Politics By Other Means – a microgame project

I’ve always had a bit of a problem designing microgames.  It’s not something I’m particularly good at, because I’m always wanting to put more details into a design, often to its detriment.  I seem to be unsatisfied with ‘small is beautiful’.

For example, way way back, when Imagine magazine was published in the ’80s, I designed an abstract game called ‘Mindmeld’ (https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/99970/mindmeld).  It was a bit like a microgame, in that it was a complete game published in a magazine and had a strong, simple central idea for a solo game.  With only limited pieces and a small hex board, you had to prevent ‘enemy’ pieces of 3 sizes from moving from the edge of the board to the centre.  It was designed on a ‘rule of 3’ principle.  Small, medium and large enemy pieces moved 3, 2 or 1 hexes.  The player had pieces that could ‘meld’ to form small, medium or large stacks.  To defeat a small enemy piece required 1 friendly piece to move adjacent to it.  To defeat a medium sized one, you needed 2 pieces with at least one of those a stack of 2, and to defeat a large piece, you needed 3 friendly pieces moved adjacent requiring at least a large stack, a medium stack and a single piece.  However, friendly stacked pieces also had more limited moves, 3, 2 or 1 dependent on the size of the stack.  Enemy pieces had simple programmed movement, and the difficulty level was increased by stepping up the number of enemy pieces that started each round.

Tony Boydell and I took another look at it, when we started up Surprised Stare Games, and it quickly spiralled into a larger edifice with a re-theme into a circus game, cards were added, then over the years we considered adding more circus animals to ‘flesh it out’.  It crept up to full-blown board game size.  It definitely lost its microgame footprint.

A few weeks back, I was re-reading Clausewitz’s On War (as one does, when researching wargames stuff!).  Having reached only Chapter 2, as I recall, I had a flash of inspiration – what about a microgame based on On War that would attempt to show the tendency to extremes that Clausewitz mentions, and that might also introduce variants to show the limitations of more realistic warfare, such as 18th century so-called “limited” war, Napoleonic wars, even WW1 and WW2?  Central features of the game would be very constrained strategic space – a card for each home country and a neutral country, so only 3 areas – and very constrained choices – a handful of action cards to build and move armies, and a typical ‘get back all the action cards’ card to collect up your used cards.  I sketched out some notes in one of my many A5 game design notebooks – I usually start either at the front of a notebook or the back, thereby limiting each book to 2 new or newish game ideas, and I tend to fill a few pages with scrawled notes, mind maps and diagrams, in a very unfinished, stream-of-consciousness manner.

At this stage, I wasn’t sure this was in any sense original, or yet interesting.  I considered it a small design exercise to see if I could come up with a microgame, while most of my design time was taken up with Airfix Battles (https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/188825/airfix-battles), Mission Command http://www.surprisedstaregames.co.uk/MissionCommand/index.htm) and Dolphin Adventures (a family game project).

I wrote out some cards by hand and played a few times solo.  The advantage of microgames is that they’re small, so hand writing the cards wasn’t particularly time consuming.  I played around with the number of cards required, whether any action cards needed to be repeated, and with the nature of the 3 country cards.  The first version’s sequence of play was simply ‘each player secretly selects a single action card, then simultaneously reveal and enact them’.  Actions were: Move, Build, (increase) Army Strength, Score VPs, and Return cards.  Each player had only 3 armies.  The Army Strength card enabled the player to decrease the VP value of a country in order to increase the strength of all their armies by 1 (starting STR was 1).  Final array of 8 action cards turned out to be Move 1, Move 2 (2 armies, not 1 army twice), Build Army, Build Fort (fortify army), Attack, Attack +1, Army Strength, Score+return cards.

I also experimented with 1 or 2 actions per round.  It nicely turned out that only 1 was necessary.

So the final orientation of the game gave a good set of decisions: you need to deprive yourself of VP value in order to increase the STR of your armies.  But there’s only 1 of those cards, so while you’re doing that, your opponent may sneak into the Neutral country and score.  And also can reduce the Neutral country’s VP value to increase STR.  I introduced specific Attack cards, as the first version had auto-combat.  This turned out to be very neat: do I Attack and run the risk that my opponent will have moved out, so I waste the card?  Also I put in the Attack +1, where the +1 requires you to discard a card from hand.  Combat was basically bloody – if you have more strength, you wipe out the enemy for no loss; if strengths are equal, everyone dies.

The tension seemed to give a nice Clausewitzian dynamic.  You need to devastate your home country and the neutral if possible, in order to increase your strength.  In fact, sometimes you’ll want to throw everything away in order to gain the edge to win.

I’ll write another post or two about this thingy, showing how it developed further.

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