A Slow and Possibly Endless Descent into Ruin
The seven year long battle of Calth's Underworld War was prime thematic inspiration for the design of our game. We wanted the slow decay of two forces to not only be reflected in our story, but also in the systems of play. Coincidentally, we also had a design problem to address, and that very theme was a perfect fit to form a solution.
When players are confronted with unpredictable results, human instinct tries to make sense of it. People perceive patterns where there are none, especially when the results have personal impact. If patterns are felt to emerge in situations of expected randomness, emotions quickly turn towards the system not feeling fair. Look at any group of laypeople playing a game of chance to notice how players expect random results to "remember" their previous results. "It's been bad so far, so it's sure to get better soon!" and all that. In systems of randomness, trust is an important aspect of selling the experience to a player.
In our testing, we've found that people trust the end results of dice much more than they do computer generated randomness. There's a lot of reasons we can infer for this: dice are rolled by the player so there's a feeling of agency, seeing dice physically tumble “looks” random, the social situation of a board game allows more leniency. Regardless of the reason, we are put in a situation where we want to ease player frustration of computer randomization, but we don't want to lie about the chances you have.
To be specific about the problem here, repeatedly attacking a unit to no effect felt frustrating for the attacker. When your full unit of three Ultramarine Legionaries fires multiple times at a single, traitorous Word Bearer and he doesn't die, it feels pretty bad. Our goal then, is to introduce a mechanic that gets to the root of the problem. If repeated, failed attacks are a problem, we can turn that repetition into a system that alleviates the issue.
Now that we know that we want to track repeated failure, there are a lot of ways to turn that into something beneficial. We could track attacks against each unit, but that gets messy with the Reform action. We could give a bonus to units that are failing their attacks but this over-emphasizes defensive strategies, and flat bonuses like that are rarely interesting.
The most thematic and elegant system we arrived at is to track each time individual Legionaries survive attacks. As they survive more attacks, their chance to be killed increases. This gets around Reform issues and makes players pay attention to individual Legionaries more. This is the Armor System.
The benefits of taking this route immediately became clear. A side effect of transitioning to computer generated randomness is that critical effects didn't have the same impact. Weapons needed something else to set them apart. Armor allowed us to give weapons different amounts of degradation which helped us align them with their fictional aspects outside of just general firepower.
For example, in the 40k Universe the Meltagun is a short ranged weapon that heavily affects armor, so it was obvious to boost armor degradation for its ability to make it "feel" like a Meltagun. However in a more indirect way, we can now model weapons that are slower than others, due to armor degradation increasing kill chances on subsequent attacks, instead of the current one.
The ponderous and destructive force of a Terminator's Power Fist against heavy armor made it a perfect example case for what we could do with the Armor System. Look forward to their crushing power in a future update.
Adding a simple but impactful system allowed us to get to the heart of a player issue and add some flavor into the existing system. Not only that, but it also gives us a way to distinguish other types of units we knew we would eventually want to bring in from the board game. It even has the effect of making fights tumble towards an inevitable conclusion, as the armor damage of each side guarantees they will eventually fall. These are exactly the type of systems that we are always looking for.