Friday, 24 February 2012

Game Theory, part 1: Play Flow

Another little thing I wanted to do here on the blog is talk about game rules and my quest for a 15mm system that would be just right for my own tastes. This article is the first in what I hope will become a regular series. It is intended to focus my own scattered thoughts as well as provide a good starting point for anyone else looking for (or designing!) their perfect system.

One of the most important aspects of a ruleset is certainly play flow. By this I mean the manner in which the rules allow for active player involvement and how that can shift from player to player. In other words, the subject covers such basic concepts as the turn sequence, the method of activating units, and perhaps the most critical question - how long do I have to stand there and watch my opponent take apart my army before I can do something about it?

First, let's look at the most basic mechanic of any system, turn order, and how it is handled in some popular games. There are two very common ways to handle turn order.

The first and by far the most common is the so-called IGOUGO system, in which each player takes a turn using all of his units while his opponent mostly just waits (and removes casualties). When the first player finishes his turn, the other player goes and uses all of his units. There are some obvious benefits to this way of doing things: for one thing, it's relatively easy to keep track of which units have already acted, but more importantly it allows a player to properly coordinate his units and follow a set strategy. The chief drawback seems to be that the other player can easily get bored and lose interest because the game simply isn't engaging him when it's not his turn.

Nuances are possible even within the IGOUGO system. Some games separate a player's turn into several phases and demand that, for example, all units move first, then fire, then fight in melee or whatever. The most prominent examples of these games are GW's Warhammer games and most of their offshots.

The other option is to have players do everything they want with unit at a time before moving on to the next. Typically, these games prohibit a player from going back to a previous unit once he has started to act with another. The most well-known examples here are Warmachine and Hordes from Privateer Press. This is also the default method used in Gruntz 15mm, although there are optional alternatives provided in the rules as well.

A popular alternative to IGOUGO is an alternating activation system. Here, each player only uses one of his units at a time (usually) and then the other player uses one of his. In most of these games, players have to keep track of which units have already acted and they cannot use any single unit again until any units remain that haven't acted yet. This kind of system keeps both players on their toes as play passes rapidly from one player to the other and the battlefield can shift unpredictably. It's also harder to keep track of things and use any coherent strategy as players constantly have to react to their opponents' moves. Popular games in this category include Uncharted Seas, Firestorm Armada and Dystopian Wars, all by Spartan Games, but also GW's Epic Armageddon system for 6mm scale gaming.

Besides these "big two" there are numerous others, less common ways to handle turn order. I'm going to lump some of them together in a broad category I will call reaction systems. These come in many varieties and have been gaining a lot of popularity lately. Their common theme is that, regardless of their basic turn mechanic, they place a strong emphasis on allowing a player to interrupt his opponent and react to his moves as they happen. The most widely known reaction game is undoubtedly Infinity by Corvus Belli. Infinity is a 28mm skirmish game using an IGOUGO system at its core, but every time a model does something on its turn, all enemy models that can see it can react with an action of their own. More relevant to the 15mm scene is Tomorrow's War by Ambush Alley Games, which goes even further. This system is also reminiscent of IGOUGO, but only one player actually takes a full turn while the other may only react (however, if my memory serves me, there are penalties for making successive reactions in Tomorrow's War, unlike in Infinity) and does not necessarily get a proper turn of his own. Then there are also the Chain Reaction system games published by Two Hour Wargames, including 5150, which I am not at all familiar with but judging by the name, they certainly belong here.

Having now familiarized ourselves at least somewhat with the different ways to handle turn order, we can start thinking about how we want play to flow in our game and which turn order method would be most conductive to that.

Do you want to allow each player to form and execute a grandiose plan, coordinating his entire army to attack together? IGOUGO is the best for this kind of thing, but keep in mind that this sword cuts both ways. Will you enjoy watching haplessly while your opponent does the same?

Do you want an unpredictable battlefield where you can still mostly do your own thing, but with less waiting between moves? Alternating activation could be good, as long as you know all your plans could be easily disrupted if your opponent makes a move you do not expect.

And what about reaction systems? Some of the versions I've seen seem like overkill to me, often allowing the reactive player to execute more moves and make more attacks than the player whose turn it actually is! But applied in moderation, reactions could provide a happy middle ground between IGOUGO and alternating activations by allowing the active player to make coordinated maneuvers while still giving his opponent a chance to respond in some way, thus keeping him engaged in the game even when it's not his turn.

There are a few other ways besides turn order to tweak play flow and keep an otherwise inactive player interested in what's going on when he isn't allowed to move figures. One of the core mechanics in Warhammer is the armour save. This is a last-chance roll to avoid damage to a figure, and is always made by the controller of the figure being attacked - so usually the passive player. But why does a roll that represents the chance of a blow being deflected by armour come after the roll made to see if the blow caused a wound? Shouldn't armour come first? The common, and very sensible, explanation for this is that armour saves come last to give the player the feeling that the fate of his troops is ultimately in his own hands. He gets a last chance to save his men, instead of watching the other person roll how many he kills. Statistically it doesn't matter which roll comes first, but the psychological difference is huge and despite being seen as an archaic mechanic by some, plenty of newer games have adopted armour saves (Flames of War and Infinity, for example), probably with much the same reasoning.

Another mechanic that has gained popularity in recent years is the opposed roll. Typically, this means that each player makes a die roll and adds the relevant ability value of his figure, and the player with the higher total score wins. This is an effective method to keep the passive player paying attention, but it can slow the game down and isn't always practical in games where several figures can attack together. It's certainly one to keep in mind if you want to do skirmish games with very few figures per side (Infinity uses opposed rolls almost exclusively, for example).

That's all I can think of so far. I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts on play flow, how other games handle it and your personal preferences.

Reader Noel reminded me about a few more options I had initially forgotten.

As he says, in USE ME models are activated in order of skill level. We can consider this an offshot version of initiative systems. In these, units are activated in a certain (predetermined or random) order. Another example I've seen is to assign a playing card to each unit and determine initiative order by drawing the unit cards from a deck that is reshuffled every turn. The end result feels somewhat like alternating activations, but you never know which (and whose) unit will come up next.

Another option that comes to mind could be called a shared phases turn. Here, both players move their units (either at the same time or one after another), then they both shoot, etc. In GZG's Full Thrust, for example, both players secretly write down the movement orders for their ships, then all ships are moved at once.


  1. Hi,
    Great write up. I for one hate the IGOUGO. This is way to boring, and forces the player not going to loose interest in the game. My first issue with 40k was this, the Warzones came out with the squad at a time. We use it in 40k and the game was much better.

    So of the systems you mentioned are IGOUGO, and I think it is fine for small scale games, ware it will only take a few minutes to play out your turn. But for large game BORING!!!!!! Have a look at the USE ME turn, as it is broken down into a high skill level goes first, then the next highest. So if player A win initiative his high level goes first, then layer B dose his. This goes on till all levels have been played.
    I feel it is a great balance system.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Infinity downplays the "power" of reactions in several ways; the number of different things that reacting mini can do is limited and its firepower if shooting is dramatically lowered, unless suppression fire (effectively overwatch) has been set up during the active turn. Further, the game encourages the use of coordinated orders, where a single reacting mini gets to react just once to the whole group of minis acting together.

    Perhaps that would be an option to explore for 15mm rules as well; better trained troops are easier to co-ordinate (in numbers) and give the opponent less chance to react to each and every one of them.

  4. I think it's crossfire that uses the system where you keep activating your units until one of them fails to accomplish their task, whether firing at the enemy, moving or whatever. Once you've failed (for instance shot badly and missed the target), initiative passes to your opponent. They start moving and firing and keep going until they lose the initiative at which point you take over once more...
    This can have disadvantages - a really lucky player might manage to accomplish his mission before the enemy has a chance to do anything! But perhaps this is realistic - sometimes in battle an enemy is so hopelessly outclassed that they never realise what's happening until the battle is already lost...