Sunday 12 January 2014

Eylau Sequence: Micro Tank battles in 20:1 scale

Every now and then something comes along that surprises you in a good way.

The Eylau Sequence is a wargaming universe that does just that.  It focuses on combat between MGVs - Miniature Ground Vehicles - tiny tanks that are only millimetres long. The miniatures are larger than life at 20:1 scale, which is certainly novel.  The MGVs are basically tiny drones - difficult to spot, and capable of intel gathering, sabotage and combat. The best way to hunt down the enemy MGVs is to field your own.

Terrain can include dead insects, oil patches, fungus and other objects which are "supersize" compared to the tiny MGVs.  This would make for some fascinating tabletop setups and allow for a fair bit of imagination. 

 The "upsized" 20:1 minis allow for some fascinating terrain ideas. The pebbles could be liquid such as "oil drops" and I can see MGVs navigating a dead ant. (All photos linked from the WTJ Gallery)

 The MGV designs are quite unique. They might make for interesting 6mm sci fi hovertanks or even spacecraft. They even have a paint guide.

The "factions" do not involve sci fi elves or an Empire of Mankind - nor the thinly disguised WW2/Cold War factions beloved of "hard" sci fi games  i.e. the neo-Germans, neo-Russians etc.  No, instead we have Selangor (a Southeast asian alliance) and Australia as the primary players in the "war", with Australia's ally the Medditeranean states (capital city: Malta!). California, and Japan (with super-powered MGVs) are neutral but protect their own interests.

The MGVs have active camoflage and are equipped with with a primary and secondary weapon - which could be kinetic cannon, energy weapons or missiles.

I'm not going to review the rules as they are free here - in fact they come in two levels - one "skirmish" level which might have half a dozen or so units per side generally in hunter-killer
pairs; and an "operational" level  game where there could be dozens of MGVs on each side in large "formations".
After whinging a lot about "generic" games the Eylau Sequence is a breath of fresh air.

The miniatures came about based on an e-book of the same name, by the founder of the War Times Journal.  Annoyingly I don't have a Kindle but at $1 it would be worth it for the "fluff"factor, which DOES interest me.

Anyway, check them out at the War Times Journal site.  I already have a million incomplete projects but these minis are tempting me a lot - and have a unique universe I am actually interested in learning more about.  I don't usually promote miniatures or a game I haven't tried myself, but this sort of creativity deserves recognition. 

Saturday 11 January 2014

Game Design #13: Is Originality Possible? Games with similar Mechanics

The more things change, the more they remain the same. (Jean-Baptiste Karr)

There is nothing new under the sun (Solomon)

Most games have four "main" elements - movement, missile, melee and morale.  I've argued games should always have a 'fifth element' to make them interesting - be it command and control/activation, resource management or simply a cool magic system.  I think this 'fifth element' is important to make a game "stand out", as there are only a certain amount of ways you can do the "four Ms." (Perhaps even six elements - I actually think activation should also be "equal" in stature and an automatic inclusion alongside the 'four Ms' but I've already discussed this elsewhere)

A lot of game designers put a lot of time and effort into novel ways of doing the "four Ms" - which is a bit tricky, given that there are a lot of games out there already, and a lot of people who are trying to do the same thing.   Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of games that share similar (or identical) game mechanics, be it unwittingly or intentionally.

Game designers spend a lot of time trying to reinvent the wheel - or at least, come up with a wheel no one has seen before.

I'm not sure exactly how copyright law works (I think I read somewhere you cannot "patent" a game mechanic, but perhaps the specific terms and wording?) and I'm sure the grey areas vary depending on what lawyer you talk to or how much money you are willing to spend.  Given Games Workshop's energetic "defence" of its IP (or even attempting to snag copyright on words like "space marines" "space elves"  and "eldar" that came from other works, such as Tolkien) I'm surprised we don't hear more of this. 

Should game mechanics be patentable?  We tend to frown on the outrageous "bullying" of Games Workshop of "smaller" entities (but everything in the wargames world is smaller than GW), but what if THEY completely ripped off a rules set from a small indie designer and used it to make a squillion dollars?
Would that be better or worse? 

Would more energetic patenting of game rules and mechanics increase creativity (as designers are rewarded for their ideas) or - as I suspect - decrease it (designers are too "scared" to use a good but similar mechanic lest they be sued; or everyone has to lodge a flood of "defensive" patents to keep as "ammunition.")  My concern is that copyright law seems to follow the Golden Rule - i.e. he who has the gold makes the rules - and the hobby (note, I didn't say The Hobbytm) is increasingly heading towards dominance by "supermarket" companies - Mantic and Warlord seem to be en route to joining Games Workshop, Privateer Press and Battlefront at the top - which have market dominance (and thus financial clout) in a wide range of genres.

I remember some furore years ago about Magic the Gathering patenting the word "tapping" (i.e rotating a card sideways). Lots of other games use this mechanic - turning a card to show if it is used. But they can't use the word tapping.   I also remember D&D having a "free d20 open system licence" - but was it actually even "closed?"  Probably the only thing that was actually "closed" was the words 'd20 system.'  I'm kinda curious. When we run out of describing words, do we have to stop making games?
You may turn or rotate or crank these cards sideways, but do not call it "tapping"

The Universal Basics
Things like alternate activation and IGOUGO have been around for a long time.  Halving a unit's movement in "difficult ground" or doubling movement when charging or running...   ...these seem pretty "universal." I'm ignoring these, as most designers happily share these mechanics and it's hard avoid using many of them. 

Dice Mechanics & Specifics
This is where you see game designers try to get creative.  Sometimes they roll dice to beat a "target number."  Other times, both players roll dice in an "opposed roll."  Currently popular is when a player rolls a handful of dice to "succeed" and the other rolls dice to "save" and block his successful rolls.  Other times, designers use different types of dice, or resort to cards.  Even so, there are only a limited number of permutations and similarities will no doubt be present.  It seems inevitable there will be duplication at some stage.

So when does a game (in your opinion) sail to "close to the wind?"  When does "inspired by" or "shares mechanics with" infringe on intellectual property?

I think this an increasingly pertinent question for game designers, as (a) the "supply" of "original" mechanics and terminology is finite and increasingly dwindling and (b) wargaming is increasingly becoming the province of large companies, who are more capable and willing of legal action than the traditional "backyard" rules designers that drove game design in the past.

Friday 10 January 2014

Game Design #12: Commercialism - Game Supplements, Rules & Miniature Sales

Miniatures Sales Determining Game Design
I've posted elsewhere on how "Warhammer" has changed its design philosophy. Originally it was designed to provide a way to game characterful RPG-style adventures on alien worlds you could make up yourself.  Now, its aim is to be streamlined enough to push large quantities of miniatures around a table, with a very low "entry point."  Official miniatures and terrain, mind you. Don't go getting any creative ideas.

I know a few people who liked the "streamlining" of 40K that took place to fulfil this new design philosophy - but that's because they were wanting to use it with more miniatures anyway.  The people who wanted  to play games with bucketloads of their miniatures and vehicles were, arguably, looking for a different style of game than the old RPG-lite style early editions to begin with.  Those people who want to play with lots of toys are exactly the target audience you want, if selling said toys is your business.

Using generic rule mechanics is good, because you can sell miniatures from different eras and genres more easily.   The "learning curve" is quite mild, and the comforting familiarity means it is easy to convince gamers to start gaming (and more importantly, collecting minis) in a new period or genre.
Does your fantasy game use the exact same tactics as your sci fi game? Excellent.  

Sometimes games have extra factions "jammed" into them simply to sell more miniatures.  Other times, (poorly selling) factions quietly disappear.  "Necrons" were not original 40K lore.  Squats (space dwarves) were, and I haven't seen them featuring in any codexes lately.  Miniature sales can also drive the "lore" or "fluff" of the game. (A feeling which will be familiar to Star Wars fans)

 This article was in part prompted by finding these 40K codexes in my rules shelf. They date from circa ~1996. Utterly pristine, and utterly useless. Unless I can find that one guy who still likes 3rd edition best. Built in obsolescence - it makes great business sense. 
 (Only $110 to replace them with "current" ones - bargain)

Collecting armies = Miniature sales = Profit
Other times, factions or units are unbalanced deliberately. I notice this with new releases.  How often do you see a new release that is "underpowered?"  No, instead they are given powerful traits that make them doubly desirable - shiny, new and easier to win with. Once everyone has rushed out to buy them, and enough have been sold, then they can be "nerfed" - or better yet, an even newer, shiny, more overpowered faction introduced, so the process can begin again.

Specific miniatures or units can be "unbalanced" -  ugly or "meh" models might have their stats boosted to make them must-haves for any competitive army.   Releasing new models that look nothing like the old ones creates "built in" obsolesence.  Most people dislike "mismatched" armies - if the new space elves look completely different to your old army, and yet you really want to field a (deliberately overpowered) unit only available in the "new elves" design, the compulsion is there to replace all your elf miniatures with the "new" pattern so they match up.

Making "army building" important to winning makes great business sense.  This emphasizes the "model collecting" side of the hobby.  If you can win simply by owning the right models, then you can make buying models very appealing.  Gamers don't need much of a nudge to buy more minis, but if you can tie miniature ownership to winning - well, collectible card games make a lot of money out of the compulsion to field a "killer card deck" (aka army). 

This whole thing is most rampant in sci fi and fanfasy, where the miniature manufacturers are  unconstrained by history.  On the flip side, if you game more limited conflicts like the American Civil War, there is little chance of it being invaded and "commericalised" as there is less lattitude for factions - as selling "blue" and "grey" army books separate to the rules is a tad too blatant, though you could make campaign and scenario books I guess.

As you can see, I think miniature sales are driving (most) game design, and have been doing so for quite some time.

The Circle of Supplements Life
This is the cycle of going round in cycles, updating rules. What Warhammer Fantasy are we up to? 8th edition? 9th?  I find it ironic when games companies update their rules more energetically and often than most encyclopedias and medical textbooks.  Then they  produce accompanying "army books" which themselves need to be updated to keep current with the rules.  They update things simply to create for themselves a steady stream of products.  It makes sense - with inbuilt obsolescence you create your own self-sustaining market.

By changing to a "new" rulebook you tend to force all your customers to switch as well. Yes, you can cling defiantly to your 2nd edition Warhammer 40K rules, but you're restricted to your mates playing at your house.   Imagine if, as a car manufacturer, every time you produced a new car model, it forced everyone who already owned your brand of car to buy that model, or be unable to use their old car on public roads.  It would be bad business not to change the model regularly, whether the car needed improvements or not. 

However, why not make new shiny things, instead of always regurgitating the old? Heck Games Workshop even reduces its lines - it focuses on the three "earners" - Warhammer Fantasy, 40K, and LOTR - although I can see LOTR getting the chop after the Hobbit movies run their course. Games like Blood Bowl, Mordhiem, Epic, Space Hulk, Battlefleet Gothic etc have been quietly pensioned off.  That's what a lot of fast food companies used to do - minimise the variety of products, and maximise their production.

I find it interesting that Mantic, which obviously got its start by offering cheap GW-style minis in a very un-original manner, and offered similar, pretty bland games in Warpath (40K) and Kings of War (WFB) is now is branching out - Dwarf King's Hold, Deadzone, Dreadball, Pandora Project - which are expanding to fill "niches" abandoned by GW, with games that are increasingly creative and "different."

I really wish GW would just tear up their mechanics and start afresh.  This will never happen, as using old mechanics is "familiar" to their audience and gradual change is the key to retaining them.  However, there is only so far this "evolution" can take you.  You can tweak and tune the engine of a tractor, but sometimes you've just got to bite the bullet and buy a purpose-built race car, if winning races is your dream.

Mantic have surprised me - they stared out as very bland and deriative, but seem to be getting more original as they go.  It helps that they have perhaps the only ex-GW author (Jake Thornton) who actually writes new rules (instead of rehashing various GW mechanics). Deadzone seems aimed at the skirmish-campaign "Necromunda" market which GW abandoned and I admit I am tempted

The Success Trap

Most "good" "fun" interesting rules usually start out with a small, enthusiastic group - usually friends, family, guys from the local gaming club. They want to make games they enjoy. Even Games Workshop would have been like this once.  Then, as it becomes more successful, the "business" side creeps in - you need accountants, advertising managers, business managers - often people who don't play the game or aren't interested in wargaming, period.  It becomes more about the "bottom line" and less about a "good game" - although the "good game" is what what brought the success in the first place.  I think the balance of power shifted to the "business" types in Games Workshop a long, long time ago - and I can see other companies heading down the same route. You can't argue with their results though - every year I think their business model is unsustainable, and yet every year they churn out huge amounts of cash.

The eternally unfinished game - "Well supported" = "Incomplete?"
When is a game actually complete? According to Games Workshop, the answer is "never!" as long as people are willing to pay. There's always some supplements or codexes to "update" to the latest edition of the rules.  They call it "supporting the game" but I call it "good business sense."  After all, why take the risk creating something new when you can simply remake the old and proven? There's a reason 90% of Holywood movies are sequels or remakes.

Its a bit like education reform. There is always some "new" way to teach kids, and always a new curriculum or "magic bullet" which is better than the last.  The curriculum designers and educational experts will never say "that's good enough" or "this system works OK" - because they'd be out of a job!

But perhaps it is the gamers' fault. 

A question I often hear asked when a new rules set is released is:

"Does the game have support?" (which sounds like they want to be reassured supplements will be available)  Should it need support? What is missing from the game that needs "supporting?"

My question would be

"Is the game complete?"
-Does the game come with scenarios or missions (or a campaign) to give good replayability?
-Does the game have enough factions to give variety?
-Are these factions "complete" and have matching miniature lines?

 The Ambush Alley (rules) GZG (miniatures) partnership works well. Because both companies are successful, and independent of each other, they can mutually benefit without "compromising" their focus (i.e. making good minis, or making good rules)

So, in the grim darkness of the 21st millenium, there is only commercialism

The evil crystal ball of Saruman the pessimist reveals:
*More generic rulesets play the same, regardless of era/genre, and use identical mechanics
*Games that are overly simple and not terribly challenging to keep a low "entry level"
*Games that emphasize collecting miniatures aka "army building" over tactics
*An increase in "supported" (aka incomplete) games that require a steady stream of supplements
*Rulebooks changing edition on a regular cycle
*A repeating cycle of unbalanced factions or units in competitive games

Unsurprisingly, the most commercially successful rules seem to share many of these traits i.e.
Warhammer Fantasy/40K, Warmachine, Flames of War, Bolt Action

So, to put a positive "spin" on this - what are some companies or games who DO NOT take this route?  I'd nominate Bombshell Games and Two Fat Lardies as rules publishers that seem to go against the "flow."  Games without a specific miniature line to "sell" tend to score well. For example, Ambush Alley Games now has a lot of "licensed" miniatures, but the miniatures came AFTER the rules, and thus did not drive the game design. 

Miniatures manufacturers tend to want to "hitch" themselves to a ruleset. Having a set of rules associated with your model line obviously helps sell miniatures. The danger is when the balance shifts and the rules simply becomes a vehicle for selling miniatures.  When your design philosophy is simply making your game "accessible" "easy to learn" and "generic" and to emphasize "miniature collecting" - rather than aiming for "tactical" "challenging" or "historical" - then that is what you'll get.

Miniature sales benefit from rulebooks - but rulebooks don't benefit from miniature sales

Thursday 9 January 2014

Why not a Medieval Zombie Apocalypse?

This is something I was discussing with my wife on the way home last night.

 Zombies are proliferating in books and on screen to an almost painful extent. But apart from the lighthearted Evil Dead spinoff Army of Darkness  the undead tend to confine their uprisings from the 1970s onward into the near future.  Why haven't zombies ventured into the past? It seems like they are shuffling about everywhere else. Alternate history, for all the avenues it could explore, tends to rather unimaginatively revolve around the Nazis winning WW2, or an American Civil War dragging on into the 20th century, with occasional ventures into the Victorian era.

A medieval setting seems purpose-built for the zombie apocalypse. 90% of fantasy tends to mimic a medieval aesthetic, so setting undead weirdness in a medieval times seems a great "fit."

The Middle Ages already has its own "apocalypse" - the Black Death - which killed 30-60% of Europe's population - an estimated 75 to 200 million people - effectively dropping the overall population from 450 to 350 million by 1400. It took 150 years to recover from this devastating event.

Replace plague rats arriving from the Far East around 1346 with "zombie rats" or "patient zero" and voila - the alternate history almost writes itself.

Just after I wrote this article, I came across this.  It comes with a whopping 1.5 star recommendation. Obviously classic cinema, to be enjoyed alongside epic moviemaking events like Sharknado I'm on eBay in another window as I type this.

But how might the "medieval zombie apocalypse" play out?  Well, we have almost infinite variations of zombie, but we'll use the "transmitted by blood/bite" viral version to keep with the disease theme.  We'll also dismiss the fast, scary 28 Days Later style "ragers" (aka simply blood-crazed humans) in favour of the "proper" shambling undead kind.  Something most zombie movies fail to address is if the "zombie virus" can be transmitted by animals - we sometimes see undead animals in cages and labs but we don't see them running around during the actual apocalpyse. Amusing as it would be to see a Monty-Python-esque rabid rabbit (bubonic plague can be transmitted to cats, dogs and various rodents), I'm going to dismiss zombie animals as not sufficiently "canon."  I'm also going to ignore the fact zombies would freeze stiff in winter, rot into immobile piles of bones, or get eaten by wolves or wild dogs. I.e. these will be the usual, extremely durable, "official" movie zombies that crave brains and are best killed by destroying their brains.

Population & Spread of the Plague
The average villager seldom travelled further than the next town.  Some weren't even allowed to leave their village.  The infected aren't going to be spreading via plane or train.  So the plague wouldn't travel rapidly.  News of the plague would probably be carried on horseback by messengers, so even without Twitter and Youtube the locals would probably be aware of the menace before it arrived.

Even then, it might be not so menacing as you'd think.  Although crowded cities might be devastated, like in the Black Death, the relatively spare population means it would be harder to get a "proper" zombie horde going.  Remote villagers might simply get random zombies wandering by every now and then.  And even then, the average peasant probably wouldn't stand around with his mouth open while his mates got eaten.

Game of Thrones, whilst fantasy, is what I'd term "gritty" or "hard" fantasy. Therefore, you could almost count these "White Walkers." I believe next season may see them in battle.

Dealing with the Undead
Since the average peasant firmly believed the dead could return to life, there would be a lot less hand-wringing and a lot more decisive action.  Rapists, murderers etc were often buried with rocks in their mouths to prevent them "coming back." Witches were decapitated, dismembered or burnt.

The average peasant, undoubtedly capable with an axe, pitchfolk or billhook (a farming implement so effective it became a standard infantry weapon), many of whom were expert hunters and bowmen, accustomed to being called out for military service  by their local lord, would probably be far better equipped, and mentally prepared to deal with the undead that the average modern householder.

The zombie virus might be blamed on the devil or evil spirits, but the elimination and disposal of zombies would no doubt be energetic and thorough.  They wouldn't be rocking wide-eyed in the corner waiting to be eaten, stammering "but that was Aunt Martha" - they'd be grabbing the nearest pointy stick.

The civil authorities' response would also be pretty decisive.  The nobles killed 300,000 peasants in a revolt in Germany in the more "enlightened" 1500s, so I doubt any medieval nobles would hesitate to raze complete towns and villages suspected of being "infected." 

After mentioning the rabid killer bunny, I had to include the relevant clip. Prime the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch!  (If you don't know who or what Monty Python is, please stop reading this blog and never come back)

Knights vs Zombies
Although modern firearms are undoubtedly superior to bows, there would probably plenty of villagers versed in their use (i.e. peasants were supposed to do archery practice on the weekends) and ammunition is both easily manufactured and re-usable. The padded or leather armour used by the medieval footsoldiers would also offer fair protection against zombie bites. Polearms would offer great "reach" for zombie splattering.  In fact most medieval weapons, designed to stab, bludgeon or hack their way through armour, would make short work of a zombie skull or neck (and remember, zombies are notoriously squishy.)

A fully armoured knight, on a bad-tempered warhorse would not doubt do even better at killing undead.  Against a huge horde, he'd eventually get dragged down and have his armour pulled off and juicy bits gnawed, but if he could keep from getting "bogged down" he could wreak considerable havoc. 

Shotguns (called "Boomsticks" in traditional texts, were a powerful zombie hunting weapon even in the Middle Ages.

Collapse of Systems
A key issue of the modern zombie apocalpyse is the loss of infastructure such as power, running water etc. It's probably a metaphor for... something. Basically, it's a big deal to us to lose all the things a medieval peasant never had anyway.  The average peasant wouldn't be have to travel to the big city and risk the undead hordes to scavenge for supplies - they farm and live off the land anyway. Not a lot would change, except maybe the tax collector from the local lord might not turn up that year.  Village life might get better!

Castles - maybe not as cool as they seem
Thick, high walls, sturdy doors, and moats - designed to deal with siege machines and ladders, would surely prove impenetrable for the average zombie.  However, although designed to withstand prolonged siege with plenty of supplies, zombies are besiegers who don't need supplies.  Letting zombies "build up" around a castle might be a problem, as once they reach critical mass the zombie horde could simply wait out the defenders. So castles would be a good base, but regular sorties would be needed to keep the local zombies manageable, especially if the castle was based near a large town.

The book "Stronghold" with Welsh zombies - was supposed to become a movie a year or so back. Sadly, nothing became of it.

Anyway, there seems to be a distinct lack of historical zombies out there on the net.  Although I could find these "Zindians" (zombie Indians) which I am absolutely going to buy, Medieval or not - I can't find any proper historic zombies.  Only poxy fantasy zombies (and magical animate skeletons which we all know are implausible, unscientific, and frankly ridiculous) with ridiculous gothic bling.

 These zombie Indians will spice up my French and Indian War games.

So if anyone finds good historic zombie miniatures out there (from any era pre-WW2), let me know.

Or send a copy of this post to the Perry twins, and tell them there are some medieval miniatures they missed in their Agincourt line.

Game Design #11: The Balanced Points System

OK, the title is a bit misleading.  The premise of this article is that there is no such thing. In fact, I think a truly balanced point system is impossible. Why?  It's those blasted players who insist on playing the games.

Different players get more or less "value" for their points out of different units or indeed, different factions

You know that player who is awesome with slow, tough dwarves but sucks with speedy flimsy dark elves? So do I.

In Infinity, there are two rather powerful abilities. One is thermal camouflage, which enables you to move around the board with a good chance of remaining completely unseen, and get the "first shot in" - invaluable in a game where weapons are long-ranged and lethal.  The other is advanced airborne deployment - you can walk on the board edge of your choice or make a roll to parachute in anywhere on the board you want, and gun down your enemies from behind.   Both very powerful abilities, right?  Both cost far more than a "vanilla" soldier.  However, players will usually be better with one method than the other.  You might use advanced deployment brilliantly, but not get the full benefit from your camouflage units, or vice versa.  That's because the "average" player is not "the same" in how he utilizes a unit or ability. Thus some abilities or units are worth more (or less) depending on who controls them. That's the first problem.

Players themselves are a reason points will never be precisely "balanced"

Broken Units & "Lists"
Sometimes units can become overpowering when they are "min-maxed" i.e. an all-camoflage army.
This may be very powerful against a "normal" army - therefore the "camoflage" (which was balanced under the expectation of having only 1-2 stealth units per side) is worth far more than its points cost suggests.

It also might have a "hard counter" i.e. an army with "X-Ray Vision" units which completely ignores camouflage; or one that uses all AoE weapons.  In that case, the camo is worthless, and the whole army is suddenly extremely overpriced.  Sometimes, "less is more" - having a single off-board "airborne" unit  or "stealth" unit can create uncertainty, messing with your opponents' battle plans far more than the actual points cost or combat value of the unit.

Even with a relatively balanced force, having "to many" of xy units as a ratio to other units can have an unbalancing effect. I.e the ability for a vehicle to transport a infantry squad is useful and well worth the points - but what if you have more far vehicles than you do "squads?" The points are wasted as you cannot utilise them. Other units rely on others - without a "scout" or "forward observer" to direct it, that artillery may not be worth its "points."  That's why you see points often used in conjunction with army lists i.e. "you must have 2 vanilla units for each camo unit" - to prevent the wilder extremes.

Other abilities seem rarely used - I have never used the "Zero-G" ability of my Nomad minis, simply because I've never had a vacuum-based game board.  If I played on a vacuum-based map every week, they would no doubt be "overpowered."  But as it is, any points towards this ability are effectively wasted.  In all games terrain has a dramatic effect on game balance. I'm using Infinity as an example, due to the lethality and range of weapons, and the ability of units to "react" by shooting at any enemy movement (even when it isn't there turn.)  In a open map, sniper rifles and HMGs would be ridiculously overpowered - most enemies would die on their base table edge.  In a "good" table with terrain every 4" or so (that's a huge amount of terrain, by "normal" wargame standards), shotguns, flamers and melee weapons at least have a vague chance at success. So the "practical" value of weapons, stats and abilities can also vary wildly depending on a game board.

Broken Factions
Like in the "camo" example, some factions naturally have a "rock" to their "scissors."  Anyone familiar with competitive-focussed games like Warhammer or Warmachine would be familiar with "flavour of the month" or "overpowered" builds.  I suspect this is because units are costed in "isolation" and do not always consider the other units in the army, or the opponents.

As I've noted, certain unit combinations work well with each other - a faction that possesses artillery AND forward observers will do better than one with just artillery.  However if all the other factions have access to airborne troops able to "drop in" and quickly neutralise the artillery, then the artillery is less valuable as a faction "strength."  Having lots of "scissors" can be valuable of most enemies bring "paper" but less so if most opponents are "rock."  Having no access to "scissors" at all could place a faction at a severe disadvantage against more balanced factions.

So there are a lot of variables to consider. Do you think the average "point system" actually covers them all?

So Broken, it's Balanced
It annoys me how game companies keep their points formula a secret. 

This is no doubt to stop people making up their own "proxy" units instead of "official" miniatures but I also think it is to disguise how much "fudging" is done by designers in order to "balance" some of the variables given above.   Being "open" about game balance is also being "open" to criticism, and we all know gamers are a bunch of whingers.  However they are also missing out on community help (i.e. free playtesting) to help balance their game.

Sometimes, a game can be so "broken" by weird special rules, unit "synergy" and wildly differing units and factions, it becomes "balanced" simply as there are so many options a gamer can use to succeed.

I'd cite Warmachine (a game which rejoices in cheesiness and min-maxing) and the ever-more-complex Infinity. There are so many possible units, stats, variations and combinations it would be impossible to balance them all, and I suggest the designers long ago gave up the attempt. But it doesn't seem to have an effect.  Why?

Because "special abilities" in these games are so powerful, a player's ability to remember and utilize his abilities and know the possible actions of his opponent, means a "good player" will tend to beat a "bad one" every time, regardless of precise "point costs."  I'd argue this has more to do with having "secret knowledge", good memory and a card-game-like ability to perform combos than true "tactics" but that is an argument for another post. 

So some games are so broken, they are actually balanced!

Sometimes "abilities" or stats have a good synergy with others that make them disproportionately powerful

Players or the Points System
It's easy to say "players are cheesy min-maxing bleeps" but if the rules allow it....

In a PC game I play called World of Tanks, people often whine about "gold ammunition." Basically, it is a tank shell with ~25% more armour piercing ability. Using "gold shells" proportionately reduces your "reward" at the end of the game.  So basically you are improving your chance of success, for an decreased reward if you do succeed.   It is a completely intentional, deliberately implemented feature of the game, but people who use gold shells are alleged to be "cheating" "skill-less" and "cheesey" as they can kill tanks more reliably, and now certain tanks can take down other tanks that they were not originally designed to be able to penetrate.  But is it the fault of the players, or the game system?

I'd suggest many "points systems" are not particularly carefully playtested. Many rules are written and published (and playtested) by a small group of family/friends, who are not typical of your normal competitive tournament gamer.  Even if you do not design your game for those players, those players can and will play your game.

That said, whatever system you come up with probably will be exploited by someone.  

The other method might be "go with the flow" and make army building integral to the game itself. I'd argue Warhammer is 50% army building, and only 50% wise deployment/tactical skill.  "He smashed me with an killer list." Building "killer" lists (and min-maxing thereof) is an even bigger, actively encouraged component in Warmachine. This promotes the "collecting" side of the hobby which miniatures manufacturers love.

If you make the points system "part of the game" there is less justification for complaints when players do "min-max" - because they are simply being good "players" seeking the best army "build."

So should we abandon points systems?

The games that don't have points systems, tend to rely on (and aggressively preach) scenarios.  However they seldom explain how to design and balance said scenarios. The irony is that it is much easier to balance scenarios when you have "points" to work with. In addition, a "points" system is much easier to pick up and play.  "Balancing" a points-less scenario can be tricky, as you have to understand how well each unit works, BEFORE you can play a balanced game.  No "points" system makes the game less accessible and harder to "pick up and play."  

(OT Rant: Everyone hates paying for "codexes" and "army lists" in addition to the rules, but no one ever seems to mind paying for "scenario books", which, for scenario-based games, are effectively doing the same thing - adding variety and content that could (or should) have been in the original rulebook)

I'd say "points" should be well-nigh mandatory for sci fi and fantasy.  If the game is designed simply to replay historical scenarios, then yes, you could skip a points system, but that does minimize your target audience, many of whom were introduced to wargaming via games with points.  Again, it comes down to "accessibility." Not everyone has the time or ability to organize scenarios or missions in advance.

I really like how some games (like Dropzone Commander) are based on "missions" which add flavour and different ways to win, but (as in videogames) you can usually kinda ignore then and just "kill em" all if you wish. I noticed this in the PC game Mechwarrior: Online where "missions" usually turned into "kill em while they are distracted by objectives." Yeah, we hold no "objectives" - but if you are all dead, we can capture them at our leisure. Even then, "missions" are not balanced - for example faster armies have an advantage in "capture" missions.

Its hard to avoid "points." They tend to exist in most games, sometimes indirectly. In fact games that allow players to choose forces are by nature "points" games - "bring 2 squads and a support squad" or "bring 12 elements" or "your team can be worth 300 gold" work the same as "bring 1000 points."

So summarising some of the thoughts above:

1. Different unit/army abilities and stats are worth more or less, depending on the player using them

2. Sometimes having lots of x unit makes them proportionately more powerful (stacking)
3. Sometimes only having a single x unit can create problems disproportionate to its value
4. A enemy "hard counter" can render certain unit abilities (and thus points paid for them) worthless
5. Certain units "improve" or magnify the effect (value) of other units

6. Certain armies have more advantageous combinations of units (as per #5) than others
7. Certain armies have combinations that specifically cancel out the "advantages" of their foes

8. Terrain can have a major impact on abilities, stats and weapons

9. Most units are "costed" in isolation without consideration of synergies between units/enemies
10. Most "points systems" are inadequately playtested (or not "tested to destruction")
11. Most "points systems" "fudge" points in an attempt to account for variables
12. Given the huge amount of variables, it is probably impossible to consider them all
13. Someone will always find a way to "break" the system

As you can see, "points" have a lot of problems. A truly balanced points system is, I suggest, impossible (unless the game is simplified to a "checkers" level).   However there are no real user-friendly alternatives - for example pure "scenarios" or "missions" are harder to organise and even benefit from the inclusion of points.  Points are fundamentally flawed, but remain a handy balancing tool regardless.

So in conclusion:  Points are inherently unbalanced, they will always be "exploitable" but it's the best we have to work with at the moment

Wednesday 8 January 2014

Game Design #10: Pre-measuring and "Guessing" mechanics

With the advent of modular terrain I see a lot of raging about "pre-measuring" using the grid-like nature of tiles, which has inspired me to explore what is apparently a surprisingly emotive topic.

OK, first let's define them:

You may measure any and all distances on the tabletop BEFORE moving, shooting etc

Basically, if you announce an action (usually a shooting or "charge" action), you must take that action, even if it may turn out to be beyond the range of the weapon, or the maximum move, thus "wasting" a  move or shot.

Ease of play. 
I'd argue both are about the same speed - people can waste time estimating ranges or endlessly measuring.  Slow players will always be slow.  I'd say using a ruler is something people can pick up faster, but guessing works slightly better with large numbers of units.  However, I don't really think either system offers significant advantages over the other with regards to simplicity or gameplay speed.

Claiming pre-measuring turns wargames into a math exercise ignores many other variables.

On one hand, it seems ridiculous that a soldier would not have a good idea of the effective range of his weapon (or that he can use ranging shots), or how far he can travel when loaded with combat gear - even ignoring modern or sci fi equipment. A modern Abrams gunner would be able to "pre-measure" not only the exact range, but also temperature, wind speed, etc.

In addition, pre-measuring offers choice. You can choose to use it or not.  However games that ban it are limiting a gamer's options, and thus the game's broader appeal.  In addition, the more "clinical" nature of pre-measuring might make a game easier to balance (though this assumes both players are equally good at choosing when/where to measure, which they aren't....  and argument on what makes a "fair" point system or indeed even if one is possible is one for another post). In addition, pre-measuring which removes "uncertainty" makes rules situations more clear for both parties.

It's not like wargames don't already have uncertainty, pre-measuring or not.  Pre-measuring does not suddenly make a game "like chess" or 100% boringly predictable. (And even chess, with its x will always do y, is still far from predictable)

Against Pre-measuring
The rebuttal would be that there are lots of historical accounts of soldiers shooting to soon/too high/too low, and although the "grunt" has a fair grasp of ranges etc, the "commander" doesn't (or didn't listen) - and in most cases, the player is the commander not the individual grunt)

Pre-measuring does remove uncertainty, making the game more predictable and "mathematical." It removes an element of "risk vs reward."  It increases the feel of the "player-as-god" (with far more precise control than historical commanders) and allows faster or better ranged units a much stronger advantage as they can more precisely take advantage of their abilities. 

The precision allowed by pre-measuring can make certain players who are skilled at using it very hard to beat.  "Guessing" is equally a skill, but still allows an element of uncertainty. The "guess" camp would claim pre-measuring will reduce games to their most clinical, mathematical level.

Apples are easier to pick up and eat, but do they give the best juice?


"Guessing" is more intuition, estimation and "feel."  Pre-measuring is more about simple math. In one, there is more information (arguably, a level of information generals wished they had, but didn't).  Whilst I'd argue an individual soldier would know the exact distance he can move or shoot in x amount of time, the general (you) would not, relative to him, other members of his force, and every enemy on the board.  The average wargame already has unrealistically low "fog of war" and pre-measuring removes even more of it. The near-perfect precision of pre-measuring should be, according to its opponents, reserved only for "boardgames." 

On the other hand many prefer the more "set" world of pre-measuring. Miss-guessing range and thus messing up a vital charge may be frustrating. Also, with pre-measuing, both sides can "see what is coming" before actions are taken and dice are rolled, leading to a more relaxed game. With guessing, any arguments about measuring will occur AFTER the decision, dissenting players are seen to be "wriggling out of" or reversing an already finalised situation, making contentions more "emotional."

Guessing Mechanics
Weapons that require you to "guess" the range to score hits I unequivocally do not agree with. One reason is simply because there are some gifted individuals who can guess with uncanny and unhistorical accuracy.  It seems a bit unfair to pick on what is undoubtedly a "skill" but game balance flies out the window when an AoE template can be dropped on targets with monotonous and devestating efficiency. Generals did not win battles by their ability to individually man and fire each shot of artillery.

The other reason - to have all weapons but say artillery dependent on unit stats and dice, then another dependent on "guessing ability" is simply it is illogical and inconsistent.  It is as inconsistent and annoying as in Warmachine where you can pre-measure around the caster but must guess everything else.   If we are going to use radically different, non-stat based mechanics, why not replace the "guessing game" with mechanics that involve firing rubber bands or rolling marbles at the target?

The all-seeing nature of most wargames, where players see all their own and enemies units, and can equally control companies or micromanage individual soldiers, has a bigger impact on "realism" and gameplay than pre-measuring ever could.

So which is "right?"
I'm going to please no-one and go with "neither." To be honest, I think there are other issues at play here, which (for me anyway) have a bigger impact on games than pre-measuring.   It's hard to view a single game concept in isolation from the rest of the rules.  Even a mechanic like vanilla IGOUGO - which I dislike on principle - I acknowledge it has merit for some games such as Warmachine where "combos" and chaining attacks is an integral part of the gameplay.  Here's some from my personal list:

-Fixed movement (the general knows every infantry will move 6" predictable, every time.) There are many games that control movement with dice i.e. 3D6" move. Even WFB uses this. This removes the alleged "complete certainty" that comes with pre-measuring, but allows some "calculation of odds."

-No graduated firing scales i.e.  "All damage or none" - when a unit fires with maximum damage (say 10 attack dice) to 24" - then the bullets vanish magically and it does NO damage at 25"+,. Not only is this nonsensical and "gamey," but pre-measuring is made unrealistically powerful.

-Time Scale/activation and "reactions". Dividing the game into fixed "turns" has an unrealistic nature in itself.  Troops don't move for x amount of time and "freeze" to allow their opponent to have their turn.  There are different approaches to this - Ambush Alley presumes troops within 2" of cover to count as "in cover" presuming troops will move to cover if fired upon, TFL often games divides their "turns" into phases of variable length.  Other games allow units to "react" by moving to cover.  If troops can "return fire" or move in response to foes, it removes a lot of the "gamey-ness" of premeasuring i.e. waiting 1" beyond missile range then moving in to shoot when it is your turn.

Take vanilla IGOUGO - where one side remains completely static and passive while the other resolves all their actions unhindered - that is a very common system, that makes a bigger difference (for me) than pre-measuring.

-The players. I'd say this is the #1 factor.  You get over-competitive or overly fussy jerks no matter what system you use, or what game you play.  Others are "fluffy" role-players. I'd say players have 10x more influence on the speed, drama and unpredictability of the game than this mechanic.

I know I am very clinical in "pre-measure" games and whilst (at least I'd like to think so) I am relaxed and laid back when gaming, it can be unpleasant to have to "declare" a game a few turns in as you are being obviously eviscerated. However many players who can pre-measure (in a game that permits it), don't. I find it interesting that both players have access to the same information, but some choose not to utilize it. I also find pre-measuring encourages me to "plan ahead." So "pre-measuring" could be argued to be a skill all of its own.  And if "pre-measuring" is a skill, then so is "guesstimating."  People who are good guessers have a similar advantage - although it might be harder to master.  So really we are choosing which skill we want to be most important in our wargame. 

-The sort of game it is employed for. It's a bit like the boardgame vs tabletop game argument. Some games lend themselves to pre-measuring, and other do not. It seems a bit snobby to claim certain mechanics "belong" to one genre or another actually.  It's almost like saying you can only use d6 for fantasy games and you can only use d100 for RPGs.   The only thing that makes a "boardgame" or "tabletop" game is one is played on a board, the other on a table with terrain. 

-The "command level."  The player controls everything in most games - he controls the overall flow of the battle, as well as micro-managing individual heroes and squads.  In reality, a commander might work with unit structures "one up and one down" i.e. a platoon leader might interact with company HQ and his squad leaders, but he would not be directing every fire-team or individual within a squad - his sergeants or corporals would be doing that - neither would he be controlling the actions of other platoons or companies.  The "player controls everything" could be argued to remove even more realism, drama and uncertainty than pre-measuring ever could.

-The All-seeing eye. Being able to see all the units, all the time is a far more powerful ability than pre-measurement.  Most games have a very limited representation of "fog of war" - most games have none.

I always find it interesting when one side in a debate is more militant than the other.  In this case, I'd say it is the pro-guessers. I don't think I've ever seen a post or article insisting a game MUST be pre-measured.  Neither have I seen one saying how guessing distances "ruins the game" is "skill-less" or "sucks."

Really, what is right is what you enjoy.
I've pointed out that most successful mass-market games give players a unrealistically high level of control (i.e. IGOUGO) and obviously many players do enjoy it.   Luckily there is enough options out here that you can choose either method - or, if you have relaxed opponents, you might be able to choose what you prefer regardless of what the rules say.

Whilst it is a fun debate, for me, the worst possible outcome would be that either side of this debate triumph, leaving us in a world where either pre-measuring was banned, or forced upon everyone.  I choose option "C" - we should be allowed to choose both.

Tuesday 7 January 2014

Game Design #9: Fluff 'n Stuff

What we gamers term "Fluff" tends to be the preserve of sci fi or fantasy games, but could equally be applied to historical games (the word "background" would probably be preferred by historic gamers.)

In this specific sense I am talking about "fluff" it is as the background and attached history/stories of a game setting.  The "crunch" is the rules themselves. The "fluff" is the universe attached to the rules. 

Fluff - How to present it
Sometimes, like in Malifaux, it was in large chunks interspersed through the entire book. A terrible idea, it made the rulebook difficult to navigate.  Should it be in the front or the back of the book?  It really depends.  The most important thing is fluff is "tight" and not needlessly descriptive and rambling (more on that later.)  Some people love fluff, but others don't love paying $40 for a rulebook which is 20% rules and 80% poorly written fiction.  A method I prefer is a small "taster" of no more than a page or two at the front of the book to "orientate" me to the setting, with more fluff buried at the back where I can read it if I choose.  Even better - put the majority of the fluff on the website. If it is that engaging, I'll go looking for more.  Darkson Designs did a short, 3-4 page per episode series called "Over the Wire" for their Weird War 2 game, in which they regularly released army lists, scenarios and fluff. I thought that was a great idea. It was like White Dwarf without the advertising. (Actually, White Dwarf without the advertising WOULD be only 3-4 pages long.)  Wyrd go a step further and have a large, rather well-produced free e-zine. If only they could have confined their "fluffy" efforts within their rules....

The weirder the setting, the more useful the fluff
The weirder and less conventional your game, the more useful "fluff" is to orientate your reader.
E,g, if you have nazi zombies, you need to explain how or why they are in your game. If you have a steampunk-Victorian-sci fi-horror-Western game like Malifaux, fluff is essential. Gamers will find it easier to "identify" with factions and armies, and it may give them creative ideas.  Bear in mind many gamers are "obsessive compulsive" and will slavishly follow your fluff. Your "fluff" can set the tone of the game.

 Fluff is handy to "orientate" a gamer to a new or unusual background

When Fluff takes over

I'd regard the Games Workshop games as major culprits in this area.  Gamers are so bombarded with "proscribed" paint schemes, unit histories, they find it impossible to think "outside the box."  When was the last time you saw a 40K army in traditional "army" camo? They tend to slavishly follow paint schemes put forth in the "fluff."  Gamers kinda do it to themselves though. I think it is a kind of "gamer" OCD.  How often do you see a miniatures paint scheme that is not a copy of the one shown in the rulebooks or on the box? Sometimes, too much fluff can stifle creativity.  That said, the Warhammer series are a great example of successful fluff.

Successful Fluff
Like or hate Games Workshop, their rather cliche "fluff" - which borrows heavily from a wide range of sources  - from Starship Troopers to Aliens to Terminator - has spawned a huge range of novels. When your fluff makes your target audience ignore how tedious and lame your rules are, you've done well. When your "fluff" has its own publishing house, you know you've made it to the top.

How much is too much?
The answer is "it depends."  I review several dozen rulesets a year.  The average rule length is ~30 pages. The average rulebook length is 80+ pages.  Even allowing for army and equipment lists, I'd estimate about 1/3rd of any given rulebook is fluff.  With "mass market" glossy rulesets by companies such as Games Workshop or Privateer Press, the proportion of fluff is much, much higher. 

Fan Fiction
There is a vast different between a good rules writer and a good story writer.  Sadly, the rules writers themselves do not seem to recognise this. Being able to write clever, innovative rules does not automatically make you the next George R.R. Martin. This may be harsh, but I can't recall reading one "story" in a rulebook that had even a shred of entertainment value or merit except in the writer's mind. 

Most read like teenage fanfiction or a "Boy's Own" story.  Which some people might like. Your mileage may vary.  Writing is an art, and it is a sad fact that like all art, some people are much more talented at it than others. There is no good reason to inflict terrible fiction on the wider public, just because it is "fluff."

I'd estimate the vast majority of rulebooks are edited and checked by a small circle of friends or acquaintances, rather than by professional editors at a large publishing company. And this is pretty darn obvious.
 The level of fluff writing in most rules is about the same as the average Twilight fan-fiction

Here's my advice to budding "fluff" writers:
Your wife/mum/dad/kids/playtesters/friends/gaming buddies can proofread your layout and spelling, but they are biased. They do not count as "literacy" critics.  It is the rules buyers (who don't know you, nor care about nurturing your budding "literacy" career) who judge you.  They do not enjoy being your "guinea pigs" as you hone your writing craft. Just because they buy (or continue to buy) your rulebooks does not indicate their endorsement or approval of your "fluff."  In fact they may be buying your rules in spite of your fluff. In the case of Malifaux, the overuse and poor layout of fluff strongly detracts from the useability of the rules themselves.

Furthermore, keep the fluff  "focussed."  Fluff typically tends to ramble on, and have excessive or unecessary detail.  This is typical of (a) less skillful fiction writers (I come across it a lot when marking literacy tasks at my primary school) and is magnified by (b) the writer's over-enthusiasm for the "world" he has created - which is not necessarily shared by everyone.  We probably don't care if the space marine captain misses his girlfriend from Xaltos 9, or what colour hair she has.  Or the exact texture and consistency of the chunky bits when he is blown apart by a vortex mine. (OK, maybe some teenagers would think this is awesome) When you become as famous like J.R.R. Tolkien, then we may choose to buy and  read books which are specifically about the worlds you have invented. But you need to assume most people bought your books for your wargame rules, not your imaginary world or budding literacy efforts.

Remember to keep in mind your "target audience." Warhammer has done this superbly. Sometimes your audience will be as twisted as you - witness the success of the Kingdom Death kickstarter.  Other times you will alienate your audience.  "Yes, this is all commonsense," you say.  But let me give you a real example. I'd suggest rape is seldom a popular topic for any work of fiction, and homosexual rape probably even less so. But I have read rules fluff that contains this, and then boasted as a selling point that it was an "adult" game. No, it was simply an overly-detailed skirmish ruleset, with some poorly written fluff about a very unpleasant topic.

 Sometimes the most twisted fluff will find an appreciative audience, aka Kingdom Death. However, most people will find it a turn-off.

So should we ditch fluff?
No. Fluff is important.

You don't need fluff to play a game, and it certainly should not detract from the clarity of the rules themselves. But it shouldn't be the primary focus when designing a wargame. I'd be annoyed to find a ruleset wasn't balanced as well as it ought because the rules designer was writing fluff instead.

Fluff makes a difference in why battles are fought, and gives a "background" and context to battles. If you are simply fighting competitive/encounter battles, then "fluff" is very useful in this role. Games like Battletech are rather clunky, but solid fluff keeps them perambulatory.  The Warhammer series skillfully uses fluff to disguise vapid game design.

Sometimes "fluff" changes how people play a army. This sort of "role playing" is fun and is a welcome respite from the win-at-all-costs approach (we all know someone who is like that!)  Fluff can inspire you to get painting and modelling project finished and can provide "inspiration" when you need ideas. 

I tend to view wargaming as a "story" - we can be refighting history or creating our own. Without fluff we might as well play chess.  In fact, even historical games could be considered to have "fluff" - why do the Germans have Tigers in 1944 but not in 1939? 

I use this "Dad" analogy when talking about summaries but it applies equally to fluff.   Fluff should be like a bikini. It shows everything that's interesting and covers only what is necessary.

If you want to ramble on, get a blog. So....

Fluff IS good. BUT

1. Fluff should not interfere with the rules themselves. Fluff should not be the majority of the book.
2. Not everyone writes great fiction. And no, you are likely not an unrecognised literacy genius
3. Fluff should not be edited by your mum, dad, wife or hot cousin. They are not good literacy critics.
4. Fluff should not be overly descriptive; not everyone is deeply fascinated by your imaginary world
5. Not everyone likes fluff, nor paying for you to publish your fiction under guise of a "rulebook"
6. Fluff should not be "prescriptive" i.e. Ultramarines must always be blue - as that discourages creativity

I don't want people to be discouraged from adding background to their games. Far from it!  There are awesome websites and forums devoted to fluff, some wonderfully eccentric and inventive. The VSF and imagi-nations crowd are particularly strange awesome.  There are some amazing sources of inspiration and creativity out on forums, blogs, yahoo groups and websites which you can choose to visit.

What I am opposed to is the propagation of excessive, "bad" fluff - which is done at a rulebook purchaser's expense.

Game Design #8: Scenarios for Wargames

Sorry - I'm not going to suggest scenario ideas for you. This post shares its title with the name of a old (~1981) book by Charles Stewart Grant, of WRG. 

It is a purpose-built book of generic scenarios.  52 to be precise. As the author points out, there's one for each week of the year. For someone who is used to most rulebooks including 4-6 scenarios at best, this is a tremendous resource, well worth the $25 I paid for it secondhand.  Heck, you'd pay more than that for a Warhammer supplement with only 10 extra scenarios. If you see a copy lying around - snap it up!

 52 generic scenarios - you could play a different one every weekend for a year!

Each scenario has details on the "mission" itself, there is a generic map with accompanying explanations, it suggests a period (most are horse-and-musket but can be adapted with commonsense) with red and blue teams (usually described as infantry, light infantry, light or heavy cavalry, or artillery) as well as details on how the scenario will unfold as well as "winning" conditions.

As I was paging thorough this very useful resource, I was thinking I wish instead of somewhat period-specific "light and heavy cavalry" there was simply a "ratio" of unit strength - that would make it easier to use a points-based wargame from any era.

Which brings me to:

The Army Lists/Points vs Scenarios Chestnut
The "points vs scenarios" debate always seems silly to me, as it seems commonsense for a rulebook to always include BOTH.  Those who refrain from including "points systems" for a range of philosophical reasons and are "scenario only" (such as Ambush Alley Games) are:
(a) limiting their target audience, namely those who want to play "pick up games" and who don't have a regular opponent, or who don't have the opportunity, desire or time to prepare scenarios, or
(b) making life difficult for the scenario players themselves, who are seeking a rule of thumb to "balance" (or even "unbalance") said scenarios.

Likewise, games with only a "kill em all" style encounter games a.k.a. deathmatch (such as the early versions of Infinity or Warmachine) tend to become repetitious and dull rather quickly. 

I mean, if the players don't want to use either points systems or scenarios provided, they don't have to.  The game designer is unlikely to come around to your house and repossess your rulebook if you don't use the method he likes best.  But to deliberately omit one or the other from your rules is to deliberately alienate part of the gaming public. I mean, I presume game designers want to sell their rulebooks?
The Holy Trinity
Mr Grant himself suggests points systems have a place - good for creating reasonably balanced forces with an element of the unexpected  i.e. you don't always know what the "1000 points" will consist of - as the number and type of units which make up that "1000 points" can vary greatly. Points systems are good for arranging "spur of the moment" games and are very convenient.

However these games lack meaning and context.  A campaign gives a strategic background that adds meaning to the battle.  The variations are infinite. It can be as complicated or as simple as uou want.  It can include many "factions" or countries, include personalities, resupply, prisoners, casualties, even "out of game" politics and intrigue. It might use a strategic map or it might not.   Many regard a good campaign as the pinnacle of wargaming. However these take a lot of time and effort to organise - campaigns are pretty much the opposite end of the spectrum from the easy points-based pick-up game.  It is also hard (unless you are the stereotypical but rare unemployed gamer living in mum's basement) to find time to play the many consecutive games required for a decent length campaign.

Mr Grant suggests the scenario bridges the gap between the points based games and campaigns. It can be played in the time frame of a "pick up game" but provides a sense of background, of purpose - a "mission" - and allows for unbalanced forces. Victory is not simply "wiping out" the enemy. Ah, variety - the spice of life!

 But which is best?
In the foreword, Mr Grant makes some comments I find interesting. It might be informative for the "scenarios-only-points-are-AIDS camp" (who in my experience are far more militant in their attacks on the "points based" folk than vice versa).

" is not the intention (of scenarios) to replace confrontation games or wargames competitions"

" (scenarios) is not intended to be a alternative to wargames campaigns, but perhaps a subsitute..."

The man who wrote what I regard as the ultimate "scenario" bible preaches tolerance.  He sees that all three methods have a purpose, and can co-exist peacefully. No one method should exclude the others.

I think the better question is not "which is best, points or scenarios?" but
"Why do not all wargames rules always have provision for all three approaches - points, scenarios, and campaigns?"

Monday 6 January 2014

Game Design #7: Design Philosophy

In my old rulebooks, game designers often used to intersperse their rules with a foreword, then a running "commentary" throughout the book - usually self-indulgent, rambling, and replete with stupid puns.  It was really annoying.  That's what blogs were invented for.

Luckily those style of "forewords" seem to be a thing of the past, but one useful job they did do, was often highlight some of the author's purpose (as we call it in Year 5 literacy class), or intent. I.e. what exactly is the author trying to do with these rules? What is his design philosophy?

A clear design philosophy keeps both parties honest

Imagine if Bolt Action advertised itself as "A very playable, simple ruleset, with game mechanisms designed for pick-up games and competitive play. Designed to appeal to Warhammer and Flames of War fans, it shares many mechanisms with both games so it will be easy to learn. Definitely tends towards being a tournament game rather than a simulation, it is a good "introductory" game for WW2 platoon-level skirmish. Will be expanded with numerous expensive but glossy supplements which will contain more army lists"  Purchasers would know exactly what they were getting, and you wouldn't have people complaining about rifles that only shoot 50m.

A clear design philosophy means happier purchasers, and better "word of mouth."
It's better to have someone tell everyone at the club "I didn't play it as it didn't seem my style of game - you might like it though, as it plays like xy" rather than "I wasted $40 on the rules and they were s**t"

Why are people nostalgic for the "old" 40K? Because it was true to its design philosophy - as a characterful RPG-lite skirmish game.  The same engine has been turned into a mass battle tournament game designed to be able to use/sell lots of miniatures.

A clear design philosophy makes for a better game
Also, if the game designer keeps his philosophy in mind as he works on his game, it keeps the game focussed and consistent.  The game doesn't turn into something it shouldn't.

Case Study #1
Take Warhammer 40K.  A lot of people originally enjoyed Rogue Trader through to 2nd ed. 40K.  Many started to become disillusioned at around 3rd or 4th edition of 40K.  Why?

I'd suggest it is because 40K was originally a skirmish game, with RPG elements.  First edition was played with one or two squads, a hero and a vehicle of some sort.  Players were encouraged to use their imaginations and to customise their forces.  Heck, a RPG-style "gamemaster" was recommended.

But it didn't sell enough miniatures.  Warhammer 40K slowly morphed into a mass battle game.  It started to be become blander, to be better balanced for tournament play.  The game became streamlined, and lost so much detail so it was no longer a fun skirmish game. Creativity was sacrificed for competitive army lists.  The core game engine was now used for handling 5 x more miniatures than it was originally designed for. Around 5th ed, Apocalypse saw games of over 3000 points that could drag on all day. It might be half an hour or more before you get your "turn."

Why is this a problem? Because at its core, Warhammer 40K still has the mechanics of a lite-RPG/skirmish ruleset. But it abandoned its design philosophy and tried to become a different game altogether. The new "design" philosophy is "make it easy to push lots of miniatures around." It isn't a fun skirmish game anymore, and it isn't a good mass battle game either - because its core mechanics were not originally designed for mass battle games. 40K abandoned its design philosophy. 

Games Workshop's Epic is a much better mass battle game than 40K. Why?  Because it was designed that way from the start.  Epic "fits" its design philosophy just fine.  (It evidently didn't make as much money selling minis, so it was mothballed)

You may or may not like the gameplay in Battlestations! But the rules are very focussed, and it is clear what it is trying to achieve.
Case Study #2
I picked Battlestations! Battlestations!- a rather obscure WW2 naval game that has always been overshadowed by more popular naval games like General Quarters.

On the back cover it says "simulate major fleet actions"  "battles of 30 ships take under 3 hours"  "focus on tactics rather than minutia"  "markers track damage, and eliminate bookkeeping."
"includes player aids and markers."

That's a pretty clear design philosophy right there, and I know what to expect when I play the game.

I can expect to be able to fullfil its claim to quickly handle large numbers of ships, unlike General Quarters which slows down with more than a squadron or two a side.  I would expect firing and damage to be rather abstract, as it focuses on "tactics rather than minutia" and relies on markers rather than a ship damage log. I also don't have to visit their website to get the markers and stats needed to play.*

(*Off Topic Rant: It REALLY annoys me how many modern games require you to go to their website to download their quick play charts, play logs, markers, army lists, templates etc. Things REQUIRED to play.  I expect everything you need to play, bar the miniatures, to come in the rulebook.  I paid for the whole rules, not "half now, half off our website.") Or games that rely on their yahoo group/forums to clarify poorly explained/edited rules *cough 2WHG cough*  You could say it is good "aftermarket service" or you could rather cynically call it not doing the job properly the first time. 

So, no one who buys Battlestations! can say "awww, these rules don't have enough detail for me - it doesn't count every individual hit from the ship's secondary 4.1" guns."  Because the design criteria is "nailed to the mast" on the back cover - no one would expect that level of detail.

Whilst it might not be the WW2 naval game you seek, it sticks to its design criteria and performs well in its focus area i.e. "major fleet actions."  It probably would not work as well as a smaller-scale ruleset such as General Quarters for a squadron-level ship action, but no one would expect it to. And that is obvious from a quick glance at the back cover of the book.

In addition, the designer has an "afterword" where he gives specific details of his design philosophy.  He says he wants to get away from current systems, where with more than 4 ships a side, bookkeeping takes up the majority of player time.  He says he judges a ruleset by the clarity of its "quick reference sheet" and charts. He says he can gets the same historical results on a single chart, as you can for rolling for hits, penetration, hit location, etc.  He says in most wargames, smaller ships seem to die more often than is historically accurate.  He wants to "streamline" gameplay, not "simplify it" or dumb it down.  In addition, he adds a morale system (linked to nationality) so games are not fought unrealistically to "the last ship standing."

This gives you a VERY clear picture of what the designer is trying to achieve.  As a purchaser you have a very clear expectation of what you are getting. You shouldn't be surprised by the way the rules play. It also holds the game designer to a very rigorous standard. You don't get half-assed games that are neither one thing nor the other.

A clear design philosophy makes for satisfied customers and holds game designers to a certain standard.

In short, a clear design philosophy makes for a better gaming experience.

Sunday 5 January 2014

Game Design #6: "Realism" in Wargames

Realism = Bad?
If you say a wargame needs to be more realistic, you usually get showered with a bunch of platitudes like:

"It's just a game, sheesh." 
"Do you LIKE lots of charts and tables?" 
"It's impossible to be real, you're playing with toys."

The first is a load of crap.  Yes, it IS obviously a game. But so is tic-tac-toe or poker. I play wargames so I'd like it to bear at least a passing resemblance to warfare in the period. If not, I might as well use my miniatures as chess pieces.  I don't play medieval siege battles using space marines or refight Stalingrad using ancient Hittities on DBA basing, and I don't know many gamers that do.  If they have WW2 miniatures, they tend to play a WW2 game.

The second is a "straw man" argument - a misrepresentation or informal fallacy. No, I did not say I like wargames to have lots of charts or to be complicated. I said I liked them to be more realistic.

The third, if not another straw man, is definitely disingenuous. Yes, it IS impossible for a game with toys to replicate a real war.  But obviously it is possible to give an acceptability accurate (aka plausible) "feel" for warfare of the period. Otherwise, why have militiaries used (and continue to use) "wargames" as a teaching tool and visualisation aid?

Because that Colt .45 will definitely knock out that Tiger tank...

Define "Realism"
Most gamers seem to like it - I mean, heaven forbid you paint the soldier's straps the wrong colour on a Napoleanic army. What if, in your ancients game, cavalry moved 6" and infantry moved 12"?  Or what if you brought Waffen SS to battle riding in bright turquoise halftracks?  What if, in your game, bolt-action sniper rifles fired faster than a MG42?

Even sci fi and fastasy (the realm of the purely imaginary) have expectations of realism, especially if they come from a specific genre of franchise.  Imagine if you fielded purple Ultramarines or yellow and pink Blood Angels? That would raise eyebrows.  What about a laser pistol that shoots 48" when a laser rifle shoots only 6"?  Should that laser pistol able to 1-shot a Baneblade supertank?  You'd expect a goblin in a loincloth to be squishier than an armoured troll, right?  Interestingly, sci fi seems to follow historic trends i.e. Star Trek reminds me of "age of sail", Star Wars of "WW2 naval/aerial dogfights in space", Aliens has a "Vietnam" vibe.  Warhammer 40K is space medieval fantasy.

If we don't care about realism, why not use a $2 pack of plastic army men and shoot rubber bands and roll marbles at them like when we were kids?   So obviously gamers do like realism to some degree, when it suits them.  So what is "too much realism" and what is "not enough?"

I understand why people say "complex games = not fun." Heck, I'm one of them myself.

But why do people say "realistic games = not fun." Why is this? Is realism less "fun?"

"Realism" is not a synonym for "Complexity"
It seems like people (and many game designers) are confusing "complexity" with "realism." 

I'd define realism as"reasonably plausible" for the period being gamed. I'd expect a realistic game to give a "feel" for the era. Tabletop gamers could use historical tactics with a expectation they'd get reasonably similar results.  I would NOT define "realism" as "replaying every last detail and action in a battle."  That is "complexity."

Complexity is not a function of realism. Complexity is a function of bad wargames design
(but that's probably a topic all of its own!)

Fun AND Realistic?
For me, a good set of rules can accurately reflect a "real battle" in a casual, playable way. Without counting every rivet on the battleship or every round fired by the platoon sergeant's M16. A game can be quite abstract and still be realistic. The process can be simple and still give accurate results and a historical "feel."

                                                    Narrative & Realism in Gaming
For me, gaming is often "telling a story" - sometimes you rewrite history, sometimes you follow it, sometimes (like sci fi and fantasy) you make it up. But sci fi/fantasy aside, you need a set of rules that can plausibly represent the period. If your modern rules make it more worthwhile to charge into melee combat as shooting is ineffective, then perhaps the ruleset you have is not "realistic" enough. If  you WANT melee combat every turn, perhaps you are playing the wrong period?  That's why it's classed as a historical wargame. People want historically accurate miniatures and terrain, so why not "historical" or "realistic" rules?

Realism = Difference
I mean, we know they aren't real soldiers, that's not a real battle, they're not actually moving.  I'm not kidding myself that I'm a real general, though I should be able to use historical tactics. I'm not trying to "learn history" by playing, though I might anyway (I prefer to read books instead). It is a game, I'm here to have fun, and push toys around making pew-pew noises.  But if I've painted up a bunch panzergrenadiers, I'd expect to play a game "felt" like WW2, not a medieval skirmish game. At the very least, there'd be more shooting than melee!   If I wanted to play a medieval skirmish game, I'd grab out my medieval miniatures.

I don't expect rules to be historically accurate in every way. What is "historically accurate" is rather subjective depending on who is talking.  I don't expect a game to model every possible action in a battle - that's complexity and we don't like that, do we, my precious?*

 *This has absolutely no relevance to my post but I was chuckling over it as I wrote it.  
Warning: "bleeped" out swearing

What I WOULD like are simple, fun rules that offer a different gameplay experience, that attempts to reflect the period it models. I don't play big battle Napoleanic, but I'd expect to see columns and squares etc, troops moving in formation and firing in volleys.  If I play moderns, I'd expect to see an emphasis on fire-and-maneuver and "bounding."

Every game is the author's interpretation. Every game requires trade-offs in "realism."  The rule designer chooses what is important and compromises elsewhere. The results of "capturing the flavour of the period" may differ. That's fine with me.  Different is good - it allows me choice of different flavours. Viva la difference!

Realism is not the "opposite" simple and fun rules.  Realism is the "opposite"of unrealistic, boring and generic rules. In a WW2 game, would you expect a squad of troops to be able to successfully charge across the open to melee a MG42 machine gun nest?  A realistic game would see them likely to be badly mauled.  In an unrealistic game they might teleport to the MG nest in their turn unscathed.

In a realistic modern game, if troops stand in the open, they can expect to be shot at.  In an unrealistic game, troops could halt at 25" from their foes and be totally immune from gunfire as all the attack dice magically dissipate at 24."

Both these situations have nothing to do with the complexity of the rules.

I know some say they like more realism, some like less. But are they voting for less realism or less complexity. Because they aren't the same thing. No one set of rules can be all things to all people. But that's what we seem to be getting - generic rulesets designed to sell miniatures, that cover from ancients to sci fi.

This seems to be the common "definition"
Slow, Bean counting, Tables and Charts
Fast Playing

This is my "definition"
"Different" gameplay that offers unique gameplay for different eras/genres
Bland, generic gameplay is the same or very similar for all eras/genres
Historical tactics
"Gamey" tactics that work for any era
Simple, but challenging
Over simplified, no tactics, lots of dice chugging, few opportunities for decisions
Can produce historically plausible results and gameplay situations
Produces unrealistic results and gameplay situations that defy "common sense"

Challenging does not mean Complex
Chess is challenging, but it is not complex.  In the rush to "simplify" games designers are removing much of the challenge.  They remove the historical challenges in order to make the game more "universal" to fit more eras and be more easily "accessible."  You don't have to learn proper WW2 tactics anymore - you can just use what worked for you in Warhammer 40K! It does make games easier to learn and it does make the "learning curve" very gentle, but in catering to the lowest common denominator, it makes the game "samey" and shallow.

It's like removing the unique chess moves to make it play the same as checkers. Yes, it's easy for checker players to convert to your "new game" ...but you've lost everything that made chess unique and interesting to play.
Maybe it's all a question of terminology.
I say "I want my game to be realistic" and people hear "I'm bean counter who likes complicated games"  and respond "It's only a game - steady on, old chap!"

I say "I'd like my games from different periods to play differently"  and people say "Fair enough - we don't like boring generic rules either."

I'll probably spot a contradiction in my argument somewhere or realized I missed a point I needed to make, but I think I've rambled/ranted enough.   

Over to the audience....

(I'm be out in the back shed touching up paint on a miniature from where a marble damaged it)