Thursday, December 13, 2012

Messing with the rules

40mm wooden Dark Ages Warlord
I have always been an advocate of playing my solo battles "strictly by the rules". In fact, I do not like injecting new game rules in; at best (worst?) I have used dice to apply a personality to the non-player general (NPG) or to determine which course of action to take, but the thought of fudging the numbers in favor of the NPG never crossed my mind.

Recently I started playing Saga, a set of Dark Age skirmish rules (see my review on my Dale's Wargames blog) that have some really interesting game mechanics. As a part of learning rules I typically play a game or two solo, usually by playing the best you can for each side. Probably the absolute worst way to solo game, from an "excitement" viewpoint. It was while playing a learning game yesterday (actually, it is still set up and on-going) that I ran into a situation where I could play a reaction ability against an enemy unit and then I thought "wait a minute, it would be better to react to this other unit". I then realized that the other unit I was going to react to had not declared its action yet; I was reacting to an action my "opponent" (me) had been thinking about, but had not actually done. Put more simply, I was anticipating my moves as the opponent using knowledge I should not have possessed. This is always a problem with solo gaming and "playing the best you can for both sides". This creeps into our solo gaming all the time and usually manifests itself as a bias towards one side or another.

That got me thinking that I need to get back to working on solo gaming mechanics – specifically how to model what the best (?) move your NPG should take – and set aside the campaign ideas for the moment. (Don't worry, I am sure that I will come back to them.) I decided that one way to help me solve this problem was to take a look at what computer programmers are doing for AI in their games. I went out and purchased Programming Game AI By Example, by Mat Buckland.

Solo game with wooden Napoleonic figures
I've just started reading the book, but as I get to the interesting bits I figured I would report it here, and how I might apply the idea to a miniatures gaming AI. Well, it did not take long to hit an interesting bit, which is why I am writing this entry. The author was making the point about academic AI (strong) versus game AI (weak), and that the latter is really about "the illusion of intelligence". The designers of the AI for Halo discovered that their playtesters could be fooled into thinking the game's AI was more intelligent simply by increasing the hit points of the enemy. In one test session they game the enemy low hit points, allowing them to die easily, and 36% of the testers thought that the AI was too easy while 8% thought the AI was very intelligent. After increasing the enemy's hit points, 0% of the testers thought the AI was too easy and 43% thought the AI was very intelligent!

This led me to question my own cardinal rule about changing the game rules for the NPG. In the past, solo gaming had been a vehicle primarily to learn a set of rules or tactics, or to prepare for a tournament (see the work I did on De Bellis Antiquitatis Solus on the Solo DBA Development forum on Yahoo). As my face-to-face opponents wax and wane, especially as I use rules or periods that others are not interested in, I find that solo gaming must become more of an option for personal entertainment. Put another way, game solo or don't game at all. (Well, or game the popular rules, like Warhammer 40K, Warmachine, etc.)

If I did decide to break the rule by altering the rules for the NPG, what might it look like? Would I, for example, give an automatic +1 to the combat roll for the DBA NPG? What would the impact of such an action be? For one thing, it would require that I think and plan my attacks much more carefully. I could not rely as much on "the odds" as they would now be against me. That might certainly sharpen my play and allow a sub-optimal move by the NPG win out. Put another way, it takes the pressure off of making perfect moves for the NPG and allows "good enough" moves to present me with a surprise.

So, what are some of the other ways you can break the rules that lead to a tougher opponent, forcing you to sharpen your game? There are numerous ways to change or add to the rules in the NPG's favor, of course. I am looking for mechanisms that increase toughness, but don't essentially break the game for the player. Increase the challenge, but not the frustration. I would like to hear from you if you have ideas. In the meantime, I am going to keep reading the book and figure out ways to translate the concepts to the tabletop.


  1. That is very interesting. I would like to have some sort of AI for my games but almost always revert to the "best" for both sides. Of course that is how I wiped myself out as Mirholme in the Talomir Campaign.

  2. Those wooden miniatures remind me of lego mini-figs (in a good hand-crafted sort of way). :)

    One way to give the NP side a bit of an edge is to give them more forces, whether that's additional figures per unit or additional units. Colonial era games often give the native side more forces to balance out the 2 sides.
    Another option I have yet to try is to give the NP side some re-rolls; this could be a set number or based on some criteria and/or randomized.

  3. There was an interesting article in Lone Warrior called Creating a Solo Opponent. The 2nd part which ran in issue #170, gave an account of the author's system which entailed number of events that must occur during the game and if not, you lose. Some examples:

    Every time you roll the dice for the NPG and it's the worst possible result, re-roll.
    Once a game, automaticlly rally the first NPG unit that routs
    Twice a game, double missile fire casualties inflicted by an NPG unit.

    He provides a whole page of such examples, many specific to the battle/period he is playing, but easily adaptable. I've used several and found they do give the feeling of playing against someone who is outsmarting you. You can order PDFs of back issues of Lone Warrior, but I believe you must spend a minimum of $10.

    Other options that I have used:
    Use up/down dice for movement modifiers for my troops, but only use an up die for the NPG - his/her troops move faster, always.

    Dice to check if an enemy unit is as it appears when in LOS. It can be larger or smaller or even nothing at all.

    When working with variable hit points (a la the Halo example, but in my case, with solo dungeon encounters, also works for roster type wargames), rather than generate the hit point total in advance of combat, I check during combat to see if I eliminated the enemy on each hit. This requires a spreadsheet for the bigger enemies, but is relatively easy for the smaller. For example, if an enemy can have between 1 and 8 points and I hit for one point, there's a 12.5% chance I eliminated it from the battle. The 2nd point means I have a 25% chance, the 7th is an 87% chance(I round down). In this way, I don't know the staying power of a given enemy in advance - not so much an advantage to the NPG so much as a disadvantage to me.

    Finally, I find having objectives helps - with clear plans for the enemy and "written" orders for both sides (or even each unit) from which they can not easily veer. I'm not certain, but I'm pretty sure I got that idea on this blog! With this method, you can set up the enemy at the start with an eye towards their objectives, but randomize your setup so that you might end up spending your first few turns directing your troops to the right locations, while the NPG is making headway to victory.

  4. I play both sides of the game and have good & bad wildcards which can apply to either sides, just to be fair! I got the idea from and based some of the effects on Fortunes of War, including using playing cards. Because all my rolls use percentile dice it is easy to trigger drawing a wildcard every time I roll in the top or bottom 2%. It usually throws some sort of spanner into my brainworks which is just what the solo gamer needs.