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Getting stuck in combat system design

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larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008

I have realized that I often get stuck in my design when I need to have a combat system. I often use a temporary system as a substitute until the real system is designed, but most of the time, the rest of the game is closely tied with the combat system which forces you to design it first.

There is also the theory that sometimes, the combat system is almost the core of the game, so if you use a substitute system you do not have a good feeling of the game. So I tried to dress up a list of common problems found in combat system design and see if I could not find any solutions.

Missing Information: Sometimes, combat system implies a lot of information like for example unit types which each has various statistics and special abilities. It creates some sort of design loop where you cannot define this information until you have a working combat system, but you cannot test your combat system until you have that information.

The only solution so far that I found so far is to improvise some stats, partially design the information and start with more general and essential information and complete later with the details and special abilities.

Too Much variables: Most combat system implies a certain amount of randomness or hidden information. To make the system work, the game will supply different variables that will influence the results of the combat. Sometimes, the number of variables that needs to influence a combat system is so high that it get's complicated to find a way to resolve combat with a simple roll of dice.

One idea that I found is to combine some variables together. It reminds me of Final Fantasy Tactics, where the armor of your character increased it's HP instead of reducing the damage received. So it combines both variables into 1 stat.

Another solution would be to remove variables and change them as constants. For example, you could say that the terrain where the battle occurs has no influence anymore on the combat resolution.

No Strategy: Another thing common in combat system is the lack of strategy. Compared to video games where you often have the possibility to resolve a combat on a battle map separate from the main game, in board games, it is much more harder to implement due to the amount of time it would take to resolve that many battles.

So most of the time, the combats are resolved with a few dice rolls and there are actually no decision to take. I find this a bit bland since in many games, that is why you are playing for.

One of the first solution to make sure it does not end up in a complete dice fest is to give a low level of decision. For example, In my Fallen Kingdoms game, the decision you have to make is A) how much units do you send, B) when do you retreat and C) do you rampage if you can. In a game like Twilight Imperium it will be: A) Which unit do you send, B) which unit gets damaged first, C) when do you retreat and D) do I use an action card.

As you can see, there is not many decision and it will probably please most players. But there can be a trap since many decision could be obvious. For example, when you assign damage, there will be no reason to choose you best ship as your first target, you will generally always want to sacrifice some fighters before sacrificing capital ships. So in that case, it's an illusion of decision because there is only 1 good answer.

Tell me what you think, and if you have any tips or solutions you can post them here.

Joined: 03/27/2011
The kind of combat system

The kind of combat system most appropriate to a game is going to depend heavily on the scale of the combat. Is it skirmish level (where individual people or vehicles are moved individually, with combat resolved at the level, too)? Does one unit represent a squad/platoon/company/battalion/regiment/division/fleet? This of course ties in with your geographic scale, too, and geographic scale (how many square meters, hectares, square kilometers, or whatever does each "space" represent) will determine the level of terrain effects that come into play.

Especially if combat systems are regularly a problem for you, I would urge you to investigate what various wargames do in that line -- both some hexgrid-&-cardboard-counters wargames, and some miniatures wargames. Some modification of someone else's system might work very well for you. Frequently these games can be complex, but if you focus just on their core combat mechanics, that should be enough to get your started.

One particular example I'd recommend is the fantasy miniatures wargame, "Hordes of the Things". In a nutshell, the system works like this. Each unit type has two combat factors: one versus foot troops, one versus mounted troops. When two units are in combat with each other, each rolls a d6 and adds the appropriate combat factor, based on who they're fighting. If the result is a tie, they keep fighting. If one scores higher than the other, but doesn't score *twice as high or higher* than their opponent, the opponent retreats. If one scores twice as high or higher than their opponent, the opposing unit is destroyed.

Complexity gets added by the following:
Different troop types have different combat factors.
If a retreating unit is being attacked on only on its front, but on its flank or rear as well, it is destroyed instead.
Terrain and position on that terrain modify unit combat scores (pluses and minuses).
Some units types, when fighting certain other unit types, need only beat that opponent, not double it, in order to destroy it.
Some units are not subject to terrain penalties that others are subject to.
Some units can get a bonus for supporting units behind them (two ranks of pike units are more effective than a single rank).

By adjusting the number of different units types, relevant terrain types, etc., and even whether units have one or two (or more) basic combat factors, you could control the complexity.

The designer of the system on which "Hordes of the Things" was developed, Phil Barker, also tried using this same basic system for skirmish-level combat, and that didn't work well in my opinion. Barker also has the most opaque writing style I've ever seen in game rules, which is why I recommend the re-written "HotTs" rules, instead.

If you're looking at combat on a much higher level (regional scale, perhaps, like "Risk!" or "Diplomacy"), then maybe terrain factors are very few, but perhaps a player gets a bonus for attacking from more than one adjacent province (under the notion the defender has to dispose his/her forces to meet attacks coming from more than one direction).

I'm running out of coherent suggestions at this point, but I just had an idea for a way to possibly resolve the problem you cite of distributing damage amongst your units (evidently some sort of fleet battle). Perhaps based on the strengths of the units on each side, a total number of damage points are done to each side. Each ship (or fighter group) can sustain a given number of damage points before it is destroyed (maybe losing functionality along the way). Once TOTAL damage points are determined, players rolls a die, with the high player (Player A) going first in the next process. Starting with the damage Player A's fleet did to Player B's fleet, Player A chooses one unit of B's to inflict a point of damage to. B then chooses one of his units on which the next point of damage is done. A chooses the unit for the next point of damage, then B, and so on. This would allow A to concentrate his/her fire on certain key units (like capital ships) while also allowing B to spread out the damage. I see this as a simplified, broad-overview way of representing fleet movements to try to protect capital ships with one's screening ships, while trying to get through the enemy's screening ships to attack his/her capital ships. Or perhaps every third damage point gets assigned randomly, through a die roll.

larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008
Indeed the scale is important

Indeed the scale is important because that kind of problems rarely occurs on a detailed scale level like in a tactical game. It is more likely to occur when you try to abstract a large battlefield war with a couple values and dice rolls.

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