Friday, 9 March 2012

Game Theory, part 3: Stats

Well, looks like Friday has officially turned into Game Theory day on 1%FUTURE.

This week I want to discuss stats and associated design parameters. By stats I of course mean the different attributes that games use to track the capabilities of individual models, such as Strength, Defense, Morale and so on. I find that this, too, is a very important aspect of game design and I have personally been turned off to many game systems because of an unappealing statline.

One of the core aspects that can determine the feel and style of a ruleset is simply the number of different stats possessed by each model, and there is a decent amount of variation between systems in this regard. Rulesets with lots of stats are said to be more detailed (obviously) and often thought of as being more realistic (although I personally find this assumed correlation between detail and realism tenuous at best) and tend to be marketed more towards "hardcore" gamers while systems with few stats are assumed to be simplistic and aimed more at "casual" gamers (whether this distinction actually exists is another question altogether).

Besides the actual number of different stats it is also important to note the range of possible values for each stat. These two factors together effectively determine the amount of real variation that is possible between different models in the game. The well-known game Warhammer 40k has no less than 9 base stats, but most of them actually have a range of only 2 or 3 possible values for regular soldiers, meaning that the differentiation between models is actually a lot less than it seems to be at first glance. However, with such a small range of values, any difference is actually meaningful. An extra point of Toughness has a huge impact on the game, while one point either way is barely noticeable in a percentile system (where values can often range between 1 and 100).

A crucial aspect of a game's appeal is the way the stats are presented. I have closed and deleted many pdfs ("indy" games often seem to have more trouble with good presentation) when a quick glance at the sample unit profiles revealed a large, plain chart filled with meaningless (for anyone who hasn't pored over the entire document in detail already) numbers and acronyms. It is clear that I am not alone in this, as almost all recent games have adopted the use of visually appealing statcards for individual units and/or full-page spreads for each unit where the statline is accompanied by illustrations and background information to break up the monotony of what is essentially a string of numbers.

The number (and value range) of stats in a game obviously depend chiefly on the designers' desired level of detail, but other considerations should also be made. Presentation, as mentioned above, is important. Long statlines can look intimidating and dissuade players from even attempting to learn the game. Designers should always examine every stat and determine whether it really contributes anything to playability or is just cluttering up the statline. As an example, the Wounds stat in Warhammer has a value of 1 on every model except for the greatest heroes and huge monsters. This creates the illusion of variety when in actuality the Wounds stat is completely superfluous on almost all models. It would be simple and effective to remove the stat altogether and replace it with a special rule that only appeared on those mighty hero and monster models. This would reduce the length of the statline for regular models, making it more readable, without taking anything away from the game.

From the players' perspective, there is probably no such thing as the perfect statline. Some might gravitate towards shorter or longer statlines, depending chiefly on how detailed they wish their battles to be. Some people might desire the inclusion of a specific stat so that they can properly represent a certain army they have in mind. A player who is dead-set on playing agile space elves, for example, will probably look for systems where their characteristics can be represented in some way - perhaps through Maneuverability, Evasion, Initiative or other similar stat. In this regard it's impossible to please everyone, and games that try usually fail the hardest.

Designers should have clear goals in mind when designing statlines. The role of each stat should be carefully considered and stats should not be added simply to cater to specific types of players or factions (that's what special rules are for) or to create a fictitious appearance of variety. Each stat should have a clear and important function in the game rules that could not be replicated with other kinds of abilities. As long as the stats are presented intelligently and mesh well with the rest of the rules, I think most players will be willing to give it a go, even if they would personally prefer a longer or shorter statline.

So, what are those measurable model attributes that usually take the form of stats in a game system? Off the top of my head, I can think of a fair few that seem to crop up in almost every system:

Movement: some games have standardized movement values, usually depending on unit type, while many games have individual movement stats for all models. Is there a right and wrong way to go here? There are many complaints about 40k's standardized 6" movement but I think it meshes well with weapon ranges (all multiples of 6) to create an interesting, fluid and intuitive system of ranged and melee threat ranges (which then breaks down because of special movement abilities that add a random value to a unit's speed).

Attack Skill: often split into melee and ranged ability, but rarely omitted (Flames of War being a noteworthy exception). Determines a model's chance to hit its target. Sometimes it depends entirely on the attacker's ability, sometimes it is opposed in some way by some sort of Defense Skill.

Attack Power: determines the chance of a successful strike damaging the target. In extremely streamlined systems Attack Power and Attack Skill can be combined into a single stat. In many systems, Attack Power is opposed by one or more abilities representing the target's Resilience, sometimes split between its natural toughness and artificial armour, sometimes combining the two. In more detailed systems, Attack Power is often assigned to individual weapons, not models as a whole (although models might also have an Attack Power of their own to represent unarmed attacks) and different parts of a model might have their own armour values.

Morale is also present in almost all games under one name or another, sometimes also incorporating other aspects of training and leadership, such as the maximum range at which a commander can order his troops.

Damage Capacity is expressed as a stat in some systems (as wounds or hit points, for example) but is handled by other mechanics just as often (damage tokens, damage boxes, disabled systems...)

Besides these common attributes there is a slew of others that are included in some systems but not others. Aspects such as perception, reaction speed, magical ability, energy shields, maneuverability, size, intelligence and many others are covered by one system or another depending on the desired complexity level and the specific needs of the genre and setting.

Well, that's all that comes to mind right now. I'd like to know if I forgot to cover any important attributes in my list above. Speaking specifically about 15mm sci-fi systems, are there any other stats you think are important? Do you know of any systems that are a radical departure from the above? Do let me know.

Ta ta!


  1. Damage Resistance is another "generic" stat. It's used, in one form or another, in most games. Whether it's a different to-hit number, a modifier to the attack roll, a saving throw, etc.

    The system with the most radical departure is probably Ganesha Games (Song Of Blades, Mutants & Death Ray Guns, etc). Two base stats for every figure, then each weapon and item is governed by a simple special rule.

  2. I think I tend towards a higher level of granularity stat-wise than streamlining, to me, 2 stats just seems like too little. I think I'm going to have to disagree about the use of 'special rules', in my opinion if you can get as many of the 'special things' integrated into the stat-line you save your players a hell of a lot of page flipping, rules memorizing etc There's definitely a balance to be kept.
    I've just read through my new copy of Future War Commander and I'm probably going to end up adding in a few stats that me to me just feel necessary. For example the game uses one 'Assault' rating for each unit vs all other unit types, personally I think there needs to be a 'soft' and 'hard' assault value here somewhere to draw some sort of distinction between punching people and punching tanks. Even if I assume all units have grenades for example (even bugs?) having them as effective vs both tanks and infantry just feels wrong.