In the simplest of games, it is accepted that players take turns. It is drummed into us from an early age. As we grow up and start playing board games, everyone still gets their turn, one after the other. Monopoly is a good example.
In the majority of wargames, this holds true too. As gamers, we have become very used to having a turn where we can activate all of our units or models, depending on the scale of game, to try and inconvenience our opponent as much as possible. This is generally done through a series of actions: each turn all units move, then they shoot, then they fight.
What most would consider the market leader in the wargames market, Games Workshop, holds very firmly to this view (at least in its larger games, Blood Bowl is quite different and discussed below). Short of any magical interference, each unit can take actions, following a specific turn structure and acting in each. In Warhammer Fantasy (and its successor Age of Sigmar) and Warhammer 40,000, these structures have been in place for 20+ years, with only the magic or psychic phases moving around.
In this construction, the only actions we take in our opponent’s turn are as a result of his actions (take a saving throw, test to stop a unit running away) or sometimes fighting in an on-going combat.
This makes sense, or surely there would have been changes over the years. However, some games approach the turn slightly differently: either by changing the ways that units activate (in some cases allowing more/less activations), making the turn of variable length (specific circumstances end it immediately), with some going as far as making one turn encompass the actions of both players in an overlapping format.
Having played quite a few games systems over the years, I will now share some of the more interesting approaches to taking a turn I have come across during the last few years. I will try and keep the descriptions fairly rules-light, I promise!
The “Standard” Turn
Warhammer AoS, Warhammer 40K/Horus Heresy (Fantasy & Sci-Fi Massed Battles, Games Workshop):
As described above, each unit in a player’s army can take actions in each phase:
- All player’s units move
- All player’s units use their magic/psychic powers
- All player’s units shoot
- Both player’s units fight close combat
Once one player has taken all of the units through this series of actions, their opponent tests to see how their troops react to being beaten up/shot etc. in a morale phase and may run away. Then play switches and the opponent takes their force through the same series of actions.
Black Powder (17th-19th Century Massed Battles, Warlord Games):
This is my primary Napoleonic rules set, although it can be used in any theatre from 17th-19th century. It is quite orthodox in that “I go, you go”. One player moves, shoots, fights and then play passes over to his opponent.
What is novel about this system is that the amount of move actions a unit can take is dictated by the capability of their commander and a random dice roll. This reflects units refusing to advance, orders getting lost in the chaos of a battlefield, or being misinterpreted by the regimental commanders.
Each commander has a command value between 7 and 10 and the test is taken by rolling two dice and deducting them from the commander’s command value. For every point that the commander beats the roll, the units under their command get to take one activation. Each unit therefore gets to move 0-3 times.
What makes this even more interesting is that the orders for all units must be written prior to any tests being made. Thus, two corps may be ordered “advance and charge the enemy”. One corps may pass the test with flying colours and charge straight up the battlefield and engage, only to find itself unsupported as the second corps gets one activation and walks slowly forward into the sights of the enemy’s guns. As I tend to play the bumbling Austrians, this is a frequent sight for me. If they advance at all!
SAGA (Dark Age/Medieval Skirmish, Studio Tomahawk):
SAGA is a skirmish game for Dark Age and Medieval periods. All of Studio Tomahawk’s games have novel approaches to unit activation. In SAGA’s case, the game remains “I go, you go” but the amount of things your units can do are dictated by dice and battleboards.
Essentially, you roll a number of dice depending on which units you have selected. Once the results are known, the dice can be placed on the board, either to allow units to take an action or to activate special abilities that make units stronger, tougher etc.
This is done by matching the symbols on the dice to the symbols on the board. If you roll poorly, for example, it is possible that some units cannot be activated.
However, it is also possible to activate the same unit multiple times (albeit there is a penalty for doing so). You could go an entire turn and only use one unit by using all your dice to activate this unit and put all sorts of buffs on them. By the same token, you could also end up activating everyone if you roll well. Making a SAGA turn very tactical indeed as you try and do the best with the dice you have rolled!
Units can also take their actions in any order, so I can shoot at a unit of Norman Knights twice with my bowmen before charging them with my cavalry, as long as I have the dice to do this. This wouldn’t be possible with a Warhammer-style turn structure.
“Turn over” Games:
Blood Bowl (Fantasy Skirmish/Sport, Games Workshop):
Blood Bowl is a great, fun game of fantasy football and the main reason I think it is so fun is its turn structure. Players can choose one of a number of actions and act in any order. However, if things go wrong, you can very soon suffer a “turn over” and your opponent can start his turn before all of your players have acted.
In Blood Bowl, your players need to get to the far end of the pitch and score touchdowns. They can do this by dodging around opposing players or smashing through them. Each player on your team of eleven gets a move or attack (called a block) action each turn. If you dodge past an opponent or knock him down, all is well. If your player gets knocked down, play immediately switches to your opponent.
Therefore, it is very important to get the actions that either have no chance of failure, or are really important out of the way first. It is no good running your ball-carrying player up the board by himself, his support failing to get into position, as you get someone knocked down in a pointless fight on the other side of the pitch. This level of thought and prioritising actions adds to the stress of the game and really helps to make it as close to watching real life sport as can be.
(You can read more about the B&B team’s foray into Blood Bowl here.)
Infinity (Sci-fi Skirmish, Corvus Belli):
Infinity is a very small scale sci-fi skirmish game with around 10 models per side. It is a strange game. I will put it out there now, I really struggled to get my head around it. This is because, in a similar way to SAGA, you get an activation point for each model in your band and activations can be taken in any order: shoot, move, move, shoot.
Each activation point can be used to activate any model. However, there the similarity ends. You could use all ten activations on one model with no penalty. Where Infinity is most different to all other systems I have played, though, is that both players are constantly taking actions: for every action you take, all models that can see an activated model can react, be that to shoot back, duck out of sight or take some special actions.
This encourages very tactical thinking, as whilst the player whose nominal turn it is has actions that are generally stronger than their opponent’s, they could still be on the receiving end of fire with every activity performed. Only good positioning and ensuring the right troops face off against each other can ensure victory, rather than simply getting the drop on your opponent.
I like it, as both players are constantly rolling dice but I am not particularly good at it (and as a consequence the lovely models in my warband remain unpainted).
“Two Players, One Turn” Games:
Blood and Plunder (Pirate Skirmish, Firelock Games) and Dead Man’s Hand (Wild West Skirmish, Great Escape Games):
What do pirates and cowboys have in common? No, it’s not a poor joke, it’s actually the way troops are activated in both systems.
In each game, a deck of playing cards are used and cards are ranked in suit order and then by number within that suit. Each player draws a card at the start of a turn for each of his units (or models in Dead Man’s Hand). Both players place a card by the unit that they want to reveal and then both reveal a card at the same time.
Each time a card is revealed, the players compare the cards to determine who acts first. This ensures that the most ‘goes’ a player can get before the other player goes is two but it is possible to get back-to-back actions if the cards fall right. As both players are unsure when they can act, it leads to tactical play not only of the cards but of the actions taken. If you know your opponent will go next, do you really want to advance out of cover?
Blood and Plunder takes this a step further by having a number of actions assigned to each card, so the cards which are more likely to go first have less actions assigned to them, forcing the player to balance the need to go first versus what can be achieved quickly. This is a relatively new system and I must admit that I have fallen a bit in love with this mechanic.
Muskets and Tomahawks (18th Century Skirmish, Studio Tomahawk):
This is a skirmish level wargame set in the Seven Years War in North America, with a supplementary setting of the American War of Independence (or Revolution, for the Marxists out there). Before the game, both players build a deck of cards based on the troops that they select. Once the game is set up, players draw cards from a combined deck and take actions with all of the named units on the card.
For an activation each unit can either move, shoot or reload. Better classes of unit get more activations on each card, or have more cards. e.g. Regulars have two cards which each allow them two actions together which can be really useful (reload and fire, move and fire etc.), whilst Militia have three cards but each has only one activation. So not only do they have less actions, they are more disjointed.
Also, as each card could be anywhere in the pack, players can alternate between being the ‘active’ player. This makes every draw nerve wracking, particularly if you are counting on a certain card coming up… will the cavalry get to charge or be shot down point blank by the Redcoat firing line?
Bolt Action (World War 2 Massed Battles, Warlord Games):
A similar premise to Muskets and Tomahawks, Bolt Action controls the units to be activated using dice in a pot. Each player adds one dice for each unit he controls at the start of each turn to the pot. As a dice is drawn, the player can select one of their units and take one action from a list of options from it.
However, whilst this is less prescriptive than Muskets, as you are able to choose which unit to activate, there is an added difficulty. Where a unit has taken fire in previous turns, it must pass a morale test (2d6 versus a morale value of between 8 and 10).
The more fire it has taken, the more likely a unit is to keep its head down and do nothing. Thus, the player has to balance the necessity of taking an action against the chances of it actually being able to happen. Is it better to fire with your untrained Italian Conscripts who have taken no fire, but are rubbish, versus trying to fire with veteran Alpine troops who are much better, but also pinned down and might not respond?
Each turn continues until all the dice have been assigned and orders carried out. Then the units are counted up and appropriate dice placed back in the cup for the next turn.
This way of playing makes it very important to activate the right unit at the right time. Firing at long range might not be the best idea if you know the enemy intends to advance towards you with one of the units they have still to activate. On the other hand, getting a shot with an anti-tank gun against a tank before it has an opportunity to fire is rarely a bad thing, as the Italians below hope to find out!
Hopefully this article has given you some insight into the way some different systems handle turns. A good turn system can add so much excitement to a game and set that game firmly in the historical period or fantasy setting it belongs in. Whilst massed battles lend themselves more to “I go, you go” and allow grand strategies to be revealed, skirmish games with a more hectic and intertwined turn allow both players to work together in creating an exciting story where individual models acting at the right time can change the tide.
If any of these systems have piqued your interest, do let us know in the comments below and we can do a broader review of how some of these systems work.
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