Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Game Design #68: LOTR, Alternate Activation, and Actions per Turn

Squad vs Platoon
Something I've noticed is the relative incompatibility between the two levels of 1:1 gaming; squad level and platoon+ level.

Squad level games tend to have 5-10 minis per side; with either reaction systems or complex special rules (or both); Infinity and Song of Blades and Heroes are two examples. Minis tend to be moved and fight independently or in small 2-4 man fire teams.  They often scale up poorly, as they tend to use reaction mechanics, or have complex special rules, or both. Imagine an Infinity game involving 30 minis per side! Ouch.

Platoon+ level games tend to have minis grouped in several squads of 6-10; plus vehicles - Warhammer 40K, Warmachine, Bolt Action, Ambush Alley are examples of these. They often scale down poorly as they tend to be a bit bland, lacking character or tactically limited when you field small amounts of units.  For example, a battle between two 10-man 40K or Bolt Action squads would be rather dull. 

I think a "holy grail" is a ruleset where units are not locked into rigid "squads" who are forced into an artificial 2" coherency; but where they can act individually or as a group, where a leader can "grab" a bunch of soldiers and imbue them with bonuses or tactical flexibility, but where random grunts also have a modicum of freedom and do not have to rely on their leaders in order to act. 

There's not many games which handle small squad skirmish AND platoon+. Warmachine (at least in older editions) straddles the genres a bit, but there is one that sticks out in my mind. Step forward, and Lord of the Rings.   Not only does it handle 30 per side with aplomb and can stretch to ~50 at a pinch, it also handles scenarios with a handful of heroes and has spawned a range of skirmish games (Legends of High Seas/Wild West etc).

Why does LOTR succeed?
Well, of the innovations that LOTR did over 40K, one was it added resource management (Might, Will, Fate), it streamlined the stats and combat, but most importantly, it abandoned IGOUGO for a sort of sequenced move.

To clarify, an IGOUGO activation system typically goes:

You pretty much can do what you want with all your units, without opposition. Your opponents troops stand about obligingly like wax dummies as you enact your plans without interference. There are few meaningful decisions or reactions you need to make. IGOUGO systems are rarely good (except in CCG-style games where building combos/synergy between units is important - for example, I don't see Warmachine working well with any other system).

LOTR broke this move sequence up into sub-sections:

As you can see, it chopped the game turn up, and gave the other side a chance to respond ("react") twice to enemy actions - there are two "inbuilt" reactions within the sequence*.  There is no complex reaction mechanic (a la Infinity, Tomorrow's War) to slow things up.

Designers have drifted away from IGOUGO, and I would call ALTERNATE MOVE the new "default" for wargames.  It works thus:

PLAYER A chooses a single unit which MOVES, SHOOTS, and MELEES
PLAYER B chooses a single unit which MOVES, SHOOTS, and MELEES
PLAYER A chooses a second unit which MOVES, SHOOTS, and MELEES
PLAYER B chooses a second unit which MOVES, SHOOTS, and MELEES
...and so on until both sides have acted with all their units

There are lots of interactions - theoretically, as many as there are units - and a player can respond to the actions of a single unit. The tactical challenges change as each unit is deployed.
Basically, the new "cool" rule is what Chess has been using for thousands of years.  

So why not alternate activation - there's a lot of interactions and decision points, surely? There's inbuilt "reactions" as well...

Okay, I'm now getting to the "train of thought" that has been boarding at the station for awhile now. I'm going to call it "Actions per Activation" or "Actions per Turn."

In alternate move (or heck in most game systems), when you "activate" a unit or mini, you can do several things. In most rules, you can do things like

Move + Shoot or Shoot + Move  = 2 actions
Move + Melee = 2 actions)
Charge (Move+ Move+Melee) = 3 actions
Run (Move + Move) = 2 actions
Shoot + Shoot = 2 actions

You get the idea. Each time you activate a unit (i.e. a unit has it's "turn") it gets to do 2 or 3 things.  It might move twice up to 12", or move 6" and then shoot, or charge 12" then melee attack.  Basically, when a unit is activated it can do quite a lot of stuff or move quite far. 

The "standard" game I illustrated shows a unit has 2-3 actions per activation.  What that means is the single unit which is activated can do a considerable amount with his 2-3 actions before the opponent can activate a unit which also gets to do a lot of stuff.

Again, the unit does so much stuff the opponents cannot react to. Yes, it's better than IGOUGO, Yes, it's just a single unit - but it seems unlikely anyone would let an enemy sprint 12" towards them without some response.

Aha, I know the answer to this! You need a reaction mechanic!
I do like me a good reaction system (like Infinity or Tomorrow's War) but they DO bog the game down a lot.  The reactions add more dice rolling and complexity; sure, there's a lot going on. I'd estimate more goes on in 3 turns of Ambush Alley than 6 turns of a more "McDonalds" game like 40K or Bolt Action. But it does slow things up at times and adds complexity. I'm trying to avoid an explicit reaction mechanic. How can we improve interactions and "implicit" reactions?

Lets go back to Lord of the Rings example, shall we? 
Yes, your whole force moves* (*actually, this is not true - heroes can spend resources to activate small groups out of sequence, which adds pleasing tactical depth) then the opponent moves.

But they are reacting to only one thing - your move.

Then you shoot, and they shoot. Again, they are reacting to only a single action. Your shooting.

Basically, what I am saying is that by limiting a unit to a single action per activation (i.e. when it is their turn they can move OR shoot OR melee, NOT a combination of 2-3 of those actions) you limit the impact a unit can make. There is less in game "time" elapsing before opponents can respond.

Let's call this ALTERNATE ACTIVATION "Single Action" Edition:
PLAYER A chooses a single unit which MOVES OR SHOOTS OR MELEES
PLAYER B chooses a single unit which MOVES OR SHOOTS OR MELEES
PLAYER A chooses a second unit which MOVES OR SHOOTS OR MELEES
PLAYER B chooses a second unit which MOVES OR SHOOTS OR MELEES

By simply restricting the amount of things a unit can do when it is "activated" to a single action, it means the interactions/reactions between units are more fluid.  You have effectively reduced the time "lag" between action and the enemy response.

If a unit runs 12" (say 100m in-scale) before a enemy can respond, there's say a 20-second lag. If a unit can charge enemies from 12" away without a response, that's a bit implausible.

If a unit can only travel 6"(say 50m in-scale) before an enemy respond, that's a 10-second lag. It's a lot more plausible that a unit could get "jumped" and caught off guard over a shorter range.

Let's flip it around. What if I decided a unit could take 4 actions each time it activated?  In each of those 4 actions it could shoot, more or melee. Potentially a unit with a 6" move could cross 24" of the board, or unload 4 shooting volleys when it is it's turn.  A tad ridiculous?  That's because it is doing too much in its turn. My question: Is being able to do 2-3 things in your turn too much as well?

Yes, some games (like Infinity, and Crossfire) allow a unit many (potentially 10+) actions each activation.  This works because opponents units have unlimited reactions and would get potentially 10+ reactions in response.  It's very unlikely a unit would travel 24" (4 moves) or fire 4 volleys  - before being counter-charged or gunned down by reacting opponents.  This discussion is looking at alternate move activation or activations without an explicit reaction mechanic.

I'm interested in how much (how many actions) a unit can take when it's its "turn."  By reducing these actions, we reduce the "lag" before an enemy responds.  Do we allow a unit to do too much when it is it's "turn?"

Also, I'm interested in what activation mechanics might best bridge the gap between platoon (30+, squad activation) and squad level (5-10 minis, individual activation)games. 

PS: I'd like to explore this "single action" alternate move system further and look at ways we can break up the predictable sequence of ABABABABAB.... but it's late and my toddlers like to wake at the crack of dawn....


  1. (My question: Is being able to do 2-3 things in your turn too much as well?) IMO not if they are different types of actions, i.e. fire on the move,(but have this effect both
    accuracy and move distance) Move to cover, Breaching a doorway, Reacting to fire, there are allot of actions that are done in tandem to achieve an objective. Perhaps the
    "single action" alternate move system is the only way to
    accurately simulate this. And to reduce the time lag you'd
    need some pretty extensive charts.

    1. Most of your examples could arguably be a single action - even fire and move might be fine if it is a WW2+ game, for example. To move to cover, for example, is a single action. Reacting to fire, is a single action.

      The most extreme example of "chopping up" a move into small increments is Star Fleet Battles. Each turn was chopped up into 32(!) sub-moves or "impulses."

      You could only move a single hex (1") at most each impulse; for example a speed-32 ship could move every impulse, a speed 16 ship might move every 2nd impulse, a speed 2 ship might move on impulses #16 and #32...

    2. It's an interesting question: I'd like to put a couple of perceived benefits for the 2 action system (as opposed to one action).

      In a scenario where one side attacks and the defender remains static, a single action limit really punishes the attacker.
      This may be quite realistic, but isn't much fun watching your movers getting shot down.

      Single action can really slow the game as so little gets done each "go", while the overhead for handing control remain fairly constant.

      I suspect the art lies in defining the limits of an action.

    3. There are lots of factors. How lethal are the weapons? Can the inactive player "react" during the active player's turn? (I'm assuming not in my example, as reactions open a different can of worms). How long is the move compared to shooting range? How much cover on the table?

  2. Chain of Command iOS a platoon level game (as you fine it) and has an interesting mechanism where a squad can split into its fire team (MG group, rifle group etc) or after passing a leadership test the NCO even split off a couple of soldiers to go on a specific miss (e.g. a Bazooka guy can jump over concealing terrain to take a pot shot, or in Don's example 2 guys can breach the door and dos in grenades while the rest of the squad sits here on overwatch to protect them). It feels flexible without having too many sub units running around the table slowing up play.

    PS CoC allows 2 actions per activation

    1. 2 actions per activation seems pretty much de rigeur for 99% of wargames. I'm questioning WHY we do it this way. Is it habit? Are there superior ways to do this?

      Clash on the Fringe also has the ability to split/reform fire teams (which is deliberate - Ivan has also noticed the group vs individual activation thing and is trying to address it too)

    2. Two activations probably goes back to Chess. You move your piece to another tile, your piece "fights" the enemy and always wins. Its always "move" and "fight".

      BTW: Not all wargames give you 2 activations. GW games split the rounds into phases resulting in up to 4 "actions"

    3. Two activations probably goes back to Chess. You move your piece to another tile, your piece "fights" the enemy and always wins.

      Actually since the fighting and winning is automatic I'd suggest it is single action?

      "GW games split the rounds into phases resulting in up to 4 "actions"
      Can you explain what you mean by this/which games?

  3. I like an alternating activation sequence that involves commanders competing for strategy order in a pre-action phase, this provides an alternating individual activation you can have lesser leaders providing instead 2-4 member activations instead. I'd also use a reaction system that allows you forces to return fire or respond if assaulted as long as they are not suppressed or fatigued. It sounds relatively complex but its easily achievable in a fast smooth running format as long as you've got various tokens for conditions.

    Fatigue exists to allow it being possible to respond to multiple threats in a round but at the risk of essentially being unable to defend yourself if you push to far, suppression works by placing modifiers on your current morale which when returning fire is tested upon for obvious reasons. Morale is tested upon for fighters to be able to follow group orders, obviously being too suppressed or having just seen some bug rip your mates head off is going to make your ability to follow orders somewhat lessened. Morale being made up of a fighters leadership equivalent statistic combined with there training or military doctrine - I feel its important to have values for each because they are very different and it allows for special forces to have a minimum morale rating based upon a % of there training value while conscripts and cannon fodder can be utterly demoralized and left unable to remain active in combat without taking damage at all but purely from sustained suppression (Sustained is important as well because obviously if your no longer under thread your going to regrow your confidence, therefore a set amount of suppression is recovered either during a post activation phase universally depending on training or upon activation depending on what works more effectively and runs with more fluidity.

    Now the system these rules were build for is a crossover between RPG and Skirmish sized games but the core mechanics and concepts revolve around a very simple core, that's used in a universal fashion with no exceptions no matter how much depth goes into targeting, weapons systems and combat actions.

    Regarding Actions I like two actions plus reactions though obviously the above are limited by a fighters physical ability to keep on fighting along with there mental capability to do so.

    I'm very proud of this system purely because it provides a very fluid combat sequence where in any engagement against an enemy that you don't have a strong advantage over becomes deadly and it forces co-ordination of suppression, ranged dps and the utilisation of various tools and tricks in order to gain ground. Assaults are immensely dangerous against any enemy that can respond and see you coming and are generally only worth committing too if your target is suppressed or fatigued.

    Anyway I'm waffling but I hope your able to gain a idea of what I'm describing. Thanks for reading crimsonsun

  4. I like reaction mechanics, as long as that unit is limited in their activation because they've already done something.

    I like initiative activations where the side that won initiative moves second and then in the fire phase, they shoot first. But this was a naval game.

  5. I am a fan of this concept and have used it I a WWII skirmish game and a Psuedo Naval game as well. I use this system mostly as I have grown disaffected with tokens and action point systems.

  6. As far as holy grails go, Nick Lund's 'Future Warriors: Kill Zone' handles groups and individual units in a fashion that I like - very similar to what you hint at.
    Activation is group based. On a group's activation, all figures from the group may individually act and move in accordance with the group's current order. If they remain in coherency, they benefit from various perks & bonuses, but are not compelled to do so. The group leader (and its subleader) also acts as a proximity morale booster (units in base contact remove their suppression with ease).

  7. Not really at the scale you are looking at, but it was only recently that I clicked that the PIP system of DBA/HOTT is kind of an action/reaction mechanisms. The PIPs limit how many of your 'units' can move before the enemy gets *their* PIPs and moves some of their things in reaction. You then get PIPs and react to them, and so on. Between each PIP roll, combat is resolved for all units, both ranged and melee, but the player with initiative decides the order (which can be very important).

    With that 'insight' I can see that it might be possible to adapt it to smaller scale actions as well.

    1. Absolutely - it is a kind of "variable turn length" version and also a resource management.

      ...jeez, that takes me back - DBA was one of the first wargames I played beyond Battletech and Star Fleet Battles - i.e. the game that showed me wargames could be simple and fun, and not all about record keeping...

    2. Similar to PIPs, but one I find preferable is the Warmaster family (Including Black Powder / Hail Caesar).
      Generals roll to activate units or groups, and don't know when their sequence will end until they fail an activation.

      This seems (to me) a lot more exciting that DBA's "I can do 5 things this turn, let me have a long think about that".

    3. I've used this in most of my homebrew rules; you can move a unit (or choose one for your opponent to move) and by passing a "skill test" you can follow on and keep the initiative. Sometimes enemies can seize the initiative by winning a reaction or using a special commander ability as well.

  8. My least favourite is IGO/UGO with a roll each turn to see who goes first.
    It used to be pretty common, and so many games turned on the notorious "Roll over".
    The fortunate commander gets 4 consecutive actions with each unit - enough to wipe out almost any enemy if the 2 forces have got to grips.

    All the fortunate commander did to gain this massive advantage was roll low once followed by rolling high.