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.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Special Abilities versus Standard Rules

News from the Rear

As my gaming buddy has been traveling, and Easter forced us to take a break, I have been mostly learning new rules, thinking about my own game designs, and playing some solo games. Playing board games online over Vassal has kind of cooled off. I think everyone had such a system shock from concentrated BattleLore gaming that it has affected the other online tournaments. Of the players in the BattleLore tournament with me some are in a Command and Colors: Napoleonics tournament (I think there were two running at the same time), a Samurai Battles tournament, and possibly a Battle Cry tournament. We are trying to get a second BattleLore tournament going, but it has not made yet. I have so many things on my plate that I may just drop my name from the list.

So what have I been doing? Reading a lot of forums and Yahoo groups, and generally wasting time. Oh, and trying to figure out what makes Munchkin such a wildly successful game. It is not the puns and inside humor. It is … well, that is what this blog post is about. Not all about Munchkin, but about a trend in game designs.

In the Beginning …

If you look at 'Old School' rules – and I am talking Featherstone, Grant, Bath, and Lawson here – you will find very generic mechanics. Both sides basically fight the same, or rather the units types on each side fight the same. Grenadiers fight like 'Grenadiers', whether Austrian or Prussian. The rules were more about unit types and morale than about who they were fighting for. The difference between two sides were in the composition of the armies … well unless one of those sides were British of course. Then the British would have a +1 (in everything).

… and Then There Were …

Next came 'National Characteristics'. This is what happens when you start adding those "+1 because they are British" rules. It was also how game designers started adding 'period flavor'. I really got started with a set of rules from this era. It was called Column, Line, and Square and it was a tome on Napoleonics wargaming that still had Old School elements – artillery bounce sticks, canister patterns, and burst templates – but included loads of rules on National Characteristics (which, if I recall correctly, was what the rules section was called). Militia Light Cavalry with lances were poor troops, but Cossacks, well that is a different story.

In the end, what all of these National Characteristics did was to add more exceptions to the rules, and almost always in the form of a die roll modifier that you had to remember. I hesitate to use the word complexity – a term which is over-used on the forums – as there is really nothing hard to understand about the resulting rules. It just gets harder to memorize all of the exceptions and all those modifiers tend to make combat resolution take longer.

Don't get me wrong, I revelled in the detail when I was young. Something about the way young boy's mind work, I suppose, but now that I am older, I find that those details are annoying and bothersome – probably because I cannot always remember them.

Today, you see the same sort of rules, only now they are called 'faction rules' or 'special unit abilities'. I think this is one of the reasons I gave up on Flames of War; you had to remember which units had the special traits, find the rules for it, and remember how to apply it correctly. You could not simply play the rules. Contrast that to Memoir '44 – at least the base game1 – where infantry is infantry. You roll 3, 2, or 1 battle die based on the range to the target. Your chance of hitting is built into the die itself. Simple and clear.

So, if you have been following for a while you might be thinking "but what about Saga?" I think Don said it best after our first game: the great thing about Saga is that the special rules are all written right there on the battle board. Once you memorize the basics, all the special stuff is easily accessible.

Which Brings us to Munchkin

So, how does my playing Munchkin bring all of this on. Well Munchkin has few basic rules. Basically five small pages in large type, and that is including the puns and jokes. (Yes, even the rules have puns and jokes in them.) Once you learn those rules, you are set. If you buy another base set – Munchkin Fu for martial arts action, Star Munchkin for science fiction action, etc. – you might learn an additional rule or two, but the core rules are exactly the same. Where the differences lie, and why you buy the expansions, are in the special rules embedded in the cards.

But, just as with Saga, it is finding a set of abilities, in combination with a move or an attack, that sets the players apart. The ability to envision a combination three moves ahead, and plan for pulling it off, or recognizing when the stars align and the time is ripe, is how you tend to play. In a way it reminds me a little of chess, when I was a kid. You read books about chess moves, openings, gambits; really about patterns to recognize. When the pattern emerged, there was a series of moves to make to exploit that pattern. Of course, it is a little more complex than that (and it shows you why I was never a great chess player), but that was the basic idea behind being a better chess player when you were starting out. But it was really about memorization of patterns.

As I get older, and my memory goes, I cannot hold as many rules in my head and I cannot remember as manner patterns to exploit. But, I definitely like it when my core rules are simple, and my special rules are spelled out on little cards in front of me. How about you?

1 Even Memoir '44 has started going this route. The Japanese have their special rules, as do the British, and then there are Elites, Ski troops, snipers, etc. Of course, you don't have to add all of that at once and there are loads of scenario to play that just use the basics.


  1. I hear where you're coming from. I often talk about 'rules fatigue'. I prefer to know one core set of rules, and then plug in a few 'special rules' for period flavour. C+C is a great example; I would tout Ganesha Games' Songs system for skirmishes. I just can't recall all the differences between rule sets, let alone unit special rules- I just want to play a game!

  2. How about a combination, like Barks mentioned? A core set of rules and a few special abilities.

    One of the things I like about Armati is it does not have many special rules at all. A friend I I play about 1-2 games per year over the last 12 years and he is not a miniatures gamer. And the rules come back very easily. It is a bit like chess - there are some core rules and a few special abilities (e.g. en passant, castling). I do like rules that have a few special abilities but when it goes crazy, I am with you - it all becomes a bit too hard. Lots of exceptions to rules is just as bad - I prefer special abilities to exceptions (and yes, they may be the same thing, just I find them easier to be associated with the unit type than the action).

    It is likely your fun factor is longer longer tied to all those different combinations - you prefer the strategy to the tactics. Maybe. Or maybe it is more that you prefer to game than having to juggle all those rules in your head.

    Or maybe it is as you say, and you are just getting old :-)

  3. Sometimes less is more. I think also bloated rules tend to encourage gotcha rules lawyer-ing and tournament gaminess. I have really gotten into Munchkin of late after subscribing to Munchkinland. I even got the whle family to play and my wife begrudgingly admitted it was fun.

  4. Dale, I went through a similar evolution. In my early twenties, I enjoyed large and complicated games. I also would learn and play the latest Strategy & Tactics or Wargamer game upon each release. Even today, in my mid-fifties, I still enjoy large and complex boardgames ( Gamers' OCS, CWB) but at a much reduced frequency. I tend towards series rules (exactly for the reasons you state) and wouldn't consider learning a new rules' system on a bimonthly basis as I did when younger.

    Long gone are the days of multi-day miniatures games. My taste in miniature rules has definitely evolved towards the less complex. My hunch is that young gamers associate realism with complexity. Only later does one realize that same level of realism can be accomplished by data reduction techniques and abstraction. This evolution likely boils down to the central argument of either "designing for cause" or "designing for effect."

    To answer your original question, I do prefer simple rules' mechanisms with chrome layered on top. I prefer simple but not simplistic and am firmly in the design for effect camp.

  5. This is a great topic. I think an overabundance of special rules and chromey abilities on a unit/faction/type is something that plagues a lot of wargames nowadays. The reason why I think this is a bad thing is that it pushes gameplay into a direction that I personally think is the complete opposite of what makes tabletop gaming (and actually almost all gaming) enjoyable: less choices and more rules following.

    I remember playing some games where I was bored to tears because of the limited choices I as a player had. Games that had very little in terms of play other than "move these units here, then shoot with them at those obvious targets, then fight in melee. Rinse and repeat".

    My personal belief is that a game succeeds when the crux of its gameplay revolves around one or two key mechanics that challenge the player with choices. Games with complex basic rules or tons of special rules can be irritating because they force a player into predefined ways of playing a game while also increasing the mental workload (and often bookkeeping too).

    The most fun games I've played are those that are built on simple basic rules that revolve around some kind of key dynamic that challenges a player's decision making, whether it's to do with outmaneuvering your opponent (e.g. De Bellis Antiquitatis), risk management (SoBH activation rolls), resource management/allocation (dice pools in various games), or something else.

    I think special rules can be great for adding a bit of spice and encouraging player's to tinker with ways of altering their gameplay, but the real meat of the game has to be there and be potent enough to stand on its own. I remember when I played Warhammer 40k a lot, I eventually quit because I felt like if you took away all the game's special rules, there was nothing left except a series of very obvious choices for me as the player to make while rolling awful amounts of dice and moving my models directly forward every turn.

    Okay I'm getting carried away now ahaha.

  6. Special rules, don't ya just love 'em. A little change here that adds some character to a few special figures in the warband: Robin the keen shot, John the tough fighter.
    They're the difference between a bland game of die rolling and a game that leaves you with a memorable tape.

    Special rules, don't ya just hate 'em. A 12 page supplement listing them all, and 3 specials for every player. It's so difficult to remember, and nobody thought of the combination effects. Do you remember when that guy combined "extra range", "unlimited firepower" and "Flamethrower" and destroyed your entire warband before you even got to move.


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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").