Friday 20 March 2015

Game Design #35: Game Design & Playtesting - Brent Spivey

This was originally part of an interview on "making wargames" but Brent's responses are so in-depth and useful I didn't want them "lost" in the interview so I have reproduced them separately here.

The question Brent is responding to is "Describe your design stages"....

I tend to start from one of two very different directions depending on what initially inspires me.

The first would be from a mechanical standpoint. If there's a mechanic [or group of mechanics] that are particularly interesting to me at the moment, I'll ask myself what sort of game would they be best at representing. Usually, this part of the process is very organic and the genre or game type will jump out at me without me having to really 'ask the question' at all. Sometimes this will happen while trying to help one of my design buddies create a mechanic for one of their games, and I'll say 'You know, that would actually be perfect for x!'
The other is to start from a setting, genre, or game type, decide on a play style, and either create a set of mechanics to achieve what I want or use existing tools that I've been saving for a rainy day. I then go about the business of creating what I consider to be the core design of the game.

After the Concepts and Core Design
After I have all the basic mechanics, interactions, and essential moving parts in place, I go through the process of doing the math to get the values for the various skills, traits, characteristics, and even the non-priced components of the system. By non-priced, I mean things under the hood of the design that the end user will never see but have a real impact on the overall balance of the design [ie How much does an action cost?]. These values then get pushed around a bit so that certain components, combinations, and classes maintain a specific ratio in relation to one another. Why? As a serious geek, I have a belief that the use and employment of the golden ratio in design adds to the feeling of balance and ‘rightness’ and even beauty that transcends the actual math. These small shifts and nudges don't have any adverse effects on game balance as the numbers that I begin with are very large for the purpose of maintaining accuracy and specificity, but all that’s probably more than most people reading this will want to know!

Bringing it to the Group
I’m fortunate enough to meet with other designers and enthusiasts each week for a 5-6 hour session at a local Barnes and Noble. Everyone comes with a different skill set and area of interest or expertise. We take over the cafe area, get our espressos [and maybe a little cheesecake!], and dive into some game design. 

Once I’ve finished my core draft and initial calculations, I bring my design document to these guys without the mathematical values, and let them take a crack at calculating the various points themselves [using whatever method and/or logic they prefer]. This lets me not only see how close their points and calculations are to mine, but it also let’s me see how they view the ‘economy of the system’ without having played it yet and only having read through a basic draft. Once the calculations are complete the conversations begin. Ideas, concepts, and methods are challenged. 

After initial points and values are agreed upon, everyone will take the rules home to get some plays in. If we have enough time, we do some gaming that evening. My philosophy for these first tests differs from many other designers in that I do NOT give them any testing guidelines or areas that I want them to focus on. I simply want them to play the game and come back the next week with their impressions. This is important to me for several reasons:

I don’t taint the process by coloring their view of the game, pushing them in a direction with my expectations, or having them focus on particular elements. In short, It keeps the testers from being biased. It also let’s me see if my ‘hidden’ design goals, like promoting a particular style of play or experience, are met.

First Debrief

When we next meet, it’s time to talk about the game and get the initial impressions. These come in the form of what was liked, disliked, how the game moved and flowed, perceived balance issues, and all the other things one talks about when looking at any game design. I start with the most common observations that are noted by multiple testers, good or bad, and we attack them as a group. I think it’s important to note that we never pull any punches with one another when it comes to our designs. There are no hurt feelings here as we don’t attack one another but instead focus on making the best game possible- period. In fact, it’s an important part of my design philosophy that even the ideas that work well should constantly be challenged. Working well or good isn’t enough when it could be better or possibly great. Sometimes things will work fine mechanically, but the overall game lacks that fun factor. This can require major revisions or a complete reboot.

Subsequent Tests and Computer Simulations
The next weeks and months of testing are more structured and look at specific design elements. During this time we also collect data on each others playing styles, win-loss  ratios, force composition, strategies, and tactics. Once it's felt that a certain degree of balance has been met, the game rules and other data is put into a computer simulation program and large volume virtual testing is performed. While the program we use most certainly doesn't rival Google's AI or feature true 'deep learning', it's pretty slick and extremely useful for spotting exploits, tendencies, and patterns. Small tweaks to the game are then made based on the information. 

The Outside World
Once the last round of internal changes have been made, I send playtest copies out to various groups of players around the world. While this is obviously useful from a hard data standpoint, I find that it's even more valuable from a 'player perception' standpoint. How they feel about the game, which concepts aren't delivered clearly, perceived balance issues, assumptions based on presentation, and general gameplay impressions are instrumental in choosing the wording and presentation of the final draft. Gameplay changes can still be made at this point, but the overall system is usually sound.

I thought there were a lot of really interesting points made by Brent. The ones that stood out to me were:

(a) the emphasis on "the math."  Ever picked up a game that didn't feel 'right?' For example, shooting in LOTR, or the US infantry move-and-fire rule in FoW.   This is looking at the "cost"and worth of things - not only a troop "point system" but of actions themselves - right at the START of the design process, rather than something tacked-on at the end.  This is something I've often had a gut feeling about but never heard so clearly articulated. 

(b) initially giving no playtest guidelines or requirements - to avoid bias - and to check if the gameplay style/tactics the author was trying to promote occurs naturally.

(c) all game elements (even good ones) are questioned

(d) playtesting then becomes specific

(e) use of computer programs to playtest.  This is something I had never previously considered and it offers several advantages.

Again, I'd like to thank Brent for his very thorough (and useful) responses.  Remember to check out the rest of his interview here.  

Game Design #34: Making Wargames (#2): Brent Spivey

This is an interesting look at designing wargames by one of my favourite games authors, Brent Spivey.  He's definitely the China Mieville of wargames and his rules are always different and interesting. From the vastly underrated fantasy skirmish Havoc (well, it did nominate for an Origins award but it's not a high profile rules set by any means), to the PC FPS-style Battlefield: Miniature Modern Warfare, the sci-fi RTS-influenced OP4S to the mass fantasy battle Mayhem, and lately Rogue Planet (a game so unusual in its concepts I can't decide how to best review it).  

This follows a similar format to the Ivan Sorenson interview here, but Brent's comments on game design are so thorough and interesting I feel they should be reproduced separately so not to get 'lost' within the interview.

What are some of your key influences? 
My influences are all over the board and range from tabletop classics like Chess and Go to include all manner of video games, board games, card games, and puzzles. While I've played and enjoyed what I'm sure are most of the same miniature games that others in the hobby have, I think I tend to have my designs influenced more from other sources. This is especially true of video games. Anytime that I find myself inspired or enamored by a particular aspect of any game [or the game in it's entirety], I try to figure out and quantify what makes it special for me. If I can do that, I attempt to get a plan for how I would execute or translate that on the tabletop. On a quasi-related note, I'll add that I really enjoy seeing what other indie designers are doing and support their products. 

What is your overall design philosophy?
Overall design philosophy? I have lots of opinions and philosophies where game design is concerned! I'll try to keep my reply short and not ramble too much. 

As far as the nuts-and-bolts of game design go, I like to keep things as simple as possible while still creating interesting interactions, challenging decisions, and engaging gameplay. I like to feature a few simple systems in a game that layer together in such a way that they become more than the sum or their parts and end up requiring both analysis and intuition in equal parts for the highest level of play to be achieved. I also try to create games in such as fashion that they will evolve, grow, and reveal themselves to players over time. My hope is that a game will change in ways that you didn't expect as you begin to understand its nuances and see new options that you didn't even realize were there. Most importantly, a game should be fun! 

On a broader scale, as an indie designer, I personally believe that it's important for me to push the boundaries, preconceived notions, and classic paradigms of how a tabletop game is typically designed and played. I want to be clear that this isn't about utilizing a particular mechanic or 'cute trick' for the sake of being perceived as different or 'innovative'. I'm talking about really challenging the norms that we [myself included] accept as rules or laws of design and/or play and asking 'Is there a better way to do xyz?' or more importantly 'Why do we do xyz at all?'. If I can use existing mechanics in a ways that haven't been seen before or create mechanics that others try to copy, then I know I'm doing something right. The true end goal is always to produce and deliver the best possible gaming experience to the player even if it means taking them outside of their comfort zone. This is directly tied to another of my design ethos. 

Don't compromise the design or integrity of the game, and don't let fear stop you from committing to a particular design direction. Sounds easy enough, right? It's much more difficult in practice unless you make it a core belief and make efforts to hold to it. Fear of failure and a need to be successful in the traditional sense are two of the prime factors that I believe cripple many people in their creative endeavors.  For example, I reached a point at the end of Rogue Planet's design cycle where I actually had two complete versions. One featured more classic movement options that included using a tape measure or movement sticks with the second being the public release version available now that's free of traditional measurements. When sitting around the table with my design buddies and playtesters and trying to decide which version to release it all eventually boiled down to two questions
1) Which version would you rather play and achieves the design goals best? 
2) Which version would sell better?
Everyone overwhelming agreed that the now publicly available version is both the best playing and better designed version [especially considering the initial design goals]. Everyone also overwhelming agreed that the version featuring traditional measuring methods would sell exponentially better and gather a larger player base. The safer choice [on so many levels] would have been to release the more traditional game and maybe make some extra money. As you already know, I didn't release the safe version. I just couldn't do it. I'm not saying that I'm fearless. I'm just more afraid of making a mediocre game that I don't believe in 100% than not getting public acclaim or mainstream acceptance. There are plenty of mediocre games out there already. So, I guess my larger design philosophy could be summed-up as some sort of weird combination of the ideas of Malcolm Gladwell and Mark Twight: put in your 10,000 hours, have a distinct opinion and voice, and adopt a samurai's desperateness and insanity. 

How did you get into designing games?
I guess, like a lot of designers, I've always been designing games on some level. I've always had a passion for gaming, and games of all sorts have played a central role in my life and interests for as far back as I can remember. I was always hacking or modifying an old school RPGs as a kid, creating levels and multiplayer maps for video games later in life, or making board and card games for my friends. I've always had tons of notebooks [and napkins or anything else I could write on] lying about filled with ideas, concepts, and mechanics for various games. I was always tinkering with some design.

I guess it really all got serious when I was having a discussion with some fellow gamers at the local game store about a game we all played that a few of us felt was flawed. You can imagine how that conversation went over with the diehard fans of the game. During the course of the discussion, someone on the other side of the issue made a few heated remarks that boiled down to 'if you think know so much and can do better why aren't you a designer?'   Fair question. I'd always wanted to design games and be published. I felt like I had the tools. Why wasn't I designing games? To make a long story short, I went all in.

Where did the ideas from Rogue Planet  originate?
I'm a huge fan of sci-fantasy. At the beginning of Rogue Planet, I mention some of the influences that inspired me from an artistic direction: Final Fantasy VII, Star Wars, Mass Effect, Gamma World, Heavy Metal, and other grim dark futures. In addition to these worlds and stories, there are a ton of great sci-fantasy models out there and the other interesting universes yet to be created by players themselves. In sharp contrast, I've always felt that sci-fantasy is under-represented from a rules standpoint on the tabletop. Many of the rules that are out there are usually either tied to a specific IP and restrictive or are very traditional in their mechanics and play style. This traditional gameplay isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I wanted a sci-fantasy game that delivered an experience focused on the cinematic action found in the fluff for these games or seen in the movies and stories that are typical of the genre. I wanted a game that I could play where a space marine felt like a space marine. 

These influences and broad ideas led me to create a set of design goals and rules for myself. These included:
  • no hit point boxes or stat tracking [Energy expenditure mechanic]
  • no chits, tokens, or markers on the table [Pawn system, Energy expenditure, and immediate effects]
  • no charts or tables [stat-to-stat comparisons for resolution]
  • heroes that lost effectiveness and/or abilities as battles progressed [this led to the Pawn System]
  • interactive turn structure [counter-actions and rules for Rogue Die]
  • creation of a game engine and 'world physics' that make it possible for science fiction and fantasy elements to battle while maintaining game balance
I'm really pleased with the end result.

If you had your time over again, what would you do differently?

Other than starting earlier, I can't say that there's much I would change. Don't get me wrong, I look at some of the things I did when first starting out and either laugh or cringe. There's just so much to learn as an indie game designer. But - and I know this sounds cliche - all of my decisions have made me better and pushed me forward as a designer, publisher, and artist.

Any plans for the future? What genres would you like to explore?
Big plans. Big, scary, plans! I have a game that has been in development for a really long time that should be released sometime this year. I really can't put into words how excited I am to get this one out there. Obviously, I tend to like my own games. But this one...  this one has both me and my group completely obsessed with playing it like nothing else ever has. It's one of the first games that has me thinking about it as much from a player's viewpoint as a designer's viewpoint.

As well as having evidently a well-defined design philosophy, Brent gives very thorough comments and insights on the design and playtesting process which I think are both a fascinating and worthwhile read.  The second section of this article is reproduced here. 

Saturday 14 March 2015

Games Design #33. Influences on Wargames

This was inspired by a recent visit to the M42/Warstrike page.  Basically, Warstrike is an attempt to make a "better 40K" - you know, a totally original idea no one has ever tried to do before.  Admittedly most people try this in their teens and abandon it when it is evident no one wants to play a non-kosher 40K (or those free spirits who do, are willing to play other, better games).

I call this "40K" syndrome.  Everything they do is reflection of 40K. Even when they are trying to do the opposite of 40K, they are still thinking about 40K.  It's a constant benchmark and reference in everything they do.  Quite often you get the feeling they haven't played any other games besides 40K
 (or have, and dismissed it instantly without assimilating any ideas.)  Unsurprisingly, many ex-GW designers fall into this category. (Alessio Cavatore, Rick Priestley)  It's a popular niche, as many mass market games have aimed to emulate 40K's success (Flames of War, Bolt Action).  This emulation can extend to other popular games (Gruntz borrows heavily from Warmachine, for example).

I've noticed I subconsciously classify rule authors into such categories.  I've attempted to articulate a few:

There are the unreformed RPGers, who are influenced by RPGs played in their teens.  They're all about story, and the mechanics/balance can be a bit ropey as that's not their priority.  Expect fluffy campaigns and many, many special rules.    Despite the unusual  mechanics, I'd almost put Infinity in this category (I'm almost certain the designers were ex-RPGers). 

The Tolkien.  This is often an offshoot of  the unreformed RPGer. J.R.R. Tolkien was a great world builder, but only an average author.  The "Tolkien-esque" game designer is in love with his universe and the world he has created.  His wargame is only incidental - just a way of sharing his creations with the world.   Sometimes it is hard to find the game amongst the enthusiastic sharing of "fluff." The Quar series (This Quar's War, Song of Our Ancestors) are good examples of this genre.

15mm hard sci fi is very "Stargrunt" - troops tend to have a quality level, no stats, and an emphasis on morale/suppression.  That's why games like Tomorrow's War translate badly to space fantasy (and skirmish, for that matter) - because it's based off a platoon-company level rules.   Aliens act just like humans in rubber suits.  Weapons tend to act just like modern weapons, with added chrome/fluff.   Remember, when I say "based off" I don't always mean slavishly copied, but that the designer subconsciously had the game at the back of their mind when making their own game. 

Space naval games are all about WW2 in space.  Big ships move slow, as if through water. Fighters move fast, like modern jets. I presume this is because of Star Wars.  They ignore the fact they are both in the same frictionless medium, which dictates other tactics.  The few that buck this trend are too simple/random/rolling of handfuls of d6s (Firestorm Armada and many free rules) or they are super complex 3D sims that are better off on computer.    Space naval games tend to share many traits with WW2 naval, including dozens of hitboxes and an emphasis on the resolution of the players decisions rather than offering many meaningful decisions themselves. Recording the damage and resolving fire is usually the most complex and "deep" part of the game. 

The pet system approach.  This is usually in conjunction with one of the other methods.  This is often when an indie designer stumbles upon a cool or interesting mechanic.  The designer then re-uses it ad nauseam, for every genre under the sun (even ones for which it is not inherently suited).  Two Hour Wargames  and Ganesha Games are prime examples of this, though most smaller PDF published authors like to "play it safe" in this manner.

The amateur historian.  They are usually deeply obsessed about historical accuracy and tend to have a big bibliography of books they researched in the appendices.  Expect lots of little text boxes with historical information/tactics dotting the pages. General Quarters and Too Fat Lardies games are familiar examples.   They can often be confused with:

The wild-eyed philosopher.  These are usually wildly creative individuals who are deeply interested in the "philosophy" of their game. Often contains many offbeat/original mechanics crammed into a game.   Crossfire falls into this category, as does anything by Brent Spivey.

The rivet counter.  These are designers who focus on the resolution of the action, often to a very complex or involved extent.    Every bullet is accounted for, and there are a 100 modifiers to every action from the wind direction to the curry the sniper ate the night before. Usually found in historic games.  Naval wargames seem to collect more than their fair share of these. 

Yahtzee!  These designers are mostly interested in allowing you to push lots of models around on the table - and often say as much.  They often have taken this philosophy from a bad encounter with a set of rivet counter rules.  The problem is that in the pursuit of speed and simplicity, often too much tactical depth is sacrificed.

Stats are Evil/Charts are Evil.  These designers boast about how they simplify their games and eschew all charts and stat lines.  This is usually because of a bad experience in their youth (Wargames Research Group and D&D respectively, in most cases).  They simply replace the stats with 100+ special rules exceptions that actually complicate the game even more; and replace the charts with buckets of dice which take even more time to  resolve.

Results-Orientated.  These players are willing to abstract the rules in unusual ways, but unlike the Yahtzee! authors they have a goal in mind besides simply "fast play."  They often abstract things to simulate a particular aspect of warfare. Sometimes the focus on results can make gameplay a bit jarring. For example, the Bag the Hun rules allows aces to have a double move in order to show how effective they are at getting on the tail of enemies - effectively doubling the move speed of the aircraft that turn (which some players may find odd), but having a result that shows an ace's superior positioning skills.

Rule 1.2.4 or "I play a lot of historical games".  These designers tend to be a bit anal-retentive (due to being scarred by arguments over unit facing/formations/wheeling and prolonged exposure to grumpy Napoleonics players).  Besides numbering their rules (Rule 1.2.5), they are scale agnostic and tend to use "Measure Units" (MU) or some similar euphemism instead of cm or inches like ordinary people.   Obvious in games like Fields of Glory or similar, but even Koncordia (sci fi skirmish) obviously has a historical-minded designer.

The British method.  This is usually a simple set of rules, with a wide, eccentric range of mechanics. It's very inconsistent and not at all "elegant."   The designer has an end goal in mind and just randomly uses whatever mechanics that work.  They have the feel of a set of "house rules" and are often written for a wargaming club/group of buddies and published later.   Too Fat Lardies rules fall into this category. 
 So what's the purpose of this post?
It's to remind us we can fall into a "mindset."   A particular way of doing things/looking at the world.
Each of the approaches has merit, and also its own drawbacks.  I'm sure there's more categories - heck, feel free to suggest more in the comments - but the point is, there are certain patterns a designer can get locked into.  And not every approach works for every situation.

If you can look at the categories and go guiltily "heh, that's me!" - think, what are the drawbacks of that approach?  Do I count every rivet and bog my game down - or do I abstract so much the game seems odd/jarring to the players?  Am I very "British" - perhaps I should restrict myself to only 1-2 types of dice roll?  Have I got carried away writing the fluff?

People are creatures of habit. Rules writers are no different. But it would be great if we can examine those habits from time to time and see if they are all beneficial. 

Thursday 12 March 2015

Game Design #32 - "Making Wargames" (#1) - Ivan Sorensen

I spend a lot of time criticizing game design decisions so I'd like a chance to let the "other side" be heard once in a while.  Ivan Sorensen has been leading the Wargames Vault bestseller list for quite a while.  

Many of us would have known him for his free sci fi rules, FAD - which are one of the most thorough and well-presented free rules I've come across.   He's since had commerical success with his 5Core skirmish rules and variants . It's been adapted to 5Core Company Command and his latest, 5Core Brigade Commander, is currently sitting at #1.   The platoon level No Stars in Sight (hard sci fi) and No End in Sight (moderns) have also been big hits.    His rules have so many good reviews, and such good word-of-mouth, I'm finally convinced he doesn't have 100 alternate email accounts ;-)

I particularly like that Ivan always has a strong "design philosophy" and his comments are always interesting.   I'm putting this as a "game design" post as he gives useful insight into the process and publication of wargames.

Tell us a bit about yourself; personal background, gaming history

My name is Ivan Sorensen, I grew up in Denmark though I currently reside in Oregon in the United States.  My gaming background started with tabletop roleplaying games, went through board games like Hero Quest and Space Crusade and then, as I imagine it did with many who grew up in the late 80's and early 90's, through Games Workshop, specifically Warhammer 40.000 which held us with an iron grip for years.

What are some of your key influences/what is your overall design philosophy?
From a war gaming perspective, I am sure we all carry influences from everything we read and play, but if I had to pick the games that stand out to me as “Woah” moments I'd pick four:

Warhammer 40.000 (particularly the first two editions). It's where I started so obviously it's been a big influence because to some extent, I can't help compare everything I read to 40K 2nd edition subconsciously.  But I think it also really illustrates how setting can influence game design. When the game is best, it's giving us tools to tell stories.

Stargrunt 2 was a huge eye-opener. It was my first encounter with the idea of a “quality” score instead of a stat line and taking morale seriously in a miniatures game. The idea that a squad can be incapacitated while most of its soldiers are still okay was a big deal.

Crossfire showed me that you can break the sequence of “every figure does one thing every turn” and the result could in fact be a better simulation.

Finally, the Two Hour Wargames stuff (Nuts, 5150 etc.) finally knocked it into my skull that campaign play is important and should be a standard.

Outside the gaming field, I don't want to get into politics too much here, but I think I come from a more left-wing, hippie, Red perspective compared to a lot of game designers out there, especially in the historical war gaming field.  I try to always remember that fundamentally, warfare is a horrible thing and to try and treat it respectfully and tastefully.


How did you get into designing games?
Ever since I was a kid, I always tried to make my own games.
I remember getting copies of a Danish Nintendo magazine, even though we didn't own a Nintendo, and I'd try to make little dice games based on the moves for games like Street Fighter.

Later, I'd read about interesting games I couldn't afford and I'd try to make my own versions. I remember I made an overcomplicated version of Necromunda with hit locations and everything, after reading about it in White Dwarf.  The first “original” game I made was heavily inspired by Warzone. I don't know if any copies of it even exists still.

After I moved to the United States, I had about a year where I did not have my work permit yet, so I had plenty of spare time. At the time, I had been tangentially involved in the NetEpic project and I thought I should try creating something from scratch, based around core mechanics.

I had been playing a free ww2 game called 1943 but had become annoyed with how the fire combat was so random.   So I got the idea of rolling two dice for the unit and picking the higher score to make it less random. From there, everything else fell into place.


Where did the ideas from 5Core/NSiS originate?
All my designs come from thinking of an interesting dice mechanic or concept, and then building it out to see if a game can come out of it.

With FiveCore, those ideas were:

A: I tend to dislike games with modified dice rolls. I hate the feeling when I have a good roll, only to realize that it was a miss anyways.  So I set as one of the goals that I wanted the dice roll to always tell you exactly what happened.  This meant that I had to find other ways to do things like cover, which forced me to try and get creative.

B: I liked games where every unit does not always activate each turn, but I also felt that the chance of nothing happening at all didn't make for good game play. The balance then became “2 guys”. You can always do something you want to do, but you can never do all the things you need to.  I thought that made for a more interesting turn sequence because it forces you to make a lot of choices.

C: I felt there was a gap in the character-driven, low level skirmish. Nuts covered it to an extent but at the time, it seemed like they were pushing the games bigger so I figured I could carve out a niche for myself.   

With the “In Sight” system (No End in Sight and No Stars in Sight), it started with some basic ideals as well:

A: I wanted a system where you have to make choices about how hard you push your leaders and where the pressure of combat would build up in a tangible matter. Hence the Stress mechanic.

B: I was really disenchanted with games that otherwise felt realistic but had 50% casualties as the norm for the winning side.   So I wanted something where that wasn't the case, but where you could still feel defeated even with only a few injured soldiers.


Describe the design stages:
I'm a bit old fashioned, so I always start with some scribbled concepts like the ones I discussed above, on a note pad.  I'll then go about hashing out what those mechanics might look like for typical situations and start piecing together some sort of playable framework around them.

Usually, I do this for 2 or 3 different things at the same time. About a third of the way through, before the part I term “the grind”, I'll realize that the system isn't going to work or isn't going to be something people haven't seen before, so I'll drop it.

If I feel that “this is it”, I'll start sharing it with people. I have a small group of trustworthy people who will reality check things and can be relied upon to put things to the test.

Then, it's a process of iterations: You test something, it doesn't work, you change it, a new idea pops up, something radical comes up and so forth.  I find if I set out clear guidelines at the beginning, I do much better at staying on track and hitting a workable design.

It's VERY easy to get side tracked along the way and introduce something that's cool but doesn't fit at all. I think we've all seen games where there's a really cool mechanic that seems oddly super-detailed compared to the rest of the game, and often for a fringe mechanic or sub system to boot.

The hardest part is knowing when to say “no”, because the things you say no to (whether they're yours or someone else's) are probably really good ideas, but they might not fit what you are trying to do.

How did you go about publishing your work? Can you recommend the PDF route? What about hardback publishing? Any plans for working with mini companies?

Self publishing through Wargame Vault, which I'd highly recommend.
I try not to sound like a shill but if I was going to shill for anybody, they'd be it. Other than the initial quality check to make sure you aren't a fraud, you can publish at your own leisure, put it together the way you want to do, and they make it very easy to get paid.

I've always approached this as a “Zero Risk” endeavour. I don't want to sit on any inventory that may not sell and I don't want to make any investments that I may not recoup.
That has it's limitations, for example in terms of art (public domain plus GIMP for me) and layout (what you see is what I've taught myself and I'm hardly an expert at it) but it does mean that tomorrow, I could walk away, go back to an office job and not have lost out on anything.

I'd like to look into print on demand but the layout requirements are very different so there's a barrier of entry there. It's not a high priority for me.

I've made partnerships with a few people, notably Keith at Armies Army and I would love to see more coalitions like that take place.  My dream world is one where you have a coalition of miniatures makers and game designers all supporting each other.

You'd have manufacturers saying “You can showcase our miniatures in your games and provide stats for them” and in turn the writers would help promote the figures.

If you had your time over again, what would you do differently?

Probably create a little more separation between myself as a person and as a business person. I haven't had any serious problems but it's always on my mind that someone might be looking for my games and they'll come across me running my mouth on social media.

When I published “No End in Sight”, I had a bit of anxiety because I had elected to put anti-war quotes in the chapter headings.  I wanted to try and sever the tendency of modern wargaming to become a bit jingoistic but after I published it, I must admit, I was nervous about the possible reactions.

In the end, the only people that ever did comment on it were happy I had done so, and I got some nice emails from some super-conservative wargamers who thought the game was great, so I guess either it went well or the angry people didn't want to make me upset.

Any plans for the future? What genres would you like to explore?

I've gotten about 10 million requests for a medieval or fantasy FiveCore game so I will have to tackle that at some point, though I am doing a lot of thinking, since core aspects of the game will have to be rewritten for sword fighting.

I REALLY want to do something cool for the 6mm scifi scene. I think that scene is right on the edge where it could explode like 15mm scifi did a few years ago, and if I could do anything to help that happen, that'd be phenomenal.

The more immediate plans are a post apocalyptic expansion for FiveCore and a world war 2 version of No End in Sight, tentatively titled “No Tigers in Sight”. Other than that... silence.

Again, thanks to Ivan for his very thorough responses.  His comments on the design philosophy, design stages and PDF publishing are, I think, useful reading for any budding rules writer.

Tuesday 10 March 2015

Halo Wargames (Spartan Games)

So, Spartan Games is making spaceship and ground combat games based on the Halo universe.

First reaction: Heh, Spartan Games is making Halo. How apt!
Second reaction: Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

Why the negativity?  Well, I do like Spartan Games as a company.  The interactions I have had with them have impressed me with their courtesy and service.  I also like the idea of a small company successfully growing and carving out a niche in the wargaming world.

However, their rules suck.   And they use the same rules for every game system they have ever put out.  Someone needs to tell them - their rules aren't that good! Certainly not worth copying repeatedly...

People play their games because of the genre (Firestorm Armada was the only supported space game out there until FFG arrived a year ago, Uncharted Seas is fantasy naval - basically inheriting the nostalgia/goodwill from the long defunct Man O'War - and Dystopian Wars has ridden the steampunk craze as pretty much the only offering in 3mm).  People aren't playing their games for their rules.

Given their track record so far, it is hard to imagine Halo (both space and ground) being anything other than a carbon copy of Dystopian Wars/Firestorm Armada/Uncharted Seas with Halo models.

Basically, the Firestorm engine reminds me of an attempt to copy the Battlefleet Gothic engine with all the good bits stripped out and replaced with worse bits.  (Yes, I know Uncharted came first, but it has no direct comparison/competitor)

Let's compare:

Battlefleet Gothic
Buckets of dice (....if you like that sort of thing)
+Blast markers both add "terrain"and damage effects that look nice
+Order system has risk-reward and allows ships to be set in one of 6 "modes"
+Crew skills actually matter
+Torpedoes move unguided across the table, acting as extra terrain/hazard
+Less record keeping than your average space game
 Unique ornate, baroque ships - ridiculously large because of game universe (OK, I guess)
WW1 in space feel because of game universe (fair enough)
Firestorm Armada
-Increases the buckets of dice with even more dice... ...ok this is getting silly
-Adds exploding d6s to boot (extra randomness, yay!)
-No blast markers or "terrain"
-Replaces orders system with random card deck you have to buy separately
 -Crew are simply extra damage tracking
-Torpedoes simply act as guns you can intercept with extra dice roll "saves"
+Less record keeping than your average space game
 -Ridiculously large, bland, generic ships.... ....size chosen because of BFG? (There's something ridiculous about seeing normal spaceships move less than their length).  Generic spaceships are very bland (I could scratch build more interesting ships with a hobby knife, glue and some erasers)

Firestorm Armada emphasizes the more annoying qualities of BFG (huge models vs small movement, buckets of dice) whilst removing the good (blast markers and crew orders added flavour and depth); even whilst freed from the justification of fitting Warhammer's universe. 


Can you have fun with Firestorm Armada? Sure. I can also have fun playing Yahtzee, if I'm in the mood.   And that's what Firestorm Armada feels like.  Push all your models into the centre of the table and chug handfuls of dice, hoping for 6s.  Tactics, smactics.  Who needs 'em?

If all you seek is a reason to mindlessly push models around the table; then you'll love the chance to do the same in the Halo universe.  But if you aspire to more in your gaming (I.e. you actually like using tactics and outsmarting your enemies rather than victory-through-rolling 6s) then Spartan's mindless rules copy-and-paste might leave you cold.

Oh well, there's always Dropfleet Commander - here's hoping they do something original and good. 

Monday 9 March 2015

Recommended: Good Free Wargames Rules Edition #2 - Historical

This another part in the free wargames rules "recommended" project.

I think every wargamer has tinkered with their own ruleset, and increasing amounts of them are freely available on the web. But are they good?  There's so much out there, and most aren't worth the download.

We're collecting rules recommended by other gamers.  If you've played some free rules that you enjoyed (or had interesting mechanics/ideas) put a comment in this post (no sign-in required). 

Age of Blood Viking battle and campaign system. LOTS of flavour incorporating RPG style elects in war band management, which takes up most of the rules. I had a very enjoyable campaign with these free rules (lots of posts on my blog if you are interested) - Paul O'Grady
I downloaded these ages ago and was quite impressed by them.  Shares many similarities with LOTR - heroes have a kind of limited-resource "fate" re-roll, there's a similar activation and morale system. In fact the main difference is the use of opposed d10 rolls.  A pretty thorough campaign/advancement system with ability to add mythic creatures. 

.....The rules are a bit slow regarding movement of units but it has got interesting concepts in morale, motivation and melee. It is worth a read at least.   -blacksmith
This is another viking skirmish game for 10-30 minis a side. Definitely interesting "motivation" rules - a soldier, depending on circumstances, may charge uncontrollably at the enemy, follow orders, fall back or even flee.   This is a real central mechanic to the game.  It's really interesting but quite daunting. (There's a few charts which can scare people off) 

.....nice simple rules with a cool army builder a little reminiscient of a song of blades and heroes builder but you cant buy as many special rules so less complex  -James Toney

.....a streamlined version of SoBH, which is pretty streamlined to begin with. ....the army builder on that website is pretty darn sweet. - Warren Abrox
Basically like the recommendations say - simple SoBH-style combat resolution, but without the risk-reward activation system and the plethora of special rules.  A bit too bland for me personally, but as they say, it has a nifty unit builder.

Maurice(18th Century) and Longstreet (ACW)

 Adam Carriere gave a pretty thorough breakdown:
Sam Mustafa offers the "lite" version of his Maurice(18th Century) and Longstreet(ACW) rules they aren't actually lite they are in fact the full table top game missing only the campaign elements.

Both use Cards (printable version are available free) for command and control as well as to provide bonuses to your troops or penalties to your enemy. The Card play also break up the traditional IGO UGO game as the inactive player can interrupt the active players actions.

The cards add a layer of depth and are the real heart of the system.  Cards have a range from the army commander they can be used i.e. a card with a range of 4 could only be used 4 away, while a unit with a range of 11 can be used 11 away.  Cards can also be used to modify actions - and if you are the non-active player, you can use them to interrupt an opponent's turn.    A pretty slick set of rules.

Victory Without Quarter
Its an interesting set of rules and uses a fun card mechanic with integrated 'special events'.
- Paul O'Grady
These English Civil War rules have the usual "stands"of infantry. You'll need to make your own cards (spraypainting old playing cards is my method).   I'm not a mass battle game expert (DBA is about my limit)  but to give you an idea, activation is card-based (random, but extra cards for officers who can activate units in range); units absorb hits with casualty markers, each stand rolling to hit on 5+ on a 2-3d6 (shooting); or 4+ on 2-4d6 (melee.)  The card draw system can trigger a roll on the event table, adding a bit of flavour.


Again, thanks to the energetic readers of this blog.  This article is courtesy of Paul O'Grady, Adam Carriere, James Toney and blacksmith.

Sunday 8 March 2015

Recommended - Good Free Wargames Rules - Edition #1 - Sci Fi

There are 1000s of free rules on the net, many of dubious quality.

Need help to separate the wheat from the chaff?  These rules are recommended by blog readers and are all "worth a look."

(If you want to help by recommending some free rules, please visit this page and leave your recommendation in the comments section.  No sign-in is required).

This week we're looking at rules with a sci-fi angle.  Click on the title for the link.

 ....really keen and it was the first instance I saw of the "casualties or suppression" mechanic. -Ivan Sorenson
A great way to re-use your old 40K models. Want to be an Inquisitor with his retinue?  Read the Eisenhorn/Ravenor novels and I bet you'll be reaching for the download button. This was created by Craig Cartmell and the Forge of War development group, who also did FUBAR.  It comes with warband lists, weapon lists and a campaign (mission) supplement with scenario/opfor generators. 
As a small warband-level game using 40K models, this helps to scratch the Necromunda itch. article would be longer than the game but it deserves a nod  - Ivan Sorenson
This is a very short (one page) set of rules, which has been re-used in a wide range of genres.  The original is modern/near future sci fi but there are a myriad of variants ranging from Star Wars to Stargate, Aliens to medieval, fantasy, horror and VSF. Would work from skirmish to platoon+ level. There are some quite polished unit cards, resources and expansions made by an inventive community.   The author Craig Cartmell has gone on to make the commercial VSF rules In her Majesty's Name.

 ....criminally overlooked and a fairly short read - Ivan Sorenson
A section/platoon level game. Amongst other stats, units have "motivation" (fanatic/warriors/reluctant/unwilling) that influences their behaviour and would allow a degree of solitaire play. Has an alternating (dice based) activation, with opportunity (reactive) fire.  Includes rules for vehicles and dropships.  I haven't come across this before, but I'm giving it a +1.  Thanks, Ivan!

I'll save Ivan's blushes here and nominate this myself.   Alongside FUBAR this is probably the first rule set I'd recommend to someone "getting into" sci fi gaming.  One of the most complete free rules sets. 
Aimed at the 40K level (platoon+ support/vehicles) this is relatively "hard" near future sci fi/modern with suppression and casualties emphasized (although there are rules for simple psychic powers).  Quite polished, it's better laid out than most "paid" PDFs.  I remember liking the recon stage (which is sort of a mini-game allowing you to place units before the battle).  There are plenty of bells and whistles (army /vehicle builder etc) as well as campaign generators which add flavour - and reveal the author's RPG ancestry.     I'd label this the next logical "step up"from FUBAR or similar one-page style rules. 
elegant simple rules and quick - similar to FUBAR in that the units have a quality value but its based on an alternate actions.   Its also more specificly 40k.  -James Toney 

Another simple rule set, in a similar style to FUBAR.  Like it says on the box - a one page set of rules, with a 40K focus.

Full Thrust is the best fleet starship game I've ever played. It uses plotted movement, but the rules are light enough to survive a lot of tinkering, and the game plays fast enough that you can have a dozen guys around the table without anyone waiting too long to do something. It also uses a clever damage tracking system that leaves your half dead ships clinging to enough life to affect the battle, with the rare catastrophic BOOM! that lights up the skies. - Warren Abrox
 It's a testament to the game (and perhaps a lack of innovation in starship rules) that this continues to be the benchmark, 20 years on.  It combines "build you own" rules, and simplicity with easy "mod-ability" and has been adapted for genres from attack helos, to tanks, to VSF.

This game pretty much pioneered the near-future "hard" sci fi genre - many more recent games owe much to its influence.  
GZG set the benchmark for not only 15mm, but near future sci fi rules - and is perhaps a reason for the Vietnam-in-space focus of the genre.  Stargrunt is their platoon-level rules.  Like Dirtside, it isn't easy on the eyes.  The rules themselves need a good tidy up.  It's based on troop quality & confidence, and you can see the influence it has had on other rules designed since (Tomorrow's War comes to mind.).  There are no superheroes - this is about suppression, maneuver and good use of cover.

Set an early benchmark for 6mm sci fi at the company+ level. 
I don't really game at this scale, but it has a points system and vehicle design system.  I found the rules download a bit inaccessible and "heavy going"but it's better designed than it appears.  Alternate movement and opportunity fire.  Better than Future War Commander commercial rules.

 Fincas Khalmoril has done a pretty thorough write-up - I don't really need to add to it:

Very quick, very dirty and even for today it can boast with a number of highly original features:

- Units are either gangs (punx, rebels, scavengers) or squads (troopers, cops, also rebels) and both units have slighty different rules for morale and suppression.
- No unit coherence necessary if your unit is equipped with headsets, otherwise to change orders you need to be in "calling distance, something I remember like 12".
- Units can only act according to their orders which give huge boni on certain actions and disallow others. (Run, Snipe, Assault, Take Cover etc.)
- Some (easy to remember) tables to check for suppression, order acceptance, shooting.
- Shooting is tricky. Base number to hit is 6 on D6 (!) that means a lot of cinematic dakka dakka. (Unless one side is using snipe orders or brings in heavy rocket launchers). Once hit however, it's deadly. 2-5d6 added together (2d6 light handgun; 5d6 rocket launcher) and if > or = model's toughness (usually 7) its dead, if its at least equal to toughness-5, model is suppressed.

Only problem I remember is that the core rules are gritty cyperpunk and lack anything from vehicles to monsters to psi/magick.


Thanks again to all the contributors for this article - James Toney, Warren Abrox, Fincas Khalmoril, and Ivan Sorenson - as we bring you the best of what's free on the web!

Remember, if you know of any free rules you can recommend, please add a comment here (no sign in required).  Help us to help you!

Saturday 7 March 2015

Gaming: Justifying the Cost (//RANT Warning//)

I've come across this a fair bit in forum posts and in blogs.  Someone suggests the price for a product is unreasonable, then others rush to defend it.

I noticed this recently on a free-to-play (lol) PC game called "Mechwarrior Online." The game, which was crowd funded, continues to milk consumers by selling digital "mechs."  These are solid in "packages" as "early access."  The packages are $55 for a single mech, or up to $240 for 10.

That's right -  $55 for what is essentially a in-game character.  A collection of code and textures, in a game with only 10 small maps (arenas.)

For non-videogamers, $55 is more than a complete FULL GAME of huge PC classics like Skyrim Civilization V, Grand Theft Auto, Dark Souls, and Assassin's Creed.  Those games have many times (100s of times, in some cases) more content than the entire MW:Online game, let alone a single mech.

Naturally, these "paid only" mechs are more powerful than the other mechs, so players are effectively paying for a gameplay advantage (exclusive access to superior equipment) which lasts up to 6 months.   Furthermore, the really powerful mechs are restricted to more expensive packages ($180+). 

Not surprisingly, this business practice (paying to win, and ridiculously overpriced content) has people criticizing it. But what surprises me is the people (those who did purchase it) rushing to defend it. The people who dared complain were attacked and quickly shouted down by "fans."

I see their arguments justifying price cropping up all the time in reference to wargames as well, so let's review some:

Let's call this The Idiot's Guide to Justifying Price

#1.  One handy way to refute the 'overpriced' argument: make a personal attack on the person making the complaints.  This should refer to their socioecomonic status.
-Bonus for ridiculing their social skills/making half hidden racial slurs
"Get a job and move out of your mom's basement"
"People on welfare shouldn't be allowed to post" 
"You're a freeloader who expects everything to be free"
"Maybe it's a big deal if you only make $5 an hour in Guatemala" 

Not only does this put the whiner in their place, it discourages others from having the temerity to question pricing or your own financial decisions.  After all, by specifically questioning your purchase, they attacked you first, right?

#2.  Next, boast about how awesome you are or what a great job you have. 
"I make $1000 a day on construction."
"I own my own business and $240 is what I make in an hour."
-Preferably, at the same time, make yourself the long suffering victim
"If it wasn't for paying players like me, free loaders like you couldn't play."
"If it wasn't for me, this game wouldn't be developed/supported." 

This helps them understand why the pricing is OK.  If it's OK for you, it should be OK for them. $80 for six plastic 28mm minis is fine.  $55 for a digital character in a game is fine. Who do they think they are, anyway?

#3.  Compare the price of the object to something totally unrelated.  
 "I spend $50 on the movies, so the $50 I spent on 2 finecraft models is totally worth it." 
-Bonus points if it is drug or alcohol related.
"I spend more than $300 on a night out on grog, so $500 for a Warhammer army is cheap"

This also reinforces how cool you are, for the benefit of those unlucky whose lives and decision making is not weighed against/or enhanced with the consumption drugs/alcohol. This also shows your superior grasp of economics. I mean, if you can afford to drop $300 on booze every Friday you must be a smart guy, right?

#4.  Claim to do it as you are "supporting" the company.  
-This should be a enormous multimillion dollar company that desperately "needs"support.
-Preferably at the same time, combine this with a complaint.
"I do think the minis are overpriced at $15 each, but I want to support the company."
"I'll pre-order the game to support it's development, even if the alpha rules are crap and I don't like the current model range." 

And people wonder why companies feel free to peddle any rubbish at whatever prices they wish.
Please, encourage and support mediocrity.  Those multinationals really need this sort of support.

#5.  Defend the 'overpriced' model with an irrelevant argument, i.e. your 'enjoyment' is worth it"I've spent $2000 on the game, but it's worth it to me as it's the only game I play."
"I don't have any other hobbies, so dropping $1500 on a 40K army is worth it."

This one is harder to refute, but for example in the "Train Simulator" PC game, to "buy" (or rather unlock) all the trains and tracks would cost $4000+ dollars.

To "buy" a digital train costs $20. Yes, $20 for a digital train that is just a bunch of sprites and code.
To buy a "route" (a single train line of say 100km) costs $40.

So if you think to buy a "full game" of trains is worth $4000, I guess I can't argue.  It's your opinion.
However in the minds of most sane people, paying $4000 for a videogame is vastly overpriced, given you can get fullgames with 10x more content for the industry-standard $20-$80.

So whilst we cannot refute your claim it is "worth it" to you, I do think it's fair we can claim you are an idiot for paying 80x more than the industry standard, for an inferior product. 

To make a wargame comparison, if Perry Miniatures sell plastic models at $30 for 40 (75c each), and Games Workshop sell models sculpted by the same sculptors, to an equal (arguably inferior) standard at $12 for $36 ($3ea) - i.e. four times more. 

Claiming it's "worth it to me" does not alter the original contention - the minis are overpriced.

#6. If all else fails, disarm us with honesty
 "This game/model is ridiculously overpriced, but I'm going to buy them all anyway." 
"I was really disappointed with the release of x model, but I'll still pre-ordering the next release."
-To do this right, you need to complain about the price,complain about the company, admit the shortcomings in the product, then slavishly pledge to continue buying the product

People need to show loyalty to a company.  After all, the company listens and is loyal to you, their valued customer, right?  People need to understand that everything has a price.  And the shinier the toy, the higher the price. Man up, and pay what you need to pay for your plastic/digital crack.