A Low Chance of Success
Earlier this week, I played Columbia Games' Napoleon: The Waterloo Campaign, 1815. This is an old, classic war game design, with blocks to allow for fog of war, rather elegant mechanisms with a few key exceptions, and lots of dice rolling. We played our first game with the strategic and tactical ineptness you'd expect from first time generals (at least with this system), which meant the battles took longer, more dice were rolled, and we were overall less decisive.
At first blush, it's easy to say: well, the probability of hitting on the dice was too low and that lead to the game dragging on. You can also say this about Combat Commander: Europe, an utterly phenomenal design that uses dice on cards to represent a dice rolling mechanism. There, too, firefights can drag on. Or, for those who aren't war gamers, Eclipse. In this game, a 6 is a hit, a 1 is a miss, and everything else doesn't work. That is, by default. Sometimes battles seem to require far too many rounds to see a resolution.
At a first glance, for all of these, it's easy to say "the probability needs to be increased to prevent the game from dragging on." However, after multiple plays of Combat Commander and Eclipse, something else became clear. Low probability of dice (and other randomness mechanisms) exist in order to give the designer, and therefore players, a greater decision space in which to manipulate the game state.
Let's walk through the options for just these three games to quickly demonstrate my point.
- By default, most units hit on a 6. The healthier the unit, the more dice rolled.
- Cavalry hit on a 4-6 when rolled for their first attack. Otherwise, a 5-6.
- Artillery, when engaged, hit on a 5-6 on their first attack. Otherwise, a 6.
- Infantry hit on a 6, unless attacking infantry in Square formation.
- Infantry in Square formation are only hit on a 6 by cavalry, but take more damage from artillery and infantry.
Napoleon doesn't have cards or ways to modify your units. However, within the battles, you can choose to disengage and re-engage your cavalry unit to gain that huge bonus once again. You can disengage artillery to move them elsewhere to snipe from afar. Because everything hits on a 6, typically, you have breathing room as a player to forego a turn of low efficiency firing in order to maneuver for high efficiency punches. Only players who fail to grasp the depth of the system will pass it all off as pure random.
You can fire in two ways, essentially: using a single unit, or combining units. If you do the latter, you take the best unit's default firing score, then add +1 for every additional attacking unit in the group. For both of these, you can play cards to modify your dice roll and add additional bonuses. Finally, in both cases, you draw a card to add a random number to your base stats.
Your initial thought is to attack every turn, as soon as possible. Suffering a single hit can be devastating, and each unit can only sustain one before dying. However, the strategy of the game is to use cards to reduce risk in maneuver, pin down an enemy, and gather cards to unless a devastating hail of fire and grenades from which your opponent does not recover.
Here, again, it's easy on your first play to ignore these bonuses and grow frustrated by the slow, ineffective plink of combat. But, this is where skill comes in. The game is giving you room to improve your chances. Or, you can rely solely on luck and fail against a superior player.
Last example! Your ships by default hit on a 6 and miss on a 1. However, you can customize your ships with new equipment and upgrades, which is my favorite part of the game. Here, you can increase defense to require a natural 6 be rolled, or improve offensive capabilities so that you hit on a 3 or a 4.
The game lasts about 3 hours, which gives players time to customize, upgrade, and see their fleet grow from a batch of gnats to a mighty, devastating combat fleet.
Mice and Mystics modifies probabilities with equipment, Abilities, and character abilities. Merchants and Marauders lets players outfit their ships with equipment or purchase special ammunition to mitigate the dice and modify things.
There are examples everywhere.
What this means for you.
Naturally, the needs of your games and designs will differ. You may not have a nuanced tactical maneuvering system, like in Napoleon. You may not want to encourage positioning and prep for a big attack or play. You might not care about long-term progression in your ships, civilization, or character.
However, keep in mind that if your dice always have a high probability, the laws of probability indicate one thing will happen. Averages will do what they do: average things. You will have far less room to maneuver as a designer and your players won't need to think as much because the optimum strategy will be to roll the dice and take the hand fate has dealt them.
In a way, lowering your probability on dice rolls, chit pulls, or card flips is very similar to planning out a proper cost curve for a CCG design. If every card costs only 1-3 resources to play, you'll quickly find yourself severely limited on options for your power curve. However, if you expand that to 1-6, and introduce even a second resource, you suddenly have a huge amount of room in which to maneuver.
One important thing to consider is the length and pace of your game. If you're crafting an experience that is 30 minutes or fewer, having a wide range for probability probably isn't appropriate or necessary. However, once you enter that hour mark, and certainly advance to the 2 and 3 hour mark, you want to adjust your probabilities in order to introduce progression and a long term gameplay arc.
What I mean, is that players in round 4 should not be making identical decisions that they made in round 1. If your game has a strategic layer, then think about decisions players can make in the short term to improve themselves in the long term.
How I plan to use this.
Currently, Sol Rising uses aggressive probability tuning for combat paired with abilities to make it even more aggressive. While this keeps the pacing brisk, it also limits the tactical decision space.
Although this will introduce additional complexity, I want to think about a few systematic mechanisms to allow for greater breadth in the combat resolution probability. This will most likely come in the form of range and close combat bonuses. The core movement and ability mechanisms will remain crystal simple so that this doesn't turn this medium weight tactics game into a heavy tactics game.
Give yourself room to allow for divergent strategies and excite your players with luck they can better guarantee and attribute more to their skillful play than fate. Allow progression to create a nice arc to the experience, and avoid ways that lead to predictable play.
What are some of your favorite examples of what I discussed? What do you think? What did I get wrong?