Friday, 16 March 2012

Game Theory, part 4: Tracking Damage

This Friday I want to share my thoughts on the various ways to keep track of damage on your models. This is, I think, one of the chief aspects of game design where realism and playability often directly conflict with each other. Detailed damage tracking can be one of the most time-intensive aspects of a game system, which is why it is so commonly abstracted and simplified to a great degree, sometimes so far that it barely even functions as a representation of damage capacity and completely ignores the potential loss of performance due to damage suffered. I'll discuss a few damage tracking options below, starting with the simplest.

This is, of course, a basic hit point system. Models have a certain capacity for absorbing damage and get destroyed when the damage exceeds this capacity. Hit point systems do not have any sort of performance loss mechanic built in, and models often fight as their full potential until they lose their last hit point.

Some games tack on simple ways to track performance loss in a hit point system. Critical hits are a common mechanic, accomplished either through some factor in the attack dice roll (scoring the maximum result, rolling doubles or triples, beating the target's defense stat by a certain amount...) or when a certain amount of hit points are lost. Gruntz 15mm is a great example of the latter case: as a vehicle loses hit points, there are certain predetermined points where it has to roll to see if any of its systems are compromised.

Hit point systems can be expanded to cover damage in greater detail by arranging the hit points in a damage grid. A damage grid can reflect the shape and structure of the model it represents, allowing players to determine exactly where a hit lands and which part of the target is damaged. Performance is affected depending on the location of the damage. I'm not too familiar with the game, but I believe Battletech is a classic example. Unfortunately, detailed damage grids slow down the game considerably and require large amounts of bookkeeping and space for the grids, making them unpractical for games with more than a few models per side. Damage grids can also be simpler and correspond less to the physical shape of the model and focus more on abstracted critical systems, such as in Warmachine. Its grids are small enough to fit on standard-sized statcards, making damage tracking acceptably fast for a dozen or so models.

Another method of determining damage are damage tables. The best known game using a damage table is undoubtedly Warhammer 40.000. This system assumes that a successful hit always causes some noticeable loss of performance in a specific system, and that models cannot simply absorb damage with no consequence. After a successful attack, a roll is made on a special table to determine the effect of the hit, which can either destroy the vehicle or permanently or temporarily reduce its firepower and/or mobility. The issue some players have with such a system is that it is too "all or nothing" - depending on dice luck, a model could get taken out with the first blow, or survive many attacks with barely any effect. Others insist that this is still more realistic than hit point systems, and that vehicles cannot really be worn down by successive minor damage. A hit either penetrates and causes serious damage, or does nothing.

Damage tables are also often used to determine the effects of critical hits in hit point systems. This is the case in Spartan Games systems, such as Firestorm Armada, and in GW's Battlefleet Gothic.

Other methods of randomly determining damage effects include drawing damage cards or tokens from a pool, but the end effect is largely the same as with damage tables, with the notable difference that the odds of drawing a certain result change depending on which cards or tokens have already been drawn, which can annoy players concerned with realism. On the upside, drawing special damage cards allows a wider range of possible unique results compared to a reasonably sized damage table. GW's unjustly maligned game Dreadfleet, for example, includes a damage card representing the death of a captain's parrot. It's easy to get away with one such card in a deck of 55, but there's simply no room for that kind of thing on a D6 or 2D6 or probably even a D20 damage table.

Besides determining damage, the method in which we track it should also be considered. There are three chief ways that come to my mind at this moment:

Damage can be marked on statcards, which can provide a modest amount of room for bookkeeping in addition to being a very handy reference for a model's stats and abilities. If the cards are sleeved, you can write on them with non-permanent markers and wipe them after the game. Statcards are great for systems with hit points tracks or moderately sized damage grids, a low model count and many unique models, but they can take up too much space and become hard to manage in games with lots of identical models per side.

Army rosters can also provide room for bookkeeping. They look less nice than statcards but are often more condensed, allowing you to fit more information in the limited amount of space on your gaming table. Popular games are usually supported with army-building software which allows players to effortlessly construct and print rosters. For more obscure games, this has to be done by hand or with normal word processing or spreadsheet software.

Tokens or cards can be placed next to models to indicate damage, as well as a plethora of other effects. This method allows players to evaluate the status of all the models at a glance, without poring over their cards or rosters. It also makes it a lot easier to see the damage inflicted on the enemy. It can, however, clutter up the battlefield, and some attention is required to keep the tokens with the models they belong to. Using tokens or cards usually also means that all damage results are possible on all models, while writing damage down on statcards or rosters allows for custom damage results for specific models. Purchasing or making tokens is also an additional and often unwanted expense, but I've already covered this in a previous blog.

Like with statlines, there is no perfect system for tracking damage. The most important thing is that it meshes well with the rest of the system, the desired level of detail, and the number of models on the table.

Detailed damage tracking can greatly improve the feeling of realism and even "cinematics" - knowing which specific weapon gets blown off a mech, for example. But it can bog down a game with lots of models. It would be unfeasible to track the status of individual weapons in a 6mm scale game with battalions of tanks on each side, but completely expected (and often desired) of a game with only half a dozen models per side.

As one for the more prominent features of a gaming system, damage tracking is often used by prospective players as a gauge to assess the entire game, so it should be polished and presented well, regardless of its specifics. Even a simple hit point system can be made to look appealing with a nice graphical layout, perhaps with hit point boxes printed inside a silhouette of the model on its statcard.

As always, I'd like to hear others' thoughts on this, and any possible methods I might have missed. Ta ta!

1 comment:

  1. I like the GZG Full Thrust system - small record cards for each warship. Damage recorded in rows, when you reach the end of each row you make a damage check on each system on the ship (weapons, fire control etc.). A 6 results in that particular system being taken out of action. When the end of the next damage row is reached, you only need a 5+ to destroy each system etc. Although it can take a while for larger warships, it's pretty quick for small vessels. I can see it working well for 15mm vehicles where there aren't too many subsystems.