How I Write Skirmish War Games: Multiplayer Problems
Updated: Jan 21
Traditional table-top wargames tend to set up as one on one versus competitive games, if they allow for more than two players it furthermore leans towards splitting them into two teams and setting them on opposite sides of the tabletop and essentially playing a one on one game with several people. This is for very sensible reasons; traditional battle line combats generally consist of two opposing forces coming from two opposing directions and meeting in a middle ground. However, this rational makes very little sense in relation to skirmish games, most skirmish encounters whether representing western shoot outs or modern squad based urban fire-fights involve combatants coming from various and unknown directions and will often involve multiple ‘sides’ often unaware of the motives or even existence of other sides. As such skirmish games make sense being set to allow multiple players and forces. Despite this even most squad-based skirmish games assume one on one combats. Whenever I write a skirmish game, I assume the game to be for multiple players until circumstances suggest otherwise. As a writer this widens the potential for the game’s appeal, gaming groups often have odd members looking for a game to pick up on, and pushes writing in interesting directions since moving away from traditional deployment frees designs from many basic assumptions. Sometimes this process is totally natural and makes the writing of the system much easier (in Gaslands the game is more balanced and fair the more players there are playing), sometimes it offers up serious problems that require intense investigation (in A Billion Suns the multi-player set up was the last thing to find its balance). I’ll try to look at some of the advantages and disadvantages (or problems, and hopefully their solutions) of multiplayer design in this blog.
Freed From Stricture
I have a friend who refers to almost any assumed rule in game designs as ‘the hegemony’. That ones always fail or that re-rolls cannot be re-rolled are assumptions for no reason whatsoever, they are the rules of the hegemony. That two forces should pick opposite sides of the table, set up a proscribed distance from those sides and head towards each other is not one of those rules, but it really should be. Worse, once that set-up is assumed a massive amount of your game starts to look like everyone else’s. Once you assume that there will be three, four or five players this assumption has to go straight out the window. Winning by doing the most killing has to go with it. In fact, once you stop assuming that your game will be played by two directly opposing forces a massive number of assumptions will go with it. Some of them will come back, but only once they’ve proven themselves a necessary part of the design. This throwing up of ideas and removal of strictures is worth more to a good design than gold.
Rock, Paper, Balance
Tabletop miniatures games tend to demand asymmetry, everyone wants their force to do something that their opponent’s force cannot. This in turn tends to create fairly simple face-offs. If my fighty force reaches your shooty force before they’re mostly dead I win, if not I don’t. If my crappy dudes bring their weight of number to bear on your elite dudes I win, if not I don’t. Most miniatures games come down to a combination of those two factors. If I have a third player in that mix I can give one force a significant and even insurmountable advantage over another so long as a third force will complete the circle, if I know that my enemy’s enemy will be my friend then I can play with far more interesting dynamics. Balancing asymmetric forces is actually much easier the more of them that are on the table top at any one time.
Piggy In The Middle
If deployment systems are in any way traditional then one player will tend to find themselves in the middle of two other forces, and will tend to then get squashed by them. The irony of this situation is that in most traditional victory point systems, where players score by the forces they destroy, this is an entirely fair and reasonable situation. A player that gets wiped out by two other players, but pulls down enemy warriors on anything close to a one for one basis will easily win the game, since their opponents will each have scored half the starting points of a player while they will have scored the full points of a player. This doesn’t stop it from being a honking great problem though since it does not feel good to be that piggy in the middle. The certain knowledge that you’re winning as you get smashed off the table half way through a battle is the definition of cold comfort, though victory by virtue of a doomed final stand makes a solid story its often a nasty player experience.
A worse and more subtle problem can be when players get tactically piggied. What I mean by this is that certain players tend to run to tactical extremes, when they meet the result is often an excellent and balanced match up. For example, if a player that works on the elimination of an opponent’s models as their first intention faces up against another whose forces have a massive amount of built in redundancy the resultant face off is a fantastic event to engage in. However, if there is a third player they can be in an impossible position, unable to go more aggressive than one player or more defensive than another they will simply be squeezed out since they would generally have had much more tactical area available to fill.
As far as fixes go, the first problem has a couple. The simplest is to make it very clear which player is winning as the game goes on, and ideally why, and making your turn count as tight as possible such that the two outside forces know that there is no possibility of making their points back against each other once their piggy is dealt with. Vital to this is that points are not scored as bonuses or entirely by removing the last parts of units since the piggy will be long wiped out before this occurs. Generally, this is a dumb idea in multiplayer anyway since the last man standing sniper move is so ridiculous and recurrent as to be almost a joke. The first more complex but better solution is to make the deployment of forces not possibly reduced to set blocks of forces. Multiple deployment positions allowing ambush and breakthrough, vanguards and rear guards, cover, turned flanks and other tactics are both more realistic, tactical and enjoyable. The problem here is that this is a front loading of game which many players find distasteful, set-up is usually stripped down to allow the action to be reached as soon as possible and games that are won in set-up are generally highly disapproved of. Generally, most static battle line games are won or lost in set-up anyway, some just disguise it better than others. The solution is to make set-up random or pre-determined, scenarios can be an excellent way of dealing with this issue. A scenario can even offer piggy as a set-up position with a bonus to the destruction of non-piggy forces to all players. The last fix to consider is to make objectives not based upon the destruction of an opponent, or even to reward players for the survival of other player’s troops.
The issue of strategic piggy is a much tougher one to fix. Generally, by including objective based victory points and making victory points easier to acquire as player counts raise this problem can be best fixed. The result is that reacting to random objectives becomes more valuable as the tactical space for individual players narrows, essentially artificially re-widening their options as the player count naturally reduces them.
As a couple of examples, Gaslands is centered on the objective based death race, such that players have control, to some degree, over how much of a target they become to other players as they pull ahead in the race. In A Billion Suns the available VP climbs as player count increases, allowing looser and more reactive play throughout games.
Kingmaker for the day
Probably the toughest issue for a multiplayer game is the kingmaker issue. This is basically a form of player spoil-sporting, which is what makes it so tough to fix. Essentially one player decides they have already lost the game, but feels that they can claim some form of moral victory by tearing down another player and making another player win. When the kingmaker favours a clear underdog this can be a beneficial handicapping system. Sadly, the kingmaker is just as likely to pick a losing player since their altered personal goal has an increased chance of success if they pile on the winning side, which is representative of actual battlefield kingmakers but steals an earnt clean win from one player and crushes any enjoyable hope of comeback for another. Worse is if there is no clear winner as a close and exciting game is being played out and the kingmaker essentially gooseberries into a party they have no place in.
The best fix for this is to make it clear that anyone can win until the proverbial fat lady sings, but this is a tougher prospect than it seems for two reasons:
Certain players will catastrophise when playing games, even if victory is clearly still well within their grasp if they have lost their favourite unit/character or had their plan disrupted they can go ‘on tilt’ and ignore the reality to give up all chance of winning in return for their own goal.
If its actually possible for any player to win in the last turn no matter what they did or how horribly they played, then there’s no benefit to players playing the other turns. You don’t want players to feel like they can switch off for the majority of their game or that they’re not being rewarded for all the effort they put in.
One fix is to use hidden objectives such that players factually cannot know if they are winning or losing, but the issue is that this often arises due to a psychological assumption on the part of the kingmaker, so hiding positions can lead to them assuming failure earlier rather than later.
In truth, that some players will realise that they have lost before the game is finalized is inevitable, good game design will hold this off until the last possible moment, but it’s a rare game that remains obscure in a good way until the last half of the last turn every single time. Some of those players will choose to spoil the game in some way, some will king-make, some will flip the table or sulk off in a huff, so at least the kingmakers are still playing. There are two reasonably effective ways of dealing with this behavior:
Create a second and third place ranking system. This is often sufficient to keep players that are out of contention for winning fighting alone. Just be careful that it doesn’t reward players for attacking the underdog of the remaining players in a way that ruins the fun of the game. If one player has run away with the game having the other players scrap it out nastily for second place can be good fun, but if one player is a long way behind having them drag down one player can ruin things for everyone. A good way of achieving this is a sliding scale of points such that VP claimed from the current leader are worth more than those claimed from players in lower positions, so long as the bonus is not so punishing as to make it not worth taking the lead.
Formalizing the position of kingmaker, players can be required to announce pacts and allegiances at various points and then required to formally renounce victory in return for a second-place position in order to fulfill those pacts, allowing other players to gain balancing rewards for the pact against them. This can have an interesting and beneficial side effect that if the balancing reward is significant enough and the kingmaker force weak enough the leading player will be incentivized to destroy their possible ally rather than hand up the advantage.
The ultimate truth here however is that you can’t stop players choosing to ruin your game. You can give them the tools to play well and interest enough that they should want to do so, but if they want to subvert the fun you just can’t stop them all.
One for Me, One for You
Multiplayer games throw off victory point calculations badly. Two player games are a simple net sum neutral proposition, if I gain a point you lose one, and if I gain one point there is a simple one-point swing. If there are four points available in a game, I need 3 to win. In a multi-player game this is less true, if my opponent gains a point from a limited store and I am ahead then the other opponent loses one, it can be a net sum gain for me. If there are four points in a three-player game, I only need 2 to win, provided the other two are spread among my enemies. What this means is that VP become exponentially rather than linearly tighter as player counts increase. So to put it another way, if each player brings 2 VP to the game the two player game with 4 VP could allow players a window for gaining and losing points, picking up some and letting others slide, in the five player game each point would have to be brutally hard fought and letting even one go easily could spell inevitable doom.
Luckily the fix for this is pretty simple, and it’s the fix for the next problem too to some degree, and that’s an exponential VP increase (if using VP) as player count rises. For example VP could be based on the player count being squared rather than multiplied by a set count, the best way to do this is to place the same number of objectives as there are players, each worth as many points as there are players.
Mo’ Enemies, Mo’ Problems
Games are based on complexity; difficult decisions are interesting decisions. A game’s complexity is static, limited and learnable. Another player is also complex, they can offer a range of unpredictable problems. If playing one on one its relatively easy to keep track of my opponent’s intentions, particularly if they pertain to targeting me since I can limit their targets and control their options. Adding in another player is a huge complexity increase since they will be able to target another opponent that I cannot control in a manner that I cannot control, and I will need to be involved with both opponents as they do so. This can often lead to a sense of spiraling chaos where players will accept a level of non-engagement with elements they are unable to clearly mentally track which in turn leads to a sense of helplessness during play or a sense of frustration when the game is decided by elements a player felt forced to disengage with.
There are several potential fixes here:
Widening the range of VP available, as with the previous problem by making the VP available increase exponentially rather than linearly with player count you can change the feel of the game. A one on one game should be very tight, it should be a close matched exchange of thrust and parry, and every point should count. As player count rises this should loosen off, I can’t engage in a tight matched tussle with everyone so I should have the option to go out a little more on my own and treat other players as obstacles to my intentions rather than the object of them.
Reducing the decision space for players. For example, players can be forced to pick a single opponent to interact with for a turn, ignoring all others. This can return a multi-player game to essentially a series of several one on one matches but it will save players from needing to track too many game states.
Allowing/forcing players to engage with every interaction between any two players. For example, handing out player powers or cards that can tip the balance in conflicts that players have no part in. While this will not change the sense of chaos it does remove the sense of helplessness and frustration to a degree, a sense of barely contained chaos that players have to keep a clear focus during can be a beneficial element after all, frustration can occasionally be rewarding, but helplessness should always be avoided.
In conclusion, however many players you design your game for, at least as a design exercise, try to imagine your game played by three people on a circular table and how it would work. If the game instantly and totally collapses ask yourself why and if those reasons come from useful elements rather than casual assumptions. If the game still works, ask whether loosing it from its anchors will make the playing experience freer, more unique and more fun. Challenge anything you put into your game as an assumption, it might be pulling its weight, but if its not, get the editing scissors out.