Saturday, May 25, 2013

Simultaneous action selection

I love wargames, but am often disappointed by them.  Does that make sense?

I love the "feel" of being a combat commander: a general overlooking a detailed battlefield map, weighing risky decisions that could spell victory or defeat.  And yet, most wargames - both board and digital - don't appeal to me.  They might be too complex and fiddly, catering more to the hard-core grognard who's seeking simulation over accessibility.  They might be too fast for my tastes (e.g., most RTS games) or too  ponderous (most games by Paradox).  Pacing is critical, as I've mentioned in a previous post.  I want the satisfaction of having many tactical and strategic options available to me, but I also want the time to properly weigh and use those options.  Generally speaking, I do much prefer the slow pace of turn-based strategy games on my computer when I'm looking for a wargame fix - but the time commitment usually required is a turn-off.  Even Civilization - one of my favorite game series - asks too much of me nowadays.  

Perhaps it's not surprising then, that my favorite boardgames all happen to be relatively quick-playing, tactical combat games:  Space Hulk, Claustrophobia, and Star Wars: X-Wing all jump to mind.  

Star Wars: X-Wing, move example

The Star Wars: X-Wing miniatures game, in particular, utilizes a game mechanic which I absolutely adore:  simultaneous action selection.  Games which feature this mechanic allow all the players to make their strategic/tactical decisions at the same time.  Players keep these decisions hidden until everyone's done and ready to reveal - at which point they are resolved simultaneously.

Fantasy Flight's Star Wars game cleverly makes use of movement dials tied to specific ships.  Let's say you are flying a squadron of 5 TIE fighters led by Darth Vader in an Advanced TIE.  You'll "dial in" your movement decision for each of your ships, while your opponent is doing the same for her 3 X-Wings.  The dials are kept face down until you're both ready to reveal and resolve.  This can lead to some absolutely fascinating, cinematic moments steeped in tactical awesomeness - like moving TIE's purposely into your opponent's most likely path, forcing collisions and putting them at a severe disadvantage once the shots start flying.  Or pulling off an unexpected "koiogran" turn with Wedge and blasting away a tailing TIE who thought they had you in their sights.

Simultaneous action selection is a great mechanic for several reasons:
  1. It speeds up play and reduces downtime. Your prototypical "Dudes on a Map" wargame, like Risk or Conquest of Nerath, has players alternate troop deployment and attack decisions ("I-go/You-go").  If the game lets you move around a lot of your pieces,which is usually the case, then a lot of the game is spent watching your opponents think and do fun stuff, like roll dice, crush your battalions, and mock your ineptitude.  Not my idea of a great time.
  2. It increases tension.  You're not sure what your opponents' are going to do, or where their troops might end up, and you just have to make educated guesses.
  3. It rewards mind-reading.  Not in the psychic sense, but in the cognitive sense.  You need to be able to read your opponents, see what they desire most, and generate plans based upon those predictions. Furthermore, you need to be able to bluff, fake, and lay false trails, so that your opponents can't easily determine your strategy.  I find these kind of mind-games, that occur behind the game proper, to be immensely satisfying. 
  4. It's more realistic. No war in human history has even been fought where one nation moved all its troops and attacked while the others just stood by and waited until their turn.  Simultaneous (and often hidden) troop deployment models warfare to a closer degree and therefore makes a game feel more authentic.
  5. It facilitates story-telling.  This last point requires some explanation, I think.  Each turn in a wargame that features simultaneous action selection plays out like a narrative.  The generals have made their moves, and now it's time to sit back and see what pans out - for better or worse.  
Have you played the excellent Frozen Synapse?  It's worth a look if you like games that feature tense tactical combat.  At the beginning of each round, players assign actions to their units in secret.  Move here, hide behind this wall, and then fire through that window with your shotgun.  Pause for 3 seconds, then sprint across the hallway and chuck a grenade.  Etc.  Once both players have made their decisions, you press "play" and watch the action unfold, like a scene in a John Woo movie.  Sometimes, you make all the right calls - you blow up the right wall, your sniper finds the perfect spot, you "know" exactly where your opponent's units are going to be. Sometimes (more often than not), it's a total fiasco and bloody mess.

Frozen Synapse 

That's what I mean by story-telling, and it's really directly related to pace.  I like games that give you a chance to sit back, watch your decisions influence the world, and imagine a narrative.  The well-respected Combat Mission game series uses this mechanism to great narrative effect, and I suspect there are many other examples more knowledgeable wargamers could cite.

My current boardgame under development, Clockwork Wars, prominently features both hidden troop deployment and simultaneous action selection.  I wanted to design a wargame that had the strategic depth and thematic flavor of a big "Dudes on a Map" game, but played in a quarter of the time.  I also wanted to play a game where good strategy involves figuring out what your opponents' goals are - and then determining how best to disrupt them.  If you like games like Star Wars X-Wing and Frozen Synapse, where much of your turn is spent planning based on what you think your opponents will do, then I suspect you'll love Clockwork Wars.

No comments:

Post a Comment