Goonhammer Historicals: Activation Roundtable

Welcome to Historical Roundtables, our regular column where the Goonhammer Historicals team gets together to talk over a particular aspect of historical wargaming. They’ll share their insights, recommendations and warnings about the best way to engage with the hobby. This week we’re drawing cards, taking turns and rolling dice as we order the team to talk about activations.

Previous Roundables in this series:

Force Selection

What the hell does “activation” mean?

Thundercloud: This is the key question. In game design terms I would take it to mean the actions a player decides that a game unit will take that are neither passive (like a saving throw) or reactive (like a charge response or overwatch action). It’s getting your little guys to do stuff. Activation is the player making choices.

Ilor: Bingo!

Thundercloud: It might be interesting to see a rules system that breaks this definition, but I can’t off hand think how they would. 

Mugginns: The only other thing I’d include would be it also means leaders and possibly battlegroups or even the player (doing something that affects the whole force, for instance). 

In many older systems (e.g. 40K) we use the IGOUGO system – ie. I activate every unit / leader / whatever in my force, then you activate yours. There are also alternating activations – ie. I activate a unit or units and then you do that. There are also random activations (Bolt Action), where you might activate three or four in a row and I activate none. Sometimes you don’t even get to activate a unit that turn (Sharp Practice).

Ilor: As if all that wasn’t complicated enough, we also have to specify whether a unit does all of its possible actions all at once when activated, or whether there is some sort of phased approach. In Bolt Action, for instance, when you draw a die from the bag and “activate” a unit, you are making a conscious choice at that moment what that unit is going to do. Is it going to move? Is it going to stay stationary and fire? Is it going to charge at the enemy to initiate close combat? In that game, the activated unit can only do one of these things each turn.

Contrast this with a game like 40K, where your turn happens in phases – during the movement phase you’re going to activate each of your units to move, and only once all of your movement is complete will you go back through your units and activate each one for firing. Then go through again for any assaults, and so on.

Types of Activations and example systems – credit Mugginns

What’s the point of activation systems?

Thundercloud: Activation systems structure a game’s rules, as a designer the activation system you choose will determine the flow of the game. Is it engaging for the active and inactive players? Is one person’s turn another person’s 30 minutes scrolling on their phone?

If you have active player choices in a game then you have to have a structure for them to take place in. Again, I think it’d be interesting to see a game without an activation system, but I can’t think of one off the top of my head. 

Mugginns: It also simulates warfare to a degree. We know from firsthand accounts that troops don’t always do what we want them to do exactly when we ask them to do it. If we use an alternating activation system, or random, then you don’t get to do every single thing you want to do immediately. Some troops get held up by going to ground, or delayed or misheard orders, or just being cautious.

It also might simulate troop motivation or skill – in some fighter pilot games a more skilled pilot will move last so they can line up a good shot, then shoot first.

There are also ways to manage resources – like in Blood & Plunder where you have cards and you have to ‘bet’ whether or not the card you put down will be good enough to activate the unit you want to vs what the opponent puts down.

If I had to provide a hot take, I think activation systems are probably the biggest differentiator for a wargame when I look at it. Doing new things with activations or even just something I like or am used to will make a difference in what I choose to buy.

You know we’re going to talk about Sharp Practice, right? Activated group in column, credit Mugginns

Lenoon: I’m getting that way as well now, having broken out of the GW ecosystem in recent years “how turns are done” has become one of my first considerations in choosing a system. It’s such a fundamental way of shaping the flow of a game that it gives me a great insight into whether or not I’ll enjoy playing it – am I going to be waiting around a lot while my opponent plays? Am I going to be reacting, making key decisions, planning for the next turn, or am I able to seize the moment and so something tactically stupid?

Ilor: In my mind, activation mechanics provide two key elements – game balance and verisimilitude.
In terms of game balance, the activation mechanics serve to govern how much any player can accomplish before the other player gets to respond. In simple IGOUGO systems, I’m going to do everything I can with my entire army and you’re just going to have to wait your turn. Games like this often suffer from “alpha strike” balancing problems, where one player does so much damage to their opponent’s force in their first go that the game is essentially over before it starts (at least as far as the player who goes second is concerned). But by switching up the sequence of activation, you can help smooth out this sharp jump in turn order. And you can either do this unit by unit (a la Bolt Action), or even phase by phase. Gettysburg Soldiers is an American Civil War game that in terms of forces is IGOUGO, but each phase of the game (movement, firing, charge) has a separate initiative, so you might find yourself moving all your units first but shooting with all your units last. But all units on the table will finish moving before any unit fires.

Who activates when determines if my guard repulse the cavalry or are overrun in inglorious shame

In terms of verisimilitude, a good activation system will mimic the command decisions of leaders in the time, place, and circumstances of the scale and era of conflict that it is trying to model – and this is especially important for historical games. And I think one of the keys here is “activation as a resource,” where players have some decisions to make about how they’re going to allocate their random or limited unit activations. This goes a long way towards capturing the “feel” of a particular conflict. Chain of Command gives you the kind of barely-managed-chaos you might expect a platoon commander to have experienced in WW2, whereas Pickett’s Charge captures the kind of impatience and frustration you read about divisional commanders experiencing during the ACW. Both use a randomly-determined set of resources, but how these resources are generated and used is different and does a really good job of representing its era.

What’s the best mechanic you’ve played?

Thundercloud: I got tired of IGOUGO in the previous millennium, but fortunately there were some games with individual unit initiative based activation (Babylon 5 Wars) or individual unit action based systems (Void, Starship Troopers) that broke the turn up and kept you engaged in the final years of the 20th century. 

I like an individual alternating activation system now I’m getting on in years, and Warcry and Kill Team 2nd edition very much scratch that itch. 

I remember vividly playing a game of Warmachine version 1 till after 2am with a friend of mine who took about 90 minutes to do his turn, and there is nothing that makes you question your life choices like playing Warmachine into the small hours of the morning. 

Mugginns: anything alternating or randomly alternating is the best for me, but I guess my favorite is Sharp Practice. I probably sound like a broken record but it’s just my favorite game. 

Each player puts in a numbered card for each of their leaders into a deck, then you add (usually four) command cards for each player to the deck and a tiffin card. When one of your numbered leader cards is drawn you get to activate that leader. When your color command card is drawn there are a number of special abilities you can use them for, or you can activate leaders / groups etc before their number is drawn. 

If a Tiffin is drawn, the turn ends. At the end of the turn if your leader number is not drawn you can use one command card to activate groups. This simulates the troops’ own initiative beyond listening to every single command the officer gives. 

Why is this great? Not every leader or group is going to activate every turn, and that might be a feels bad, but we know that happens in warfare. The command cards give you a ton of choices and options each turn and make it so you’re not just moving and shooting every turn.

Unwise unit activations in the Sharp Practice era – Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg

Ilor: And I’m just going to reinforce Mugginns’ example – in SP2 if a leader card isn’t drawn and you don’t have any Command Cards left over at the end of the turn, you just can’t activate that leader (or rather his unit) at all. You may go multiple turns without a particular unit doing anything, and while this may sound frustrating, it absolutely captures the verisimilitude of the period (i.e. trying to command scattered groups of men on a noisy battlefield in the era before radios). It also doubles down on the importance of competent leaders on the battlefield, something that makes sense in an era where “individual initiative” wasn’t really a part of a basic soldier’s training.

For my money, Chain of Command has one of the best activation schemes I’ve ever encountered, not only because it uses randomly generated resources for activation, but also because it controls something as fundamental as turn order. That’s right – in a generic sense CoC is an IGOUGO game, but when I go there’s a) no guarantee that I’ll be able to activate all my units, and b) depending on my activation roll it might just be an IGO-IGO-IGO-UGO-IGO-UGO-UGO game. This level of uncertainty in activation and turn order brings a fantastic tension and unpredictability to the game that’s just magically delicious.

Lenoon: I feel like I’m another stuck record at the moment, with Blucher. It’s IGOUGO, but with an important difference – activating (here, moving) units and groups costs momentum, a limited resource. Different groups in different situations costs variable amounts of momentum. The twist here is that you – the activating player – don’t know how much momentum you have to play with. Which units move? When do you hit the Commander in Chief button to emergency activate a big group?

Don’t go I Go you Go

Thundercloud: IGOUGO, you were good in the 80s, but by the late 90s I’d grown so tired of you. IGOUGO in small games (say 9th ed 40k at combat patrol level) is fine, but when you’re taking a book to read during your opponents turns it is too much.

Lenoon: ding ding ding ding

Thundercloud: I just find IGOUGO dull now, and while there’s attempts to spice it up (you have to do save rolls in your opponent’s turn, charge reactions, etc) it’s not thrilling. I would love it if 40k moved past the same activation system it has had since the very beginning. 

Mugginns: IGOUGO still works for me in 40k because all my friends play it so I have to play it with them, but I would much prefer they move to alternating activation. There is a lot of misinformation / confusion out there where people say it would make the game take longer, but it definitely wouldn’t. When you’re activating I’m thinking about what I’m doing next.

Not to just bag on 40k, the first edition of Dropzone Commander had a battlegroup-style activation and it was very confusing for us at first. It was complicated by weird CCQ stuff where activations were odd.

An Old Guard attack column marches into the teeth of Hanoverian fire
In Igougo, my Guard are totally fucked here, but If I can interrupt they’ll only be fucked when I roll badly (I did)

Ilor: I guess I’ll dogpile on IGOUGO systems, but I think there are ways to make them interesting. Infinity is at its core an IGOUGO system, but the “Automatic Reaction Order” does a fantastic job of keeping both players engaged with what’s going on, as both players have important decisions to make.

And really, I think that’s what it comes down to for me – how much time is there between points in the game where I have interesting/difficult/meaningful decisions to make? In 40K, if your opponent is playing a horde army their Turn 1 movement phase can give you enough time to order a pizza, wait for it to be delivered, eat it, and clean up the mess. During that time there is literally nothing for you to do. Even in their shooting phase, your only usual activity is rolling your armor saves.

Contrast this with a system that uses alternating (random or not) activations and you have much less time to wait before you are reacting to your opponent’s actions and making important decisions about what your force will do.

What would you add to activations?

Thundercloud: There’s so much you can add. You can simulate battlefield friction and morale through pinning, through having to roll to activate a unit, through penalties for different units in different situations. There’s a lot that can be done to make mechanics more engaging and better reflect the narrative of the game. 40k for example has always had a problem with ludo-narrative dissonance in a way that Bolt Action, where veterans are literally harder to kill than green troops and where units taking fire lose effectiveness, does not (though there are a lot of simulationist arguments around Bolt Action not reflecting real life).

The activation mechanics a rules set uses are limited only by imagination. You can go for byzantine fractional accounting based systems like Star Fleet Battles, or alternate activation or IGOUGO. In game design terms you should ask yourself what is fun and what represents the narratives I want the players to be able to explore?

6mm romans and celts clash
I’m pretty sure Thundercloud meant the other kind of Byzantine. Ordered ranks of Romans engage the mass hordes of the Britons – credit Lupe

Mugginns: I’m not super sure what I would choose – perhaps more use of resources in games? Ie. reasons to activate certain units later, or earlier, etc. that isn’t just based on ‘I need them to activate now to kill this unit’. 

More activation stuff based on morale – TFL games are good in that when you start losing units and fights you start losing the Command Cards you need to generate extra abilities. Bolt Action has pinning so when you activate it’s possible you won’t do anything at all, and just go Down based on a morale check – this is cool stuff. 

Ilor: For me it’s got to be ways to mess with the opponent’s activations. Games that allow players to interrupt the opponent’s turn sequence deserve special mention here. For example, in SP2 as soon as you have two command cards in hand you have the ability to interrupt your opponent, so every time your opponent is activating a unit you’re weighing your options – “Do I interrupt this action and retreat this unit before it gets blasted to pieces, or do I save my command cards in case the Tiffin comes out early?”

Even games that allow you to delay or defer your activation (i.e. put a unit on “overwatch”) are a huge boon, as you are now always doing the mental math of deciding whether or not to spring that overwatch during your opponent’s activation. Thus you are always engaged, which as mentioned above I think makes for a better gaming experience.

Lenoon: I agree Ilor, there’s massive benefit to engaging both players all the time. I see reaction and counter-reaction as an area that could be really interesting to explore. I’ve been doing all this research into Starship Troopers, and a really fascinating part of that ruleset is the reaction rules. The non-active player gets “Alert status” for their units, allowing them to react if an enemy comes within 10”. A lot of the time that’s shooting, but the design space for changing individual unit behaviour and the flow of the game is massive. I’d like to see people really dive in to reactions in historicals gaming, the tendency for people to hit the ground and fire wildly, or for black powder troops to blaze away into the smoke could be modelled nicely in reactions.

What could you take from Historicals into the grim darkness of the far future?

Thundercloud: I think taking a look at what works well. If, say, Epic, were to make a return in the next few years, I hope that it would revisit the pinning mechanics (they were called blast markers though) and activation rolls. 

In 40k terms it has always been a game where it starts editions fairly balanced, and then bloat happens with codices and campaign books and White Dwarf articles. This has happened before, and will happen again. I started with Rogue Trader and I’ve seen this cycle many times. In 8th we saw the vehicle rules essentially revert to the Rogue Trader rules, after 7 iterations of vehicle rules that had all not really worked the way it was hoped. In these nine editions, the activation system was largely unchanged, with only minor changes to things like charge responses. 

Could 40k in 10th or 11th edition completely shake up the rules? Introduce pinning, friction or other mechanics that reflect battlefield conditions and better reflect the themes of the game? I can see a mountain of salt if there was even an attempt to do that, but it would be very interesting to see GW’s take on a more interactive activation system for 40k.

Ok so I’m not happy about that Saxon shield wall, and my Norman cavalry are out of position. I’ll play two command cards and activate my Ork Stompa Credit: CassidyB

Mugginns: Honestly I think just taking more morale modifiers, alternating activations, basically everything we’ve already talked about. I love 40k, I love the lore, but it’s a huge feels bad when you lose stuff you paid $80+ for and lovingly painted before it actually gets to even do one move.

Ilor: My local crew experimented with alternating activations in 40K a couple of times in the roughly 6th/7th Edition timeframe and it was interesting. But after so many editions and so many balance problems we were pretty soured on the game and got out of it before we could really refine any of those ideas. I remember having an argument with Goonhammer’s own Rob “The Chirurgeon” Jones on SomethingAwful’s 40K thread shortly after 8th Edition came out explaining what we’d done. His response was essentially, “LOL, LMAO, that just plain can’t work in 8th.” But I’ve never played 8th (let alone 9th) so I was in no position to contest his assertion, and frankly had no interest in trying to improve 40K by that point.

Again, I think it all comes down to the amount of time spent between meaningful decisions. Anything you can do to shorten that and keep both players engaged makes for a more enjoyable gaming experience. I think there are a ton of historical games that do a great job of it, and serve as good inspiration for anyone looking to design a game.

That wraps up our mechanics round table but join us next time for another deep dive into the mechanics behind Historicals wargaming. In the meantime if you have any questions or feedback, drop us a note in the comments below or email us at