Offence versus Defence: the Goldilocks balance

To start with, it occurs to me that a one page “How to play grand strategy games/what makes this game different?” might be useful for inexperienced players.

The bulk of this post considers the balance between offence and defence in Grand Strategy game, and the elusive design goal of hitting the Golidlocks spot where neither form of play is consistently dominant.


Some specific problem context for Grand Strategy games: the active player is present at the map table, the other player’s may be present, but can be absent.  This means that any mechanic requiring two players to interact for resolution can be time consuming as an absent player is found and returns to the map table.  Its also disruptive to play, when the other player wishes to be elsewhere, and leads to the possibility of meta-gaming as players hide to avoid being dragged to the table or attack so as to force a player to the table.

So experience leads me to believe that mechanics that only require one player to be present lead to faster resolution.  The trade off is that the absent player is less aware of changes in the game state, so faster is not necessarily better.  Early Grand Strategy games often had an explicit minute period for map observation and orders, followed by a period of execution/resolution on the map table.  This was easier when we only had one map table.  Retreats, and other moves with absent players, can also cause confusion as units retreat to places that are sub-optimal in the players view (even if its an easy/fast choice by the GM).

Transparency: mechanical resolution needs to be easy to explain/have obvious outcomes so that when an absent player returns to the map, the player should be able to reverse-engineer the outcome and see why it happened the way it did.  This also means the GM spends less time asking questions.  So a fast mechanic can sometimes produce false economies, it might speed up the process at one end, but if it adds five minutes at the other end then its not a win.


Balance is difficult.  In large multi-player games it is rare for the game state to reach a point of equilibrium where neither attack nor defence is favoured.  The potential for coalition diplomacy will always undermine this, and players tend to be more aggressive than most historical Generals and so can get lucky and disrupt the game state.  A designer can, however, skew the system deliberately to favour either the attack or defence.

Strong Offensive

  1. Encourages players to attack, discourages investing resources in defence.
  2. Maneuver is a strong strategy, if there are valuable targets to attack.
  3. If not, then battles of annihilation, where factions lose their entire armed forces, are quite possible.
  4. Promotes a “use it or lose it” mentality, so risk-taking is incentivised.
  5. Map is in a constant state of flux, making accurate intelligence valuable.

Strong Defensive

  1. Encourages players to defend, discourages wasting resources on attacks.
  2. Attrition/persistence is the dominant strategy, where you slowly wear done opposing forces and occupy territory.
  3. Becomes much harder to reverse a loss of territory/defeat with subsequent luck or skill.
  4. Promotes a “wait and see” attitude, where you want the other factions to commit first.
  5. Map is likely to be static.

In American Apocalpyse I deliberately made it a strong offence game (that was with the best attribute versus worst attribute combat mechanic).  Feedback tells me that players wanted a bit more ability to actually defend territory.  Assuming I am not going to rely on defending players being present in the table, an improved defence needs to be hardwired itno the game mecahnics, or present elsewhere in the decision-making system.

An Order Mechanic

The active player is in a good position to make decisions: they can observe the current state of the map, and proceed as they wish.  One way that an absent player can have some form of decision-making is with a range of conditional defensive orders, which could include:

  • Always Retreat
  • Retreat if Outnumbered (i.e. odds indicate a defeat is likely, attacker on +1 or better)
  • Retreat if Defeated (a good default option)
  • Intercept – move to engage any force that enters an adjacent sector (cannot have prepared defence)
  • Prepared Defence (spend resources to boost chances in battle, resources are expended regardless of whether an attack happens or not)
  • Never Retreat (combat continues until one side loses all strength, or the attacker stops).

If we shape the defensive order marker like an arrow, then we get to indicate the preferred retreat direction. This only works for first retreat, so we could as a default make subsequent retreats force the unit off-map into a disrupted units box.  A more complicated option, but one which would reflect conditions in many historical scenarios, would be to require a retreat if the line of supply or logistic base is threatened.  That would mean that a ‘turning movement’ by an attacker could unhinge a defence without a battle, which could be a nice manuever strategy.  Done well, the absent player gets some degree of control, and can also recognise why a unit is not where they left it when they return to the table after an absence.

Now, if we have defensive order makers, we could also have offensive ones.  The tradeoff here, is losing the benefits of the surprise attack made by an active player when the defending player is absent form the map table, but gaining the benefit of some positive bonus to the attack.  So you place your marker, commit some resources, and then wait to see if anyone disrupts your plans by pre-empting your offence.

For Sun and Starship (SAS), a space game is likely to resemble a naval game in that a pure abstract combat system will inherently favour the offence.  This reflects the absence of terrain (which makes the defence stronger in land battles) and the tendancy of naval battles to result in the inferior force being mostly wiped out, with little damage to the victorious force.  Messy draws like Jutland were actually pretty rare once navies switched from Sail to Steam.  An odds ratio of 3:2 is about the point at which I would expect 100% chance of victory to the superior force.  I am not fond of ratio calculations, however, as it can be a just a bit too much math for tired brains.

An Initial Combat Mechnic for SAS

Its early days, but right now I imagine Fleets will have two strength attributes: SHIPs and TECH.  These are both purchased using the POWER resource gained from controlling territory, using a transitive cost system (i.e. +1 costs 1 power, +2 costs 3 power, +3 costs 6 power, +4 costs ten power, and so on).  I imagine strength will vary from 1 to 20.

A Fleet spends SHIPs to move (representing breakdowns, garrisons, or losses from innacurate navigation) and spends TECH to initiate combat.

The Attacker rolls 3d6, adding +1 for superior SHIPs/TECH and -1 if inferior, when compared to the defender.  Roll an 11+ to win.  If the attacker does not like the first roll, then they can up the ante by spending more TECH to reroll the dice (provided they have TECH left to spend).  This favours the attacker, but the TECH reroll mechanic can prove pretty expensive.

If those are the only modifiers, then an adjustment from an order marker would be a very significant bonus.  I am also considering the exact value of units providing additional modifiers.  A full 20 strength unit, could gain an extra +1 to attack, while a half-strength unit could grant a +1 bonus to be attacked.  I’d only want a few of these modifiers, as I want all the combat rules to be printed on all the unit counters if possible.

After the outcome is determined, a defeated attacker retreats back to their point of origin, while a defeated defender retreats towards in defence marker’s indicated direction (or off map).  Casualties depend on the dice, the defeated losing SHIPs equal to the highest die roll, the winner losing SHIPs equal to the lowest die roll.  So a roll of 5, 4, and 3, is a total of 12, so the attacker wins and loses three SHIPs, while the defender loses 5 SHIPs.

Stacking – the Problem of the Supreme Annihilation Fleet

Stacking counters is a problem in Grand Strategy games.  I now try to write rules to discourage it because it impedes rapid observation of the map. When you can stack, players are incentivised to form the Supreme Annihilation Force (SAF*), as the SAF can annihilate any lesser force.  The game then devolves into a small number of massive armadas that refuse to engage each other due to the high cost of failure.

Why do  SAF’s form?  Mainly because the scale of game makes it hard to represent flanks, rear areas and trade routes, which IRL you would be compelled to garrison/defend.  People instinctively grasp that numbers mean security, and concentrate their forces.

With accurate logistics rules, an early mistake in concentration can eliminate a force in a non-recoverable way, so its better for a designer to brute force the dispersal by making it clear that there are significant penalties for stacking.  One form of penalty is to reduce combat effectiveness, another is to drive up associated resource costs for things like supplies and repairs.

* The Supreme Annihilation Fleet was a force created by Shane Murphy in a Traveller inspired strategy campaign run by Richard Bool many years ago in Christchurch.

Drifting off-topic now…


In an old game called Gammarauders, there were large radioactive monsters as the main game unit for each player, while all the other infantry and tanks were classed as “popcorn”.  On a game map where each player controls a small number of large fleets, their team could also be granted a reasonable number of “popcorn” units.  These would essentially be destructible control markers/speed bumps, so there would need to be some kind of “overrun” rule making it unlikely that popcorn could do as much damage as a fleet.


Taking what we learned from Raiders in American Apocalypse, Pirates might need quite different rules from Fleets.  We could give Fleets an inherent combat advantage against Pirates, +4 feels like a good place to start there, but we could give pirates a chance to evade combat altogether.  Pirates would also operate a “loot” rather than a “tax” economic system, and maybe we could let them regenerate SHIPs and TECH while hiding in deep space.

8 thoughts on “Offence versus Defence: the Goldilocks balance

  1. tim June 14, 2011 / 10:32 pm

    The issue of teams not knowing what’s happening to their forces is a pretty big one I think, since it makes learning the game much harder for people – when we were calling people up to run defensive fights, it was a pretty clear lesson ‘hey, you have been attacked, you need to solve this problem.’

    When your forces are getting tossed around unseen, the players aren’t really learning anything – my observation suggested it seemed to be pretty frustrating to get to the front of the line and discover everything was different, and having to replan. It wasted actions, basically. I could often say ‘oh, well, you got attacked by team X’, but that wasn’t really sufficient or consistent.

    It’s interesting to look at mechanics through the lens of ‘what are people learning about the game through this system’. Since Grand Strats, unlike normal games, only get played once, all the learning about the game has to take place during play, so discoverability is pretty important.

    I think there’s a lot that could be done in terms of map tokens to make it immediately obvious what’s been happening this turn – maybe when people move around we lay down arrows in their colour, and when fights happen we leave big crossed-sword tokens on the map. They could be removed during off-turn periods. Random events would work the same way, getting placed on the map next to their location. One big advantage grand strats have is that you have a lot of spare space on the map usually – adding more game history is one way to use it. I like the idea of adding defence order tokens to the map – I wonder if you could do something directly with supply lines using markers.

  2. texarkana23 June 19, 2011 / 6:37 pm

    If we let players stand around the map, that can help with their observations of what is going on. There is more we could do with markers, although I tend to favour a minimalist approach, as extra markers are time consuming to make, and they need to be kept fairly accurate on the map.

  3. John Morton June 20, 2011 / 2:23 am

    I like the order tokens in principle, but I suspect the lightweight materials we make tokens out of will be too easy to knock and blow about, losing the retreat direction.

    A possible simplified mechanic:

    * Retreat comes in two types: retreat if I can (RC), and retreat only if I must (RM).
    * In the event that the defender looses a fight, RC orders will mean they immediately retreat, and take standard losses. If the have RM orders, they hold, but take considerably greater losses.
    * If the attacker rolls higher than usual (eg 15+) or a double/triple, or similar mechanic, they can: deal greater losses to RC units, force RC units to retreat to deep space, force RM units to retreat and take high losses.
    * Retreat is to an unoccupied, controlled territory or Deep Space. No stacking! This also means it’s easier to kick raiders out, as they’ll tend to be forced to retreat off map more often.

    Territory defense could be made a bit easier by building upgrades to the territory in question that adds additional TECH to the defender (eg ground based Xray lasers, orbital meson guns, replicating hunter-killer drones in the system’s oort cloud). The tendency for this sort of thing to result in fleets becoming effectively 30 TECH fortress worlds could be mitigated by one off intrigue cards played by the attacker that come from some political sub-game, eg “Plans for the Death Star”, “Tactical Genius”, “Traitors in High Places”, that sort of thing.

    • texarkana23 June 20, 2011 / 9:35 pm

      15+ would be a reasonable threshold for greater than usual success. This would be a fairly simple retreat system too.

      I am leaning away from giving players cards with special powers. I’m not sure they have actually been all that useful for people.

      • John Morton June 20, 2011 / 10:21 pm

        In that case, we should just avoid allowing army+fortifications from becoming insurmountable. So long as fights burn ships/tech from both sides, it shouldn’t be a major problem, and turtling will tend to cost resource acquisition in an offense oriented game.

  4. John Morton June 20, 2011 / 2:31 am

    An aside on “SHIPS”.

    I was reading something on the psychology of loss the other day, which basically said that research shows people try to avoid scenarios they identify as “loss” even when it’s rationally no different from a scenario couched in terms of gain.

    I suspect that if you describe the logistics stat as ships, and that movement involves loosing a bunch of them to navigational failures, getting lost, breaking down etc, then folks might be more adverse to moving than they would if the stat just represented logistic resources like fuel and food.

    I know I’d feel more reluctant to lose ships (“My precious ships!”) than just burn up petrol and pies to get things done.

    • texarkana23 June 20, 2011 / 8:39 pm

      Good point. My main reason for focusing on two attributes for fleets, is its easy to represent on a long rectangular counter. I was thinking of the SHIP/TECH stats ranging from 1-20, rather than the 1-10 of the last two grand strat games.

      I was thinking of making the first movement hop “free”, so it would only be the second and subsequent consecutive moves that would reduce strength.

      • John Morton June 20, 2011 / 11:20 pm

        With those movement characteristics, it should be find as SHIPS, I think. I’m definitely in favour of using only two stats.

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