I realized it when I was playing a World War II PC game. I had a Sherman defending a bridge. A Panther rolled up and took the first shot, hitting my Sherman. You know what happened? My Sherman lost a chunk of its life bar. Then it shot back, and the Panther lost a smaller chunk of it’s life bar.
I sighed. It had happened again. Tanks with hitpoints in a video game. Tanks just don’t work like that – if you shoot a tank, something will happen, ranging from catastrophic failure to the shot bouncing off with little effect. A tank could (and did) shrug off a hundred rounds that weren’t powerful enough to penetrate the armor, or it could be smashed in one blow by a single powerful (or lucky) shot. It’s nothing like this business of ‘Three shots from a Panther will kill a Sherman’.
I have a strong personal dislike of hitpoint damage systems, so from the very beginning I was firm that Silent Fury wasn’t going to use one (for space games they’re more often called hull boxes, or structure points, but it’s all the same thing).
I do understand when someone resorts to using hitpoints in a board or miniatures game, because it’s easier to do. When a game designer still uses hitpoints when they have all the power of a computer at hand, I just shake my head. You can do better. At that point, using hitpoints is just laziness. Even without a computer, we can still do better.
Before I go into everything I dislike, I should mention that hitpoint systems are not all bad, and do have some good qualities.
Simplicity – Hitpoint systems are easy to understand and easy to design a damage system around.
Extremely Common – There are probably more hitpoint damage systems than anything else, so gamers already know how to use them.
Speed – In terms of damage allocation, hitpoint systems are relatively fast. It usually doesn’t take very long from attack declaration to resolution to figure out how much damage you did.
Universal – Any attack type or game event can usually be converted into some number of hitpoints for its result, so it’s easy to incorporate a wide variety of events and effects.
Not all these criticisms will apply to every single hitpoint system out there, as there are various twists and intricacies involved per system.
If there are real world examples where hitpoints really model damage well, they are few and far between. It’s not how tanks are damaged and destroyed. It’s not how people are hurt and killed. You could shoot a man a couple times and he could survive and continue fighting if they aren’t fatal wounds, or one good shot could end a man’s life in an instant. Hitpoints seldom allow for the ‘one shot kill’ that happens in all real combat, even between huge naval ships (consider the Bismarck hitting the Hood).
Except in cases where the relative damage vs. hitpoint ratio of the two combatants is similar, battles in a hitpoint system tend to be one-sided and predictable. With some math you can figure out to a high degree of probability who’s likely to win a given fight – a 4 HP goblin that has an average damage of 2 is practically never going to beat a 20 HP fighter with an average damage of 4.
I did say that hitpoints were fast earlier, didn’t I? Well, that’s just in per-attack damage allocation. While a hitpoint system can avoid this with high damage / hitpoint ratios, entire combats can take awhile as each side whittles down the other side’s hitpoints. If you have two large-hitpoint units with low damage values, the resolution there can be a real slow grind.
The Orc brings his rusty axe around in a wide circle and opens a deep gash in Travian’s arm. Travian falls back, clutching the wound.
The Orc attacks Travian. Travian loses 8 hitpoints.
If you’re a good Dungeon Master, you’ll be describing the hit with the top description while the game system records the damage as a number subtracted from a total, but most hitpoint systems for damage really couldn’t care less about the wound or its effects – next turn Travian will be up and swinging back with no problem, and so it will go until one or the other combatant suddenly falls over when their hitpoints are down to 0.
The fact that units tend to not suffer reduction in capabilities means that optimum tactical strategies for hitpoint systems are nearly always ‘gang up one one target until it’s dead, then gang up on the next target’. That can still be an interesting game in itself as you try to protect your wounded units while finishing off your enemies, but it’s the only game in town.
Having hitpoints for each unit requires that every unit’s HP be separately tracked. Unless the hitpoint system uses very low numbers of hitpoints (under 4 or so), you won’t be able to track these by placing markers directly on the units on the table – they’ll probably need to be tracked off-table on unit cards or just a sheet of paper. The worst part about that is that the end result – alive or dead – is a very simple result to obtain. You could be using any number of simpler systems to get to that same point, and you’d probably get there faster with less bookkeeping. If we’re going to do some serious bookkeeping per unit, let’s get some real value out of it.
Ok, rant over. What are we going to do instead?
Silent Fury really has two damage systems within it – Crew damage and Ship damage, and while those systems are integrated with each other they are very different.
Crew Damage System
The men on the ships are the heart of Silent Fury, and they really make it stand out among space combat games. That ambition means that streamlining and fast play speed in the damage system for crew is a must – not only are we playing a space combat game, we’re playing a boarding action and damage control game.
Each ship has several crew units on it, meaning that we have dozens of crew units in a game. Since we’re playing two games in one, the crew damage system has to be simple, and above all it needs to be fast. Originally we had a system of crew checks when you took damage to see what happened to the crew, but as simple as that was we got rid of it because it was too slow – we cannot afford to roll dice every time a crew may be hurt.
Crew have three states – good order, disrupted, and dead. Disrupted crew are simply placed in a disrupted crew box on each ship sheet – it’s the fastest way we can mark their status, and they may be able to rally and come back or they may die from there (having them in an undefined location means that when we rally the crew, we can resolve rallying all the crew on a ship with a single roll). Disruption is automatic – when the ship takes damage, crew in that component get disrupted. When you lose a melee, you get disrupted – simple as that. When you rally from disruption (and you resolve a rally for all your crew at the same time with a single roll), you either rally back to good order and get placed back on the ship, remain disrupted, or die.
And that’s it, really. It’s simple, and it’s very fast, because crew are going to be disrupted and killed quite a bit, and we can’t have any part of a common event not be fast, because it would slow down the game too much.
Ship Damage System
Standard ship damage in Silent Fury feels more like a Critical Hit or Systems Damage results from other systems – damage is applied directly to ship components, so every hit is harming an engine, a weapon, a shield generator, or some other important part of the ship. I always found that losing components and seeing capabilities degrade was one of the cooler aspects of interesting damage systems, so why not jump right to that part? Ships do not have armor points or hull boxes of any sort, and attacks are streamlined so that each attack you make is a single roll that determines whether you hit, which component you hit, and what damage you did to that component. Furthermore, this process is simple – the component you hit is just a number that matches a d20 roll, and the damage system is simple enough that you don’t need a chart for it (though we do include one as a play aid for newer players directly on the ship).
There are two types of damage in the system – damage levels and damage effects. Damage levels are standard indicators of how damaged a ship component is – light damage, heavy damage, and destroyed. Damage effects are special types of damage that have special effects – power down, which stops you from operating a component, fires, which can cause further damage to the ship, and hull breaches, which cause any crew disrupted in them to die instead (the idea being that getting an injury while in a vacuum suit is far more lethal than the same injury in a pressurized component). Hull breaches also extinguish fires.
You might expect light damage and heavy damage to degrade the capabilities of a component, but we ended up not doing that – since different components have different functions, we’d have to create a separate ‘damaged’ effect for every component, and that would probably require some charts. Instead, we were able to come up with a way to have damage do the same thing to every component – if you operate a damaged component, it works just fine. The problem is, when you do that, you make another damage roll on the component you just operated – so the damage system is universal, and you get to see players sweat over whether firing the heavily damaged torpedo or using the lightly damaged engine right now is really going to be worth it or not. Plus, having stuff blow up is just plain fun.
Damage does stack a bit (two lights make a heavy, two heavies make a destroyed, two ‘destroys’ make a critical), but since the ships are modular you won’t see damage move from component to component except with critical hits and fires. This means that as a ship gets damaged it becomes harder to continue damaging – and that creates one of my favorite tactical elements of Silent Fury:
‘Gang up until it’s dead’ is a very bad way to defeat your opponents.
Why is that? Because ship capabilities degrade slower the more you damage a ship. Initially harming a ship so that it’s shields drop or it can’t maneuver as well so you can hit it’s weaker armor sides can help boost your initial attacks, and shields waver from incoming attacks, so some ganging up is a good idea – but ships reach a point where it’s more beneficial to switch to a fresh target rather than continue pounding on a cripple. Exactly when to make that call is in the hands of the player, and it isn’t always obvious even to me when the optimum time to switch targets is.
Even better, ships reach a point where they’re just no longer combat effective, and so long as the scenario counts ships towards victory points, players will naturally want to withdraw these ships from the combat rather than let them be finished off or captured. Silent Fury game results feel a lot like many older historical naval battles – you’ll see many ships damaged and a few destroyed or captured, but damaged and crippled vessels will actually withdraw from a battle rather than throw themselves into a meatgrinder (and it happens both voluntarily due to players trying to save their vessels, and involuntarily to ships with engines so heavily damaged that they can’t overcome the inertia they built up when they had good engines and they go screaming off into the void).
The damage system thus results in rich player choices everywhere, from deciding whether to try to get things fixed or to go ahead and blow out your damaged weapons in a desperate attack, or where to focus your damage control efforts, or what enemy ship would really be best to target right now, or how much your boarding crew should really be blasting apart the interior of a vessel that they’re about to capture as part of their efforts to take the ship.
Finally, I’d like to mention that a damage system like this promotes replayability. The same scenario can play out very differently depending on what parts of ships get destroyed and the player’s reactions to and handling of their damaged vessels.
Silent Fury combat holds to the notion that ship weapons generally not powerful enough to kill another ship in one hit, much like the Honorverse, Star Trek, or a host of other sci-fi universes.
Thus, complete ship destruction is less common in Silent Fury than in most space combat games. This perspective on space combat can present unique challenges to scenario designers who may be accustomed to one side wiping out the other, but SF games will rarely produce those results. More often you may expect to see severely hurt and crippled ships drifting through space as a result of the damage they have sustained (such ships are usually vulnerable to capture via boarding action if you really need to ‘finish them off’).
In space combat without one-shot kill weapons, vessels that are beat up and severely damaged will rarely ever break apart totally, and further weapon attacks against these vessels are as likely to hit components that are already blasted to bits as they are to hit whatever systems are still in working order. Unlike naval vessels, you cannot sink a spaceship by putting enough holes in it – you’ll just end up with a ship with a bunch of holes in it. Total ship death involves explosions of phenomenal magnitude or the complete failure of critical systems sustaining the lives of the crew or power throughout the vessel. We reflect these outcomes through the use of Critical Hits.
As fun as the damage system already is, I always want more. I wanted the unique effects that add a lot of flavor to damage systems, and not just the bad effects like having your fuel lines burst and start fires everywhere – I wanted the good ones as well, where your crew starts performing heroic feats in combat. And finally, I wanted that element of luck that can turn a battle around. One good shot, rarely, will end a ship outright (and since we have room on the cards, a ship can meet its end in a variety of ways), so even a near-crippled hulk with a single weapons system active still represents a threat that you should not ignore to a ship that’s fully intact.
Trying to incorporate all these effects and their associated rules into the main system or even into a chart would have been prohibitive, so we created card decks for critical hits and their ‘good’ opposite, ‘lucky breaks’. Applying them is simple enough – if you get double 6’s on a damage roll, it’s a critical hit – draw a card in addition to the damage you did. If you get snake eyes, it’s a lucky break – so ships heavily engaged in combat are more likely to have very bad things happen to them, but they’re also more likely to emerge as heroic and tenacious vessels. Looking ahead towards campaign play, some of the critical hits and lucky breaks will stay with ships over the course of a campaign (Battle Scars and Battle Honors, respectively), so ships in a campaign will naturally build up their own personalities and quirks over the course of events.
Some people may not like the fact that ships, however unlikely, could die from a single hit. For me it’s a big draw – I love a ‘come from behind’ victory, and the ability to create a wide swing in the course of a battle is important in creating those opportunities. One nice thing about using a deck of cards rather than a chart for these effects is that it’s trivial for such players to just take those cards out of the deck – or take out some of the milder effects if you want a deadlier game.