I am no expert on game design but I enjoy the process. I love creating scenarios for Necromunda with their own special rules. I love coming up with campaign systems which allow you to watch your heroes grow and triumph or fall. I love rule sets too. I have read countless rules for games I will never play. I have a basic understanding of how to play Arcworlde, The Drowned Earth, HINT, most of Mantic’s catalogue, Warmachine, Infinity and many others and yet I don’t own a single product from any of those lines (with the exception of a couple of Infinity models that I have converted for 40k purposes).
Personally, I think the most important part of game design is player agency: ensuring that whenever a player is in control, they have a range of options before them and decisions to make. Do I activate this model and fire at the left flank thereby risking my already engaged models? Do I try a succession of activations leaving me with no resources later in the turn? Wargames in particular struggle with this in the later stages of a game when models have been whittled away and there are fewer options available to the players.
In our version of Inquisitor we mitigated this somewhat by using a unique activation mechanic. I’ve always been interested in the tension between activating a single model multiple times (with an associated increase in cost) or activating lots of models once each. You can push a champion deep into enemy lines, or rush them at an objective but that might leave them over-exposed and defenceless It’s not something that features in many of Games Workshop’s products (Warmaster and Shadespire being exceptions) but it does make for interesting tactical decisions.
For those who haven’t the inclination or the time to read the rules, I offer a brief explanation:. Each player receives a hand of 7 playing cards (we used the, sadly no longer available, Dark Imperium cards to add some true ambience). They then play one or more cards of a single suit. The player with the single highest card (ace high) wins the initiative and may then choose to activate a model.
To activate a model, a player must spend cards from those they played. A model usually costs a single card to activate. The model may then move and perform one other action (such as shoot, move again, interact with terrain or an objective etc). When the model completes its activation it receives a Fatigue point. It may then be activated by the player again but it will cost 1 more card to do this (because the model is somewhat exhausted from having run around already). Again, when the activation is complete they receive another fatigue. A model can never have more than 3 Fatigue (so no matter how good your hand there is a limit to how far you can push your models).
When the first player has spent all of the cards they played the next player may spend the cards they played. When all cards from both players’ hands are spent the Round ends, every model loses one Fatigue point and each player receives a new hand of 7 cards.
This gives rise to a range of interesting decisions for the players:
- Do I want to win the Initiative and activate first and thus play my highest card?
- If I play my highest card, do I have enough cards in the same suit to make good use of winning the initiative?
- If I’ve drawn low value cards, do I play defensively, assuming I will be going last a lot?
- Do I activate the same model more than once thus leaving me with fewer resources to activate the rest of the warband?
On top of that, different characters’ abilities are linked to the card used to activate them. Inquisitor Locke, for example, can perform a free Smite psychic attack (in addition to his normal actions) if a player used a Jack, Queen, King or Ace to activate him. So here’s another level of tactical decision making.
Part of the advantage of this system is that it refreshes the resource available to the players each round. In most miniature wargames, as your models are removed, your range of options is dramatically reduced. But, if you get 7 new cards each round and you can push each model over and over, a plethora of options is opened to you.
Another advantage is that it tends to maintain the tension for the whole game. For me, the worst kind of wargame is the one that’s over by turn 2. Everyone knows whose won but you play another 2 to 4 turns anyway, just in case you somehow exclusively roll sixes for the rest of the game. A better game is one with a wildcard. You think you’re secure in your victory but then you’re opponent plays that one gambit they’ve been holding back and suddenly your carefully laid plans are disrupted and you’re fighting to gain control of the situation.
Even better than that though is a game where it go either way right up to the last turn. By introducing an activation system based upon a randomly dealt hand, each turn can often play out like its own little mini-game. It is actually quite likely to have one turn where everything goes terribly only for the next to play out wonderfully. At the same time though, there is enough tactical flexibility for the players to exercise that all-important player agency: to feel as if they are in control and making moment-to-moment decisions.
To my immense satisfaction, in all the games we played, I didn’t ever feel like the game was decided until the final round. This is not exclusively down to the activation mechanics. Careful awarding of victory points, the wounding averages, the size of the board and the number of turns all make a difference, but it’s the activation mechanic that helps achieve that sense of player agency the most.
I should conclude by noting that, by no means do I suggest that I have created some form of genius-level wargame mechanic. I think to date we have played a total of 10 games. That is not a very large pool from which to draw conclusions about the relative tactical merits of the system. Perhaps on our 11th game we shall find it a broken and unrewarding mess. It should always be remembered that the overriding purpose of creating the rules at all was to provide a framework to act out a story with the models we had lovingly painted.
If you are inclined to try these rules though I would welcome your feedback and enjoy hearing how your games progressed.