicked form of irony).

    It's probably the sense of discovery that I miss more than anything, as the games I played when I became a war gamer - the early 70's, if you must know, thanks to someone at school bringing along some metal figures, with a wargaming club being formed shortly afterwards (and expiring not too long after that, I seem to recall) - had little to recommend them in retrospect, and probably weren't even that exciting at the time. (The cheap metal figures I used at the time - mostly 20mm to fit in with Airfix - were appalling, and not remotely improved by my painting, but I was almost oblivious to this, which may have been a good thing.)

    If you'll excuse what is becoming a mini-autobiography, I became a bit more conscious of my failings in my mid - late teens, attempting a better standard of painting on slightly better figures (i.e. Miniature Figurines, among others - no laughing at the back) and tried out various rules, most of them of baffling complexity, or at least tediously cumbersome, with the long lists of modifiers typical of the era, which you had to wade through every time a morale check was called for, whether relevant to the situation or not. I was deliriously happy when I encountered WRG's 1685 - 1845 rules, which for the first time in my experience logically broke up the modifiers to match the situations in which they would be relevant. I couldn't understand why this had never been done before, though quite probably it had, somewhere. It had certainly not been the norm, however.

    Then came board games, and the magic word 'simulation'. This largely took over from figure gaming for several years, particularly when I was a student, and rationalised the change of direction by telling myself that I didn't have time to paint. I didn't know any other wargamers at that time, which didn't help. Actually, I still don't.

    Anyway, as you will have gathered, Squad Leader was a favourite, though I didn't play it as much as I should have, given the supplements I bought. (I played half of the scenarios in Cross of Iron, and none in Crescendo of Doom, at which point I stopped buying).

    The designer you allude to is John Hill, and he indeed wrote a rule set for Osprey.

  14. This, as you may have heard before discarding any interest on discovering its subject matter, is Across a Deadly Field, which seems to be a tactical / grand-tactical hybrid set for the American Civil War, a niche Osprey apparently wanted to fill before it had been identified, though it may equally have been the author's own idea. While primarily a designer of board games, he had previously written the regimental level Johnny Reb miniatures rules, which went through three editions before either Mr Hill or someone at Osprey decided another set was called for to fill the gaping hole between this and the brigade-level Fire and Fury. We therefore now have a set of ACW rules, for those who need it, in which the basic element is a regiment of two stands, disposing of the obvious disadvantages of both regimental level and brigade level rules.

    Unfortunately, as you appear not to have heard, Mr Hill died last January. An obituary I read revealed that he had another career as a CIA officer. It didn't mention what his hobbies were.