Thursday, December 13, 2012

Finite State Machines and ... Miniatures Gaming?

A word of warning: this blog is basically my way of thinking through ideas, even unfinished ones. I find that I do better writing things down rather than just sitting there pondering, and hoping I remember the good bits later. I hope you will bear with me as I sort through my thoughts and hopefully you will find something of interest and use.
The first AI technique discussed in Programming Game AI By Example (see last blog entry for the reference to this book) is a classic: finite state machines (FSM). In the words of the author, the definition of an FSM is:
A finite state machine is a device, or a model of a device, which has a finite number of states it can be in at any given time and can operate on input to either make transitions from one state to another or to cause an output or action to take place. A finite state machine can only be in one state at any moment in time.
The idea being using an FSM is to decompose an object's behavior (in our case, a unit's behavior) into manageable  states. A simple example provided in the book is probably one most of us can understand, that of the "ghost" in the video game Pac Man. The normal state of the ghost is to "chase Pac Man". However, when Pac Man eats the power pill, the ghost switches from "chase" to "evade". The ghost reverts back to chase mode once the timer runs down and the power pill wears off. The rules for the ghost might look something like this:

rule: if in 'Chase Mode' and 'Power Pill Active'
    then switch to 'Evade Mode'
    else continue 'Chase Mode'

rule: if in 'Evade Mode' and not 'Power Pill Active'
    then switch to 'Chase Mode'
    else continue 'Evade Mode'

The same sort of behavior can be encapsulated for units in a game. This is essentially what I was referring to when I discussed creating and using programmed opponents on this blog. What makes a FSM "better" than the rule-based approach I discussed previously is a matter of organization. The rule base mechanic simply lists a set of rules to follow, in a strict order, and to stop evaluating the rules once you find a rule that applies. What makes developing this rule base complex is setting the evaluation order of the rules. It is not usually impossible to determine the correct order, but sometimes it gets so complex that the gamer decides to forego the whole process and just "play each side to the best of my ability", which after awhile can get pretty stale and predictable.

Put another way, a single rule base evaluates a set of conditions in a strict order. An FSM allows you to evaluate conditions in order based upon the state you are currently in. You can essentially have a set of rules associated with every state.

Sample Game
Okay, enough of the theoretical; you can get that from any book. Let's make this concrete. The image to the right shows the start of a skirmish game. The red player (you) have four units: two Warriors (the groups of eight red circles, on the flanks), one Bodyguard unit (the four red circles in the center), and the Warlord (the large red circle in the center). The blue player (represented by a non-player general) also has four units, but they are Warriors (group of eight blue circles on the left), Levy (group of 12 light blue circles in the center, on the hill), the Bodyguard (four dark blue circles on the right), and the Warlord (large blue-in-white circle on the right).

The player's side is oriented towards melee. In fact, all four units have no missile weapons. The non-player side is oriented towards shooting; all four units have missile and melee weapons, but are weaker in melee than their red counter-parts. The basic blue battle plan is to:

  • Use the Levy and Bodyguard to fire upon and weaken the opposite red unit.
  • When the red unit has been weakened sufficiently, the Bodyguard will charge in with the Warlord and finish it off.
  • The Warrior unit will skirmish with the red units, attempting to engage them sufficiently so they do not go support their unit being attacked by the Levy and Bodyguard, but not so heavily engaged that they become overwhelmed.
For now, I am going to ignore the orders of the Levy and Bodyguard and simply focus on the Warriors. Basically, their mission is to tie up one, and hopefully, to three units. There are three basic states (although this may depend upon the rules you use):

  • Neither in missile or melee range.
  • In missile range.
  • In melee range.
There are all sorts of variations or "sub-states", if you prefer to call them that, but I like to think more in terms of conditions. Rather than having a state for "in missile range of the Warriors" and another for "in missile range of the Bodyguard" and maybe yet another for "in missile range of the Warriors and Bodyguard", etc. I simply treat it as the state "in missile range", with conditions indicating which units that applies to. I can then have rules that list the preferable target in order of precedence.

Range Bands
One thing to note about these example states is that you can visualize them as range bands. Consider a unit that moves 6" and has a missile range of 6". The opponent has a movement of 6" also. Technically, if you are in the Melee band, you are also within the Missile and Move bands. This helps us understand that we need to set an precedence order for checking which band, and thus which state we are (or should be) in: Melee, then Missile, then Move.

So, let's think about this, We start the game in the Move band, i.e. outside of both melee (6" move) and missile (6" move plus 6" shoot) range. The first condition to check is whether the enemy moved and we are now at a different range. To keep it simple (for now), let's assume we have the first move, and the situation is as indicated in the map above.

My basic program is to move towards the closest enemy and get into a position where the unit can fire its missiles, and if possible, move back. If the enemy approaches, the unit is to back off, firing missiles as it retreats. (Note: the basic reason for firing then retreating is because the unit's missile range is 6", the same as the movement distance of the enemy. That means if the unit moves forward to fire, it put itself into Melee range automatically. Thus it wants to back out of Melee range before the enemy unit can react. Your rules may not allow such a maneuver, thus this model will not work for you. The rules I will be testing this with, Saga, do allow this sort of behavior.) One other point might be that where the unit can either move and fire at either the Warriors or Bodyguards unit, it will choose the more valuable unit, the Bodyguards.

As the rules I will be testing this with is Saga, for those unfamiliar with the rules here are the basics you need to know:

  • Each turn the player gets a certain number of dice to roll.
  • Each die rolled indicates what abilities the player can activate during the turn, which includes ordering a unit to take a single action.
  • A unit can be ordered to take more than one action per turn by committing more dice to that unit.
  • The more actions a unit takes in a single turn, the more fatigued the unit becomes.
  • When a unit takes enough fatigue, it is exhausted, and it may not move or shoot until it has rested sufficiently.
This last point brings out another state required in our model: Exhausted. If a unit is exhausted, it can do nothing else before resting. This state will take priority over Melee, Missile, or Move.

Back to our Warrior unit. An ideal turn would be to move forward into missile range (6"), shoot at the enemy, and then retreat back out of the enemy's Melee range (6"), for a total of three actions. As this sequence causes fatigue, a fourth action for resting would make this a truly ideal turn. I can tell you now that committing four actions to a single unit is excessive in most Saga games, so we need to look at the next best option, which is move in, shoot, and move back in one turn, and rest on the alternate turn.

If we put all this into an ordered rule base it might look like:

State: Exhausted

rule: ...

State: In Melee Band (within any enemy unit's movement distance)

rule: ...

State: In Missile Band (movement distance + missile range to an enemy unit)

rule: if not overly fatigued
    then move forward into missile range, shoot the enemy, and retreat out of the enemy's melee range

rule: if overly fatigued
    then rest

State: In Move Band (farther than Melee and Missile bands)

rule: ...

This now covers the basic program of the unit for harassing the enemy with missile fire. We still do not have specifics about how the unit approaches or retreats, or if it fires at the enemy in any specific way (for example, to attempt to kill off a special character like a leader), but we have the basics on how it should act.

As I indicated in the articles on Battle Card Systems and Hand Management, rule bases should be built up over time, rather than trying to do it all up front, at once. I will close this out for now and try and write up the skeleton for the programmed units for this scenario (i.e. all four units) and post them. Maybe then someone else can take them up and play a game with them and provide a critique.

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.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Campaign map to tabletop and back again

There really do not seem to be that many systems out there that can translate from campaign map to tabletop and back. I think a big reason for this is:
  • Tabletop rules, in an attempt to reach a definitive conclusion in a reasonable amount of time, have too high a casualty rate.
  • There are an incredible number of variables to model for a campaign that just don't come into play for the tabletop, such as replacement rates, recruiting, training, etc. Adding that campaign complexity adds tremendously to the body of rules.
I've come to the conclusion that the "recovery rate" for casualties after a battle has to be as generous "casualty rate" is during the battle. Otherwise you end up with very short campaigns or unrealistic replacement and recruitment rules.

A Review of Campaign Rules

Looking through my library I find that I have four (readily available) rule sets that deal with tabletop gaming and campaigns: Tony Bath's Setting Up a Wargames Campaign, Bruce Quarrie's Napoleon's Campaigns in Miniature, WRG's De Bellis Antiquitatis (DBA), and Real Time Wargames' The World Turned Upside Down. (I also have Real Time Wargames' To the Last Gaiter Button, but I have not been able to figure out the rules. I may have an incomplete copy with pages missing.) I thought I would review how each of them tackle this problem.

Tony Bath's Setting Up a Wargames Campaign

This is a classic book that I first read about 35 years ago. I purchased the 2009 re-print from John Curry, which included Tony Bath's Peltast and Pila Ancient Wargaming Rules. This book has a lot of ideas about a lot of areas for a campaign, including economics, recruitment and training, building maps, etc.

From the campaign-to-tabletop-and-back aspect Tony presents two situations to consider: where one side voluntarily decides to withdraw and where a failed army morale check forces one side to withdraw from the battlefield. Let's look at the latter case.

For starters, army morale is check at 33% losses. The army rolls a D6 and on a '5' or '6' they can fight on. A roll of '3' or '4' allows the army to retire in good, while a '1' or '2' requires all units in melee (when their army fails morale) to automatically surrender, while the rest of the army withdraws in disorder. Tony uses a method of cascading failure – meaning that once you fail you keep throwing morale checks until you succeed or you reach a certain number of failures – which results in the army having one of the following morale states:

  • Withdrawing in good order
  • Withdrawing in disorder
  • Retire from the field shaken
  • Retire for two map moves shaken
  • Rout shaken to the nearest friendly fortress, to await reinforcements
  • Rout two map moves shaken and two more moves reorganizing

Tony makes the point that "we could of course merely accept the full losses suffered in the battle; but this would probably reduce our armies quite soon to impotence, and would make no allowances for recoverable wounded, losses and gains in equipment, etc." His method is to have both armies make 25% of their battlefield casualties permanent (dead or seriously wounded) and an additional 25% as wounded (the loser's wounded become prisoners and the winner's are out of action for two moves). Tony goes even further by looking at the loss of equipment, especially missiles.

So, in a nutshell, the method in Setting Up a Wargames Campaign is that 25% of the battlefield casualties are permanent and 25% cause a delay in when the casualties are returned to the ranks. That works for a system in which figure counts play a part, but is harder to adopt for Command and Colors type games (like BattleLore) or element-based games (like DBA). One idea for BattleLore would be for a unit to lose 50% of its lost figures, but that would lead to a lot of bookkeeping, as you would have to track each units real figure count and adjusted figure count, along with when their wounded come back. After a few battles, it could get pretty ugly.

Bruce Quarrie's Napoleon's Campaigns in Miniature

I picked up the revised fourth edition (1992) of this book, originally published in 1977, about a year ago. The book had a single concept I was interested in (accounting for the number of vollies fired and the time spent firing them), and so I sought out a copy. This is a classic 1970s set of rules in which the number of men lost (not figures) are tracked on a roster. Casualty rates tend to be low, as it takes 33 losses to remove a single figure, so morale reduction tends to take a higher significance than casualties (attrition).

Bruce uses statistics from his reading to develop a percentage of troops that will die, be seriously wounded, or be lightly wounded, by arm (infantry, cavalry, and artillery) and by how the casualty was inflicted (artillery fire, musket fire, or melee)! As Bruce puts it: "This sounded complicated, but it isn't. You have to keep a casualty list anyway so you know when to remove a figure (33 men) from the table, and it doesn't take a moment longer to make note 'A' for artillery, 'B' for muskets and 'C' for melee after each casualty figure so that you can refer back afterwards and establish your proportions of dead and wounded."

The only rules I played that tracked casualties in this way was WRG 5th and 6th Editions. The basic "problem" with this method is that you have to be able to easily distinguish between like units, either numbering, lettering, or naming them.

But, continuing with Bruce's method, the basic percentages are that about 50% of all casualties result in death (with only minor variation in the numbers between arms or method of obtaining the casualty). So, Bruce's methods result in an even higher percentage of attrition than Tony's, but again you need to keep in mind that both of these systems feature lower casualty rates than modern rules. BattleLore, for example, features about 33-50% casualty rate for the army and of those units counted, they are down 100%. Granted, it does not necessarily represent 100% wounded and killed, but still the base percentage is high.

WRG's De Bellis Antiquitatis

I have been playing DBA version 2.2 for about four years now. I fell in love with its simplicity of rules, tactical richness, small armies, and quick games.

In DBA, games are fought to 33% casualties to the army (although it can go higher if your last turn is a particularly bad one). As the units are element-based, meaning no figures are removed and the whole unit is removed, unit loss is 0% or 100%. In this respect it is more like BattleLore than either Tony's or Bruce's rules.

DBA is pretty cruel when it comes to campaigns. First off, understand that DBA campaigns are often played to conclusion in the course of a single day, so they have to be harshly deterministic. (At HMGS conventions, they are often played to conclusion in addition to other activities that day!) A campaign consists of four seasonal turns per year, with battles able to occur on three of those four seasons, and with casualty replacements occurring on the fourth season. Put another way, you only get casualty recover once every three battles (assuming you battle every turn).

As the typical DBA game has one side losing 4 out of the 12 elements in the army, that means an army loss of 33% (minimum) with 0% recovery for the loser, and often a similar amount for the winner. When you reach the fourth season, the best you can do is recover back up to 12 elements, but you often cannot even do that as you only regain one element per city held and two for holding your capital. (You start with two cities and a capital, so assuming no loss of cities you can only recover from a single lost battle in a year.) Again, DBA campaigns are meant to get to a conclusion within a day.

Real Time Wargames The World Turned Upside Down

Another set of rules that I heard supported a concept I was interested in – which was area movement on the tabletop – and the fact that it is about the American Revolutionary War, sold me on purchasing these rules. I reviewed and play tested them on my blog Dale's Wargames (review part one and part two; play test part one, part two, and part three; and question and answer part one and part two).

The World Turned Upside Down (TWTUD) uses a point-to-point map and the players move their armies and commanders around it. Armies are indicated in the number of men that comprise it; there are no details to that number, such as how much infantry, cavalry, or artillery, other than whether they are British, Hessian, Loyalist, or Rebel. It is simply the number of men. When you fight a battle, you roll a D6 for each 1,000 men and reference a table to determine what  units make up that force of a 1,000 men. Each 1,000 also has a variable amount of artillery attached to it. This determines your tabletop army.

As the battle is fought, a unit will lose bases – either removed as casualties, prisoners of war, or as stragglers – and after one side loses, these bases are converted back to the number of men lost. Note that you only lose a percentage of the bases, typically 50%, but sometimes 0% (winning sides POWs are recovered) or 33%.


I can see that most of the rules tend towards 50%, which I still think is too high, unless you are specifically using a low casualty rate in your rules. I would tend toward 25%, but as I am using a six-sided die, the rate will have to tend towards 16% and 33%! If you look at my initial post about this campaign, that is essentially what I intend to do. The winner recovers a lost unit on any roll other than the banner color (16% lost) while the loser recovers on any roll other than banner color or a Shield (33% lost). In addition, I indicated some conditions whereby a unit could be routed (miss the next battle only) or demoralized (have one less figure in the next battle only).

The like the TWTUD concept of "rolling for your army" each battle, and only keeping track of the number of men. It seems a little counter-intuitive, but it seems to work. This is very similar to the concept used in BattleLore: Call to Arms, which is Richard Borg's answer to a points system. In it you simply draw cards to determine the composition of your army. Very similar to TWTUD in concept. The difference, of course, is that in Call to Arms the army size is somewhat "fixed"; you always get the same number of cards, and those cards indicate the number (and type) of units you receive.

If you wanted to combine the two concepts a little more, essentially using Call to Arms method for determining army composition and TWTUD's idea of taking casualties to the army size, you could track the losses (either by banner color or banner color and type, depending upon the level of detail you want to maintain) and then your Call to Arms-produced army list would be reduced accordingly. You will have to come up with rules on what happens if Call to Arms does not specify enough troops of the appropriate banner color or type to offset your losses. The most likely idea is to remove a different unit of the same banner color or better (i.e. remove a red for a missing blue, a blue for a missing green, a blue melee for a missing blue missile, etc.).

Throwing a little Kingmaker elements in too you could set objectives on the map that allow you to obtain reinforcements – either Specialist cards to use in battle or specific units – further modifying the Call to Arms army list. Additional ideas include adding restrictions to units, such as troops only being usable in certain areas of the map (e.g. local levies that will not march and fight far from their home).

All of this covers how to handle battles in campaigns, but this blog is not about how to run a campaign, but how to run a solo game (whether a single battle or an entire campaign), so next time I will start fleshing out how to deal with this aspect of campaign gaming.

Friday, November 23, 2012

A BattleLore campaign already out there

I have been working on a number of Vassal projects of late and I realized that the War of the Roses module extension for BattleLore that I had been working on 1 was itself a campaign. This campaign was presented on the BattleLore Call to Arms forum on Yahoo in the Files section, and had been created as a series of Vassal saved games (using an older, incompatible version of the BattleLore module).

The campaign itself is very much like the Memoir '44 campaign books. You run through a series of set-piece, pre-defined scenarios, which you can modify by committing a limited number of reserves. Who wins or loses a scenario determines which scenario is played next, and whether you will have additional resources available to you in your reserve.

In the War of the Roses campaign, entitled A Warwick! A Warwick!, it uses a concept similar to how (I remember) the old Avalon Hill Kingmaker board game worked. As you play battles your side gains "offices", such as the "Captain of Calais" or "Warden of the Northern Marches". Each of these offices are associated with a specialist card (from Call to Arms), that can be played once during the campaign. For example, the "Marshal of England" gets the "Mounted Knights" specialist card, while the "Treasurer of England" gets the "Forced Enrollment" specialist card. In addition, some scenarios have an affinity with certain offices, and trigger further special rules. For example, in "The Battle of Hedgeley Moor" the player with control of the "Warden of the Northern Marches" office gets an additional medium (Blue) infantry unit as a reserve.

This is the sort of thing I was thinking about for my own campaign. Put objectives on the map so that if you, say, control a specific castle, you control the office holder, which comes with a complement of troops. I like the idea of specialist cards, but simply specifying the troops works well too.

Where I think these types of campaigns don't work as well is that they don't really show as much continuity between battles as I would like. For example, getting the entire army wiped out in the first scenario usually does not have any greater affect on the scenario two than if you simply lost the battle by a single Victory Banner.


One of ways of determining battlefield terrain in Call to Arms (the "points" system addition for BattleLore) is to randomly select one of the maps provided with the expansions, but simply removing all of the troops and using the troop selection method indicated in Call to Arms. To that end I started working on a Vassal extension for the BattleLore module that contains all of the maps from the scenarios. I am about done with it, now that I have made the 69 saved games with all the maps defined.

The Heroes Expansion

One other element I have been considering adding to the campaign is the use of the Heroes expansion. To be honest, I have never played a single game with this expansion, despite having it for probably two years (and once having two copies of it – don't ask). The idea is that each side will have a number of hero characters to build up as the campaign progresses, and to inject them into the game narrative. For example, by a Hero ending the game in the Witch's Hut he (or she) gains an object, which has direct consequences to a battle fought in another location (e.g. you get additional troops, you find a secret passageway through the hills, you have an object a Hill Giant desires that will entice him to join you as an ally, etc.).

As this is a solo campaign, most of these elements would be to help the player side, but there may be a few cases where the player learns that the non-player side is sending a hero to a location, for unknown purposes, that should be stopped.

I can see using Mythic to develop these ideas into story lines for the campaign.

Epic Campaigns

I started wondering how many of these "epic campaigns" there might be out there; campaigns in which the focus is not on player characters, but on armies and where character interaction can have an impact. As usual I started by using Google and found a reference to the old Pendragon role-playing game. Now I had bought quite a bit of Pendragon once upon a time (and gave it all away too, when I had to do one of my games-shedding moves) and one thing I remember about it was that players essentially played generations of characters and that between each gaming adventure a year would pass. This is how the War of the Roses campaign works; as the actual campaign was spread over the course of decades, armies being renewed after each game essentially made a lot of sense.

That said, I wanted something a little more granular. But as I was reading through the new Pendragon offerings on Drive Thru RPG, I noticed that they had two new source books: the "Book of Battle" and the "Book of Armies". Book of Battle replaces the rules in Pendragon that allowed a player character to participate in larger battles (while determining abstractly the outcome of that battle). As the description for the rules indicate:
This book is about your small unit amidst the dust and blood as hundreds of knights as confused or brave or murderous as you confront their fate with weapon in hand. Battle resolution uses the existing King Arthur Pendragon rules system, allowing you to concentrate on the over two dozen tactical maneuvers at your disposal. The system allows your knight to be involved throughout the battle. And yes, you can turn the tide of battle, for better or worse!
As I looked through it, it was quite interesting, in and of itself, but it was not quite what I was looking for, but still might be of interest to some (which is why I mention it).

As for Book of Armies, its description said:
Here are the enemies for the never-ending scenario of battle. Included herein are all the Arthurian Armies, Period by Period, to use for every battle in the Great Pendragon Campaign! Also detailed are Round Table knights by Period, as well as exotic units (elephants!) and armies (faeries!). Also presented are six British Armies – natives from savage Saxons to tribal Cymri to wily Picts or Irish, and including bandits and even peasant armies – as well as Twelve Continental Armies, each with its own quirky and particular armies: condottieri, ribauds, ulfsarkers, Pecheneg horse archers and much, much more. In addition, great battles like Terrabil, Badon, the Roman War and Camlann receive special treatment.
This source book specifies the numerous armies you can fight while using the Book of Battle to fight those battles. Again, not quite what I was looking for, but the reference to "the Great Pendragon Campaign" turned out to be yet another source book. Its' description is much more promising:
Eighty years of campaign detailed year-by-year provide the background, on-going events and adventures that define structure of King Arthur’s glorious reign. The magic is in the details, and the details are in this book. Included in this book are:

* Year-by-year details from 485 to 566.
* Maps and descriptions of Logres, Cambria. Cornwall, Brittany, Cumbria, the North, Ireland and France
* Maps of the important cities of Britain, including Early and Late Camelot and London
* Over 100 Adventures
* Statistics for over 50 Faerie Creatures and Nonplayer Characters
* Expansions for the Pendragon rules

“I’ve been working on this book for over 20 years, since the first publication of King Arthur Pendragon. This is the culmination of forty years of research, pleasure and gaming. It’s a tremendous joy to bring my love of the legend all together here.” – Greg Stafford, designer of King Arthur Pendragon
This definitely sounds like the sort of linked campaign that I envisioned, incorporating some role-playing elements and armies fighting battles, so it definitely warrants more investigation. All that said, I can see it is a long-term project; The Great Pendragon Campaign is a massive 434 pages, with Book of Armies adding another 86 pages to the reading count. Nonetheless, I think it would make for an excellent source for a massive BattleLore campaign, providing the opportunity to convert Arthurian units and armies to this game system.

Just maybe …

1 Excuse: I stopped working on the extension largely because the module kept changing and it would sometimes cause me to update the scenarios I had already completed. By the time the module had stabilized, I had moved on to something else. One of the problems of being affected by the Ooh Shiny! complex.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Solo BattleLore Campaign

I have a couple of gaming buddies that say they want to settle on one set of rules for all of their gaming periods. One has selected the Black Powder/Hail Caesar route and I think the other is probably happy with the Memoir 44/Command and Colors route. Once upon a time I was happy with using DBA/HOTT for everything, but found it did not work (for me) once shooting was the primary form of attack. Since then I have switched to the concepts of Borg's Command and Colors designs, but being an incurable tinkerer, my games start to meld together with regards to the rules, when I am gaming solo.

I like campaign games because they allow you to have a sense of continuity between your battles, building narratives and histories, and get into battles that you might not normally want to game as a one-off but which have interest when played within a campaign context. The problem is developing a campaign system that does not fall apart after one battle goes against you. The campaigns I tend to play are:
  • You start with a certain number of units, some means of restoring units lost during the game, and some means of adding new units. Play continues until one player calls it quits, usually because their losses have been so bad that they cannot win any more battles.
  • Ones that run the course of years with each year (one to three campaign turns) culminating in a single, large battle. Surviving units gain experience, lost units have to rebuild, and Generals acquire a history and maybe some abilities.
  • You start with a certain number of points, or each battle is set at a certain number of points, and winning or losing has consequences with the next battle(s). The Memoir 44 campaign books are like this.
I tend to prefer the first type as it has the most continuity between battles - units lost in one battle may not be available in the next - but it is also the most likely to fail and end abruptly when a battle goes particularly badly. The first problem I try and solve is what happens to units "destroyed" in the battle. As that question largely depends upon what the game's definition of "unit" and "destroyed" is, I will direct the discussion towards the BattleLore rules, which are my favorite set of fantasy mass combat rules.

In BattleLore a unit is largely undefined in terms of size or strength, but is an autonomous body with regards to movement and combat. When it is "destroyed" it means that it is no longer combat effective, but not necessarily "every man dead". Although you cannot bring units "back to life", you can bring figures back (e.g. with healing spells, healing pools, etc.). Also, loss of figures during the course of the battle results in no loss of combat power, so a "figure" in a unit better represents the loss of the unit's willingness to fight. At some point the unit simply collapses1 and is no longer combat effective.

So, it is easy to imagine a unit fighting with relatively few losses, until a few key individuals become wounded or killed, then the unit dissolving in a panic. After the battle the men would straggle back to their unit - think The Red Badge of Courage - ready to fight again another day. So, I can see two possible results when a unit loses figures in a battle:

  • The unit is truly destroyed as an effective fighting unit, or
  • The unit is restored, although it may take some time to recover its morale.
I also see two factors in determining how well a unit might recover:

  • Did the unit's side win or lose the battle, and
  • How many figures did the unit lose?
As I dislike using normal dice when playing Command and Colors type games, it makes sense to use the BattleLore dice when determining unit recoveries. As the Flag represents morale events, it makes sense it should represent morale-oriented results in battle recovery. Hits are represented by the color of the unit, with the Shield representing special hits; the same will apply with battle recovery. I propose the following process for Post-Battle Recovery in my upcoming campaign.

  1. Destroyed Unit Check: Check each destroyed unit to determine if it is permanently lost.
  2. Routed Unit Check: Check each destroyed unit that passed the Destroyed Unit Check to determine if it is routed.
  3. Demoralized Unit Check: Check each unit that lost any figures (or a destroyed unit that passed both the Destroyed Unit Check and the Routed Unit Check) to determine if it demoralized.
Destroyed Unit Check

A unit destroyed at the end of a battle must make a Destroyed Unit Check to determine if it is permanently destroyed. Check each unit separately by rolling a single die for the destroyed unit. Destroyed units on the winning side are permanently destroyed if the icon rolled is the same banner color as the unit; units on the losing side do so if the banner color or a Shield is rolled. A permanently destroyed unit is removed from the list of units in the army.

Routed Unit Check

A unit destroyed at the end of a battle, and which passed the Destroyed Unit Check, must make a Routed Unit Check to determine if it is routed. Check each unit separately by rolling a single die for the destroyed unit. Destroyed units, whether on the winning or losing side, are routed if the icon rolled is a Flag. A routed unit is removed from the list of units in the army for the next battle only.

Demoralized Unit Check

A unit destroyed at the end of the battle, and which passed the Destroyed Unit Check and the Routed Unit Check, or which lost any number of figures must make a Demoralized Unit Check to determine if it starts the next battle demoralized. Check each unit separately by rolling one die for each figure lost by the unit during the battle. If any of the dice come up with a Flag icon the unit is demoralized. A demoralized unit is indicated as such on the list of units in the army; demoralized units start with one figure less than the maximum number in the next battle.


I would like to hear from some of the other readers how you handle this simple, basic problem of making campaigns work. Next time I will look at maps.

1 This reminds me of John Keegan's description in The Face of Battle, which theorizes that only a few men are actually effective in combat, so the loss of a few of the non-effective men has no real effect on the combat power of the unit. It is when those effective men die that the unit tends to collapse, and rather quickly at that.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

An Interesting Conversation with Ed "THW" Teixeira

Okay, so it wasn't the next blog entry that was going to discuss Fire in Korea; it got preempted by an interesting discussion with Ed from Two Hour Wargames about solo gaming. I thought I would share it while I continue to work through Fire in Korea.

Dale: I agree with your statement [on the THW forum on Yahoo] that "solo gaming" has a different meaning for each person. I see the "classic" definition (e.g. Featherstone, Asquith, Grant, Lone Warrior, etc.) as one that includes campaign diaries, mucking about with the rules, trying to program and personalize the Non-Player General, etc. You see a lot of email traffic, and clearly address solo gaming and co-operative gaming which most rules authors do not, so I was wondering whether you find many that take this classic view.

Ed: I do see a lot of solo gaming as the last poll I did had 45% doing solo to one degree or another and TMP had this solo gaming poll. Their numbers seem to reflect the ones I came up with.

Dale: Many people, when asked "how do you play game X solo" simply respond "I play both sides to the best of my ability". When I raised the discussion of solo gaming on the THW forum, the first response was that there are really very few decisions to make, and in most cases the decisions are self-evident.

Ed: I have never understood that reply myself. I would think that you would end up being more of an observer instead of a participant. One reason the Star Power rule (where you can roll to reduce damage to your personal figure) is so popular makes me think that they are impartial to a point.
Interesting side note is that the Star rule is the one I throw out when I play NUTS!. Go figure!
Dale: Do you think most solo gamers you have discussed this with think that the statements "there are really few decisions to make [with THW games]" and "in most cases the decisions are self-evident anyway" are true?

Ed: I think gamers are like everyone else. Those that avoid details or try not to analyze feel that there's not a lot of decisions. Others analyze everything. But my feeling is that they don't want to have to make too many choices so they probably do see it that way.

Dale: Do you think a significant number of solo gamers are looking for something more than you provide? ("Significant" is defined as a large enough number to warrant the effort in developing an additional level of detail.)

Ed: Mechanics wise I don't think so. It seems that the THW gamer trades off the crunchy bits and details in their games for the chance to do easy campaigns where they have less control.

Dale: Please note that I am not trying to say what you have done is not enough. Hell, it is a LOT more than the vast majority of other authors. Many solo gamers salute you.

Ed: No worries. It's a fine line between what the general gaming public wants and what the detail oriented gamers want. THW gamers seem to want more in their campaigns and less in their game mechanics. A good example is when you add more to the game than the REP stat. Not a lot of people like the addition and many do not even use the additional stats. Now in 5150 New Beginnings (NB) they like the multiple stats. The difference is they like the fact that each stat affects a Challenge instead of having multiple stats to resolve one mechanic. In 6GS you went to shoot and checked Cool to see if you could, then REP to see if you hit, then Toughness to see the damage. Some people see that as three stats for one procedure, but with NB you do all of those with REP. Let's say you want to interact with a NPC in NB, you use their People stat. NB is more of an RPG. THW attracts both wargamers and RPGers as well but those that want a more combat oriented game.

Dale: Do you think you've pushed the envelope where you are at the point of diminishing return (more effort will satisfy an ever decreasing number of players)? Do you think if you push too much more detail, you might even lose people (them saying it is too tedious, complex, etc.)?

Ed: I think more detail may lose some people. In fact I've went back to slimming things down in CR 3.0 just for that reason. But one thing I know for sure is you cannot please everyone which is why I have so many titles. Sci Fi, Zombies, and WW2 are the big sellers but there's still a 30% share of sales based on the other periods. So yes, there will be some that want what you are talking about and some that do not. One reason THW has such a large following is it's like a tool box where they can add or subtract as they like and I encourage that.

Dale: There has always been those who are creative with writing, get into the detail, and want to develop a narrative. I am just curious how small you think that "market" is and whether you think that it is not commercially viable to warrant the effort in developing a detailed programmed opponent.

Ed: It depends on what you are looking for. Sales are tougher with less products and everyone says "how can I give CR away free", well that's because it's generic. Generics usually don't sell very well and I like giving the players a free look with a complete game instead of making them pay to see THW mechanics or a chopped up game. There will always be a market. I'm not sure if you're talking about a pre-programmed opponent adaptable to any rules set, but if you are that would be a strong selling point. One thing I do know is that gamers in general do not want to do any work. Ran a poll about scenarios. 602 votes, 2 said they would do their own, 600 said they wanted them. They’te like me, rather just sit down and play a pre-generated scenario.

Dale: Me, I often play solo with "programmed" opponents on both sides.

Ed: That's how I play as well. Yep, when people say they don't like THW 98% of the time it's because they don’t want to lose control. They say that the troops don’t do what they want them to do but there's no way I'll tell them it's usually because they have bad plans. Hope some of this makes sense and maybe even helps.

I thought this discussion was interesting because Ed does have a sizable market (such as it is, for a niche like wargaming) and is currently the largest wargaming forum on Yahoo (at 5,201 members, at the time of this writing), so he has a pretty good demographic to tap for information like this.

I hope you found the conversation as interesting as I did. And for those that aren't as fond of THW rules, maybe you like your games "crunchier" than you suspect. (I do.)

Friday, March 2, 2012

What's all the Hubbub, Bub?

As always, let me start by welcoming new readers RSpears192, Chris, and Whiteface. Glad you've joined and hope you find some good ideas from what you read here.

So, I thought I would widen the reach of this blog and see if I could find other "hard core" solo gamers that want to explore mechanisms that make solo games more challenging, largely by trying to add "smarts" to the other side - a real programmed opponent. Instead, it created a flurry 1 of responses that ran the gamut of "why would you want to do that?" to "you are wrong".

So, looking at the description of the blog and I can now see that I am not all that specific, mostly because I am not so sure how long I can sustain the "exploration" part of my mission before this all just degenerates into a blog of battle reports of solo games. So, what is my intent?

My History with Solo Wargaming

I became aware of solo gaming at a very young age largely because no one wanted to wargame with me. I tried the "play both sides to the best of your ability" method and that quickly became boring. As time wore on I found a few classic books from Featherstone, Asquith, and Grant, but none of it really resonated with me all that much (at least at that age). By and large my only solution was face-to-face gaming.

When I got older I got into computers, and from there the concept of "artificial intelligence". Reading more about (albeit, not very deeply) that I realized that a large part of the problem was not understanding how we think and solve problems. That led to dabbling in expert systems and knowledge bases (again, not very deeply) and I realized that the key for me cracking the solo gaming code was to start with understanding how I make decisions. If I could not understand how I determined whether coming straight on was a better move than slowing moving around a flank through cover (or vice versa), then how could I write an interesting and challenging opponent?

Enter the Rules Database 2

The simplest concept was to start with a rules database. The thought process goes something like this:
  1. I will move this infantry unit straight forward it full 6" movement.
  2. Play that for awhile until a situation comes up that would force my unit to move into small arms range against an enemy unit in cover. Noting that the resulting exchange would be uneven and likely result in my unit losing, I think about how I reaction.
  3. New Rule: Exception - if the move will take the unit into small arms range of a unit in cover, and the moving unit will be in the open, the moving unit halts until another unit moves up in support. Both will then advance into firing range.
  4. And so on ...
An interesting approach, but many would say that you can never account for all contingencies with this method. Maybe, maybe not. After awhile you start to notice patterns. One exception says "woods" while another says "building", but they are largely the same, so you start combining the rules and refining the order of precedence. In the beginning, the model is very crude, but over time it gets smarter. Unless you are a really good organizer, however, it starts to get unwieldy and you have to stop adding exceptions. So there become deviations between where your model - your "programmed" opponent - acts differently (less intelligently) than you would because your mind can always assess more variables, quickly, than your rules database method can.

Enter Logic 3 and Real-Time Interpretation

This situation with the gap developing between the rules database and you leads you to start thinking about using an interpretive approach, such as Mythic, where a set of rules govern using logic to interpret the situation real-time, and come to a decision. Whereas the rules database feels rigid (but consistent), real-time interpretation feels fluid, malleable, and if probability and chance are thrown in (as they are with Mythic), less consistent. This lower level of consistency comes from two sources: the element of chance you've introduced, and the player's inherent bias.

Adding a random element will definitely lower consistency. After all, the reason you've probably injected chance is to create a sense of "surprise" or "unexpected behavior". Many solo gamers will tell you that bias towards one side or another always seems to creep in when the player has a choice, no matter how diligently he tries. Some people favor the underdog, while others favor who won historically. Some favor a side for national or ethical reasons. Some simply like how an interesting result is developing, which makes for a good narrative, and want to see that continue. Whatever the reason, when the player has the freedom to apply cold, hard logic, the "best" decision does not always result.

Enter the Charts

A compromise between these two methods are to use charts and dice. Using information culled from the rules database you can create charts that favor the most logical/"best" results, but still apply probability and random chance to inject a bit of surprise and unexpected behavior to spice things up. How complex you want to make those charts, and what you want to base the probabilities on, is largely left up to you. One interesting thought experiment (in a previous blog entry) was to use a chart similar to Two Hour Wargames' (THW) reaction charts for determining how heavy infantry would advance upon the enemy. I stopped myself from using it in the second playtest of Rally Round the King, but as I look over the materials that Ed kindly sent me, it is exactly that method that they use!

I was concerned that, by using the enemy's combat effectiveness rating (REP) to determine how good a move they made, I was unfairly injected "morale" as a factor. It is an interesting concept, but it seems to add an unaccounted for aspect to the game. It would certainly add a level of superiority of player-controlled forces, and that was one thing I was trying to avoid. I'll go more into THW's new solo gaming mechanisms in a future blog. For now, suffice it to say that what I was proposing is exactly the direction THW went, so it wasn't a bad idea...

What's the Plan?

In the end I found out that it was all about having a plan. The single most important factor was having a battle plan to execute for your programmed opponents. Whether that plan developed over the course of the game or whether it was pre-defined is less of a concern. The important thing is that the more of a plan you have, the fewer options need be considered by your decision making mechanism and the less interpretation needed of the results. (Again, I will show in a future blog how THW has stepped up their game in this area, and where you might consider additional expansion.)

So ...

Where does this leave me? The original question was: what is my intent with this blog. It is certainly to explore all solo gaming mechanisms that I come across. I also intend to explore how to game solo with popular game systems that use different chance devices (like the series on Memoir '44 where I explore card/hand management). But in the end I will always be most critical of those systems that have a simplistic definition of what a solo game entails. To me there is "casual" solo gaming, and "dedicated" solo gaming. The latter takes a bit more work, but in my experience, produces a much better experience for the solo gamer.


1 Well, the solo gamers equivalent of a "flurry". What do you expect from a niche within a niche?
2 Despite using the term database, I am not necessarily referring to the use of a computer. Although I use a computer to type up the lists, I print them out on paper for use during games.
3 Not to imply that logic was not a part of previous processes.

Mail Call

Really it should be "Blog Comments Replies", but that doesn't sound as good.

Chris wrote:

I bought THW's Vietnam rules after being led to believe they were suitable for the solo gamer. Ultimately I found them no more so than many other rules. Sure, the reaction system takes care of that side of things, but as you say, it doesn't solve the problem of the enemy descisions beyond that. I think some sets have a simple list of behaviours for enemies though, but nothing detailed.

Chris, I think you might be interested in the next blog entry. I am going to review the solo gaming mechanisms that you now find in the newer THW titles. I'm not saying go run out and buy it, but they have added some components that are interesting. I'll be looking at Fire In Korea, which is a supplement to NUTS!, Second Edition, and possibly doing a playtest using the new solo mechanics, but applied to Western Front 1944 (because I don't have any North Korean or Communist Chinese Forces figures). Somewhere along the way I'll get into movement distances and weapons ranges, and how they dramatically alter the complexity of solo gaming.

Nicholas Caldwell wrote:

This is a great series of articles and almost certainly a sale of Mythic for me as this is exactly the kind of story driven games that I prefer to play. (I liked your comment about why you play solo!) I'm growing increasingly dissatisfied with Two Hour Wargame rules, not least because they often fail to give adequate explanation and example of critical game concepts.

But one thing that has worked, more or less, is the PEF system. Do you have any ideas for using Mythic in conjunction with PEFs? I can see driving the movement of PEFs using Mythic and that might be superior to the THW system which sometimes leaves PEFs "stuck" in one place due to the limited options PEFs are given in the table.

I have found that, in the debate of rules writing, there are two camps: give me the guidelines and I will figure out the details, and (what I call) "tournament tight". The former rules are intentionally designed not to spell everything out, expecting the player to take "ownership" of their purchase and fiddle with the rules (because they figure you are going to do that anyway). The latter are rules that players can use for gaming tournaments as they leave little to the interpretation.

Unfortunately, although there are only two camps in my mind, there are three different types. The first two conform to the definitions above, but the third thinks that it has all the bases covered.

That said I find that certain players like rules from one camp or the other, but rarely both. Neil Thomas, for example, specifically writes his rules leaving out details about how a unit pivots or wheels because those concepts are familiar to gamers and spending the time and space specifying it a bit of a waste. (That is an interpretation on my part from reading the introductions to his rules.) THW seems to cater to those that like to fill in the blanks, at least that was my impression from a conversation with Ed.

I do not see why Mythic cannot be used to determine the movement of Possible Enemy Forces (PEF), but as I don't know the rules for PEF movement in FNG (I do for NUTS!) I am hesitant to diagnose the problem. PEF movement in NUTS! is chart driven and basically has results for halt, move straight towards the closest PEF, or move straight towards the closest of your forces, with an override to split a PEF (like cell division) if it starts within a certain distance of another PEF. (I like this last part as it gives the player the incentive to scout out PEFs before they get out of hand.) So, if you want to modify the movement rules for PEFs by using Mythic the question becomes one of "Why? What are you trying to get out of it? A better move, where the PEF uses cover to creep up on your forces?" If it is that, I would simply alter the movement rule that states it moves in a straight line for something more appropriate and challenging. Perhaps I am misunderstanding the question, or PEFs work differently in FNG.

Danjou's Hand wrote (hah! good pun):

Honestly, I think the best location for the kind of thoughtful exploration and development of solo mechanisms that you're doing here is the pages of Lone Warrior. But, I don't think I could wait 3 months to read your next installment!

I think the medium of printing on paper and mailing it out is largely failing; I think this medium is the way to go. That said this same suggestion was made by a regular contributor of Lone Warrior on the Solo Wargames forum and my answer remains the same: this expression is an exploration, not a developed thought. By testing while writing it actually triggers certain mental processes in me that can lead off in a direction I did not expect to go. Further, this medium is superior in many ways, with hyperlinks, embedded images that can be clicked for a higher resolution version, and so on. Finally, it is somewhat interactive; more so than letters to the editor several issues after the article first appeared.

Whiteface wrote:

There is one problem with creating own decision / reaction tables. They will contain way too many details and possible situational modifiers. It's not that easy to keep them short & simple.

I think I have addressed this response in this entry. In fact, it served as inspiration for some parts.

I am not really a "short and simple" guy. I don't think that "short" always leads to simple, nor "long" necessarily leads one away from it. I do think that there is a breaking point in this concept, however, but it differs for each person depending upon their love for detail (and complexity!).

Given each person's differing acceptance levels for detail I have intentionally avoided providing specific solutions and kept it at the conceptual and descriptive level. I know this sounds somewhat hypocritical of me, given that I complain about a lack of detail or a particular implementation from others, but I am not writing rules for publication (or sale); I am an ideas guy trying to it all out for myself.

Nicholas Caldwell wrote:

"Sometimes I feel like the reaction results do not have enough granularity of result; it sometimes feel like all or nothing" [quote from my blog]

Could you explain this a bit more? The example that comes to my mind is a "break" test -- my unit has suffered casualties, does it run away? Most game systems treat this as a binary decision -- is RRtK any different in that regard? Or is it a different reaction test that feels "all or nothing"?

This has been an excellent series and I have keep returning to re-read. Here are some of the items that I've been cogitating on:

1) I'm increasingly dissatisfied by THW games. They seem to me to be a toolbox to create your game rather than a complete game. Your comments about the fiddly-ness of the movement in RRtK seems to be a good example of that. I too am trying out RRtK and will see how it goes -- but I also just purchased Fields of Glory and it is calling strongly. No doubt part of this is just due to the clarity of the writing (which THW always struggles with).

2) I am very interested in artificial life and it seems to me that the research there has direct bearing on what we are trying to achieve -- namely, that simple rules can lead to complex behaviors. The Flocking Rules describing the movement of birds is a good example ( I wonder if something similar could be applied to our artificial opponents in wargaming?

Generally, we want our opponent to act "sensibly" but we also want "surprises". With a game like RRtK, most of those decisions are made in setup as you indicated with the article on the use of Mythic. So, take a heavy infantry unit. "Sensibly" I want this unit in the center of my line facing the opponent's heavy infantry unit. So a rule for Heavy Infantry might be "Attack the strongest" or "Attack the Weakest". I think this is similar to where you were heading with coming up with tables driven by the Rep values -- maybe we're thinking along the same lines.

Granularity of result is just what you suggest: having more than two possible results (such as your example break or stand). RRtK does provide more than a binary result in most cases, but I suppose I was thinking about how many more could there (or should there) be.

Wow, Fields of Glory (FoG) is so far opposite in the spectrum to RRtK it is hard to compare. The number of figures and units in use, the amount of time required to complete, the level of detail to track; practically nothing is comparable about those two rule sets.

It is easy to start with rules like RRtK because they have a strong command and control element aimed squarely at the player making the best of a situation where he loses control. If I remember correctly, the level of control the player has in FoG is very high. Granted, if you fail a maneuver or morale roll the units doesn't perform as expected, but that is true with most rules. Although it is hardly impossible to play FoG solo, the increase in decisions and control points that the player has will make it harder to stick to more rigid decision making mechanisms like charts and rules databases.

What I have taken away from the computer world for solo gaming is the concepts found in expert systems, where one lays down a rules database and evaluates rules in order of precedence until a match is found (the IF condition is met and the THEN clause is executed), at which point you stop evaluating rules. I find this very usable as a player familiar with his own creation will soon be able to move down the list quickly to find the one that will trigger.

Ideas like using flocking rules certainly might have merit for study and application. I can see using something like that to allow a player to move groups of figures or units, rather than a single entity, in an intelligent fashion. It will probably be the next leap forward for solo gamers. Now how to harness it ...

The REP-driven tables are a bit problematic. Essentially what the system is portraying is that two passes equals the best move you can think of for a given situation, one pass equals a less optimal move, and zero passes equals an even less optimal and possibly a bad move. It would be hard to convert to get results of optimal moves versus surprise moves. Even more problematic is that the odds of which type of move made is dependent upon the combat effectiveness (REP) of the unit. Low REP units tend to make more bad moves than optimal ones. Makes sense, but it creates a sense of "double jeopardy" with low REP units not only getting defeated in straight-up fights, but now more likely to enter into disadvantageous fights.

I do intend to explore this more, however, as this is the path THW has taken to expand their solo rules.

Well, talk about a long entry. Probably time to wrap it up.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Rally Round the King Redux

First, let me start by welcoming new readers Shelldrake, Los, Robert Saint James, and Spacejacker (like your blogs and the Gut Check rules look interesting). Hope you enjoy the blog. Also thanks to JF for plugging my blog on his blog, Solo Nexus.

So, as you may have guessed, I have decided to give Rally Round the King (RRtK) another try. I'll be using Comic Life 2 for the graphics and narrative, only breaking out to text for discussion about mechanics. I've modified the blog to be about 900 pixels wide, so those with 1024 by 768 resolution should have no problems reading it without having to scroll back and forth. The comic panels should by 800 by 600 pixels, so it should display in reasonable chunks and again not requiring scrolling to see it full size.

Rather than going through the same exercise as last time for terrain and deployment, I will use the same rolls, events, and results. So the troops will still be set up using the same parameters as last game, but I can alter deployment as long as I stay within those parameters.

What I need to change is to ensure that I don't trap troops so that they have no room to maneuver. Primarily this was the Spanish Cavalry (with General) and to a lesser extent the Roman Cavalry (with General). To this end I found that 'missing rule': Expansion.

Assume that the unit in the rear is to close to the line in front of it. It can neither wheel left nor right, and a facing change of 90º is not allowed. So it appears that the unit is stuck, unless the line moves forward.

However, the expansion rule allows a unit from the rear ranks to move out to the flanks, so long as the distance does not exceed the unit's movement. So to solve the problem above, the unit first moves forward into contact with the body to its front.

The following turn, the body expands, allowing the unit to move out to the flank. Note that it can do this even if the body is in melee contact (and is the primary way to expand the battle line and attempt to overlap your opponent).

Another rule that will come into play is Facing the Enemy. This rule states that if a unit is facing an enemy unit and is within charge distance of that enemy unit, the unit's choices are to move forward or remain stationary. I asked on the Two Hour Wargames forum if "remaining stationary" meant that it could voluntarily halt (it is not one of the reasons that is listed on why a body halts) and the answer was yes. So that changes the possible responses in the movement decision tables that I was describing in a previous blog entry.

In gameplay I will play the missile rules as designed, no moving and firing. Also, like Drums and Shakos Large Battles (see my Dale's Wargames blog for the review and playtest of these excellent Napoleonic rules), I have to be meticulous about not being so generous with the movement. It irritates me that a 15º wheel penalizes a unit as much as a 45º wheel, but that is the way the rules are. Units basically move straight forward until they collide, unless they are skirmishers.

New Decision Charts

As I indicated in a previous blog entry you can use the same Reaction Test mechanism to make the tactical decisions that RRtK does not make, namely:
  • Was a unit to be activated?
  • Did a unit move the minimum, maximum, or some value in between?
  • Did a unit maneuver (move other than straight forward)?
It occurred to me, however, as I was drawing the tables up that I was violating my most basic rule of solo gaming, which was not to alter the game rules substantially, especially where you are messing with the math. By determining whether a unit made an optimal move or a sub-optimal one based on passing its ability score on two, one, or no dice, I was in effect making a morale check to move!

It seemed novel at the time the idea sprang upon me, and to be honest I think it would make for a fun method for programming an opponent, but I think those sort of rules would also need to be applied to the player's force in some way also. Making movement morale-based is a big change and not something you would want to apply unequally. (Of course, it really depends upon what you are looking for in your games. In this case, it was not to deviate from the Rules As Written too much. I did that last time.)

For this game I decided to go back and use Mythic for the three decisions above, however I tended to state the questions much simple, like: "Do I activate A, B, and C" this turn?" If that failed then you can always assume it was just one of those three that made it a no (unless it was exceptional, then it would be two).

On with the Battle!
[1] Rather than rely on the trick to move up to a second rank and expand on the following turn (as indicated at the beginning of the blog), I decided that the General and Cavalry bodyguard would need to be on the flank of the battle line so that when it moved straight forward it would already be in position. The Light Horse on the left, being a skirmisher, could easily maneuver to wherever it needed to go.

[2] This was due to the deployment rules stating that the unit needed to be in the left section. In the initial game I had simply placed it to the left, but not in the correct 8" wide section. This creates a sizable gap ...

[3] As with the Spanish General, the Roman Consul with his bodyguard positions itself so that a simple move forward puts in on the flank of the heavy infantry, rather than requiring an expansion to come up from the rear rank.
The exchange between the skirmishers in the woods show how important support can be. The Roman Velites both fired, but inflicted no hits on the Spanish. Nonetheless, the Spanish had to take a Received Fire test. I rolled double '6' for the check. Because the unit on the right had both rear and flank support it held (with two passes), however the unit on the left only had flank support so it had two failures and routed!

This makes me wonder about the definition of "support" and how I placed my troops. I assumed that because the scutari in the second rank was only in corner-to-corner contact that it would, at best, only provide flank support. However, you cannot support from the same flank twice. (Or am I thinking of DBA?) If I had placed my figures as shown to the right, the scutari should have been able to provide rear support for both, meaning neither would have routed in this instance.

Is RRtK more nuanced (or fiddly) than I thought or am I simply filling the holes in the rules with logical extensions?
As you play with RRtK (or other THW games) more, you realize that you really need to be careful and make sure you take all the tests necessary. Charges, for example, can go very long distances as you charge, react to received fire (allowing you to advance again), which is turn can cause another test, and so on. Charges double the distance allowed are very possible.

Another nuance to these rules to be aware of is that dual-armed troops are melee troops, thus are not subject to the Mandatory Fire rule. This effectively means that dual-armed melee troops cannot fire unless dictated by a reaction test!

It is also important that you get the unit activation sequence correct. If you don't, you can get some odd results, like this next turn ...
 If you didn't catch what was wrong, then good!
[4] Even though the Spanish General passed his reaction test, mounted that do not rout their infantry opponent must retire, taking one hit as they retreat.

The skirmish in the woods shows how successfully passing several Received Fire tests can result in units being mauled in missile exchanges. In this case the Spanish kept passing its tests despite getting hit each time. It finally had to retire. All of this is out of the hands of the gamer (solo or otherwise) of course as it is built into the reaction tables.
As you can see, a little more of my love for DBA slipped in. I cannot help but think of flanking an enemy and forcing him to react to you as 'Barkering'.
At this point I was starting to be amazed how the Spanish were standing up. Melee troops can stay in melee as long as they don't fail two dice, not one, so they have some real staying power. I was beginning to question the armor class (AC) rating I have given the Republican Romans, but as I was playing the 2nd Punic War, it is right. The reason for the pause, however is because the Spanish have to roll a '5'+ to get a single hit while the Romans get a hit on a '3' through '5' and two hits on a '6'! This makes it very hard for the Spanish to win in melee (as it should).
Now that the main battle line has routed, the end is probably near. However, as an equal number of Spanish scutari and Roman hastati have routed, it might be tough to call this one.
[5] Normally a unit firing missiles can only inflict one hit per unit firing. Further, because the 'arc' of fire is so limited (straight ahead) this picture would lead you to believe that only one unit could have fired and that the two hits are a mistake. However, I did not show each step of the process to charge, fire, and melee. When the cavalry unit charged the Spanish, it was overlapped by both units; thus both were eligible to fire. When melee came around, the cavalry unit is forced to line up on one or the other, which is what the picture shows.

[6] Yup! Both rolled a '6'. Apparently those dice needed to be switched out, however, and they kept rolling double sixes ...

I decided to call it quits at this point. The good thing about solo gaming is that it is not a competition (although it may be part of a campaign), so eking out every last victory point is not necessary. The Spanish had lost two slingers, one caetrati, and four scutari. The Romans had lost one velite, two hastati, and one equites (cavalry). The Spanish can certainly feel pretty good about how well they did in open battle. Nonetheless, I think the Romans can be declared the victors.


The best aspect of RRtK is the grinding, attritional feel of the game. (I just need to work on getting that feel without markers or rosters in my other games.) Sometimes I feel like the reaction results do not have enough granularity of result; it sometimes feel like all or nothing. Maybe I am talking heretically, but what is wrong with using three dice, or more?

Game play still feels stiff and rigid, however, because of the lack of maneuverability and fire arc. Given the small width of a base, I could see where people might argue whether a unit is within the arc or not for firing. One degree off and you get no fire.

Although I did enjoy this game, I would probably take elements from these rules and use them in another game rather than the other way around. There is some good stuff however.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Why Do This?

New reader JF asked, about my last blog entry:
Although you've laid out the case for advanced decision-making processes brilliantly, can you elaborate on whether your drive to add more layers of auto-enemy activation elements might be tied to the period in which you're playing - or if that even matters at all?
Well that is an interesting question. In the beginning of Charles Grant's book Programmed Wargame Scenarios Mr. Grant described four ways to use his scenarios:

  1. The solo gamer plays both the Red and Blue sides to the best of his ability, using the guidelines given in the scenario.
  2. The solo gamer plays the Red side (attacker) and the Blue side is programmed.
  3. The solo gamer plays the Blue side (defender) and the Red side is programmed.
  4. The solo gamer plays neither side and both the Red and Blue sides are programmed.
To be honest, this last one really shocked me. Why would you want to play neither side? Wasn't the whole point to play? Of course the solo gamer is not exactly winding up clockwork soldiers and watching them move about (like the old electric football games of my youth); he is executing the movements, rolling the dice, checking line of sight and so on. What he is not doing is "influencing" the battle, rather he is letting it play out, like a story.

Now some people may not enjoy that, but sometimes I do. But even if you don't, playing that way can lead to a better result if you like options 2 or 3. Essentially the "programming" part is what I am working on. You also said:
So far, the RRtK solo deployment and tactics rules - though broad - have been satisfactory in the very few games I've played. I've created a small enough number of bodies to make most decisions pretty straightforward, and, once embroiled, the Reaction System takes it from there. In my last two games, I had three main attack bodies and one in reserve on the enemy side (War Rating 3), so I just followed the guidelines for the particular tactics rolled on pages 52 and 53 and gave all enemy main attackers an order that was as obviously consistent with the deployment & tactics as possible. In your example above using Roman Heavy Infantry, I'd just send them up the center, full movement!
That is a decision you, the player made, not the rules. That is where the difference lies. No problem if you make those obvious decisions as you like to play using option 1 above. Same for option 2 and 3 when you make those decisions for your side, but neither the reaction system as it is, nor you making the obviously consistent choices can count as a "programmed opponent".

So that leads to the question of: why do this? Why go through all of this work when you can simply play it to the best of your ability and leave all of that paperwork behind? Part of it is a professional interest in (pseudo-)artificial intelligence, expert systems, and the like. Part of it is seeing what the system can do, what entertainment the dice can provide. And part of it is ... well, have you ever gotten stomped by an obviously superior player? Someone who pulled 'tricks' out their bag and did moves that not only did you not see it coming, but was something you flat out had not even considered as a way of approaching a tactical problem? I did, especially as a kid. I talked about some of the lessons I learned in my blog entry Tactical Exercises and Micro Games on one of my other blogs. I became interested in how we solve problems, the process our brain uses, and so on, in hopes of capturing and codifying it in some way. If I could do that – even in the simplest of terms – I would have an interesting programmed opponent. Essentially, it would have a personality of a sort.

Sounds like pie in the sky talk, so let's use concrete examples. If you refer back to the reaction chart I developed in the last blog entry you can see some of my 'personality' embedded in it. For example, I list five conditions to consider:

  1. If outside of missile range and overlapped.
  2. If overlapped.
  3. If outside of missile range and if moving slower, a unit could catch up and provide support.
  4. If moving maximum would take you into the enemy's missile range but not into contact.
  5. All other conditions.
Not only does those five factors represent my thinking process on this particular tactical situation, it lists the order of precedence for consideration. Someone else, on the other hand, might not consider the 'catch up to provide support' as a valid reason to slow down, or might alter it by adding another condition. Someone else might consider the same factors, but change their order of precedence, such as moving support up to the top. Finally, someone else might simply say "move maximum always."

Once you start documenting these factors and conditions you start to get a sense of what matters and what does not. You can also start deliberately altering what you think is the best sequence for another. Maybe you consider yourself a cautious player and you want to play someone a little bolder and aggressive. Altering these tables allows you to do that.

Strange as it may sound, if enough people would do this, solo gamers could exchange their 'patterns' with other solo gamers and play their proxies. Would it be perfect? Of course not, but it will get better over time.

Finally, no I don't think this is a period thing. I did it for my WW II game using Memoir '44 (although I took a different approach).

So, why do I do this?

Join my cause ... give me your brains!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Other Decision Making Methods

What I would like is to use another decision-making mechanism for a replay of the last battle, rather than simply repeating the use of Mythic to make decisions. Although I have no problem using Mythic, especially for the major decisions of battle tactics and troop deployments, but it gets tedious answering four or five questions each turn just to simply verify the most probable course of action. (Although it does have the interesting side effect of introducing random events into the game.) So, I started breaking out the old stand-by books, like Charles Grant's Programmed Wargame Scenarios and Donald Featherstone's Solo Wargaming looking for ideas. One thing I have found with the 'old school' authors is that, because they wrote their own rules to use, they had no problems introducing new mechanisms that completely altered what I call 'the math of the game'. Examples would be chance cards, tactical cards, regimental cards, etc., all which would modify the core rules in some regard, such as adding +1 to melee combat or subtracting -1 from a morale check.

I thought about adding some of these types of rules, but to be honest they start to get hard to remember. (I am old and forgetful, after all.) Some ideas you might want to toy with:
  • Allow a unit to be a little better or worse on this day of battle: for example, roll 1D6 and on the roll of a '1' the unit is -1 REP, while on the roll of a '6' the unit is +1 REP. This should probably only be done for a few units and not the entire force.
  • Allow the unit to adjust their AC +1 or -1 using the same method above. This adjustment to AC is only used for determining casualties in missile and melee combat; movement is not affected.
Another way is to alter the actual game mechanics in small ways.
  • Each time a body moves roll two differently colored D6, designating one as 'Fast' and one as 'Slow'. If the Fast die rolls higher than the Slow die, +1" of movement is added to the maximum. If the Slow die is higher, -1" of movement is subtracted from the maximum. (Remember, the minimum move is ½ the maximum.) If any portion of the move is in non-open terrain (or across a linear obstacle), you can change the meaning to something that makes movement even slower on average.
If you are really bold, you can alter the mechanics even more.
  • For heavy infantry movement, each turn roll 2D6 - 1 for  the maximum number of inches the body can move. For light infantry use 2D6 + 1 and for mounted use 3D6 + 1. Terrain will slow the body down by removing the lowest rolled die.
  • Set a maximum number of dice in a pool for an army. The number of represents the fatigue and 'heart' of the army; the more dice an army possesses in their pool the more heart it has and the more fatigue it can accumulate. Each time dice are rolled for any reason they are permanently removed from the army's dice pool, never to be used again (in that game). So, if an army has 100 dice in its pool, it will only roll a total of 100 dice before the army collapses in defeat.
I prefer to minimize the amount of modifications I make to the core rules, especially something that alters the math of the game, and I don't like trying to remember lots of special rules that don't apply to all of the units of the same type (or at least appear the same). There is one area where I think you can add a little interest and not throw off the game too much: re-rolls. There are times when you really want to re-roll a failed die roll at a critical point in the game. Just as the suggestion above indicates you can create a dice pool, you can create a re-roll pool. The idea is that you have a certain number of dice that can be re-rolled during the game. For example, if you have two re-rolls in your pool you can designate any die rolled to be re-rolled, discarding one die from the pool each time you use a re-roll. (You may want to place some limits, like no die can be re-rolled more than once and that the second die roll stands, even if worse ... but you may not!)

One concept that I liked from the game Memoir '44 was that there are these cards called Combat Cards which make small modifications to the combat when the player uses the card (for example, adding one die to combat or reducing the opponent's attack by one die). This alleviates the need to remember which unit has this modifier; it is assigned when the card is played. The interesting part was that theses cards were accumulated primarily by playing cards that are generally considered the worst cards. So basically, if you got dealt a bad hand of cards you could offset your luck by accumulating Combat Cards. You can use the same concept for re-rolls. Each time a player fails both dice in a reaction test and does not use a re-roll he gains a free re-roll to use later. Simple to keep track of and not very over-powering.

In the end, however, most of these methods simply add a chaos factor to the game and make it less predictable, which is interesting for the gamer. But rarely do they add to the type or number of decisions that the solo gamer has to make, nor does it help him to objectively make that decision as if an opponent had made it. So far, the only two decision making mechanisms this blog has explored are rule-based and probability-based. These two methods have several factors in common:
  1. They use logic as their basis.
  2. They take into account all of the current factors in play.
  3. There is a degree of interpretation of the results.
Generally these are all good points to a system - one doesn't want to play again dim-witted or irrational opponents, for example - but sometimes they can lead to predictable play. What would be ideal is to find a tactical decision making method that meets the following criteria:
  1. Very quick resolution.
  2. Little is left to the interpretation of the player.
  3. Some element of surprise is introduced.
Decisions, decisions ...

First, let's start by examining the decisions that needed to be made in the last game.
  • Was a unit to be activated?
  • Did a unit move the minimum, maximum, or some value in between?
  • Did a unit maneuver (move other than straight forward)?
These three decisions encompassed all those made post-deployment. The rules took care of the rest (who to fire at, the effects of fire, who to charge, the effects of melee, etc.).

Was a Unit to be Activated?

This decision is one of the tougher ones in that it is a 'decision bundle', or a group of decisions, and each combination of decisions can produce a different result. For example, if you have units A, B, and C but can only activate two units in a turn, your choices are: none; only A; only B; only C; A and B; A and C; or B and C. Seven different choices. The combinations get even more complex when you have 12 units and three activations.

Did a Unit Move the Minimum, Maximum, or Some Value in Between?

How much a unit moves is largely governed by its intent. A unit of heavy infantry intending to close into melee would rarely want to move less than maximum speed. Moving less potentially puts the unit under more missile fire while it closes and  allows the enemy more time to react to the attack, bringing up supports.

A unit providing flank support, however, may want to move less than maximum movement, especially if moving faster will cause it move past the position of support (i.e. get ahead of the unit being supported). This is especially true of light infantry or cavalry, supporting the flank of heavy infantry, which move much slower.

Another reason for moving slower is to delay melee combat, allowing the unit to fire missile weapons more often. Generally speaking, however, if you are moving the minimum, you are probably trying to delay impact. This is useful even for troops without missile weapons, if your troops are heading towards an impact you are likely to lose.

Did a Unit Maneuver?

Generally speaking, this is not much of a problem for armies with lots of non-skirmishing units. Maneuvering is a good way of 'bleeding off speed', but that seems like a cheesy reason to do it. More likely you are reacting to a unit that advanced too far and got flanked. Cavalry, however, does has a modicum of maneuverability.

With skirmishers, however, this is a big decision. Generally it is easier to ask the question in terms of "where on the board (and facing which direction) do I want my skirmisher to end up at?"

Charts, charts, and more charts ...

If you don't like charts, don't play Two Hour Wargames rules. They love charts. The reaction system is essentially programming a unit's set of possible responses, assigning probabilities, and codifying it in a chart. Mythic uses charts. One thing that kept leaping out at me while reviewing the old masters (and 12 issues of Lone Warrior) is that solo gamers seem to love charts! So maybe our mechanism should be chart-based!

So, what are charts? As I said, they are a codified set of possible responses with assigned probabilities. If 'X' happens on the roll of a '1' and 'Y' happens on the roll of '2' through '6' you have defined two possible responses to whatever the chart represents, and assigned the probability of each response. As long as there are not a lot of modifiers to the die roll, charts meets the first criteria of 'very quick resolution'. Unless you have done a poor job of defining terms, charts also meet the criteria of 'little left to the interpretation of the player'. Whether or not the criteria of 'some element of surprise is introduced' is met all depends upon whether you allow for a response that is generally outside of the norm (but still possible).

Let take a concrete example. The Roman heavy infantry (Principes) were assigned to advance directly towards the enemy in the center and attempt to penetrate their line. As they have no missile weapons, and the enemy do, there is little reason for them to delay (i.e. move less than a full move each turn). So, given an enemy unit straight ahead of the unit, the range of their responses is:
  • Move the maximum movement allowed straight ahead.
  • Move the minimum movement allowed straight ahead.
  • Move some distance between minimum and the maximum allowed straight ahead.
Note that there is no option to not move at all; halting is not a voluntary option, save if the original activation order specified a point on the board where the unit was to stop 1. Again, if you think of moving maximum as the default choice, what would the exceptions to moving maximum be?
  • When facing a missile unit and the maximum move would not take you into contact, but would take you into its missile range, you want to stop outside of missile range, if possible (i.e. it is still within your minimum move distance).
  • When moving less than the maximum move (but at least the minimum move) distance would allow a friendly unit to catch up and provide support.
  • To expand the formation to avoid overlaps in an upcoming melee combat.
Of course, if the unit no longer has an enemy directly ahead, the options change. But for now, let's consider this simple case. How best to represent the decision making process for which option to use? Interestingly, Rally Round the King (RRtK) provides a good one: the reaction check. Think about it. How I move in relation to the enemy is a reaction. So why not use the reaction check mechanism for making this decision. In fact, basing it on REP (with attendant pluses and minuses due to hits and support) makes sense in this context and is something we have probably already memorized. So, you might have the following for the Roman heavy infantry:

ReasonPass 2D6Pass 1D6Pass 0D6
Center Battle Line MovesIf outside of missile range and overlapped, expand.If overlapped, expand.
If outside of missile range, a unit that can provide support needs to catch up to provide it, and a minimum move will allow that unit to catch up, move the maximum distance that will still allow the unit to catch up.If outside of missile range, a unit that can provide support needs to catch up to provide it, and a minimum move will allow that unit to catch up, move the minimum move allowed.
If moving the maximum distance allowed takes you into enemy missile range, but not into contact, move just outside of missile range if legal.If moving the maximum distance allowed takes you into enemy missile range, but not into contact, move the minimum distance allowed.
Move the maximum distance allowed.Move the maximum distance allowed.Move the minimum distance allowed.

There is really no limit to the number of tables that you can do like this; just keep them separate from the normal reaction tables so you don't end up flipping around too much.

Mind you this takes some work beforehand, but all good things typically do. This falls in line with my idea of writing out a detailed battle plan and then writing a decision-making process to go with it. I think that for the most part, however, this can be reused quite a bit. The result will likely be the Typical Army Behavior Jay referred to in his blog entry and the Enemy Behavior in Action article referred to in issue LW 166 of Lone Warrior.

One of the reasons I like this method is because it is so THW-like.

1 Update: I posed a question to the Two Hour Wargame forum and there is another way to voluntarily halt. As I am only presenting ideas here and not complete solutions, I am choosing to ignore this other option for now.