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Military inflation and impregnable defenses

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larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008

I played recently Master of Magic in easy mode and I realised something that is present in many games where conquest is present. The problem is simple.

If my opponent has 3 units to defend him self, how could I make sure that my chances to succeed an attack are relatively high:

- Send stronger units than my opponent.
- or attack with more than 3 units of similar strength.

Most of the time, stronger units is not necessarily available. Which creates an inflation where to increase your chances to win, you attack with more units. And the defender accumulate more units, forcing you to send even more units.

Some games put a cap on the amount of units. For example: Master of magic is limited of 9 units. But if your defender has 9 units, you cannot send 11. So you need multiple groups of 9 units and hope that 2 successive attack with each group will work.

Another problem is the invincible defender. Let say each territory can hold a max of 2 units. If my oponent has 2 units to defend his territory, I cannot send 3 or more, because the max is 2. But if I attack with all my 2 units, I leave my territory empty which in certain games can be very bad. Else, I can only attack with 1 unit, which definately puts me at disadvantage.


So how can this be solved?

In many situation throught history, smaller armies managed to get a victory over larger armies, so size should not be the only factor.

In romance of the 3 kingdoms II, they added additional factors that influence combat resolution. Troops can have training and equipement rating. Officers have different "war" rating. There is some limited subterfuge like switch side an officer or create fire. There is a tactical battle resolution where the player could expect performing better than the AI.

Which means that 2 armies of 5 units (which is the max you can bring without allies), will never be exactly equally the same. Best case scenario. Both sides are prepared, and have officers with strong "war" value. So only the tactical battle remain. Most of the time in that situation, the battle could not reach a conclusion and multiple successive attacks were required.

So what is the real solution to this, offer more variables, ambush and other possible subterfuge that the player can take advantage of. Have some random situations that prevent the predetermined outcome.

How can a smaller army wins against a larger one?

let-off studios
let-off studios's picture
Joined: 02/07/2011
Big Army Composition

larienna wrote:
So how can this be solved? [...] How can a smaller army wins against a larger one?
Personally, I don't see why you need to worry about a smaller army defeating a larger one. If that happens too frequently, then it's likely a sign that things are out of balance. Overabundance of luck is likely a major imbalance factor in these kinds of situations (in my opinion though, having some amount of luck is worth keeping, as it's both more realistic and more dramatic).

Since you mention a few video games, let me throw another into the ring: Age of Wonders II: Shadow Magic. It's one of my personal favourites (I was actually a playtester for the original AoWII back in the day, and I think this expansion only added to it), and I like how they addressed city sieges.

The map is a series of hexes, and in a single hex you can have a settlement, with various stages of fortification: walls, ballistae, magical countermeasures, etc. When an attack happens, the attacker isn't moved into the city hex. Rather, all units surrounding the hex being attacked are drawn into the battle.

This means there are a potential of 7 hexes' worth of units to be drawn in to a single conflict. So an effective city defense will have the settlement at its center, and allied units occupying the six hexes surrounding it.

On the flipside, an effective attack force will first surround a settlement as much as possible, then attack from a point that allows the most of its allied attack units to also participate in the fight while excluding allies of the settlement. So at times, an attacking force will do its best to chip away at the outlying hexes when prepping to invade a settlement, so that they don't have to face off with the full complement of adjacent hexes assisting in the defense of that settlement.

It's a fantastic game, and if you've not seen it I strongly recommend you have a look if you've the time.

questccg's picture
Joined: 04/16/2011

You can do in like in Warlords: add a Hero to your group to highly influence the battle. A Hero vs. No Hero is rather dramatic in terms of an attack against a castle or units around the map. Heroes probably increase the odds by 50% (this is just an estimate). Heroes I believe can also have ITEMS too... which can affect how they attack too. So if I'm a Hero PLUS I have an Enchanted Sword... Then that will GREATLY affect the outcome of any battle.

Note #1: If your Hero uncovers some great artifact as a result of a Quest (say the "Ark of the Covenant"), he is likely to be MUCH more difficult to defeat and while on the offensive he is a major threat to the opposing players.

In this case, maybe you could build RANGED troops or SIEGE Vehicles... Another way to offset the MELEE capabilities of the Hero and his group!

Note #2: And then you reach the level of Warcraft or Starcraft in terms of troop types (not the RTS pace of the game). It seems like most games build upon games that came before them. Sure there are leaps in raw processing power making the characters more realistic looking, etc. But I think it's a THING to take a 2D game like Warlords and convert it to a ISOMETRIC game like Warcraft... More types of units, different battle efficiencies, etc.

questccg's picture
Joined: 04/16/2011
SpellForce Order of Dawn

This then results in a RTS/RPG game called "SpellForce". It's such an amazing game because there are Adventure Levels (That's what I'll call them) and it means that you control ONE (1) Character like games like Fallout 76 (FPS) and you can interact with other characters too (like your traditional Adventure). Your character is in 3D and responds to Left-Right to rotate the character and Up-Down to move forwards or back.

When I played this game like 15 years ago... I realized a DREAM about the TYPE of game that I wanted to play. Why is "SpellForce" so important???

Well see you can ALSO play in RTS mode for levels like a Hybrid 3D World with a limited map for STRATEGY and controlling a bunch of units much like Warcraft and Starcraft.

Integrated with Adventure/Questing (RPG) and ALSO RTS ... Made "SpellForce" the most compelling game that I have ever played. And one of the LAST Computer Games that I've PLAYED. Sure I've played Nitendo DS and Wii games afterwards. But as a Computer Game that I played from Beginning to End... "SpellForce" captured the two genres (RPG & RTS) and made for the most EPIC game around.

Definitely the culmination of the 3D engines at that time... And then Blizzard released "World of Warcraft" going in a more FPS direction that "SpellForce" did not follow. Anyways the conclusion (tl;dr) is that after that game I lost interest in PC gaming. Even on console, I still have my portable DSi (and you are all probably wondering WHY?). Well it turns out if you buy a CART, you can transfer a TON of the older DS game to one CART (with hundreds of game accessible from a menu). And since the DSi is old-tech (you can't buy the console - now it's the 3DS), you can download many of the games and play cool but older games. Console, I've also played the Wii and had one of those in my past life.

For the most part, I enjoy DESIGNING just a vividly as playing in my younger years.

ananda's picture
Joined: 11/03/2019
It seems to me that there are

It seems to me that there are two questions here - how to deal with Defender's advantage, and how to allow small armies to win against larger ones.

As far as defender's advantage goes, there are plenty of systems where the attacker has a built in advantage. My favorite example is Root, where the attacker rolls two dice and uses the higher result to determine how much damage they inflict, and the lower to determine how much damage they receive.

But even without changing the combat mechanics of the types of games you are talking about, it is possible to get around even an invincible defense by being careful what goals you give the players. If the goal is to exterminate your opponent, then an invincible defender is a problem. But if you are just trying to take control of a certain number of farms (for example), their defense can become irrelevant, as you can just take all their farms while they stay "safe" in their fortress. If they are invincible in one place but not in other places that matter for victory conditions, then it is okay if the combat mechanics allow them to turtle. Maybe it is impossible to reinforce farms, so a proactive defense (sending out your knights) is necessary.

In other words, an invincible defense is only a problem if the game forces you to defeat it to win. To get around it, just provide the player with other goals.

larienna wrote:

How can a smaller army wins against a larger one?

It is easy, when designing wargames, to set up a vicious cycle where the player that receives significant casualties first cannot make a comeback because the number of actions that they get to take is tied to the number of units they have out. The easiest way to avoid this is to not tie player actions to the number of units they have. For example, in games like chess and checkers each player moves one unit per turn, so no matter how outnumbered they are they still have the same number of moves.

Another example is Heroscape, which has an unusual system in which each player assigns 3 "order markers" each round which indicate which units they will move. Because you can assign multiple order markers to the same unit, this leads to a weird dynamic that rewards players for sending out one unit at a time (a unit in this case being a group of figures that all move together with a single order marker). However, the advantage to this system is that no matter how much your army is outnumbered by your opponent's army, you still get the same number of actions as they do. This makes it possible for awesome comebacks to happen.

This "dueling" style of mass combat (where battles are resolved in a series of 1v1 duels between combatants on either side) also happens in computer games, such as Star Control. It may have a less realistic feeling that games where you get to move everything on your turn, but it definitely solves the problem of smaller armies being automatically crushed with no chance to make a comeback.

A different way to help offset the natural advantages that larger armies have is to allow units to react automatically to enemy actions when it is not their turn. The simplest way is to let units counterattack - for example, in Battle for Wesnoth, whenever one unit attacks another, the defender gets to attack back. Keyforge does the same thing in its combat system. This still gives the player with more units a big advantage, but it reduces the impact that their higher number of actions has because whenever they make an attack their opponent gets to as well.

questccg's picture
Joined: 04/16/2011
Some additional "thoughts"

larienna wrote:
How can a smaller army wins against a larger one?

My best answer (although I have stated that a Hero or General could BOOST the morale and effectiveness of a smaller army) is to mix units and use an RPS-3.

Melee -> Ranged -> Flying -> Melee.

Upon your first encounter between 2 Armies, the composition of each army is "unknown" ... This adds a bit of RISK when you are the first player to initiate an ATTACK. In a way this is good, because units protecting a Castle (for example) won't attack passing armies, they will only DEFEND from incoming invasions.

So the FIRST encounter has a HUGE "luck" factor due to "composition".

If I have only 1 DRAGON (Flying) and you have 5 DWARVES (Melee) plus a Hero... It's pretty certain that my DRAGON has a BONUS in attacking from the RPS-3 rules. Does that mean that my dragon MUST/WILL defeat all of the dwarves?! No. BUT the odds are that this might be a FAIR battle. The Dragon may defeat 3 out of 5 dwarves, but the survivors may retreat... And have to reconsider their NEXT move.

Something like Initiative or Morale:

Using a standard 1d6, roll for Initiative = this indicates how many of your units are capable of attacking. A poor roll may indicate FEAR or LOW MORALE, etc. And you have have a Hero which adds +2 Bonus Morale. So it's 1d6 + 2 = the number of attackers this turn...

The number of DEFENDING rolls would be identical to the ATTACKER. So IF I roll a 1 + 2 (Hero) = 3 dwarves will attack. My Defender may only have 1 Dragon...

The initiative or morale... allows for a "subsection" of your troops to attack. Those that have the COURAGE to perform the attack.

This allows you to have a huge armies as you like... Knowing that only a certain PORTION of troops will be a part of any given attack...

CONQUERING an ARMY is more difficult because it will take SEVERAL TURNS. But this again lends to reality making it more challenging. But single BATTLES are on EVEN ground...

This is just an IDEA... But you could adapt something to your liking...

Note #1: I used a similar concept in TradeWorlds: just because you have the stronger starship doesn't mean that you "automatically" win the battle. You need to ROLL for "initiative" to see WHICH player has the upper hand in battle on that turn. Sure it breaks up "determinism" but in reality there are factors BEYOND "stats" which can affect the outcome of any given encounter.

That's why I am NOT a fan of "purely deterministic" games. To me stats are one thing but they shouldn't be the ONLY factor in a given battle.

larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008
Great replies from

Great replies from everybody

I played AOW2, but prefer MOM.

I like the heroquest suggestion. Moving 3 units per turn could be a similar solution (like "conflict" NES game), where the larger army is not more advantaged, but can cover more ground. That could be the easiest solution to implement. Not sure about the same unit moving multiple times like in heroquest.

On BGG somebody said that the smaller army have more opportunity for improvisation, or micro management than the larger army which has more logistic to do. One way to compensate this could be to give smaller units some special preparative actions like ambush, special weapons, etc.

Both questions are somewhat related. The reason why I interest myself in smaller armies defeating larger one is for the evaluation of the player on the battle outcome. If the player's evaluation on his chances of success is very low, his solution would be to inflate his army. If the attacker must inflate his army and he already reached the maximum, then the defender becomes undefeatable.

On the other hand, if smaller armies have some chance to win, players will be less inclined to inflate their army and will engage battle on equal strength without any doubt. Else same strenght is too risky and they inflate to gain the advantage.

X3M's picture
Joined: 10/28/2013
While RPS is already mentioned.

There are many types of RPS.
Natural and Artificial.

Artificial is the easy answer. Which has be mentioned above.

Natural is often complex. And here you need to play with numbers.

Less damage, more range is a possibility?
You could attack from afar with a lower damage. But your opponent has even less return fire (even 0 perhaps?)
Of course, with only reducing the enemies. Not conquering just yet.
This way, your 1v2 becomes a 1v1 for a later turn/round.

Perhaps a sacrifice unit, is an answer. 1 kills 2.

What if both units attack, but 1 has the ability to return home. The knights could have this ability.

If it is one unit, what if it has more durability? If it is succeful while receiving damage. It might be able to kill once more.

Each of the examples above goes with a weakness of course. The risk increases, but the chance increases as well. And gambling can bring balance to a game.

larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008
Another similar subject in

Another similar subject in the navy is what they called "La petite ├ęcole" (small school). Originally, they said the side with the biggest ship are more likely to win. But the "la petite ├ęcole" says that it's better to have just small ships and it is as efficient as having having large ships.

bottercot's picture
Joined: 02/06/2018
Risk, Terrain

As random a game as it is, Risk is actually a great example of how a smaller army can beat a larger one. They don't have a cap on how many units you can attack with, but they do have a cap on how many dice you can roll. This means that smaller armies are just as effective in many cases as larger ones, albeit they often don't last as long. Still, though, you'll see people winning battles against smaller groups of enemies, or small groups of enemies causing massive casualties to a larger force. The randomness helps, as well.

While random chance can be annoying or frustrating, it also adds that element of uncertainty, and the tension that comes with it. It allows people to play more, well, Risky.

Another element you could include is Terrain. Smaller armies often win because they are better positioned. If you're going for a Risk scale, or similar, you could set different territories to have different terrains, even going as far as being different depending on the direction you attack from.

Just some thoughts. Consider them as you please.

larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008
The limited die roll system

The limited die roll system is similar to the heroscape limited actions per turn. But yes, it is a good example.

X3M's picture
Joined: 10/28/2013
A simple mechanic like having

A simple mechanic like having the option to roll 2x damage on 1 die. Is more than enough to give 1 soldier the chance to kill 2 opponents in 1 battle.

I have this in the form of for example, the shotgun. Where 1 soldier does not shoot 1 projectile, but multiple projectiles. Each with a lower chance on hitting. But overal there is a chance in killing multiple targets when lucky.

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