Archive for October, 2010

Revising WGRG WW2 (North Africa game – for 6 Nov 2010)

Sorry for the rather cumbersome title on this post.  It refers to the revised Wargames Research Group 1925-50 rules that Pete Connew and I are developing over a long period of time for the Abbey Wood Irregulars. It’s a lengthy project, since we tend to bring out the WW2 stuff only twice a year.

So far we’ve played four scenarios:

  • Part of Operation Goodwood, in which in our version the Brits got a pasting from Kampfgruppe Waldmuller of 12 SS Pz Div;
  • German counter-attack around Pegasus Bridge on D-Day – a might-have-been scenario in which 21 Pz Div attacked in some force much earlier than historically and achieved significant success;
  • A small part of Operation Crusader in the Western Desert, in which elements of 15 Pz Div attacked prepared British positions; early attacks were beaten off and we ran out of time;
  • Courland Peninsula in January 1945.  The Russian 1 Tank Corps attacked advanced German positions with a view to pushing through enemy lines and exploiting to the rear.  The Russians put in a creditable attack, bearing in mind the inflexibility of Russian doctrine, but the Germans held their main position; again we ran out of time, unfortunately just before a major tank exchange, but it was an excellent game.

The emphasis in our version of the rules is on simulation of the historical doctrines, rather than simply on WW2 theme.  We’re not too fussed about exact differentiation between weapon systems, but we do care about command and control.  For this reason we attempt to model the formations down to company level reasonably accurately, acknowledging that we have limited sources of information (and some of these may represent wishful thinking rather than accuracy).  Communications are vital, and we model specifically the time delays that come with the changing of orders in response to changes to the tactical situation.  Modelling this aspect, including the time required for companies to react to their new orders, means that co-ordination between arms (for example artillery or air support) is realistically difficult.  We don’t have to resort to command pips or activation rolls, which most modern rules sets use as proxies for the confusion of battle.  With realistic force mixes, command levels and time delays, we find that co-ordination is realistically difficult and doesn’t have to rely on dice rolls.

I find that we prefer to use Division or larger formations, which gives us a bit of difficulty, as players can get overwhelmed. But there’s not a real appetite for smaller battles, and for historical accuracy (and I’m doubtful about that term), it seems to me that smaller scale actions don’t give enough context, particularly in relation to what’s going on to each flank of the battlefield.

For our scale of operations to work, we generally need about 4 players per side and 2 umpires, one to keep the sequence of play flowing and the other to regulate the communications delays and historicity.  For our game in a week’s time we’re in the Western Desert again (Stephen Welford is the main umpire; I’m assisting).  For this we’ll need revised artillery templates (for 1mm:1m scale) and revision of the rules for air power, mine fields and pre-game artillery.

I introduced the concept of Hot, Warm and Cold turns in an earlier game, which helps to speed up movement prior to close contact; I think it’s simpler to restrict this to Cold and Hot (effectively scrap Cold and rename Warm as Cold).  In this game units Shoot first then Move (or Communicate or take a Special action), so the range of shooting and visibility of enemy can be used to regulate the type of turn.  For a Warm Turn (now to be renamed Cold!) the bounds are 15 minutes long.  Movement is up to 5 times the advertised rates, but must only be:

(i)             off-table; or

(ii)            on-table in areas outside 500m range of located enemy elements; AND

(iii)           no new direct fire at or less than 500m (‘new direct fire’ is fire from active elements that did not fire in the previous friendly bound).

A warm bound can be interrupted by direct fire from previously unlocated enemy at or within 500m, in which case active player movement ends immediately, but communications are completed as if the full time had elapsed, so orders, requests or reports can be completed during a warm bound with no delays.  This is intended to make players think about the priorities for movement of their own forces – if they forget, it can lead to nasty surprises, as some units can get left behind – representing delays in orders, failures to co-ordinate and so on.

Additional bits and pieces that are needed for this game include:

  • New artillery templates (I think I have them somewhere, but probably won’t be able to find the old ones!)
  • Sequence of Play reference chart for the wall (never underestimate large visual aids)
  • A table-standing flipchart for each side, so that orders can be posted.  I need to revise this to make it simpler to operate.  (Did I mention never underestimate large visual aids?)

I used to produce large cards for each command with the unit compositions and Move / To Hit for each vehicle and weapon, which could also be used for orders, but it just took too much time; and in any case I’m not certain the players appreciated the effort – few players seemed to use the convenient tables on the cards, preferring to look them up in the rules! So now I print out the full tables, three double-sided large print A4 Play Aids for each player, and they work well. These are traditional board game style play aids that include Sequence of Play and list of Special Actions, so most of the time the players won’t need to refer to the main rules at all.

The game relies on good briefings (no pressure on Stephen then!), relatively thoughtful players and decisive rather than accurate umpiring.  It’s better to make quick decisions that give a believable historical result than to agonise at length about what is correct in relation to the rules.

Two things I’d like to try are (i) suppressive area direct fire onto unlocated enemies (for example in terrain that prevents movement), which could result in the elements being neutralised but not destroyed – this is an idea nicked from Tac: WWII; and (ii) permitting a small number of units to be in ambush – when units in ambush shoot they are not automatically detected until their second shot – this is nicked from Battlegroup Panzer Grenadier.

Age of String: a very brief review of String Railway

Played String Railway Wednesday lunchtime. It’s a new Japon Brand game (Okazu Brand) by Hisashi Hayashi fresh from Essen, where it sold out.

The playing area is made from a loop of string, as is a mountain range inside it.  A further piece of string (not looped) forms a river. Within this “field” players will place strings of their own colour, representing track, and square tiles, representing various types of station. You score points for linking up stations and the types of station can also add or subtract points from rivals. Crossing a string deducts a point.

The concept of the game is wonderfully simple. By the end of play you will have a complex cat’s cradle criss-crossing your playing area, but you’ll be able to admire each player’s network construction.  Lots of fun; recommended but may be difficult to find unless another publisher gets hold of it.

2-5 players, 8+, 30 minutes

Essen 10 Purchases

What we’ve bought at Essen Spiel ’10 – too much as usual.

A&C Essen 10 game purchases

Essen 10 Purchases

7 Wonders
AdlungLand
Agricola Gamer’s Deck
Antics
Antigua
Bunny Bunny Moose Moose
Caligula
Cartagena 2
Cat and Chocolate
Dominant Species
Grimoire
Guided Lands
High Frontier + expansion
Inca Empire
Key Market
London
Magnum Sal
Mai-Star
Mercator
Mosaix
Nobunaga
Parade
Pocket Battles: Orcs & Elves
Quirrly
Ricochet Robots
RRR
Sceptre of Zavandor
Spot
String Railway
Sun, Sea & Sand
The Resistance
Thunderstone
Troyes

Essen Sunday

The final day of Spiel ’10 dawned at, well, dawn. A quiet morning (tumbleweed slowly passing by) was followed by a much busier lunchtime and afternoon.

We made a few sales to shops, including the final one in the carpark after we had packed up! Thank you to Swan Asia!

A few last minute swaps for Totemo with other designers included Sun, Sea and Sand (Cwali), Thunderstone, Antics (thanks Gordon). Weren’t able to swap for Mines of Zavandor as there wasn’t an English one available.

We got our copy of the English 7 Wonders and T shirt, so it paid to be at the top of the waiting list. Also picked up Sceptre of Zavandor for 10€.

Packing up was swift if fraught, as we couldn’t bring the van to the stand. Thanks to all the crew (including Julian, Pete and Gavin + Gavin’s dad). Then we had our usual wind down Mexican meal.

Hopefully there will be a more considered blog post later, but now we have to head ferrywards.

Essen Saturday

Frenetic Saturday arrived at Spiel ’10. For the first time Surprised Stare Games has a product in Totemo that could be thought of as a Saturday game; one that will appeal to families and the general public. So it has transpired.

As usual the halls were packed wall to wall – though various exhibitors have said it wasn’t as crowded as usual. For us, it was unusually busy. Previously we have had crowds ignoring us on Saturday. This time we were demoing all day. Sales were good for a Saturday. It helped that we were high up the GeekBuzz rankings for most of the day.

I’ve picked up a copy of Pocket Battles: Orcs v Elves – a follow up to Celts & Romans and one that I helped to play test. It’s a Z-man game by Paolo Mori and Francesco Sirocchi. I was also lucky enough to catch up with Paolo, as he stopped by the stand. Vasco de Gama expansion is due out soon.

In the evening we met up with another Alan, Sebastian and Caroline, and Jonathan and Lucy. Caroline introduced me to Mijnlieff and promptly thrashed me (at the game).

Then we gave Ascension a go. It was enjoyable, but why buy, play or design this rather than Dominion?

Finally we had a 6-player game of Parade. Few turns and I think driven more by the draw of cards than skill (and I won). Probably better with three or four.

Essen Friday

And the campaign continues…

Vicki’s artwork is going down a storm! Specific companies that have been impressed include Adlung Spiele, Gryphon Games and Kosmos, amongst others.

We had the opportunity to take some more space, because the stand opposite was empty. This proved to be too expensive, because Merz Verlag wanted to charge €400 and we would have to get furniture on top. I had a wonderful response from neighbouring companies reflecting cultural differences. Myself, being English, was playing by the rules; the Poles had to refer up to a higher authority, and the Italians were all for just occupying the space without asking!

We met up with even more old friends, including Jonathan and Lucy; we didn’t manage a game with them, because our evening plans did not quite mesh.

We bought Troyes, a new Belgian Eurogame, and played it in the evening, 4-player with Sebastian and Caroline. For the first try it took perhaps 2.5 hours – the rules look pretty comprehensive; no problems with them. It’s a medium to heavy game, and will probably take the 90-120 mins on the box. There’s a lot going on in the game. Worker placement gives access to mechanisms to convert resources to other types, and to generate VPs. However, the resources are primarily in the form of coloured dice – yellow for civil, white for religious, red for military. While high dice rolls help, they are not essential – in this game you can pay to use the other players dice, the price depending on the number of dice – from 1 to 3 – that you want to use for your action. Conversion of dice or adding to the dice total or other dice manipulation happens as part of your action, not as a separate one. Another great twist is that bonus VPs can be achieved through meeting the conditions set by your mentor (a character card randomly dealt at the start). But everyone can get the bonuses from all the characters, so there’s an element of bluff. Recommended.

Essen Thursday

Just lost the whole post for Essen Thursday; iPhone lost it when I published with no Internet connection 😦 So this may be briefer than usual. I’ve switched to composing this in Notes then posting – see, I can learn!

We spent all day demonstrating Totemo (there’s a surprise). Sales were moderate, bearing in mind it will have limited appeal to Euro collectors. We had lots of families on the stand which bodes well for Saturday.

Best moment was Phil explaining Totemo in Japanese to Banesto! Not many stands can do that. Also Chooi had a chat with a Malaysian importer too, so we had a very multicultural day.

We also sold a small number of Confucius and Fzzzt! 2nd edition plus 5-6 player expansion.

We had productive meetings with Schmidt Spiele, FRED and Cryptozoic about future products too.

More later I hope; we’re reassuringly busy.

Essen Wednesday

All setup was done on time, so we’re all ready for this morning’s stampede! Thanks to Chooi and Phil for their help. And also to all the old friends who have dropped by.

First purchases were High Frontier, Dominant Species (both on recommendation), Pocket Battles Orcs & Elves, Agricola G deck, Parade, Bunny Bunny Moose Moose.

In the evening we play tested some stuff. Pete Armstrong had his game ‘Wild’, which looks like it has considerable potential. Theme is wild animals escaping from wildfire. Elephants, giraffes, rhinos & lions all are fighting to get away. Players have a hand of cards, randomly drawn or from a pool of 3 cards, to try to match with their 4 animals – one of each type. The cards are used for fighting off opponents, though herding animals can coexist. Particular points in the design that I liked were: time pressure and graphics of the approaching wildfire; movement restrictions by keying each hex by animal; card pool for drawing from, which could probably be extended and the basic combat mechanism – which was quick, simple and effective. We made several suggestions for possible improvement.

Then we had a quick 5-player go at Maureen Hiron’s new game ‘Up for Grabs’. I found it to be surprisingly fun! Not a game I would buy myself, but should have immense appeal to a mass market US audience.

Essen – start of Spiel ’10 expedition

Trip to Essen now started. Stroud to Dover was our first leg – uneventful. Not even a traffic jam of note, though Ditzy (our satnav) took us south from Reading to link up with the M3 – didn’t feel like a great route.

We’re currently negotiating to get a little emergency help on the stand. Thanks very much to Chooi and Daniel for putting themselves forward.

Early start tomorrow – up at 06:00 so we can get the early ferry and drive rapidly across to Essen, in order to put Totemo into the Press Room before it closes.

Quatre Bras next version ready for more play testing

I’ve been working for some time now on the Quatre Bras game based on Martin Wallace’s Waterloo system.  This is the first step in making the Waterloo system into a generic Napoleonic one with the object of making more battles available without having to design separate systems and components for every game.

There have been several challenges with this mini-project.  The main one has been that Quatre Bras was an encounter battle, not a large-scale set piece like Waterloo. Both armies were coming off line of march straight into the fight, and on the Allied side were to an extent thrown into the action wherever the worst threat appeared to be.  So, many of the troops arrive as reinforcements and relatively few are set up on the board initially.

The ratio of forces between the sides was subject to change as reinforcements appeared.  This is modelled by limiting the action discs and damage cubes appropriately, while not permitting one side to run down the clock so fast that the enemy is prevented from taking actions.  Removing both the ‘5’ action discs helps to sort out this problem, and it’s justified by the small size of the forces compared to the Waterloo game – only about a third of each army took part.

The second potential problem was one of ‘figure scale’, a term I hesitate to use, as this is not a miniatures or figure game.  Martin was careful in the Waterloo game not to state a number of men or a type of military unit represented by each piece.  The units in the game are merely a representational feel for the strength of the armies.  The advantage of this approach is that, within limits, the game system can be scaled to suit different battles.  So Quatre Bras can use less actual pieces but proportionately more pieces than Waterloo.  For example it uses 11 French infantry, compared to 17 in the larger game.

Quatre Bras was a see-saw affair that only stabilised once the Allies had received several doses of reinforcements.  So there is a danger that the French might overrun the Allies, resulting in a relatively short game. On the other hand the French suffered from some handicaps, primarily undue caution on the part of several generals who had fought against Wellington in the Peninsula, and the often overlooked fact that Marshal Ney had only joined the army the night before, so was unfamiliar with its contents, its staff, some of its commanders and more importantly, exactly where all its components actually were.  For this game, I’ve introduced a special rule for the first turn to reflect the French wariness, such that French morale suffers a handicap in the first two assaults.  This feature is designed to limit in a realistic fashion the possibilities that the French had to overrun the Allied forces quickly.  For French players, such a tactic is still possible, but does not guarantee victory.

Most of the other rules are the same as in the original game.  However, the extensive fighting in the wood of Bossu during the battle causes a further difficulty.  The French pushed the Dutch very hard in the woods, but were unable to clear it, despite committing veteran light infantry to the fight.  The battle of Waterloo was not much influenced by woods, so the original game system doesn’t make woods particularly hard to take – both sides suffer a one right column shift for morale and there’s no firing benefit to the defender.  I’ve changed this so that infantry suffer a -1 modifier when firing at infantry in defensive formation in woods.  This type of woods represents open woodland, which often has paths and clearings, but also lots of useful cover for a defender, so this defensive bonus seems appropriate.

Finally, victory conditions in an encounter battle are usually rather different from a set-piece, being dependent both on taking positions and often more pertinently on the relationship between this battle and a decisive set-piece later in the campaign.  For Quatre Bras each side has two levels of victory, tactical or strategic, dependent on places they take, and for the French, exiting pieces from the board.  A French strategic victory represents aid from Ney’s force to Napoleon’s main army fighting the Prussians at Ligny, giving an opportunity for a decisive victory against the Prussians.

DBM at Frome – October 17

A better day points-wise.  Steve and I scored 14 points, with 4-6 and 10-0, so ended up on 21 out of 40 – not bad for a scratch army and two players neither of whom knew much about how to play DBM.

Final match-ups were v Hungarians and then Ed’s Ancient Brits (Ed’s in the AWI Club, so a derby match to end with!).  Luck was variable in these two games.  We got all our poor dice rolls versus the Hungarians, including approx 10 6:1 rolls against us, then all our good dice rolls versus Ed, including killing his CinC and ending the game in 2 hours.

My opinion of the game is not changed (see yesterday’s post).  I prefer FoG for this type of game, because the ‘battlegroup’ system seems more manageable, rather than the micromanagement required in single element based DBM.  FoG seems to have a better tactical feel and to have less stress on technical knowledge.  There are still some awkward corner-cases in FoG though – for example, a unit charged in flank or rear cannot evade so that it continues in the direction it was already moving (which in reality it might well want to do, if it was trying to escape from the enemy behind it or to its flank!) but only in the direction of the charge or to its own rear; this might result in an ‘evade’ move more into the path of the charge, which seems nonsensical to me.

All in all, I’d prefer to go with historical simulation games rather than themed ones.

DBM – October 16 at Frome

Yes, I’m playing in a DBM competition – get over it; I probably will eventually.

This has been a long-standing date in our Frome miniatures group calendar (Abbey Wood Irregulars), and it’s a chance to show off the re-furbished church hall to more people.  Nearly finished now, and it looks great with the new custom-made lights.  Congrats to Pete and Colin and the team.

Steve Etheridge and I are playing Polybian Romans.  Neither of us have played much DBM at all – Steve’s done a lot of DBA competitions, while I play mainly FoG nowadays.  So it’s been a bit of a mixed bag so far, as we attempt to get to grips with the rules.  And many thanks to our tolerant opponents for helping us out with occasional clarifications.

We’ve played v Later Carthaginians and Early Libyans so far.  We managed to squeak a 6-4 win v Hasdrubal, complements of some fine gladius work against the reluctant Spanish allies, who eventually collapsed.  We managed less well against the Libyans, in fact they gave us a right drubbing.  Knowing they had mainly Psiloi and Auxilia we figured that our blades and cavalry would give them problems.  We opted for a fairly forward initial deployment, despite 5 steep hills in the vicinity.  Unfortunately (mostly on my end of the table) this left us little room to deploy our blades into lines, and the legions prefer not to fight in deep blocks.  We also made a few technical errors, quickly exploited by our opponents – I let them get round the right flank of my front line a little too easily, and wasn’t able to cope very well with a couple of offset Psiloi half-in half-out of a steep hill.  So although we broke their main group (out of 4 commands) in the centre, we shortly thereafter lost two of our own, thus losing the battle.  Maybe we can turn it around tomorrow.

It reminded me of the reasons why I moved on from DBM in the first place, which is the reason for this post really.  DBM seems to be more about the game mechanics that enable a single system across 7,000 years of armies, rather than about any semblance of historical modelling of battle.  The curiosity for me is that there has obviously been considerable effort and cost to produce extensive army lists (which almost any research will show are pretty ropey history), suggesting a historical bent.  And yet it doesn’t permit use of historical tactics, or at least they don’t work in the game.  That combination of attempted historical authenticity in the construction of the armies, and yet the lack of historical authenticity in the use of them in the game is what I find striking.  It’s the essence of a historically themed game in contract with a simulation game.  FoG exhibits the same problem.

This type of game is much more about the game and its technique – for example where exactly do I put this element, so that it makes counter-moves illegal owing to the rules – than about how that army would have been used historically.  As others have pointed out, you can take a Roman army to the table, but you cannot make it use Roman tactics.

These are examples, therefore, of historically themed games, not historical simulation games, and that means they may tend to attract players who like complex competitive games per se, rather than those who favour games that reflect history.  I’m beginning to think that there isn’t a continuum of where games lie on the theme versus model line, but clear blue water between the types.

Game design and development: part of a LinkedIn discussion

This post is an edited version of part of a discussion on the game design and development process that occurred on one of the LinkedIn board game groups.  I think someone in the discussion was going to pull it all together and do a useful PDF of ‘how to do it’!  This was my attempt to distill some of the process out from my experience over the last 25 years or so of my own, and Surprised Stare Games, board and card game design and development.

First be clear about your objectives as a game designer.  Is it your intention to design a game for sale, or for your own personal enjoyment.  If the latter, then it’s much easier on the stress levels.  If the former, then before you start, immerse yourself in what’s already been published.  The Board Game Geek website is a good place to start.  Will your game add anything to the field?  If not, then, even if it works as a game, it may not sell.  Bear in mind that at the Essen Spiel 2009 some 690 new board and card games were launched – if you don’t know about the Spiel fair, you should find out as a matter of urgency at http://www.merz-verlag.com/spiel/.

Decide on your market segment (there are many) and likely geographical areas of sale.  There are 3 major segments (well, simplistically speaking, I’m not a marketing specialist!): toys and simple games for children, mass market games for the family, specialist games aimed at hobby gamers.  Naturally, these segments have multitudinous sub-segments.

The first two segments – toys and simple games for children, mass market games for the family – are worth billions of dollars (or pounds) per annum and are dominated by large international corporations (Hasbro and Mattel, for example).  To break into these markets you’d probably need a very good agent or high quality corporate contacts.  Unless you’re wildly lucky or exceptionally talented, an independent game designer is extremely likely to experience very high levels of disappointment operating in these segments.  In-house designers and ‘known’ independents tend to be used, or those with a good track record of successful invention.

The third segment is much smaller.  While there are some large companies (Kosmos, Ravensburger – they’re mainstream too – Days of Wonder, Games Workshop, Zoch – they do children’s games too) there are many more small publishers (such as our company, Surprised Stare Games).  Even breaking into this smaller world is difficult for an independent, because there are so many aspiring (and talented) game designers out there, including very well known ones like Reiner Knizia, and in the UK, Martin Wallace and Richard Breese.

So having started with all the discouraging stuff (you need to know that!), in terms of the game design process, there are some guidelines (NOT hard and fast ‘best practice’) that we’ve found very useful.

1  Have a good idea that no-one else has had.  This can either be in terms of a central game mechanic, a game system or even a theme.

2  Check carefully that your good idea really is a new one.  It’s actually fairly easy to design something that you *think* no-one’s done before, only to find that you’ve actually designed ‘High Society’ or ‘Modern Art’.

3  The design process: this tends to be individualistic.  You need to flesh out the game mechanics so that the game works, it has internal consistency, and is an enjoyable game (in your view).  Some designers do this in a formal way, writing a design brief and meeting design objectives; personally I’ve found this approach can help, but it’s best not to be rigid about it.  Design contains a lot of inspiration and hope, then a lot of iterative work to find out if the inspiration and hope can be actualised.  Sometimes a design might pop into my head pretty much fully formed; other times it will be hard graft.  Sometimes the idea starts with abstract mechanics, sometimes with theme.  At some point during this process you should have a prototype and some rules – then you may ditch the whole thing, or take it on to the next stage.

4  The game development process: don’t miss out this stage.  When *you* think the game is finished, I can pretty much guarantee it isn’t, if you haven’t gone through this process.  Inflict your game on as many different friends as you can.  At this stage, it’s usually helpful to run the sessions yourself, because you need to know about and record all the rough edges and comments.  Keep your expectations low at this point!  Preferably use a high proportion of people who you trust and who know about development.

This is the period when you find out about and modify the ‘playability’ of the game.  You or your favourite game developer friend need to concentrate on the experience of the gamers.  You must be prepared to sacrifice parts of your design in order to get to the point where gamers will play it, so being a purist is not a good idea.  Do not expect the development process to be quick – it can take a couple of years or more to ‘finish’ a game (the average lifecycle from idea to finished unpublished game is 2 to 4 years).

For some games, the design can be handed over to a developer, and you can stop at the end of the design process.  If you’re working with a company, they may insist on this if they like the design – this independent game development process carried out in-house by a publisher may take months or years, and the game may end up with a different theme.  You shouldn’t care too much – after all, you’re being paid!

Game development should involve huge amounts of play testing involving as many different groups as possible.  Keep good version control, or you’ll go mad.  Identify and use gamers who will give you high quality, critical feedback.  Use gamers who always try to break the game (and if they do, then take that very seriously).  Use ‘serious’ gamers who play at a high level.  Use casual social gamers who play for fun.  If possible, use groups in different countries.  When you’re sick of play testing and don’t want to see your game ever again, take a short break, then keep going – you haven’t finished.

The game development process is only finished when the development team (which might be just you, but should include other trusted people too) is happy that the product is as good as it can be.

5  Sale.  Try to get a slot at a games publishing company – I’ll not go into details of this step.  Most games fall at this hurdle.  Alternatively publish the game yourself.

6  Production.  Make sure the production team thinks the game will sell, at an acceptable price, for an acceptable profit level.  Don’t be too disappointed if it fails at this point; a lot do, but reaching this stage is very positive and I would say that most games that reach production will reach the shelves.  There’s a lot more detail that can be offered on this stage, but ‘real work’ beckons!

Multiple games from the same components

Multiple games from the same components is very often done as a ‘game design challenge’ (see BGDF), but only rarely as a production.  One exception is Stonehenge (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/20436/stonehenge); I’m not sure how successful that was commercially.

The problem tends to be the compromises you have to make to ensure that all the games work – those can reduce the focus of each game.  Expansions (usually charged for) or variants (usually available online) are the more normal way to go.  Expansions that require the original game (cheaper to produce, but smaller market) are common, as are self-standing expansions that are fundamentally the same game, but don’t require the original one (Carcassone: Hunters and Gatherers vs original Carcassone).

Expansions that increase the number of players are very common, because they increase the potential market too (Settlers of Catan is a good example).  They may not, however, increase the playability of the game :-).

Poorly Written Rules = Everybody Loses: some comments on a LinkedIn discussion

This was an extensive comment about rules writing that I made.  See here for the original LinkedIn thread.

Good article Kim. In fact it’s not necessarily the size of company that dictates the quality of a set of rules. While many large publishers have staff writers, they don’t always get it right.

A common example is our old favourite, Monopoly. How many people actually play Monopoly by the published rules? This is at least in part because many versions of the published rules were poorly written and open to multiple interpretations.

Writing rules for games is a technical skill; it’s a type of technical writing. As such, it is amenable to a traditional quality process approach. At Surprised Stare Games (we’re a small UK publisher, who’s staff all have non-gaming jobs) we have the following process:

  • Designer writes the first draft, which could be notes rather than a full rule set.
  • In-house team plays the game extensively as part of our normal development, then our in-house rules writer (primarily myself) produces a second more or less comprehensive draft rules set.
  • * As development continues, the rules will commonly be re-written two or three times from scratch.
  • * Once the in-house team is satisfied with the game (note: game not yet finished!), we’ll produce another draft set of rules, reviewed in-house, for inclusion in prototypes that will be used in our play-test groups. Then the game will be play-tested, supervised by members of our team.
  • The rules will be revised following play-testing. Up to this stage, we’re looking at the draft rules to answer the questions: “Does the game work?” and “Does the text say what we mean?”
  • Towards the end of the development process, we re-write the rules again, this time laying them out with pictures and diagrams in a format that is as close to the published one as possible.
  • This draft is then shared with our external ‘rules lawyers’ – a couple of people who have a good track record for writing rules. Result: A comprehensive draft rules set that we will use with our 4 or 5 blind play test groups (these are not blind people, just people who have not previously had contact with the game!).
  • Blind play testing will usually come up with further suggestions for revisions, so we will have a final review prior to producing what we hope will be the final draft.
  • We then play test the final draft.
  • We also (usually alongside final testing) get the rules translated into German (we usually produce multi-language games) – the translation process often picks up English language problems because of the differences between UK English and International English (let alone US English). We’re finding this so useful that we’re revising our process to push the translation back into the development process rather than leaving it till the end.

As you can see, the rules will have gone through at least 10 drafts over this process, including several re-writes. Our latest game (Totemo, see http://www.surprisedstaregames.co.uk/Totemo/index.htm ) has gone through this full process, although the rules would fit comfortably on 4 sides of A4. In fact, looking through our Totemo files, I can see 13 versions of the rules. With larger games than this it’s easy to get to dozens of versions.

Game play stages

In my view, the trajectory of game play goes through four principal stages:

1. Learning
2. Competence
3. Expert
4. Moving on

The Learning stage is typified by players fathoming out the game rules and basic strategies.  In most gaming groups only one or two players will read the rulebook, so the Learning stage will usually involve a combination of trial and error and teaching.  Depending on the complexity of the game, this stage will take from one to as many as a dozen plays.  In groups in which players rotate a lot, teaching the game may last months, and some players may never move out of the Learning stage, because they are consistently teaching new players.

At some point most players will become competent with the game mechanics and basic strategies.  During this stage, a proportion of players will improve their technique and develop more successful strategies that take into account the strategies used by other players.  Many players will go from the Competence stage to Moving on, as new games take their fancy.

A small proportion of players become Expert, with an advanced knowledge and deep understanding of the game (if it is the type of game that permits this level of play).  Typically Expert players will be able to tailor their strategies to those of other players and will have a range of optimum plays easily at their disposal that mean they can readily win against competent players and can only be seriously challenged by other experts.

Moving on occurs, as you might expect, when the game has been played so much that it has grown relatively stale, and new games have more appeal.  The game might still get occasional nostalgic play, but not the concentration of previous stages.

These four stages are likely to be run through by different players at different rates and times, but there is likely to be some polarisation within playing groups, simply because the players play together.

Innovation – initial comments

I played this new card game with Charlie the other day.  I’d played it once before with Tony at UK Games Expo, and that experience had been enough for me to pay out an exhorbitant sum to get it from the US, rather than wait till Essen.  Was this a good idea?

I’m not going to write a straight review of Innovation; there’s plenty of those on the Geek at http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/63888/innovation.  My comments are about game design and development.

Innovation comes from a specific stable of games, namely Carl Chudyk’s, designer of Glory to Rome.  The particular gaming niche here is an adult (14+) CCG-playing audience.  This is a different audience from Euro board games or board war games and reflects the increasing market segmentation in the hobby games market, brought about by an all pervasive internet and lowering of production costs.  CCG players are generally more tolerant of complexity and complication in games than Euro board gamers.

Innovation, like Glory to Rome before it and to a lesser extent Race for the Galaxy, is one of those ‘love it or hate it’ games.  Unlike Dominion (a different audience) Innovation is not particularly accessible to new players.  With a core pack of 105 unique cards, all of which contain many icons and often extensive text with technical language, there is a lot of information for new players to absorb before they can become competent.  The effort required to learn the game is considerable, because knowledge of the cards that might come up is an important part of the game.  Some potential players will not wish to put in the effort and will fall by the wayside before playing it, or after a single play.  Others will be caught by the game’s very complexity and challenge, and player groups have grown up around this.

Like many CCG-style games Innovation does not adhere to Euro game design principles.  It includes, as I’ve mentioned, extensive text on the cards, rather than the more intensive iconisation that is used on Race for the Galaxy.  RftG uses iconisation to make the game more accessible to a wider audience, such that even some text on the cards clarifies icons rather than replaces them, while Innovation (possibly because it is very difficult to iconise the dogma effects) is more reliant on appeal to the audience through other means, primarily game mechanics and its civilisation theme – always a crowd pleaser.

The game is nevertheless heavily iconised, because its central mechanic – dogma effects – relies on players being able to count the number of icons of each type in each player’s array.  The icons are coloured and contained in a square of the relevant colour, and have a symbol that should make the game playable by colour blind people.  The cards use a strong template, akin to Magic: The Gathering for the dogma effects – this is an excellent idea for making the game accessible to its target audience, who will be familiar with this ‘standard’.

The game will appeal to the existing Glory to Rome audience, as it uses similar mechanics.  This is an interesting phenomenon – with niche selling of games, the target audience will often buy the next big thing from a known designer, and companies can publish on this basis.  This concept has often been a factor in the hobby games industry, but I think it has been more prevalent in the Euro board game arena then elsewhere.

Innovation uses extensive technical language, by which I mean language that is relevant directly to this particular game.  Examples include the terms ‘meld’, ‘tuck’, ‘return’, ‘achieve’.  Even ‘draw’ has a specific technical meaning which is critical to game play.  Such technical language can be viewed in two ways, and we came up against this problem with our own first published game, Coppertwaddle.  Initially and importantly it is a barrier to accessibility, because players have to learn, for example that ‘meld’ means play a card from your hand to your play area (the play area itself being called your ‘board’, though no actual board exists).  However, secondly it makes the game more exclusive, and therefore players can gain the psychological advantage of being in an ‘elite group’ (in a sense, reversing the organisational problem of an elite group into a positive force).  So, once players are hooked, playing group dynamics can help to extend its reach: “I want to be part of the elite group”.  As a game design component, extensive use of explanatory text, especially technical language is often frowned upon (in fact, Coppertwaddle was criticised by some reviewers for this very problem), but for the adult CCG audience it may be a positive benefit.

The Learning stage (see other post) for Innovation may be quite lengthy.  This is alleviated by the fact that each game is relatively short.  It is interesting however, that the box claims 30-60 minutes duration, a significant understatement for games played in the Learning stage.

The game design does not seem to attempt to balance the power of the cards, like many other games of this type.  In fact it may celebrate the ‘take that’ effect, and the perception of ‘power cards’ may form a significant challenge to players achieving competence.  In some senses this may be another barrier, as another group of players may give up after being on the receiving end of Combustion (for example).  There is even the Fission card that can effectively re-set the game (except for Achievements) if the dogma is used.  This type of game effect is often frowned upon in Euro game designs, as it obliterates the previous hard work of the players.  However, it is likely that the target audience is tolerant of this type of effect.  There are other examples in CCGs (some Magic: The Gathering cards spring to mind), but these tend to be components of designed deck styles, whereas in Innovation such a card can be randomly drawn.

The production standard of Innovation is high.  Asmadi Games have produced it in quite a large box for the original components, but that makes it big enough to be sleeved easily – a definite boon for a card game.  And there’s space for expansions – you’ve been warned!

A mechanic that I’ve not seen elsewhere is the ‘splay’.  To splay a pile, you take the top card and slide it in the indicated direction (left, right or up).  Splaying reveals additional icons depending on the direction, and the game has left revealing 1, right 2 and up 3, giving variable power to each type of splay.  The power of cards is therefore not just the intrisic card itself, but also extra icons that they can give when their primary use is over.

There are some hard challenges in design terms, which may be ameliorated by aiming at its specific, largely tolerant market:

  1. Extensive text on the cards and the Reference/Actions card
  2. Rather small icons next to the text to which they apply
  3. Width: competent play requires knowledge of a large number of cards, rather than mastery of the mechanics and the strategy
  4. Play length during the Learning stage.

Innovation is probably assured of success because of the following elements of its design:

  1. Complexity, aimed at a CCG audience, focusing on appeal to an ‘elite group’
  2. Theme – civilisation being a constant favourite, with Through The Ages and Roll Through The Ages being recent successful additions to remind the audience of the power of the theme
  3. Building on the existing Glory to Rome design by the same designer; GtR seen as a highly successful one with a market as yet not sated with this type of game
  4. The new mechanic, splay, while otherwise containing relatively straightforward mechanics
  5. Good attention to iconisation where that is possible
  6. Celebration of ‘take that’ cards, making the game a tough challenge to master
  7. For experienced players, relatively short playing time.

Charge Pikes! – Trying out a new ECW miniatures ruleset

Yesterday was Frome day, our monthly miniatures session called the Abbeywood Irregulars – first Saturday of the month.  We usually play historical battles, ranging far and wide through time and space, with some alternative history thrown in.

For October 2010 we had two games: several players took another outing to Shepton Mallett, a third recreation (or at least re-creation) of fighting in the 1930s, A Very  British Civil War.  Meanwhile the slightly more serious wargamers, Pete, Colin and myself (and later John), tried out a set of tweaked 15mm English Civil War rules called Charge Pikes!  These were loosely based on Wargames Research Group 1685-1845, as revised by Wesley Rogers, and additional material from Charge Yr Pikes.  We played an encounter skirmish with roughly 3 units each of infantry and cavalry on each side, plus a couple of light guns, also known as ‘leather guns’.  Overall the rules seemed to present a good ‘feel’ for the period, with troop quality and the presence of generals very important.

I much prefer ‘friendly’ wargaming to tournament games.  We still play hard to win, but we don’t go mad for measuring to the millimetre nor for exploiting the rules.  We’re all more interested in ‘how it might have happened’, rather than winning at all costs.  So a lot of our gaming is experimenting with, and improving upon, rule sets.  I can see this ECW set getting a bit of our development treatment, as the framework looks sound, has obviously been lovingly revised by knowledgeable people already.  Play wasn’t too slow, even though we hadn’t developed play aids (we were going straight from A4 printouts of the rules, so were regularly leafing through pages), as evidenced by the fact that we finished a whole game.  By ‘finished’ I mean we got a result (a Royalist victory as it happens), over a game of approximately 20 turns; and we are notorious for not finishing in the time allotted.

Areas to tweak or smooth out were:

  • Musketry – possibly a little too effective, and it wasn’t quite clear how to exploit salvo fire; we’re considering whether 1 or 2 ranks (in terms of stands) of musketeers should be able to fire each round.  If only 1 rank, then we’ll need a slick way of indicating this, especially as we’d want to permit double-rank salvo firing as an option.
  • Some clarification of the charge sequence, particularly in respect of evade moves and pursuit.  We played that if a routing unit was hit again by pursuers the sequence began again, forcing cavalry in particular to carry out lengthy pursuits – I suspect this is OK, because it strongly suggests that generals should arrange to supply supports to pursuers if possible, lest they pursue into dangerous situations (as happened in our battle).
  • Melees involving several units need an example or two, particularly in relation to moving up stands after impact.
  • Movement and combat for unformed units needs to be sorted out.

I found it particularly interesting and very playable that morale checks were pretty easy and straightforward without a great need for reliance on dice.  Generally it was Green or Raw troops that had problems (as you’d expect), while Elite, Crack and Line were OK in most situations if led by a general.  Relatively few situations really required recourse to the morale tables (other than that we were learning them!).  We were helped by having ‘natural born leaders’ (and I quote) as our leaders – two on each side.

The other good point was the influence of troop grades on manoeuvrability.  Green and Raw troops, for example, took 2 full moves to change formation and could only wheel at half speed.  We frequently found that a move that would have been simple in most rule sets was much more realistically difficult with relatively untrained troops in this one.  I think that this will mean that larger armies with poor troops and average leadership will be quite beatable by small well-led experienced ones.

Looking forward already to the next ECW game.

Charge Pikes, Royalist advance

Fig 1: The Royalists advance! A the top of the pic you can just make out the Parliamentary forces marching left to right beyond a muddy stream towards a village out of picture top right.  Royalist cavalry are to the right of the road, dragoons on it in the middle distance, while the infantry in the foreground are moving out of march column into line.  The first infantry unit is supported by a couple of light cannon and is about to march to the left beyond a darker green gully, which forms a steep slope that will protect its right flank.

Charge Pikes 2: Parliamentary forces

Fig 2: Parliamentary forces march towards the village – their cavalry by the bridge at the top are busy dispersing some Clubmen, which was their original objective before the Royalists showed up.  The stream is actually less of an obstacle than it looks – it just halves movement rates and doesn’t prevent charges across, though charging units don’t get impetus benefits.

Charge Pikes: Both sides

Fig 3: Parliamentary forces marching right to left in the foreground with the scouting Royalist cavalry and dragoons in the middle distance and the rest of the Royalists in the far distance.  The final act at the end of the battle was the Royalists smashing an Elite unit of Parliamentary infantry that was attacking from left to right (from the direction of the village) by the wall in this picture, the main body of Royalist infantry having marched to and across the stream just out of picture to the right.  Parliamentarian cavalry, having raced back from dispersing the Clubmen, had marched swiftly along the road to the rear of the Royalist infantry and routed the rearmost (Raw) infantry unit.  But its pursuit made it vulnerable to Royalist reinforcements entering the battlefield down the road (elite cavalry!), and it was routed.  A sister unit that charged a Royalist gun was rendered ineffective by musketry from a crack Royalist infantry unit in support.  The elite Royalist cavalry, supported by the dragoons and anchored by some stalwart fighting from Royalist line infantry, dispersed a second unit of Parliamentarian infantry in a notable charge across the stream.  Parliamentarian losses left them with a single isolated infantry unit in the village and a couple of light guns.  However, they had fought hard and well and were able to negotiate their withdrawal with honours, leaving their guns behind.

At the start of the engagement the Royalist cavalry pictured to the left of the road opportunistically charged a body of Parliamentary cavalry as it was crossing the stream, fortuitously routing it from the field.  As the Royalist cavalry was green, it found itself reluctant to about face in front of a deployed unit of infantry, so opted for a semi-circular march right round the enemy army, debouching eventually through the gap in the hedge on the edge of the wood in the picture.  It then charged towards the village, engaging the aforementioned elite infantry unit, and was beaten off with heavy losses, eventually rallying some distance back and playing no further part in the battle.