Saturday, December 24, 2011

Solo Gaming and Reaction System

One of the common refrains you hear, when someone asks about solo gaming is "Oh, you need to try Two Hour Wargames' (THW) rules as they are great for solo gaming", or "THW games are designed for solo and cooperative game playing". It is not that I disagree with those statements, but it is not quite as simple as people make it out to be.

First off, what mechanisms are people referring to when they say that THW games are designed for solo games? Let's look at a popular THW game: NUTS!. NUTS! is a set of miniatures rules for WW II skirmish gaming. There are two primary mechanisms that make NUTS! suitable for solo or cooperative gaming: the reaction system, and the use of a random, semi-programmed enemy side.

A Randomized Opponent

Looking at the second item first, a random, semi-programmed opponent represents the strategic, of a sort. Who you are fighting, where they are located, and what their objectives are is all covered under this broad topic. NUTS! represents the strategic in two ways: Possible Enemy Forces, or PEFs; and Enemy Activity Level or EAL.

The scenario indicates the number of PEFs that should be placed at the start, and typically also indicates where these PEFs should be placed. Each turn PEFs move randomly and may possibly split into other PEFs, which in turn move on their own. PEFs are removed once they are spotted; they either turn out to be nothing or are actual enemy forces. As PEFs can split, this gives the player the incentive to scout out the enemy. An enemy force cannot split into two, only a PEF can. When a PEF turns out to be an enemy force, the reinforcement table (see below) is consulted to determine the exact force. The difference, however, is that the enemy starts where it was spotted, not on a board edge like a reinforcement.

The EAL determines when and if the enemy receives reinforcements. Unlike a traditional game, where a player typically knows how many points he has to spend, and then can spend points to choose his forces, or is given an order of battle specifying the units available, in NUTS! a player gaming solo typically starts with a set force reinforced at random, fighting unknown forces, reinforced at random. The EAL (a numeric value) gives you a sense of how many enemy are in the area, and thus how likely enemy reinforcements will show up, but generally a table and die roll determine what actually shows. (Well that and your collection of figures!)

The basic mechanism for reinforcements is that when the activation die roll (a form of initiative) comes up a '7' on any given turn, both the player and the non-player opponent roll for reinforcements. If the roll indicates reinforcements, a second roll against a table indicates the exact reinforcement gained. A third roll against a table indicates where the reinforcement arrives (generally a table edge).

With enemy forces on the board, dice are rolled for each separate force and a table is consulted to determine how it reacts to your forces in the vicinity (primarily the ones that spotted it). The good thing about these charts is that it takes into account that there may be more than one maneuver group that can take action against you.

As a scenario designer, this method gives you a different set of tasks to complete. Rather than defining points for purchasing forces (as with Flames of War), a percentage of troops to put in reserve as reinforcements (as with Flames of War missions) or developing a reinforcement schedule, or even coming up with a detailed order of battle (as with I Ain't Been Shot Mum), you determine the number of starting PEFs, their locations, the EAL, and design some appropriate reinforcement tables to reflect the forces available.

By the way, the player gets random reinforcements too, by the scenario defining a Support Level (SL), which is used exactly like the EAL, and reinforcement tables for your additional forces.

The Reaction System

Whereas the randomized opponent represented the strategic (who, what, where, and when), the reaction system represents the tactical side (or the how). Basically the reaction system is simple; it is a set of triggering conditions and responses. The player takes an action – in solo play it might be for either one of the player's forces or for the enemy forces – a set of rules are checked to see if a condition is triggered, and if so, dice are rolled to determine the response. What makes it more interesting is that the response itself could be a triggering condition, thereby forcing another response, and so on.

When describing the system and example always best illustrates the concept. A German soldier moves out of cover and crosses a street to another building. A Soviet soldier can now draw line of sight to the German (a triggering condition) and rolls to see how he reacts. Let's assume that the reaction is that the Soviet soldier fires at the German as he crosses the road. The hit misses, but being fired upon is itself a triggering condition, so the German reacts to that. Their response in turn might be to fire back. Assume he gets a lucky hit, killing the Soviet. That in turn is a triggering condition for any other Soviet soldier nearby who witnesses the death. They react, fail, and run away (but out of line of sight from any enemy).

Note that many other skirmish systems could have replicated this sequence.
  1. German soldier takes a Move and Fire action, even though he has no targets in sight.
  2. Soviet soldier, who was on overwatch on the street, takes the shot, but misses.
  3. The German soldier, now that the Soviet soldier has revealed his position takes his Fire action after his interrupted move and scores a kill.
  4. The Soviets take a morale check for losses and fail.
Although, in theory, it can produce the same result, for the solo gamer this method presents a problem. If the Soviet side was the non-player side, the player would have had to take an Place Overwatch action with the soldier prior to the German's movement, and in many rules, would have had to indicate what area the overwatch was covering. Then the player would have had to have the German soldier move through that danger area, consciously knowing that the soldier was moving into danger. This creates a conflict that is very hard for the player to resolve; to set up situations and then determine if he should subject his forces to the danger when the troops being represented might not have that knowledge.

In many games, such as ones where you play the Division Commander, the rules author tells you that worrying about the formations of companies, or even battalions, or a myriad of other details, is beneath their purview; this is the concern of the Company or Battalion Commander. THW takes it to a whole new level by abstracting away details of the soldiers themselves. You, as the force commander, do not worry about going on overwatch, or which area is covered; you simply place the figure in a position with good visibility and facing the right way (you have a 180ยบ fire arc, so that is not really difficult) and he is on overwatch if the triggering condition occurs and the dice indicate when the figure reacts.

An interesting point is that the reaction system does not mean the player loses total control; it does not create a self-running game. The trigger always requires a conscious action on the part of the player. That may lead to responses, which are in turn triggering actions, creating a linked chain of triggers and responses, but what starts it all is an action dictated by the player, which comes from making a choice.

I bring that point up because it is these choices that we players make that are the hardest to replicate as being a choice made by some other intelligent being, when no one else is really there. Put another way, the reaction system doesn't solve our hardest problem as solo gamers: how to determine which of the many choices open to us we should select for our opponent.

I'll try and do a game using the THW reaction system – both a mass combat system like Rally Round the King and a skirmish system like NUTS! – so I can develop this line of thought more.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Solo Wargaming with Hand Management Systems (5)

Continuing with the game.

German Turn 5 – I play the Move Out! card, allowing me to order four infantry units in any section. This gives me the opportunity to continue pressing on the right flank and re-engaging in the center. Out of six dice rolled, only one was a hit and four were retreats! Boy these French like to run...

French Turn 5 – At this point the center is (again) not secured, but the French have no center cards, only right flank and a Direct from HQ, which allows the player to order four units in any section. Direct from HQ it is then.

Looking at the picture above, which shows the French positions at the end of the turn, only one French unit is out of position, and that is the unit with three figures that had just retreated. All others are either one figure, and therefore must be kept out of danger, or in terrain and supporting a center defense, so that leaves three orders for the secondary objective – securing the left flank.

The French did a little better, driving back two German units and inflicting two hits.

German Turn 6 – The Germans had a lucky draw and were able to get a Direct from HQ card also. The question was whether to use it, or to use Medics and Mechanics on the German infantry reduced to two figures. I went with keeping up the pressure and using Direct from HQ. The Germans were able to do much better this turn, inflicting two hits (reducing one unit down to a single figure) and forcing a retreat.

Note that the picture to the right shows a corrected retreat. The FR unit should have retreated three hexes to end on the hex straddling the left and center sections. Why? There is now a unit on the left flank that is down to one figure, so that unit must move, according to the response rules. Because the French has been close assaulted, their hand had already been drawn and it consisted of Attack Center (3), Armor Assault, Recon Left (1), and Assault Left (All). As there are no multi-section cards, and a left flank card had to be played, retreating to a left/center hex, rather than staying in a center hex, allowed one more unit to be ordered with the card that had to be played. Something to keep in mind as both a player, and something to add to the programmed response rules.

French Turn 6 – By playing the Assault Left card the French get to order four units (although one unit effectively does nothing).  The French must be running out of bullets, however, as all they do is force the Germans to retreat; they inflict no hits.

At this point the French are still leading 1-0 and have been anything other than a cake walk for the player (me). Although four separate FR units are down to one figure, only one is really within reach of the Germans. At this point I will draw the curtain to a close on the game and summarize.

By the way, the Germans did finally win, 4-1. The Medics and Mechanics gave one German unit a new life when it was cut down to one figure. In a small unit count game like this, that card is very powerful. In addition, the French dice simply failed them. The Germans slowly chewed through all of the FR units hiding in the rear with one figure remaining. Despite the score being so wide, one German unit was reduced to one, but revived with the Medics and Mechanics card while a second German unit was reduced to one figure and another to two figures, so they were not looking too healthy. On a critical turn it was the choice between running away with a single figure FR unit or using an Air Power card to try and whittle down two German units (but there was no chance to destroy them both). Had both units been one or two figures each...


Overall, I liked the Flush the Hand method for determining the programmed opponent's hand. It kept me wondering if the French would ever get the Ambush! card when I was close assaulting. As we got farther down the deck, I started becoming more reluctant to throw units with only two figures into close assault, so it kept up the suspense for me too.

I think the most surprising part for me was the use of a battle plan. So many people play battle card driven, and similar, forms of games wholly reactive. The thinking is generally along the lines of "I cannot control what cards I get, so why make a plan that relies on something I cannot control, so I will just react to the cards, dice, and my opponent's moves." I think planning is something lacking in so many games today. Most command and control systems don't require long-term planning and, like battle card drive systems, players just do whatever is the optimal move for that particular turn. The best players certainly think several turns down the road, but I think few players have real battle plans prior to starting their games.

Maybe it was my wargaming "upbringing". I played Column, Line, and Square as a kid, which was a written order, simultaneous movement game with movement rates low enough that having reserves and a plan actually meant something. What I found having a battle plan and using it for the programmed opponent was that the non-player side actually felt more consistent than I did! Also, I did not catch myself thinking "well, I know that the opponent is programmed to act a certain way in these conditions, so here is how I can track its stupid and predictable movement."

I'm not saying that I had a brilliant plan for the opponent, but at least it was a plan towards a consistent goal. I recently read that one solo gamer would write down the possible moves of an opponent, assign probabilities, roll a die for the choice, but keep adding more information and, over time, the "AI" would get better. All that player was doing was developing a rule base governing how to play (what units to choose and what move to make when chosen, for example), but instead of forcing a strict order to executing the rules, assigning probabilities so that the most logical – one that would have been assigned a higher precedence in a true rule-based decision making system – would occur more frequently. In both cases, however, the player develops choices, assigns a qualitative value to each choice, and records those decisions so that the process becomes less "administrative" with each game.

Well, I hope you have enjoyed a peek into my thinking process, and can glean some use of this battle report. Next, I am thinking about looking at reaction systems, such as those developed by Two Hour Games (e.g. Rally Round the King, 5150, NUTS!, etc.).

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Solo Wargaming with Hand Management Systems (4)

Jim Walton asked for clarification on my last article, regarding the response rules. So, here it is re-written:
  1. If an FR unit is currently at one figure and forced to retreat, retreat the unit out of the line of fire of all enemy units as far away as possible.
  2. If an FR unit is currently at one figure, it will be selected as one of the units ordered, and will be moved out of the line of fire of all enemy units . If it can also be moved into terrain it will do so, but not at the expense of getting out of the line of fire.
  3. Follow the battle plan.
  1. When ordered to move:
    1. An FR unit that can move one hex and fire upon an enemy unit will do so.
    2. An FR unit that can move two hexes and remain out of the line of fire will do so, preferring to move into a terrain hex.
    3. An FR unit that can move two hexes into terrain will do so.
    4. Otherwise, an FR unit will move one hex.
Thanks for helping me clarify that Jim!

German Turn 2 – Picking a card is tough here. Generally speaking, you want to maximize your cards' value. As I have a Attack Right card, allowing three units on the right to be ordered, but only two units there, it might make sense to move the one unit (marked with a green star) into the woods, which is on a 'power hex' straddling the center and right flank sections (also marked with a green star).

This might not be a very strong example, but it is an example that shows you why this is a "hand management" system; you manage your cards in order to play a sequence, in this case over the course of several turns, such that it would give you an advantage. If I play the Attack Right card now, I lose a chance to order a third unit on that flank. However, if I play my Probe Center card first, moving a German unit from a center hex to a center/right flank hex, I can maximize the use of the subsequent Attack Right card.

As my other two cards are Medics and Mechanics and Armor Assault, I don't have a better option (in my opinion). The Medics and Mechanics card will allow me to heal the German unit reduced to two figures, but it is a little early to play that. The Armor Assault card means I can order any one unit in any sector (as I have no armor units) but that is really a discard almost. I could pitch it now, but given that my right flank is exposed to two FR units in woods, I need to start adjusting soon.

Probe Center it is. The unit moves into the woods, straddling the center and right flank sections, losing its attack. Meanwhile I bring another unit up closer to the woods, by my injured German unit. If I draw a good card I want to be in a position to have as many units in a position to assault the woods as possible.

The German, rolling a single die, forces the FR unit to retreat. As a single hex retreat places it out of the line of fire, it can stop there.

I draw an Attack Center as my replacement Command card, so I now have a choice next turn between ordering three units in the center or three on the right flank. We will see what our 'opponent' does.

French Turn 2 – First I have to draw a new hand.

The Germans have been successful driving the French back off of the woods and ridge line in the center, so the first objective is still not met. That means committing to the center. However, my unit with one figure, straddling the left flank/center hex, is now threatened by the Germans in the woods. This unit must be ordered out of harm's way first. With a Probe Center as my only choice, that is the card I take.

The question is which of the other units to order. A frequent choice comes up in games: move into the open to closer range and attack with more dice, or move into terrain and attack from there with fewer dice. In the picture above you can see the FR unit moving adjacent to the German unit in the woods. This allows it to attack with two dice (three dice for being adjacent, minus one for attacking into the woods). Had it moved to the hex to the right of it, it would attack with only one die (two dice for range, minus one for attacking into the woods), but a German counter-attack back would also be at one die because it too would get cover from being on the hill. However, from that position on the hill it would also be possible for the two German units in the upper-right to move and fire upon it also. That is a very vulnerable position. So, another rule: when choosing between hexes to move to it is better to choose the one where fewer units can return fire at you.

The attack, unfortunately, does not dislodge the Germans, but does inflict a hit.

German Turn 3 – Having moved last turn so I can take advantage of my Attack Right card I do so, as it is a better play than the Attack Center. As one of the units ordered will be my German unit just attacked in the woods, and my opponent is adjacent, I have to draw the Allied hand to see if it has an Ambush card. Fortunately it does not, so I continue on with my attacks. Although I push the FR unit out of the woods at the top, I get no results other than retreats.

French Turn 3 – Having drawn an Assault Center card, allowing me to order all my units in the center, it is obvious which card to play.

The French enjoy a good turn. Although the French counter-attack against the woods is unsuccessful, another unit gets a lucky roll and eliminates the previously damaged German unit, while a third is driven off.

A note about the FR unit with one figure at the bottom (with the yellow marker). The reason it was not forced to retreat is, although it was within line of fire of the German unit forced to retreat, it could not be hit at that range (one die, minus one die for being on the hill). Thus, from that position it could shoot one die at the German and receive none in return, therefore there was no reason to force it to retreat.

German Turn 4 – That was not a good turn for me, as losing a single unit means losing one-sixth of my force. Maybe I should have used that Medics and Mechanics card after all...

At this point I can either Probe Right, allowing me to attack with the unit in the right/center woods and move another German unit in the woods, or I can flush the Armor Assault card from hand now. I decide to do the latter.

I still do not wipe out the French unit attacking, but it is now reduced to one figure, so a 'good enough' result. Even better, it is replaced with the Move Out! card, allowing me to order four infantry units, in any section. A very good card for this scenario.

French Turn 4 – Interesting problem for the French. With the two German units in the center having pulled back in the center, the only remaining German unit in the center also straddles the right flank. Thus I am willing to declare the center objective met. However, I now have a French unit with one figure remaining that is adjacent to a German unit (and thus in the line of fire) that I have to order out of harm's way, so that suggests forcing me to use a center card. However, the French drew an interesting card: Behind Enemy Lines. This allows you to order one infantry unit to move, attack, then move again.  By using this card the weakened FR unit can attack (with an additional die no less) and then retreat to safety. Clearly the card to use. The French attack, roll two flags, and the Germans run while the French retreat to safety.

The score so far is Programmed Opponent 1, Human 0 (how humiliating!). Although the French have three weakened units, the Germans cannot get to them in order to collect the victory points. The game isn't over yet, however.

Intermission – The question that always comes to mind when playing solo is "Is this method working?" For me, it does. I have always believed in a rules-based approach than a probability-based one (i.e. making a list of choices, assigning probabilities to each, and then rolling a die to make a choice). As I indicated in an email to reader Jim Walton, I think the rules-based approach probably yields fewer 'surprises' for the solo gamer, but then again I feel that most surprises in a game are based on either game mechanics (e.g. particularly lucky or unlucky die rolls that lead to an unexpected miss, a catastrophic hit, a failed morale roll, a unit standing against all odds, etc.) or a misunderstanding of the rules ("I didn't think you could do that!"). When I am surprised by an opponent's move, it is usually because I think they made a mistake, not because it is a good move I had never thought of. (No, I am not that good, but I usually think through the angles. I am not always right about my assessments, however.)

So, a rules-based approach can probably be considered more 'predictable', but I think it also does not produce an 'erratic' opponent, which random die rolls often do. Nonetheless, I will try probability-based system next, just to expose myself to it more. Who knows, maybe I will be surprised in a good way.

Back to this, however. I strongly suspect that flushing the hand produces a significant advantage for the opponent, but so far it has not felt overwhelming. I have seen good cards come and go. For example, I just had to discard a Counter-attack card from the French hand. That is always a good card to keep for as long as possible, and can often be a game winner. So, there are positive and negative aspects to the mechanism.

As for the rules, I don't really have that many yet. I have probably been making more decisions than I have written about, and I need to capture them. But for now it does not feel like I am simply playing the French side as I would if I had been playing the hand. There was at least one turn in which I would have preferred to have played a flank card instead of the one I did, so I know this system already produces a different result, which is good in my mind.

To be continued...

Monday, December 5, 2011

Solo Wargaming with Hand Management Systems (3)

In this article I will use a specific game and scenario to illustrate some solo gaming mechanisms. From there you can determine for yourself whether this sort of mechanic suits your gaming style or whether another might be more appropriate.

We have been focusing on battle card driven and hand management systems, such as those found in the Command and Colors family of games. In this battle report I am going to use Memoir '44, one of the easier and more enjoyable variants of that game family. The scenario will be X, which is from the basic game.

This scenario is an interesting one for illustration purposes, as it has two special unit rules and one special scenario rule which can make for a challenging game.

The scenario notes are as follows:
Axis Player: Take 4 command cards
You move first.

Allied Player: Take 4 command cards.

Conditions of Victory:
4 Medals.

When 'Their Finest Hour' command card is played, do not reshuffle the command deck. Should the command card deck run out of cards and the Allied player has not won, the battle ends as an Axis player victory.

Special Rules:
All the Allied units are French Resistance infantry (Nations 1 - French Resistance).
The unit special rules are for the French Resistance (FR). There are only a few special rules to be concerned with:

Starting with only three figures makes FR units a little more brittle than the opposing German units, but they still hit as hard. So a fresh FR unit can get wiped out in a single close assault. Something to remember even if there is nothing you can do about it.

What makes this scenario interesting is that the French outnumber the Germans in units 9 to 6, but only outnumber them in figures 27 to 24. So the Germans need to focus on eliminating units (which is a typical objective for Memoir '44) and the French want to avoid that. What makes these units interesting is their mobility in terrain. While they do not move faster than other infantry, except in retreat, their ability to move into terrain and still battle allows them choices other units would not have.

Consider this sequence:
  1. A German unit attacks, forcing the enemy unit to retreat.
  2. Retreat to the woods still exposes the unit to fire from German units in that and subsequent turns.

Now consider the same sequence against a French Resistance unit using his Retreat ability:
  1. A German unit attacks, forcing the unit to retreat.
  2. The FR unit can retreat through the woods and to the other side, cutting off all attacks until the Germans can muster several cards to move into the woods and attack.
  3. The FR unit, however, with a single card can move into the woods and counter-attack.

This creates several behaviors that the solo gamer should consider for their 'programmed' FR opponent that would differ from a programmed German opponent:
  1. Players frequently forgo moving into terrain that causes them to lose their attack (woods, towns, hedgerows, etc. but not hills), unless they are also moving two hexes (which also causes them to lose their attack). Put another way, a German player will typically either move 1 in open ground and battle or move 2 hexes into terrain and not battle. (Elite infantry units are an exception.) This ability allows FR units to consider moving 1 hex into terrain and battling as an optimal move.
  2. A typical sequence is for a player in terrain to get assaulted from one hex away, be forced to retreat, and while the defender retreats out the attacker gains the terrain. This is generally a very bad position to be in as you are now out in the open facing an enemy unit one hex away in terrain. The FR unit, however, can often eliminate that problem by simply retreating more than one hex, carrying themselves out of line of sight or into another piece of defensive terrain. This often makes the best FR retreat more than one hex, as this reduces the dice used against them, should the Germans attack before they have a chance to act.

Developing a Programmed Opponent

For this game, I am going to start by combining three solo gaming techniques together: Play One Side While Programming the Other (Battle Planning); Hand Flushing (for the programmed side only); and Rules-Based Responses.

Play One Side While Programming the Other (Battle Planning) - This essentially means that for one side, I will play a normal game of Memoir '44 with no additional rules, mechanisms, etc., but for the other side I will devise a plan and attempt to follow it as the cards allow. Given the random nature of Battle Card-Driven systems, I should devise a primary, secondary, and possibly even tertiary plan. Note that the very nature of this method is atypical of how people generally play the Command and Colors family of games. In my experience, most people play very reactive to the cards dealt, the dice rolled, and the opponent's moved, until they score the requisite number of victory points. Knowing the opponent's battle plan will often not help that style of player.

Hand Flushing - The programmed side will draw their full complement of cards, play one card, and discard the rest of the hand each turn. As they will be following a battle plan, they will choose the best card for that plan, if it is available. If an appropriate card is not available, they will choose the best card for the secondary plan, and so on. The player side, when using a Counter-attack card, will duplicate the card played for the programmed side and will ignore all of the other cards discarded.

Rules-Based Responses - This is a way for overriding the general plan. Simply put, a set of rules will be put in place which allow the programmed side to select units that might not be directly meeting the primary battle plan, for example by selecting a unit reduced to one figure, in order for it to retreat and thus not give up an easy victory point. Response rules also allow the player to determine how the units will be used when they are given orders.

As I don't want to burden myself with an inordinate amount of preparation time, I will largely be developing these rules on the fly. This will allow me to develop rules sets for future use in other games and essentially my programmed opponent will get "better" (or at least a little more consistent) as time goes on.

The Battle Plan

Battle plans are listed in order of precedence. If the first cannot be executed because of a lack of appropriate cards, or has already been done, drop down to the next item in the plan.

1. Establish a base of fire with the FR units in the center.

2. Establish a defensive line on the left flank and swing it around to the right, pushing German units into the center.

3. Swing the right flank units around to the left, pushing German units into the center.

4. Eliminate the most vulnerable German unit(s) while maintaining the best defensive positions possible.

The plan sounds pretty simple; it doesn't need to be complex. You are just establishing a priority for card play and guidance for selecting units to order and moving ordered units.

Response Rules

The next part to develop are the response rules for the FR units to use. Right now, I am only going to use two rules; all the rest will be built as we play out the first scenario.

  1. If an FR unit is currently at one figure, it will be selected as one of the units ordered, and will be moved out of the line of fire of all enemy units (or as far away as possible against artillery units and those that do not require a line of sight to fire). If it can also be moved into terrain it will do so, but not  at the expense of getting out of the line of fire of infantry and armor units.
  2. Follow the battle plan.
Let's Start the Game!

So, I'll be playing the Germans and the programmed opponent will be running the FR. As per the normal rules, I deal out four cards to each side.

Preliminary - At this point, as the Germans move first, I really only need to draw the Axis hand. If I move a German unit adjacent to an Allied unit and close assault, I will draw the Allied hand to see if I get a Ambush card. Otherwise I won't draw the Allied hand until it is the Allied turn. This will leave the element of surprise as long as possible.

German Turn 1 - My hand is so-so. I got a Medics and Mechanics card, which is always good, but Armor Assault can only be used to order one unit; otherwise I only have cards for the center.

I decide to go strong in the center, while there are still a few FR units exposed.

The first German attack, a close assault, forces me to draw the Allied hand. No Ambush card is drawn, so I keep the Allied hand and keep playing on for the Germans. They attack with three dice, get lucky, and inflict two hits and one retreat. As the unit is now at one figure, a modified version of our first response rule comes into play. (The response rule is about ordering weak units; our new rule is about how to conduct retreats with a weakened unit.) Here is the move I made.

Notice that I decided not to simply move to the first hex out of line of sight, but moved one additional hex. I call hexes that straddle a sector line (the dashed red line) a 'power hex', as a unit on it can act on a card for either sector. So, I have to weigh the advantage of being on a power hex versus being one hex farther away if I choose to counter-attack. As this is a weakened unit, I opt to program the opponent to take the safer option. The new response rule set is:
  1. If and FR unit is currently at one figure and forced to retreat, retreat the unit out of the line of fire of all enemy units as far away as possible.
  2. If an FR unit is currently at one figure, it will be selected as one of the units ordered, and will be moved out of the line of fire of all enemy units (or as far away as possible against artillery units and those that do not require a line of sight to fire). If it can also be moved into terrain it will do so, but not  at the expense of getting out of the line of fire of infantry and armor units.
  3. Follow the battle plan.
The next attack caused another FR unit to be crippled and retreat. I drew my replacement Command card for the Germans and ended the turn. The board now looked like this.

French Turn 1 - The French hand previously drawn was pretty good (even if it did not have an Ambush card).

The battle plan calls for solidifying the center, then the left, then the right, in that order. For the center, the French have two Probes to use. However, the General Advance card will not only allow the French to move two units in the center, but two on the left and two on the right, fulfilling the first three items of the battle plan, so using that card is the most obvious choice.

Note that the Assault Left card would allow me to move four units on the left, but as the left is the secondary objective of the battle plan and the primary objective is not yet met, you have to play something meeting the primary objective, if it is available.

So, the Allied player discards the entire hand (the Hand Flushing mechanism), counting the General Advance card as the one played. Here is the French move.

Another rule I developed as I was moving was that if a unit could not move one hex and fire upon the enemy, it moved two hexes, as long as it either moved into terrain or remained out of line of fire. Thus, four of the units moved two hexes and thus could not battle. One unit moved only one hex, but still could not battle because it was out of range. That left the one unit that could move one hex, into terrain (an FR specialty), and still attack. It scored a lucky hit and knocked off two German figures.

The turn is over but the Allies do not draw any cards. Again, they will only draw just before their turn, or if attacked in the German turn from one hex away (to see if they get the Ambush card).

The rules for the FR units are now:

  1. If and FR unit is currently at one figure and forced to retreat, retreat the unit out of the line of fire of all enemy units as far away as possible.
  2. If an FR unit is currently at one figure, it will be selected as one of the units ordered, and will be moved out of the line of fire of all enemy units (or as far away as possible against artillery units and those that do not require a line of sight to fire). If it can also be moved into terrain it will do so, but not  at the expense of getting out of the line of fire of infantry and armor units.
  3. An FR unit that can move one hex and fire upon a unit will do so, otherwise it will move two hexes, as long as it either moved into terrain or remained out of the line of fire of enemy infantry and armor units. 
  4. Follow the battle plan.
I will continue this example in the next entry. Let me know what you think so far, if you are so inclined.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Solo Gaming with Hand Management Systems (2)

Continuing on with the previous entry, we have looked at two "systems": Play Your Best (for both sides), and Flush the Hand (presumably for only one side). Let's take a look at some others.

Programmed Opponent

Charles Stewart Grant wrote an excellent book for solo gamers called Programmed War Games Scenarios, published by Wargames Research Group in 1982. In the book's introduction the author relates how Phil Barker convinced him that a scenario book "concerning a programmable enemy" had merit. "It could include personalities for the solo commander's opposition, pre-prepared orders and some degree of 'in battle' response."

An interesting book and idea, but much of it rested upon the 'old school' concept of written orders, which much (but not all) of the wargaming community has long given up on. The process was for the player to choose a side, generally 'Red', read the scenario setup, layout the terrain and deploy his forces, write his initial orders, and then turn the page to see what the opponent was programmed to do. There were a bit of random factors involved to change the board and opponent responses, but once you had played the scenario it became more predictable.

The problem here is one of old school versus new. Those games that use the battle card driven and a hand management game mechanics, as found in the Command and Colors family of games, lends itself very well to little planning and a near complete reactive form of command and control. Planning generally consists of looking at the hand one is dealt and at best determining possible courses of actions for the next number of turns equal to the number of cards in your hand. Typically, however, you can only plan for two to three turns if your hand draw has turned out well.

Thus one wonders whether the whole concept of planning – or that of programming an opponent – is even appropriate for games using the hand management mechanism. Plans for how to conduct the battle as a whole is dependent upon the cards drawn. If you intend to attack on the left flank, this is only possible for as long as you draw cards where you can order units on the left flank. Either that, or the program must include responses for what to do when your primary avenue of attack dries up.

Next entry I will explore this concept of "planning in a reactive game" and see if I cannot come up with something interesting.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Solo Gaming with Hand Management Systems

One of the common refrains you hear from people on forums is "How can I play the game [some name] solo?" Some common answers come out, but in many cases the process and mechanics change depending upon the nature of the game being discussed. For example, Board Game Geek lists the game mechanics for BattleLore as:

  • Campaign/Battle Card Driven
  • Die Rolling
  • Hand Management
  • Modular Board
  • Variable Player Powers
In this article, I start looking at the Campaign/Battle Card Driven and Hand Management mechanics, as are found in Richard Borg's designs in the Command and Colors family of board games. Board Game Geek defines Campaign/Battle Card Driven as:
The Campaign/Battle Card Driven mechanic is a relatively recent development in wargames that focuses the players' actions on cards they have in their hand. The very basic idea is that performing a single action uses a single card. Games where cards are used to determine the outcome of battles do not use this mechanic.

This GeekList argues that it is simply a subcategory of Hand Management.
The definition of Hand Management is defined as:
Hand management games are games with cards in them that reward players for playing the cards in certain sequences or groups. The optimal sequence/grouping may vary, depending on board position, cards held and cards played by opponents. Managing your hand means gaining the most value out of available cards under given circumstances. Cards often have multiple uses in the game, further obfuscating an "optimal" sequence.

Hand management has no relationship to action/dexterity.
The key to this definition is "reward players for playing the cards in certain sequences or groups". Where this becomes a problem for the solo gamer is when the sequence plays across several turns, as it does with games in the Command and Colors family. It then becomes hard for the solo gamer to 'ignore' the sequence being setup by his 'opponent'. So, how do you solo game when these type of game mechanics are in play?

Survey Says!

Perhaps the most common response I have heard to the question of how to play a Battle Card Driven/Hand Management game is: "I simply play each side as if that were my side all along and to the best of my ability."

JF, over at the Solo Nexus blog, wrote an entry about solo skirmishing. In that he defines two broad styles of tabletop solo skirmishing:

  • Player commands both sides, but with incomplete control.
  • Player completely controls one side, and auto-rules govern the other.
In this article, he defines "control" loosely, primarily as "random factors [that] alter or inhibit what the player is allowed to do".  JF has an interesting footnote in that "the concept of a player who commands both sides and has complete control on each turn is not, in my opinion, gaming."

So, the question is: does the player have "complete" control or not? One could say that the random element of drawing cards – which dictate which units may move and which may not – constitutes incomplete control. I tend to disagree with that assessment in the case of the Command and Colors family of games. Granted, your card choices may not allow you to select a unit on the right flank, which you might desperately want to do, but when given the option to order, say, three units on the left flank, the choice is your and not a random factor, and once you make the choice the control is absolute, within the confines of the rules. No random factor is used to determine success in activation or in how the unit reacts to your orders; control is absolute.

That would leave the typical response – faithfully play both sides to the best of your ability – a less than ideal method. So, what else can you do?

Flush the Hand

I've tried flushing the hand – drawing a full hand of cards every turn – as a means of simulating how much luck a side would have. If you are allowed a hand of five cards and there are 60 cards in the deck then you have essentially 5 chances out of 60 in drawing just the card you want (or more, if there are multiple copies of the card).

The problem, of course, is that what makes these games interesting is to string a sequence of cards together, turn after turn; the key is in the word management. Pulling off a plan that you have been working on for four or five turns is much more rewarding than getting the lucky draw turn after turn and playing the card just drawn. Flushing the hand means a really bad hand typically only stays so for a single turn, unless your draws continue to be unlucky.

Having one side manage their hand and the other flush allows the player to compete against a very lucky solo opponent, so the idea should not be completely discarded. It is certainly a quick-and-dirty way to play, requiring little pre-programming, and would probably provide a better game than trying to manage both sides and "play your best on each side".

To be continued...


Well, this is the start of my fourth blog and perhaps you might be wondering why I decided to do another, especially as Dale's Wargames is a general wargaming blog and this sounds like it deals with solo gaming, which Dale's DBA also does.

This blog will be dedicated to my solo gaming efforts - save for the specific effort of solo gaming development for DBA - whether it be battle reports or the development of solo gaming mechanism. It will be my intent to discuss solo gaming mechanisms - typically applied to commercial or freely available rule sets, both miniatures and board games - then show them in practice in later battle reports. So expect battle reports to be more 'mechanical' in description, than entertaining (although I will still try to make them an interesting read).

A primary reason for carving this niche out from the Dale's Wargames blog is so that blog can maintain more focus towards rules reviews and club battle reports. This one, like Dale's DBA, will be more of 'stream of consciousness' writing on my part about solo gaming mechanics. Hopefully the stream will be bigger than it has been on Dale's DBA...