I recently received an e-mail from podcast listener Bob Martin, asking me if the Activation system used in a set of rules heavily influenced me on whether I played a set of rules or not, and if I ever refused to play a set of rules based simply on the activation system?
I tend to find IGO-UGO systems a big turn off, and whilst I wouldn’t dismiss a set of rules that use this system completely out of hand, I would normally only usually play this type of rules if:
a) There is a limited (small) model count or
b) There is a risk that you cannot activate all your troops.
Advanced Song of Blades and Heroes, for example, has both a small model count, and players can always run the risk of not activating all their troops if they ever fail an activation roll with more than one dice.
Blucher is an IGO-UGO system, but a player can only move a limited number of units. What is more, it is your opponent that knows how many orders you can issue to your troops.
The Black Powder / Hail Caesar family, as well as To The Strongest, whilst being IGO-UGO, always run the risk of failing a command test and thus prematurely ending a players turn.
I much prefer rules that try to model some form of friction – that is, rules that limit the number of orders that you can issue, or at least give the risk of not being able to order your units. Couple this with a turn sequence that is very interactive between both players (so downtime is kept to a minimum) and you have my ideal type of game.
My favourite activation mechanic is where a limited number of units can perform actions before play passes to the opponent – Chain of Command, Saga, Sword & Spear (although that itself has a twist on this) and even Commands & Colors use this type of system.
Next, its random units activation, such as Sharp Practice 2, Dux Britanniarum or Muskets & Tomahawks. Again, it is much preferable that not all units can necessarily get to activate before the end of the turn. Some games, such as Bolt Action*, use random unit activation, but all your units are guaranteed to activate in the turn.
Third preference is Alternate unit activation, again, with a preference to those systems that have the potential that not all units can be activated – the new Morten Et Glorium Ancients rules, for example, whilst being Alternate Unit activation, also uses command card in order to activate units. Dependent upon the command cards a General has in his hand, it is not always possible to activate a unit.
Compare that with something like Halo Ground Command or Planetfall, in which players alternately activate units, but all units are guaranteed to be ordered in a turn. Player interaction is high, but there is little tension about whether your forces will be able to carry out your orders.
So what is my favourite activation system?
At the moment it’s a toss-up between Chain of Command and Sword and Spear.
In Sword and Spear, you have a dice bag in which you place one D6 for each unit in your army, your opponent does the same (with different coloured dice!). In every phase, 7 dice are drawn from the bag, and the dice are given to each player dependent upon colour. These are then rolled, and the dice allocated to units in order to activate them – ‘1’s are discarded (different units need different numbers in order activate, dependent upon unit type). Finally, the units are activated in Dice number order, low to high. Units activated on a roll of ‘6’ usually get a bonus, but will always activate last in the phase.
It’s a brilliant system.
Chain of Command gives players a limited number of command dice to roll in their turn. The numbers that you roll on the dice determine what type of troops you can order – a ‘1’ can order a single weapons team, a ‘2’ orders a team, whilst a ‘3’ or ‘4’ allows a junior or senior officer to be activated – they in turn can issue orders to troops around them.
As well as limiting the number of troops you can order in a turn, rolling multiple ‘6’s means that a player has the potential for consecutive activations. Again, a brilliant and unpredictable activation system which really forces a player to consider what is the most important thing that they can do during each of their activations.
How about you? What’s your favourite activation system, and why? Is there a game you refuse to play because of the activation system?
*Please see comment below from shimond. I forgot about suppression in BA, but at least you get the opportunity to remove it each turn.