April 18, 2024

Design x Dragoons: Gamey Tactics

Each week, our #DesignXDragoons panel will offer their thoughts on a talk about game design, game development, or gameplay.  You’ll see what they have to say, and get a chance to chime in yourself, either in the comments below, or in our forums

This week’s question:

We have all seen (but never perpetrated wink, wink, nudge, nudge) gameplay that takes advantage of the rules in a game design that aren’t the most realistic ‘battlefield’ actions.
Examples might include abandoning the Peach Orchard at the Battle of Gettysburg or a spoiling attack by the US before the raid on Pearl Harbor.
What are some of the most egregious examples ‘gamey’ tactics that you have seen?
Are you willing to make at least concede a few loopholes in the rules name of convenient game-play?

John Gorkowski, designer / In The Trenches series, Balance of Powers, plenty of others

Advanced Squad Leader abounds with “gamey” tactics, but I still like this classic.  The most (in)famous is “skulking” in which a unit uses the turn sequence to pop out of enemy view to avoid fire and then pops back in to threaten fire after the other guy’s opportunity has passed.


Pete Bogdasarian, designer / Tank On Tank, Corps Command series

I think the most egregious example of leveraging the possibilities inherent in a rule that I have ever run across is what can be done with the (quite appropriately named) exploitation movement in some of the Standard Combat Series (SCS) games from the Gamers/Multi-Man Publishing.  The rule is quite simple at its core: Exploitation-capable units can move (and overrun) if they begin the movement phase outside of an enemy Zone of Control.

The intent is that players will use exploitation movement in an offensive posture, pushing on into the enemy positions to follow up on a successful attack.  However, there are several more SCS games where exploitation movement is much better put to use repositioning friendly forces after an attack.  In SCS Crusader, the Afrika Corps have enough movement to drive down the road to Tobruk, attack a hex in the combat phase, and then drive back in the exploitation phase to once again oppose the Commonwealth relief attack, allowing Rommel to keep his army in sort of a quantum state, where the same troops attacking Tobruk are opposing the Commonwealth relief forces many miles away.  In SCS Yom Kippur, the Israeli forces can often be massed against an Egyptian hex, pound it to scrap, and then retreat far enough to be out of range of any possible counterattack by the Egyptians.

These tactics do represent an excellent means of testing the limits of a player’s suspension of disbelief.  Most players will crack and crumble after being subjected to this.

A simpler example of this problem is the issue of leader casualties in battlefield-level games.  Often, there is some kind of check caused by successfully firing on a hex occupied by a leader.  A player, given the choice between firing at two more or less identical infantry units, will therefore be select the unit stacked with an enemy leader, despite this being the sort of sophisticated decision that seems unlikely to be routinely reached by the cannoneers on the field who are blinking black powder from their eyes and sweating over a hot gun.  Good challenge there for a designer to try and get right, especially on one of those battlefields where a general died a Right Ironic Death.


David Thompson, (Award-winning!) designer / Undaunted Normandy, Pavlov’s House, among others

I often borrow inspiration from wargaming’s Eurogame cousins for abstract representations in designs, especially when the abstraction is at a different scale than the actual game focus. The most obvious illustration of this is probably in Pavlov’s House, which is ostensibly about the tactical defense of a single strongpoint. However, half of the player’s time is spent managing operational-level concerns, such as resupply, artillery support, and anti-aircraft cover. I doubt anyone who has played Pavlov’s House would think the gameplay solution of these operational elements is realistic, but they achieve their effect – an abstract representation that supports the focus of the design.


Rob Crandall, designer / On Target Simulations (Flashpoint Campaigns)

Seeing a really gamey exploit ruins a game for me as it shatters the willing suspension of disbelief that is essential for any good storytelling. On the other hand, I appreciate plausible but ahistorical turn of events such as opening the Pacific War with something other than the strike on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese had many strategic options and could have done things very differently at the time and it is well worth exploring that with a well-made game to see what can happen. I have often sat down with a good book or two on a topic and also had a game spread out before me. The books tell me what happened and why the author thinks that narrative is important. The game puts that into context and helps me to understand whether the course of events was a slam dunk or highly improbable. It helps reveal who really stepped up that day and who was just loafing around and barely participated. I don’t feel I understand a topic until I have done both and tried out lots of what-ifs personally. As long as the what-ifs are historically plausible, then the more the merrier.


Russ Lockwood, Staff Developer / Against the Odds

Since gaming allows players to attempt alternate strategies and tactics within a historical context, your examples are perfectly legitimate player efforts. They may work. They may not. That said, the rules should reflect the historical capabilities of units and let the players sort out what they want to do. If the Union player wants to abandon the Peach Orchard, then the Confederate player should not have to launch Pickett’s Charge, or perhaps allow Longstreet to march around the southern flank and set up a defensive position. Then it’s a question of victory conditions, and that should be a reflection of historical goals. As for an egregious examples, I admit I once shot a cannon during a game of South Mountain (SPI Quad) at a CSA unit at the very limit of range just because I saw the Stonewall Jackson counter on that unit – ended up with a lucky, lucky roll and wounded Stonewall, taking him off the field. Legitimate shot. No ammo limitations. Perfect intel. As a surprise example, we had a multiplayer Axis and Allies WWI game going with kids and the 11-year-old pushed the Kaiser’s troops into Switzerland. Lo and behold, it is a legitimate space, can help outflank the French and Italians, and stunned us grognards, for we would never try and attack Switzerland. Without terrain rules, it’s just another space and it took an 11-year-old to figure that out.


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Brant G

Editor-in-chief at Armchair Dragoons

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