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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!

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