Thursday, February 25, 2021

Digging into the Solo Mechanics of Space Marine Adventures

So, before I lose you because you don't like Games Workshop, Warhammer 40,000 (WH40K), or the space fantasy genre in general let me just say that this is not so much about those subjects, but how Games Workshop approached solo and cooperative play in their board game (with miniatures) Space Marine Adventures (SMA). It is my intent to dig into the solo game mechanics and show how you can apply it to other genres and historical periods, even without buying the game.

Overview of the Game

The U.S. bookseller Barnes & Noble has licensed a few Games Workshop properties for sale in their bookstores and online store exclusively. (Some titles may also be exclusively in the U.S.) Most of these games are very simple "gateway" games designed to introduce young players to the miniatures gaming hobby by providing the board, terrain pieces, miniatures, tokens, dice, rules and scenarios all in a book shelf-sized box. In the case of SMA it is intended to introduce new players to the world of WH40K in a format simpler than even Kill Team. Games Workshop has done this before with a number of boxed games, such as Space Crusade, Space Hulk, and others this format is definitely more compact and simpler. Further, this is not a competitive game but rather a co-operative game for 1-4 players, with all of the players playing Space Marines. The enemy, in this case the Necrons (killer zombie robots), are programmed completely, and thus is ultimately a solo game system.

The goal of the game is for the player to progress through a series of three missions, each progressively harder than the previous, with a roster of five Space Marines. Each scenario follows the same basic pattern: the Space Marines enter the game board and have to reach a specific square or eliminate a specific enemy, at which point an exit from the board will be revealed, which the Space Marines will need to pass through in order to win the scenario and progress to the next mission. While the players are attempting to accomplish this more enemies will appear on the board in an attempt to wound and ultimately stop the players from accomplishing the mission.

Solo Game Mechanics

For me, When I evaluate a game's "programming" for the enemy side I look at how do the rules answer the following questions:

  1. How do I (the player) determine which side has the next turn?
  2. How do I determine which unit on the enemy (programmed) side acts when it is their turn?
  3. How do I determine what action(s) the enemy unit takes when it is their turn (or if the rules allow it, reactions the unit takes when it is not their turn)?
  4. How do I determine how the enemy unit executes the action(s), e.g. which path it moves along, which target it shoots at or charges, etc.?

Which Side Acts Next

In SMA order of acting is determined by a deck of cards. There are two cards in an activation deck for each individual Space Marine and six cards for all of the Necrons. Each round the player draws a card to determine which side acts next, Space Marines or Necrons. Once all cards are drawn a new turn starts.

Note that neither side gets to react (act during the other's turn), so this question does not need to be considered.

Which Unit Acts Next

As indicated above the activation deck determines order. The card drawn indicates either a specific Space Marine that is to act or all Necrons.

What Actions do the Units Take

I will ignore the player's units for the moment and focus on only the Necrons, as that is what is part of the enemy "program". As I said earlier, SMA is a very simple game. Unlike Arcadia Quest (which I reviewed its solo rules in a previous post) the enemy does not move and attack in their turn. A Necron's turn consists of drawing a card from the mission card deck (called the Labyrinth deck) and following the instructions written there.

Scattered on the boards included with the game are six spawn points (called "translocation squares") numbered one through six. On some of the mission cards it indicates which spawn points new Necrons will come in at, as indicated in the image above. In that example by the red arrow, it instructs the player to place a Necron at translocation square "1".

In the image below, the player has drawn a card indicating that Necrons should be placed at squares "1" and "3".

When Necrons are placed, they are placed in the order indicated on the card (typically from the lowest number to the highest). A counter is placed on the translocation square if it is empty of Necrons. If it is not, it is placed on an adjacent square if that is empty of Necrons. If that is not you look at the next adjacent square, and so on, until it is placed. Additionally, if the translocation square already has a counter, you place one Necron in each direction adjacent to it.

In the example above, when it comes to placing the Necron on "1", because that square is empty the counter will be placed on that square.

For "3" however, there is already a Necron there so there should be one Necron placed in each adjacent square, labeled "A", "B", and "C".

Because "A" has a Necron you then check square "D", which is empty, so the Necron is placed in square "D".

For square "C" there is no Necron, so the new Necron is placed there also.

Finally, in square "B" there is a player's Space Marine. Because the square is empty of Necrons it would normally be placed there, but because there is an enemy, that placement is considered an attack. The new Necron is eliminated and the Space Marine player takes a wound.

Coming back to the question: what action(s) do the programmed unit(s) take? The answer is "placement". Placing a unit essentially indicates where future enemy units can be placed and which player units can be attacked.

How Do the Units Execute Actions

As indicated above, placement is the only "action" allowed to the enemy program. If the placement is on the same square as a player's unit, it is considered an attack. The strict placement rules define how the units execute those placement actions. Thus the decision is taken away from the player.

Application to Other Genres

Okay, so now you have the basics of the solo gaming mechanism, how can you apply this to other genres?

The Board

The first component to consider is the game board or tabletop. There are three elements to account for:

  1. The paths that the player's units can take and the enemy unit's can be placed.
  2. The points where the enemy's units can enter the board.
  3. The locations of the objectives.

Personally I think this system needs a grid, whether square or hex, in order to constrain the player's movement (no geometry tricks in order to avoid an enemy attack) and control the enemy placement.

The Reinforcements (Labyrinth) Deck

To recap a little, each round a card is drawn from the activation deck to determine which side - and in the case of the player, which unit - acts next. When it is the enemy's turn to act, a card is drawn from the labyrinth deck, which acts as a reinforcements and events deck, to determine which enemy reinforcements come on and where they enter.

Researching out, say, a historical battle you could use the orders of battle and the arrival schedule of units to create the values in the reinforcement deck. As a variant, you might even not randomize the order of the cards in the deck in order to reflect the historical order of appearance of units.

All each card need do is indicate the reinforcement point(s) where reinforcements will enter. How many will enter can either be dictated by the position of existing friendly and enemy units on the board, as it is with SMA, or it could be stated on the card.

The Reinforcement Pool

One aspect of SMA that I glossed over is which specific unit type is deployed to the spawn point when the labyrinth deck indicates new units are arriving. Each scenario defined the number of types of units that are in play, e.g. 10 Necron Warriors and 10 Necron Immortals. These units are tossed into a bag and when the card calls for a unit to be deployed, one is randomly pulled from the bag and deployed on the board at the location specified by program.

The same sort of concept could be employed in other genres, of if playing a historical scenario, you could combine the reinforcement location and unit composition in the reinforcements deck.

The Units

The Necron units in SMA really only differ in their defense values. As there is no movement, and attacking is by placement automatically inflicting a single wound to the player's unit, the only values a Necron unit has are its type and its defense value. When a player's unit attacks the player rolls a D6, adds or subtracts modifiers, and is looking to equal or exceed the Necron unit's defense value. If it does, the unit is eliminated.

All units of the same type have the same defense value. Some cards in the labyrinth deck will temporarily modify that value for all units of the indicated type, generally making them tougher to kill.

The two elements of combat, that an enemy unit inflicts one wound 100% of the time and that a player unit that inflicts a hit on the enemy will destroy it in a single hit, can easily be changed. Both sides' attack and defense values could be created and used, with die rolls determining the outcome of hits and damage for both sides.


The basic structure of SMA provides for an interesting method of programming opponents. In turn, there are a number of variations you can consider.

  • If you don't like making cards you can easily convert the deck to a table where you make rolls. It does change the dynamics some as, once a card is played it cannot be played again. (Once the deck is played, the game is over, so all cards are only played once, at most.)
  • Some people do not like deterministic combat so you can inject any sort of chance element you like, or even your favorite combat system.
  • There is another variation of SMA called Space Marine Adventures - Rise of the Orks, which allows the enemy units to move by program, so this is an obvious change that can be made, rather than having reinforcements reflect "movement" of sorts.
The final point is that a good programmed opponent takes work. It is basically a game in and of itself. I think the more you write these programs, the easier the next one becomes.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Arcadia Quest's Solo Rules

 One of the games that I have had for a long time is CMON's Arcadia Quest (AQ). AQ is an adventure board game with cool, chibi-style miniatures (i.e. big heads, smaller body, little hands and feet) playable by 2-4 players. Although it has "monster" enemies that are not played by a specific player, it is only semi-cooperative. Players compete against one another to be the first one to complete quests. When all quests are complete, the scenario is over, players upgrade their characters, and you move on to another scenario (another night). There are six scenarios played total in every campaign.

There are more than six scenarios defined, so each campaign can consist of a different mix of scenarios. Beyond that, each player uses three characters throughout that campaign and there are numerous characters to choose from, so there is quite a bit of replayability. All that said, despite the dungeon crawling, campaign aspect of the game, this is more of a player-versus-player (PvP) than player-versus-environment (PvE) game, although components of both exist.

Given that it is more PvP than PvE, how can you play this game solo? If you can convert this to a solo game, why can't you convert it to a fully co-operative game then? Let's start by looking at the regular game mechanics, how CMON changed it for solo play, then look at a game.

AQ Game Mechanics

My goal here is not to review the entire rules, but to show how AQ works as a game, how the rules make decisions for the monsters, how combat works, and how a scenario is fought.


The basic combat mechanic in AQ is that every character (hero or monster) has an attack stat indicating the number of attack (black) dice they will roll, and whether that attack is ranged or melee. In addition, heroes have a defense stat indicating the number of defense (white) dice they will roll. Each successful defense roll (block) cancels a successful attack roll (hit). If there are more hits than blocks, the defender takes wounds equal to the difference. This leads to the third stat characters have, health, which is the number of hits they take before they are removed from play.

The primary difference in combat against heroes and combat against monsters is that the former have defense dice while the latter do not. This simplifies combat in that no one has to "play" the monster when a hero attacks one. There are no decisions to be made (at that time), it is simply does the hero inflict enough wounds to kill the monster or not?

The secondary difference between heroes and monsters in combat is that when the former's wounds equals or exceeds its health the combat is over. The hero's figure is removed from the board and placed on their stat card. (More on that later). Monsters, however, have a unique stat: the overkill stat. This stat represents the number of wounds that, if taken in a single hit, has killed the monster so quickly and decisively that it cannot strike back before it is removed. Anything less and the monster will get to make a "payback reaction".

Monster reactions are the "programs" for the monsters that dictate when a monster can act. Normally, monsters do not get a "turn". They stand in place in the designated location (according to the scenario) and do nothing until their program allows them to react to a player action. One of those reactions is when they are attacked and the hero does not manage to overkill them. At that point they can move (according to their movement stat) and attack the hero that attacked them. Some monsters have ranged attacks while others have melee attacks. It is possible, for example, for a hero to attack a monster and the reacting monster cannot move enough to attack the attacker back.

Another reaction monsters have in their program is when a hero attempts to move within or out of their "zone of control". This prevents players from simply moving their heroes around the monsters with impunity. The rules for this "guard reaction" is that they immediately attack the hero each time they move within or out of their zone of control. They do not move, however.

In both reaction cases, the player to the right of the player that owns the hero the monster is reacting to will act using the reacting monster and roll its dice. (Remember that AQ is primarily a PvP game, so there is plenty of incentive for the other player to act aggressively with the monster.)


Monsters are placed in squares initially as indicated by the scenario. The image below shows the configuration of the board, portals, tokens, player starting area, and locations of monsters and objectives. In addition, the marker indicated with the red rectangles are "spawn tokens".

When a monster is killed it is moved off of the board onto the spawn track (the mini-board in the upper-left corner of the table with five slots). When all five slots are filled the monsters on that track will re-spawn into a random location on the board.

Each of the spawn tokens have two symbols printed on it. Two attack (black) dice are rolled for each figure on the spawn track, matching the symbols on the dice to the tokens. As there are three different symbols there are six unique combinations. As you can see in the image above, there are only four different combinations showing, so if a combination is rolled that is not on the board, that monster is permanently removed from the scenario, otherwise it is placed in the square with the corresponding token combination. (As there is a stacking limit to a square, if a combination is rolled and that square is already full, that monster is also permanently removed.)

Turn Sequence

As indicated above the basic turn sequence is as follows.

  1. A single Hero activates for each player in turn. Alternately, a player can Rest his Guild (which is not discussed in this post).
    1. If the Hero triggers a reaction, that Monster reacts to the Hero and acts according to its program and how the player to the right wishes.
  2. Once all players have acted, if the Spawn Track is full, dice are rolled for each Monster on the track to see where it respawns, or if it is permanently removed.

Note that the Monsters do not get a "turn", thus this is not a traditional IGO-UGO game. This will become significant when we look at the solo rules.

AQ Solo Game Mechanics

Again, the idea is not to fully review the solo rules, but to highlight how the core mechanics change when playing solo.

Combat Mechanics

Combat mechanics do not change materially save for the Monster's movement stat. The stat remains the same – typically one square – but it is only used for payback reactions (reacting to being attacked by a Hero). As will be discussed in the Turn Sequence section, Monsters can move in their own separate turn and when they do, they will get to move three squares.

Because the intent is to use these rules by a single player, the mechanic of having the player to the right play the monsters when reacting will not work. The solo rules needed to tighten up their program on running the monsters. Because a reaction is always to a Hero and not to a player, nothing really needs to change. Either the monster can react to the moving/attacking player or it cannot. There are no real decisions to be made.

Spawn Mechanics

The mechanics do not materially change for solo play. The spawn tokens and spawn track still exist and are used the same way.

Turn Sequence

This is where the changes occur. The solo rules essentially have to change a PvP game to a PvE game. As before, no one "plays" the monster side, so the monsters need to be fully programmed.

The modified turn sequence is as follows.

  1. The player activates all of his Heroes in any order he chooses, or Rests the Guild.
    1. If the Hero triggers a reaction, that Monster reacts to the Hero and acts according to its program and how the player to the right wishes.
    2. If the player completes all of the quests the game instantly ends.
  2. If the Spawn Track is full, dice are rolled for each Monster on the track to see where it respawns, or if it is permanently removed.
  3. The player will roll twice to determine which of the monsters on the board will get to move and attack.
    1. Players lose and the scenario instantly ends if the Heroes have been killed a number of times equal to the difficulty of the game (somewhere between one and four times).
  4. Once both Monsters have acted, the turn ends.

With the Monsters taking an active role, and there being only one Guild (team) to counter them with, the scenarios are much harder than when playing normally.


The goal of any A.I. or programmed opponent is to take the following four decisions away from the player and for the program to make them:

  1. Which side gets to act next?
  2. Which unit gets to act next?
  3. Which actions will the acting unit take?
  4. How will the unit execute those actions?

Given that this follows a traditional IGO-UGO turn sequence, this question is easily answered: the side that is current active will act next.

The spawn mechanics partially answer the second question: two dice are rolled to determine which spawn point to reference. Draw a Monster card. The closest Monster of the type indicated on the card to that spawn point will act next. If more than one meets that criteria, then it goes to the player choice. The player can use a number of rules to break the tie, which is recommended.

The third question is partially answered with rules: the Monster will move towards the closest Hero and then attack them if possible. Essentially the Monster takes an Attack action with an optional Move action if needed to get them to where they can attack.

The fourth question is largely unanswered. Although there are rules governing how a Monster should choose a target Hero, in the case of ties it is silent on how to break the tie. Where most of the ambiguity comes in are in the execution details. For example, if a Monster can attack from more than one direction there are no rules governing deciding which path. Also, if a Monster has a ranged weapon, can it (or should it) advance to the closest point at which it can fire, or should it move its full move?

In short, the solo rules are something to build upon, rather than relying upon it to cover all bases. (It does not even have the generic rule to "roll a die to choose", relying upon the player to choose.)


The more this lockdown continues, the more opportunity we all have to try more solo gaming and their mechanics. Although you can always fall back on the old "play both sides to the best of your ability" method, this leaves many games feeling like a test of the game mechanics, rather than an exciting narrative playing out. In fact, if you get too invested in one side, the odds are your bias with come out in lackluster or even bad plays on the opposing side. That is why having a solid program really helps solo gameplay.

These rules are "challenging". There is no adjustment to the enemy roster and you are expected to not only defeat the same number of enemy that would face two to four times the number of player Heroes, but these enemy can move towards you at great speed. In the two test games I played, the player's party never got more than one square beyond the starting area!

Overall, however, I enjoyed them and would play them again, with a few tweaks.