Wargamers like to add more toys. But the rules don’t always support that many on the table at the same time. They are trying to do too much with the rules. The rules start limp along, as they get overburdened.
However some rules are designed overloaded, out of the gate. Born with a limp, so to speak.
How do we know when the rules are overloaded?
….Does your game drag on? Do you often forget to activate units (or can’t remember what is supposed to occur next). Do you find yourself wandering off while someone is taking their turn? Are there big pauses while actions/moves are resolved? ….Obviously, some of these could be attributed to middle age….
How do we avoid overloading/bogging a game – and what design elements need to be considered?
Now you can’t stop players from using more miniatures than intended. That’s unsolvable.
But what we can consider is if the game is overloaded for what we intend to use it for: i.e. you can make a game that is already overloaded at a “normal” size game: by choosing the wrong mechanics and mechanisms.
How can we avoid designing a game that is overloaded by default?
Although I haven’t kept up with 40K, my original copy was a quasi-RPG (Rogue Trader) which slowly evolved into a platoon+ game. The original game was at Warmachine scale – heck it had more in common with Necromunda than modern 40K. However as the game added more and more toys, it retained many mechanics which did not fit its new role/mini count. There were various attempts to streamline it, but it really needed a more significant revision (Starship Troopers points to what it could have been). Warmachine worked well at around original box set level but the mechanics bogged as they increased the game size.
Sometimes a game is already overloaded, at it intended “troop level.” It’s already bogged down.
There are a few linked concepts – level of control (what should you the player directly micromanage) and abstraction (what to detail, what to ignore).
If you are controlling a tabletop platoon (3-4 squads, + vehicles) you are the platoon commander. You should be moving/activating squads and fire teams, not individual soldiers. Grouping minis in some sort of forced coherency (the classic “everyone in the squad must be 2” from each other etc) in fire teams or squads is logical AND keeps play moving along (not need to track if Fred from Delta squad has activated – he moves with his squad). The level of control is only 1-2 steps down. If you are a platoon commander, you should be able to command squads; or at best, fire teams/specialist squads. Not micromanaging each and every individual soldier.
If you are playing a skirmish game with ~4-8 soldiers, it is likely you may individually direct soldiers. Maneuvering each mini independently makes sense. Moving them as a single unit would restrict maneuver. Think about real life soldiers and the level of control – how many elements (be it squads, fire teams, or even battalions) is a leader expected to control?
There’s a few PC games that suffer from this. Men at War: Assault Squad has you playing as a platoon commander, yet you can (and should) set the stance for each soldier, throw individual grenades… basically you can directly control ~30+ individual guys, as they scatter around like lemmings. If the total men was capped at 8-12, it would work fine. As it is, it is micromanagement hell.
The Total War series caps your army at ~12-16 or so units at a time. As they have a predictable and mostly static front line, in reality you are only micro-ing 4-6 units, and your attention is only in 1-2 places at a time – most of which you can see on your screen. This works. In contrast, WW2 epic Steel Division could have 30, 40, 50 units scattered all over the map. It’s much easier to forget you have that tank in the corner of the map….
So the level of command/amount of units has a historical aspect (i.e. if you are a company commander, you will not be directing the exact location of each and every grunt under your command) and a practical aspect (how many units can you the gamer effectively control) which should roughly align anyway…
It should be obvious when, for example you need to move/activate models as a squad, and when to move them individually.
Likewise, the level of abstraction should be evident: if you are a platoon commander, you don’t need to track if Private Parts had his morning coffee so is +1 to his individual “to hit” roll. Instead you might simultaneously roll a handful of firepower dice for the whole squad, adding or removing dice at various ranges. If you are playing a quasi RPG game with 4 elite operators, then individual modifiers probably should be significant. I’d say it’s possible to abstract to oversimplification – say a fire team level skirmish game where everyone succeeds at everything on a 3+ (hero), 4+ (regular), 5+ (newb), with no measuring or no modifiers… and lose too much tactical choice/naunce. It’s taking platoon+ level abstraction, simplifying/abstracting it even more – and applying it to a RPG…
The problem for a game designer is what mechanics handle miniatures best at that scale – and how it aligns with the level of control.
The dreaded IGOUGO technically handles large groups of units better than alternate activation. You can just activate your units left to right until you’ve done ‘em all. With alternate activation, with too many units you may forget who has already activated as you go back and forth taking turns activating dozens of units. However – too many units in IGOUGO can lead to boredom – as the non-active player will sit for ages, passively awaiting their turn.
Obviously, tracking/recording can cap units. If each soldier has 10 hit points – then where do all the unit cards go to record these? Could you have 30 models, each with its own card?
Detailed/unique rules can cap units. If each model has its own special rules, there will be a lot of flicking through rule books – slowing the game to a crawl.
Many modifiers can cap a game. If you have to remember 101 modifiers of +/-1 every time a model (or group of models) shoots or melees or whatever, it can slow things down.
Gaslands has lots of “steps” in a turn. This slows a game which is supposed to be about frantic car combat and limits the amount of cars/players/special gear (rules) you can use. My solution is to have only 3-4 players, with very simple cars. 8 players, even with one vehicle each, is already ‘overloaded’. There’s a lot going on.
Gaslands actually prompted this post, as players said it was “fun, but just a bit much” and naturally I want to question “OK, why? What is it exactly that is the issue?”
Even physically moving lots of models can slow things – which is why mass battle games tend to base many minis on a single base – you might have 6-12 minis which only need to be picked up/activated/attack once. Rolling lots of dice (lots of “steps” to mechanics) can slow things – roll to hit, roll to beat armour, roll to wound, roll for cover save – all this slows things down. We could call all of this “action resolution” – once you the gamer make a decision – how long does it take (moving models, chugging dice) to carry it out/determine the results. Even how you roll matters – take Warmachine – roll 2d6, add the together, then compare to a defence factor and note the difference – a bit clunky, a few steps – yeah fine for a RPG or small skirmish game but not so cool if you have lots of big 10-men squads against each other.
This is obviously not an exhaustive list of all factors, but gives you an idea of what you need to consider when ‘scaling’ a set of rules to the amount of minis intended to play it.
In short, you need to choose game activation/mechanics appropriate to the scale and amount of units you are intending the rules to handle.
The Hard Cap. Infinity is a pretty detailed skirmish game. It has many special rules (100+), and complex reactions where one or more minis can react to (interrupt) an active mini. It is a game that has all the traits to swiftly bog down and is hard capped at 15 miniatures – which is already probably too many. Unfortunately…. each mini brings a valuable “order” (activation) so more minis is better – a bit of a problem. Given the complexity, the game should be played with far smaller forces; and indeed the designers have made a simplified version (Code One) in recognition of this and seem to be slowly trimming rules bloat). War Cry also has a 15-mini hard cap. It has hitpoints (boo) to track, but compensates by a much, much simpler ruleset and less special rules – so should play much easier with less “load”. Hard caps on max units show the designer recognizes when the rules “break down.” I haven’t played the new Kill Team, but given it ALSO uses hitpoints AND has more special rules AND a large hard cap (20) I am confident it is a much slower, gluggier game than War Cry – probably already overloaded “out of the gate” and would probably take ~double the time to play.
This begs the question: How long should a game last?
This is akin to asking how long is a ball of string. I will note – I think we are seeing a shift towards shorter (45-60 minute) wargames over the traditional “all afternoon” affairs. Some games lend themselves to short format – its wise if a campaign skirmish game lasts only 45-60min so you can squeeze in multiple games in an evening – as campaigns are notorious for petering out after only a few meet-ups. I think this depends on the genre of game you are aiming for, but it’s a question you should ask yourself.
Middle Earth: SBG – Example
MESBG (the best rules GW has ever made) as it seems to break a key concept. Models move and fire individually yet the game handles ~30-40 comfortably (and only starts to overload at ~50+ which is mostly due to physically positioning all those models – and positioning matters).
So why does it work this way?
The melee centric nature of the rules, and how models touching each other’s base can give bonuses in fights. This tends to create natural “shieldwalls” – lines of minis moving together. Each army has several heroes who act as “leaders” allowing models in range of them bonuses/activation benefits which again tends to create unofficial, organic “squads.”
Activation sequence is simple and somewhat interactive – Side A moves, Side B moves all, Side A shoots all, Side B shoots all, Both Melee. This gives the management benefit of IGOUGO with less waiting around and more interaction.
Mechanics are very simple. Shooting is 3+, 4+ or 5+ to hit (depending on who is shooting) with no modifiers. Just a “cover save” of 4+ if needed. Melee is highest dice wins, with better Fight stats breaking ties (and extra dice from each ally supporting). A potential slow down is the Wound chart (compare Strength vs Defence on a chart) but it tends to be swiftly memorized and not needed in-game. Special rules are minor or rare. The only hitpoints are 2-3 wounds owned by a few heroes or monsters each side; so there is little tracking. Most special rules or recording is thus restricted to 3-4 heroes – not the other 30 regular guys.
So you can see although having 30-40 models moving individually seems a lot (and wrong – it’s a platoon level game acting like a skirmish game) due to ticking most of the boxes for simplicity/smooth play, it is physically placing each model which is causing the most major slow down. If you placed the models on trays and moved them en-masse, you could probably handle even more (actually there is a OOP spin-off, War of the Ring, which does just that, and simplifies things even more).
Gamers often “overload” rules by using far more minis than the game was designed for. Unavoidable.
However, some games use the wrong mechanics, and are “overloaded” even using their intended forces.
Historical level of command can help give you an idea of what to abstract/how to activate/group miniatures – the right level of simplification/abstraction.
Choosing the right game mechanics is important – activation, grouping of minis, resolution time/complexity of movement/attacks, amount of special rules/modifiers – all need to match the scale and intended play time/speed.
Can you think of some rules that are ‘overloaded?’ for the size they are intended to be played at?
What element/s of the game is causing the overload?