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Skirmish Wargames: The Fundamental Problem

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Context: Divergent Thought

This week I've been doing a lot of testing with other players, which has been fantastic. It's generated a load of great ideas for improving the game and it's also really good for morale to hear that the majority of people who played it had a really good time doing so.
I figure I'll use this week's post to talk about the most complicated problem I ended up discussing with playtesters and the one that I think was responsible for the worst experiences generated during the week. I've started to think of it as a fundamental problem for skirmish wargames.

The problem looks like this: You have two sides that start at 100% strength. You'll never be able to make as many moves or dish out as much damage as you can on turn one. As the game goes on both sides lose assets, reducing their capacity to deal future damage. This risks generating a cascade effect, whereby if one side gets lucky then the advantage it gives them makes it exponentially harder for their opponent to come back and get in the game. If that happens the game becomes a foregone conclusion and a boring experience for everyone, even the winner.

Most modern board games try to avoid run away effects in various ways. Very often progress towards being able to win (engine building) is at odds with actual winning (running the engine). Where it's not there at least tends to be some sort of catch up mechanic for being behind or penalty for being ahead.

Skirmish wargames particularly struggle with this, because it's opposed to their theme. You're trying to kill the other troops, your resource for doing this is your troops, therefore any progress towards victory is automatically also developing your capacity to make further progress towards victory.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that some of my favourite skirmish games do something to mitigate this issue. I'm also now much better able to articulate why in an objective based game I find rounds where nobody gets "kill a thing" as an objective much more interesting.

So, how does this apply to Divergent Thought?

There's a lot of inspiration here drawn from computer games, since they've got (far) more examples of fights against unreasonably powerful monsters. It's practically a trope in these games that boss monsters do not start out at 100% of their power level, but that when they get injured they suddenly start developing better attacks and powers. I think I could use that.

Suppose that instead of both sides starting out at their maximum capacity, they started somewhere beneath that and then as they took damage they gained greater power (by the monster unlocking new moves or the hunters having reinforcements arrive) that could help to curve the runaway effect. If one side is getting hammered they'll get their new powers soon, which helps them get back into the game, but the hammering will still affect the final outcome since it might let their opponent chip a little bit off the new improved force before their improvement kicks in.

The dire wolf already has something like this in its "rage" mechanic, that makes its attacks do more damage as its wounded. I've commented before that this works pretty well, but now I'm thinking that I'd like to take it further and implement it as a more flexible system. A clear consistent system that encapsulates "The wolf is angry at being wounded and now makes bigger attacks", "The heroes are being pushed hard enough that they're worried and have called in a favour to get some extra fighters" and "The dragon is now wounded enough it's willing to risk melting its gold with its fire" in a single clear, consistent system.

Sounds like a challenge, but if I can find a good solution the game will be *much* stronger for it.
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