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Subject: Cool Combat System! rss

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Ruben Schlüter
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This article is based on the rule version 0.6 that was released during the Kickstarter campaign.

War of Kings features a dice-based combat system that is noteworthy for several reasons:

1. It's well designed.
2. It abstracts to a high degree (no unit types and such).
3. It's fast.
4. It transports a feeling of actual engagement, for both attacker and defender.
5. It only mildly scales.

First, let me explain the combat system really quickly (with an army vs. army example; battle versus militias of settlements are a separate topic):

1. Each combat consists of several (few) turns, at the end of which both attacker and defender may retreat (attacker always, defender under some prerequisites).
2. Each combat turn is divided into an attack and a counterattack.
3. Attacker and Defender use different dice: the attacker for attacking/defending against the counterattack and the defender for defending/counterattacking. Attack dice will have a higher probability of causing hits, but will be less likely to deflect hits. Defense dice will have a lower probability of causing hits, but are more likely to deflect hits.
4. There are two types of bonus dice available: one for numerical superiority can apply for both attacker and defender, bonus dice for fortifications will only be available to the defender, and only if he bothered building fortifications in the first place.

Let's take an example where 2 fresh armies are attacking 2 armies (one of which already has suffered 1 damage) in a level one fortification. The combat procedure for this case is:
1. Attacker rolls: 4 attack dice (not scaling with number of armies) plus bonus dice for superiority (one per army outnumbering the defender; in this setup: none) and counts all upcoming swords.
2. The defender rolls: 2 (!) defense dice (non-scaling) plus bonus dice for superiority (one per army outnumbering the attacker, in this setup: none) plus bonus dice per level of fortification (1) and counts all upcoming shields.
3. For every sword that was not blocked by a shield, the attacker can assign hits to defending armies (either spreading across different armies, or focusing on single armies to kill them quickly; I think usually you would go for the latter of those two options).
4. Defender rolls: 4 defense dice (non-scaling) plus bonus dice for superiority (one per army outnumbering the defender; in this setup: none) plus bonus dice per level of fortification (1) and counts all upcoming swords.
5. The attacker rolls: 2 (!) attack dice (non-scaling) plus bonus dice for superiority (one per army outnumbering the attacker, in this setup: none) and counts all upcoming shields.
6. For every sword that was not blocked by a shield, the defender can now assign hits to attacking armies (again, choice is with the defender).
Both attacker and defender get the opportunity to retreat. If both decide not to, above steps are repeated; note that numerical superiority can actually change in battle.
In this example, the attacker starts with the disadvantage of the fortification die against him, but he is quite well set up to relatively quickly gain numerical superiority (by finishing off the already damaged army), which will potentially help him – if he manages to keep the superiority for a bit.

Now, the difficult thing about creating dice-based combat systems always seems to be to make them somewhat „balanced“, for what it's worth. You don't want them to be „sure guesses“, neither you don't want to reduce the combat to mere coin tossing. You don't want the to be too long, neither too short. By no means they should be boring. In my opinion, and from what I have analyzed so far, WoK does a really good job at keeping you on your toes when it comes to combat.

Many games will tend to give the attacker a certain advantage (so as to create „incentive“ for actually stirring things up), and WoK at first looks similar. However, I was quite surprised with the intricacies that the battle system holds. To give you one first example of what I have discovered: Suppose you have a basic setup of one-on-one, somewhere out in the middle of nowhere (so there's enough room for gore and mayhem; no fortifications to hide behind). Interestingly, the implications change quite a bit depending on the situation of the two armies that clash.

As it is difficult to analytically go through all the possible scenarios for combat, I ran a monte carlo simulation of the different setups, just to get an idea of what's going on. The sample size is 100,000 combats per setup. I would have liked 1 million better, but I'm kind of impatient, so 100,000 it is. The percentage numbers will not be precise to the first digit, but will give you a good idea of what's going on. The assumption for the simulations is: noone retreats. NEVER!

For two fresh armies with three hitpoints each, the attacker's chance of annihilating the defending army and living to tell the tale is 44.3%. The chance to be annihilated („I knew it would be a bad day to lead the attack, hadn't you see the ravens?“) would be 29.3% - and the chance that both armies are finishing each other of is the remaining 26.4%.

These numbers already create the first intricacy: If you should attack in this scenario depends a lot on what you want to accomplish. If you're planning on conquering the territory you're invading, you need your army to live to raise your flag - so actually the odds are agains you (55.7% chance of loosing your army). But if you're only planning to finish off an army that's threatening your border – well, then the odds are clearly in your favour (>70%)!

Now let's have a look how the probabilities change if both armies are damaged with two hitpoints remaining: Defender only annihilated 22.6%, attacker regrets that he got out of bed in the morning 15.7%, friendly mutual annihilation 61.7%. Which means that in this case it definitely wouldn't be a good idea to attack if you're out for conquering, as your chance of not doing so is more than 3/4 now. If you just want to get rid of those guys running around your kingdom: Good news, your chances have actually improved from >70% to >84%.

But what if the attacker has two hitpoints? Is the defending army dead meat, then? Well, it's a coin flip: the chances to kill the defending army and taking painting the newly conquered territory in the colors of your flag (after having them painted red with blood before) would be 50.6%. In only 10% of the cases the attacker would get creamed, and in 39.4% of the cases it's a clear (yet bloody) field we're looking at as the dust settles.

For completeness' sake, if your army is new and shiny, or has been re-supplied in between, it will have an easier time with the badly pre-beaten defending army. The probabilities would move to 76.1% / 4.8% / 19.0%, respectively.

Now if you take into consideration that there are also the effects of fortification dice (which I have included into my code, but haven't run any simulation as yet), and that even if an army wins one battle but may suffer some damage which would make it an attractive target for going behind by other players – I believe that WoK's combat system allows for lots and lots of things to explore and interesting situations on the board.

But let me get back to my 5-point-list from above, now with some more reasoning:

1. It's well designed.
This is a feeling that I have after running the first monte carlo simulations. Look at the numbers above, it seems to make so much sense! I will continue running all kinds of simulated battles throughout the next days and week, and post the updates here.

2. It abstracts to a high degree (no unit types and such).
There is only one type of army, and that's an... well, army. If you know games like Twilight Imperium where you're operating with all kinds of units (which is a bit ridiculous in the first place, as it's unlikely that an interstellar empire would be cruising across space with 2 cruisers and 1 destroyer, so those probably should represent... well, fleets of that kind of ship, but then again this doesn't make a lot of sense either when you start thinking about it)... so, if you know games like this, you will know the advantages and disadvantages that this will have. On the one hand, you have that „Oooo, look at my war sun! Yee-haw!“-effect that can make you really proud, and your opponents afraid. On the other hand, you have more complexity, and if the add-on fun is worth it, I'll let everyone decide for themselves. At least, keeping it simple removes a hurdle for newcomers to the game (not like „So this is a cruiser, which has an attack value of 8 and a movement of 2. Do not confuse it with the destroyer, which has an attack value of 9, though!“).

3. It's fast.
Let's stick with Twilight Imperium for a bit. If you like to fight in one-on-one situations with the weaker types of units, which is most often encountered in ground combat, you have gone through dice rolling orgies. Like two ground forces not able to roll hits (9 or 10 on d10) for six rounds or so. It's rare for a battle to last long in WoK, and if it last's „long“, it's because it's a large battle! In our 1-on-1 battle from above, less than 20% of the combats would see turn 3. In a 2-on-2 battle, 80% of the combats are finished by turn 4 (assuming noone retreats).

4. It transports a feeling of actual engagement, for both attacker and defender.
Because you are allowed to roll dice even when you're in the defensive position (for deflecting hits, and then for counterattacking), you will be automatically more engaged in the combat. What's more, if the attacker has made a good throw, you can still thwart it by also throwing good, which creates tension and stories to tell (like the one time when the attacker rolled only one sword and THEN I MANAGED TO ROLL ZERO SHIELDS!?!?)

5. It only mildly scales.
Okay, Twilight Imperium again. Epic battle, two unproporionate fleets (one of which you have been working on for the last three hours of playtime) clash in the middle of the galaxy, and your daughter who you finally managed to get into bed some time before comes into the room crying: „Daddy, I'm scared of the thunderstorm *sob*“ and you're like „Oh, don't worry honey, it's not a thunderstorm, it's only that daddy just rolled his attack dice...“
In WoK the number of dice is really limited, and hardly scales with the number of armies involved in the battle. Usually you'll roll four of five dice, rarely six, very rarely more than that. Which is cool, cause you get a hang of the combat concept quickly and there is less stuff falling off the table. But outrage, some may cry, how about when units die, shouldn't this make a bigger difference? Maybe. But it depends on the viewpoint. If you think on the *unit* level, it actually makes a difference (I mean – 4 Sherman M4 do more than 3, right?). But on an army level, I'd tend to think of the dice more capturing the overall situation that the battle is fought in, and therefore less turn-to-turn adaption is perfectly fine with me.

All in all, I really like the way the battle concept is laid out (keeping in mind that this is only a preliminary version and may see some changes until the final game hits the shelves). The developers obviously put quite some thought and experience into the combat system. I am only starting to explore the possibilities and possible setups, and am definitely looking forward for more.
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