Dev Blog #9 – Research?

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I’ve mentioned I play a lot of tabletop wargames. While Battletech is the granddaddy of tabletop mech wargames, the 800-pound Gorilla of wargames is Game’s Workshop’s Warhammer 40k, so today, I want to talk a little about that and how it has influenced Battlegrounds.

As we have been developing this game, I did a fair amount of research and, among other things, picked up Rick Priestley’s and John Lambshead’s book on designing tabletop wargames.

For those who don’t know, Rick Priestley is the author credited with creating Warhammer 40k and shepherding it through many iterations over the years. That seemed an excellent place to start. I have been playing Warhammer 40k, on and off, since its 1987 release and have a sizeable collection of vintage miniatures.

He talked much about rules simplicity (we will get to that), dice rolling, and percentages. It is a pretty excellent read. His co-author also has a few books on skirmish wargaming rules. I’ve taken a fair bit of inspiration from them all.

Trying to find the things I thought worked well from the games we played is a theme I have mentioned. Battletech, Pacific Rim, Adeptus Titanicus, and Warhammer all made the list of games I played recently because of this. I even played the recent “Space Marine: The Board Game” loosely based on the newest full edition of 40k, the 10th edition. I had last played a “real game” of Warhammer 40k with the 4th edition rules. Maybe I would be remiss if I didn’t see what 30 years of development had brought the game.

I grabbed my favorite playtester, my 15-year-old son, who has played all these games with me to date, including said 4th edition 40k, downloaded the rules, downloaded the app, and created 1000-point armies from models I had in my collection (the vintage models above are 1000 points of Space Marines, for instance). Points are the values assigned to units so players can ostensibly create a balanced force to use in their games. Then we set it up.

You need a fair amount of space to play 40k, pretty much any edition. Some 60 or so models are on the table, and the rules for the 10th edition “require” a table of 60 inches by 44 inches. Our kitchen table is 60 inches long but only 30 wide. This wouldn’t be a sanctioned game, but it would be close enough to get a feel for it. My son took the Space Marines, and I played with my mostly vintage Tyrannid aliens (think the Xenomorphs from Alien as the inspiration).

Each army has a number of units, and each unit type has a reference card with any special rules or restrictions for the unit, the unit default, and optional load-outs. There are special rules for army composition as well.

The game has a deck of set-up cards that help randomize the objectives and starting deployment zones and is meant to last five battle rounds. A battle round sees one side moving and fighting with all their units through 5 phases.

  • Command Phase – Players gain command points to spend on special actions and check the morale of the units (sometimes units can’t fight if they have taken many casualties). This is often also when players check to see if they earn victory points for controlling objectives.
  • Movement – Each unit moves up to a specific number of inches, and there are special rules for additional movement if they don’t want to use the model in the shooting phase.
  • Shooting – Where units with ranged weapons and within range, according to their reference sheet, can roll dice to determine attack successes, wounds, and saving throws. Some models in a unit can take multiple wounds. Units may have multiple attacks per weapon, and you frequently roll ten or more d6 to resolve these attacks.
  • Charging – Units may make an additional charge move under certain circumstances to bring them into melee range of their targets.
  • Fighting – Units in melee range trade blows for additional potential damage.

Then, the other player repeated these steps. As I mentioned above, there are some 60 models on that table, so you can imagine that it might take a while between deploying your army and moving them. And rolling 10-20 d6 dice per turn, rolling successful hits again to see if they wound, then rolling successful wounds against the targets, and then saving throws to see if they do damage can make resolving the attacks of any one unit a bit of an affair.

Our game lasted nearly 3 hours. The pace marines conceded at the beginning of turn five since the aliens had earned a runaway number of victory points despite killing a decent number of alien models. He might have been able to squeak out a win by finishing the round but decided to concede because he was hungry. Teenagers, amirite?

It is an excellent game. It is a LONG game. It is a complicated game. Rules interactions required much referring back to the rule book or the app. We needed a better way to track victory points (we used a d20 die each, but then quickly got into scores well above 20 and accidentally dropped the score tracker at least once, requiring an approximate guess as to how many points a player had accumulated).

Things I learned:

  • Those reference cards are slick, and luckily, we have been building cards with the rules self-contained on the card for our game and have continued to tune them.
  • The mission setup cards that define deployment zones, objectives, and other special rules are also pretty nifty. We just revised our rules for objectives and setup, and I think I accidentally did some of the good things I see in 40k.
  • Limiting the turns and creating victory conditions formally so the game doesn’t drag on is good. We also added a turn limit for specific game types and additional scoring mechanics other than “kill everyone on the other team.” So I think it is another happy accident (we did have a playtest go on for much longer than necessary before we figured this out).
  • Runaway victories can be demoralizing, especially if you’ve invested several hours in the game. I’ll have to ponder solutions, but our scoring mechanic has a little more “rubber band effect.” More playtesting.
  • It’s gorgeous, but HUGE. In addition to my kitchen table not being quite big enough, we had rules cars, books, dice trays, etc., spread on tables and stools all over the room. Ours is a smaller affair, and we are working hard on the player boards and cards to conserve table space. More to come on that.

It is a good game, and we enjoyed it thoroughly. It is an event that will take your day to play. Set up, army lists, actual play time, and clean up, all clocked in at about 4-5 hours. So bring lots of snacks. I’m glad to have revised it and happy to see some of the concepts employed in the grand-daddy we have designed into our game.