Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Thoughts on Saga and Casual Gaming

Arrr!  Who's winning?
Some friends of mine and I played Saga the other night.  None of us were terribly familiar with the rules.  I'd played a few games.  So had one of the other players.  But we still had to look up basic rules mechanics.  This was an interesting change of pace from Flames of War or 40k where the game rules are just ground into my bones, and most games involve pushing them for maximum benefit.

Saga is quite an interesting game: each faction is described by a "battle board" of abilities.  The players use a special set of dice to generate resources that activate these powers.  Unlike other game, where you can calculate the balance of power mathematically, by comparing game statistics and point costs, in Saga the balance of the factions depends on whether the battle board abilities of each faction are roughly as powerful as each other.  I have not played enough games to form any kind of conclusion about what's the best faction, or whether any of them noticeably stand out from the others.  I just play Vikings, because, well, I like Vikings.

This made me realize that games can (and should) be fun at all stages of learning and mastery, and part of the joy is just pushing painted figures around the table.  Indeed, this is the core element of wargaming, existing above or below whether the rules are actually any good or not.  (A humbling thought.) 

I'm not sure what the moral is.

Still writing the Free Martians book.  

Monday, February 17, 2014


I'm currently writing the Free Martian Force Book.  The Free Martians are a bit different than the Colonists; although both armies are humans, the Free Martians have more of a swashbuckling, space-fantasy feel.  They use more personal armor than the Colonists, too, making them the first army to make significant use of Special Characteristics on each figure.  They will be a smaller, more elite force than the Colonists, too.

Anyway, write, write, write.  I need to write.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

How Do You Put a Number on That? (Part Two)

In my last installment, I talked about the process of setting game statistics.  In this part, I will move onto the much more complicated question of how to set point values.  A bring-and-battle wargame like Warhammer 40k or Flames of War pretty much lives or dies based on its point balance.  No player wants to collect and assemble a force, then find it grossly outmatched on the tabletop because game units are over- or undercosted.

It's easy enough to complain about this or that unit's cost in an established game.  But how do you know how much things should cost you're building a game completely from scratch?

Here's my journey so far though that vexed country.

Why have Points?

My first decision was whether to have points at all.  A pure sandbox game could probably do without them: look at games like Hail Caesar! or Black Powder. In most gaming groups, players know their collections and can balance forces and scenarios by eye without too much trouble.

Still, I decided I wanted points.  I want my game to be a bring and battle game, where players can show up with a list and play a stranger.  Plus, I also know that players derive a lot of pleasure in choosing a list, building models for it, and tinkering with different combinations.  Why take that away from them?


So, once I decided to have points, I needed to decide on a scale.  How much will an average model cost in points?  How many points will be in a typical army overall?

Warhammer Fantasy, Warhammer 40k, and Flames of War all have a pretty similar point scale.  1500 is on the lower side of average.  2000 is pretty large.  Anything under 1500 is small, and anything under 1000 is possibly unplayable because you can't cover all the bases in your list.

But this scale is more or less arbitrary.  A unit could cost 1 point instead of 100, and an army could be set at 15 or 20 point value.  A higher scale has the virtue of greater differentiation between units.  It is easier to reflect a slight advantage, with say a 160 point vs a 150 point unit.  If a typical unit was 3 points, the difference between a 3 point and a 4 point unit would be just massive.  So if I'm going to have lots of fiddly options and details, like different options for guns, armor and support weapons, I'm going to want a relatively large set of integers to mess with.

I decided that to set a very simple metric.  An average dude would cost 10 points.  By average, I meant a Skill 2/2 infantry model with no Special Characteristics, a range 24", RoF2 gun, and RoA 1 in Melee.

What's it Worth?

I then decided to create a standard formula in Excel.  I could plug in all the factors of a model, and have it give me a value. Now, I know I'm almost certainly going to have to adjust this formula as I playtest.  I may have to individually modify the point costs of various units manually, to reflect some special problem.  But at least having a formula gives me a place to start, a beginning point on the hermeneutic cycle.

And if I design the formula well, I may not have to tweak it all that much down the line.  Maybe.  Yeah.

So what's my formula?

I decided that a model is valuable on the table top based on several factors:

Durability:  How hard it is to kill.
Shooting:  How well it kills things at a distance.
Assault:  How well it kills things in melee.
Leadership:  In my game, Leadership keeps a model on the table, keeps it active rather than suppressed, and also activates its Doctrines.
Mobility:  A model that moves faster or more nimbly is overall better than one that is slow.

My formula rates all these variables as a 1 for standard infantry models.  As they get better, the number increases.  As they get worse, it decreases.

The basic formula is (Durability+Shooting+Assault)(1/3)(Leadership)(Mobility).

So Leadership and Mobility are multiplicitive of the whole, whereas the other factors are additive, and increase the point value more slowly. 

11 Herbs and Spices

You can find my special recipe posted to my rules page here.  The spreadsheet has all the current calculations I used to produce the Colonist army book. 

I suspect none of you except maybe the Riha (do you even read this blog, Eric?) will really enjoy a guided tour through the numbers, so I'll summarize:

Durability is based on a combination of Shooting Skill, Melee Skill, Armor, Vehicle Armor, Toughness. Shooting is based on a combination of Shooting Skill, Range, RoF, and Weapon Special Characteristics. Assault is based on Melee Skill, RoA and Special Characteristics.

An increase in skill affects various parts of the formula: both offense and defense.  Shooting value increases the point cost more rapidly than Melee Skill, and a increased Shooting characteristics more rapidly than an increased Assault characteristics.  I figure models will shoot more than they fight in hand to hand.

Special Characteristics increase exponentially in value.  So a Characteristic of 1 isn't worth very much, but a 5 or a 6 is worth a lot.

I set Vehicle Armor, AT and HE to increase in cost more quickly than other characteristics, as I figure they will be more important in game play than other factors.  There are special rules protecting tanks against small-arm fire that do not similarly protect monsters, and just about everything benefits from cover or suffers from removing it!

Final Scale

The final resulting scale means that a squad of ten regular infantry, with an accompanying light machine-gun and an SMG will be about 130 points.  The same squad as veteran will cost about 160.  An elite version will be pricier yet, at around 210.  These should be gut-familiar to Flames of War players as around the same cost of roughly equivalent platoons in that game.  They are not too far off Warhammer 40k pricing either, for a good, better, and best quality squads there.

Since this is a platoon-level game, the final scale will end up with 500 points being a very small game, 750 being average-but-tight, and 1000 giving a reasonable selection.  This works out to about half the point value of an equivalent game in one of those other system. 

So now, to playtest.  Anyone want to help me out?

Monday, February 3, 2014

How Do You Put a Number on That?

I'm now writing complete Force books, which I intend to be ready to play.  That means every unit has to have statistics and a point value -- no more weaseling out of fixing an actual number to an actual unit!  So, the question becomes: how do I set all these values: the game statistics and the point values both?

Game Statisitics

Setting the game statistics was actually pretty easy.  I know more or less how tough or powerful I want each unit to be in the game, so setting its game statistics is largely a matter of expressing my idea in the mathematical language of the game system.  The rest of it is just logic and working out the implications.

For example, take Vehicle Armor ratings.  An Armored Vehicle needs to be immune to small-arms fire.  In game mechanical terms, this means that it needs to have a Vehicle Armor of at least 6. 

(In my system, the number needed to-Wound is 1 + the Special Characteristic protecting it - any opposing weapon's special Characteristics reducing it.  Since small arms are Anti-Tank 0, a VA 6 = 7+ to Wound.) 

Soft-skin vehicles, like trucks, should be hard to kill with small-arms.  So I set their Vehicle Armor at one less, at 5.  Small-arms will be hurting trucks on a 6+, that is, infrequently, but fairly reliably.  And soft-skin vehicles will die horribly to any real AT weapon.

Next, I need to set the Vehicle Armor values for actual tanks.   I decide I want to have three rating: Light, Medium, and Heavy.  This isn't a realistic game, where I actually care about historical armor plating, sloping, shaped charges, and so forth.  This is going to be a game with death-rays and giant monsters.  So my values should be whatever is convenient for play, not a treatise on armored warfare. 

I know that I want to have a little play between a minimally-armored vehicle (like a WW2 armored half-track transport) and the lightest tanks: a mathematical space into which I can fit vehicles less hefty than a light tank, but tougher than a mere transport.  For example, a heavy armored car.  So I set the Vehicle Armor of a Light Tank at 8 on the front.

Above this, there is a question of how much play I want in each category.  There's not much purpose in having a huge spread between Light, Medium, and Heavy.  I know I want Medium tanks to be mostly (but not quite) invulnerable to weapons that will kill a Light Tank, and Heavy tanks to be mostly (but not quite) invulnerable to weapons that will kill a Medium Tanks.  So I set Medium tanks at Vehicle Armor 10, and Heavy Tanks at Vehicle Armor 12.

I then want to create guns suitable for destroying each type: Light, Medium, and Heavy.  I decide that I want a gun designed to kill that type of tank to-Wound it on a 4+.  That means Light guns are AT 5, Medium guns are AT 7, and Heavy guns are AT 9.  It also means an AT gun can Wound the next size category up on a 6+.  That meets my definition of  "mostly (but not quite) invulnerable." 

So that's easy enough. 

Now certain statistics have given me trouble: for example, how powerful should an AT rocket like a bazooka be?  How Massive should an AT gun be?  But these are largely definitional problems.  How do imagine the rockets in this setting?  Or they are simple mathematical questions: how Tough are monsters going to be, and should AT guns be excellent or poor at killing them?  I do expect to adjust some of these numbers as I go along.

Next time, the zillion-dollar question: How do I set point values?