Why I love stacking and dropped it

One of the things that Shadow Empire will not have (much) is: stacking. For the uninitiated: stacking is the ability to put more than one unit in a hex. In my Decisive Campaigns and Advanced Tactics titles you can stack for example up to 16 units in 1 hex.


Above is an example of stacking. It cost me a lot of emotional effort to drop this mechanic. But I am pleased with the result. A game without stacking is much easier to play by non-grognard players and allows for nicer graphics. And.. as I will argue can provide the same gameplay. Also it is nice to get some diversity between my new engine and existing engines. I never did a game without stacking rules.

First I was resistant to dropping this mechanic, but when I took the time to analyse why I loved stacking I found a design method around it. The thing I found is I do not love stacking in it self, but rather the type of thinking stacking rules allow me to do. It is mainly two things: It allows to keep continuous frontlines and it allows to put a focus point (or schwerpunkt if you like) on a specific part of the front. Actually an important third thing is that it allows mixing units, but that is beyond the scope of this blog post.


Initially I figured if I abolished stacking rules and subsequently would want to focus my power on a specific part of the front I would get this pile up of units behind the frontline.
And that would feel wrong. (as you can see above)

However I arrived at the obvious solution after some time: reduce the number of units, but increase their area of effect. By introducing opportunity fire units do not need to be on every hex in a frontline to keep that line. You can leave a hex open every hex and the enemy will have a hard time penetrating that line. You could even leave two hexes open every hex to have the same effect.


As you can see in the example above an enemy unit trying to break through the line will suffer opportunity fire in two hexes on its path of advance. Probably the opportunity fire in the first hex will already stop the unit in its tracks or boots, but even if not there still is a second hex with opportunity fire to move through.

A determined enemy with lots of units could force a breakthrough, though not in 1 turn. Well.. unless they have really superior equipment or are supported with artillery and bombers of course :)

Now if I really would like to keep my line I would add more units to it.


As you can see in the example above a breakthrough is really impossible in such a heavy line. Any attackers will first all suffer opportunity fire just moving in and making contact. Then they will still have to attack and break a unit in the line. And then they’ll have to consolidate the hex and suffer opportunity fire from the neighboring defenders.

Essential for this approach is of course making sure that the unit count is in balance with the size of the map. So the player will not be able to have full frontlines on all fronts. In my test games so far I am not missing stacking at all. The ability to choose between different densities of frontline occupation works well for me with Shadow Empire.

And yes of course I have to admit that the level of subtlety and micro-management stacking provides in for example Decisive Campaigns could not be replaced by this approach. But that is a different kind of game. For starters it is historical. Sometimes you just need 10 divisions to be in Stalingrad. Shadow Empire is a post-apocalyptic era game aimed at a slightly less hardcore audience and for it I think I struck the right balance.

Next time I’ll discuss some other mechanics. For almost all battle design decisions my aim is to simplify gameplay but keep the core decisions of more complicated games in there.
In a few months time there might even be some graphical sneakpeaks :)

Best regards,

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15 Responses to Why I love stacking and dropped it

  1. Jeff says:

    I think a lot depends on the nature of the units. The existing games from VR Designs tend to treat them like buckets that can be filled with all sorts of functional sub units. Then the overall characteristics of the sub unit group are represented in the unit.

    If you don’t allow stacking then you have to do a lot of micromanagement of the unit sub formation compositions, at least it seems that way to me.

    The old bump in a rug routine. Fix it here and it shows up over there.

  2. Roy says:

    Like the name! Interesting mechanics for a no unit stacking game. If you need some early testers, count me in (webizen/Matrix // tac2i/Slitherine).

  3. bearro says:

    When it comes games without stacking there are two important questions:

    1. Will it be possible to switch places of two units on adjacent hexes?

    2. Will it be possible to divide and merge units?

    How do you stand on these issues?

  4. Mrswargamer says:

    I am of mixed feelings on stacking.

    I have seen it work when left out, and I have seen it fail badly in some games when omitted.

    I LIKE Civilization V and don’t think getting rid of stacking hurt the game. It was a shock getting used to though.

    I suppose it comes down to specific cases and specific games, and the demands of the map. It might work for some designs and scales easier than others.

  5. vic says:

    Thanks for the feedback all.

    There will be no subformations in this game either. You can customize your units, but this is limited to tech modules.

    Switching…. Its an idea i also toyed with, but did not implement yet. And I think its a good one. I am going to keep it in mind. Thanks for bringing it up.
    Merging will be an option for infantry units.

    What would you see is the biggest reason you considered dropping stacking was a fail and which games do you refer too?


  6. bearro says:

    As to what was touched upon before – I can think of only one game that went from stacks to no stacking and that’s Civilization. And it was a blessing, mainly because it had badly done stacking, with no limits, resulting in combat of two stacks of doom fairly quickly. No stacking in case of Civ5 did not make it an easier game, quite the contrary (thinking about positioning, lines etc was alien to civ before) but made it cleaner and much more logical.

  7. Mrswargamer says:

    While I can’t think of any examples I want to highlight at this moment, I find that no stacking in games at the grand strategy level occasionally are the most vexing. This is probably due to the problem of how to locate key units in a hex of a fairly large terrain area, and be unable to place more than one unit that in real life would not be an issue.

    Examples, an air unit in a location and no capacity to base a ground unit for it’s protection, or a naval unit in a port location and no capacity again to base anything else there such as air cover or ground protection.

    I feel no stacking often only works out at terrain scales that are not as extreme.

  8. bearro says:

    @Mrswargamer – replying very, but: “the problem of how to locate key units in a hex ” = this problem exists with stacking, actually no stacking solves it, making units very easy to find, stacking can result in a mess, where finding something is hard.

    As for air units good point – probably the best solution is the Panzer General tradition, so no stacking, but you can place air and ground units in the same hex (switchable via air/land view function)

  9. Mrswargamer says:

    Yes that is true bearro (it has slipped my memory). It is not an unused effect. I recall it now, that this is also done with Panzer Tactics, a game of a similar scope of action, where land units and air units can co exist in a hex, and use an interface trick to alternate with the ability to display.

    The reverse of no stacking, that being stacking too much, is often as you say, ‘a mess’. Some games simply take it so far, that the process of ‘seeing’ your forces is a major drain and only results in quite considerable mouse clicking (which in a board game would be considerable employment of tweezers :) ).

    Games that significantly limit stacking are preferable in my view. It is not that I hate it, but eventually it gets intrusive. The stacking in Advanced Third Reich is not to bad, the stacking in ASL can become quite epic. The stacking in Civilization IV was the main reason I gladly switched to Civ V. I got bored of kill stacks of primitive units from a moody bottom feeding AI nation swarming me and wiping out a modern army unit that in real life would simply have eaten the primitives for breakfast.

  10. bwheatley says:

    I’m excited about the changes vic!

  11. Rodney says:

    I think a game ENGINE should definitely support stacking, but it should be enabled only for specific scenarios or situations. For example, some scenarios could enable stacking 2 deep max. Also, for ports, airports, troop carriers, aircraft carriers, or for small special units like leaders.
    Big question: what about units like artillery that don’t fight on the front lines in real life? Do they get a range for indirect fire?
    Light infantry should be able to ride on top of any tank, etc., but then neither tank nor infantry is ready to fight.

  12. Koala says:

    Can you provide any further details on how you plan to replace the functionality of unit subformations?

  13. vic says:

    Hi Koala,

    First of all Shadow Empire is really a new game in my game family, it is not a replacement of ATG.

    Second: Its a good question. But I am not sure I can give a good answer. I think the essence of gameplay the subformations provided is customization. This is something that is present in Shadow Empire in the sense that you can choose which units receive some specific upgrades (like for example Combat Armor) and which not (since this stuff is rather expensive). Also you can choose the new skills for your leaders when they level up. But its not AS customizable as ATG, have to be frank here.

    Best wishes,

  14. Koala says:

    I see. I was mistaken in thinking SE was more of a spiritual successor to ATG. I look forward to reading further developments!

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