Sunday 27 March 2016

Holidays and Historic Guns

Hopefully hobby time will improve as I'm now on school holidays. But first, family time!  I live in a fairly "old" city by Australian standards (established 1847, Maryborough is one of the oldest in Queensland and was a major port in the 1880s).  While giving my 2 year old a ride on the local miniature steam trains, I wandered over to look at the obligatory "gun in the park."  In most Queensland towns it is a 40mm Bofors or 17pdr artillery from WW2, and whilst the Nordenfelt guns are nothing that special, the 5" BL in the middle is something I don't see often.

The Nordenfelt in the foreground (No. 6675) is interesting only in that it has a double barrel rather than the usual triple or quad barrels.   I presume only fires a heavy rifle calibre (.45 or .50 or thereabouts?)

The furthermost Nordenfelt is a single barrel. 
The second Nordenfelt (1.5") is much bigger than the twin mount.

However the 5" BL is one I've never seen elsewhere. As you can see it comes with a Vavasseur mount (?) which suggests it is a dedicated coastal defence gun.  Back in the 1880s the "Russian Peril" was a thing for us Aussies, far from the Mother Country.

It has a 16lb charge and a 50lb projectile.

Range an optimistic 4100m over open sights....

Quality worksmanship from the Royal Carriage Dept 1887, "Ex-d at RCD Woolwich"

Looking out over the Mary River....

Anyway, after repeat visits to park, pool, and various family activities hopefully I will have time to clean out my shed and resume hobby activities tomorrow....

Thursday 10 March 2016

Game Design #66: Designing with "Focus" - Lessons from The Forest vs ARK

Steam abounds with "early access" (i.e. incomplete and buggy) survival games.  Most are never completed, and stand as a testament to the stupidity of consumers.

(/Rant - in the comments of one such game, unfinished for 2 years and still in "beta" I see: "I love this game, will you sell some dlc?"  What the f***! They haven't finished a game you already paid for and you want to give them more money?!  Truly, we deserve the world we live in.)

Anyway,  I admit to owning  two such "Early Access" games.  ARK: Survival Evolved - because, well, dinosaurs.  As blog regulars may have noticed, I'm in a "dinosaur" phase at the moment.  The other, The Forest, was because I read some interesting reviews about the cannibals AI - they are attracted to activity so if you build a advanced camp, you will have "visitors" - but they can be scared off, call for help, etc. I liked the idea of "live off the land, and never get noticed" vs "build a well-fortified camp, and fight off invaders every night." 

Anyway, what were the lessons?

Well, ARK was a better, deeper game.  (Both, in fact, are remarkably well-made and complete for EA titles) It has so much to do.  So much depth.  Tame dinosaurs, ride them, craft 101 items, a deep RPGish "levelling" system to unlock survival and crafting skills.  Join clans, and fight big multiplayer battles with dinos. Build awe-inspiring structures - and destroy those of others.  "Tech up" from primitive clubs to automatic weapons.

In contrast, The Forest is more limited.  Your crafting doesn't progress further than "sticks and stones" type tech.  Multiplayer is limited to co-op with a friend.  Most of the game is spent exploring and surviving - trying not to get spotted and swarmed by cannibals or the horrors that lurk in the caves under the island.  It may even be better not to "tech up" as buildings attract cannibals. 

 But I liked The Forest more. Wait? What?

Well, in ARK the survival aspects always seemed an inconvenience.  Chugging berries every 2 seconds in order not to die of hunger gets old really fast .  The "good bit" was riding and fighting dinosaurs.  The "survival" bit is more a frustrating and inconvenient time sink. I gave up without progressing far, as I was bored and impatient to do the interesting stuff. I'm not willing to spend a real life hour taming a turtle to ride (in the meantime, foraging 1000 berries for myself to avoid dying of hunger every 5 min) when a "cool" dino remains out of the reach of my gear and "level."  Not only do you need to run around scarfing berries every 2 seconds, but your weapons and tools "degrade" after only a few whacks.  The constant, ridiculous entrophy of yourself and your tools means for too much "chores" and not enough "fun."  Imagine you get a videogame called "X-Wing" - only to discover you must spend 200 hours maintaining the X Wing for every hour you fly, by mashing buttons in repetitious tasks.  

In contrast, in The Forest, survival IS the game.  Avoiding cannibals, creating traps for them, and balancing exploration against the wish to avoid a gory death - heck, you even have to scavenge for food and water less, and your axe never breaks.  In ARK, some dinos will want to eat you - but you can usually easily avoid them unless you blunder into them.  But it seems more like random chance - an unlucky and inconvenient death.  In The Forest, the cannibals will seek you out if you dare to light a fire to warm your freezing bones. It's personal. The creepy horror vibe makes surviving each day a victory, rather than another day closer to grinding a T-Rex.  Avoiding death is not a boring chore, but a gripping adventure. I've explored more of The Forest in an hour (and had more hair-raising escapades) than five hours of ARK.  Even building a house is more fun; (or rather, booby trapping it for any midnight "guests") - a frantic affair to finish it before the sun goes down.

Okay, okay - get to the point!

The Forest knows its niche and focusses on it.  It's about making day-to-day survival scary and gripping.   ARK is a far deeper game; an awesome mish-mash of ideas that somehow is (for me) less than the sum of its parts.  Day to day survival is a bit grindy and dull and forms a barrier/timesink to the riding and hunting dinos and fighting clans which sounds so awesome. 

How does this apply to wargames? 

Well, it's about focussing on the strengths of your game and designing to them.  Do you want an awesome campaign-based skirmish game, a new Mordheim-beater?  Well, make the campaign system good.  The gameplay itself can be quite simple.  Frostgrave did this well - I wasn't a fan of the mechanics of the game itself, but the campaign was interesting (albeit unbalanced and in need of playtesting).  It focussed on its strengths, with a interesting spell and equipment list.   In contrast, there was a Mordheim-esque spin-off of LOTR called Battle Companies.  Why didn't it take off? (Well, besides GW quickly burying it because it only required $20 of minis to play).  The campaign system was TOO simple. It didn't have enough 'meat' on it.  A campaign game with only a half-dozen upgrade options isn't really a 'proper' campaign game.

2HW does this well. They focus on the solo-play/reaction aspect of their games. People overlook the general shoddiness of the rules design and layout for the ability to have semi-automated opponents.

Warmachine unabashedly cultivates a CCG vibe with its combo-chaining gameplay. There isn't many wide sweeping flanking maneuvers - it's more about who hits who first or can get off their combo at the right time.  It's not everyone's cup of tea, but its rules are tight, and each faction has combos that are so OP and unbalanced the game is actually... ...balanced.  You may not like the style, but it has a consistent focus.

Battlestations! is a relatively obscure WW2 fleet scale game, which ruthlessly adheres to its focus as a "fleet" game.  In contrast, when the age of sail fleet game Fighting Sail attempts to adapt it's rules to 1v1 duels and it just feels awkward. 

It's popular to bash 40K, but in the past it has clearly drifted away from its original "heroic skirmish" of 2-3 heroes, 2-3 squads and a vehicle or so to become massive encounters with 100s of minis and dozens of vehicles (Apocalypse) - a scale that merits a completely new rule mechanic (Epic, anyone?).

Infinity's charm was its reaction system and nail-biting decisions, and a lethality that meant even the lowliest grunt could gun down a power-armour hero if well-positioned; it was all about game play decisions trumping list building and min-maxing.   However I feel it's lost it's way - with over 150 special rules (often very complex, with rules explanations taking an entire page) the game is drifting into Warmachine territory in that "he who remembers the most special rules, wins."  And that's fine for Warmachine, because that's it's focus.  But I feel it's diluting the original Infinity experience - there's still a great game in there, but I'm increasingly unenthusiastic about playing with each rules expansion.

To recap: sometimes you need to focus on one thing and do it well.  Work out what the most important thing about your game and emphasize it.   There's a reason there's very few good "universal" rule sets - in trying to do too many things, you can fall into the ARK trap, and add in stuff which dilutes gameplay appeal.   Sometimes stripped back game with a narrower focus, like The Forest, is actually more fun to play.  I'd think this advice goes double for small, indie rules designers, with limited playtesting and designing time.  What are you trying to do with your game?
What is the 'main thing' you want to emphasize? 
If someone talked about your game, what would you expect them to praise?  "It has great x"

Saturday 5 March 2016

Game Design #65: Abstraction, Tables, and "Negative Game Design"

Yeah, my train of thought is sometimes still boarding at the station.  This is inspired by my large draft folder of incomplete posts, and a dearth of time.  On the Delta Vector google group, a topic was posted that pretty much covered the same ground as a draft post, which has been sitting in the drafts box for a month. 

So I've decided to "publish and be dammned" - and if there is enough interest in the topics, I'll expand them into the full posts I originally intended.    Kinda like a trailer for the movie, if you are being generous (or a the ramblings of an incomplete thought process, if you aren't).

Abstraction - What to abstract, and when?
Basically, rules are either simple to execute, or complex.  Realistic or unrealistic (as I've written elsewhere) have nothing to do with how gluggy or fast playing a set of rules are.  A key aspect is abstraction, which streamlines things. 

When to abstract, and when?  Well, we can abstract or even outright remove anything without a major impact on the genre being simulated.  For example, a modern rifle with a 30-round, quick loading magazine might abstract the loading process, as let's say it takes 15 seconds to empty the clip, and 3 to load it.   Whereas a crossbow needs to be laboriously reloaded every round, so the loading process might be tracked/detailed or otherwise have a process within the gameplay (move or fire, reload counter, etc).  Likewise, if a trooper carries enough ammo for a typical engagement - do we need to track it?
1. The focus is on the effect, while streamlining and simpifying the process.  
2. But sometimes we can remove the process altogether. 

Trappings vs Effect:  I've seen diagrams where a d100 is rolled cross indexed to diagrams of the human body for wound results. For a 1:1 skirmish, then we might care about individual soldiers. But let's ignore the location of the wounds and focus on the effects - unimpeded (scratch, graze); minor but noticeable injury (deep bleeding, sprain); major injury that severely impacts (broken bone etc) but does not take out of action; out of action (cannot fight on) and dead.  The exact location of the wounds can be abstracted.  Like Savage Worlds highlights so well - it's not about the trappings, but the final effect.

Charts and Tables: Good riddance?
Back in the 80s and 90s charts were de rigueur; usually very complex affairs, accompanied by often dozens of modifiers.  In the inevitable backlash, the humble table has almost vanished from gaming altogether, replaced by chugging handfuls of dice, usually to beat a fixed target number, with "modifiers" being shown by simply adding or removing dice.

Tables allow you to quickly cross-index data and allows table designers to 'build in'complex math and do all the hard work for the user.  

That said, tables have value in quickly doing complex tasks simply.  The designer can 'build in' complex math in the "back end" - the player simply has to run his finger down a column.   So by abandoning tables, have we thrown the baby out with the bathwater?

So I think perhaps the question should not be "do tables have value" (they obviously do) but "how complex can the math be in wargames?"  I've recently seen DP9 do some rules which 'improve' on their old ones primarily by replacing multiplication/division with addition/subtraction.   I personally have no trouble with 2x, 3x and 4x multiplication, so I think this is a waste of effort.  But does this make the game more accessible?  Would your gaming circle really miss anyone incapable of doing Year 3 math?

Negative Skills
I dislike negative skills.  In the videogame "Warframe"  you are a cyborg space ninja, wielding swords, automatic weapons and Jedi powers.  However in about 1/3 of the missions, drones with "nullifier" bubbles render your Jedi powers useless.  These missions are simply less fun.  You have fewer options, and the game is a poorer experience.  I mean, why have cool Jedi powers if you never have a chance to use them?

Another example is Faction A has the ability to teleport short distances; Faction B can cast AoE attacks, and Faction C completely nullifies the powers of Faction A and B.  Faction A vs B might be an interesting contrast of tactics; whereas Faction C reduces everything to a boring vanilla battle.  Faction C has a negative skill.   What if, instead, Faction C has a chance to reflect or mimic the powers of Faction A and B would make Faction C more active and interesting to play or play against, as it adds in new tactics and possibilities, rather than removing an element from the game.

Linked to this is an increasing trend for "limited activation" - not all units get to activate in a given turn/phase.  This is admittedly a simple way to force difficult decisions on the player.  But it's also negative activation. 

Negative (Limited) Activation

 Example: You have 10 units, but only get 5 activations.  So 5 units have to "miss out" each turn.
Or you have to roll a 4+ on a d6 or your unit does nothing. 
Yes, it forces vital "decision points" on the player in a simple, easy way that adds no complexity.... but it's lame.  It's a GAME folks.  I didn't paint my minis for hours just to have them sit around "cheerleading" for most of the game.   Whilst it's not precisely what is happening,  there's the sensation units are "missing out" on their "go."  

But we need friction! I thought you were for 'realism?' I thought you liked resource management?  Yes, but there's other ways to do it besides make units sit around doing diddly squat for most of the game.  I don't mind things like suppression removing actions, but to have units inactive for large portions of the game isn't fun.  A unit can be limited in it's choices, but it's not so much fun when it can do nothing at all. 

I like the "everyone gets an action, +1"  
i.e. ALL units get a chance to act EVERY turn/phase, but it is EXTRA actions which are the resource to be managed, i.e:

#1. DBA (limited action): roll d6 for the number of units you can activate
 You will have units sitting around - you have to make choices as to which units act, and which units sit around boringly like dummies.

#2. DUST Tactics (resource management): roll d6 for the number of extra actions you can take (which cannot be interrupted by reaction fire etc); THEN all units get to activate (or - as in Robotech - the d6 shows extra abilities like double moves, power attacks and dodges)
You will have all units able to act - you have to make choices as to which unit get cool extra special abilities and actions.

Both have resource management and an equal amount of decisions added.   But the perception is the first example is negative (completely nullifies half your minis), the second is positive (gives extra abilities and actions to your minis). 

Because the base mechanics of #2 (DUST Tactics) is positively geared, even if we remove an action due to suppression or a game effect, the player can still activate the unit by spending one of it's 'extra actions.'   Whereas in example #1, removing an action from a unit would simply exacerbate the "I can't do nuffink" feeling.

In my experience as a sport teacher, if a kid turns up in uniform, kitted out, excited to play, sitting him out isn't fun or desirable.   I know that units missing turns shows friction and simulates initiative, the ebb and flow of combat, etc.  But the perception that your carefully painted mini sat around most of the game completely static does not promote  a sense of "fun" and "involvement" - for me at least.
There's other, better ways to do it.  

Note: Eric Farrington explores this topic from a different angle in the google group

Book Roundup #8: Fantasy

Fallen Blade  (Jon Courtney Grimwood) = 3.5 Stars
Venetian assassins and vampires, pitted against "krieghound" werewolves of the Holy Roman Empire?  It couldn't sound any more cliched - "Underworld"-in-Venice, anyone?  but is actually quite fresh and well written.  The Moorish "Atilo" and his marriage to the heiress "Desdaio" is one of more than a few sly nods to Shakespeare.

You'd read it: Vampires vs werewolves, with a touch of Shakespeare? Underworld: Venice? Quite well written - Mr Grimwood is slumming it a bit I feel.

You'd leave it: Because vampires and werewolves are almost as tired as zombies

In the Eye of Heaven (David Keck) =  3 Stars
I initially abandoned this book as being too confusing - too much "hard work" to make sense of its world and plot. The author likes. Using. Short sentences.  The writer is a "writer" rather than an amateur historian, gives a better feel for his world in a few jumbled, terse sentences than the wordy exposition of the Red Knight. It's pleasantly "different" from my usual fantasys fare.

The trilogy may never be finished - the first two books came out in 2006 and 2008, and we're still waiting for the concluding book. This makes notorious slackers GRR Martin & Patrick Rothfuss look like a bundle of feverish writing energy.

You'd read it: An interesting book, with a choppy writing style that delivers a good "feel" for the world. Like the James Enge books, an interesting change of pace for a jaded palate.

You'd leave it: A bit confusing, and likely the trilogy will never be finished

Red Knight (Miles Cameron) = 2.5 Stars
100 years war mercenary company takes on the fairie folk ("the Wild"). 
At first I thought it was lame, then it grew on me, before faltering off again to end in cliches.  The second book was an ever bigger mess of exposition (the author is more amateur historian than fiction writer) which I didn't bother to finish. I could have edited the 450-page book down to 150 pages of actual story and plot.

You'd read it: Because you like the idea of 100 Years War longbowmen vs fae and wild forest critters. Some originality and unpredictability in places.

You'd leave it: Because of the enthusiastic but painfully verbose amateur-historian exposition style could be bettered by many high school students.

Malice, Valour - John  Gwynne = 4 Stars
The first two books of the Faithful and the Fallen (Malice, Valour) have been my surprise hits of 2016.  It has a very David Gemmell flavour to it - perhaps a somewhat B-grade David Gemmell - but it mixes old school fantasy tropes with the "new gritty and grimdark" in a pleasant balance.  Even better, the writing has improved in book 2 which points to a promising finale in books 3 and 4.  Also, the conceit of having a villain who idealistically thinks he is the saviour of the world (rather than the dark lord he is gradually becoming) is a fresh one. 

You'd read it: Because you like your fantasy grim and dark, but not relentlessly grimdark.  And you like it when some heroes are occasionally actually heroes, and not always unmitigated bastards.  Heck, even the villains sometimes have some redeemable traits.

You'd leave it: Another series with 4 hefty 900-page tomes; or you haven't read all David Gemmell's books yet.   Also, it is a bit oldschool i.e. "farm boy doesn't know his destiny" with "dumb sidekick" and "hot, impetuous ninja girlfriend" as well as "mentor who is a secret Jedi" - it visits pretty much all the fantasy tropes.