Friday, September 10, 2010

Intuitiveness and Wargame Rules

This is as subjective a matter as one can imagine but more and more I find myself drawing away from contrived solutions to wargame design and towards "natural" ones. In essence it comes down to the difference between a mechanism that eventually gives the right result with one that has the right feel. Of course, ideally you want one that does both.

Since instinct and expectation are linked to past experience and knowledge it is not possible to determine definitive intuitive solutions but by observing the reactions of gamers at conventions and club games and listening to my inner voice, I have found a few trends.  Some of these are the result of past experience of rules but others come from our understanding of how the world works and are the sorts of things new gamers expect even if they have never played a wargame before. Here are a few that I have decided were worth trying to incorporate.

a) Immediacy. Things seem to make more sense when results follow directly  from causes and can be linked visually. Perhaps I should say that they make more sense emotionally.
b) Reciprocity. People like to fight back when attacked.
c) Visibility. Particularly if using miniatures, what you see is what you understand. (again emotionally)

You would think that following these concepts would make game design easier, after all, they are what you get if 2 kids sit down to play. (Bang, you're dead)  Trying to recreate complex historical processes with a simple game is often easier though if using abstract mechanisms.

When trying out proposed changes to Hearts of Tin, whether playing out various small tests or a full game, I tried to continually ask 3 subjective questions and listen to my inner voice:

a) Theory: does it encourage tactics which I think are appropriate?
b) Feel: does it feel right?
c) Practice: is it going to make the game more interesting or less?

 How did various mechanisms fare?

a) Rallying and casualty recovery. I like units to be able to take a pounding but be able to fallback, rally and return to the fray if given breathing space. My preferred method of doing this has been to allow the recovery of some casualties and I tried to re-introduce it. It works in Theory if balanced right, fails Feel miserably despite whatever theory I might spout as people don't see casualties  as "disruption points" or similar, they see them as dead and wounded guys and while willing to welcome them back if it helps win and understanding intellectually what the process is, there is still the feel of guys coming back from the dead.  Finally, since the process almost inevitably makes it harder to get a decisive result, it fails in Practice. I resorted to a simple morale test.

b) Sequence of play. People understand taking turns well enough but the rules of immediacy, reciprocity and visibility apply at an instinctive level. People can be easily taught to play in phases but it is very common, for example, for new gamers especially to want to shoot back right away when shot at. I had moved away from the card sequencing of play but have come back full force with no separate fire, melee or movement phases. I noticed though that it just didn't feel right when two lines faced each other and one blazed away while the other waited patiently. It was even worse if the firing side went 2nd that turn and 1st next turn getting in 2 shots without reply. I already had both sides fighting in melee which could represent close range fir so the natural answer was just to allow units to shoot back but that violates our expectations from past wargames and raises questions such as how many times a unit should be able to fire and so forth,  In theory its not really a problem since we aren't tracking every actual round, just the mutual effect, Reluctantly, I tried it and to my surprise it worked fine, feels natural and helps speed the game to a conclusion.

c) Melee. This is one of those annoying areas where a simple, effective but abstract rule bothers people enough that it bothers me. From Morschauser I had borrowed the 3" melee distance idea. To me the shooting was stand off firefights, historically indecisive and so in game terms as well with only 1 side firing and low 'to hit' scores. Melees were decisive firefights as well as charges and were so in the game with both sides fighting and one side being forced to retire if not destroyed outright.. Works in practice and in theory but it just doesn't feel right when your cavalry hovers 3" away from their target  and rolls for hits, It is also disappointing to be unable to differentiate between a bayonet charge and a close range volley. In theory, as the General, we shouldn't care but especially in a small game, such narratives become important. I found myself adding rules to differentiate, to penalize shock troops not in contact etc. Complications. Once I had added firing as a reaction and added a morale test, it suddenly got easier,  Now close range firefights were two way and the possibility existed of forcing the enemy to retreat by fire. For those troops with the nerve to brave the enemy's fire their assault with bayonet was more likely to force a retreat. It appears to meet all 3 criteria.
d) Morale tests. I have a love-hate thing about morale tests. The Brigadier with experience of both real and play war urged us to not bother with complex morale rules and the Canadian Army agreed when they wrote their own wargaming rules for training. Morale tests have been there since my first exposure though and they can be the easiest way to get intermediate results between standing and breaking. The trick is to prevent them from being too complex, too frequent or too random. No one likes to have their elite guards run away without a valid reason.  I had added and removed morale tests various times and started this round with a simple one and the premise that a test should only be taken in severe situations. It didn't take long for the test to be replaced by a more complex one with more levels of results which could be taken for minor reasons as well. It lasted for 2 turns before odd things happened and it started bogging then game down. The simple one returned and so far seems to do its job, if your unit is in a world of hurt it might run away, but only of it has a reason and it might not at all. Not perfect but it seems to meet the criteria.

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