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REINVENTING TACTICAL WARGAMES: Game Design Blog for War Stories

War Stories is a squad level combat system that will offer a fresh new take for the genre of small unit tactical wargames. In this blog we will share our design process from initial concept to completed product. War Stories will be published by Conquistador Games in 2013 and was formerly known as Pocket Armies.

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Kickstarter Officially Launched!

Francisco Pizarro
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Just wanted to make a quick announcement that the Kickstarter project for War Stories: Red Storm and War Stories: Liberty Road has officially launched. Here's to another successful project and hopefully our best yet!

Francisco
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2 Comments
Fri Feb 22, 2013 11:09 pm
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The snowflake

Michael Tan
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I was curious to see if anybody would figure out what I think is the most exciting aspect of the map sections introduced in Dirk's previous blog entry - their shape. We call them snowflakes. We're considering one other option but what you see will likely be the actual shape of the map section you take out of the box. Why? Each snowflake interconnects with another snowflake 6 different ways. This is reproducible to infinity. In geometry, it's referred to as tessellation.


SNOWFLAKES TO INFINITY



The map pieces are double-sided and though not perfectly symmetrical, they also interlock several more ways when you connect an "A" side to a "B" side. With just 5 or 6 map pieces, you can create several thousand different unique maps. Sensibly place overlays for buildings, hills, and woods on the base maps and now you have several million different unique maps. The only real rate limiter is putting too many roads or rivers on the map. Even then, broken roads can be "fixed" by putting buildings where the road ends. In just the base game box for War Stories: Red Storm, you'll have the ability to make more Russian steppe maps than every module of ASL combined (and possibly every tactical game ever made - I dunno).

THREE DIFFERENT SNOWFLAKES TESSELLATED




SAME THREE SNOWFLAKES TESSELLATED DIFFERENTLY

The marketing guy at Conquistador jokingly yelled at Dirk and I because he said we killed the revenue stream for selling terrain packs and expansion maps. Buy War Stories: Liberty Road and you can build millions of snow and bocage maps. Buy War Stories: Rattenkrieg and you can build millions of urban maps. Buy War Stories: Desert Rats and you can build millions of desert maps. You get the point. In the next blog entry, Dirk will return to discussing buildings, hills, and roads.
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Fri Jan 25, 2013 2:25 am
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Moving from hexes to areas

Dirk Knemeyer
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I've long considered myself a "wargamer". I owned Squad Leader as an eight year old; I've played my fair share of "monster" wargames over the years. But despite calling myself a wargamer, and despite buying Case Blue and other wargames in recent years, I realized that it had been a long time since I had actually played a wargame more complex than Command and Colors: Ancients. Despite continuing to act like a wargamer in terms of identity and buying choices, I did not choose to spend my time playing wargames. Ever. At all.

Thinking about why, the world has just changed. In the gaming hobby, fast-playing Euro games have introduced mechanics and game structures that deliver a tight experience in what can be an order of magnitude less time than the wargames I used to play. In the broader world, the rise of the Internet has conditioned me to expect to wait mere seconds when jumping between very different content, games or other experiences. The pace of those games I used to love now seem glacial. Whereas I used to say "when I retire I'm going to break out World in Flames and have a great time!", now I find myself with no interest in those games. The world has changed and, as a result, so have I.

That was a long-winded way of leading into our mindset when designing map construction and unit movement in the War Stories system. The old tropes of tactical wargames that I know so well from years gone by - consulting movement ratings, applying terrain modifiers, and inching my units forward hex-by-hex - instinctively felt that it needed a reconsideration. Of course, that is easier said than done: the system was created by smart people because it worked.

In traditional tactical games, the least fun and most cumbersome part of the process is going from "game start" to "getting my units to the positions I really want them at, and/or being interrupted from doing so". Yet many scenarios in traditional games first require you to traverse thru relatively meaningless hexed terrain in order to reach your destination, or enter an opposing unit's field of fire. We wanted to cut that, what I would call "boring", part of the battle out.

In traditional tactical wargames, the hex is the base unit of measure. Along with the geometric benefits of hexes from a mapmaking and field of fire perspective, they also help to regulate both movement and firing range. Representing a particular distance, and each being further governed by the "terrain" that they represent, hexes allow a variety of complex rules to be layered on the action in relatively lightweight ways. The challenge, in innovating from the hex, was to preserve the benefits conferred by the shape into any new solution.

Three things were quickly obvious:

1. Maintaining hexes or a near 1-to-1 equivalent was important for regulating combat. Particularly at the scale we were planning - 50m "per hex" - this level of granularity was necessary to allow realistic battles and determining results across a wide variety of weaponry.

2. Our solution had the opportunity to take many factors previously governed by charts, map symbols and unit modifiers and bake them into the terrain solution itself.

3. Not only did movement not need to be regulated per the hex, it probably shouldn't be regulated per the hex from a realism and playability perspective.

So, we needed a new system for movement, that supported the old solution for combat, and also solved for the myriad of terrain modifiers and movement allowances at the same time. At its core, our solution is to replace hex-based movement with area-based movement. This accomplishes a few things:

- Have "areas" be varied in size and shape, each representing one "full" movement inclusive of terrain and other factors

- Enable units to get thru "irrelevant" terrain more quickly, clipping across entire areas as opposed to hex-by-hex

- Because there are substantially fewer "areas" on a scenario map than there would be "hexes" on a comparable map, we can integrate unique fog of war characteristics (these will be discussed in a subsequent article)

The way area movement works is pretty simple. Here is a plain, base "map section" for War Stories (all graphics are simply prototypes):



A plain, generic base map section is made up of seven "open ground" areas (indicated by the larger lines), each area made up of seven hexes. Open ground does not have to be seven hexes in size, but that is the "typical" open ground area. While that is the base for our map sections, in most cases the sections used in scenarios will already have other terrain built into them, like this:



Individual hexes remain recognizable - a requirement for measuring fire range - but the larger lines regulate movement. There are thus only eight areas for movement on this map section: the five "open ground" areas around the top, right and bottom edges, and the three fields in the center-left. The pond is impassable. If you are in one of these eight areas, to move to a different part of that same area, requires one of the two actions that a "ready" unit has. To leave your current area and enter an adjacent area on the shared side it is also one action. To leave your current area and cross the adjacent area, it costs both of your actions.



That's the extent of it. Units do not need movement ratings or allowances. The areas, by their very construction, regulate the correct uniform distance a unit should require to traverse that type of terrain. This allows us to also ignore terrain modifiers, as the terrain size and shape itself represents the modifier. It allows unit movement to shift from:

"This infantry is going to move. It has a base movement of 4. The first hex is open ground but after that it is trees. What is the modifier for trees? OK, so it will cost me three to cross the open ground and the first tree hex. Can I get into the next tree hex since I still have one point left, even though it costs two to move into trees? No, OK well I will stay there, then."

to

"This infantry is going to dash across this open ground and get to the edge of that field."

This prototype map section, like all of our pieces of base map terrain, only contains terrain that does not block line of sight. If it is on the map - if it is "flat" - then you know you can see or shoot over it. As such there is absolutely no need for a player aid or rulebook section to cover terrain. The map, in its essential state, communicates the movement regulation and line of sight.

So, what about trees and hills and buildings? Stay tuned...

PS [from Michael W. Tan] We'll post images that illustrate movement more clearly once we get the latest files from our artist Heiko.
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Thu Jan 24, 2013 3:59 am
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Co-designing the War Stories system

Dirk Knemeyer
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Working with Mike on the "War Stories" system has been an enjoyable process. I kind of liken it to being a father. Note that I chose the word "father" instead of "parent" very carefully. See, as a father, I have watched my wife do all of the hard work. The DNA of the final little one is ultimately about half mine, but the hard work and time was done in those cases by my wife or, in this case, by Mike. While the "father" sounds like pretty good work if you can get it, I do like being the final decision maker on my own designs. So, the process of compromising - and ultimately letting Mike make the final call in many cases when there is a conflict - is not necessarily a comfortable one. It has all been a learning process, but one I am surely enjoying.

Mike is a legitimate World War 2 expert. Whereas I have what I suspect is a "typical Grognard" level of knowledge about WW2, Mike knows more about the subject than any of my university professors. It is THE historical period that he cares about and studies. As such, the bulk of his historical research, game playing, and game design efforts have been focused on Sturm Europa on the grand strategic level, and now War Stories on the tactical.

When he and I first started working on this project together, he already had the old Pocket Armies system he showed in previous posts roughly conceptualized. He had done the heavy lifting around all of the equipment, from armor to guns to speed and more. He had concepts for it to live in mini-CRT's on cards. At that point we came together and collaborated pretty fully at a "making it real" creative direction and system design exercise. We would have long, working sessions, hacking thru major aspects of the game - designing cards and player aids one weekend, brainstorming events the next, talking about assets the next. In between, Mike would do the heavy lifting on the details, and I would work on my other games.



My role has been one of creative director and designer, whereas Mike has been more of the lead designer and engineer. Now, don't take that to mean Mike doesn't contribute to the big ideas; in the way we cooperate, he wears the hat of "this game is going to be chromed to the max" while I wear the hat of "this game is going to be as elegant and streamlined as possible". The consequence is that Mike's starting point is "I'm going to get everything they have in ASL into this game, but more elegantly" whereas mine is "This will play faster and easier than Axis & Allies Minis but with more chrome than Combat Commander and Conflict of Heroes". We both believe in what is motivating the other, we just each ultimately service a different primary end.



Those are VERY, VERY different mindsets. Mike is committed to heavy wargamers being shocked and delighted that (some arcane thing) is in a lighter game. I am committed to non-wargamers feeling like they are playing a wargame on their PS3, laughing and having fun with friends. In the design process, it lets me say things like "There cannot be more than three range bands on the result cards" and "There cannot be more than two modifiers to those range bands". Because I don't care what gets lost chrome-wise. I intuitively know that, within those constraints, we can play faster and with more detail than other games on the market, with a minimum of clumsiness. That leaves Mike to do the harder, and ultimately incredibly powerful, work of fitting all of the chrome that he knows will really get its hooks into serious wargamers into those constraints.

Now, of course not all of my sweeping declarations of what we "needed" to do proved possible. But from my perspective, we had to start on that end. It is about playability first, stretching it only so far as we are able in order to "chrome it up" to some minimum baseline level. Mike balances that by demanding that the constraints allow a certain level of chrome to always get in. Where we end up as a consequence is what we hope gamers will see as a pretty sweet balance.
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Wed Dec 26, 2012 7:35 pm
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The idea that changed everything.

Michael Tan
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The solution was to change the mechanic used for the random trial. Replace the dice roll with a draw from a deck of combat cards. This allowed me to create a different CRT on every card, each with a unique set of modifiers. Initially, I had no concept of the jaw dropping potential of this new mechanic. It started as a "container" for the stats I had to relocate from the unit cards. By the time I was done, it was an entirely new game that was superior to Pocket Armies in every way imaginable.

Dirk insisted on a simple and very easy to interpret combat card. We both knew it had to be much cleaner than my unit card design. As Dirk declared: "The card has to look like it was from a euro!". That meant a CRT with at most two columns and very few rows. Obviously one column had to list each possible combat result: Eliminated, Reduced, Suppressed, and No Effect. So that would mean a 2x4 chart. But what to put in the other column? Conventional wisdom would be firepower, but I chose range which turned out to be the better choice (I'll explain why later). I further decided that I could exclude the "No Effect" result so the card with only a 2x3 chart looked like this:



The above card reads "If the target is at range 0 it is eliminated, at range 1-3 hexes it is reduced, at range 4-6 hexes it is suppressed, and 7+ hexes no effect on target". As you'll notice with the forthcoming card examples, each has different range numbers. These haven't been chosen arbitrarily but engineered precisely for a very smooth distribution of results - in essence, the "dice roll". A bad draw is a card with very low numbers; a good draw is a card with very large numbers. I now had a system that eliminated range bands and the annoying step function that encourages "skulking". Each hex that you inch closer to your target gradually increases your odds of hitting - just like real life. This was a great starting point, but the next step was to figure out how to integrate all the other situational modifiers and that looked like this:



The newly added arrows above read "If the firer's firepower is +1 or higher, shift the result UP one row. If the target is 'in cover', shift the result DOWN one row". This was a HUGE breakthrough, but what about ultra-powerful weapons or really good cover? Sometimes one row shift isn't enough. So I added a double-row shifts that looked like this:



The above card reads "If the firer's firepower is +3 or higher, shift the result up TWO rows. If the target is 'fortified', shift the result down TWO rows". I knew I was really on to something and now was feeling downright giddy. What else could I jamb onto the cards? One thing I've always loved about video games is destructible terrain. Very few board games have it, because it's just too many extra steps for something that only happens occasionally. But not with with cards! I could add collateral damage such as rubble, blazes, dust, and asset damage with no extra work for the players. This is what the card looked like now:



The newly added icon reads "If the firer's firepower is +5 or higher, place a rubble marker if the target is in a bridge or building hex." Frackin' cool!!! Note that this sort of outlier result is reserved for very high firepower weapons such as 120 or 152mm guns. So you'll never rubble a masonry building with small arms. Another pattern you may notice is that all up arrows are for firepower and all down arrows are terrain or target related. As Dirk pointed out, people cognitively process information faster if it is presented in a consistent and predictable manner. Therefore we decided that bonuses (up arrows) are ALWAYS for the firer, and all penalties (down arrows) are ALWAYS target related. You'll never have to look in two places to find out how firepower or terrain affects your shot.

Next up, was to devise a dead simple system for resolving skill checks - i.e. random trials where unit quality is a significant factor. We call them VALOR tests and include such things as rallying, avoiding bog, spotting a hidden unit, or clearing an obstacle. This was added to the bottom of each card:



If you refer back to the sample block labels from my second blog entry, note that most blocks have national emblems behind the illustration. Those are valor medals and correspond as follows:

Conscripts: no medals.
Regular: one medal.
Veteran: two medals.
Elite: three medals.

To perform a VALOR test, draw a card and compare the number of medals on the unit to the number of medals on the card. If your unit has as many or more medals, you pass. If you have fewer, you fail. Simple as that. So with the card above, only an elite unit would pass. We've also added the occasional icon in the valor section for things such as "unreliable vehicles" - they sometimes fail regardless of the quality of the unit. Ex. An early Panther tank is very likely to encounter engine failure even with an elite crew.

The next issue was how to handle the differences between infantry and vehicles. For instance infantry are easier to hit when moving but vehicles are the exact opposite. They also have different damage results. It was clear to me that they warranted a separate deck. So now we have a "infantry deck" and a "vehicle deck". A vehicle card looks like this:



The possibilities are limitless. We've already got an "aircraft deck" in the works if you want infantry and tanks to battle helicopters. Frankly, I see nothing to prevent us from having a "cavalry deck", "spaceship deck", "aliens deck" or just about anything you could imagine...

To illustrate how powerful this mechanic is, I'll provide an example of the design choices I am able to make. We'll assume a deck of 50 cards to keep the math simple. I'll start with 10 fortified icons in the deck. That means that 20% of all attacks are basically nullified by fortified positions. If during playtesting I felt that wasn't enough, I might increase it to 12 icons (24%). If I felt it was too much, I might decrease it to 9 icons (18%). I'm able to create very precise modifiers yet the player does virtually no work. You can teach ANYBODY the combat system in 5 minutes.

So there you have it. The idea that changed everything...
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Wed Dec 26, 2012 6:13 am
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Back to the drawing board

Michael Tan
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Confident that the unit card was the solution to the elusive playabilty-realism conundrum, I plowed ahead. Dirk and I hammered out the basic game in a weekend, and for the next year and half I ran playtest after playtest making minor tweaks and incremental improvements with each revision. Pocket Armies was well received everywhere we ran a demo. Many were extremely impressed with the balance of playability and realism I had created, and that turned into steady pre-orders. The system was intuitive for them and "clicked" right away. With only a brief introduction to the core concepts they were off to the races.

But it wasn't universally praised like I had hoped. I could usually tell when I was losing a potential buyer. Some seemed to struggle with it no matter how straight forward I thought it was. Something was slightly amiss. Most sessions with veteran players played like speed ASL. We'd finish an entire scenario with a dozen units per side in under 90 minutes. But several sessions with newbies would take 3 hours and would fall apart before we even got halfway through. How could a game with an 8-page rulebook take sooo long? I had to figure out where the cognitive disconnect was...

I would query playtesters after every session, particularly if they seemed less than enthusiastic about the game. But nobody was able to pinpoint the issue. The problem was many people liked it, but they didn't love it. It's easy to explain to someone why you dislike a game, but much harder to explain why you only like a game but not love it. That's why we so often describe that great games have an "intangible" that separates it from the rest. Pocket Armies didn't have that "intangible".



Finally at a playtest at Origins, someone nailed it. They didn't articulate it precisely, but when I heard the comment in passing, I immediately realized it was the system's fatal flaw. The constant back and forth between the unit cards and game map, destroyed the visceral experience. People who played quickly and fluidly were very efficient at keeping the cards and units organized either in their mind or front of them. Those who couldn't, struggled even to figure out which unit or miniature corresponded to which card. The problem was compounded further if they couldn't visually identify WWII AFVs. As the number of units under their control increased, the problem grew exponentially. If they came strictly from the world of collectible miniatures gaming, the CRTs on the unit cards were overwhelming. Hardly the crossover game that would unite grogs and casual gamers as I had hoped...

On the excruciating drive home from Origins with my friend and co-designer Dirk Knemeyer, we brainstormed possible fixes. We talked about simplifying the cards, developing a better way of linking them to units on the map, but it was futile. I had invested hundreds of hours and I was certain the game was as good as the game mechanics allowed it to be. Pocket Armies suddenly felt like an abject failure and an evolutionary dead end. As basically an admission of defeat, I exclaimed "Unless we restrict it to a skirmish level game, the unit cards have got to go." Dirk replied (as is so typical of him) "DAMN it Tan. That's the answer!" I told him not to be ridiculous. He said "There has to be a way to move all those stats off the cards to somewhere else!" And that is Dirk's brilliance. He sees solutions when others see impossibility, even if he is unsure exactly how to get there. I'm a skeptic by nature but when he challenges me with an outlandish proclamation, somehow he inspires me to rise to the occasion. The dialog goes something like this:

DIRK: <Outrageous claim>.
MIKE: Impossible.
DIRK: No it's not.
MIKE: IMPOSSIBLE.
DIRK: NO IT'S NOT.
MIKE: Wait. <silence> Hold on. <silence> Maybe. <silence>. It might work...

What had eluded me the entire time was that the solution was not to process a massive list of dice modifiers in as little time as possible - that's the brute force approach. We have computers for that and it's just not practical for a board game. I had to "cheat" and find a way to get it done much more elegantly. Then it came to me - whenever a unit fires at another, no matter how massive the list of modifiers are for a game, only a handful actually apply. The vast majority are totally irrelevant. There had to be a mechanic that allowed a player to declare a target and roll dice without making a SINGLE calculation. Then concern himself with a VERY SHORT list of the modifiers that are only relevant for THAT situation. There was a mechanic but it did not involve dice at all...
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Wed Dec 26, 2012 2:26 am
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Our failed first attempt

Michael Tan
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Having identified the problem, I could now attack the problem. Introduce meaningful tactical decisions with as few dice modifiers as possible and create a damage system that doesn’t require multiple iterations of rolling dice, applying modifiers, and interpreting results. I wanted ONE base target number, ONE dice roll, ONE modifier, and ONE interpretation of results. Modifiers should encompass:

- Attacker’s Base Firepower
- Attacker’s Situational Firepower
- Defender’s Base Defense
- Defender’s Situational Defense
- Target Range
- Target Visibility
- Target Cover
- Vehicle Target Size

The first thing I recognized was that only using the Attacker’s Base Firepower to determine the base odds of hitting was a wasted opportunity. There had to be a method by which every attacker attribute could be integrated into a quick lookup. The traditional way of doing things would be something like this:

1) Lookup base firepower on counter.
2) Refer to player aid and determine which of the following modifier's apply:

Elite unit, +1
Conscript unit, -1
Aimed fire with basic optics, +1
Aimed fire with superior optics, +2
Veteran or elite unit performing opportunity fire, -1
Conscript or regular unit performing opportunity fire, -2
Performing opportunity fire with slow turret,-1
Performing opportunity fire with very slow turret,-2
Firing while moving (no gyrostabilizer) -3
Firing while moving (basic gyrostabilizer),-2
Firing while moving (advanced gyrostabilizer),-1
Range 0, +3
Range 1, +2
Range 2, +1
Range 3-4,+0
Range 5-8, -1
Range 9-16, -2
Beyond unit's effective range, -2

And this is not even considering terrain or the target. Too much!!! That was the genesis of the unit card. The notion was to have a customized chart on every card for each unit. Instead of modifying a unit’s base firepower with a lengthy list of situational and range based DMs, the card would do the “heavy lifting” for you. This is what the finished product looked like:

The chart allows the player to quickly lookup a "situational" firepower by cross referencing the unit's orders (aim, watch, sprint) and the target's range in hexes. For instance with the above unit, an aimed shot at range seven hexes has a firepower of "4". An opportunity shot (watch) at the same range has a firepower of "2". That lengthy list of dice modifiers I presented above are "baked" into this card. So I managed to combine range, situational firepower modifiers, and base firepower into a single lookup. That was a small victory. I still had to figure out what to do with base defense, situational defense, visibility, cover, and vehicle size.

Again the unit card was the answer. As mentioned previously, I established that all units would have two "hit points" i.e. they are full strength, reduced, or eliminated. The solve was to make the unit card double-sided. The front side had the full strength stats and the backside had the reduced strength stats. When reduced, simply flip the unit card over. "Soft" damage like suppression was handled by printing a "valor" stat on each unit card. Situational defense which if you recall is whether infantry were enfilade or defilade or if vehicles were moving or stationary, was also handled on the card. Infantry on "sprint" orders were easier to hit. Vehicles on "sprint" orders were harder to hit. Vehicle size was integrated into defense as well.

So there you have it. The unit card, with the exception of cover and visibility, combined every single attribute and modifier you needed into three quick lookup stats: firepower, defense, and valor. Pocket Armies now had NO dice modifiers except for cover and visibility. I was satisfied at the time. Looking back now, the unit card is incredibly busy, and quite intimidating for the non-wargamer. But it streamlined the process and is really quite elegant if you are STUCK in the CRT and "to hit" framework. And that's where I was...
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Tue Dec 25, 2012 5:45 pm
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Identifying the problem

Michael Tan
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So what is wrong with CRT and "to hit" systems? Why can’t they be realistic without slowing the pace down to a crawl? Let’s start by further examining the steps they employ. I alluded to them in my first blog entry but I’ll discuss in detail now:

1. Determine Base Firepower
2. Roll Dice
3. Apply Dice Modifiers
4. Interpret Results

Determine Base Firepower
In this step we determine the baseline odds of success of an attack. Or stated another way “all things being equal, how good is my unit at killing things?” For most tactical board games, this is determined very quickly by reading it off the counter. In miniatures games, it takes slightly longer as you must identify your piece then lookup a unit card or player aid. I can think of few games where this takes more than a few seconds. Therefore I will safely say this is not the culprit.

Roll Dice
In most games this actually takes almost no time at all. When people complain about a game that “takes forever to roll dice”, they really mean that the interpretation of the dice results is very time consuming. The notable exception being systems like Warhammer 40K, where the dice rolling DOES in fact take a long time. But in that case I suspect it was the designer’s intent to create a dice intensive experience. Some folks love rolling dice and those games appeal to them. But suffice to say, if a game designer wants this step to proceed quickly, it can be easily accomplished.

Apply Dice Modifiers
For me, this is the crux of a good tactical game. Glean an advantage by putting my units in a position with favorable dice modifiers, while preventing my opponent from doing the same. So this is where I felt time spent on game mechanics was well worth it - not looking up stats, not rolling dice, but rewarding superior tactical play. But the solution is also the problem. How many modifiers before it just becomes too much to deal with? Below is the terrain and movement chart for a typical tactical wargame. It's very straight forward and actually on the simpler side for the genre. Until a few months ago I was quite happy with it. But most boardgamers who have never played a tactical wargame would think its nuts! More on this later.



Interpret Results
This is the step that varies tremendously from one game to another. I’ll broadly classify this as the “how much damage did I do?” step. I’ve always felt this is where CRTs have an advantage over “to hit” systems. When you read a damage result from a chart, the designer can easily introduce qualitative results such as “suppressed”, “broken”, “immobilized”, or “crew injured” using only one dice roll. With “to hit” systems you are really limited to just a couple results, like “reduced” if you hit, “eliminated” if you hit by 3 or more, unless you add another subsystem. I’ve seen innovative solutions like the chit draw damage system in Conflict of Heroes, but I’ve also seen the other extreme. If the dice process is repeated too many times, the vast majority of playing time is spent interpreting results. If you roll to hit, roll for hit location, roll for damage, roll a saving throw, and then roll to rally, you’re repeating the four step process five times for one attack. Unless you intend the game to take all day, there just isn't room in each step for many dice modifiers that reward tactical play.

In my next blog entry, I discuss my first failed attempt at a solution...
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Mon Dec 24, 2012 8:17 pm
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Establishing the framework and first steps

Michael Tan
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When I set out to design a squad level tactical system, I had two stated goals:

1. Combine playability and realism at an unprecedented level.
2. Create a system that was universal for all eras from the ancient world to the far future (albeit an emphasis on WWII and modern).

Not very ambitious huh…

My first step was to comprehensively identify all modifiers that affect the odds of success when one unit attacks another. Then group them into categories as I recognized shared common characteristics. Some of this stuff may seem trivial and obvious, some of it not. This deconstruction process was essential for my stated goal because I wanted it to be comprehensive (realism) but with as few categories as possible and all modifiers within each category to be handled identically (playability). This is often my design approach: start with everything including the kitchen sink, then pare away, pare away until you are left with the bare essentials. This is what I came up with:

Attacker’s Base Firepower
These are all factors intrinsic to a unit that apply in all situations. They are immutable unless the unit suffers casualties. They include but are not limited to unit quality (skill, training, experience), quantity of weapons available, rate of fire, terminal ballistics (stopping power), and quality of sighting equipment. As with most other game systems, I concluded that two ratings printed on each unit were sufficient to differentiate all units at this scale: firepower and effective range. Combat with armored vehicles is a special case I solved with an additional attribute I will detail in a future blog entry.

Attacker’s Situational Firepower
These are all factors intrinsic to a unit but do not apply in all situations. They include but are not limited to: weapon length, weapon bulk, reload time, turret speed, crew size, turret design, firer movement, and aim time. As I was grouping these factors together I realized they were only significant when a unit had insufficient time to execute an ideal attack i.e. aim properly. Creating a lengthy list of modifiers for each situation was not acceptable if my goal was high playability. So I decided to simplify and abstract. I came up with one rating, essentially a fixed penalty, based on how each unit generally performed when it had insufficient prep time before firing. Ex. SMG units perform better in those situations than rifle units. Ex. Turreted AFVs perform better than those with fixed firing arcs. So now every unit had two firepower ratings: full firepower (ideal aimed fire) and opportunity firepower (snapshot, reactive fire, moving fire). Probably not granular enough for man-to-man or RPG combat but I was pleased with it for the squad level scale.


The block labels above depict World War II AFVs from Germany and the Soviet Union. The numbers from left to right are RANGE, FULL FIREPOWER, opportunity firepower, FULL MOVEMENT, and opportunity movement. Note that German tanks with well designed turrets and a dedicated commander have a smaller "snapshot" penalty than non-turreted designs or Soviet tanks with a commander that also served as part of the gun crew. This was a crucial "soft" factor than made German tank designs better than they otherwise appeared on paper.

Defender’s Base Defense
These are all factors intrinsic to a unit resisting damage in all situations once successfully attacked (hit). I made a few assumptions here for the sake of playability that not everyone may agree with. 1. It takes the same amount of firepower to kill an “elite” unit as a “green” unit. 2. The quality of units only manifests itself when one considers “soft” damage such as suppression, pinning, and loss of cohesion and morale. 3. The amount of firepower required to disable an unarmed vehicle is unaffected by its size (again armored vehicles are a special case I will detail in a future blog entry). These assumptions allowed me to more or less ignore "hit points" and focus on how unit quality determines how resistant it is to “soft” damage. And I cannot stress enough the importance of suppressive fire in modern combat. I rated units by quality (conscript, regular, veteran, or elite) and size (squad or team). By creating multiple levels of unit quality, I was able to place great emphasis on suppression and the loss of morale in War Stories. As for "hit points", all squads are downgraded to teams when "reduced”, and all teams are eliminated when “reduced”. Likewise all vehicles have two states (three if you count eliminated) - full strength and reduced.

Defender’s Situational Defense
These are all factors intrinsic to a unit resisting damage but do not apply in all situations. They include but are not limited to awareness of the attacker, posture (standing, kneeling, crawling), and movement rate when attacked. When I distilled it down to its purest form, I realized there were really only TWO states for all units: actively avoiding fire or not. Infantry are actively avoiding fire (defilade) if they are aware of the firer and appropriately utilizing available cover. They are not actively avoiding fire (enfilade) if they are surprised, flanked, running, or performing a special action such as climbing a wall or clearing a roadblock. The tactical disadvantage of being fired upon from higher ground is subsumed in this category as I felt this was very similar to being enfilade. Vehicles are slightly different - maximizing the use of cover is irrelevant in the sense that they cannot "duck" when stationary and they may only actively avoid fire by moving. With both infantry and vehicles, reducing the situational defense to only two states allowed me to create a single modifier. As it turned out, I was able to create greater granularity for vehicles (ex. a vehicle moving 7 hexes is slightly harder to hit than a vehicle moving 6 hexes) with no loss in playability thanks to an innovative mechanic I will reveal in a future blog entry. BTW Relative vehicle movement rates become extremely significant when you have a system that encompasses WWI Renault FT tanks, Apache helicopters, and futuristic grav tanks...

Target Range
Some weapons lose long range effectiveness faster than others – this was addressed above by a unit’s effective range. But all shooters lose effectiveness as range increases regardless of their weapon's ballistic accuracy. Most games handle this by creating range bands. But how many are enough? 2, 3, 4? I feel that most games don’t have enough. Only having a few range bands invites what I define as skulking (not precisely the ASL definition but similar) – basically the tactic of positioning your unit so it is always just beyond your opponent’s effective range but still within your effective range. When combined with calculated movements you gain an artificial advantage (byproduct of the step function nature of range band systems) that is exaggerated FAR beyond the real life difference. I absolutely had to eliminate this! The only way to do this was to create a system in which a target at range 7 was slightly harder to hit than a target at range 6, which is slightly harder to hit than a unit a range 5 etc... With dice and CRTs this was only possible with an absurdly complex range chart. But again the same innovative mechanic I used for vehicle movement solved the range problem with no loss in playability.

Target Visibility
These are all environmental factors that reduce the likelihood of hitting due to uncertainty as to the target's exact location. Examples include rain, smoke, haze, concealment, or units hiding in cover and forfeiting all ability to return fire. It is important to note that visibility is significantly different than actual cover - though sometimes cover affects visibility by providing concealment in addition to physical protection. Loss of target visibility has less impact on high rate of fire weapons (machine guns) than aimed weapons (rifles), as they rely more on area effect. This is a nuance I captured by NOT making visibility the same type of modifier as cover.

Target Cover
These are all terrain factors that reduce damage when a target is “hit”. Examples include woods, buildings, and sandbags. The tactical advantage of holding higher ground when fired upon is subsumed in the category. Higher ground turns clear terrain into partial cover but it doesn't provide any additional protection if you are already in a bunker - so the modifiers should NEVER compound. I felt two levels of cover (soft or hard) sufficed for this scale. Additionally, I wanted to emphasize that soft cover was highly effective against pistol rounds but almost worthless against tank guns. Sorry to be redundant, but this was achieved with no loss of playability by the same soon to be revealed mechanic as with vehicle movement and target range.

Vehicle Target Size
This applies only to vehicles as infantry size was addressed with Base Defense. Large targets are easier to hit than small targets. Although this is intrinsic to a unit and applies in all situations, it is not the same as Base Defense as it affects the odds of hitting, which is not quite the same as the likelihood of resisting damage IF hit. I didn't come up with anything earth shatteringly different than others before me except my mystery mechanic made handling these modifiers seamless.

In my next blog entry I will examine why playability and realism are mutually exclusive with dice based systems.
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Sun Dec 23, 2012 4:56 pm
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A very brief history of small unit tactical wargames

Michael Tan
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This is my first blog entry for War Stories which will be published in 2013 by Conquistador Games, Inc.. Please subscribe to this blog if you are a fan of realistic squad level tactical wargames.

Virtually every small unit tactical game employs some form of rolling dice and applying modifiers to obtain a combat result. For as long as I can remember the first question I asked before attacking in any of these games is “What do I need to hit?” This is undoubtedly the case in “to hit” style systems patterned after Dungeons & Dragons (or Chainmail depending how far back you go). The alternative is CRT style systems, such as Squad Leader, that trace back to SPI strategic level games. Although they appear dissimilar, they are essentially the same: start with a base attack strength, modify that due to various factors, then roll dice and interpret results. The two systems really only vary in the final step. With “to hit” systems, “damage” is determined either by the dice roll margin of success or a second random trial such as another die roll or a chit draw. With CRTs, damage is read directly off a chart after applying column shifts (basically more dice modifiers). In theory CRTs afford the designer a little bit more precision with the distribution of combat results than just dice. Straight forward enough. For years I accepted these two slight variations of the same thing as the only practical options.

Unfortunately both systems (or any combination of them) have the same critical flaw: realism and playability are mutually exclusive. Both can be the foundation for very playable games in their simplest forms. But as I learned while playing AD&D around age 11, no player choices creating dice modifiers, means no tactics. You are essentially playing a game of pure chance i.e. bingo. The game designers of the 70s figured this out pretty quickly. Until the mid 90s, in general each successive generation of designs added more and more realism (complexity) in the form of additional player choices, differentiation of units, dice modifiers, and charts. Eventually, these games got so complex, the combat charts more resembled actuary tables than player aids. I believe the apex of complexity was Phoenix Command:


You've got to be kidding!!! I can't believe I actually thought that was "cool" when I was 15.

Finally wargamers said enough is enough, especially in light of the explosion of elegant and eminently playable euros. In comparison, late 80s and early 90s tactical games looked downright archaic. In the 2000s we had a renaissance with small unit tactical games as designers found a happy medium between realism and playability. Undoubtedly, euro game design concepts had trickled over to wargames. Systems like Combat Commander or Command and Colors combine the best of the old and new. Conflict of Heroes and Load 'n Load distill the old and familiar down to their simplest form while still rewarding good tactics. But still there is ALWAYS that trade-off. How much playability are you willing to sacrifice for realism? How much complexity can you stomach before it’s just too much? How much abstraction can you tolerate before it just becomes too “gamey”? There are many great tactical games out there so I think most people’s preference really boils down to how they answer the above three questions. But what if there is an alternative?
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Sun Dec 23, 2012 7:17 am
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