Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Understanding Structural Strengths/Weaknesses

In my last post, I mentioned that I was going to re-outline the WarStrike Assault Phase, with the intention of removing all defensive and supporting fire. This is because after thinking about the game's turn sequence, I decided that both of those mechanics already exist in the Action (Shooting) Phase, and that our double-activation turn sequence would ensure that each side gets to shoot at moving units before the Assault Phase starts. Meaning that the Assault Phase can just be about charges, melee, and fall-backs, without having to repeat actions that normally happen in earlier phases.

Nurglitch has taken exception to this though, and the comments are getting long and detailed enough that I think this issue deserves its own post.

Refresher: How Our Turns Work

For those who aren't intimately familiar with the project, here is a quick rundown of how our turn sequence works.

As of now, WarStrike has 5 game phases:

  1. Starting Phase
  2. Movement Phase
  3. Action Phase
  4. Assault Phase
  5. Ending Phase

The Starting and Ending Phases are basically for upkeep, reserve rolls, and such forth. Therefore most of the fun happens in the Movement and Action Phases, with an optional Assault Phase that kicks in if 2 opposing units are close enough to each other.

So far, this doesn't look too different from the turn structure of 40K or Flames of War. But here's where we start to do things a bit differently...

A pic from a test when we were using D10s to track initiative.
First, when the game starts, each side's units will have an initiative, which ranges from 0-6. The mission's attacker would start at a 6, and the defender would usually start at a 5. As units perform actions, or take fire/damage, this initiative will go up or down during the game. Units with an Initiative of zero are considered pinned.

A unit's initiative is important to manage, because WarStrike's turns are combined. That is, both players will move in the Movement Phase, and move/shoot in the Action Phase together. The order in which each unit is activated in these phases depends on its current initiative.

The Movement Phase

During the Movement Phase units are selected in initiative order, from lowest to highest. Which means that units with a lower initiative will be forced to move first, while units with a higher initiative will be able to see what everyone else does before they make their moves.

The Action Phase

During the Action Phase, the selection order is flipped. Such that higher initiative units will be able to shoot or perform other actions before units with a lower initiative, giving them an advantage.

If this sounds kind of familiar, then that's because X-Wing works similarly. But whereas the initiative of the ships in X-Wing are a fixed characteristic, the initiatives of our units are free-floating throughout the game.

How does that work?

In practice, because the attacker gets a 1 point IN advantage, and wins all ties, the attacker will be moving all of their units before the defender for the first 1-2 turns of the game. But as the battle progresses, the IN of the attacker's units will begin to fall, whereas the IN of the defender will tend to rise. Such that in the middle of the game the activations are fairly equally mixed, and by the end of the game the defender will tend to be moving and shooting before the attacker.

The Assault Phase

The Assault Phase is still very much in flux, but the activation order will again be from highest initiative to lowest. Units will charge in, fight, roll to see who wins, and the loser will be forced to break off.

And that's the WarStrike turn sequence in a nutshell. Now on to the arguments...

Do we need Defensive Fire or Supporting Fire?

My case is no, we don't.

My Turn, Your Turn Systems:

In 40K or Flames of War, defensive fire (meaning Assault Phase shooting) is needed because each player moves, shoots, and assaults all at once in their own separate turn. This means that it would otherwise be possible to move up into assault distance, and then launch a charge without the other player being able to react (as in 5th Edition 40K). To address this weakness in their turn structure, Flames therefore has a detailed set of defensive fire rules, as well as ways to mitigate it. Making the proper preparation of an assault extremely important.

This means that in Flames, you don't just run up and charge into close-combat, because that's the quickest way to die. Instead you have to pin the enemy unit(s), whittle away with shooting any machine guns and/or anti-tank guns they have protecting their position, and maybe drop a layer of smoke on some part of their line to limit who can shoot at you as you run in. This takes 3-4 turns to do properly, but pays off in a decisive (American) football-like clash where one side or the other is crushed.

Single-Activation Turn Systems:

In a game like Epic:Armageddon, which Nurglitch particularly favors, there is only one action phase in which anything happens. Unit activation is alternating (unless you pass a check to keep activating), and each unit is selected, moved, shot with, and/or assaulted with all at once.

But this system has a very similar problem to My Turn, Your Turn systems, in that it's possible to have a unit move up and assault an enemy unit or units without any opportunity for the defender to stop them. So E:A has a system of defensive and supporting fire that allows other units around the one activated or charged to help out their friends. Which is a cool mechanic, but it's still there to mitigate an inherent weakness of the turn sequence they're using.

All Games Have Weaknesses

When I say a game has a “weakness”, I’m talking in a structural design sense, not a “this sucks” sense. A weakness only becomes a suck if it's not mitigated by an appropriate (and fun) mechanic. Both Flames and E:A succeed in mitigating their structural weaknesses in regards to assault with fun and interesting mechanics.

Squad Leader Phases:
  1. Rally Phase
  2. Prep Fire Phase
  3. Movement Phase
  4. Defensive Fire Phase
  5. Advancing Fire Phase
  6. Rout Phase
  7. Advance Phase
  8. Close-Combat Phase
Every game has weaknesses that must be accepted or compensated for. In terms of turn structure Squad Leader is a blast to play, and you really feel involved in the action. But when we tried a similar turn structure for WarStrike it tripled our play-time. Which is unacceptable as it conflicts with our goal of making a faster-playing game than 40K.

WarStrike too has (and will have) structural weaknesses that must be compensated for, but these are not going to be the same weaknesses as 40K, Flames, X-Wing, E:A, or others. Because of our 2-phase activation system, any unit that moves up to assault another during the Movement Phase will, without proper preparation and support, be able to be shot at or run away from in the Action Phase prior to the start of the Assault Phase.

So we don't need to replicate the defensive fire/supporting fire mechanics of Flames or E:A, because our system doesn't need to, and it would slow down the game.

Instead, the majority of our structural weaknesses and mitigations will revolve around balancing out the floating initiative system, whose issues we don't completely understand yet. But I see a potential need for officers being able to "take over" a low-initiative unit and lead it in a charge at their higher IN. Or having inspiring heroes that add +1 to the IN of all the units around them. Or special rules that boost a unit's IN if they contact an enemy in a charge. That sort of thing.

Maybe we'll even have a special rule or weapon type that can be used in a type of supporting fire. But testing will determine the need for that.

Addressing Nurglitch's Main Points
"Both supporting fire and overwatch exist in Epic Armageddon, which is alternating activations." 
Yes, this is true. But our turn structure is different from that of E:A, and so we don't need to have shooting actions that happen outside of the Action Phase. Because the basic structure of WarStrike allows you to respond to enemies that move up to assault you before they actually charge without any exceptions to the standard phases.
"I think my point is that while you're fixating on a symmetrical distribution of actions and reactions, once per phase, throwing in asymmetrical or additional actions, particularly those based on clever play, enhances aspects of the game.
I still don't grok what you mean by "... a symmetrical distribution of actions and reactions...". My fixations are on making the rules fun, as simple as needed (but no more), and quick to play. Anyone can pile on rules exceptions, but the challenge is in making the underlying game structure as simple and balanced as possible, so as to minimize the number of exceptions that must be added later. Else you end up with an unbalanceable hodge-podge of exceptions piled on exceptions, like 40K.

But maybe when you talk about symmetry and asymmetry, what you really mean is that you don't want the play or activation order to be predictable and rote. Well, you haven't tested the floating initiative system yet, but it mixes up the play order constantly and forces a LOT of meaningful decisions at every stage of play. Because you have to balance your actions against what losing or gaining a point of initiative will mean relative to the enemy units around you.
"You need to give players the opportunity for those additional, situational actions, and the ability to engineer situations where their opponent can't meaningfully react."
We have this. This is what the floating initiative system is all about. If, in an area of the table, all or most of your units can gain an initiative advantage over your opponent's units, you're able to act much more freely. You can move after they move, and shoot before they do. You can push forward aggressively, while they are forced to play more defensively. Unless you overextend yourself, lose initiative, and the balance flips.
"I feel like you should consider what your turn sequence is supposed to do."
I have done this, and I continue to do this constantly. The turn sequence in WarStrike didn't just pop out of my head one day. It has changed many times in response to new ideas, feedback, and testing. But I'm satisfied now that the basic sequence is simple, fun, and interesting to play, and am focused on getting the rules completed for further testing and feedback. Including yours.

I don't want to be dismissive of your ideas, not one bit. But you tend to come and go from the project without keeping up on what happens here while you're not around. You also tend towards snark when dealing with me here and on other blogs, so I have to take your opinions with a grain of salt. Because they tend to be both quite vague and couched in terms that are always at least mildly insulting.
"It seems like you want players to be involved, and to have a feeling of agency or power over their own units and their opponents' units."
Well, of course.
I think you'd do better giving that control to players at the turn sequence level rather than making the turn itself a procedure which limits the players' options to target priority and positioning at various points in that procedure. It also allows players to break the game down into local scenes that need to be coordinated."
From a design standpoint, all games are procedures. Whether you're playing Chess, CandyLand, 40K, or Exploding Kittens, you're following a set of rules that define when you do things, and what your choices are.

Positioning and target priority are core concepts to any wargame. Though we've added other things like initiative considerations to the mix.
"Yeah, you see the problem is that you don't understand why some other games like E:A have done these things because you don't understand what you're calling 'weaknesses.'"
I hope I've shown that I do understand how these games work, and like I said before, I'm talking about "weaknesses" in a structural design sense. If you're an architect, and your cool building doesn't go straight up like every other building, then your design will have weaknesses that have to be compensated for with stronger materials, bracing, or something else to keep it from falling down.  Games are no different in this respect.
"Flames of War doesn't have a weakness in its turn structure because the ability to move and shoot without a reaction otherwise is not a weakness."
No, the Flames turn structure has an inherent weakness, but its designers found a way to mitigate it with their defensive fire rules. Doing so made the game not suck.
"What is a weakness is having a symmetrical game where players get the same number of actions."
Again, what the hell do you mean by "a symmetrical game"? It really seems like you're obsessed with how a couple of mechanics work in Epic:Armageddon, but can't really communicate why you like them, or really think through how they would work in the context of WarStrike's turn sequence.
"Introducing overwatch and supporting fire means that players get advantages for pursuing particular strategies. That's why E:A, which uses alternating activations, also uses them as part of keeping those activations asymmetrical, so that two players with the same number of units can, and often do, get a different number of actions with those units per round of play."
WarStrike players won't get the same number of activations unless they have exactly the same number of units. What will happen though is that the order of those activations will change throughout the game.
"Of course you don't have to do it the way 40k, E:A, or Flames of War does it, but you do have to make sure that the feature of asymmetrical action is the same or your game is going to be Checkers sans the deep play and elegant rules."
Please go look up the meaning of "Symmetrical" and "Asymmetrical", and then decide if you're really shouldn't be using other, less vague, terms for the points you're trying to make.
"Currently, the system of phases, initiative, and so on is a step back from 40k 5th, which is presumably bad when your goal is to make a better game than 40k 5th."
That's an opinion that you need to back up with specific arguments for why you think our system is a step back from 40K 5th. Because I don't agree with that statement at all, and neither would Caulyndarr, who's been testing the game with me. We find the initiative system very interesting and exciting because of the choices and tradeoffs you have to make.
"Likewise you don't have to do it the way that Infinity, Malifaux, WarmaHordes, Bolt Action, or any of the other successful, popular games do it. In fact you probably shouldn't, because those games already exist. If anyone besides you is going to ever bother with Warstrike, you're going to have to put something new and interesting on the table, and Warhammer with turns happening within phases isn't new or interesting."
We do have things that are new and interesting. We have floating initiative, limited visibility, to-hit modifiers based on Evasion and cover, and some damn cool missions to name just a few.
"Trying to tack on a clunky initiative system merely exacerbates the problem, because you're making it crude as well."
How is it crude? How is it tacked on? Unless you can be more specific, it just sounds like you're throwing insults at rules that are different than the ones you're already used to. Maybe you should wait until the Alpha release is ready to form a judgement based on actual play instead?

Because from my standpoint the floating initiative system simplified A LOT of the game rules that would otherwise need a bucketload of exceptions for specific circumstances. Since I wrote the rules both before and after that change, I know what a huge difference it has made to the game's simplicity.
"Put another way, you need to have situations where unit A can move, shoot, and do whatever without unit B being able to do anything, as well as situations where unit A cannot do any of those things, and all permutations in between. There really don't have to be very many of those, particularly if your actions are the usual move, shoot, close combat variety."
Again, I believe this is achieved within the current scope of the rules.

(end arguments)

Happy Happy Joy Joy...
I'll conclude this post with an update on the parental dramas that are keeping me from writing and posting new rules. My Dad was having a medication problem that's been causing him to mentally degrade, but I thought that we had it under control again as of last Friday.

But today I got some more calls, and it looks like he's worse than ever. Because of this I'll have to be coordinating an intra-facility move to a different level of care for both he and my Mom over the coming week or two. Oh, and at the same time both the kids and I are coming down with something nasty, and my wife is out of town being miserably sick in a hotel room.

I might get a post or two out in the next couple of weeks, but that's about all I can reasonably expect to accomplish. With any luck though, the incorporation will finally get completed this week.


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