My blog about my wargaming activities. I collect a lot of 15mm miniatures for the American War of Independence and so collect a lot of rules for this period. I started miniatures with Napoleonics, so I have a number of armies in 6mm and 15mm figures for skirmishing. I have15mm WW II figures that I use for Flames of War, Memoir '44, and someday, Poor Bloody Infantry. Finally there is my on-again, off-again relationship with paper soldiers that I sometimes write about.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Smoothing out Activations in Ganesha Games' Games

As anyone who has read my blog for a little while knows, I do like the Song of Blades and Heroes (SoBH) engine put out by Ganesha Games. The Yahoo forum has had a bit of traffic of late talking about scaling up the engine so people can use more toys. Always a good idea.

One thing that Sergio Laliscia did to advance the franchise was, in the Sixty-One Sixty-Five rules, to shift the activation roll from the individual to the squad (about four to ten figures, depending upon options) and having all orders be implied group orders. This allows you to avoid the "roll for the leader, who gives an order to the group, who then rolls..." cycle and reduce it down to one. The leader becomes a part of the group, just as I was advocating in my earlier blog entry (some say "rant") on Flying Lead. (See the first section, "Leaders don't lead, they order people about".) I think that one change is what enamored me to Sixty-One Sixty-Five the most.

So, I was thinking about how to scale this up further. Sergio has been working on Song of Drums and Shakos Large Battles and Drums and Shakos Battalion Level and in an exchange it seems he and I are thinking the same thing: each figure represents more than a single man, but the rules play as if the figure were a single man. This has been a successful model for more than 20 years as The Sword and the Flame (TSATF) uses that same sort of abstraction and, in my opinion, so do the rules in the Warhammer franchise. This blog entry is about activation methods for using units rather than individual men running around separately.

One of the experiments I was pondering was whether you could find a way of smoothing out activations while still retaining the core tactical decision provided by the SoBH engine? First off, what do I mean by "smoothing out activations" and "core tactical decision"?

Currently the activation model is that only side acts until they have completed all units' actions, or fail prematurely. This leads to what Wally Simon used to call "gotcha' gaming". The IGO UGO model allows you to move your units forward into range, strike a blow at the opponent, and eliminate him, all before he can act. This often leads to a game of two people cautiously approaching one another until one side makes a mistake (or gets bored) and the other springs forward and it's "GOTCHA'". To smooth out the model you either give a player some mechanism to interrupt their opponent's action and react to the move before the blow can fall, or you develop a means where the attacker can only spring the trap with limited numbers. Examples of the former method would be the "Overwatch" rule in Flying Lead; examples of the latter would be the card activation method of most Too Fat Lardies (TFL) rules.

The core tactical decision of the SoBH engine has always been the choice of whether to roll 1, 2, or 3 dice to activate, altering your odds of turning over and ending the turn prematurely, leaving you with some units that will not get to move.

A recent discussion on the Yahoo forum surrounded the idea of a new ability that allowed a figure to interrupt an opponent's turn and execute their own actions. As many people pointed out, if the reacting character rolls dice for activation, why would they roll anything other than three dice? Because you are interrupting the opponent, you have no chance of turning over, so there is no risk to you. It was when I read this that I started thinking about how you could try and introduce risk in this situation. Specifically, how could you penalize the interrupting figure if they rolled a turnover?

The simplest method was that if the reacting figure turned over, the player lost their next turn (i.e. the acting player that was interrupted would get to finish their turn and when they turned over, they would immediately start another turn). This would be a powerful incentive not to roll too many dice when reacting. Probably too powerful, as the interrupted player could now start acting recklessly, knowing that they still had another turn before their opponent could act.

Another method is to penalize the interrupting figure by having it forfeit its next turn if it turned over while reacting. This is probably too weak, as the reacting figure should probably not be allowed to act the next turn anyway as it acted out of turn. But simply penalizing it by not being allowed to act is not penalty enough for it not to risk throwing three dice all of the time.

Rather than try and solve that problem, I started thinking about how TFL rules handle activation. Most of their rules have you place one card into a deck for each unit, and usually some additional cards to spice up the action, and finally a 'reshuffle' card that ends the turn prematurely. Thus, the deck drives the order that units act, removing the tactical decision from the player, and denies players the ability to act will all units based on when the reshuffle card appears. TSATF alters this method slightly by using a standard playing card deck and simply designating one side as 'red' and one as 'black', allowing the player to choose which unit to activate next.

So, taking those two ideas in combination - using a card deck to determine which side acts with one unit next and failures carry over to the next turn - you might have an interesting experiment. The idea is to allow each side to react more quickly to enemy events while still presenting consequences for failures in activation. That way you increase the tactical choices a player has to make - which units will act and which will remain in reserve to react - while still penalizing players who take greater risks and fail.

So, take a standard playing card deck and some markers - one for each unit - and play a game of Sixty-One Sixty-Five (or modified rules for Song of Drums and Shakos to account for units) and designate one side as black and one as red. When a side's card is drawn, designate a unit to be activated. Obviously that unit cannot already have been activated that turn, just as with the normal SoBH engine rules. The player has a choice of 1, 2, or 3 activation dice, as normal. If the player does not turn over, and after the unit has completed its actions, place the marker behind the unit, indicating that it has activated for the turn. If the player does turn over, and after the unit has completed its action, if any, place the marker in front of the unit. (For aesthetics you might consider a pile of rocks on a base as the marker.)

When all units on both sides have been activated (have a marker either in front or behind them), perform the following steps:

  1. Remove all markers that are behind units.
  2. Move all markers in front of units to behind the units.
  3. Shuffle the discard pile into the remainder of the deck.
  4. Start the next turn.
Note that by moving the markers from front to back those units with a marker in front, i.e. those that had turned over, they miss their next turn as they are already marked as having moved that turn when the new turn starts.

So, by using a card deck we randomize the order in which the players have to act. This adds another tactical decision for players while simultaneously lowering the GOTCHA' factor of IGO UGO. (If you don't want to introduce a random element, or another game device like playing cards, simply alternate between players, each activating one unit at a time.) By tagging the unit that turned over, we penalize aggressive, risky play (or at least that play which fails), but penalize the unit that made the play, not the rest of the force. Finally, if you want to add one more random element, you can add a Joker to the deck. When the Joker is drawn the turn ends, regardless of whether all units on both sides have moved.

Note that the use of cards is recommended for multi-player games, so this is not a totally new game device for Ganesha Games' games.

I think I am going to grab some miniatures this weekend and give this a try. Let me know if you do.

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Huachuca City, Arizona, United States
I am 50 yrs old now. I bought a house in Huachuca City, AZ (although I have a townhouse in Houston, TX and a small home in Tucson, AZ) working on a contract for "the next two years" that is going on five years now. To while away the hours I like to wargame -- with wooden, lead, and sometimes paper miniatures -- usually solo. Although I am a 'rules junkie', I almost always use rules of my own (I like to build upon others' ideas, but it seems like there is always something "missing" or "wrong").