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...