Tuesday 20 February 2024

Reasons to Avoid Games/When to Abandon a Project

This blog originally started as a place to stick rules reviews as I was "the guy with all the rules" and I got tired of repeating myself explaining what they were like. I did quite a few reviews - about ~150 or so I'd say. As my aim was saving my mates money, I tended to be more critical than say youtubers who may have partners/sponsors/freebies (or just are more charitable folk). 

As I've sorted my shed (and cleared ~800 of my mini paint backlog) I've noticed a lot of games I've barely played, or minis I'm reluctant to paint, or projects I've abandoned. 

I've made an excel page with column tickboxes for minis/gaming projects:
Have I bought all the minis needed to play?  Have I painted the minis? Have I got terrain? Have I got rules I enjoy? Have I played the game? What is the cost to complete this project?

The stage I get "stuck" in various projects is quite telling. It shows where the 'barriers' are.

I've been thinking about things that instantly turn me off a game. These are preferences, which will vary. What is a turn-off to me, may be a selling point to someone else. For example, En garde was too slow for me - while recognizing it as a good game for others. My younger self would have quite enjoyed it.

So this post is about spotting projects likely to fail early, before we waste too much $ or time. Or identifying minis and half completed projects that need to be sold on.   What are my "barriers?"

The Minis

Now, the toys are probably the real reason we wargame. Some minis are tied strongly to their fluff/background/IP though; there is no rule saying you MUST use x models for y rules - though many companies would like it to be that way. However some people just feel they 'must' use the 'official' minis and it pains them to do otherwise. Or they just like the convenience - you don't even need to deliberate over a paint scheme - you're told how and there are tutorials showing you precisely how. I feel that's about as fun as doing those colouring-in books designed for adults....  

This could be the design or quality.  I love Battletech but my models look like they've been carved from a bar of soap and aren't much fun to paint or play with. I like the steampunk-with-magic aesthetic and chunky easy-to-paint models of Warmachine which I bought despite hating the rules (also due to its popularity). I like the idea of a post-apocalytic wargames, but dislike the gimp suit/bondage/grimy/spikes/leather design aesthetic that tend to be attached to many such products. 

Resin models can be very hit or miss - if a miniature line is 100% resin I will simply avoid it, both for sculpt quality and fragility as a gaming piece. If I'm scared to drybrush a model because I'll break it - it's worthless. Metal or plastic is far superior unless it's only for display. I love my Black Scorpion pirates and cowboys, and would love to add to my collections - if only they still cast in metal. I like Carnevale's sculpts but won't be buying their dodgy resin unless on a vast discount.

I find painting MESBG soothing; they are simple and realistically proportioned (no potato heads, banana fists or bulging boobs/biceps) without being as small and fiddly as Infinity - which are far better sculpts but also stressful to paint/game with. 

There is a certain size, for me, where models become meaningless, uninteresting Risk pieces. I like the idea (and cost) of 1:300 tanks but they are just too tiny.  1:600 scale is OK for a modern jet, but a WW2 fighter is too tiny (a F-15 is the same size as a B-17, btw!). I think the Cruel Seas rules are meh but the Warlord's upscaled 1:300 coastal forces are way cooler than the minute 1:1200 ones I previously owned.

Are the minis nice quality and attractive? Are they fun/easy to paint? Do you need an official line of minis? Do you like scratch building/proxying? Do you even have rules for these minis?

The Lore/Background

"Lore" ties in with miniatures as the shiny, initial attractor. The rules might be amazing (or suck) but most times you wouldn't even open the rules unless you saw cool minis or pictures.

I'm not interested in Napoleonics a la Waterloo. It's just red shirt guys in rows, shooting at identical blue or white shirt guys. The wargaming aspect tends towards mass battle games, which means I'm going to hate painting minis which are just hitpoints of a larger whole.  

French Indian Wars? Fighting skirmishes in primeval forests, with canoes, Indian ambushes and remote forts in the wilderness - I'm all for it. (OK, I did add dinosaurs to my French Indian Wars, so sue me) I like the Mordhiem gritty lore and background - but Age of Sigmar leaves me cold. 

In a recent design post, I discussed how too much lore can stifle creativity. You don't need much - I know someone who who did not read any of Carnevale's 150 pages of lore, yet is making their own Venice-with-assassins-pirates-magic based on a 30 second flick through the cover art and a quick look at some of my half-painted minis.  I'm not interested in Star Wars as I feel I "have" to paint minis and create forces/scenarios a particular way because of the exhaustively detailed background which I already know "too much" about thanks to my kids. It can kinda pigeonhole your minis. A storm trooper tends to be viewed by others as a storm trooper, even if he battles medieval knights and dinosaurs...

Basically - even if the game and minis are great, I'm just never going to paint 100 Napoleonics. It's just not 'my thing.'  That project with 1:300 interwar tanks? Should probably be bequeathed to my son who likes hordes of little vehicles. I'll probably never start Warcrow as it's just another generic fantasy elves/humans/dwarves. I also don't need too much background info. If I know all 22 Space Marine legions, how can I create my own? I would be fine with say:

"It's 1947 and WW2 has continued on. Britain has warlocks, Germany has vampires and zombies, Russia has mutants, USA has aliens and robots."   ..and a bunch of art and minis and I'd be set.

Do you need detailed lore? Is the background the sort of thing you like? Is there too much lore?

Initial Impressions

I've found in both wargames and PC games, if I don't enjoy the rules/game the first few times, I seldom suddenly change my mind. Sometimes folk say "you just need to play it 4-5 times, then the rules will 'click.' Nah. It's a sunk cost fallacy. I don't owe them more of my time. If you went on a few dates and found the person unpleasant each time, you don't 'owe' it to them to go on half a dozen more dates. It's like when you have to play 200hours to Level 75 before a MMO is 'fun.'  

Nah. I already bought the rules/minis.  I've got limited hobby time. In PC games, reinstalling a game is the press of a button. I tend to reinstall and try PC games once a year or so, to see if my initial impressions were wrong. (I think I've changed my mind about 5% of the time, and it usually because another better game was sidelining a merely good game at the time). Retrying a wargame, however, takes a bit more effort. It's OK not to like things others like. Sometimes a thing is fun for others, just not for you. And that's OK. No one needs to be offended on the designers behalf.

The Rules

Kinda a big one. Some games just seem unintuitive or unenjoyable. I remember the edition-but-last (2018?) of Kill Team having an insane amount of rolls and re-rolls to resolve combat. It just seemed clunky, and had odd inconsistent choices like alternate models moving, but an entire force shooting, then the other force shooting (or the other way round).  

Other times they trigger pet peeves. There's the western game where you place a card next to models you activate. I don't care how 'western' the playing card is, it's a bunch of cards laying about cluttering my table. Or the infamous hitpoints. Nothing like a human with 20 hitpoints who loses 19 hitpoints to a series of axe blows then dies to a 1hp rabbit bite the next turn. Unnecessary recording AND a little odd. (Any clutter and recording tends to get a sceptical look).

Ore even the gameplay not matching the 'feel' of the game - a zooming jet dogfight where you laboriously record moves and consult maneuver charts. 

If the models and terrain (cool toys) are the graphics, the rules are the interface, the mechanics, the game engine, the controls (to use PC gaming terms). A game can have poor graphics and still be fun (I mean, popular boardgames often have rather lame 'graphics' and toys.) But if the game itself (rules) are unfun.... the models will quickly become shelf queens for display only. Or - if you are lucky - they can be co opted for a better game.

Do you have to fight the rules to have fun? Do you play in spite of the rules?

Cost (Time/$$$)

I have a short attention span, and while I enjoy painting, a project that requires a complete new table of terrain (even if it's free, converted pizza boxes) is investing a few afternoons of my limited free time. Likewise, if a game requires 100 minis per side, it's more of a time investment than one that is 10 minis per side. This goes double (literally) if you are painting/supplying both sides in a newish/indie game (you are the local 'early adopter'). 

I tend to avoid rank and file games for that reason - you are painting 100 minis just to get 5 units. Basically you are paying/painting glorified hit markers that look cool. In contrast; a skirmish game you paint 5 minis and get 5 independently maneuvering units. And can be playing that afternoon, not next month. In my dotage, I'm not even so keen on 40K-ish scale games anymore (you know, 5-10 minis clumped together in a loose unit, ~30-40 models and a few vehicles). There's a few games (SLUDGE, that Weird War I one that just came out) I've recently looked at and gone 'cool theme, but I'm not painting 100 minis on the off chance I'd like it.'

Likewise terrain - if I have to spend two weekends making terrain, it's also a potential barrier to play. My lack of appealing sci fi terrain is hampering a few projects at the moment.

Then there is literal cost. I'm pretty certain I'd both like to paint (and play) GW's sadly defunct Titanicus. The rules and gameplay looked like something I'd enjoy, and the minis are epic. But I just can't shell out $150-200 for a single model. $300 for a starter box is a lot to 'test the waters.' A $90 rulebook is a lot for something I don't even know I'll like. Warhammer Total War on PC cost me $25. Dozens of armies. A campaign. Don't even need an opponent. I wonder how Old World will stack up to that?

I'd like to support smaller boutique creators but base cost+P&P is often prohibitive. A copy of the Spectre rules would cost me $50+$50 P&P, with individual resin-printed minis that make GW look benevolent. Whilst I get why they are that way, PDFs seem to be insanely overpriced as 'limited print runs' and 'economy of scale' don't seem to apply. I remember paying $35 for a Killwager PDF then discovering I needed a $25 army book to play. Wtf. It's a fricking electronic file - using GW tactics.

How much time and money to get going in the game? What is the time/$ "investment"?

Obviously this is toys we're talking about, and very subjective - but it can be compared to other wargames (maybe even boardgames, PC games) ....I ask myself: "Is Titanicus really worth $500 that could be spent trying 3 other wargames.... or 10 $50 PC games??

I'm trying to kinda 'codify' my thoughts as to how avoid getting bogged in needless projects - how to best spend my gaming time/$$$ - and when to move on.  I now even have a 'projected projects' Excel sheet with potential buy-in and time costs, and similarity to other games I like/have played, and even things like if models can be used for other projects (i.e. my recent pack of 60 Victrix vikings are used as Dunlendings and to battle ice zombies in the Second Ice Age). I don't think I've randomly bought a mini in years.

When do you know when to cut your losses?

How do you know when a game is not for you?

Do you have a 'system?' or is it just impulse buy?

Thursday 25 January 2024

Game Design #104: Start Small, Keep it Tight

I often try indie games and wonder "my goodness, how much has this been playtested?"

Logically, the answer will be "not much." 

I mean, do you really think 'part time designer dad' has playtested each of the 70 special rules in his game? How many campaigns would he have played through from start to finish? 

In fact, how many games has he played, period - with a circle outside (even inside) of his/her own group of friends who may already have a shared expectation/knowledge of the game. In some cases, I'd be surprised if it was more than half a dozen.

Keep it tight. Stay focussed. Start small, expand later.

Example: Necropolis. It's a game where undead battle in spooky locales. It has a clear size limit (1-8 models) it has a clear theme. It plays on a small board. It has only ~5? warband types - which draw from the same ~10 base archtypes. The factions share similar traits, but just have access to different ones. There are 3 schools of magic, with 5 spells each. 

There is plenty of variety available, but the rules are pretty focussed and specific. It would be possible to to playtest quite a big range of combinations, given the small scale, 8-a-side nature of games. It's available from a Discord which by its nature tends to encourage chat/communication amongst players/testers.

You could see it expanding in the future, with extra spells, warbands and character archetypes, but it can build on a small, established, well-tested base. (I have no idea if it has, but it could)

It does not attempt to be a mass battle game and a skirmish game at the same time. It does not attempt to bridge genres. It just does one thing. Small scale, undead skirmish. It does not have 101 unique special rules for each mini and faction. Instead, all factions share a limited pool of special rules; with differentiation/flavour given by denying factions access to certain magic - not inventing their own unique special rules in an appendix somewhere.

It uses archetypes with examples of the minis you could use i.e. a "Revenant" might be a dessicated knight, a barrow monarch, a spectral martyr - it uses less/shared rules to cover multiple ideas/concepts.

The rules are pretty chaotically laid out, so the actual rules - about ~10 pages of  'how to play' are scattered through the book; but the whole shebang (campaign rules, traits, spells, etc) comes to ~50 pages. So it's not too onerous to have skim through to see if you want to try it.

While Necropolis, thematic as it is, isn't my 'thing' (also ugh, hitpoints) I'd be confident that if/when it released it, at least could have been properly tested.  It seems to have started with a reasonable scope/clear focus. I'd say this is a good example of a narrow, limited focus which is eminently 'testable.'

Campaigns are hard impossible? to balance. There are so many branching variables. I've spent a few blog posts agonizing over how to prevent things 'snowballing' i.e. the inevitable increasing gap between winner and losers. But I think I've ceased to care as much, as long as it isn't egregrious. I mean, a campaign that penalizes losers and rewards winners will naturally increase the gap between the have and have nots, but excessive penalties/rewards should be obvious just by reading the rules.  I.e. I recall in MESBG's Battle Companies, hobbit warbands get a 6-point hobbit as a casualty replacement, when the army of the dead warbands get a 12-point replacement. Wow, I wonder how that will go over a long campaign, when one warband gets a stream of reinforcements twice as good as a rival?

 But I reckon 90% of issues can be solved with having a clear campaign length (5-6 games), avoiding excessive penalties/punishments for win vs loss, and just not playing with assholes. The main issue with campaigns is:

Campaigns make is more obvious who players 'are'. It magnifies their personalities.

A competitive jerk who camps all game hiding and sniping your men and not trying for the objective? He may be glossed over if it is a one-off game - but if everyone has to play him over dozens of games, as he uses campaign bonuses to min-max his army to make his camping strat even more unpleasant? Yeah. 

A player who likes fluff and background will certainly take the opportunity to lovingly individualise, kitbash and customize each of his models and give them their own backstory for the campaign. Again, may not matter as much in a one-off game (and he probably won't go to the same effort): but in a campaign, lovingly kitbashed Wizard Uhtred the One Legged can be sniped by the competitive asshole in Turn 1 and he is gone for the rest of the campaign. Ouch.

Start small, start simple

A bit like background fluff, an indie game designer may be best served keeping things minimal. Tossing every cool idea/army/special rule in at the start makes things very difficult to playtest. 

I do science with teenagers and we always start with very simple experiments and change only one variable at a time. Start simple, add minimal extras. Make sure the core works. I know there are all these cool ideas, factions, weapons you have - but do we need them all right from the start?  Make sure infantry rules work first, then add vehicles. Avoid adding 'all the things.'

Tangentially, a very dense complex 'alpha' rulebook makes it less likely a playtester will bother to meaningfully engage with the rules. Speaking personally, I'm far more willing to try a simple alpha concept of 10 pages, than a 120-page magnum opus which has never actually been tested. Why should I spend hours reading something you probably haven't even tested properly yourself? It's like a little kid handing in a story they wrote but haven't even proofread themselves to see if it makes sense.

Stay focussed

Keep the game focussed. Was the sci fi space hulk game meant to have vehicles? Was the game originally meant to have 30 per side? Or did you originally intend for it to be only 10v10? Do you need to start with all 10 factions? Or can you start with 2-3, playtest them, and gradually add the others in later when you know the game works?

Limit rules exceptions.

Avoid bloated lists of traits and special rules. Use shared special rules, archetypes and stats. Have one rule do several jobs i.e. a single "blast" rule can cover an ice blast, fire blast, lightning blast - as long as the effects are similar. Use a "one handed weapon" rather than swords vs axes vs maces. Limit the exceptions. Make 'learning' the rules easy. Detail (if needed) can be added later.  I'm not saying rules can't be complex, or have many weapons/traits/factions etc. I'm just saying they should be avoided at the start.

It's also very easy to fall down the rabbit hole of 'rivet counting' weapons, traits etc. Once when working on an aerial wargame, I spent hours researching and "statting up" missiles - when my core initiative and movement systems had not even been decided. I had this big list of weapons, traits and special rules and I hadn't even fully decided how the core game should play! Or tested the core mechanics! Was it fun to create and research? Yep. Was it a good use of my time. Nope.

Campaigns are going to be nearly impossible to playtest thoroughly. Unless you have a dedicated group, it may even be impossible. I'd suggest campaigns need to be limited to a set amount of games and check you've avoided penalizing losers/rewarding winners too much (see: widening gap between said winners and losers) but the fun of a campaign is probably more dependent on the player personalities.

Do I need this rule/trait/faction - right now?

Like a lot of background fluff - with special rules, weapon lists, traits (aka rules exceptions or extra rules) is it needed yet (if at all) or it it just the designer enjoying exercising his creativity in an undisciplined manner? 

If you are working on homebrew rules, here's a few unpleasant? questions:

1. How much complexity/factions/traits/special rules/gear have you already added? Are they needed? How much had you written before you even tried to playtest your rules?

2. When did you last playtest your rules? How much more 'stuff' will you add in before you decide to do so again? (Will you change so many variables that it's impossible to compare old vs new versions?)

3. If you handed your rules to someone, would they want to read them? I.e. 20 pages vs 120 pages. How big an effort would an outside playtester have to make to even read your rules?

4. How much time do you spend on 'creating' weapons/traits/special rules vs 'testing' core gameplay? Have you minimized the 'rules exceptions?' (see #3). 

5. Are you drifting away/expanding from your core focus? (i.e. such as adding vehicles into a space hulk dungeoncrawler). Is there anything you can prune out?

If you just want to 'create' rules and don't want to play (playtest) your own rules, why would anyone else want to playtest or play them?

Start small. Test, expand.

(Note: this was written under the influence of COVID so the logic may be foggier than usual...)