Game Design: A Load of Chit

When I started work on the Old Skool Skirmish (OSS) system, the main challenge was to make it feel like it belonged in the 80s. At the heart of my approach was to focus on old mechanics, and I soon discovered that a good old-fashioned chit draw worked really well for both the game and the feel. In case you are unfamiliar with the term, a chit draw is the process of taking chits (card tokens or counters) out of a cup or similar. Each chit that is drawn indicates where the artillery arrives, the site of a new event, or, in my case, helps to decide when individual warriors take actions. Chit draw describes the process rather than its effect, so it comes in a wide variety of implementations.

It’s a simple, low-tech approach to the common problem of how to create an interestingly unpredictable feeling and series of opportunities within a rapidly changing combat environment. It’s been used for decades, way before the 80s, and was a staple of designs by companies like Avalon Hill. I grew up using it, so it’s very familiar.

Chits can have anything on them, so it’s a very flexible mechanic and chit draws are different from both dice and card-driven processes. In my case the chits have mostly just got numbers on, though there are a few “wild card” and blank ones to spice things up. It’s also quite adaptable. In effect, the Bolt Action (and Gates of Antares) dice bag system is a chit draw that uses dice instead of card tokens. That’s managed to reinvent the chit draw and look modern and clever while it does so, and it’s proved very popular. Quite a different way of using it from OSS, even though both are variants of the same core idea.

As always when you choose a rule, you gain some features and lose elsewhere. In the case of the chit draw in OSS, you gain a great degree of flexibility, a load of tactical nuance and interesting decisions, and lots of ways in which you can interact to characterise weapons, individuals, and factions. Lots of excellent stuff.

The downside of chit draws is that they are viewed by some gamers as being a bit clunky and slow, and in my case it entails having counters on the playing area. I thought that both of these downsides added to the period feel, so I was more than happy to accept them. The more serious negative was that it was slower than some other options. However, as this was a direct result of the extra choice, it was hard to complain. Anyway, speed wasn’t a primary goal for OSS, and game design is about compromise. You can’t have everything.

The variant of the chit draw that I’ve used in OSS currently goes broadly like this:

Place the pool of 20 chits in a cup and mix thoroughly. At the start of a round, both players draw an equal number of chits from the cup, keeping their values secret. The players then distribute all their chits, placing 1 or more next to each of their miniatures.

When all chits have been placed, one player starts calling out numbers, starting with 12 and going down. When a number is called for which you have the matching chit, reveal it and take an action with the miniature it was allocated to. Continue till you get to 1 and act with that miniature.

It’s definitely old skool in feel, though not exactly like anything I’ve played before. There are a few caveats to the above version, plus wild card chits to interrupt the sequence, and blanks to bluff the opposition. This adds enough spice that you’ll be wrong-footed by clever opponents if you’re not sharp.

Most of the time you’re not using the whole pool of 20 chits, so knowing what you’ve got doesn’t give you perfect info on the other side. Outnumbered retinues naturally do a bit more to balance things out and keep the fights interesting down to the wire. It does let you make educated guesses though, and this informs your strategy and bluffs. Whether or where you feint, and how risky you want to be with the sequence you choose, is a big part of the game. Clever players can build in some contingency plans if they’ve got a wild chit or two, and perhaps even if they haven’t. There’s lots to think about, and the puzzle changes as the fight evolves. It’s not a challenge you can easily solve.

It’s a funny thing to play because it is so different from modern games which tend to value slickness of rules and speed of play over depth of tactical pondering and planning. It does introduce some intriguing subtleties that you can’t get in most other games, and I do rather like it.

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3 Responses to Game Design: A Load of Chit

  1. tomsonn says:

    You’re so much better as a game designer than as a world builder. This is nice, it looks like a system that has tactical & strategic depth and may require players to make some tough choices during play. Which is sadly not the case with many miniature games, old and new.

  2. tornquistd says:

    You are right a large number of games being produced show a lack of tactical pondering and planning perhaps it is from reduced time spent in development to get all the games out. Tactical thought processes can add value to a board game compared to other actives like a video games so it should be in there.

  3. Pingback: Game Design: The Dreaded Roll and Move… Sort of |

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