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Line of sight
Spaces and zones in Unmatched
Last week we looked at dice rolling and push your luck mechanisms in Dungeon Dice (Gruen, 1977). I plan to look at a few more games from that era coming up, so watch for those!
This week we are back with a modern game: Unmatched by Rob Daviau and Justin Jacobson! Specifically, we will be looking at Unmatched’s line of sight system.
Unmatched (Daviau & Jacobson, 2019) is a card-based skirmish game for two players:
Unmatched is a highly asymmetrical miniature fighting game for two or four players. Each hero is represented by a unique deck designed to evoke their style and legend. Tactical movement and no-luck combat resolution create a unique play experience that rewards expertise, but just when you've mastered one set, new heroes arrive to provide all new match-ups.
Much like Dice Throne (Chatellier & Trembley, 2018), each box comes with two to four characters and acts as a complete game. Any two characters can be used to battle each other, leading to interesting combinations like Medusa vs. Winter Soldier, Robin Hood vs. Dracula, or Sherlock Holmes vs. Bigfoot.
Choose a battlefield map, choose your fighters, shuffle your deck of 30 action cards, and start battling. Players take two actions on their turn including maneuvering, scheming, or attacking. The game ends when one of the fighter’s health is reduced to zero.
Unmatched is a fast and fairly light (BGG weight 1.93/5.00) game, but what I find really interesting is the line of sight system.
So first, let’s talk about what line of sight is!
Line of sight
Line of sight (abbreviated as LOS) has a simple definition on BGG:
Units may only see certain areas. Mechanically this can be dealt with in a variety of ways, ranging from True Line of Sight, as measured by a string (as in Advanced Squad Leader) to color-coded regions showing what can see what, as in Tannhäuser.
How LOS is implemented, however, can be one of the trickiest parts of a game!dedicates a few pages to the topic, including the following:
LOS is a bedeviling aspect of game design. High-level conflict games don’t require these rules at all, but squad-level combat games usually do, and these games often have some area control aspect to them. LOS usually interferes with force projection, so blocking LOS is a tool in the designer’s toolkit for modifying the way in which certain units shape the battlefield and the options players have for navigating it.
Bedeviling indeed! LOS can seem simple, but playtesting can quickly show edge cases that need to be resolved.
Each LOS method has strengths and weaknesses, so what are some common solutions?
Common methods and examples
Here are just a few examples, with countless other variations that could be listed:
Draw a line from hex to hex: On hexagonal maps, LOS is often checked by seeing if a line can be drawn from any corner of the attacker’s hex to any corner of the defender’s hex, as is done in Gloomhaven (Childres, 2017). Other times, it is from any part of one hex to any part of another, such as Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion (Childres, 2020). Lancer uses any part to any part for LOS as well, but center to center for hard cover.
Check with a fixed ruler: In Cyberpunk Red: Combat Zone (Cadice, et al., 2023), a flexible plastic ruler is used for determining both range and LOS. Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game (Little, 2012) uses a similar method with a rigid ruler for range and LOS.
True line of sight: Although I’ve never played Warhammer 40K (Games Workshop, 1987), I believe it uses “true LOS” which means that if any part of your model can see any part of your target you can shoot. Lasers can sometimes help with this. Feel free to expand on this in the comments!
Square to square: For games that use squares vs. hexes like Emberwind RPG they may define LOS as drawing a straight line from any corner of the hero’s square to the center of the target square.
No line of sight restrictions: Games like Guard of Atlantis II (Nichipurov, 2022) mostly ignore LOS and use adjacent hexes for most attacks, and simply counting hexes for ranged attacks. Attacks might have restrictions, however, such as only attacking in a straight line.
It’s worth noting that elevation considerations can greatly complicate LOS, such as shooting from a high ridge across to a target. This shows up in BattleTech, where the basic LOS rules are rather simple, until you add in elevation.
Now back to Unmatched…
Using spaces and zones
Using a system heavily inspired by one used in Tannhäuser (Grosselin & Poli, 2007), the Unmatched board consists of circles (i.e. “spaces”) colored to form matching areas (i.e. “zones”). Each space is connected by lines to adjacent spaces.
Melee attacks (i.e. non-ranged attacks) can target an adjacent space, regardless of zone color. Ranged attacks (usually defined at the character level vs. card level) may target an adjacent fighter or a fighter anywhere in the same zone.
For example, at the start of every one of their turns, Medusa deals 1 damage to an opposing fighter in Medusa’s zone. This is an easy check of the zone color that Medusa is currently in and which opposing fighters are in the same zone. There’s no counting spaces, no lasers or rulers, and no ambiguity!
This simplification doesn’t need to come at a cost of theme or strategic decisions:
The zones are thematically tied to the map in most cases, where areas at the same elevation are part of the same zone. Barriers that would block line of sight usually act as transitions between zones.
There are some spaces that are part of multiple zones (i.e. they have 2-3 colors in the space). This creates opportunities for ranged characters, usually at the cost of having more adjacent connections and being more vulnerable to attack.
More zones can be created to add complexity. Some maps might have six zones while others might have eight or more.
While the depth of something like BattleTech can’t be recreated in a system like this, I think it’s worth considering. It rethinks some of the assumptions of how line of sight is handled in games, in a way that makes it faster and more accessible to a broad range of players.
Some things to think about:
Think about your assumptions when designing: If you only consider a grid and drawing a line to determine line of sight, it limits some options. I think this system is a great example of breaking the assumptions of what line of sight can be. Guards of Atlantis II takes it one step further with a skirmish game that doesn’t use LOS!
Line of sight doesn’t need to be complicated: While I really enjoy BattleTech and all of it’s complexity, opportunities exist to simplify systems in other games. To quote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”
There are many solutions to the same problem: I listed just a few examples above, and Geoff Engelstein lists quite a few more in his book. This is another place where making the mechanisms match the theme is important. That’s probably the topic of a future post!
I’ve had Unmatched on my shelf for a while, and had been considering a line of sight post for months. Listening to the #287 Diving into Cards with Rob Daviau episode of The Game Design Round Table podcast really made me want to finish this one and focus on Unmatched. That episode is worth checking out!
What are your favorite line of sight systems in tabletop games, both TTRPGs and board games? Do you prefer complexity or simplification?
See you next week!
— E.P. 💀
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