Sergio's blog: hints, ideas, pictures and news about SDS (and more) from the author

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The M&M syndrome

Continuing this series of post about some game design concepts, I’d like to talk about the dreadful M&M syndrome, where M&M means “Markers & Modifiers”.
The syndrome affects many game designers and has two major consequences on the related games: a) 50% of your wonderful terrain, for which you spent money and remarkable effort - building from scratch hills, trees and houses - is covered by papers with CRT tables and modifiers; b) your miniatures are almost invisible under a flood of markers (Disorder level, Fatigue, Losses, Orders, Moved this turn, Morale status, Hidden unit, Overwatch and so forth..).
Those of you who played my games know my idiosyncrasy  about markers: every time I am forced to introduce a marker in a game I perceive it like a personal defeat, therefore I try all possible alternatives before doing so.  
It goes without saying that it is no easy task. If you want to avoid bookkeeping (another idiosyncrasy), casualty removal AND markers you are in trouble.  
Many times I asked myself if I’m too “integralist” on this subject: in the end, most players/games out there do not even consider this as a problem, so I could avoid to squeeze my brain in order to find a solution, but it’s stronger than me .  Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose: but in DSLB I succeeded in limiting them to 1-2 (DIS level and reaction) in SDS just one (loaded/discharged weapon).

Modifiers are another crux desperationis for me. In my mind, they should be so few, that after 2-3 times you refer to the table, you must be able to remember ALL OF THEM easily.
I start to pack them all under 3 major groups: troop quality and quantity, terrain advantage and leadership. Then I write down as many of them as I can figure out. When the list is finished, the real work (eliminate them and including them somewhere in the game mechanics) starts. One key factor is to avoid double jeopardy modifiers, i.e. those that penalize twice (or reward twice) units. Sometimes they are very subtle but if you watch carefully, you should find some in many rules sets out there.
Modifiers must also be intuitive, possibly (but this is difficult) all “up” or “down” and – possibly again – should not require complicated math: only additions or subtractions. You may add one multiplication, not more and only if unavoidable. Much better if you just ADD physical elements (dice for instance) and do not add to the dice result. This is particularly true if you roll many dice.
One final note: do NOT indulge to sporadic aspects or situations, nor try to represent everything with modifiers. If the bugler of the 354th Fringibuffo Lancers once killed 15 enemies just using the trumpet at the Battle of Zippoflex, don’t give “+1” to trumpeters (as many gamers would require you to do)….
Comments are – as usual – welcome.


  1. Agreed Sergio. I'm really not a fan of markers at all.

  2. Steve,

    and what about Modifiers?

    1. Modifiers are a necessary part of any wargame. Just so long as there's not vast amounts of them to trawl through every turn!

  3. I don't mind markers, provided that they are (a) few and (b) blend in with the battlefield by being casualties, debris &c. I have been thinking along the lines of indicating a unit's condition by altering the relative positions and/or removing separate individual figures portraying an officer, colour bearer, sergeant and musician. These figures would thus be both aesthetically pleasing and convey information to the players.
    As for modifiers, the fewer the better. One solution might be to have the usual lists but rule that where several factors applied, only the two most significant (ie largest +/- number) should be applied. Alternatively, something along these lines:
    1-2 negative factors: slight disadvantage -1
    3-5 negative factors: disadvantage -2
    5+ negative factors: severe disadvantage -3
    and similarly for positive factors.