Sunday 21 October 2012

The numbers game

With Mantic's open day last weekend and my recent foray into Realms of Chaos I have had both Warhammer and Kings of War on the mind. One of the more distinctive features of KOW is the way in which it treats units. In Warhammer the basic element is the model and units are made of groups of them, while in Kings of War the basic element is the unit, it has its own stat line and is moved and removed as one element.

When playing a KOW style game, you tend to assume that the unit does not necessarily represent the number of individuals on the table. There might be twenty models, but your would tend to assume that that represents several hundred or even thousand individuals. The exact number is less important than the unit's abaility to project power on the field. For that reason the unit is removed all at once. The fate of individuals doesn't matter, when the unit is removed it is assumed that the unit is no longer able to fight effectively either because everyone is dead or has run off.

You wouldn't necessarily think this in Warhammer. When each model has its own stat line, it feels like an individual. But this doesn't actually make sense in practice. For a start, the units in Warhammer behave like much larger bodies. There may twenty men (or Orcs or Elves) on the table, but they move and fight like formations of several hundred. They stay in formation, can't manuevere easily and don't break formation except in route.

Looking at things on a larger scale, Warhammer-style games use maybe 100 to 200 models. Real historical armies run to thousands or even tens of thousands. Even the largest Warhammer battle represents only a skirmish in historical terms. And yet the conceit of the Warhammer game is that battles involve Emperor's, Kings and Warlords.

Both styles of game involve an abstraction. In KOW style games you assume that each unit represents more individuals than seen on the table. In Warhammer style games the abstraction happens almost in reverse. You assume that units and individuals behave like much larger formations than they actually represent. Either way, the effect is to simulate a massive battle with a much smaller number of models.

This division of model versus unit is common in historical wargaming. Warlord's Black Powder, Hail Caesar and Pike and Shotte all use the unit as the base element. Field of Glory and its successors as well as DBA and DBM use a similar system, of multiple models on a single base, even if they are not necessarily called units. In the other side, Clash of Empires follows a similar system to Warhammer, with units of individual models.

While the unit versus individual concept cuts across fantasy and historical gaming, in one area historical games usually fall on one side and fantasy on the other and that's in the handling of characters. In the Black Powder family, Clash of Empires, Field of Glory characters are essentially order givers. They enhance the fighting ability or units and/or are required to allow them to activate, but they don't fight units directly.

In contrast Warhammer treats characters as particularly capable individuals able to join and leave units and fight on the same level as other individuals. Kings of War goes even further. Characters are units in their own right and a single hero can fight on even terms with a unit of 20 or more models. This makes sense, while in the real world no individual, no matter how capable can fight more than two or three at a time successfully, in a fantasy world mighty heroes really can take on entire armies and win.

So many games use abstraction to deal with numbers, but the exact way it's managed varies from game to game and genre to genre.

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