Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Simultaneous Versus Alternating Turn Rules

I’ve been playing around with Battefront’s Flames of War on the under-used basement wargames table lately to gain a better grasp of the rules; it’s helping me realize I like simultaneous movement and combat resolution in miniature wargames more than strict alternating turn systems.

WargameFoWI’ll admit my experience with Flames of War remains limited. I’m still painting up (and slowly collecting) elements for two companies to fight skirmishes in North Africa, a Panzer company and a British armored company (though light or heavy I haven’t decided -- I have a platoon of Lees and one of Crusader IIs, only one of which being painted and ready for action). Most of my forays into the game consist of pitting my disparate bits of painted units against each other on desert terrain trying to wrap my head around the comprehensive but often-times complex rules. Maybe I shouldn’t pit superior German tanks against British Cruisers and Crusaders, which, despite relatively equal point values, seem to simply fold up in the face of Rommel’s panzers, especially when they sit idly in their final movement position from last turn to let the panzers pound them into oblivion. Nothing says “You Lose” like an entire platoon of Crusaders wiped out under withering panzer fire in one turn. (Obviously this is a deficiency in my collection of painted 15mm figures; I must paint up some British Grant tanks and some anti-tank guns…or maybe I just need to collect an entire German panzer company and field it against some folks at the Friendly Local Gaming Store to really get my butt kicked.)

I recall a Flames of War demo run by Jon Baber of What Would Patton Do at a Richmond-area game day a few years ago. It was an all-tank battle (without infantry or artillery, which was fine since I prefer all-tank engagements anyway). He walked me through the basics of the rules and taught additional rules as I rolled a panzer company through some French village surrounded by fields. Aside from my natural discomfort learning a new rules system, I also experienced a great deal of frustration from the alternating turn progression. Granted, both players follow the same rules and both take turns acting while the other helplessly watches; but turns can take so long, especially for a novice, that the feeling of helplessness drags on beyond the hope of possible victory and ultimately the enjoyment of the game. One might argue since both players use the same rules each benefits equally from alternating turns rather than simultaneous resolution. At least for me the play experience seems far more frustrating. For one entire turn I can do nothing while my opponent maneuvers across the board and shoots at my pieces, possibly destroying them before I have a chance to respond.

Simultaneous Bias

Most wargames I’ve played rely on a simultaneous system where each player resolves movement and then combat at the same time, giving each a chance to act and have what feels like a fair chance to react to the opponent’s tactics without sitting idly and often helplessly waiting for the next turn. Whether or not it’s technically evenhanded, it gives the impression of being fair.

I particularly like the simultaneous mechanics of Wizards of the Coast’s Axis & Allies Miniatures games. While I’ve not played -- and have little interest in buying into -- the latest air combat game, I’ve enjoyed the land-based minis game and War at Sea, the naval version. In both games players each take a turn moving all their units, then fire at targets in turn (and in several different phases in War at Sea to simulate different kinds of ordnance); but damage inflicted by successful attacks doesn’t take effect until the end of the combat turn or phase, giving each player’s forces an opportunity to attack the other from their present positions.

I enjoy Wings of War/Wings of Glory especially for its simultaneous movement and combat system, particularly when numerous airplanes cover the board maneuvering, shooting, and steering clear of other planes. At the beginning of each turn every player reveals and executes his maneuver, then determines if any enemy aircraft are within the fire arc and range. The truly simultaneous movement and combat can lead to some really unexpected and entertaining moments, including two opposing planes shooting each other down in the same turn.

I’m a fan of The Sword and the Flame, the Victorian miniatures rules covering many colonial wars I enjoy fighting (primarily Egypt and the Sudan). Those rules offer an interesting modification of the simultaneous move and combat systems, allowing players to move forces based on the random draw of cards; the British player moves one unit if red cards are drawn, the “native” player when black cards are drawn, until the one with units left over moves remaining forces at the end of the movement phase. The ranged combat system works the same way, though casualties take effect immediately. (Close combat is handled differently and, of course, quite savagely, though still simultaneously no matter who closed to engage.)

When I run roleplaying games, regardless of the system, I tend to favor resolving actions in a round -- particularly combat -- simultaneously, with considerations for extraordinary circumstances or exceptional character initiative (i.e., “Mack tries shooting the Japanese officer’s hand before he pushes the plunger detonator....”). Keeping track of who’s doing what, whether they succeed, and what the opposition does can prove quite the mental and imaginative challenge, but it moves the action a little more from an alternating turn-by-turn game simulation toward a slightly more dramatic, simultaneously resolved scene.

Alternating Defense

I believe alternating turn movement and combat resolution has its place in more traditional, war-themed board games. Obviously when one plays Risk, Stratego, or other such games there remains some element of frustration naturally inherent in the competition between players, but one isn’t left feeling quite so helpless while the opponent determines movement, hits, saves, damage, etc., often while consulting or explaining numerous rules and special exceptions. These turn-based games move far more quickly than often ponderous miniature wargames with comprehensive rules systems.

I enjoy “battle games” like Days of Wonder’s Memoir ’44 or the old TSR Sirocco; like most board games, these rely on alternating turns between players. For some reason -- possibly because of the smaller, board-game feel -- I don’t think my Memoir ’44 play experience is diminished by alternating turns. This might come from the games' limitation on player actions based on the command cards he holds, which can restrict his options to using troops in the left, right, and center (or some combination of those) or to particular troop types. Perhaps the feelings of helplessness in these games doesn’t coalesce as quickly given the quick turn progression and relative ease of the rules.

I was impressed by the Severed Union rules Gordon & Hague recently released for fighting American Civil War battles with 10mm miniatures. On the surface Severed Union seems to rely on an alternating turn system whereby one side moves, fires, and charges into close combat before the other player repeats those phases; except after movement and before long-range fire from infantry, any artillery on the defender’s side has a chance to fire at enemy targets. In fact artillery only fires on the opposing player’s turn, allowing for some degree of defense in the face of unrelenting combat phases.

In my own dabbling with miniature wargame design I’ve leaned toward simultaneous movement and combat resolution, streamlining rules for greater speed and ease of play with relatively few tethers to realistic simulation. Any designer -- for wargames, board games, card games, and roleplaying games -- struggles with a balance between complexity and playability. Historical wargames balance complex rules simulating realities of a period battlefield with ease of play. Some offer very realistic game engines simulating all aspects of warfare within a particular period, but they aren’t as accessible to general players due to their complexity. While some hard-core wargamers might downplay the importance of “battle games” like Memoir’44 and Wings of War/Wings of Glory, they serve as both entry games enticing newcomers into the gaming and wargaming hobby and worthy gaming pursuits in and of themselves offering in-depth play opportunities and solid replay value.

I’m no expert on wargames rules, and I’m certainly not familiar with even most of the popular systems so these remain broad generalizations reflecting my particular gaming tastes.

I’m drawn to the Flames of War “hobby” -- a term the company Battlefront Miniatures uses as a nod to the Games Workshop Warhammer “hobby” on which its modeled its sales and promotion structure -- primarily because it’s so ubiquitous these days among Friendly Local Gaming Stores that stock miniatures (much like its Warhammer forerunner). It remains perhaps the most popular World War II miniatures game today, with a vast, worldwide network of players, tournaments, and host game stores. I’ll continue learning the rules and painting my minis with an eye toward the day when I can field a full tank company at the Friendly Local Gaming Store’s regular Friday night Flames of War gathering, where I’ll fully expect to have my tanks burning on the field before the night’s out….