How do you like to go?

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.

asobh-coverAdvanced 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 coverBlucher 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.

Homemade Saga Dice

Saga uses custom dice and a board to control unit activation – with the added bonus that a unit can be activated more than once in a player turn.



Commands & Colors uses order cards to determine what units can move in your turn

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.


Sharp Practice 2 uses card activation, but the Tiffin card can always end the turn

mortem-ey-glorium-cardsThird 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.

planetfallCompare 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.

s_s_cover_test_low_res_1In 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.

8 Comments on How do you like to go?

  1. Cool article. 🙂 I have no idea how you manage to be so concise and to the point on a subject I would drone on and on about.

    My own preferences on this matter are similar to yours it seems (well, I’m not much of a Saga guy, and some other games you mentioned I haven’t played). There’s got to be some sort of unforseeable horror which can mess up your activation and in my case I think I like the systems which can mess up your whole day. Love TFL games of course, very impressed with the Song and Blades and Heroes mechanics, especially with the added reaction system now. Blücher has a really fun system as well, and I think it works very well for the level of action depicted. C&C games of course are really cool too. What an absurdly elegant system, yet it feels like a proper game.

    I don’t think I’d refuse to play a game, because I’ll give any set of rules a go (even Bolt Action. Some day. I guess.) and while being a big, big factor there are things beyond the activation system which make or break a set of rules.

  2. That was a really superb discussion of different activation systems, thanks for doing it.

  3. I’m with you pretty much all the way Neil.
    The first time I played an alternating activation game was with Heavy Gear, and I was blown away by how much more dynamic and fast the game felt for it (as compared to Igo-Hugo). Since then it’s been my favourite type of approach, keeping down-time low, and creating a feeling of speed and interactivity throughout the game.

  4. Nice reading and superb new layout/design! It has been a while since I read this blog and the changes are very cool. Just one note, in Bolt Action activation is sure only if there are no pins on the unit that has to be activated, otherwise there’s a chance you don’t activate the unit.

    • Ah yes, I’d forgotten about the trauma of pins – my Panther spent an entire game trying to remove a pin, and failing dismally.
      But at least the unit is activated to have a chance to remove the oin in the first place…

  5. Nice article on a fascinating topic! My favourites are also TFL activation mechanisms (esp. SP) and those of the Songs of Blade and Heroes series. One more that perhaps deserves mentioning is Lion Rampant (and now Dragon Rampant I guess). The interesting thing is that activation does not depend on the quality of the commander (as e.g. in Hail Caesar) but on the type of troop and on what they are supposed to do, which works very well in a period with specialised troop types, such as medievals: archers would be hesitant to go into melee, regardless of how good a leader their general is, and knights might be hard to hold back, even if Richard the Lionheart commands them (as was seen in the Battle of Arsuf).
    Anyway, great read Neil!

  6. Interesting read. I totally agree that activation systems are something that really influences how much I enjoy a game. The question is what do we want out of them.

    If we prioritise modelling “real life” then some element of friction is important. Additionally we want them to make for a fun game and minimise boredom/maximise enjoyment.

    These aren’t necessarily the same thing. The big thing for me is HOW MUCH friction they may or may not bring to the game. Some is good, but too much is, for me, too much.

    An example is the “Warmaster-derivative” version (Blitzkrieg commander, Hail Ceasar, etc., etc.). The risk of having your entire turn go by and being able to achieve nothing with it because you failed your first command check is just a pain in the butt. This may be realistic friction but it is as frustrating as all heck, so I personally hate it.

    Ideally enough friction so that there is some tension about whether your troops will attempt their action, but not enough so there is a significant chance that one poor roll of the dice will result in a boring and frustrating game, is ideal.

    Given the choice I prefer a game where every unit activates every turn over one where there is a distinct chance that none will.

    So I enjoy games like Bolt Action (and even better: Beyond the Gates of Antares) because units will only fail actions by attrition from pinning, (i.e. some active action by my opponent) rather than simply a bad dice roll on my part and nothing else. The big problem I find with IGO-UGO is not that they don’t mirror reality (which of course they do not, but then this is a game of toy soldiers, not some academic theoretical exercise, so ultimately I couldn’t really care less about “reality” whatever that is!) but that they can make a boring game because you may have to sit twiddling your thumbs for half an hour while your opponent moves 350 orcs, or whatever. That can be overcome with good mechanics in other areas – so Kings of War or Lord of the Rings SBG have (different) IGO-UGO systems, but that doesn’t make them boring to me in the way 40k or WFB 8th Ed could do, with the wrong opponent.

    Ultimately I get to play (usually) one game a week for a couple of hours on a Thursday evening. If the game we choose is boring (whether that is because an overly frictional activation system made the game one-sided through a couple of bad command rolls, or because the IGO-UGO system meant I had nothing to do for half the time) then it is a bust. For me though I am wanting to achieve fun in those two hours, not recreate accurately the battle of Waterloo or whatever, so striving for “reality” in friction or anywhere else in the game, comes a poor second to whether it is an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. And for me it is outmanoeuvering and out-thinking my opponent over the entire game that gives fun, not just winning because I rolled a double 6 at a critical juncture!

    So “Tanks”, “Kings of War” and “Bolt Action” do that for me in a way that I’m afraid that “Chain of Command” with its risk of the command roll totally tipping the balance of winning or losing the entire game can never do I am afraid!

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