Monday, July 10, 2017

Solo Wargaming 101 at the University of Unreasonable Expectations

I have been fascinated with miniatures of all kinds since I was a young kid. It did not take long for me to start working out very simplistic rules for allowing my wee chaps to battle it out. Usually it was nothing as sophisticated as rolling dice - more often than not, it was flipping a coin to work out how things went. When I found that my friends had no interest in fighting with miniatures in ways that did not involve cherry bombs, bb guns, and matches, I found I had to make my own fun, and I have been doing it ever since.

When IGOUGO attacks...
For a long time, I tried the almost universally suggested method of playing both sides to the best of your ability. This was mildly interesting, but frankly, I found it boring. Mind-numbingly, soul-crushingly boring. It wasn't for me, and so I stopped messing around with solo gaming all together. This was frustrating, as my miniatures collection kept on growing. I just did not have a venue for gaming with them.

Enter Craig Cartmell and his Forge of War and FUBAR rulesets. This fine fellow you might know for his successful, utterly charming ruleset known as In Her Majesty's Name. For being home brews, the two earlier rulesets drew my attention for their devastating simplicity of design combined with some very intelligent mechanics that allowed for a lot of emergent complexity. Namely, each system had an activation system that required rolling for a successful activation before the unit could act. The better the quality of the unit, the more likely they were to activate and carry out the player's orders.  Failure to activate could result in a range of outcomes for the unit, from simply staying put to falling back or worse (depending on which variant of the rules you were using). And failed activation usually meant passing initiative over to the opponent, so no dismal IGO-UGO or even the arbitrary (in my book) alternating activation model.

"Yeah, like hell I am going  out there. Fuck that!"
The activation system really fired up my imagination regarding solo play, as it took a big chunk of the game flow out of the players' hands and put it, rightly, into the chaotic nature of battle. I found quickly that many players I knew could not stand the lack of control an activation system afforded them. I recall one acquaintance telling me  he did not like any mechanic that took away his godlike control of his forces.

That really hit me, but not the way my acquaintance intended. Namely, I realized that one of the best bits about gaming - to me - is the uncertainty over what might happen next, the potential for surprises, and the sense of the player that he (or she) is leading troops who might have their own agendas (namely survival) that don't really encourage mindless slaughter. It seemed to me that if the fog of war could be modeled sufficiently well (many would say too much so) in a game, it could help create the feel for the player of realistically managing chaos rather than leading perfectly disciplined armies of automatons.

I know that many rulesets model the fog of war and related battlefield chaos well. But most of those rulesets are very rule-heavy, requiring the player to consult endless charts and tables to work out the specifics of what happens and when. Force on Force, Tomorrow's War, and Two Hour Wargames, I am looking at you! To me, this approach is stifling and does not feel immersive at all. These are excellent rulesets, but just not for me.

So, no matter what other commerical rulesets caught my eye, I often found myself gravitating back to Forge of War and FUBAR.  These rulesets could be played straight-up by a solo player playing both sides and still create some surprising, chaotic results. Good, but there were still some elements missing for me. I have always wanted to play a solo tabletop wargame in which I could fully identify with one side and not have the mechanics for handling the enemy snap me out of my suspension of disbelief, either through predictable outcomes or through the backbreaking work of checking countless tables and charts.

"We have no faith in your generalship, so can you at least give us an INTERESTING death??"

So I started modifying FUBAR in various ways to see if I could get a more satisfying game. The results at first were pretty mixed, with many ideas that sounded good on paper turning into absolute crap when played out on the game table. After more experimentation, I decided to come up with a want list for my solo gaming, so I that I could have a clearer idea of what I was trying to accomplish.
The list came out looking something like this:

  • Game mechanic handles enemy force deployment, disposition, and behavior with minimal input from the player.
  • Both player and enemy forces seem to react with self-awareness to conditions on the battlefield.
  • A unit or model's training and ability have a direct influence on troops' fighting skill as well as their capacity for dealing with the strain of combat and ability to carry out orders.
  • Events on the battlefield should be chaotic and surprising, but they should still allow the player to carry out a coherent strategy and not simply react to crazy things happening all around.
  • The enemy force composition should be fluid, with enemy units that were not expected popping up on the battlefield while those that were expected may sometimes disappear.  This can allow the player to be surprised by encountering that which he did not except and for which he is not prepared (i.e. bringing only sniper rifles  for support and running into an unexpected hovertank guarding the bunker).
  • The mechanics should reward stealth and maneuver, with combat not just being decided by who has the bigger guns and the hottest special ability or attack.
  • The morale system should not by default allow units to fight to the last man. It may happen, but it should be an uncommon occurrence.
  • Similarly, "casualties" should not mean KIA. In most battles, rendering an enemy unit ineffective is the important goal. Soldiers experience wounding, concussion, confusion, terror, demoralization, weapon malfunctions, depletion of ammo. Any of these outcomes can render a soldier - or unit- out of action (OOA) without necessarily killing anyone. And it follows that these casualties can often rejoin the fight when they have sufficiently recovered. So in my games, OOA  troops have multiple opportunities to re come back to the fray, both during and after the battle.
  • The player-as commander-should have the capacity to push his men a little harder when the stakes are especially high. Similarly, pushing too hard or at the wrong time should have negative consequences for the player.
  • The ruleset should not be ponderous. Rules should take no more than a few pages, including most tables that are required for play.

This is a pretty daunting list, and I always realized that it may not be possible to model all these factors with simple mechanics. But I am pretty stubborn, and I have been trying at this for years now. Over time, I have come up with mechanism that mesh well with FUBAR but could be included in many games to create the sort of experience described above. Whether they are truly successful mechanics is open to debate, but I am pretty happy with them. In my next post, I will outline how I tackled some of these challenges.

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