Friday, April 19, 2013

The Impact of the Turn Sequence of Solo Wargaming

Let me start off by saying this article is not about what is and is not true, but rather trying to figure out the answer by walking through my thought process and seeing where others fall in their thinking.

Let me start by saying that I think the turn sequence of a game has a large impact on how that game "feels" to the players. It changes the way they think and how they approach tactics, or in this case, how to win the game. I also think that some game mechanics get "magnified" when the game is played solo, rather than player versus player. A simple example is where a game has an auction component, or uses hidden information. These mechanics suddenly present a much greater problem for the solo player and thus trying to work around them often significantly alters the feel of the game. Imagine trying to resolve how you would deal with a bidding mechanic in your solo games. Most of you probably already deal with hidden information mechanics, such as maintaining a hand of cards. If you game solo by "playing the best of your ability for both sides", these games tend to fall flat because this important aspect of the game – bidding hard for an advantage or springing a surprise card play – fades away now that the player has perfect knowledge of not just his own side, but the "other" side too.

But, I am not talking about this game mechanics, I am talking about the lowly, ever-present1 mechanic of the turn sequence, and how it impacts not only gaming, but in particular, how I think it impacts solo gaming.

The standard turn sequence is:
  1. I go
  2. You go
Both Chess and Checkers are that way, as are a number of card games. Each person takes an action in turn before moving on to the next player. In miniatures gaming, it typically translates as:
  1. Player A Moves
  2. Player A Fires
  3. Player A and B Melees
  4. Player B Moves
  5. Player B Fires
  6. Player B and A Melees
Over time variations are added – breaking out the charge, adding defensive fire, adding morale checks after firing and melees, adding army morale checks, adding victory condition checks, and so on – but they still break down to I Go then You Go (or IGOUGO for short). If you have read enough of my blogs you know that I do not particularly favor this turn sequence (despite playing a lot of games that use exactly that sequence).

Rather than go through Wally Simon's thought process on how to tweak the IGOUGO sequence into something better (you can buy the books and read it yourself) I want to examine how this turn sequence affects your thought process when solo gaming.

If you were to use a turn sequence that identifies at random which side acts next, and that activation allows you to perform one action with a single unit, your mind thinks about what your options are differently than if you are alternating which side gets to do everything. With the former, you have to focus on which unit and action will provide the greatest return, as any action you do could affect the amount of damaged received when your opponent acts next. For example, you might shoot and eliminate a unit, thus denying your opponent the opportunity to shoot back when he next randomly receives the chance to take an action. Or you might run away with that unit, or heal it, making it less likely that it will be eliminated in the next attack against it.

Although the player must still keep his overall plan in sight2, he still needs to make value judgements on which action is the best, second best, and so on. More importantly, training ground precision and coordination between units cannot be counted on, as you have no control over the order of actions. And this is key, because IGOUGO typically produces thinking like:
"Okay, it is my turn, so Unit A will move around the building and fire on the flank of this enemy unit, while Unit B will charge in and assault them. Now moving fire from the 10 ten in Unit A should inflict three casualties …"
The point, however, is that it is exceptionally worse with solo gaming. I don't care who you are, if you are "playing to the best of your ability for each side" bias will creep in. Whether it is because you like the paint job of this side better, think that the other side should win because they did historically, or even just because the narrative seems to be heading in a particularly cool direction, bias for one side or another creeps in. And it usually does it in the form of you thinking that if you could do X on turn 1 and Y on turn 2, then really cool event Z will happen. It is that planning ahead that bites you in the rear. The very thing I have been saying a solo gamer needs – a battle plan, preferably written ahead of time – is what causes bias to creep in. And the longer the turn – more to the point, the more one side can do before the other can materially react – the more that bias will affect your game.

I think that increasing interaction between the two side helps break the mind from favoring one side over the other. Rather, the solo gamer gets caught up in the action, the unfolding story as it were, rather than what one side could do to the other during its turn. By breaking up the turn sequence you add more interactivity between the sides. Your focus becomes the micro, rather than the macro. Each fight between two units becomes a battle within a battle.

I am not saying that the solo gamers should not have a larger plan, for both sides, nor that altering a rule's turn sequence to make it more interactive will make your gaming easier, it won't. All I am saying is that, as solo gamers, we need to be aware that "playing the best of our ability for both sides" is not always good enough. You may enjoy the game, but if you game solo to practice for a tournament, for example, don't think for a second that you are able to play objectively.

A while back I posted a bit about messing with a game's rules. I was not much of an advocate of that, but I think I am coming around. It depends upon what you mess with, I suppose. Take Warhammer 40K (WH40K) for example. Although I do not play (one non-solo game in probably ten years) I do enjoy some of the podcasts that discuss tactics in the game. (In particular, I find The Second Founding and The 11th Company podcasts particularly interesting.) They often have interviews with gamers that won this or that tournament with a particular army and the interviewer goes through their list and pelts the interviewees with questions about how they would handle this or that 'Badness of the Month'. It is interesting how many times their tactics refer to the Alpha Strike, which is essentially the ability to blow away the enemy in a single turn (usually once it gets to a certain range), and what they do in order to pull that off.

As I have ranted many a time on my blogs, the Alpha Strike is a function of the game's turn sequence, alternating turns of Move-Fire-Assault phases between the sides. Imagine a simple change from that traditional turn sequence to the one used by Bolt Action3 (BA) on the mind-set of the solo gamer. In the WH40K sequence the gamer focuses on co-ordinating his actions and generally has no concerns about the opposing player taking an action during his turn that might upset his plans4. In the BA sequence, the player still will want to perform covering fire with Unit A and assault with Unit B, but now the sequence within the turn is not determined by strictly ordered Phases – Move then Fire then Assault – but by the order that the player activates units.

Take that simple example: Unit A will provide covering fire against an enemy while Unit B moves in and assaults. The pictures below show the order in which things are done.

WH40K SequenceBA Sequence
In the WH40K sequence all moves must occur first5. To ensure that the assaulting unit does not obscure the target unit, it may have to swing around the flank a bit to ensure it does not the friendly unit's line of fire. After the initial movement, the supporting unit provides covering fire. Finally, the assault movement is carried out and the melee resolved.

One 'problem' with this sequence is that the assaulting player must commit to the movement prior to knowing whether the covering fire is effective. That may be good or bad, depending upon whether you think  the player having perfect information is a good thing or bad. Also, because of the turn sequence, it forces the player to swing wide, thus requiring more distance be covered. (If the assault scene in Saving Private Ryan has any validity, that may not be a bad thing.)

In a random order, single unit, single action (ROSUSA) sequence, the first die drawn for the blue side will go to the unit providing the covering fire. If sufficient effect is provided, then when the next blue die is drawn, the second unit will go in straight. Of course, if an enemy die is drawn first, they may take some action that will pre-empt the assault.

That is all fine, but again, this is not a general discussion about the impact of different turn sequences, but about the specific impact on solo gaming. The first impact is that it create many more decision points for the solo gamer. In a traditional IGOUGO, the decision of which unit to move first on a side is irrelevant; they all move at the same time, and it has no effect. Switching to a ROSUSA turn sequence forces you to prioritize actions between units into a sequence that makes sense. By focusing the solo gamer's attention down to the micro, and away from the macro, I think you break (or at least significantly reduce) the chance of bias for one side's plan over the other. You may still get caught up in the narrative, but then again, isn't that why we game?

So the conclusion I am drawing is that some game mechanics are more conducive to 'better' solo gaming, and the traditional IGOUGO is not one of them. We have looked at another mechanism, the THW Reaction System, and its impact on solo gaming. Maybe it is time to start looking at ROSUSA? Maybe I will enjoy my solo wargaming if I forego my cardinal rule of "thou shalt not fundamentally change the rules" and instead start applying ROSUSA to WH40K, FoW, Warmachine, and some of those other games that I decided to drop because their IGOUGO turned me off from the game.

I've rattled on enough here (it has taken me three nights to write this), and I am curious what you think. Can changing something as core as a turn sequence make a fundamental difference in how the game plays for a solo gamer? Especially a solo gamer that plays each side to the best of his ability? Does it change his mind-set enough, push away the inherent bias that develops? I would like to hear your thoughts?

1 At first I was going to say "always present mechanic", as I could not think of a game that did not have a turn sequence, until I remembered the card game Spit. Some might say it has "turns", and thus does have a turn sequence, but that is for a discussion another time … if anyone actually cares.

2 I think this is one of the reasons some players do so poorly with random order, single unit, single action turn sequences; as they feel the game is so "chaotic" and "random", of which they have no control over, their plan becomes "just go with the flow". Their plan, is determined, and changed at each instant in which they are given a chance to act. In essence, their plan becomes "to react" rather than to act. That is why I think newer players should not start with a set of rules, such as Bolt Action, where they  have a random order, single unit, single action turn sequence; the player never really sees an incentive in developing a cohesive plan and sticking to it (until it no longer works). Instead they see the randomness and think that it is the physical equivalent of a reaction-oriented first-person shooter video game. At least that is my theory.

2 For those not familiar with Bolt Action's turn sequence it is:
  1. Put one die in a bag for each unit each player has. Player A uses one color of dice and Player B uses a different color.
  2. Shake the bag.
  3. Draw a die from the bag. The color of the die determines who is the Active Player.
  4. The Active Player designates a unit to be activated. That unit must not have already been activated this turn. (This is usually indicated by placing the colored die by the unit being activated.)
  5. The Activated Unit performs an action, which may consist of movement, firing, and/or assault.
  6. Resolve all combats and morale resulting from the action.
  7. Repeat steps 2 through 6 until all the dice have been drawn from the bag.
  8. Perform any End of Turn functions (army morale checks, victory condition checks, and so on).
  9. Start back at step 1. Note that casualties caused will reduce the number of dice put back into the bag, reflecting your deteriorating command and control.
4 WH40K has changed a bit from Third to the current Sixth Edition. They have re-introduced overwatch, so the enemy can fire at charging units before they get into assault. But that is about it when it comes to the enemy reacting during his opponent's turn.

5 Yes, I know that WH40K, and other games like it (such as Flames of War), have a movement portion in the Assault Phase. The assumption here is that the enemy unit is far enough away to require movement in the Movement and Assault Phases.