Sunday, December 14, 2014

How Many Sides?

Onward with designing an ancients game-system!

Let's start with some big decisions.

What scale? 

Ancients games suffer a conundrum -- unlike most modern games which you can play on a 1:1 scale if you want, there are usually more men on an ancient battlefield than any sane person would want to paint.  If you go for a really small scale, you get a more realistic proportion.  If you go for a large one, like 28mm, then you have a more colorful but rather thin-looking battle line.  In either case, each stand or figure will probably represent more than one actual soldier.

I think I will design for 28mm, which is big, colorful and fun to paint.  But, honestly, all that really matters for the game is the footprint of the unit on the table.

Fancy Random Number Generators?

Next up, what kind of dice (or cards or scapulae or spinners or whatever) do I want to use?  Personally, I think there's no reason to use anything other than standard 6-sided dice. Everybody has a metric crap ton of six-siders, which are cheap and easily available.  I find that not much is gained by using a larger die type, like a d10.  If I want more than 6 possible results, it's a lot easier to roll 6-siders twice, in various combinations, than to fiddle with the number of sides.

Plus, psychologically, there is something that's really nice about rolling a handful of dice.

6-siders, it is, then.

I Go/U Go, or Something Fancier?

Most older games are I Go/U Go systems, in which players move and fight with their whole force before ceding the initiative to their opponent.  Many newer games have an alternating system of activation, where one player chooses a unit to move or shoot, and then the other player may do so instead.

The advantage of I Go/U Go is its stately consistency. Players can predict movement across the field and plan reactions in advance, without worrying about actions taking place out of order, or a unit being stuck out of action by a quirk of the activation rules.

The advantage of alternating activations lies in the chaos and simultaneity it brings to the battle.  In the fog of war, you can never really tell where units will be and who will get the jump on whom.

In balance, for an ancients game, I think I prefer the predictability of some variation of the classic I Go/U Go.  In a modern combat game, it is much easier to imagine small units surprising each other and stealing movement on their opponent, than in some huge battle where ranks of men march across an open field.  I think in an ancient battle, you probably could tell in advance where most units would be marching, and plan for it.

Ancient battle relied on the steadiness of battle-lines and of mutual support.  In a alternating system, it's really hard to keep your little dudes lined up, and very easy for a unit to be caught out by itself.

So I intend to use some type of turn system in which players can keep their forces together and in which movement sequence is relatively predictable, although I may introduce some variation to a strict I Go/U Go.  For example, I might allow both players to alternate all their movement, then all their shooting, then all their melee resolution.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Farting with the Ancients

Playing a few games of Hail Caesar! has gotten me thinking about the design of ancient/fantasy wargaming rules.

A typical ancients game (one that's based on big armies and not skirmishers like Saga) features two clashing battle lines. Each line is composed of blocks of infantry, and the main decision of the game usually occurs when one line or the other begins to lose combat, break and falter. Other units in the game largely exist to support the main line: skirmishers may run ahead of it, archers may soften a target, cavalry may try to punch a flank or whatever -- but mostly, it's the core infantry that matters.

Variations of course exist: a ranged army's line will be mostly archers, and it will try not to close for as long as possible.  A skirmish army will float around trying to be obnoxious.  A pure cavalry army might form its fighting block of powerful knights rather than infantry.  But the core grammar remains the same.

From a game-design perspective, then, the question is how to bring interest to such a format. Some games focus primarily on the interplay of different types of units: swords vs spears, pikes vs horses, the merit of different levels of armor or resilience of training. Other games try to focus on command: Hail Caesar! makes the movement of its units unreliable, so you're never sure how far or fast they will move.

I am not enamored of either of these approaches. If the focus is on the equipment of different units, then the main question of the game will be which unit is paired against which when the battle lines clash.  Given the rigid nature of ancient battle, these match ups will be set early (probably in deployment), and I find only minimal interest in watching them play out.  Hail Caesar's! movement and order system makes the outcome less certain, but largely by ensuring that the main clash of lines will occur piecemeal.  But was the art of generalship in the ancient world really about making sure your troops marched at a consistent speed?

For me, the interest in any game comes from giving the players meaningful, important choices. A good game system will identify the decision points in its simulation and lay its emphasis there. In ancient battle, what could a commander do to ensure victory or avoid defeat? Where would his choices most matter?

1) The general could ensure that each of his assets were best matched against his enemy's. The initial deployment of forces would often determine everything that followed. So, in my game, I want choices and options in the deployment phase, with each player able to psych out, surprise, or outmaneuver his opponent as the battle is configured.

2) The general could deploy reserves.  Uncommitted units could reinforce faltering ones, press an advantage, or otherwise react to the flow of battle. So in game terms, I want a way for a player to move reserves where he needs them to be, and then to swap or support units in the battleline.

3) The general could spring some surprise or clever trick. Think about Hannibal at Cannae, deliberately weakening his center.  Some generals or units should have "special powers" letting them perform unusual actions, such as feigned retreats, ambushes and so forth.

4) The general could rally and inspire. By remaining visible and issuing commands, he could prevent his troops from faltering or becoming disorganized.  Conversely, he could run away or get himself spectacularly killed in such a way that his forces break.  So generals should be able to bolster morale of nearby units.

Now, most games allow a general to do some or all of these things already, through the ordinary choices of deployment, movement or melee.  What I want is to make them a formal part of the game, in which the players perform a kind of resource management with their commanders, deciding which of several options or orders they will employ at each stage of the game. This system of command-level choices will then float on top of the normal movement and combat mechanics, rather like Saga's system of powers and Battle board floats on top of a standard skirmish game.

In other words, it will be a lot like my Doctrine system in Sabre and Raygun.

Next up, beginning the design...

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Line Dancing

So, I played some more Hail Caesar! a few nights ago with some friends.  We had fun crushing each other, and playing with Mycenaean figures, dressed in skirts, riding chariots, and armored in segmented bronze cone-skirts. 

Rolled lots of 6s.
Yet, despite the carnage, as often when I play ancients games (or Warhammer Fantasy for that matter), it didn't like I had many meaningful choices as a player.  It just felt like the two lines crashed into each other.  Each unit fought whatever happened to be across from it, and the better unit (and luck) won.

So I got to thinking: how could an ancient's game offer more complex choices?

In a modern game, units rarely form rigid battle lines, and with their long range and freer movement, a commander can decide what to target and where to go with greater freedom. But an ancients'  battle, with few ranged weapons, most of them short-ranged, and large blocks of troops can't follow this design.

Hail Caesar! focuses on generals and their orders, but it is largely a negative system. Every time you, as a player, want your troops to follow an order to move, you have to roll dice.  On a failure, they sit there.  On a super success they move farther.  I found this system frustrating.  Troops look like they should be able to perform a particular move, but then they screw you over.  There's variability in the game, but it's an annoying variability.

But what about a game design that focuses on generals and order management, but does so as a form of resource management?  And rather than controlling movement, the generals could activate various bonuses.

So, when you read about brilliant generals in the ancient world, what sorts of clever things did they do, and how can this be represented by game mechanics?  Some ideas:

Inspiration: In ancient battles, cohesion and motivation were hugely important.  The side that broke and ran, or lost its formation, tended to get run down and squashed.  But a unit that could hold together might withstand a lot of punishment.  Flags, banners, instruments, orders, and so forth were designed to help a unit hold together, maintain organization, and not panic.  If you could see the general or other symbols of authority, you knew you were still in the fight.  So why not let the generals give a unit a bonus to morale checks -- maybe a reroll, like Flames of War uses.  Let the general focus attention on a nearby unit and bolster its durability.

Deployment: A lot of ancient strategy involved how armies were arrayed, based on estimates of enemy capabilities and behavior.  Yeah, you can do some of this just through letting players make choices about where and when to place troops, but on a table top, everything is visible.  There's no fog of war, and other uncertainties.  Why not let generals mess with deployment?  Maybe they could bid against each other in some way to determine when and how troops must be placed.  Maybe a power would allow them to swap units in the line after deployment.  Maybe a schrodinger's unit could hide in ambush.  Etc.

Line Manipulation: In the battle of Cannae, Hannibal arranged for his center to bend under Roman pressure, and his flanks to envelop the Roman sides.  I have no idea how I'd simulate this in Hail Caesar or WFB, but it seems like the sort of dirty trick you should be able to pull. So how about some abilities that let you try?  Generals could activate special maneuvers, allowing units to feign retreat and move while locked in combat.  Or units could be moved quickly to the sides, increasing spacing.  Worn units could (with a successful action) be removed from the line and swapped with supporting forces or reinforcements.  All of these could be activated from a controlling general.

Ow!  Not the pokey stick!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Open Hand (Part II)

From the Codex Wallerstein. Wikipedia.
This post continues my sketch of a combat system based on Renaissance fencing manuals.  (See part one here.) It's not designed for any particular game, but should be fairly easy to implement for any game that uses skills:

Each combatant has a skill rating.  This skill represents both offense and defense, against a variety of weapons.  There need not be a different skill for each weapon type; but I suggest that a character be able to gain a bonus with or against a particular weapon as a specialty.

Each weapon has a length, indicating the distance at which it is most effective.  Outside this distance it cannot attack.  Inside this distance, it suffers a penalty.

Each weapon has a lethality rating, indicating how easy it is to deliver a killing blow.  The default value of an arming sword is 0.  Small knives will have a lethality penalty. Large weapons have a lethality bonus.

(For now we are not going to worry about armor, but if we were, we'd also give weapons an armor piercing characteristic that negates the defensive bonus of armor.)

Weapons and other defensive equipment (such as armor) have a defensive rating, indicating how helpful they are in fending off blows.  Their defensive rating may suffer a penalty inside their preferred distance.

Characters exist in several wound states:
  • Unwounded
  • Lightly injured
  • Wounded
  • Incapacitated
  • Dead
They may additionally be stunned, a temporary state of serious impairment, or unconscious.

Now, imagine the area around a combatant as a bulls-eye, with the fighter in the center.  Move his opponent through the rings, as they circle, and open or close the difference.  Let's label the rings so:
  • Open distance is beyond the effective range at which either combatant can strike.
  • Extra long distance is the distance at which a combatant can effectively strike with a spear or other similar weapon.
  • Long distance is the distance at which a combatant can effectively strike with a weapon like a rapier, a long sword or a staff.
  • Fight distance is the distance at which a combatant can effectively strike with a one-handed weapon like an arming sword or hand axe.  This generally means the reach of the combatant's arm, plus a step or a step and a half, a lunge or a passing step. 
  • Close distance is inside of fight distance.  At this range the combatants can effectively strike with a dagger, a shield, or their hands.  At this distance also, the combatants can grapple or wrestle.
Combat will take place in turns, an arbitrary and variable division of time.

Each character will have the option to strike once per turn.  They should declare their preferred distance at the start of the round.  Generally, this will be the same as their weapon's length, but a combatant whose opponent is too close may opt to strike at a shorter distance at a penalty.

At the start of a typical fight, both combatants will be at open distance.  Then (assuming both of them wish to fight) the combat round will proceed inward, from open distance to the preferred distance of each combatant. It will not go any closer than then the smallest preferred distance.

So, for example, if combatant A has a spear (extra long preferred distance), and combatant B (fight distance), the turn will progress from extra long to long to fight distance, and then stop.

Once their preferred distance is reached in the turn sequence, the character may make an attack
  • The attacking character rolls their skill + lethality.  The defending player rolls their skill + defensive bonus.  The defending player always gets a roll, providing they are capable of movement.
  • If the attacking score exceeds the defending score, the attack hits.  The degree by which it is exceeded determines the level of wound inflicted.  (Depending on the dice scale, this might be every 3 points or every 5 or whatever). 
  • If the defending score exceeds the attacking score, then the defender is not injured.
If (as is common) both characters have the same preferred distance, resolve thrusting attacks before other types of armed attacks, and armed attacks before bare handed attacks.  (The point is faster than the edge, and nobody wants to grab a knife.)  Otherwise, the strikes are simultaneous.

At close distance, an open hand may be used to grapple, wrestle or throw.  This will have different results than a simple wound.  For example, a grapple attack may hold the enemy in place or incapacitate them.

The results of wounds are applied immediately, and so a successful attack may end the combat instantly, or impose a wound penalty on the injured character.  So it's a huge advantage to strike first.

Once the attack has been resolved, and assuming neither combatant is incapacitated or killed, move inward to the next preferred distance and resolve the next attack.

At the end of each round of combat, the combatants make another opposed skill test.  The winning combatant then choose the distance at which the combat will begin next round. This represents the combatants maneuvering for position.  If a combatant has a greater preferred distance than the one on which the fight ended, they are trying to increase distance and return to their weapon's preferred length.  If they have a shorter weapon, they are trying to remain close.

The results of open-handed attacks may affect this roll.  (For example if one character has grabbed the other.)  A character may also try to return to open distance in this way, preparatory to fleeing.

For ongoing rounds of combat, the fight will begin at whatever range it ended.  If either combatant's preferred distance is inwards of this, proceed inwards until it is reached.

So, in this system, maneuver, weapon length, and skill will be the most important factors in the system, with wounds having a powerful disabling effect.  (GMs who ant to keep player characters alive should probably layer a system of "fate points" or other bonuses on top of the system, letting important characters reroll or modify results.)

In Germany, they still have frats that slice each other in the face with sabres.  Transfer now!  Mensur.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Very Viking Zombie Apocalypse

Our buddy, a draugr from Skyrim. Based on Norse mythology.
For your Halloween delight, here is a famous ghost story from Grettir's Saga:

32. There was a man named Thorhall living in Thorhallsstad in Forsaeludal, up from Vatnsdal. He was the son of Grim, the son of Thorhall, the son of Fridmund, who was the first settler in Forsaeludal. Thorhall's wife was named Gudrun; they had a son named Grim and a daughter named Thurid who were just grown up. Thorhall was fairly wealthy, especially in live-stock. His property in cattle exceeded that of any other man. He was not a chief, but an honest bondi nevertheless. He had great difficulty in getting a shepherd to suit him because the place was haunted. He consulted many men of experience as to what he should do, but nobody gave him any advice which was of any use. Thorhall had good horses, and went every summer to the Thing. On one occasion at the All-Thing he went to the booth of the Lawman Skapti the son of Thorodd, who was a man of great knowledge and gave good counsel to those who consulted him. There was a great difference between Thorodd the father and Skapti the son in one respect. Thorodd possessed second sight, but was thought by some not to be straight, whereas Skapti gave to every man the advice which he thought would avail him, if he followed it exactly, and so earned the name of Father-betterer.

So Thorhall went to Skapti's booth, where Skapti, knowing that he was a man of wealth, received him graciously, and asked what the news was.

"I want some good counsel from you," said Thorhall.

"I am little fit to give you counsel," he replied; "but what is it that you need?"

"It is this: I have great difficulty in keeping my shepherds. Some get injured and others cannot finish their work. No one will come to me if he knows what he has to expect."

Skapti answered: "There must be some evil spirit abroad if men are less willing to tend your flocks than those of other men. Now since you have come to me for counsel, I will get you a shepherd. His name is Glam, and he came from Sylgsdale in Sweden last summer. He is a big strong man, but not to everybody's mind."

Thorhall said that did not matter so long as he looked after the sheep properly. Skapti said there was not much chance of getting another if this man with all his strength and boldness should fail. Then Thorhall departed. This happened towards the end of the Thing.

Two of Thorhall's horses were missing, and he went himself to look for them, which made people think he was not much of a man. He went up under Sledaass and south along the hill called Armannsfell. Then he saw a man coming down from Godaskog bringing some brushwood with a horse. They met and Thorhall asked him his name. He said it was Glam. He was a big man with an extraordinary expression of countenance, large grey eyes and wolfgrey hair. Thorhall was a little startled when he saw him, but soon found out that this was the man who had been sent to him.

"What work can you do best?" he asked.

Glam said it would suit him very well to mind sheep in the winter.

"Will you mind my sheep?" Thorhall asked. "Skapti has given you over to me."

"My service will only be of use to you if I am free to do as I please," he said. "I am rather crossgrained when I am not well pleased."

"That will not hurt me," said Thorhall. "I shall be glad if you will come to me."

"I can do so," he said. "Are there any special difficulties?"

"The place seems to be haunted."

"I am not afraid of ghosts. It will be the less dull."

"You will have to risk it," said Thorhall. "It will be best to meet it with a bold face."

Terms were arranged and Glam was to come in the autumn. Then they parted. Thorhall found his horses in the very place where he had just been looking for them. He rode home and thanked Skapti for his service.

The summer passed. Thorhall heard nothing of his shepherd and no one knew anything about him, but at the appointed time he appeared at Thorhallsstad. Thorhall treated him kindly, but all the rest of the household disliked him, especially the mistress. He commenced his work as shepherd, which gave him little trouble.

He had a loud hoarse voice. The beasts all flocked together whenever he shouted at them. There was a church in the place, but Glam never went to it. He abstained from mass, had no religion, and was stubborn and surly. Every one hated him.

So the time passed till the eve of Yule-tide. Glam rose early and called for his meal. The mistress said: "It is not proper for Christian men to eat on this day, because to-morrow is the first day of Yule and it is our duty to fast to-day."

"You have many superstitions," he said; "but I do not see that much comes of them. I do not know that men are any better off than when there was nothing of that kind. The ways of men seemed to me better when they were called heathen. I want my food and no foolery."

"I am certain," she said, "that it will fare ill with you to-day if you commit this sin."

Glam told her that she should bring his food, or that it would be the worse for her. She did not dare to do otherwise than as he bade her. When he had eaten he went out, his breath smelling abominably. It was very dark; there was driving snow, the wind was howling and it became worse as the day advanced. The shepherd's voice was heard in the early part of the day, but less later on. Blizzards set in and a terrific storm in the evening. People went to mass and so the time passed. In the evening Glam did not return. They talked about going out to look for him, but the storm was so violent and the night so dark that no one went. The night passed and still he had not returned; they waited till the time for mass came. When it was full day some of the men set forth to search. They found the animals scattered everywhere in the snow and injured by the weather; some had strayed into the mountains. Then they came upon some well-marked tracks up above in the valley. The stones and earth were torn up all about as if there had been a violent tussle. On searching further they came upon Glam lying on the ground a short distance off. He was dead; his body was as black as Hel and swollen to the size of an ox. They were overcome with horror and their hearts shuddered within them. Nevertheless they tried to carry him to the church, but could not get him any further than the edge of a gully a short way off. So they left him there and went home to report to the bondi what had happened. He asked what could have caused Glam's death. They said they had tracked him to a big place like a hole made by the bottom of a cask thrown down and dragged along up below the mountains which were at the top of the valley, and all along the track were great drops of blood. They concluded that the evil spirit which had been about before must have killed Glam, but that he had inflicted wounds upon it which were enough, for that spook was never heard of again. On the second day of the festival they went out again to bring in Glam's body to the church. They yoked oxen to him, but directly the downward incline ceased and they came to level ground, they could not move him; so they went home again and left him. On the third day they took a priest with them, but after searching the whole day they failed to find him. The priest refused to go again, and when he was not with them they found Glam. So they gave up the attempt to bring him to the church and buried him where he was under a cairn of stones.

It was not long before men became aware that Glam was not easy in his grave. Many men suffered severe injuries; some who saw him were struck senseless and some lost their wits. Soon after the festival was over, men began to think they saw him about their houses. The panic was great and many left the neighbourhood. Next he began to ride on the house-tops by night, and nearly broke them to pieces. Almost night and day he walked, and people would scarcely venture up the valley, however pressing their business. The district was in a grievous condition.

33. In the spring Thorhall procured servants and built a house on his lands. As the days lengthened out the apparitions became less, until at midsummer a ship sailed up the Hunavatn in which was a man named Thorgaut. He was a foreigner, very tall and powerful; he had the strength of two men. He was travelling on his own account, unattached, and being without money was looking out for employment. Thorhall rode to the ship, saw him and asked if he would take service with him. Thorgaut said he would indeed, and that there would be no difficulties.

"You must be prepared," said Thorhall, "for work which would not be fitting for a weak-minded person, because of the apparitions which have been there lately. I will not deceive you about it."

"I shall not give myself up as lost for the ghostlings," he said.

"Before I am scared some others will not be easy. I shall not change my quarters on that account."

The terms were easily arranged and Thorgaut was engaged for the sheep during the winter. When the summer had passed away he took over charge of them, and was on good terms with everybody. Glam continued his rides on the roofs. Thorgaut thought it very amusing and said the thrall must come nearer if he wished to frighten him. Thorhall advised him not to say too much, and said it would be better if they did not come into conflict.

Thorgaut said: "Surely all the spirit has gone out of you. I shall not fall dead in the twilight for stories of that sort."

Yule was approaching. On the eve the shepherd went out with his sheep. The mistress said: "Now I hope that our former experiences will not be repeated."

"Have no fear for that, mistress," he said. "There will be something worth telling of if I come not back."

Then he went out to his sheep. The weather was rather cold and there was a heavy snowstorm. Thorgaut usually returned when it was getting dark, but this time he did not come. The people went to church as usual, but they thought matters looked very much as they did on the last occasion. The bondi wanted them to go out and search for the shepherd, but the churchgoers cried off, and said they were not going to trust themselves into the power of trolls in the night; the bondi would not venture out and there was no search. On Yule day after their meal they went out to look for the shepherd, and first went to Glam's cairn, feeling sure that the shepherd's disappearance must be due to him. On approaching the cairn they saw an awful sight; there was the shepherd, his neck broken, and every bone in his body torn from its place. They carried him to the church and no one was molested by Thorgaut.

Glam became more rampageous than ever. He was so riotous that at last everybody fled from Thorhallsstad, excepting the bondi and his wife.

Thorhall's cowherd had been a long time in his service and he had become attached to him; for this reason and because he was a careful herdsman he did not want to part with him. The man was very old and thought it would be very troublesome to have to leave; he saw, too, that everything the bondi possessed would be ruined if he did not stay to look after them. One morning after midwinter the mistress went to the cow-house to milk the cows as usual. It was then full day, for no one would venture out of doors till then, except the cowherd, who went directly it was light. She heard a great crash in the cow-house and tremendous bellowing. She rushed in, shouting that something awful, she knew not what, was going on in the cow-house. The bondi went out and found the cattle all goring each other. It seemed not canny there, so he went into the shed and there saw the cowherd lying on his back with his head in one stall and his feet in the other.

He went up and felt him, but saw at once that he was dead with his back broken. It had been broken over the flat stone which separated the two stalls. Evidently it was not safe to remain any longer on his estate, so he fled with everything that he could carry away. All the live-stock which he left behind was killed by Glam. After that Glam went right up the valley and raided every farm as far as Tunga, while Thorhall stayed with his friends during the rest of the winter. No one could venture up the valley with a horse or a dog, for it was killed at once. As the spring went on and the sun rose higher in the sky the spook diminished somewhat, and Thorhall wanted to return to his land, but found it not easy to get servants. Nevertheless, he went and took up his abode at Thorhallsstad. Directly the autumn set in, everything began again, and the disturbances increased. The person most attacked was the bondi's daughter, who at last died of it. Many things were tried but without success. It seemed likely that the whole of Vatnsdal would be devastated unless help could be found.

34. We have now to return to Grettir, who was at home in Bjarg during the autumn which followed his meeting with Warrior-Bardi at Thoreyjargnup. When the winter was approaching, he rode North across the neck to Vididal and stayed at Audunarstad. He and Audun made friends again; Grettir gave him a valuable battle-axe and they agreed to hold together in friendship. Audun had long lived there, and had many connections. He had a son named Egill, who married Ulfheid the daughter of Eyjolf, the son of Gudmund; their son Eyjolf, who was killed at the All-Thing, was the father of Orin the chaplain of Bishop Thorlak.

Grettir rode to the North to Vatnsdal and went on a visit to Tunga, where dwelt his mother's brother, Jokull the son of Bard, a big strong man and exceedingly haughty. He was a mariner, very cantankerous, but a person of much consideration. He welcomed Grettir, who stayed three nights with him. Nothing was talked about but Glam's walking, and Grettir inquired minutely about all the particulars. Jokull told him that no more was said than had really happened.

"Why, do you want to go there?" he asked.

Grettir said that it was so. Jokull told him not to do it.

"It would be a most hazardous undertaking," he said. "Your kinsmen incur a great risk with you as you are. There does not seem to be one of the younger men who is your equal. It is ill dealing with such a one as Glam. Much better fight with human men than with goblins of that sort."

Grettir said he had a mind to go to Thorhallsstad and see how things were. Jokull said: "I see there is no use in dissuading you. The saying is true that Luck is one thing, brave deeds another."

"Woe stands before the door of one but enters that of another," answered Grettir. "I am thinking how it may fare with you yourself before all is done."

"It may be," said Jokull, "that we both see what is before us, and yet we may not alter it."

Then they parted, neither of them well pleased with the other's prophetic saying.

35. Grettir rode to Thorhallsstad where he was welcomed by the bondi.

He asked Grettir whither he was bound, and Grettir said he wished to spend the night there if the bondi permitted. Thorhall said he would indeed be thankful to him for staying there.

"Few," he said, "think it a gain to stay here for any time. You must have heard tell of the trouble that is here, and I do not want you to be inconvenienced on my account. Even if you escape unhurt yourself, I know for certain that you will lose your horse, for no one can keep his beast in safety who comes here."

Grettir said there were plenty more horses to be had if anything happened to this one.

Thorhall was delighted at Grettir's wishing to remain, and received him with both hands. Grettir's horse was placed securely under lock and key and they both went to bed. The night passed without Glam showing himself.

"Your being here has already done some good," said Thorhall. "Glam has always been in the habit of riding on the roof or breaking open the doors every night, as you can see from the marks."

"Then," Grettir said, "either he will not keep quiet much longer, or he will remain so more than one night. I will stay another night and see what happens."

Then they went to Grettir's horse and found it had not been touched. The bondi thought that all pointed to the same thing. Grettir stayed a second night and again the thrall did not appear. The bondi became hopeful and went to see the horse. There he found the stable broken open, the horse dragged outside and every bone in his body broken. Thorhall told Grettir what had occurred and advised him to look to himself, for he was a dead man if he waited for Glam.

Grettir answered: "I must not have less for my horse than a sight of the thrall."

The bondi said there was no pleasure to be had from seeing him: "He is not like any man. I count every hour a gain that you are here."

The day passed, and when the hour came for going to bed Grettir said he would not take off his clothes, and lay down on a seat opposite to Thorkell's sleeping apartment. He had a shaggy cloak covering him with one end of it fastened under his feet and the other drawn over his head so that he could see through the neck-hole. He set his feet against a strong bench which was in front of him. The frame-work of the outer door had been all broken away and some bits of wood had been rigged up roughly in its place. The partition which had once divided the hall from the entrance passage was all broken, both above the cross-beam and below, and all the bedding had been upset. The place looked rather desolate. There was a light burning in the hall by night.

When about a third part of the night had passed Grettir heard a loud noise. Something was going up on to the building, riding above the hall and kicking with its heels until the timbers cracked again. This went on for some time, and then it came down towards the door. The door opened and Grettir saw the thrall stretching in an enormously big and ugly head. Glam moved slowly in, and on passing the door stood upright, reaching to the roof. He turned to the hall, resting his arms on the cross-beam and peering along the hall. The bondi uttered no sound, having heard quite enough of what had gone on outside. Grettir lay quite still and did not move. Glam saw a heap of something in the seat, came farther into the hall and seized the cloak tightly with his hand. Grettir pressed his foot against the plank and the cloak held firm. Glam tugged at it again still more violently, but it did not give way. A third time be pulled, this time with both hands and with such force that he pulled Grettir up out of the seat, and between them the cloak was torn in two. Glam looked at the bit which he held in his hand and wondered much who could pull like that against him. Suddenly Grettir sprang under his arms, seized him round the waist and squeezed his back with all his might, intending in that way to bring him down, but the thrall wrenched his arms till he staggered from the violence. Then Grettir fell back to another bench. The benches flew about and everything was shattered around them. Glam wanted to get out, but Grettir tried to prevent him by stemming his foot against anything he could find. Nevertheless Glam succeeded in getting him outside the hall. Then a terrific struggle began, the thrall trying to drag him out of the house, and Grettir saw that however hard he was to deal with in the house, he would be worse outside, so he strove with all his might to keep him from getting out. Then Glam made a desperate effort and gripped Grettir tightly towards him, forcing him to the porch. Grettir saw that he could not put up any resistance, and with a sudden movement he dashed into the thrall's arms and set both his feet against a stone which was fastened in the ground at the door. For that Glam was not prepared, since he had been tugging to drag Grettir towards him; he reeled backwards and tumbled hind-foremost out of the door, tearing away the lintel with his shoulder and shattering the roof, the rafters and the frozen thatch. Head over heels he fell out of the house and Grettir fell on top of him. The moon was shining very brightly outside, with light clouds passing over it and hiding it now and again. At the moment when Glam fell the moon shone forth, and Glam turned his eyes up towards it. Grettir himself has related that that sight was the only one which ever made him tremble. What with fatigue and all else that he had endured, when he saw the horrible rolling of Glam's eyes his heart sank so utterly that he had not strength to draw his sword, but lay there well-nigh betwixt life and death. Glam possessed more malignant power than most fiends, for he now spoke in this wise:

"You have expended much energy, Grettir, in your search for me. Nor is that to be wondered at, if you should have little joy thereof. And now I tell you that you shall possess only half the strength and firmness of heart that were decreed to you if you had not striven with me. The might which was yours till now I am not able to take away, but it is in my power to ordain that never shall you grow stronger than you are now. Nevertheless your might is sufficient, as many shall find to their cost. Hitherto you have earned fame through your deeds, but henceforward there shall fall upon you exile and battle; your deeds shall turn to evil and your guardian-spirit shall forsake you. You will be outlawed and your lot shall be to dwell ever alone. And this I lay upon you, that these eyes of mine shall be ever before your vision. You will find it hard to live alone, and at last it shall drag you to death."

When the thrall had spoken the faintness which had come over Grettir left him. He drew his short sword, cut off Glam's head and laid it between his thighs. Then the bondi came out, having put on his clothes while Glam was speaking, but he did not venture to come near until he was dead. Thorhall praised God and thanked Grettir warmly for having laid this unclean spirit. Then they set to work and burned Glam to cold cinders, bound the ashes in a skin and buried them in a place far away from the haunts of man or beast. Then they went home, the day having nearly broken.

Grettir was very stiff and lay down to rest. Thorhall sent for some men from the next farms and let them know how things had fared. They all realised the importance of Grettir's deed when they heard of it; all agreed that in the whole country side for strength and courage and enterprise there was not the equal of Grettir the son of Asmund.

Thorhall bade a kindly farewell to Grettir and dismissed him with a present of a fine horse and proper clothes, for all that he had been wearing were torn to pieces. They parted in friendship. Grettir rode to Ass in Vatnsdal and was welcomed by Thorvald, who asked him all about his encounter with Glam. Grettir told him everything and said that never had his strength been put to trial as it had been in their long struggle. Thorvald told him to conduct himself discreetly; if he did so he might prosper, but otherwise he would surely come to disaster. Grettir said that his temper had not improved, that he had even less discretion than before, and was more impatient of being crossed. In one thing a great change had come over him; he had become so frightened of the dark that he dared not go anywhere alone at night. Apparitions of every kind came before him. It has since passed into an expression, and men speak of "Glam's eyes" or "Glam visions" when things appear otherwise than as they are.

Having accomplished his undertaking Grettir rode back to Bjarg and spent the winter at home.

 (1914, English v.2, transl. G. H. Hight, from the original 'Grettis saga'.  http://sagadb.org/grettis_saga.en2)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Notes sur le FOW Napolienne

Damn historical accuracy!  I will play Flames of War!
So over on Facebook this morning, someone posted a picture asking if anyone would play "Flames of War: The Napoleonic Wars."

The consensus of the group seemed to be "no," and I made the point that Flames of War simulates modern combat with tanks, machine-guns, and so forth, and doesn't translate well to other types of warfare. You'd have to change the core system so much, it wouldn't really be FoW any more.

Then I got to thinking, okay, it's silly, but how would I adapt Flames of War for Napoleonics anyway?

So, it's a crazy idea.  Let's do it anyway!

1) First we'd have to change how the representational scale of the game.  Flames of War uses a 1:1 WYSIWYG representation of figures.  As several people pointed out, this would not work for Napoleonics.  I suggest having each figure represent more than one soldier, and each stand represent a larger unit than a fireteam.  FoW currently uses 6-15 infantry stands in a typical game unit, representing a Platoon.  If you made each stand represent 10 soldiers, 10 stands would be a company (roughly), and the game overall would be battalion scale.   If you made each stand represent 50 soldiers, then 6 stands would be a battalion (roughly), and the game would be played at regimental size.  Etc.  In my experiments scaling FoW up and down, I've found the actual size of the base and the figure on it matter a lot less than you might imagine, so this is very workable.  Except maybe for painting 15mm Napoleonic color schemes.

2) Most stands would need to be in a formation of some sort: a line, a square, a column, etc.  We'd need to write rules for how these are represented on the table top, but I'd suggest that the bases need to be touching in particular shapes, and that casualty removal be changed so that as stands are lost, the formation retains its shape.  Not particularly hard to do.  Changing from formation to formation should probably occur in the Movement step, and require a Skill roll.  Pinned units should be unable to change. The different formations should get different advantages: squares would get a bonus against cavalry (I suggest cavalry charges would fail on a 2+), columns would get a moving bonus, etc.

3) In normal FoW, we assume that better skilled troops are using maneuver and terrain to prevent themselves from being hit by enemy fire.  Aside from some skirmishers, this doesn't seem like a good representation of Napoleonic tactics.  I'd suggest that instead, the success of shooting depend on the firing unit's skill.  In most accounts of Napoleonic war I've read, better trained troops could put out a higher rate of fire.  We could screw with the RoF rules in FoW, but I think it'd be easier to use the existing skill ratings.  Obviously, most infantry would be unable to Go to Ground or Dig In.

4) Artillery could be handled with FoW gun rules or artillery rules.  You could treat guns as direct-fire guns with an RoF, or you could use the template, depending. The template would represent an area being targeted with fire, and has the advantage of punishing troops that are bunched up in a square.

5) Pinning in Flames of War represents the reactions of soldiers to modern rapid firing weapons.  It's not a great representation of how people in Napoleonic times would react to musket or cannon fire.  but I think we could shoe-horn it to fit.  Assume that instead of being "Pinned," affected infantry are "Disrupted" or "Shaken," and need a turn or two to recover.  Then we can use Defensive Fire and Pinning normally, according to FoW rules, to see whether that bayonet charge falters.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Thoughts on the Direction of 40k

A post I made over at www.bolterandchainsword.com. I thought it might also be of interest here:

I think it's clear something fundamental has changed about 40k in the last few years.  I see several developments coming together, many of them driven (I think) by new publishing and manufacturing technology:

1) There are now really big impressive plastic kits.  This puts larger (and maybe goofier) models on the table in large numbers.  Old Heavy Support options are now outclassed by Knights, Lord of War and so forth.  The scale feels even more like a short-ranged cage match.

2) There are now a zillion books, which GW can publish at will.  I think this is a consequence of electronic publishing and print on demand.  But now every release gets a Codex, a Supplement, and some Data Sheets.  We are seeing Campaig Supplements in large numbers.

3) The publishing scale is now so fast, and the prices so high, that I am now only buying books for the factions that really interest me.  I've had to give up on owning and reading everything.

4) The structure of armies is now very open.  Between multiple FoC variants and Formations and Unbound, people can take pretty
much anything they want in any combination.

4) As a consequence, the game is no longer a (relatively) limited set of rules and codices, in which it is possible or desirable to try to push the system for maximum competitiveness.  I don't know if it ever was, actually, but as codices and models proliferate, top-end competitive army become ever more gimmicky and ridiculous.

Now whether these developments are good or bad depends I guess on your perspective.  But I have found that my enjoyment of the game greatly increased once i just stopped worrying about trying to make a single list, suitable for all opponents, that I could play upon walking into a store.  I now play more or less what I want, and in our league, I try to find games that are not crazy-competitive.  If I do happen to pair up with someone who has a super-nasty army, I just let them crush me, and aim for some smaller goal.  (" I will kill your Knight/Daemon Prince/Character before I die.")  Then I try to find someone else to play. If they are obnoxious I think nasty thoughts at them.  I would never go to a tournament now.  I do not invest any ego in winning or losing.

So I still enjoy playing, but it's a different sort of game, environment, and goal for me now.  The new environment has some cool looking stuff in it, like Knights.  i love the world and background.  I enjoy painting.  Most games are quite fun.  But I've given up any pretense of 40k being a controlled competitive environment, rather than a casual game which I play largely for aesthetic reasons.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Percentile Dice and the Psychology of Sucess

10-sided dice
What are the implications of percentile dice for game design?

Percentile dice were really popular in the 80s and early 90s.  Call of Cthulhu, Palladium Games, and many others used percentile dice for their skill systems.  More recently, the Warhammer games have been revamped, including their percentile-based resolution, in Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, and so forth.

The main advantage of percentile dice derives from their transparency.  We are used to calculating odds in percentages anyway, so when a player intuitively understands them.  I may not know in my head how likely I am to roll over thirteen on 3D6, but I do know what 20% or 57% means.

The disadvantages of percentile dice are more subtle:  it is very difficult to design a system that uses them, in which there is an interesting variety of rolls and modifiers, AND in which player results will occupy a desirable central range of probability.

Other common types of die rolls (for example, 3D6) result in a curve.  The central numbers of the range are more likely to occur than numbers near the edge.  On a 3D6, not only is the average (mean) roll likely to be 10, but 10 is also the most common result (mode).  The graph of a percentile roll is flat, not curved.  You are just as likely to roll a 02 as a 50 or a 98 or any other number.  This is part of its nature. 

As a game designer, I find a dice that produce a bell curve much more useful than dice whose results are flat.  From the perspective of interesting game play, I want players to be rolling results that range from fairly likely to fairly unlikely, say from around 40% to around 80%, most of the time.  Basically, players are most engaged when they have a pretty good change of succeeding, without it being a certainty.

For example, in a rolep-laying combat system, the round usually goes around the table.  In my typical group, I get to take an action about every 10 minutes of game play.  I want it to be good one.  (I want to hit the monster.)  But I want the thrill of knowing I might fail.  Always hitting it, or never hitting it, or nearly enough, is just boring.

A curved dice result naturally fits these criteria, with the dice themselves pulling the result towards the middle of the range, while allowing the diminished possibility of extreme success or failure.  Percentile dice do not.

Now, a game designer could create a similar situation using percentile dice: just make sure the modified odds are between 40% and 80%, or whatever is the desired target range.  But here we run into the second problem -- differentiation. 

Players also like to have meaningful differences in their rolls and in the game statistics used to represent them.  They like to have characters with strong skills, weak skills, and medium skills.  In a wargame we want to have super tanks, mediocre tanks, and shitty tanks.  We also (usually) want to have modifiers, for easier or harder situations. 

Here again, I find a curved result more useful in design than a flat one.  3D6 - 3 or 3D6 +5 will have higher and lower average (mean) results, with the mode shifted to one side or another.  Large modifiers to flat percentage rolls will quickly knock the (mean) result out of the sweet spot altogether.  The target number is usually too low, or too high, or appropriate differentiation is just boringly small.  ("Oh, boy, my Firearms skill went from 66% to 68%! I'm the MAN!") *

So, that's why I don't like percentile based skill or combat systems.  Sorry, Call of Cthulhu, you are one of the great games of all time, but your skill system is terrible.

What, then, are percentile dice good for? 

I don't like them as a core mechanic, but I do like them for being able to set rough odds, and then immediately test them.  ("How likely is it for that Ogre to be at home when the players arrive at the cave.  It's dusk, so... 40% chance?  Roll it.")  Other than that, they are not my favorite instrument.

(In case you're wondering, I don't have the same problems with a D20 as I do with a D100.  A D20 is more roughly granular than a D100, having a smaller range of results, and, if you are adding whole numbers to it, modifiers seem psychologically significant while not breaking the scale easily.)

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Open Hand (Part I)

All arts have length and measure.

-- Johannes Liechtenauer

I'm considering how to make a melee combat system for roleplaying games that better simulates historical fencing.

For a few years, I've had a casual interest in the late medieval/renaissance fechtbucher and schools of combat.  These manuals describe the techniques used in civilian combat and duels: typically unarmored, with a one or two-handed sword, buckler or dagger.  Later books in the same genre describe fighting with early rapiers, again paired with an open hand or a secondary weapon.  Various modern teachers and organizations have reconstructed these techniques for sport and practice.   (If you're in Richmond, Salle Green offers a variety of courses.)

I have found the experience to be very different from the manner in which most roleplaying games depict these weapons and the experience of using them.

In games such as Dungeons and Dragons, or online games such as the Elder Scrolls, the various combatants are represented as having a measure of health.  Weapons are represented as having a range of damage.  The fighters proceed to whack at each other.  If hits are successful, "damage" is subtracted from "health" until one combatant is dead.  Winning a bout usually takes multiple blows on a foe, and no one seems to take significant impairing injury until they fall over dead.  Overall, the effect is like seeing two mounds of spam whittle away at each other with cheese graters.

Instead, I'd like to offer the following basic assumptions for a combat system:
  • Any weapon, with a proper strike, is potentially deadly. I'm tired of seeing roleplaying games in which weapons are rated entirely based on how big they are when clobbering someone.  Knives (typically the most pathetic weapon in an fantasy roleplaying game) are a dangerous weapon in real life.  Doubt me?  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDGHKyB3T_U)
  • A single, well-executed strike can potentially kill or incapacitate any opponent. Whether you are Andr'e the Giant or Steve Buschimi, a rapier-strike in the torso is deadly.  No matter how big and tough a person your may be, your liver is not especially better at repelling 6 inches of steel.So big tough strong characters should better resist minor injuries, but not so much lethal strikes.
  • The combat is a contest of skill (and luck),  positioning and reaction. Fencing is about timing and distance, attack and parry, and the geometry of the interaction of blades. 

Furthermore, I'd like my system to incorporate some general observations on Renaissance weaponry and the interactions between main-hand weapons and use of the off-hand, either open or with a dagger or buckler.

  • In most combat systems, a one-handed sword forms the basic teaching weapon.  In medieval systems, this was an arming sword which could either cut or thrust.  As we move into rapier combat, it becomes more and more a thrusting weapon, with an increasingly vestigial cutting capacity.  Much of the footwork remains similar, and less rigidly linear than modern fencing, as fencing would be in the round rather than on a piste.
Rapier. 17th century.  Wikipedia.

  • The off-hand was always an important element of combat, regardless of whether it was holding anything, and indeed, open or equipped it was put to similar uses.  Even an open hand can push a blade aside, grapple an opponent, or deliver a punch. Indeed, some techniques involve dropping a weapon at close range in order to better grapple. Many things were held in the off hand: daggers, bucklers, secondary swords, even lanterns or capes.  But their roles were all fundamentally similar. 
  • Grappling and throws.  Wikipedia

  • Most roleplaying games assume that the purpose of a secondary weapon is to make a second attack, and fighters with a sword and dagger are portrayed as super-chopping death-Cuisinarts (usually with a decreased chance of self defense). I' don't think this would be the case.  A fighter armed with a secondary dagger might stab with it, if he got in close, but he would be more likely to use the dagger to parry, and to control his foe in order to strike with his main weapon.  Indeed, the dagger's main use as a weapon (rather than a parry stick) would be inside the reach of a sword, in the same sort of way as a fighter with an empty hand might punch or grapple or strike with the pommel.
  • Sword and Buckler (late 13th century).  Wikipedia.
  • Likewise, most roleplaying games give a hefty defensive bonus to a shield.  This might be so with a large shield, but these were not often used in civilian combat of the period.  Instead, the more common implement would be a buckler, a shield about the size of large dinner-plate or a platter (for the big ones).  A buckler cannot protect one's entire side, but used actively it parries well.  Up close, it can be used to impede the opponent's blade movement, or you can punch them with it. 
    The two-handed longsword in different positions.  Wikipedia.
  • Two-handed swords(like a two-handed sword or a bastard sword) are fast, versatile weapons.  A typical Renaissance two-handed blade is about a foot longer than a one-handed sword, with maybe another half a foot more handle. The main hand holds the handle near the hilt and acts as a pivot, with the off-hand on the lower handle or pommel.  (Much like holding a baseball bat.)   This is one of the most satisfying of weapons to swing around, and it's one that I think most roleplaying games get completely wrong: most games give the weapon a bonus to damage, but lower defense or speed.  However, in my experience these swords are not especially heavy (only about 3 pounds max).  The may indeed strike with more force than a shorter weapon, but as I said above, I'm not sure how significant this would be, since even a smaller weapon is capable of a lethal blow.  Neither are two-handed swords slow or awkward -- they are quite capable of parrying, having an extra foot or 18" of steel with which to do so.   This compensates for not having a buckler or parrying dagger, and up close the pommel can deliver blows like the butt of a staff.  The greatest advantage of a two-handed sword is, in fact, one one that few rpgs address adequately -- range.  A two-handed sword can strike an opponent a pace or so farther away than a normal sword, meaning an opponent must enter its range before being able to make an attack of their own.  Incidentally, there is an even bigger two-handed sword, used to attack pike squares that's even bigger.  Such huge weapons are a bit awkward and might justify the rpg stereotype. 
Hitting someone in the face with the pommel of a 2-handed sword.  WIkipedia.

Next time: I will try my hand at modeling these assumptions in an rpg combat system.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Publishing Speed

Games Workshop released the Grey Knight Codex this week, only a month after the Space Wolf Codex and a Space Wolf supplement.  They are also pumping out the Sanctus Reach Campaign volumes.

These are all color hardback volumes, of a more or less standard size.

Overall, Games Workshop has been releasing books at an amazing rate for over a year now.  I'm assuming it is made possible by new digital publishing technologies. 

As readers will know, I think game companies should move to online rule and army books, but GW seems to be pursuing a vigorous strategy of many books, released frequently.  They are pretty expensive too, at 50$ each.

What does it mean for a game when even seriously devoted players cannot afford all the supplements, and thus cannot view the entire game environment?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Designing the Brutes

In Sabre and Raygun, the Brutes  desert nomads, gathered into varied tribes of different species and cultures.  The Brutes will be a horde army with weak shooting and strong melee.  I want players to build armies of Brutes from many different model ranges, with different sizes and designs of figures.  My test models have four arms and green skin, but this is by no means mandatory.

The Brute Force Book will introduce different Sizes of Brutes. The player will pick a Size category representing the majority species in their Force.  Their Core units will consist mostly of models of this Size. 

  • Small Brutes will be roughly human sized, and have no extra Toughness.
  • Brutes will be a bit larger than humans, and have Toughness 2. 
  • Large Brutes will be a lot larger than humans (think Ogre-sized) and have Toughness 3.

There may be other models mixed in here and there, representing other species in the tribe.  Support Units may be of any Size, representing allies.

The previous two force books featured Quality rankings for troops.  In the Colonies and Free Cities, units share a standard organization, but vary in their level of Skill and Leadership.  So Infantry or Cavalry may be untrained militia or elite veterans, based on the same list entry. 

The Brutes will use Quality differently than the Colonies or the Free Cities.  For the Brutes, Quality will largely be determined by the role troops play in the tribe.  Most tribes spend the majority of their time foraging or hunting.  They may have a retinue around their leader, but have no other standing army.  Most Brute combatants can be characterized as:

  • Unbloodied: The Unbloodied are young Brutes who have not yet tasted battle.  They will have Skill 1 and Leadership 4+.
  • Warrior:  Warriors are ordinary adult tribe members.  They will have Skill 2 and Leadership 3+.
  • Kinguard:  The Kinguard are a dedicated retinue of full-time fighters and nobles who accompany the leader and provide a core of leadership and striking power.  They will have Skill 3 and Leadership 3+.

Brute Units will typically have a fixed Quality rating, but a variable Size rating.  Most units will be rated as Warriors, and only a few will have the option of upgrading to Kinguard or downgrading to Unbloodied.

A typical Brute has a RoF 1/1/.5 rifle and a RoA of 3.  This means they are much deadlier in hand to hand than in shooting, and suffer little penalty for moving.  With a high average Leadership, they will be difficult to Suppress and will rally quickly.

As a Horde army, most Brute Units will be large, with a base size of 15 or 20 models, and the option to upgrade even larger, or to add Brutes of different sizes to the unit. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Thinking about Horde Armies

Some Brutes
I'm currently working on the alien Brutes' Force Book for Sabre and Raygun.  So I'm thinking about that classic wargaming army type, the horde army, and how different games represent it on the table top.

A horde army is a big, stompy army with generally poor shooting and a massive payoff if you can bring it close to the enemy.  Horde armies feature lot of models, usually with sub-standard guns and an emphasis on hand to hand combat. A horde army tends to have lower-quality troops, either less skilled, or poorly equipped.  Not every army with lots of figures necessarily a horde -- massive shooting armies, like the Imperial Guard, Lizardman Skinks, or Saga Welsh have their own, distinct design issues.

In Warhammer 40k, the classic horde armies are Orks and Tyranids.  In historical wargames, the horde armies feature warbands of enthusiastic but poorly-disciplined fighters like the Celts or the early Germans. In Flames of War, the Soviets are often a horde army.

Horde armies challenge the game-designer to properly balance the risk vs reward inherent in the horde philosophy. 

Horde armies tend to be very good in hand to hand combat, but poor in shooting.  So in most games involving a horde army, the horde will be trying to close distance with the enemy.  The opposing force will be trying to shoot it down. If the horde is too resilient then it will always reach combat range in force, and slaughter the enemy.  If it is too flimsy, then it will never be able to close successfully, and will tend to loose.  So it needs to have just the right level of attrition and durability. Moreover, the horde needs to have some flexibility, some other factor than just running and charging, if it's not to quickly become boring. If you've ever tried to set up a D-Day beach landing scenario, you'll know that these are difficult balances to reach.

The film Zulu has inspired countless wargame scenarios of dudes with guns vs dudes with spears.
In point-based games, the cost per model of a horde's basic trooper will largely determine whether this balance succeeds or fails.  Hordes need to be big, so model prices should be cheap.  Horde armies also tend to take lots of casualties, and models that die before reaching combat are largely important only for setting a ratio of attrition.  

Many games therefore give a point break to their horde armies.  For example, in Flames of War, Soviet units are both bigger and cheaper than comparable units in other armies. Other factors, such as special rules, offset this cost reduction.  The Horus Heresy lists take a similar approach, encouraging maximally-sized units by having a relatively-high initial cost for the unit's minimum size, but giving a reduced price for further models.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Thoughts on Malifaux

The game book.
My gaming group played a small game of Malifaux this week. 

Malifaux is a 28mm skirmish fantasy game with a Wild West theme.  Each side has around 6-8 models, on average.

Malifaux features some interesting game mechanics.

First of all, Malifaux does not use any dice.

Instead, it uses cards.  Whenever a player needs to generate a random number, they draw a card from their deck, which has Ace to 13 in each of four suites, and two Jokers.  The Black Joker is bad, and counts as a super-failure.  The Red Joker is good, and counts as a super-success.  Each numbered card is also marked "Weak," " Moderate" or " Severe" (based on its numerical value) for determining damage.   Players may have positive or negative modifiers to their draw; for example, having to draw two or more cards and take the lowest or highest card. Players also have a hand of cards, and can play cards from this hand to replace or augment their normal draw.  Hands are replenished and decks reshuffled every turn.

The models are attractive and come in several ranges.  I was playing flaming undead cowboy gunslingers.  My opponent had generically-Asian martial artists.

Fate Cards
Each model comes with a small card describing its stats and abilities, rather like Warmachine.  These are a handy reference, but have no game mechanical effect.  You neither shuffle nor play them.

Game turns are based on alternating activation.  Each movement and every attack, melee or ranged, is an actions.  Each player chooses a model, performs all its actions, and then the next player chooses a model and does the same.

Whenever a model attacks another, the attacker and defender each draw a card.  The model's statistic is added to the card's value to determine whether the attack exceeds the defense.   If the attack succeeds, then the attacker draws for damage Depending on the amount by which the attacker succeeds, they may draw two cards taking the lowest, one card, or two cards taking the highest.  They then do Weak, Moderate, or Severe damage based on the card.

There are several twists, however.  Players can " cheat"  by playing a card out of their hand, replacing the value.  So if you have a good hand, you can save its cards for your key maneuver.  Players can also (a few times a game based on tokens) play a card in addition to their draw, getting an extra boost.  The suites of cards also can have effects.  For example, for my models, a Ram suite card did extra damage.

Game play proved highly enjoyable, simple on the surface but with considerable depth.  I think a good game is one where the player is presented with interesting, meaningful choices each turn.  Malifaux certainly fulfills this expectation.  Optimal play requires tactical movement and several kinds of resource management.  As a player I had to consider whether to keep or play cards in my hand, and whether to flush or keep my hand, each turn.  The alternating movement required me to anticipate and prioritize each model's actions.  (At one point I rashly charged with a model, and watched it get hit by several other models in return, based on the action sequence and movement.)  Every model had several different capabilities, each good in different situations: I had to decide which one to use, and when.

Normally, I don't like games on the skirmish scale.  (" More death!  Give me more soldiers and more death!")  But I quite liked Malifaux, and look forward to the next game.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Monday, July 7, 2014

Stepped On By An Elephant: Experiences with Hail Caesar!

http://store.warlordgames.com/collections/hail-caesarA friend of mine hosted a game of Hail Caesar! the other night.  He's really into Greek and Persian ancient history, and we recreated the Battle of Cunaxa.  The war ended when my general, representing Cyrus the Younger was crushed by an elephant, bringing the rebellion to an end. 

I've been wanting to play Hail Caesar! for several years, but never really got around to it.  Hail Caesar! and its sister games, Pike and Shotte and Black Powdershare most of their core mechanics, and have several interesting features.

All three games are descended from the old Warmaster system, which was a 10mm fantasy system for the Warhammer world.  It was never really all that popular with GW players, and languished in Specialist Games purgatory before dying the final death.  There was also a Historical offshoot.  Rick Priestly seems to have kept on adapting it for personal games, in 28mm, and he and his cadre eventually released the results as this current range of games.  Or that's as best as I can gather.

Some thoughts:

  • Hail Caesar! is largely a game of general management.  Your force has one or more general models, each of whom command a division of your army.  They have a leadership rating of 5 to 10.  To issue a movement order to any of your units, the you must roll against the relevant general's leadership. If you succeed, they can move once, twice, or even three times, depending on how well you roll.  If you fail, then the unit just sits there.  Units can only take very simple and obvious moves without a general ordering them.  So much of the strategy of the game lies in deciding what are your top priorities each turn, and in what sequence to issue your orders.  In play I found this actually pretty interesting.
  • The combat mechanics are relatively simple.  In shooting or melee, you roll a bunch of dice determined by the relevant characteristics: clash melee, extended melee, long range shooting, and short range shooting.  Clash melee is for the turn you charge or are charged.  Extended melee is for any subsequent turns.  So some troops are better when they charge, and others are better in drawn-out conflicts.  Long range shooting is pretty self-exploratory.  The short ranged value is also used when a unit supports its friends to either side or in front of it in a battle line.  All units have a morale save, and a kind of hit points, of which bigger, tougher units have more.  Between the basic mechanics and a few special rules, there seems to be a reasonable amount of depth to the combat system.  (One problem with Warmaster was that all fights quickly started to seem the same...)
  • As units take wounds, they can suffer from three different kinds of woe.  They can be shaken, having so much attrition that they fight ineffectively.  With enough hits, they can be destroyed outright.  And sometimes, they can be disordered, a temporary condition from which they recover on the next turn. There is also a chart, on which a losing unit must roll.  This provides extra effects such as being forced to withdraw.  I don't normally like charts, but this one seems a necessary part of the overall game flavor, forcing units to react in different ways to damage.
  • Hail Caesar! is a game of units, not models.  Each unit has statistics. When it takes damage, you do not need to remove dead models.  Just mark it with tokens or a die.  Bigger units have better statistics, more attacks, and more hit points.  The depth of a unit does not much matter, only its frontage.  I love, love, love this aspect of Hail Caesar!  (In other games, like WFB, I hate having to count out the right number of models, fit them onto a tray, take them off again, and so forth.)

So anyway, it was good to finally play the game.  I'll be interested to see how much depth it has on repeated games, but I think it looks fun. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Tanks and Infantry

A plumed enemy solider darted across Freidrich's field of vision, hazy through the thick glass of the vision block.  He reversed desperately, feeling the treats slip and spin in mud or blood or water.  A clattering roar filled the compartment as Willie, sweating, worked the loader's hull machinegun from side to side. Above him, half-seen, Jans fired the turret self-defense gun in short, measured bursts.  Muffled screaming sounded from outside, and an alarming banging resounded against the side of the tank.  Did the enemy have bombs?  Friedrich wondered desperately?  The tank's rotation brought the enemy solider into view again.  The strange Roman-looking soldier knelt, and in both hands he hefted a heavy triangular weapon Friedrich had come to fear and loathe.

" Grenade!"  he screamed, and then the compartment exploded with smoke and fire and shrapnel.

A Light Tank and its escorting infantry.
The mathematical relationship between Tanks and Infantry constitutes one of the most important balances in Sabre and Raygun.  Infantry should be rightly terrified of tanks, with their armored hides, bristling weapons, and terrifying crushing weight.  But tanks should also fear infantry, who can make great use of terrain and assault the nearly-blind flanks and tops of a vehicle if they get too close.  Mathematically, tanks should have a fearsome damage output, but suffer a significant chance of being destroyed in Assault Fire and Melee with infantry.

In Sabre and Raygun, the players have choices with their vehicles and must decide how aggressively they wish to field them.  First, they must decide whether to Button or Unbutton their tanks -- that is, whether to run them with hatches open and the crew scouting for threats, or closed, protecting the crew but reducing visibility.  Unbuttoned tanks shoot more effectively, but are vulnerable to small-arms fire.  Second, the player must decide how close to the enemy they wish to drive.  The machine guns and cannon of a Tank are most effective in Assault Fire distance, where all models suffer from reduced Cover Saves.  However, at such a close range, Tanks are more vulnerable to enemy weapons, and are in Melee distance.  Tanks do not like Melee at all, where they are liable to be rudely destroyed by enemy grenades, firebombs, or other improvised attacks. 

Let us examine the threats and advantages Tanks face at difference distances.

Shooting Distance

If the Tank is over 6" from the enemy, it will fire at the enemy with normal Shooting Phase rules. 
 At this distance, all enemy models receive their normal Base Cover Save of 3+ (or 5+ for vehicles).  This may be modified for Soft or Heavy Cover.  The Tank will tank a long time to kill enemy infantry at this distance, but it will do so pretty reliably with its main gun firing high explosive.  Doctrines may help it to target and destroy threatening enemy models, such as guns or grenade launchers.

At this distance, the Tank will be very hard to kill.  All shots will likely hit its formidable Front Armor.  If it is Buttoned, it will be invulnerable to small arms.  Even Unbuttoned, it will probably out-range most normal infantry weapons, leaving it vulnerable only to long-ranged heavy machine-guns or other weapons. If a weapon rolls a 6 to-Wound, followed by another 6, it will Stun the tank regardless of AT value.

Assault Fire Distance

A Medium tank in the Assault Fire phase.
If the Tank is within 6" of the enemy, both sides will fire simultaneously.  Both sides will suffer reduced Base Cover Saves of 5+ for infantry, and no save at all for Vehicles.  A Tank at this distance can easily slaughter enemy infantry with its machine-guns and cannon.  (For you FoW players, consider this equivalent to a FoW assault phase.)

However, the Tank is potentially more vulnerable, too. All shots will hit its weaker Other Armor.  Weaker AT guns become much more dangerous at this range, and, since both sides fire simultaneously, the Tank cannot count on destroying them before they can act.  Moreover, all small arms have a minimal chance of hurting the tank.  If a weapon rolls a 6 to-Wound, followed by another 6, it will Stun the tank regardless of AT value. 

A Tank close enough for Assault Fire is also close enough for Melee.  It had better hope that it Suppresses or destroys any enemy before they can Charge.


Squish! Bang!
Tanks do not like Melee.  Infantry may fear being crushed beneath its mighty treads, but from a tank's perspective, if it is close enough to squash someone under its treads, it is in a deadly precarious position.  Tanks in Melee can be hurt by any weapon.  Unbuttoned Tanks, or Stunned Tanks, hit in Melee are automatically destroyed.  (It is assumed that the enemy kills or captures the crew.)  Buttoned Tanks suffer from double-sixes.  If a weapon rolls a 6 to-Wound, followed by another 6, it will Destroy the tank regardless of AT value.

Tanks in Melee are reduced to trying to crush opponents -- which they may do at a low rate of Attacks.  Should they survive, they are well-advised to back away from combat, which they may do freely.