Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Them Bones

We played Marvel Heroes during the July 4th holiday last week, and it got me to thinking primarily about dice-based combat systems. Marvel Heroes is primarily a "throw the dice, see who gets more hits" type affair blended with a selection of abilities for each hero, and while it serves its job well it's obvious that the combat is only a smaller portion of the game as a whole.

Since a lot of the games I enjoy involve throwing dice and inflicting casualties based on the results, I began thinking about what I look for in a *good* dice-based combat system. Here are some things that are important to me:

1. Casualties should be able to be inflicted on both sides during a roll.

Really, this is my biggest problem with Risk. Each die rolled is a "zero sum" affair, highest takes it. I realize that you could (and often do) have situations where you split the higher dice and each take a casualty, but that's not exactly what I'm talking about.

I mean, we've all seen it...two defenders in Risk throwing INCREDIBLY, defying the odds. You throw twos, they throw threes. And NOTHING is more frustrating than a defender who rolls a pair of sixes a couple of times.

I like combat systems with "to hit" rolls for each side. Meaning that my casualties are essentially independent from yours, if that makes sense. Combat is a messy thing; there should be bodies all around when the action goes down.

Axis & Allies of course features this mechanic, where each side rolls looking for target numbers, and inflicts casualties on the other side accordingly. Twilight Imperium and War of the Ring also see battles where each side rolls fantastically and just demolishes each other in a bloodbath.

2. Differentiation of Units/Rolls

Let's face it--who wasn't disappointed to learn that the different looking units in Risk were actually no different from each other, except for counts? This especially holds true with the licensed versions of Risk, where you *want* those Nazgul figures to have some extra-lethal combat abilities.

Different units should battle differently. This is especially important because this typically means the game also features some sort of economy--it should be more expensive to build better fighters, and the game needs a way to reflect this cost.

Even if all units of a certain race fight the same way, you can make them different by the costing of the units. Then, when all players mesh in play, it creates diverse combat situations. Quest for the Dragonlords has this as part of its base game but didn't really exploit it well until its Crystal of Power expansion.

I realize that War of the Ring has different-looking unit types that essentially battle the same, but WotR actually creates differences in other ways. First is the location, which can cause each side to battle differently. Then there are leaders and companions, who provide re-rolls. The expansion provides Siege Engines, allowing you to affect the rolls at important Strongholds. Lastly, there is...

3. Card-based Combat and Die Manipulation

I really dislike games where all you can do is throw the bones and hope for the best. You literally have no control over your outcomes whatsoever. This is the biggest reason I can never go back to vanilla Risk; it's just a series of dashing my three guys against your two and keeping my fingers crossed.

The themed Risks really excel here because you can stockpile cards to use them for critical assaults. This allows you to try to skew the odds when it really counts, and deciding when to use those precious cards can be a game unto itself. Star Wars Risk: Clone Wars Edition even features a few cards that can help you snatch victory from the jaws of defeat; one card portrays Obi-Wan and Yoda's attempt at striking at Palpatine one last time and does so by allowing you to attack with two units to anywhere on the board.

This is where War of the Ring shines; the card-based interchange during combat ensures that combats play out differently. Nexus Ops is again a winner by having cards that can boost certain unit types, give you bonuses to your rolls when battling in certain areas, and more.

4. "Tiered" Combat

This goes hand-in-hand with having different units for an army; you can increase the worth of more expensive units by letting them fire first.

This can take the form of having each unit type fire in turn and removing casualties after each tier, or having a ranged and a close combat tier where the ranged attackers get to inflict their casualties first, all the way to having a very small subset of unit types fire in a sort of "pre-combat" mechanism.

Nexus Ops uses the "each unit type fires in turn", with casualties after each step. This is great because it often provides the painful choice of sacrificing cheaper units that haven't fired yet, or inflicting casualties on more expensive units who have already had their chance to fire. Samurai Swords/Shogun has a ranged/close combat breakdown where archers get to unload on the charging ground units before they can close the distance. Twilight Imperium has both PDS and anti-figher barrages that can change the nature of a battle before it's even begun, outside of the "normal" combat phases.

5. Specialized Dice

Let's face it, nothing does a better job of portraying the ferociousness of stronger units than allowing them to roll bigger dice. Understand when I say "specialized" that also includes stuff that most of us are used to but the public at large isn't--things like d4s, d8s, d12s, and so on.

This doesn't mean that's all I'm referring to; games like Memoir '44 and Battlelore essentially create their own odds by having dice with different faces that mean different things in certain circumstances. Even Lionheart uses this to a decent effect by having dice with three Axe faces, two arrow faces, and a Panic face; now with only one die you can give close combat fighters 50/50 hit rations, archers get a 1/3 hit ratio, and you can use the special Panic face for different effects. The most common is having your units Panic; this happens if you roll all Panics on your dice. This is a nice touch because you are more likely to have your morale break as your units are reduced; one lone guy with a sword is much more likely to Panic than he was when he had three of his buddies backing him up.

Having different dice to use in different situations really allows you to open up the possibilities for combat, making it richer. I'll go back to Quest for the Dragonlords, which I think is really effective at using different dice to make combat more interesting. Each unit in the game has two values: an attack value, and a defense value. The defense value tells you which die to roll when fighting against that unit, and the attack value is what number the unit has to roll to hit. So a "normal" fighter might have a Defense of 6; that means you roll a d6 when attacking it, but you use your Attack value to determine success. That means if I attack a guy with a Defense of 6 and I have an Attack of 3, I roll a d6 and try to get 3 or less.

Why this is great is that it allows monsters to have really ferocious scores; the dragon has a defense of TWELVE, meaning you have to roll a d12 when attacking it and for most fighters come up with a 3 or less. All the while the dragon is just MOWING down your dudes with his crazy attack value that almost guarantees a hit every turn.

Battleball may be the simplest yet most creative use of different dice that I've seen. The game features the full compliment of the most common "specialty" dice, from d6s to d20s. Each player is color-coded to show what dice they move when they roll. This allows guys like the wide receivers to roll the d20s and literally just tear down the field. But, in a nice twist, when tackles happen, it is the lower value that wins the combat, and rolling a "1" means you've just LEVELED the other guy, who's out for the game. This means your big burly tackles may only roll a d6 for movement and are extra slow, but their odds of tackling a speedy receiver are huge, and their chances of really flattening the other guy and breaking his cyborg bones is much, much higher.

So there you have it; things that really make dice-based combat work for me. What are some of your favorite dice-based combat mechanics, and games that feature them?


Crumb said...

WRT specialized dice, I've got to put in a plug for the Doom/Descent dice. Range, damage, ammo, special abilities, and weapon variations all taken care of with one roll. Awesome.

Ken B. said...

Ooh yeah, good one. Those dice are great.

Jack Hill said...

As an obscure entry in dice systems, there is a game called Shadow Wars that I'm fond of.

It is basically an adaptation of Warcraft, and it has some things over FFG's Warcraft game. In particular, it has fewer units, but a more fully developed Tech Tree. It uses D8, D10, D12 as its primary dice, but combat is otherwise structured like A&A.

It is hideously ugly, and could use just a touch more development, but I've been fond of it, and it does meet your dice criteria.

Tom Hazlett (Southernman) said...

While strictly not a board game (although it is played on a hex-based map), Lord of the Rings Combat Hex is a great little skirmish game with a good ruleset and lots of fun to play.
It hits a lot of your targets.

1. Casualties should be able to be inflicted on both sides during a roll.
When a battle chain is formed for combat both sides total up their attack dice, and when I mean total you can have dozens !, and then throw off for first hits and then again for damage.

2. Differentiation of Units/Rolls
Tons of different characters with different attacks, defences, abilities plus minion and hero separation as well.

3. Card-based Combat and Die Manipulation
Not card-based, but characters can have a range of special abilities which can drastically modify battles (i.e. add 1 to defence of all your minions) and these abilities are on the rear of the bases of each character so are easily tracked and used.

4. "Tiered" Combat
Characters with ranged abilities do fire first and casualties are removed before combat.

5. Specialized Dice
Misses out here as the only thing specialised about them is the colour and the '1' spot which was different in each expansion, plus there were rares which were translucent.

I really enjoyed this game but it suffered from being in the shadown of GW's own LotR game so in the end GW closed it's child company Sabertooth down. I still play with my young lad as we have hundreds of the great quality scuplts and the large premium figures (trolls, fellbeasts, ents) are absolutely awesome. Plus they also fit perfectly on Heroscape tiles.

Fortress America also comes under most of these categories, from memory, as well.

Ken B. said...

I keep hoping to stumble upon an uber-cheap pile of LOTR Minis. As is I just have the starter and haven't played it.

JoelCFC25 said...

You've got Jerry Taylor's games like Hammer of the Scots, Crusader Rex, and the forthcoming Wars of the Roses which feature differentiation of units into A, B, and C blocks.

Order of combat over three rounds of combat goes: defending A, attacking A, defending B, attacking B, defending C, attacking C....damage applied instantly (each hit) to whichever enemy blocks are strongest at the time.

Ken B. said...

Really my hidden agenda here is demonstrating how absurd the broad label "Dicefest" really is...

It's like saying..."Oh, that's just another auction game." To which players of Boomtown, Ra, and Amun Re go "Say WHAT?"

There are many great dice-based systems out there, and if you really take the time to study them you'll find a staggering diversity amongst them.

Rliyen said...

There's a 3W card game, Star Force Terra: Contact, that used specialized dice (D4, D6, D8, and D12) to differentiate shield strengths against incoming attacks. Dreadnoughts had the big dice to shrug off minor hits, while the destroyers had the smaller dice. However, the advantage of the smaller ships was that they could dodge incoming attacks, where as the bigger ships could not. Add to that the concept of tiered damage, where a ship's shields had 1-4 levels, which would degrade after successive hits. And finally, let's not forget the wink and the nod to Nuclear War aka Flaming Retaliation. Or, as I call it, "INTENSIFY FORWARD FIRE POWER!!!! TOO LATE!!!!"

Now, I believe you can get the game PnP. I still have two sets of it in my collection; one set well used, the other in the process of being well used. Played the hell out of it in college and still play it with my group.

Ken B. said...

What we need is a space combat game that accurately depicts "DEATH BLOSSOM".

Crumb said...

Grig FTW!

Mr Skeletor said...

World of Warcraft would have the best combat system (PvE) IMHO if it wasn't hamstrung by the fact it doesn't support battling more than one type of creature at a time.

Puffinslayer said...

Well, there's the ever wonderful AT classic "Mutant Chronicles" Siege of the Citadel. There are three types of D6's (white/red/black) that you get to use as you increase in power. The white have a lower chance of coming up with a "hit" face than the black die. The different characters & weapons roll different numbers of die (but always for their appropriate level color).

Additionally, a dice mechanism that I like is in Heroscape. There are more skulls (hits) than shields (blocks), so even if the attacker and the defender are rolling the same number of die, the attacker has an advantage.

Joe Belanger said...

Brilliant article! I couldn't agree more. Did you steal my brain or something?!

Ken B. said...

JOE! Dude, they're totally having a wake for you on BGG.

You should come back...without you, who will thumb all my posts?

I've checked out yours and Ryan's blog, very nice. Matt, we should link to it or something if we can.

Mr Skeletor said...

Huh, what happened to Joe?

Mr Skeletor said...

Naked Mole Rat left too?!?!

Joe Belanger said...

A friend sent me a link to that thread and I can't express enough how reaffirmed I am in my decision to leave.

Oh, the crying.

Ken, know that anything you submit (gaming-wise) will get a Recommendation-Ameritus from me.

Mr Skeletor said...

Thread link please.

mads said...

I think the system from Memoir (and Battlelore) works quite well. The agony when you choose to attack the infantery rather than the armor unit, roll the dice and score nothing but armor hits is quite outstanding.

Joe Belanger said...

This one?

Mr Skeletor said...

Nice send off - no one asks why people are leaving, but rather just bitch about content getting deleted. That place has become all class.

So why did you two leave?

Didn't know you guys had a blog. We should add it to our links section. Oh wait, we don't have a links section...

Anyway I better stop hijacking this thread. Someone remind me why we don't have a forum again?

Tom Hazlett (Southernman) said...

The funniest thing from that thread is that they're all shitting themselves that robartin, skelly, and Mr Barnes are going to delete their accounts too .... (that wasn't a mischevious suggestion)

Dan Daly said...

could someone post links to these other blogs you're talking about? Thanks.

Ken B. said...

Pat H said...

I've always been a big fan of using different dice schemes to achieve different results. Ever since I opened my first D&D basic set and took a look at those baby blue cheap ass dice of different sizes I was intrigued. The only die that I have no use for is a four sided - the thing just doesn't roll - I rather use the 8 sided and fraction the count.

Back in high school I designed a wrestling game where all of the wrestlers were teachers with crazy names and the moves they pulled were taken right out of the most popular insults we were hurling at them. I wound up using every die combo available and the combat system was quite robust yet simple enough that all the other kids understood that a side suplex could toss Battle Axe Bastien out of the ring resulting in the d12 coming out. I'm a strong believer in dice as a mechanic. Fortress America used three dice very nicely.

I also like games that use the imaged sides to produce different results, depending on the match up's after having been thrown.

I still believe that the best dice usage is the double ten sided percentile. Good read Ken.

neonpeon said...

I think the worst example of zero-sum combat was in the Tunnels & Trolls RPG. Roll your dice, apply bonuses, and your opponent does the same...Loser takes the difference in damage, with armor soaking up a fixed amount. You'd get a +1 to your combat roll for each str, dex and luck point above a certain value. There were solo adventures that made you ridiculously powerful - wasn't unheard of to have 100 strength, one of my characters found the "Bronze Bodkin" - a 66-dice weapon.

mtlawson said...

That sounds similar to Rolemaster (and it's little buddy, MERP). The only exception is that you consult a table instead of directly taking it off in damage.

--Mike L.

Ken B. said...

The worst part about zero-sum is how doubly damning it is to have a run of bad luck (or be up against an opponent's run of good luck). Not only are you not inflicting casualties on him, you're suffering them all yourself.

I'm pretty sure EVERYONE has that story about the time you had a 10-stack of guys attacking 2 defenders in Risk and they couldn't get the job done.

This isn't Rambo; there should be casualties on each side.

In games where you don't have a zero-sum combat situation, you can send superior numbers against a smaller force and despite higher-than-expected casualties on your side, you can expect that they will get the job done.

Joe Belanger said...

So, Ken, you're not a big fan of the Madmartigan-syndrome? One guy with booby-traps galore and a castle holding his own against a mounted army?

Ken B. said...

Wasn't that a major motion picture starring MacCauley Culkin?

"Home Alone 4: Defending the Stash"

mtlawson said...

Ha, I'd bet that would reach the Britney/Paris/Lindsey crowd.

Come to think of it, Culkin could have passed himself off as another companion in Willow.

--Mike L.

Joe Belanger said...

I believe the same principle applies.

Mr Skeletor said...

How do people feel about normal numbered dice vs custom dice (ie heroquest, memoir, doom etc)?

I use to prefer custom dice, but now I think I prefer normal dice, as they are a bit more flexible with what the game system can do with them.

mtlawson said...

I think it depends on the type of game. For RPGs with the mass of tables, regular dice are fine. Same with wargames and their CRTs.

For other games, the dice can be changed to enhance the theme. On a game like a C&C game or Conquest of the Empire, it adds (minimally) to the game.

Yeah, I know it sounds like I'm fudging, but really it depends on the type of game I'm playing as to whether the custom dice are worth it or not.

--Mike L.

Michael Barnes said...

Wow, I come late into this thread and there's a reference to The Last Starfighter, Joe Belanger leaves BGG, there's the suggestion that Robert and I are deleting our BGG stuff, and somebody brought up ROLEMASTER...

I'll quiet over here in the corner.

I like dice.

Shellhead said...

1. I have no objection to zero sum combat rolls, depending on what a combat roll represents. If it's a single attack in a longer combat between individual combatants, zero sum is fine. If that one die roll represents an entire battle between two armies, I agree that there should be potential for casualties on both sides.

2. I agree that different units should battle differently, but I don't think that dice are necessarily the best way to define that difference. Special powers, superior manueverability, harder or easier to eliminate with damage... those are all valid ways to bring the different units to life. Divine Right allowed superior units a better chance of retreating from an unwanted battle as one way to show differences between units.

3. Cards are a welcome supplement to combat resolution, but I like them best when those cards generate moderate effects that don't completely overwhelm the normal combat procedure. I'm all in favor of the fog of war, but players should be able to get a basic grasp of the odds they are working with when looking at the units on the map.

4. I think that I've only played one game so far that had tiered combat: Blood Feud in New York. It adds a definite degree of difficulty to learning and playing the game, but also makes combat more interesting.

5. At work, I'm the numbers guy, so regular polyhedral dice and the numbers they generate speak volumes to me, at least once I understand the rules of the game at hand. For some odd reason, the blank faces on the dice for Betrayal at House on the Hill seemed spooky at first. The more specialized dice in other games are only tolerable if they use good icons that can be comprehended intuitively and at a glance, like Heroscape. I guess that I'm never going to be a Dragon Dice fan.

Ken B. said...

I guess that I'm never going to be a Dragon Dice fan.

Our overlords at SFR are not going to be pleased, Shellhead.

Pat H said...

Blood Feud has the same sneak attack as A&A subs do, with the Hitmen. I like the combat system in Blood Feud with the casulties getting a shot in as the shooting is simultaneous.

Cards are good if they add to the die rolling, giving a +1 or nullifying die rolls etc...

Michael Barnes said...

I guess that I'm never going to be a Dragon Dice fan.

I'm sorry it has to come to this, Shellhead has been implicitly warned several times about his insousciance. Shellhead is hereby banned from F:AT. We wish him well. Hail SFR.


Shellhead said...

Nope, I'm still here. Barnes backed down after I threatened to delete all my F:AT content. Heh, F:AT content, I hear that anything above 20% is unhealthy.

Michael Barnes said...

I hereby declare ownership of everything everyone posts here.

In the immortal words of Eddie Murphy's father, "THIS IS _MY_ HOUSE!"

Joe Belanger said...

I'm outta here.

Clarissimus said...

who wasn't disappointed to learn that the different looking units in Risk were actually no different from each other, except for counts?

I grew up playing the old version of Risk with wooden cubes for armies. Now the production values were such that the "cubes" should be more accurately described as "hexahedrons of varying sizes and shapes," but that just made things more fun as we could add identities to certain pieces. E.g "Oh no! You just killed the Red Giant!"

ironcates said...

Who would've thought a specialty dice Geeklist would make it to the Hottest Geeklist on the Geek as it is this morning?

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