Game Mechanics #2 – Initiative

Hello again!

Recently we talked about stat card and it’s components. This time we want to show you a bit different way of looking at initiative, at least in comparison to other wargames.


When we started our adventure with Stratoyager, we were very “traditional” about initiative. You know – I move, you move, I move, you move. Then you shoot, I shoot. Etc. And some more or less random way of determining who goes first. We also added some form of orders phase at the begining of each turn, just to be even more traditional and emulate “simultaneous” actions with “no backsies” policy. Then  we started play test games.

Those were long. Horribly long. I move, you wait. You move, I wait. You think on your move forever – I wait. In some games, where pace of battle is not important, those breaks are useful, you have time to think on your move, plan ahead… its fine.

But we were playing game of dogfights, furballs, lasers and cosmic speeds! No, sitting in the corner for half an hour waiting for a friend to finish his move was totally not our thing, not here at least.

Why other side have to wait while I’m thinking? Why can’t we move at the same time?  Do we have to waste time for order phase of a turn, to make sure that no one is abusing cause-effect paradigm? Planning forever and then just simple execution of orders – is it our thing?

Then we did even more thinking. With numbers. I spend 1 minute to move my piece. You wait. Then you spend a minute to move yours. I wait. If I have 10 units on the table, and you have 10, each of us gets 10 minutes of play in movement phase lasting 20 minutes. Rest of the time is wasted. And that is if we are lucky, and our buddy is not grinding us down with careful calcualtions of every possible outcome.

And that was just for orders phase and movement. Shooting, no matter if simultaneous in effect, also is mostly done like “I shoot, you shoot” etc. That brought bigger games to a pint where one turn lasted an hour. And again, we are sitting on half of the time, doing nothing. So this time was totally wasted.  

We didn’t wanted that at all, not here.

First thought was – we have to make both players active at the same time, to compress gameplay in half, without loosing any depth of game mechanics. Then another idea came around  – are initial orders really necessary? It’s a fight, not an airshow, pilots are reacting to combat situations in instant. It needs to be shown in a game.

We wanted both players to stay on their toes all the time to be constatly focused on gameplay. To play fast games, keeping adrenaline high. So instead of traditional turn sequence we turned to something else, better suiting our needs. And we also tried to keep it simple.

Initiative in Stratoyager is very simple.

Each player receives exactly the same set of numbered initiative cards, starting from 1. One card for each unit. Players assign them, reversed to their units. When both players are done, they flip those cards and see pairs, one unit on each side, to act simultaneously. “1s” go first, then “2s” etc.

This breaks each turn into series of cosecutive segments, in each one only 2 units are active. They don’t necessarily have to be tied in combat with each other, but tactically speaking, it’s sometimes the best option. So in fact even large engagement is broken down to a series of smaller duels.

You can imagine it as a movie space fight scene, where camera jumps from one short sequence to another. Perfect example of this (and in genereal, great way to show how Stratoyagers fight in space) is famous final fight  Starbuck and Kat gave to Scar in “Battlestar Galactica”.

There obviously is contingency plan in cases when players have asimetrical forces. Plus few exceptions for formation flying, tailing or tracking units. But that is it. Also, to speed up the process, as an option player who finished first his initiative asigments is granted with final decision in disputable in-game situations.

Here is a picture from Battle of The Rock, showing sample Initiative setup.

Your unit moves and attacks (and performs other actions) in one segment with opponents unit. Your pilot receives 2 orders – one regarding movement, other one regarding shooting or special actions available. At the same time your opponent recieves his own orders.  Then you both simultaneously move right away. Then you both simultaneously shoot or perform other actions, like charging shields.

We keep open option of careful planning in orders phase. So those who like to sit back and consider all possible senarios can safely do so. But there is also “arcade module”, that we devised for possible future tournaments or fast games we would like to ecourage players to use. It is also necessary in one-on-one dogfights.

“Arcade module”, or Quickdraw Resolve puts a time limit on both players. They can think on their orders as long as they want, but when first one puts his orders on the table, the other one have short amount of time to finish his. We give ourselves 30 seconds in our test games, but it can be 1 minute or any other amount of time both players find agreable. If you won’t place orders before time runs out,  you are stuck with what you have at the moment on hand.

We explain it in-game that pilot just got confusing order that took away few precious seconds.

Quickdraw Resolve also grants Small Initiative among both units active in this segment. In case of those 2 interacting with each other, like colliding paths or shooting, winner of Small Initiative have certain advantages over his opponent. The most important thing is, he shoots first.

Without QR we just assume that all actions are simultaneous within turn segment.

Turn segments are consecutive. If your fighter is scheduled in 2nd segment, and will be shot down in 1st, it will never have a chance to act. That is why there are also “belated actions” that you can order your unit before turn ends. One of those actions is “opportunity shot”. Your pilot in his last active gaming segment decided to forego shooting and just sit with finger over trigger, waiting for something to get into his crosshairs.

We know it might seem strange at the moment, before seeing actual gameplay. The key is to assign initiative segments in best order, remembering that opponent will try to counter it, which can turn to a real battle of wits on its own. Especially if there is a time pressure.

So that is it for the moment. In next part we will talk about movement in Stratoyager, and how we tried to make “space flight physics” into fast and easy, yet “realistic” game engine.