Tuesday, 24 October 2006

Timers and Hourglasses ...

I recently acquired the boardgame Space Dealer at Essen Spiel. One of the reasons I was attracted to buying it, is because they use hourglasses (timers) as playing pieces. The game lets you build a space station with various functions, and in order to use a function (e.g. produce a certain good, or develop a technology card), you put a timer on it. Once the timer has run completely, the action associated with that card is carried out. Because players have only 2 timers, they need to think about what resources to activate. Also, the game is played in real time; there are no real turns. The timers drive the progress of the game. Once 30 minutes in real time have elapsed, the game ends.

A few years ago, I was also very interested in game called TAMSK, a game in the GIPF series. In this game, timers are also used. They determine when a certain piece needs to be moved. If the time runs out, there are penalties involved.

Another turn-less game is Icehouse. In Icehouse, a number of pyramidal playing piece are put on the table. Players can take pyramids, put them on top of others etc., all without turns. This seems as if it can be chaotic, but in practice, it works really well.

Especially Space Dealer got me thinking about ising something similar in miniature wargames. Most wargames we play are centered around turns, in which a number of units can do something. Possibly card-driven sequences or command-and-control rules can limit the number of troops one can move and or the type of actions one can do, but basically, the game is still turn-based.

But it doesn’t have to be. Inspired by Space Dealer, I started thinking about using a turn-less structure. Suppose you have a number of units on the table, and both players have 2 or 3 timers at their disposal. A player who wants to move or fire with a unit, puts an order chit next to the unit, along with a fresh timer. The timer starts to run, simulating the time for the unit ‘to get ready’ to act on the order. Once the timer has run out, the unit can be moved/attack/fire, and the timer is available to put an order next to another unit. In the mean time, other timers might have run out, and acted upon, and the opposing player does the same. Thus, the game becomes a flow of a sequence of actions by units, the exact order of which is determined by the timers.

Of course, it would take some time to tune this. If the timers take too long (10 mintes ...), players will do a lot of thinking, and watching impatiently untill one timer runs out. On the other hand, if the timers are too fast (5 seconds ...), the game becomes a chaotic scramble. The optimal duration of a timer should allow for a decent, steady pace of play, with time in between to allow for some proper tactical thinking. Also, it would require reasonably fast resolution rules. Resolving an action that takes longer than the time needed for a timer to run out is impractical.

I plan to use this mechanic in one of my future games -- maybe a fantasy battle using my hex-based Te Wapen rules. In the mean time, any comments are welcome.

Wednesday, 11 October 2006

Straight from the hip

Yup amigos, last night featured a game of “Shootists” – Old Western style action in the quiet city appropriately called Tombstone.

The following shootists had answered the call for a final showdown :

Phil “Doc Savage“ Dutré
Koen “Brawl Bait” Devroey
Frank “Eagle Wings” Vleugels
Eddy “Crap Shooter” Sterckx

First scenario : Last Gringo Standing – a straight shoot-out, everyone starting in a corner

Koen and Frank immediately started shooting at each other while Phil used his usual subtle tactic of charging straight ahead at full speed to join the fight while Eddy was using the cover provided by the town houses for a sideways approach.

As soon as Phil was in range, Frank suddenly noticed he left his spare pants or bullets or whatever behind a tree somewhere and “advanced to the rear”, while Koen circled the stable, not trusting the moves Eddy was making. But the one who should have been more careful was Phil : while making sure he remained in cover for both Frank and Koen he didn’t watch his back too carefully and Eddy got the first kill of the night : a headshot. It wasn’t going to be the last : of the 7 player killed in the course of the evening, 5 were headshots. Our tactics may be lousy, but our aim is straight.

Of course this move to kill Phil had left Eddy totally exposed so Koen who had circled the stable managed to first immobilize him by putting bullets in both his legs and then finish him of with a headshot. Meanwhile Frank had found his courage and some spare bullets and the final showdown between Koen and Frank was decided in the latter’s advantage.

Second scenario : 2 versus 2 - Eddy and Koen defending the town, Frank and Phil trying to take it over

As Koen was starting at the other end of town, Frank and Phil’s tactic was to both concentrate their movement & fire on Eddy. Frank got in range first, but Eddy kept dodging every incoming bullet and in return kept hitting Frank in non-vital parts. What exactly constitutes non-vital parts with Frank is still open for debate. When Phil got into range their firepower was even doubled, but still no hits on Eddy. Finally the cavalry arrived in the form of Koen who got into Phil’s rear. Suddenly things happened very quickly : Phil shot at Koen : straight headshot, Phil shot at Eddy : straight headshot – game over in the blink of an eye. Against the odds and all that – “it’s a dice game”

Third scenario – Sheriff versus 3 lousy bandidos trying to blow-up the prison – aka : Let’s kill Koen

Eddy’s legendary lousy playing style dictated the tactics of the 3 bandidos : he would go straight through the middle attracting Koen’s fire while Frank would move to the right and Phil to the left. Sure enough the plan worked : Koen got pretty preoccupied with shooting long range at Eddy, scoring a leg hit, but nothing more. Meanwhile Frank and Phil had closed in fast and trapped the hapless Sheriff in the alley behind the prison. With no way out the Sheriff took 3 bullets in the chest before finally succumbing to the endless barrage of brawls and shots.

Fourth scenario – Stagecoach – Frank commanding 3 bands of outlaws versus 2 wagons full of gold that had to move across the table and exit at the other end.

As one band of outlaws started in the town on our right and another across the river on our left, the only viable tactic was : get out from between them as fast as possible, keep hugging the river so the town gang may not get there in time to stop us. Eddy with the Winchester and Phil with the shotgun on the first wagon, Koen with his Colt on the second. Firepower up front to confront the bands – it looked good in theory.

The tactic brought the wagons close to the band across the river but there was nothing we could do about that. Sure enough it worked : the town band got in a couple of long range shots but proved ineffectual at stopping the wagon train but the outlaws across the river were another thing as they refused to stay on their side of the river. Phil and Eddy both took out a couple of bandidos but by sheer numerical superiority (and keen positioning) they managed to drag Koen from the second wagon and into a brawl. It looked bad for a while but good dice allowed Koen to get back on the wagon and continue the epic journey. But the river outlaws weren’t about to give up as they knew our wagons would slow down while crossing the river and sure enough they managed to drag Koen a second time from his wagon, this time fatally wounding him with Phil helpless because he needed to reload and Eddy’s Winchester not effective at such a close range.

With Koen dead and the second wagon needing a driver there was just one available option for us : Eddy would have to kill the remaining outlaw while Phil would jump from the first to the second wagon. Amazingly the plan worked and we got across the river into safety. Well, relative safety because a third band confronted us : Indians who had all won the Lottery and bought themselves Winchester rifles. Our plan remained : full speed ahead and get through them as fast as possible. Not knowing where we would hit their line the Indians had spread-out a little so we didn’t have to confront all 5 of them at close range and in hand-to-hand combat which together with the protection of the wagons (read : good dice rolling) proved enough to get us through. We had tragically lost Koen on the way, but the gold got through and we would receive a nice bonus.

Four games in under 3 hours – a fast and fun evening