Domains At War and “Don’t Make Me Think”

Friday , 29, July 2016 1 Comment

There is always a bit of a learning curve on the better tabletop game designs out there. But if you try to play things on instinct, you will invariably miss the sort of rules were engineered specifically to address issues that emerged from the early drafts of the game. How many times I’ve played a game and then complained about it only to have someone point out to me a rule I’d misread without realizing it!

It’s aggravating and maybe even unavoidable to some extent. But that doesn’t stop game makers from trying to address the problem. There’s been an decades spanning debate on whether game rule books should be in a reference format or else organized in the same sequence as the typical gameplay. A lot of games will do both because the game play sequence style is easier when you’re first learning and the reference style is better once you’re already up to speed. What I find is that, in general, neither approach is much like the sort of approach I take when I explain a game in person. Both of them have their own associated types of friction that fall cross the line into the sort of thing that Steve Krug talks about in “Don’t Make Me Think”. (h/t to Lew Pulsipher for bringing this up.)

The thing is, as Ron Edwards notes in Circle of Hands, gamers generally want to know everything at once. I know I’m that way. Coming back to Domains at War after a brief hiatus, I was struck by how much effort it took to get the game back into rotation. The rules are carefully constructed to address all kinds of long-standing problems with miniatures battles, but getting a game together without missing a couple is harder than I’d like.

Now I don’t mind referencing stuff in play, especially the morale and shock modifiers. If entire units are liable to break, it’s worth pausing a little to make sure that everything is played out to the letter. What bugs me is not being able to grasp the cadence of the sequence of play without rereading everything start to finish. New players generally just want to know how to move and shoot. But they need to be alerted to some of the more disastrous things that can happen to them, especially with regards to the victory conditions.

This is subtle, but the closest thing to an actual fault I can find with the Domains at War rule book is that it starts out with descriptions of the differences between formed, loose, and irregular units without any reference to the details of the rules. Then when the sequence of play are covered in depth, the particulars of these units are then spread into several sections. And s lot of the flavor and innovation of the ruleset is bound up in how these units differ from each other. Missing this stuff is going to undercut the sort of thing that makes the game worth getting out in the first place!

So here is how my notes are set up to address all of this. You can fake the bulk of the gameplay just with these notes if you’re familiar with the game. You only need to go over a handful of these sections when you’re teaching somebody. And you can go back and gin up a spiel about the finer points when things come in play that merit them.

One caveat here is that these simplifications are not the actual rules. Those use a type of lawyer or engineer’s talk to convey precisely what is meant and no more or less. My notes don’t capture every last bit of this detail. But people need to have a kind of high level framework in their heads before they can efficiently dig that sort of thing out of a game manual. If you don’t give the players that, you are in “Don’t Make Me Think” territory. And in this case, “thinking” means you’re requiring them to synthesize something you could have given them upfront. They can get by without it, but they’ll have to read and reread the rules start to finish more times that they’d have to otherwise.

Command and Control is Nuanced (page 15)

  • A Commander’s strategic is added to d6 to determine when he may command his units.
  • A General’s leadership ability determine how many divisions the army may have.
  • Lieutenants reduce the Action Point cost required to activate their unit and may be promoted to Commanders during play.
  • Commanders and Lieutenants add the moral bonus to their unit’s shock and morale rolls.
  • A General adds his moral bonus to every unit in the army!

How does the Command Phase Work? (page 28)

  • Commanders take turns in initiative order, but if they wish to wait, they may pass on initiative counts down to the negative of their number.
  • Under ideal circumstances, you they activate all or nearly all of your units every turn.
  • If units are outside the commander’s zone of control, if they are disorded by damage or a charge, and/or if they lack lieutenants, then fewer of them will get to act from turn to turn.

How does Movement Work? (page 18-19)

  • The movement rates are broken down into March/Hustle/Charge format.
  • Standing fast gives up a move in order to either Ready or Defend.
  • Marching is the “move and attack” maneuver; note the free facing changes.
  • Hustling is “move only”, with one free facing change at the start.
  • Charge is even faster movement, but with no facing changes while also making the unit disordered.

How do Enemy Units Restrict Movement? (page 19-20)

  • Units may not move through two consecutive hexes that are adjacent to enemy units.
  • Units that move into a hex that is *threatened* by an enemy must stop.
  • Units that disengage trigger a free reaction attack with a +2 bonus.

How do Melee Attacks Work? (pages 20-21)

  • Roll d20 against your unit’s to-hit target plus the target’s armor class.
  • If you are threatening a unit that is not threatening you, you gain +2 to to-hit for a flanking attack.
  • Charges are at +2 and in some cases grant additional attacks and/or extra damage!

How do Missile Attacks Work? (pages 21-22)

  • Range against mounted units is generally one hex further!
  • You’re restricted to (more or less) target the closest enemy unit that is not threatened by a unit from your side.
  • Undisordered units may withdraw from the attack if their movement rate is higher than the attacker.
  • Missile attacks can get the flank bonus as well if the attack is going to the side or rear of the unit.

Shock is a big deal! (page 23)

  • Every hit against a unit that reduces them to half their hit-points or less triggers a shock check.
  • Disordered units are more likely to break.

Loose units are Fluid

  • They may march or hustle through friendly units.
  • Friendly units may march or hustle through them!
  • They do not trigger reaction attacks when they disengage if their marching rate is higher than the attacker.
  • Rather than take damage, they may withdraw a hex.

Formed Foot is Awesome

  • They may deploy as a Phalanx– ie, a double sized infantry unit.
  • Formed units get a bonus on their shock checks.
  • Instead of attacking they may choose to defend– if they stood fast or marched and they are not threatened.
  • In addition to an AC bonus, they get a +2 bonus to morale.
  • Note the marker only comes off if they move, attack, or become disordered, so the benefits can apply against more than one attack.

Irregular Units Stink

  • They do not have the “ready to attack” option.
  • They may not disengage.
  • If they cause a shocked unit to rout, retreat, or withdraw they must advance.

Check Mate (page 26-27)

  • When either the army’s general is lost– OR when units were lost in the preceding combat round AND the total number of units greater than one third of the army’s starting units.
  • Every unit is checked individually!
One Comment
  • I’ve found Loose Mounted units to be extremely powerful at suppressing the enemy line and then retreating in this rule set. The rules are wonderfully simple yet, as you’ve pointed out, have almost been simplified into missing key rulings as they are condensed into one or two line texts of very important/useful rules. Good article on the rules. I find Domains At War to be one of the best designed hex based rules of its scale to-date.

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