Realism and Simultaneous Action

When we began creating Lands of Ruin, one of our main goals was to find a way to increase the amount of realism that could be achieved in a tabletop game. We soon realized the reason why increased realism often must be sacrificed in games: A good game is one that balances realistic complexity and enjoyable playability. This is a very difficult balance to create and maintain. Regarding traditional tabletop games, the limiting factor for realistic game mechanisms correlates with the complexity each player is expected to learn and calculate. Games requiring players to do this in their heads, or with pen and paper, and have to put limits on the amount of complexity they can include in the rules in order to keep the game fast-paced and enjoyable.

We realized there was another way that had never been attempted at that time, and its potential has still not been fully realized by any game on the market. Coming from a tech background, as well as that of tabletop gaming, it was an obvious choice for us to create an app to handle the ever-increasing complexity of our game mechanisms, environmental effects, and realism.

Battlefield Realism

In many wargames, players have their armies meet on a battlefield that is completely devoid of non-combatants, third-party soldiers/creatures/machines, and seemingly in perfect weather.

There is seldom a battlefield in the real world that is devoid of hidden dangers other than enemy combatants. The enemy is not always in grand formation, uniformed, nor identifiable as an enemy combatant. In fact, more often the enemy is a disguised or obfuscated opportunist, waiting for a chance to ambush. Games have tried to find ways to simulate this sort of realism to some degree of success, but we felt it should be more pronounced, as it is a highly significant factor in real world combat.

Additionally, in many games the two player armies line up on either side of the table, and then march toward one another shooting. Wars may have been fought this way in Napoleonic times, but they are no longer fought this way at all, nor have they been for decades. It is therefore doubtful that exponentially increasing weapon and reconnaissance technology would cause wars to be fought this way again in the future. Some battles might be fought by two armies doing a sweep of a town, and inadvertently encountering each other. However, this is hardly the norm.

One other major feature of many games we wanted to alter was the way the table edge is handled in most games: as if it were the edge of a very small world. characters and activities inside the table boundaries seldom affect the world outside, and activities and populations outside rarely have any impact on the battle raging on the table. In a real world (be it this one or another world), a battlefield is never static, nor isolated.

The edge of the table is not the edge of the world.

AI-Controlled NPCs

We wanted to create a system that allows for a full range of battle conditions and scenarios - both balanced and unbalanced. This system includes dangerous non-player characters that are affected and drawn by activities and conditions on the tabletop.

For example, in Lands of Ruin, the game world (even beyond the table edge) is populated by droves of undead Rotters, which are attracted to movement, sound, and other disturbances. The Command Console app runs a global simulation of this NPC population. A team approaching the tabletop battlefield presumably had to travel across other terrain on the way to the battlefield. During their journey the team were very likely noticed by members of this undead population, and followed. The app determines how many NPCs were attracted, and these may show up on the tabletop, flanking the team shortly after their own arrival (pregame deployment).

Additionally, these same NPC characters and creatures can be found populating the tabletop before the player teams even arrive on the battlefield (as the land would likely be populated by some sort of life). The types of NPCs will be determined by the nature of the mission or scenario the players have selected to play via the Command Console. Some of these NPCs may be helpful to a player, dangerous but initially neutral, harmless but tactically useful, or openly hostile. NPCs - and sometimes even player characters can come and go from the tabletop.

Read more about AI controlled NPCs on the tabletop.

Secret Deployment & Hidden Characters

Certain player characters can also be deployed more realistically on the tabletop. This often depends on the mission scenario the players choose. One player might have fewer characters than his opponent, but can therefore start in a defensible fortification that may not be at the table edge. Table edges do not have to be opposite from one another.

Some characters have special abilities that allow them to be “secretly” deployed. This means the owning player indicates the character’s location on his app screen, but does not deploy the character’s miniature on the table, and does not have to inform his opponent of that character’s existence in anyway. This is especially relevant in the case of a sniper, whose entire purpose revolves around the enemy having no idea where he is.

In some missions, like ambushes, one of the players may be permitted to “secretly” deploy their entire team, since the point of an ambush is for your opponent not to know where you are until you attack. The way these secretly deployed characters are tracked and kept fair is actually very simple. During the game setup, any player with hidden characters will secretly deploy them through his/her Command Console app, indicating their starting locations. Their location will only be displayed on the owning player’s tablet. As the game progresses, certain things might happen that would reveal the location of the hidden character. For example an opponent walks near the location of a hidden sniper, or the sniper fires a shot. At this point the app determines if the opponent detects the hidden character. If detected, the app then reveals the hidden character’s location to the enemy player via his tablet app. This allows for hidden characters to act realistically, serve their real-world purpose, and it’s all kept fair through the app. This is discussed in greater detail in another blog post.

Another battlefield reality that we wanted to include in Lands of Ruin is the effect of the environment surrounding the battle. Is the battle taking place during the day, or at night? Is visibility obscured by a thick fog? Was there a heavy rain the night before? Does one player team know the are better than their opponent’s team? Through simulations run by the app over the gameworld as a whole, we can add this sort of realism to Lands of Ruin that have never been achieved by other games - outside of video games. Traditional games have attempted to introduce minimal environmental factors, such as weather, through rolling a dice to see if there is an effect on a character’s actions. This is a decent, non-technical way to simulate conditions simply, but it introduces a lot of randomness, rather than realism, which we circumvent with our tablet app.

Read more about hidden characters and asymetric information.

Tracking Everything

Through the Command Console, we are also able to track very specific and complex information about each player character. Among other things, the app tracks remaining ammunition, gear weight, supply usage, team morale/leadership capability, etc. In fact the weight of each bullet or drop of fuel that a character is carrying is tracked. This weight, and other factors, subtly affects how many action points a character has available each turn. While the smaller increments have little effect initially, over time all of these small factors can have a large, compounded effect.

We also use the app to track the noise that each action or weapon produces. For weapons with different firing modes (semi-automatic, full-auto, etc.), each firing mode produces a different level of noise. This is very important, since the noise of weapons is what predominantly attracts the attention of surrounding NPCs. Each turn, the app calculates which character and table section are making the most noise, and directs the NPC characters to begin moving toward that section and character. This has a significant effect on players’ strategies, and can actually be used tactically to manipulate the NPCs against your opponent.

Read more about complexity handled by the companion app.

Simultaneous Action

Lands of Ruin tries to simulate that all of the actions between two players is actually happening simultaneously. Other games have done this very well, but it often adds a huge level of complexity, and many confusing rules. Through the use of the Command Console, we can achieve this sort of “simultaneous action” without being burdensome on players.

One of the ways we simulate simultaneity is that players assign actions to their characters one turn in advance of when the actions will be performed. This simulates a character receiving orders for their next move, and the character’s intention at that moment in time. However, our personal intentions are often foiled by external factors before we can act on our intentions. This is why there is an opponent turn between the phase where you assign actions (intent), and the phase when you perform the assigned actions.

If you were a character in the game, and you saw an empty street between you and your objective, you might think that running full speed to pick up the prize might be a good idea, throwing caution to the wind. This would be the assigned action. As you begin running down the street, you realize that an enemy had the same idea, but he was more careful. He has now run between you and the objective and is planning to fire at you. This would be the enemy turn. You are now surprised, and have to take a moment to react, and you can no longer perform the intended action of picking up the objective. So you assign a different action for your next turn, trying to predict what your opponent is going to do between now and then.

There are other benefits to incorporating the concept of simultaneous action into the game mechanics. These will be discussed in greater detail in a future post.

We explain the turn seqence and action in our gameplay overview video:

Multiplayer Games

While this feature is currently turned off in the Command Console, we intend for games of Lands of Ruin to be capable of having more than two players. Of course this is possible in other games as well, but we intend to take it farther. Of course you can have 4 players on two teams in many games, but rarely are there games with three or four completely independent factions fighting each other.

Additionally, we are developing a “drop-in/drop-out” feature where additional players can join a game that is already in progress. Alternatively, a player can choose to leave a multiplayer game at any time. We feel this adds a level of realism that cannot usually be achieved.

Imagine that two armies are fighting one another in a hotly contested area. A third faction who happens to be patrolling in that area comes across the other two armies’ battle. The third army sees an opportunity to destroy two enemies at once, and charges in unexpectedly. Alternatively, perhaps this third group is allied with one of the two battling armies. He may rush in to assist his ally, to their opponent’s shock.

This sort of scenario is common in the real world, so why not in gaming? Now it is possible. It also allows a game to continue if one player needs to leave, or if someone shows up late to a gaming event.

Logging Reality

Throughout the last several years, we have been finding ways to add realism and complexity to Lands of Ruin, without allowing it to become a hinderance to the players. Conversely, we did not want to hide these intriguing and unique mechanisms from players either. All of the environmental and NPC actions and effects are calculated by the app, only occasionally require player input or confirmation, but are always logged for player review and detailed understanding.

We have tested this complex realism extensively over the years. Many of our ideas have been thrown out or reworked numerous times through this testing. We have gotten extensive feedback from players and play testers on the various mechanisms, and adjusted the game accordingly. We now believe we have the system perfected for the types of realism that we set out to explore, and we will continue to investigate more ways to add realism in the future.

Read more about complexity handled by the companion app.