Monday 17 September 2018

One Hour Skirmish Wargames

In the chaos of combat

I have always like the idea of skirmish games because (i) one can experiment with a small unusual army that one has no intention of turning into a 2000 point force, (ii) one can have a great game in a small area, and (iii) a game can be played theoretically in a limited time.

But many skirmish systems have only allowed points (i) and (ii) but not (iii). The logic has been that because a skirmish involves a limited number of models then each one has to have lots of complicated special rules. The trouble is that these slow the game right down until a thirty second encounter in game time takes an hour to play out in real time. Burned into my brain is a game of Foxbat & Phantom where a single pass by two Tornadoes on a Soviet formation took all day to play.

I wanted a skirmish game that had all the feel of the shootouts in Where Eagles Dare: I wanted to have heroes like Clint Eastwood jumping form cover and mowing down the bad guys with a schmeisser fired from the hip.

The problem is that one can’t just simplify the rules or one ends up with something completely bland that has no feel for the period.

So that was my first task: to speed up the game without simplifying the rules.

I started to experiment back in 2006 with my long suffering regular opponent, Shaun.

Much of the tedium in skirmish games concerns the dice-based randomiser system. This inevitably involves lots of tables with lots of modifiers. Clint Eastwood jumps out from cover and checks the hit number of his ballistic skill, modified by the weapon, range, target and concealing terrain and carries out a deal of mental arithmetic before...being gunned down by a stormtrooper firing his schmeisser from the hip on full auto.

It is a fact the skill in mental arithmetic is age-linked. The advent of cheap, powerful, easy to use, portable digital machines means that mental arithmetic skills are going the way of calligraphy as a universal skill.

I solved this by switching to a playing card based system. Playing cards offer a wide range of various probabilities from 1:2 to 1:52. Randomisers become simply a matter of drawing additional or fewer cards against the opponent, highest card wins. This system is mechanically fast and simple but very complex wrt the range of probabilities

This means that all the unit-data needed to play a game can be summarised in a few lines on a
card that the player keeps in front of them. The player spends 99% of his time considering what to move, where to move it and what to shoot at.

In playtesting, we found the act of turning over cards against each other competitively was fun in itself….kinda like pontoon.

The game is not bland, because the wide range of modifiers easily available using a single mechanism means that it is no hassle at all to give individual figures special skills.

For example, an ace sniper might draw two extra cards when shooting; a scout with concealment skills might draw an extra card over and above the terrain normal; and a skilled technician might draw three cards when trying to start a machine compared to a normal bod against a fixed number depending on the scenario rules).

The second major point after speed of play that I wanted to address was chaos. Large ‘things’ with multiple sub units, like one division versus another, are easy to predict because all the chaotic interactions cancel out. Tiny subunits, like one person against another, are controlled by chaotic processes and so are unpredictable. That’s one reason why one needs a wide range of probabilities for a skirmish game.

This game rewards player who can handle chaos and exploit changing circumstances: it is poker rather than bridge.

I introduce this chaos by the way the game turn is structured. A turn is divided into phases. The player who wins the phase initiative draws a card to get command points that are spent moving and firing figures one at a time. A single figure can make up to three moves before firing (or doing something technical) but each extra move cost exponentially increasing command points. The extremes are moving lots of things once and not shooting or moving a few things a long way. Command points can vary between 1 and 13 depending on the card drawn.

When a player has used all their points, initiative switches to their opponent. This continues until a Joker is drawn by either player whereupon the turn end immediately. Players go to the end of turn phase.

Army moral is tested to see if one (or both) armies have had enough and retreat. This is based on a card test on the actual number of soldiers that have been killed. Using an absolute measure rather than a percentage makes the game self balancing and introduces the ‘heroic’ Hollywood-feel that I wanted to simulate. Having lots of indifferent troops lurking in the middle distance will not stop your army from withdrawing but leadership is critical because they add extra cards when testing morale.

Assuming both armies survive, models knocked down by shooting are tested to see if they are
permanently out of action (doesn’t necessarily imply killed - they could have gone to ground) by drawing a card for each: Red is Dead.

There is no bureaucracy in the game to slow things down. Models defeated in close combat are removed, shot models are knocked down. A good tactic is for one of your figures to make the knock down and the another to close combat the down figure whereupon a kill is automatic.

The book is structured into eras, with each era introducing special rules for the period and an historical scenario with army lists based on a real event. The scenarios get more complicated as appropriate new rules are added, eg automatic weapons, armoured vehicles, guided weapons and, er, rayguns and psychic powers.

The eras are (i) Early Days - Age of the Musket, The Rifle Era, (ii) The Twentieth Century - Wars Within Peace, World War II, The Cold War, (iii) Extending The Game - Pulp Action.

There are rules for campaigns, including a WWII example. A points system is included, although the system is forgiving for asymmetric warfare, and ideas for modifying scenarios to refresh them.

The book is to a large degree a skirmish tool-kit. Because skirmish games are so dependent on scenarios, I wanted very much to provide an open ended system so buyers got the maximum value for their hard-earned dosh.

What made me turn what was intended just to be an experimental system to test new ideas into a commercial product was a constant reaction from each new playtester:

“This,” they said, “is fun!”