Friday, 1 June 2012

Musings on Mechanisms

At the start of any new project I often don’t have much idea of how I’m going to make the game work. I often have in mind the level of resolution, - divisional, brigade and so on – and strangely enough the size of units and the type of figures (if it is to be a figure game).

I then paint the figures alongside developing the game. This can mean that if my initial ideas prove to be wide of the mark then the game never gets developed as it won’t work. I have some alien figures for a game called District 9 & ¾ which I finished but never got the game running.

Of course deciding on the size of unit first isn’t that odd. One gaming friend went through a phase of having to design games that would fit on a 4’ x 3’ kitchen table. I sort of design winter and summer games. Winter games fit on a 6’ x 4’ so they can be played in the dining room, summer games are played on 12’ x 5’ table in my unheated garage.

Where I start these days is with command and control. Usually, - sometimes I have an idea for a combat or movement mechanism and build a system round that (for example the circular grid in "The Elephant in the Room"). But command and control is the normal starting point as a lot of my reading leads me to think that what makes armies and wars different is often the way the armies are controlled, - or at least how it looks from the outside. So in "Return to the River Don", an RCW set, there's a lot of emphasis on armies not behaving as they should with regular bouts of disobedience that can be overcome by a firm hand. In "Send Not To Know"  the aim is to make it possible but challenging to co-ordinate your army. Thus whilst both sets of rules cover a similar period in history and are for a similar level of resolution they have quite different ways of controlling the armies. That's what I mean when I've written previously about embedding period flavour in the game rather than just adding chrome. 

One of the things I'm keen to do in any rule set is to provide players with regular opportunities to make decisions, rather than just roll a die and see what happens. To that extent the opening moves of "Call it Qids" aren't perfect as there isn't a lot of choice, especially for the Egyptian ploayer. Fortunately the early turns are over pretty quickly and the armies can get on with hammering each other into oblivion. Thus in SNTK the players sort their cards into a sequence, rather than units being activated at random, and in RTTRD you have to decide the sequence you want units activated in up front then manage the consequences as they object to being given orders.

The funny thing is that although a lot of wargamers will tell you that C&C is crucial in games, all they really want to do is line stuff up and blaze away at each other, or charge headlong into their opponents, preferably from a flank (or in the case of the MNG we have a long tradition of charging into allies' flanks "by mistake").

My problem with combat mechanisms, - particularly firing - is getting it calibrated properly.  I can normally work out a way of doing it, but exactly how many dice are rolled and exactly what numbers are needed sometimes won't come out right. Tweaking a factor here or there seems to have a monstrous effect, and units either walk across open ground unharmed or get devastated by a single round of shooting whilst hiding in trenches. I thought for a while that playing cards were the answer, but these have met with a degree of player resistance, or at least a lack of acceptance, so I've put these away for now.

Historically I've never been a fan of saving rolls, but I accept that sometimes you need them to take into account everything you need to. They have the advantage of splitting the factors such that you only need to care about some of them once you've got a possible hit. They mean effectively you can split factors relating to the shooter and the target into two separate groups. It still slows the game down tho' so I'm trying to move away from them for now.

As for hand to hand, - that has likewise frustrated me for a long while, but I have to say that where I've got to with SNTK is pretty close to perfect for me. You always know what outcomes you want from melee (one or the other side breaks and runs or retreats) it is just getting to that bit that can take the time. You end up with compulsory break off rules after a set number of turns for example. Whilst I've done that it seems rather artificial. The SNTK melee table works back from the results such that each round has a clear result. Then it is just a matter of calibrating the factors and dice rolled correctly, and I think I have that right too. That means I can retro fit the system back into RTTRD. The other option in the more modern periods is to do away with hand to hand altogether and just have a combat system that varies with range, - which is what the original AK 47 Republic did.

Morale (or if you like, reaction) goes in and out of favour. There's an argument for saying that the outcomes of firing have a morale effect embedded as the figures removed represent not just bodies but those running away as well. The higher the level of resolution you choose the more plausible this becomes.There's no morale sequence in DBA, for example. Whilst rule sets often contain a check that says an army breaks when casualties reach a certain level some how this doesn't always convince me, - I'm particularly unconvinced by the divisional break test in Shako (although that doesn't stop me doing my best to have it take my opponent's army apart given the chance - I can be shallow at times). Strangely enough morale doesn't work when you go to the other extreme of skirmish wargaming as well as it could do. We have come a long way from the 50% break test to where we are now, via Phil Barker's WRG reaction tests, and I still can't work out what type of system I like best. Having said that the elegance of Neil Thomas' Ancient and Medieval Wargaming mechanism of rolling to remove another base when ever you lose one to combat has its attractions.

So that's where my musings have got me, - not so much a design philosophy as a group of preferences and frustrations. And now my train is heading towards the station so it is time to hang up and think about work.

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