Thursday, 18 August 2016

Non-elegant rule mechanics

I am a big fan of elegant rule mechanics. In our house rules, we always spend a large amount of effort on testing and polishing exactly how a mechanic should work, by boiling it down to its essence: remove unnecessary modifiers, remove clunky procedures, stick to a single resolution mechanic, design such that you can read results directly from the die rolls, apply modifiers related to troops to the die roll for those troops, etc.

It sounds easy, but it's not. Actually, it's much easier to design a non-transparant / difficult-to-use / lots of modifiers / ...  mechanic. The result is that the game slows down, and that players spend time just resolving combat, or shooting, or whatever. The fun activity in a miniature game is in manoeuvring troops, not resolving combat. The latter should be quick, elegant, and fun. Not tedious and time-consuming.

I recently read Horizon Wars (Osprey Games), a newly-published ruleset for 6mm science fiction games. Their shooting mechanic is what I would call very non-elegant.

Let me explain:
  1. Attacker adds the Armour value of the defender to the range to the target. This becomes the effective range.
  2. Attacker then rolls a number of D12.
  3. Defender then rolls a number of D12. If any D12 scores the same result as the attacker's dice, that specific attacker's die is cancelled.
  4. Attacker then puts remaining dice in groups, the sum of each group has to exceed the effective range to score a hit.
Why do I think such a mechanic is not very elegant? Let me explain ...
  1. Determining the effective range requires the attacking player asking a stat about the target to his opponent. This slows down the game. Some players might even consider changing targets depending on the Armour value of the target. By constantly having to ask this characteristic, the procedure becomes tedious. Furthermore, it says nothing yet about your chances to score hit.
  2. Rolling a number of D12 - fine. Nothing wrong with that.
  3. This is what irks me. The defender rolls a number of D12 himself, trying to match rolls from the attacker. This requires comparing a handful of dice on both sides to each other. The cancelling is not related to the actual number rolled on the die. A "1" is cancelled with equal probability as a "12". So, although the attacker might have rolled some high numbers, it doesn't mean much, because roughly speaking, any roll made by the attacker has 1/12 chance of getting cancelled per die rolled by the defender.
    I understand what the idea is: more defending dice cancel on average more dice by the attacker. But comparing exact rolled die numbers is an unnecessary complication.
    A better option would have been to reduce the *number* of dice rolled by the attacker. That would require some rebalancing of stats, but would make for a smoother mechanic.
  4. The attacker then has to group remaining dice into groups, each group exceeding the effective range. This is also weird. It requires a little puzzle to be solved by the attacker, because he wants to score as many hits as possible. Suppose the effective range is 10, and you roll a 6, 5, 3, 3, 2, 1. Then you should combine the 6 with a 3 and 1 (resulting in 10), and the 5 with the 3 and 2, also scoring 10, for a total of 2 hits. Natural reaction might be to add 6 to 5, resulting in 11, but then you only can total 1 hit, since the remaining numbers add up to 9. Perhaps a convoluted example, but why invent such a clunky mechanic? What's the added value? Why not simply add everything up, divide by effective range and rounding down? Much simpler.
What bothers me the most is that you will not get any excitement from rolling dice. You can't even shout "Yes, I rolled a 12!", because a 12 might be cancelled as easily as a 1. Then you still have to group the dice in hits. Once you've done that, excitement already has gone. A mechanic should be designed in such a way that you do the math (modifiers, determining numbers of dice, dice types, whatever) BEFORE YOU ROLL ANYTHING. Then, you do immediately see, based on the die roll, what the effect of your action is. If you require calculations AFTER the die roll, it results in a boring and tedious mechanic.

Also, the specific mechanic as outlined above is not consistent. Armour value of the target is added to the range, the Defensive value results in a number of D12 to be thrown in order to cancel attacking dice. The stats of the defender influence the procedure in two very different ways. A good procedure should be designed in a uniform manner. Either adjust range, or adjust number of dice, or use die modifiers, or adjust die types, but don't use combinations of these various options!

A much better mechanic would have been to adjust the number of D12 rolled by the attacker, by subtracting Armour and Defensive values. That has the same effect: lowering the total on the dice rolled, while you can still compare the total sum against the unmodified range of the attacker, and seem how many hits you have scored.

Anyway, if players like these procedures, they should use them! It's not for me to tell how others should enjoy their games. But I do think many mechanics in wargames can be made more elegant, resulting in better designed games.


  1. I'd think that it IS much easier to design a bad mechanic- though with non- historical stuff you don't have to factor in an actuality and the history can make life harder. Your example- and I do dabble in sci-fi has put me off that system- I'd lose the will to live.
    However define "elegant" so far for instance I have 2 other Osprey sets- "Lion Rampant" which I'm told has "elegant" mechanisms. To me they are simplistic and have no period flavour. The rules are about as "medieval"as a 1950's Hollywood movie but with less atmosphere. Sure they work as a simple childrens game but that is about it.En Garde is a little more complex and indeed may be inelegant but- so far appear to do what they say they do rather better than LR. Mind you I'm still working on this so that is only a first impression.

  2. Excellent post Phil. Andy has requested a definition of Elegant, and I'll admit I can't provide one.
    However I'll have a go at describing what elegant looks like.
    With 2 methods providing similar results, the one requiring fewer steps / calculations/ die rolls is usually the more elegant.

    For elegant you could substitute "Simple, but not too simple".

    I enjoyed this post because I like my games to be simple.
    The current trend for skirmish gaming and company size fights has done a lot to promote simpler rules.
    Simple can be something of a two-edged sword.
    Some simple rules provide a varied and interesting game, others offer little more than a dull scrum in the middle of the table.

    Are you familiar with "Quadrant Analysis" - essentially a 2 x 2 table with 2 qualities on each edge - the qualities are opposites.
    It's difficult to draw a quadrant here, but it can also be represented as a table.
    The 2 quantities are simple / complicated and interesting / boring.

    simple / boring - lacking depth, a childish game like snakes and laddders
    simple / interesting - The ideal quick game - elegant?
    complicated / interesting - A challenge for the hardcore gamer, perhaps a military simulation.
    complicated / boring - The worst kind of game - too many "realistic" games from 1970s - 90s.