Monday, July 25, 2016

What is a Dice Game, and How Does it Differ from Other Types of Wargames?

I have generally tried to stay away from 'analysis' articles as that is what I do every day in my job, but lately I have been thinking a lot about what differentiates some of the games we play. I play a ton of different ones, so I have a lot of thoughts to draw on.

There will always be an elephant in the room, and for wargaming that game is Warhammer 40,000. Its one of the consistently updated rulesets, most people have played it, and it is in every shop. Lets take a look at how the game functions, what are some strengths and weaknesses, and possible changes. This is not an attack on the game - I have a thousand 40k models in my basement, I love playing the game once in a while. If you love something, though, you should think about ways it could be better.

What kind of game is Warhammer 40k? It is a dice game. I heard this phrase first on Chain Attack a while back. I'll try to use examples to illustrate my point - but the main thrust of a dice game is you roll lots of dice and usually whoever rolls more and better wins the game.

Now, you could say "well FCG don't you roll dice in pretty much every game, or use a randomized mechanic like card flips?" Yes, you definitely roll dice in pretty much every wargame, and you can't just have a game where purely strategy decides every single thing, because with no chance to decisions it would be pretty boring.

However, there are two key differentiations here - 'what can I do to skew the dice in my favor?' and 'what decisions do I need to make that will affect the game?'. Lets take a look.

How to skew the dice in your favor

In 40k we have several phases - movement, psychic phase, shooting, and assault. Lets break down how we can make tactical decisions to skew the dice in our favor in each phase.

Movement Phase
In the movement phase, all infantry models can pretty much move 6", mounted units can move further, and vehicle units can move even further. The main decisions here are related to getting as many units in range of your enemy as possible with the most guns possible. You have a small decision regarding vehicles - do I move a little bit, further, or a lot? Each 'band' of movement will subtract from what I can shoot more accurately.

Some weapons in 40k have 240" range
Now, the weapons in the 41st millennium have a huge range for the most part, so from turn one you should be moving so that you can shoot whatever you want. Bolters are 24", tyranid small arms are generally 18" or 12",  and vehicle weapons are huge ranges. You can pretty reliably shoot into your opponents deployment zone on turn one if you move. 

How does this affect the game? There aren't a whole lot of decisions to be made in the movement phase. Towards the end of the game, you'll have to move toward the objectives if there are any. You may want to move 6" towards a unit so you can hopefully roll 7" average charge distance - but again, that is a 13" threat range, which is pretty huge as far as wargames go. And even then, you can still shoot that unit before you charge, so if you fail your charge you've still done something.

How could we change this? It would require a whole structural change to the game, but it would likely simplify it. Note that simple does not equal dumbed down - simple just means its easier to play, without a lot of the overcomplications to bog the game down.

I would suggest we take an approach similar to Warmachine, Bolt Action, or Infinity. Each unit can do one thing per 'activation'. You can move and shoot without a bonus, you can shoot with a bonus, you can move fast, etc. This would stratify your decision making some - do I need to get to that objective? Do I need to move off the board? Do I need to stay still and get a better fire accuracy?

Combine this with lowering the ranges across the board, and you'd have a game where maneuver matters. You'd lose the idea of each unit being able to move, shoot, and charge in the same turn, but you'd gain so much more in tactical decision making. It would also likely speed up the game - instead of potentially doing three different things with each unit, you'd only get at most two.

Psychic Phase
If you have psykers (magic users) in your force, then the psychic phase is really where you're going to be making decisions. You have to choose which spells to cast and who to cast them on. You have a limited dice pool to use to cast those spells.
Many people don't like how the psychic phase is currently implemented, and the spells could use a lot of balancing, but I don't see a particular weakness here in terms of 'strategy'. You have to make decisions.

I'd fix it by balancing all the spells, make them 'selectable' instead of random, and shoring up the 'psychic defense' so that spells aren't pretty much automatic, but all of that is about game balance instead of strategy.

Shooting Phase
The shooting phase is probably where we could see most of our changes. Currently, if you have good target priority skills, some dice luck, and a killer list you can win pretty much any shooting phase.

So what decision making do you have to do in the shooting phase? For each unit, who do they shoot at, or do they run? If they run, they sacrifice their shooting to move 1-6 inches. Usually you want to run to get into range for the next turn or move toward an objective.

How could we make this part of the game more strategic? Again, shortening ranges would help - currently, if you're a good player, you assign the most important target(s) for a turn, then go unit by unit, shooting at those targets, and re-assessing who shoots at what as it goes. If you could only reach a unit with one or two of your own, its not just about target priority, but maneuver in the movement phase.

You could also leverage the fact that you can do one thing per turn - can your dudes take a fire order to shoot better, or did they move and not get that bonus? 

In regards to skewing the dice in terms of your own defense - I'd recommend we change how cover works in 40k. Instead of being a cover 'save', you'd make it harder to hit you when you're in cover. So if I improve my defense, my opponent takes a ballistics skill hit. So my cover has an effect on every shot, not just 50% or 33% of them.

It would also be great to see the shooting phase morale implications not just rely on wounds caused. Morale is not a huge factor in any Warhammer 40k game - but it'd be great to see it as a viable strategy. Bolt Action, SAGA, Kings of War, etc have fatigue factors - it would be something that could be added to 40k. So terminators just marching across the field making every 2+ save don't just go into combat fresh like they walked out of their dropship. Your strategy here would be yes, I can't kill them, but I can slow them down somehow.

Assault Phase
The strategy in the assault phase is mostly about target priority and odds of winning. Do I have enough attacks at a high enough strength and AP to do what I want. To be honest, I don't know if there is a lot I'd change here in regards to strategy. I would like to see melee combat be a lot more conclusive. When we've been playing HH lately where space marines aren't essentially fearless, the person who loses the combat usually gets 'swept' - its conclusive and satisfying. It may suck for the loser, but realistically, close combats shouldn't last hours. 

This has been somewhat rambley and disjointed, so I apologize, but overall these are my efforts to think about how to take 40k from a dice game where you can win by bringing the better list and rolling the most dice to a game where strategy is more important.

The one thing I didn't really mention but applies more to the game as a whole would be to make the game alternating activation. Objectively, there is really no downside to an alternating activation method in a platoon-level wargame. Many games use it now and have used it in the past. It would add another layer to the game and really cause you to make a lot more decisions every game.

Please understand, this isn't a post about taking 40k and making it Bolt Action or Infinity or Kings of War or whatever, its just taking modern wargaming design aspects and applying them to 40k. Again, this was a bit rambley, and I bet there is a lot I'm missing, but what do you think? 


  1. We spoke about this a bit with Beyond the Gates of Antares, which of course we are just coming off of a upswing of new and shiny feeling with. Instead of going into hyper-detail, I'll just point out a couple things that I think they nailed that stifles your game just being about who rolled the most dice.

    -Alternating activations. Be it Warlord^TM order dice or alternating, I think it gives some blow/counterblow to things. We see this with DZC and unique battlegroupings. Or simply unit groupings in Firestorm Armada. Feeling the sting of your opponent making a great play or a great dice roll is at least mitigated by you getting to throw the next sucker punch.

    -A bit of swing in movement. As we chatted about, sometimes you can look 3 turns ahead on consider if objective points can be scored with fixed movement values. I mean listen - we are all experienced gamers, we can all multiply our movement and see if we can get there :) However, the Gates sprint success adding more movement is a really interesting concept. It is really possible to create a heroic moment by getting extra move, even with vehicles. Secondly, there is the negative tax of taking pins upon pushing your troops to run full speed.

    -Assault/shooting effects without creating a kill. In a sense, this sums up a few points you mentioned from other gaming systems. If you roll to hit and hit, but do not wound, essentially that is a zero gain. Be it pins, stunned/morale effects, being tied up in combat, or sacrificing their action to react, I think it is interesting to effect a unit in these ways.

    -Ongoing first activation rolls. A couple games, for instance Wrath of Kings, has a system to swing the first activation to the losing player. When a first turn roll is a single d6 and this permeates through the end of the game, it can really change things for folks. Of course, sometimes "last and first" activation can seem like an unfair doubletap. Its a complex minefield for sure.

    I think there is a lot to explore to round out strategic choices on the table, and not just leave it to the dice! We are lucky to have so many gaming systems trying new ideas.

    1. I really like the idea of a comeback mechanic like Wrath of Kings has. Wmh has it a bit in that you can always go for a hail Mary assassination, but most of our other games have nothing like it, and it would be extremely welcome.