Thursday 14 December 2017

Lock 'n Load SOLO module

A look at the Lock ‘n Load Tactical Solo system

(edits added to conclusions 20th August 2018)

Lock ‘n Load recently launched their Solo platform for their tactical WWII - Modern series, in which an AI system takes on the role of the ‘other player’, giving the solitaire player a chance to apply their wit against an unseen gaming partner, but how well does this inanimate guest behave at the table?

I found myself travelling something of a learning curve to get comfortable with the system, as I suppose somewhat ironically, I had to first learn how not to be a good old fashioned solitaire player and so I thought it a worthwhile post to share that journey, as I don’t think this is a system that you can fully appreciate until you have a few games under your belt.

The rest of this post will hopefully help those sitting on the fence about buying or those who have bought and are just looking for another perspective on play.

Please use the ‘read more’ tab for the rest of this post.

In the making of this post, I have played the solo game around a dozen times, on different sized scenarios with the AI mainly playing the defender, but in a couple of games the attacker.

Firstly, what kind of player am I? I ask this because if nothing else, using this module does make you to think about gaming style. I am familiar with the L’nL Tactical system. I authored the five scenario mini campaign that appears in the Heroes of the Motherland module. I have a weekly opportunity to play all sorts of wargames face-to-face, but I also do a lot of solitaire play. By that I mean playing games that are generally two player games, but I have always felt that I play both sides equally, fairly and I enjoy that style of play and have never really felt the need for some kind of AI opponent to keep me on the straight and narrow. In fact, I have rather decried them, thinking that developing them is a major design distraction that takes company focus away from putting new games and kit out, so coming to L’nL tactical Solo has been something of a new experience to me that sits outside my comfort zone, which is what compelled me to write about this.

I recognise there is a significant hunger from the gaming community for AI systems and so a company has a commercial pressure to deal with that. I wanted to look beyond the limitations of my own horizons and I have been surprised by my own conclusions.

So, what is Lock ‘n Load Tactical Solo offering? Well essentially this solo package has it roots with  Academy Games as their solo system for their Conflict of Heroes Games, or more specifically just the ‘Awakening of the Bear’ module. Academy Games developed an AI that worked specifically with one game module and so theirs is quite a scripted system, in which the system is pretty much taking full control of the non-player side.

Lock ‘n Load made a licensing deal with Academy Games to use their solitaire system, but they tweaked it so that the system could be played with practically all of the hundreds of Lock ‘n Load Tactical scenarios, including those created by the various battle generators that they produce.

Now that is a big ask for any system to cope with and so the immediate difference for players that use both systems will see is that the active player in L’nLT Solo will frequently have to inject some ‘judgement calls’ into how the AI behaves. The most basic principle being is that if the AI wants to do something that is actually detrimental to its own unit (typically something that a human player of that side would not do), then the player can override the system by making what they describe as a ‘judgement call’ and not execute that instruction, but rather move on to the next appropriate order.

It is also probably true that as a ‘real old fashioned’ solitaire player, at the back of my mind is usually a plan of how I expect the rest of the turn to play out over several player impulses, while the AI works on an impulse by impulse basis and so the AI may do something that interrupts my vision of how things will pan out. That is the AI doing it’s job, it is my own limitations that sort of throws me and I have found the interrupting of my 'expectations' to be a good thing.

Early on in the playing process, it was becoming apparent to me that I am is so conditioned to playing both sides, that I found it hard to release control to the AI, as I seem to have mental picture as to how I ‘think’ the AI should be responding, for the best move and so it is, that the most significant part of my learning curve has been to loosen my grip on the game, to give the AI greater latitude (by making fewer judgement calls), which is almost certainly in keeping with design intent.

You might feel that this is so obvious that it doesn’t deserve mention here, however, there are also a goodly number of situations that do need the players intervention and moderation or ‘Judgement Calls’ as the system likes to call them. As an example the AI had a sniper at a useful location that was effectively keeping my units in three nearby hexes pinned down, each being fearful of stepping into the open, as they would almost certainly come to grievous harm from the sniper. However the AI system repeatedly wanted the sniper to fire. As the player, I could see that firstly, none of the targets were spotted, so the sniper could easily fail the spot test and therefore not be able to fire and lose their threat potential, but equally if it did fire and went ‘used’, the other two player squads would be free to move out and melee into the snipers position, guaranteeing its elimination.

So as the player, I could see clear advantages for the sniper to hold back from firing and the dangers of not doing so, but the AI was encouraging fire. This is typically where the ‘judgement calls’ come in and it is important that the player understands this and is comfortable with using judgement calls.

And so, while I am finding that on one hand I need to loosen control and just trust the AI, I have also found that I need to intervene and make those judgement calls. The real learning curve comes from understanding that contradiction and developing a play style that allows you to embrace both in a balanced way that gets the most out of the system.

Low crawl to safey

Above - There was a shaken U.S. stack (Sgt. Hill) in the centre building that had failed to rally. The U.S. side (controlled by the AI) won the initiative and drew a card. This causes them to ‘move away’. They low crawled 1 hex to the rear of some buildings out of harms way. I had a German Squad and a HMG that could have fired on the building, not that the AI could really know that, but the action that it gave Sgt. Hill's shaken stack was tactically good ...... In truth, as the German player, I had not even noticed the vulnerability of this unit until it moved - Doh!

I think one of the problems for me initially has been that I took the generally good ‘walkthrough’ example in the rulebook that highlights the processes in the game, as a total given and guide and this did not show Judgement Calls being used very often. But I was to find that in practice the walkthrough significantly (in my view) underplays or under-represents the number of Judgement calls that the player may need to make and so by being influenced by the walkthrough, I was left with the impression that I was missing something and playing the game wrongly because a lot of my play seemed to fall to judgement calls, which then felt like I was just playing good old fashioned solitaire play rather than having the solo system directing the actions of one side. This left me wondering whether the Solo System was of any value to me at all and whether I should just play solitaire and not have to manage the extra administration of a solo system.

(EDIT - 19th Nov 2018) V1.5 of the rules now give greater emphasis to Judgement Calls.

So it becomes important to accept that for this system to cover so many scenarios, judgement calls are a necessary part of the system. After feeling that I was just not getting the AI thing and discussing this on BoardGameGeek, it became more obvious to me that the walkthrough gives a false impression as to the importance and frequency of judgment calls, though other players seemed to grasp this more readily than I did. It was obvious that I also needed to change my mindset to only using judgement calls when absolutely necessary, loosening my control on the AI side and just giving them a bit more latitude.

Striking that balance seems essential to the thing working, though I am fairly sure if five of us faced the same game situation, we might each make different judgement calls or perhaps not make one and just execute the order as given and so perhaps we each end up with the solo system serving us in different ways, but in ways that work for the individual, which I suppose is the module showing its greatest strength.

This realisation yielded an immediate enjoyable moment in my next game. The American defence (controlled by the AI) was amongst buildings and I as the Germans had to attack and get beyond the buildings to exit the map. Now with my old solitaire head on, I saw the American task as sitting tight and just waiting for the Germans to move onto them, so they could score maximum casualties, especially as the Germans are up against the clock and have to move.

Anyway, the card draw for the AI Americans wanted a unit to dynamically move forwards. With my old head on, this just seemed wrong, but I played it out anyway. An American squad moved forward, out of their building and into a walled woods hex beyond.

This hex was the hex that the Germans needed to move into as part of their covered approach to the American position, so in essence the American AI had denied the Germans this hex and was forcing them to now attack it instead of making a concealed advance into it. It was the first moment that I felt the AI was actually bringing something to my solitaire game. The move was actually quite good and something that my own limitations of play style would not have done, so the AI was behaving differently to me and this is a really important element in how an AI driven game can give a step-up in interest to the solitaire player. It rejuvenated my interest in the system, which had been flagging and highlighted the need to release control to the AI and to understand that I actually want the AI to behave differently to me.

In another game (night action with visibility at 2 hexes), the AI and one of my stacks almost bumped in to each other while in the open, so both were used for that turn. Who would get the initiative in the next turn? whoever did, I thought, would almost certainly fire on the other as the first action. The AI got the initiative, but to my surprise, it chose to fall back into the darkness and take cover in a better position. That is certainly not what I would have done, but of course that is the advantage of playing against an AI. I ran a theoretical combat just to see what would have happened had the AI fired instead, the German fire was only partly successful and created two hero generation tests - so staying and firing might in due course have been potentially disastrous to the AI stack, so a worthwhile narrative surrounded this incident and it provided a point of interest in my game.

In subsequent games, I found the same mix of me having to ignore those instructions that were detrimental to the AI side, but also seeing the AI do some things that were not wrong, but just done in a different way than I would have acted, so that some interesting situations were generated.

So my learning curve was helping me settle into the system and it has definitely been a case of feeling my way into the game, rather than making a decision based on a single play, but what of the system itself?

This is a boxed game that comes with 55 over-sized AI order cards (buy Tarot card 12cm x 70cm protective sleeves), 2 x A4 player aid cards and five A3 player aid cards and a 34 Page rulebook (half the booklet is a player example). Some have complained that the A3 player aid cards collectively are too big (I like them) to manage and the company have said they are preparing some A4 charts as downloads for those who want them.

I paid £63 for the package and on first glance that can seem a bit expensive for the physical components, but I think one has to consider part of the value as including paying for a licensing agreement to Academy Games. There is also added value that this is capable of being used across the vast range of scenarios and modules in this system and this added value comes in the form of a significant amount of development work that went into moving this system from the Conflict of Heroes model to something that would universally work across all L’nLT scenarios. Anyway, if this is the product that makes you get the games down off the shelves more often, then it becomes a good buying choice.

The rulebook is heavily illustrated and done on nice paper. The first half are rules, these are an easy read and only really need to be read once. The second half of the book is a walk through of gameplay, covering a turns worth of impulses. It is well done and you will enjoy reading through it. It makes everything look very intuitive, but as I say, perhaps its one failing is that it underplays the need for judgement calls and so fails to prepare the player adequately for that reality.

One of the play aids introduces Random Events. I really like these and I am thinking of bringing them into ordinary face-to-face play. I might try using them when a Hero Generation is tested for, if the Hero is not generated than I may use the Random Events Table instead, say by rolling 10+ on 2D6 to give access to the chart. Anyway, it is a very good addition to the solo system as it is just one more thing to wrest control from the player.

The order cards are nicely done and one can think of the pack as being divided into three parts. A neutral part, an attacker part and a defender part. Once you decide what stance the AI will have (i.e. defender or attacker) you take the neutral cards and add either the defender or attacker cards as appropriate, this forms the AI deck for that game. In every AI impulse one card is turned over. There are 4 main areas of the card;

A small dice is shown top right, so players can use the cards in place of dice, rather like Combat Commander does. I don’t use this, but it is there if the need arises.

On the bottom of some of the cards there may be an instruction to roll a die and test whether the pack should be reshuffled or a random event generated.

The main upper half of the card lists Priority actions and this causes the AI to deal with enemy units that are within one or two hexes distance, if units are not within that range, it may call for something like artillery to fire or reinforcements to arrive.

Finally the main lower half of the card deals with Secondary actions, you move to these if one of the primary orders are not appropriate, they cover things such as moving into cover, managing shaken units, firing in various situations and securing victory locations.

The idea is that when you draw a card, you start with the top action in the priority section and either execute it, or if it is not relevant, start to move down the card to the various other actions until you come across one that can be executed.

From here, you will go to the particular Flow Chart that deals with that general order and through a process of yes / no routes, this will deliver you to an appropriate action to execute. So if the order card tells you that a unit should ‘Move Towards’ (this is shorthand for moving towards an enemy or a victory location), then you go to the flow chart that covers movement (the charts are colour coded - green is for movement). You select either the offensive or defensive flow chart depending on the scenario status of the AI player. Following the flow chart, you will be guided to a box that best describes the AI’s units situation, the instructions in that box are then executed.

If it turns out that none of the instructions on the order card are ultimately appropriate, then the AI side will pass instead. I had an interesting moment yesterday, The AI card said (in the Priority section) if you have less units that can activate compared to the enemy then pass, so the AI passed. I then took my impulse, I had plenty of troops but decided to hold out as I was defending and also passed. Anyway, the next card drawn for the AI again generated the pass response and I gasped (three passes in a row ends the turn), I had plenty of troops that could have acted and I had just let the AI end the turn - Doh! again another nice moment generated in which my control over the game was loosened.

There are other times when the flow charts should be consulted. For example, you, the player, step out with one of your units into the open, if this gives the AI side a potential chance to Opportunity Fire, then you go to the Opportunity Fire Flow Chart and test whether the AI unit fires. This is one area in which you can see a bit of cleverness built into the chart, because the flow chart seeks to establish how many units you have in your moving stack against how many units the firer has and the resulting mechanic to a degree, allows the AI side to guard against firing while then leaving themselves exposed to being overwhelmed by other enemy units.  

A card is played for the U.S. side

To illustrate the flow of play, the above photograph shows a group of U.S. paratroopers (the only AI units in play at the moment) sitting to the left of the card that has just been drawn. Starting at the top of the card and working down, it was not until the last instruction was reached that the order was appropriate to use. It says ‘Execute victory conditions’. We look at the blue flow chart that deals with Victory Conditions (shown below).

The Victory Condition flow chart
Firstly we must select whether to use the Offensive or Defensive Flow Chart depending on the force status decided at the start of play. In this scenario the paratroopers are clearly the attackers so we shall use the Offensive Stance flow charts. The first diamond says ‘is the PU (player unit) within 3 hexes of a victory condition’. The answer is ‘yes’ because the Germans are occupying buildings which are victory objectives. So, move on along the 'yes' path to the square box that says, ‘If PU (player unit) is in line of sight, spot if unspotted, fire at PU, if not in line of sight or range, move forward.

So this is our flow chart instruction for the AI paratrooper on the right of the group. I would not have chosen this action as I would have preferred to wait and fire at something already spotted. Anyway, here goes! Roll the spotting die, we need a 1 or 2 to successfully spot, but get a 5. The spot attempt fails, so the fire does not happen and the unit is marked ‘Ops Complete’, which means it can’t do anything else this turn, but can opportunity fire at a cost of half strength.                                                                                  
The Americans fail to spot the German stack
in the green roofed building.
It is worth mentioning that the very latest downloadable rules (a beta version) have introduced a sort of Final Fire type rule, so now, a ‘used’ unit once per turn can roll a D6 and on a roll of 6, they get a single chance per turn to take an Opportunity Fire action. This is a good addition generally, but specifically one that benefits the solo system because of the variabilities that it introduces. The chance of getting this bonus opportunity fire has to be low, otherwise this new rule would unhinge all the previous scenarios that were tested without a final fire capability, but in keeping with this system, it introduces just that element of chance that you just know will happen at the wrong time for you and deliver a nice dollop of chaos and narrative that will raise your emotional connection to the game. Good shout by the developers.

I think by nature, most of us in our games are inclined to take the attacking side and have the AI manage the defenders, however here, the AI can also manage the attacking side, so I ran a couple of games giving the AI that role. It struck me as a harder thing for an AI to do seamlessly and dynamically, so I thought running a couple of games would help stress test the system and also make this post more complete.

Things went rather well. There is a lot of firing and moving forward, though I think the firing probably crops up more times, so sometimes on the AI's behalf I felt a bit frustrated that the AI could spend the best part of a turn not moving, but that would mean of course it was just busy laying down a lot of suppressive fire - again just playing differently than I would, plus one needs to suppress the defence, otherwise moving in the open onto defenders just waiting for them would be disastrous.

The system easily handles tanks and vehicles. It probably helps that the Lock 'n Load Tactical system itself has a close correlation between tank and infantry rules, but since the Solo talks in terms of 'units' rather than infantry or tanks, things work out fine. Plus there are a few specific references to vehicles on the cards and flow charts.

I did wonder about those instances when an AI side might need to change its stance from defender to attacker, for say something like a counter-attack situation, but I just decided that if that were to happen, each time a marked defender card was drawn, I would substitute it for an attacker card (i.e. the ones not added to the deck at start of play) and vice-versa depending on situation.

Conclusions - It is a hobby fact that there are plenty of players who by necessity or desire play solitaire, that is they will take a two player game and play both sides providing the game does not any processes that are solitaire unfriendly.

As I happen to be one of those players who can happily play both sides, I came to this Lock ‘n Load Solo module with a view that for me, it provided a solitaire system for a game that doesn’t actually need one. Now taking that glib statement to one side, I realise that there are plenty of people who either do not have the mindset to play both sides or when they do, they do not get a satisfying game, so the Solo system needs to be doing something more than good old fashioned solitaire playing does, which I feel it does do in several aspects.

I think the main problem with playing solitaire ‘the good old way’ is that you the player have one gaming style and will play both sides to the same style, not only that, through experience you will roughly see how a turn might play out and then tend to run the turn to meet that expectation and this can also result in some checkmate type situations where you don’t do something with one side because you know how the other side will respond. The AI system interferes with that. The AI will do some things that are outside your player style, they are not wrong (though sometimes they are!), they are just things you would not have done and it is only when I was exposed to this that I realised that my own ‘good old way of solitaire’ was not as perfect as I thought and I have had a few enjoyable moments when the AI has thrown me. This has probably been the most interesing aspect of my purchase and has caused me to look at my solitaire in a new light.

The injection of Judgement Calls settles down to whatever level you are comfortable with and at that point, play seems to flow more naturally and of itself, this seems to make the AI more effective as it defaults to the things that are more realistic or genuine responses and more importantly, the gamer self adjusts the game to what they feel is right for them

The system does slow down play as it adds another layer of administration, however I don’t find this a negative, rather, it made me feel more involved in the game, as ones situational awareness as to knowing what each individual unit is doing throughout the turn increases and so the detail of nuance becomes greater. It highlights that in an ordinary solitaire game, it is too easy and common to just race through the die rolls etc as you execute the play in the order that you have already mentally pre-determined that it will run. In effect, here, your degree of care and appreciation of what is going on right down to unit level at each point in the turn is enhanced.

The bottom line, because the AI requires some player intervention or what the system calls Judgement Calls, gamers will settle to playing this at a level that suits them. I have always been  quite happy with ordinary solitaire play, yet I find this system quite compelling even though it adds another layer of administration. Knowing that you can vary what degree of control you give the system probably increases the versatility of the package and increases the size of the audience that will find a use for it. If nothing else, it highlights that as a solitaire player your single minded style might not be the great thing that you thought it was.

My general observation of thinking that good old fashioned, admin free, solitaire play is still a great way to play has been challenged. For most of my games, I still think 'old style solitaire is fine and it is certainly the case that the habit of forty years of solitaire playing my way is hard to break. After playing one game of the Solo module, I was left with significant doubts about its value, yet somehow I found the package compelling and continued to delve. A dozen games later I am pretty impressed and I only mention this so that new players who have initial doubts, stick with it and feel their way through the player style learning curve.

If you enjoy old fashioned solitaire play, you do not need this system, especially if budget is tight, but being exposed to it will at the very least be an interesting experience, it will teach you something about the limitations of your own player style and you may choose to use it full time. If you are not playing your Lock ‘n Load Tactical games for lack of an opponent and you don't enjoy old style solitaire play, then this is a good buy for you, it will get those games down off the shelf. I am glad that I bought my copy, though I see its weakness, in turn it has revealed some of the weaknesses of the way I usually solitaire games.

When I first started writing this post, I thought that I will probably remain happy to solitaire my games both ways or use the solo system and just inject a greater amount of judgement calls if I want to control the game more, but I am increasingly thinking that for solitaire play, I will reach for this module now that I have understood how to make it work for me.

EDIT - My criticism that the rulebook does not prepare you for the frequency that you might need to step out of the solo instruction and make a judgement call has been addressed in the new v1.5 edition of the rules, available as a download (from BoardGameGeek). The playthrough has been amended to reflect judgement calls and the designer notes give the rational as to why this solo system is different to the one originally licensed from Academy Games - all good.

Complexity - The actual solo system itself does not add any real complexity to play. The rule section needs only be read once and there is a good walk through example. All the system is on the cards, so this is easily managed. I think the complexity, if any, comes from the player needing a good grasp of the main game rules to ensure that during play both sides have maximum benefit of the rules being properly applied. I have watched a couple of videos covering this module and there have been mistakes that have been detrimental, such as firing without spotting or not applying the +2 rally bonus when in cover, so that AI forces were left vulnerable and incapacitated. This is not to criticise those videos (which in fact I have been grateful for), which are simply reflecting natural play, indeed this past week I made a massive oversight. The AI pushed a leader and 3 squads out into the road on the way to assaulting a building. It was going to be a deadly assault. My sniper fired and rolled 11 plus 1 for the moving units. The defender in the open rolled 1, so a massive +11 attack, but in what can only be described as my excitement I applied the attack to the entire stack, rather than randomly selecting 1 unit as per the sniper rules. The result was that this stack was dead in the water and I had unthinkingly totally ruined the AI’s ability to win the game - it is so easily done. So it just becomes incumbent on the player to be really fair to the AI by understanding and remembering the rules properly. In solitaire gaming, you do not have a live opponent that brings that shared rule knowledge to the table and puts the hand of restraint on your shoulder.

Time - There is an increase in playing time, but for most scenarios we are still in the world of single session games. One of the pleasures of solitaire play is that there can be less emphasis on the pressure of playing time. As I have mentioned above, some benefits spin out of this more intense management of individual units.

Space - Lock ‘n Load need not take up much space as you can play plenty of one and two map games which have a relatively small footprint, but add in the solo module and the space needed does increase. You have to manage a stack of Flow Chart cards, which helpfully are colour coded and you need a space for the draw and discard pile. I use the inverted box lid to rest the charts in. We are still into kitchen table gaming, but you will have a few charts spread out.

Solitaire - Well top marks obviously for this aspect. You can already play the system solitaire, as it is mostly solitaire friendly, the Solo module just adds to this to give something different as widely discussed above.