Wargames Study: Little Wars

I suspect that many people have developed the essentials of H.G. Wells’ Little Wars on their own. At its core, one tries to knock over the other player’s toy soldiers with a projectile before they do the same to yours; I played a similar game with my father as a child, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Committing simple rules to print, though, helps emphasize Wells’ central idea: “[t]hings should happen, and not be decided.”

We take it for granted that things are decided in games, usually by a system constructed for the purpose. Yet, there’s something remarkable about resting on “what happens” instead of “what the rules tell us happened.” It feels natural and immediate; the toy soldier is out of play because he was knocked over. How could it be otherwise?

It couldn’t. There’s no intermediate step to Little Wars combat, no opportunity for the excitement to dribble out of the resolution process. Our intuition tells us the soldier is lost, and instantly he is.

There are lots of other things to say about Little Wars. Charles Pratt accurately pointed out that its playful, toylike quality defuses the concern for precision that can make miniatures games fiddly; whether that trooper got knocked 1/16″ or 1/8″ to the left when he was tapped accidentally is irrelevant, because it’s the same challenge to hit him with a projectile either way. Little Wars is also a melding of dexterity and tactical play in a way that disappears from the strategy genre thereafter. It’s got as much in common with modern basketball and American football as it does with Warhammer.

Yet, I can’t get away from the sense of immediacy as the truly gripping element of Little Wars. “Things should happen, and not be decided.” How many games could follow that advice? How often could the system be refined, or cut away, to enable things to happen?

Finally

Rumors are spreading about Games Workshop’s new Warhammer 40K introductory product. The nature of the game, what pieces are involved–like all of GW’s releases, those details are getting a lot of attention. Yet, the most noteworthy thing about it might well be the diversity of the people featured on the packaging. Such diversity is long overdue in minis gaming, and I’m glad to see this first small step being taken.

It’s great to see GW taking the lead in emphasizing that minis gaming is a hobby for everyone. Kudos to them.

Theory: Providing Zero-Level Heuristics

Suppose a brand-new player understands the rules to your game, and further has a general grasp of what each of the available options is meant to accomplish. The next thing that player needs is a zero-level heuristic: a rule of thumb that guides the new player’s tactical decision-making. Providing zero-level heuristics makes people’s first games more enjoyable, which tends to ensure that they’ll come back for a second.

We’ve talked about this issue before in the context of chess. It’s not hard to understand the rules of chess, but it’s very difficult for a new player to figure out what moves might be good. “Capture the opponent’s king”—yes, but how? It’s not easy to envision how one might get there from chess’ neutral starting point, and many people won’t grind through the frustrating initial games required to develop basic strategies.

Luckily, there are a number of ways to provide zero-level heuristics. Here are a couple of options; I’m sure there are more.

1. Player powers

Making players better at doing things tends to suggest that they should do those things, which gives them a basic goal to get them through their first few turns. Pandemic’s medic is a great example. As soon as someone gets the medic role, they know they should be treating diseases; that simple guideline will be enough to carry them until they’re in the swing of things and able to engage with the game’s decision-making more fully.

The recently-released starter set for Warhammer 40,000’s Space Marines uses a similar technique. It comes with a special rule for the pieces within; roughly speaking, the leader can make some of the other models stand their ground and fire twice in one turn. New players will naturally want to take advantage of that rule—and while doing so, they’ll discover that their troops are very good shots! That knowledge will help them plan their turns going forward.

2. Graphic design

Imagine a board laid out in an elaborate series of fractal spirals. Should you go left? Right? Who knows! The board twists in on itself, again and again, defying any attempt to parse the game just by looking at it.

By contrast, imagine a board that’s a straight line with “start” on one side. Everyone knows what to do with that board: get to the other side. Long experience with other games will tell new players that any move that gets them closer to the opposite end is probably good. Relying on that intuition will get them underway.

(Implicitly, this means that you probably shouldn’t create straight-line boards with “start” on one side when the goal is not to reach the other end.)

Obviously, not every game can have a linear board. However, many can have “juice” that tells new players what to do. Sparkles when they make a good move; bright, strong lines pointing toward one of the actions on the play aids; color-coded actions with the most basic and important actions being the same color as the goal on the board. Just about any game can use its art to communicate what a new player should focus on.

3. Give a small number of very good options

By and large players want more options. There are occasions when it’s appropriate to give them fewer, however, and the period in which you need to give new players zero-level heuristics is one of them. Allowing a player only a couple of choices that all lead to obvious gains ensures that they’ll begin the game by seeing something they can do to progress.

Advanced Civilization executes this technique brilliantly. There’s a lot going on in Advanced Civ, but in the first turn all the player can do is expand to a single new space. Both of those spaces will then produce an additional figure for the player to work with. Expansion is central to the game, and so new players get to take a turn (a) figuring out how to do it and (b) discovering its power; with that knowledge they can focus on expanding for the next several turns and do just fine.

Taken by the hand

Zero-level heuristics don’t take over for new players. Rather, they help make first games entertaining by providing context and the information necessary to evaluate options. Give thought to how you can provide zero-level heuristics as you work on the new player experience; those just picking up your game will thank you for it.

How to Get Into Minis Wargaming

People sometimes ask how they should go about getting into minis gaming. It’s a fair question; there are a lot of hurdles to clear. First one has to choose a game, then pick a small army to start, and then figure out how to add on to that beginning force step by step. Each decision represents a substantial commitment of time, effort, and money, so there’s a strong incentive to get them right.

Below are some tips I’ve found helpful over the years. I’m confident following these steps gives you the best chance at having a great experience with minis wargaming.

1. Pick games for the people, not the rules. Miniatures games take a while to play out. If you spend that time with a friendly crowd you’ll enjoy the experience even if the game isn’t your first choice. On the other hand, if you’re stuck playing with jerks you won’t have fun no matter how great the rules.

The best way to start is thus to go to your local store or club and just spend some time with the people who play different games. See who’s nice and who’s not. Once you’ve found a good group, play whatever they’re playing.

2. Choose a faction based on story and aesthetics, not mechanics. You’re going to be spending a lot of time looking at your miniatures, both during play and when pursuing the more hobby-oriented aspects of the game like assembly and painting. If you don’t like what you see it’s going to be that much more difficult to maintain your engagement with your army, and by extension with the game.

What’s more, the mechanics aren’t generally a factor you need to worry about too much in faction selection, because you can usually get your chosen faction to suit whatever style of play you prefer. Minis companies are aware of the danger of power creep, and they often resist it by giving armies new capabilities rather than strengthening their existing ones. Factions thus tend to become more or less generalists, capable of supporting whatever you want them to do.

For examples of armies sculpted into something unusual we need look no further than the 800 pound gorilla in the room, Warhammer 40,000. The Imperial Guard is the quintessential horde army in 40K, but you can turn it into a smaller, elite force by taking tanks and artillery rather than troops. Space Marines are traditionally the low-numbers strike team, but you can forego the fancy equipment and vehicles that make them so and just deploy a horde of footslogging Marines if that’s appealing. Each of these armies has been given tools and options over the years that make them highly customizable, and you can now build them however you like

3. Start slow. Buy the starter for your chosen army, and then stop. Play a bunch of games. It might turn out that you don’t enjoy them as much as you expected to, and it’s better to find out that you’ve made a mistake when you’ve spent ~$50 rather than when you’ve invested several times that.

4. Build in stages. People often go directly from their starter force to a full-scale tournament army, and then are overwhelmed by the jump in complexity. Every miniatures game I’ve ever heard of has graduated game sizes between “starter kit” and “tournament level.” Buy only what you need to get to the next step in size, and then play several games at that stage before moving upward.

5. Buy generally useful pieces. You’re going to want to change your army during your time with a game. If you buy generally solid pieces for your chosen faction, you’ll be able to do that without needing to make expensive purchases every time. By contrast, picking up narrowly useful, highly specialized pieces will mean that you’ll have to drop a lot of cash every time you want to make even a minor change to what you’re putting on the field.

If you’re not sure what’s generally useful for your game, take a look at tournament lists for your faction over the past year to two years. Take note of pieces that show up again and again, and buy those. Even if they don’t end up being your favorites, you can at least be confident that they won’t be money wasted.

6. Decide how you want to deal with the hobby element of the game. Some people really enjoy building and painting miniatures. For others the game is the thing, and the hobby elements are a chore. You’ll enjoy your time with minis more if you figure out where you are on that spectrum, and craft your experience to suit.

If you’re in the group that likes hobby-ing, look for events that involve those skills. There’s no end of painting competitions and tournaments that require fully finished minis. Whether you’re looking for rewards for your skill or just a cinematic experience with beautiful armies, you can get what you’re seeking.

If you’d rather just play the game, reach out to your local community. Most minis groups, I’ve found, have one or two people who will build and/or paint on commission. Set some money aside for those services; I can say from personal experience that it’s a lot easier to have fun with a miniatures game when someone else is handling the parts you don’t like.

7. Get a proper carrying case early. They’ll protect the effort (or money) you put into your miniatures, and will keep them organized at home.

Miniatures wargaming is a lot of fun—all the more so when you avoid some pitfalls. Following these tips will keep you clear of them, helping ensure that you have fun when playing and that your investments pay off. Enjoy!

The Best Game of 40K Ever

More than twenty years ago I played the Best Game of Warhammer 40K Ever™. This was in 2nd Edition, using the Dark Millennium expansion and its strategy cards. Before turn 1 my opponent played the “Virus Outbreak” card, and my Imperial Guard army was wiped out. I went from a horde of troopers to having three models on the table: two characters who were immune to the virus and the one single soldier who was lucky enough not to catch the disease. My entire army was destroyed during deployment!

Here’s the thing about that game: it was so much fun. No single match of any minis game I’ve played before or since—and there have been many—has given rise to such a great story. Sure, the Best Game of Warhammer 40K Ever™ wasn’t balanced or reasonable. I didn’t care then, and I don’t care now! The tale of the three plucky survivors trying to play without the army they were meant to be a part of is worth more than ten fair games.

I haven’t bought new Games Workshop product in decades. The forthcoming Age of Sigmar edition of Warhammer Fantasy looks to change that, however, because it appears (we haven’t seen the full item just yet) to be all set to create great stories. Where most miniatures games strive for tournament balance, Age of Sigmar has the courage to say “this is a game, it’s meant to be fun, do remarkable stuff and don’t worry about it.”

You see, most minis games are designed around the central principle that any given match should be even. The players have different armies with asymmetric capabilities, but the overall power level is to be the same at the outset. Usually this is accomplished through a “points” system: each model/group of models is worth a certain number of points, and players spend their budget of points to build their armies.

There are two problems with this. First, as a practical matter, points systems are very hard to get right. Jake Thornton, an expert of long standing at point-driven games, has even described points systems as “invariably doomed to failure” because there are innumerable contextual factors they cannot realistically incorporate. He explains that we use points systems because “they are . . . the best tool we currently have for picking reasonably even forces from variable lists,” but “they do not account for everything and . . . the more seriously you take the requirement for balance, the poorer job they do.”

The second issue is that fair is not always synonymous with fun. In focusing on equality of power points systems tend to ignore the question of whether an army is joyless to play with or against. Any minis gamer of even brief experience can cite examples of armies that are moderately effective but highly aggravating.

Age of Sigmar seems, at least based on the information available so far, to be directing its attention away from fairness to emphasize fun and the social nature of miniatures games. Balance will be maintained at least in part through social contracts, or just disregarded entirely in the name of awesome. There is much concern that this will make the game unplayable in a tournament setting, to which I say–

So be it. I have many miniatures games that promise fairness, and achieve it to a greater or lesser extent.

I want to add a game that promises fun to my library. One that promises, and delivers, great stories. If Age of Sigmar is that game, sign me up.

Theory: Mitigating Randomness

So you’ve decided to use dice, or some other randomizer, to help shape your game experience. You’ve thought carefully about what the odds of success for different actions should be, and have calibrated the randomizer accordingly. However, you’re finding the results unsatisfactory; perhaps the occasional bad roll is too devastating, or players are getting into unwinnable positions early through unlucky dice rather than bad play. Below are some tools you can use to mitigate the effects of randomness, keeping the excitement of an unpredictable outcome without the risk that dice will dominate the game.

Change the odds for key rolls

If something is critically important—because it’s the culminating move in a strategy, for example, or because it’s necessary for the game to progress—shift the odds so that that specific roll is more likely to succeed. Players naturally get frustrated when a game’s randomizer undoes their hard work at the final moment, or even worse when it stymies the game completely (the “I need to make this Investigation roll to find the clue, but I keep failing” problem). Twisting the odds toward the players at key junctures retains the tension inherent in the possibility of failure, but makes it unlikely that an actual failure (or worse, repeated actual failure) will inhibit their fun.

Broadly speaking, there are three ways to push the odds in the players’ favor:

  1. Roll more dice

As you roll more dice there are more opportunities to outweigh bad results. The average result when rolling two dice is 7, but if one of those dice comes up as a 1 the total result is probably going to be low. By contrast, rolling three dice means that even if one of them lands on 1 the other two will probably still get the total to or above 7. Rolling more dice while looking for the same end result thus leaves open the possibility of failure, but makes it less likely.

Warmachine implements this concept to great effect. It allows players to expend a resource to roll more dice when trying to hit a target, without changing the math that determines the total the player needs. This allows players to improve their chances on vital rolls, reducing the risk that a single unlikely fall of the dice will decide the game while promoting simplicity by keeping the math consistent.

Adding dice to control randomness works even in systems that don’t rely on totals. For example, role-playing games sometimes count the number of dice that meet or exceed a certain threshold value—say, one might roll ten six-sided dice and count all the dice that came up with a 4 or better. Even though there’s no totaling of values here, rolling more dice still helps, since one has more opportunities to get those 4+s.

  1. Roll the dice more times

One’s odds of succeeding on a roll go up substantially if one is allowed to roll the dice again, especially on “easy” rolls. Allowing the players to roll a second (or third, or fourth . . . ) time can thereby act as a safety valve against unexpected and/or undesirable results.

Heroclix uses this approach. The results of an attack in Heroclix are based on a single roll. Each roll can lead to a hit, or a miss, or an unusually damaging hit, or a miss so severe that it reflects damage back on the attacker! As one can imagine, the outlier results can be devastating, especially “critical misses;” wasting a turn setting up an attack that instead results in damage to one’s own piece is often a game-ending setback.

To limit how often those crushing failures occur, Heroclix is liberal about allowing players to re-roll their dice. There are many ways to get the ability to do so, or to get access to a limited variant (e.g., the ability to re-roll a die that lands on 1). Critical misses therefore end up being very rare. Furthermore, when they do happen they are usually the result of a strategic decision to forego re-rolling in order to get some other advantage, so they feel like a justified outcome rather than being struck down by random chance.

  1. Change the goal

Perhaps the most obvious means of shifting the odds in the players’ favor, this may also be the most dangerous. It’s easy enough: if the players normally need to roll a 7, make it so that they need to roll a 6 or a 5.

Unfortunately, this seemingly simple approach can be complicated in play. First, it can introduce memory issues when the change is not directly followed by the roll. This issue comes up in many miniatures games: piece A can increase the defense of one of its friends, B or C. By the time it comes to the opponent’s turn it’s not always easy to remember whether A made B harder to hit, or C, or neither of them. By contrast, picking up an extra die or re-rolling a bad result both happen at the moment of roll, and so memory issues generally are not present.

Second, changing the goal can significantly add to the game’s mental overhead. It’s much easier to look at a lousy roll and decide to re-roll it than it is to do math. Adding a step to calculating the goal—or even worse, making the players calculate the goal when normally they wouldn’t have to at all—can be trying.

Changing the goal, then, is a technique to use with caution. Forego it if the game already involves significant calculations, or if the game otherwise involves no calculations. Outside of those circumstances, think about whether another solution would provide the same in-game benefits.

Remove the worst results

If a certain possibility is going to be bad for the game, consider removing it entirely. There’s no need to be content with “this unfortunate thing won’t happen often;” as the designer, you can make it happen never.

The example of this that sticks out in my mind is the Combat Resolution Table in Avalon Hill’s classic wargames. CRTs generally looked something like this:

Roll 1-1 2-1 3-1
1 A eliminated A eliminated Exchange
2 A eliminated A back 2 Exchange
3 A back 2 Exchange D back 2
4 Exchange Exchange D back 2
5 D back 2 D back 2 D eliminated
6 D eliminated D eliminated D eliminated

The CRT’s X-axis is the odds in the battle, while the Y-axis is the attacker’s roll. Thus, if the attacker and defender are of equal strength (1-1), then a roll of 1 means the attacker’s entire force is eliminated while a roll of 6 eliminates all defending units. If the attacker has double the defender’s strength (2-1), the table changes so that there are more of the results favorable to the attacker, and so on.

CRTs could be a bit unwieldy; they changed the goal in a calculation-heavy context, with all the mental load that implies. One had to total up the attacker’s strength, then the defender’s, divide the former by the latter, and then check the table to find out how high one actually needed to roll to win the battle. Playing games with a CRT could involve a lot of basic arithmetic (which, in retrospect, may in part be why my father suggested them when I was little).

The trouble was worthwhile, however, because CRTs allowed the designers at Avalon Hill to encourage good play by removing the worst results. Attacking at even odds is easy, but the CRT allows an even-odds attacker to be eliminated wholesale. 3-1 attacks, by contrast, are rather trickier to set up, so players who manage it are rewarded by having the possibility of total defeat taken off the table.

Avalon Hill’s wargames were games of maneuver, and it would have been a problem if players had maneuvered skillfully and then been crushed regardless. They might have been confused as to what was expected, or even concluded that sound tactics were not to be used. By using CRTs that protected players from bad results after they managed their troops well, Avalon Hill’s designers made sure that the game was consistent in encouraging strong play.

Put outlier results behind multiple rolls

Sometimes a game would benefit from an outcome being rare—rarer than one can achieve through a single roll. In that case, it can be useful to require multiple rolls to get that result. With each successive roll that needs to succeed (or fail), the odds that a player will get through all the rolls diminish.

Warhammer 40,000 uses this technique to give battlefield primacy to important models like unique characters and giant futuristic battle-robots. It needs to be possible to take these centerpiece models off the table, but 40K’s designers have concluded that to emphasize their power and importance it should be quite difficult. As a result, damaging such models involves many rolls in sequence: one to hit, then a roll to see if they were hit hard enough to do damage, then a further roll to see if their armor saves them, and then a final roll for an “invulnerable save” to see if a force field or their own doggedness keeps them going. It’s very difficult for an attacker to get all of those rolls to work out as he or she needs—a friend of mine once had a character survive multiple turns of an opponent rolling hundreds of dice against him—and so these centerpiece models are subject to some risk while generally being very safe even when they lead from the front.

Choose from a pre-set list of results

It’s possible to manage, not just how likely a result is, but how often it can occur overall. For example, a game can produce random results by having players draw from a deck of cards rather than rolling dice. By adding and subtracting cards from the deck, the designer can control not just the odds of getting a 7 or an 11, but how many 11s it’s possible to have during a game.

Forbidden Desert uses this strategy. During the game a sandstorm swirls around the players; it gets worse over time, and will eventually bury them. If the storm rose too quickly it would be patently impossible to win—and not much fun. It’s easy to imagine that happening if, for example, the storm got worse on every roll of 6 on a die; inevitably someone will have the unlucky game where they roll a bunch of 6s in a row, and will walk away irritated.

The game avoids that problem by using a deck with a limited number of “Storm Picks Up” cards. Since the players will go through the deck multiple times during the game, and the storm can’t get too strong on any one trip through it, there is no danger that the storm-rises result will occur too often.

Choose from one of several lists of results

An outgrowth of the previous technique, here the game has different pre-set lists of results for different events/points in the game/etc. Players get a random result from a list appropriate to the situation.

Many games do this, but I think an especially strong example is Through the Ages. Through the Ages is a civilization-building game in which players buy cards representing noteworthy elements of their civilizations—inventions, an important person, etc. Each card is available in limited quantities, controlling how often it appears in the game.

Even that level of control, however, is insufficient for Through the Ages’ purposes; it would be frustrating if the random draw of cards gave a player whose civilization is in the 1900s options like basic agriculture and bronze weapons. As a result, the cards are subdivided into three decks, each appropriate to an historical era. This still provides a random draw, but the draw is guaranteed to generate options that at least have the potential to be impactful given the stage of the game.

Allow some tasks to be accomplished without randomness

If accomplishing something is absolutely vital to the game, should it be rolled for at all? It may be better simply to assume success and reserve uncertainty for matters where failure doesn’t bring the game to a screeching halt.

The GUMSHOE role-playing system follows this line of thinking to make sure that games simulating an investigation work. Essentially, GUMSHOE provides that player-detectives can never miss vital clues entirely; if something they need to know is present they will always find it, no rolling required. This ensures that, like a good mystery novel, the players get to the end with the all the pieces of the puzzle. Also like a good mystery novel, the challenge is in recognizing them for what they are, and putting them together correctly!

The problem of must-succeed situations can also be resolved in other ways; for example, players might be asked to roll just to see how well they succeed (the worst result of failure having been removed). However, assuming success and moving on will always have the benefits of simplicity for players and predictability for the designer. Neither of those should be undervalued.

Make failure as interesting and fun as success

The brass ring of randomness mitigation, here there’s no frustration because all possibilities are awesome. Randomness is still present, but there’s no need to go out of the way to control its effects; the effects are positive for the game as a whole no matter how the dice turn up.

Very few games even try to follow this road, but when it works the results are impressive. For example, the (sadly) short-lived Marvel Heroic Roleplaying used a system in which high rolls were more likely to result in success, but rolls of 1 could be a source of “Plot Points” which give the players extra capabilities. As a result, even bad rolls were good—just on a different axis.

Don’t leave fun to random chance

Adding an element of chance can do a lot for a game—but it can take over the game if incautiously implemented. The techniques above can help take control of randomness, mitigating its potential downsides. Give them a try when your game needs the Goldilocks amount of uncertainty–not too little, not too much, just right.