Archive for January, 2020

The Ming Voyages: cards

Some of the cards from Surprised Stare Games’ coming-soon Pocket Campaigns game The Ming Voyages. Near-final artwork.

Size of the cards will be 105mm x 75mm, same as The Cousins’ War 2nd edition.

Artwork by Klemens Franz.

A couple of Pocket Campaigns

Coming soon…

Following on from our Wars of the Roses game “The Cousins’ War” by David J Mortimer, we are continuing our SSG Pocket Campaigns series of small box games with The March of Progress and The Ming Voyages.

The March of Progress (by yours truly) has an introductory scenario The Thirty Years War that sets out the core rules of the game. It uses a limited hand of 8 Action cards per side, ranging from Move to Attack to Recruit. Each player simultaneously chooses 1 card to play each turn, then reveals and carries out the Action. Cards stay discarded until the Score card is played; then, the player regains all played cards and scores VPs. The aim of The March of Progress is to control countries, in order to generate VPs during scoring. The winner is the player with most VPs at the end of the game, unsurprisingly.

There are a further 4 historical scenarios in the box, The Age of Marlborough, Vive l’Empereur, World War 1 in the West, World War 2 in the West. Each scenario changes the set-up and tweaks the rules to give a flavour of strategy in different time periods. The scenarios create a varied and challenging 2-player game with cards, a small number of armies, VP cubes and dice to indicate VP generation and army strength.

The Ming Voyages (by David J Mortimer and myself) is set in the era of the oceanic treasure fleet voyages led by the Chinese Admiral Zheng He. One player is the Ming Emperor trying to complete all 7 Treasure Voyages as well as protecting the Chinese Borderlands from invading barbarians. The other player controls the 3 disparate barbarian factions trying to settle on the Borderlands with China.

The Ming Voyages has a similar approach to The Cousins’ War with multi-function cards for actions or command points. However, it’s asymmetric – only the Ming Emperor draws cards, and the 2 players swap hands at the end of each turn. This means the Emperor knows what’s in the Barbarian player’s hand. The Emperor wins automatically if he completes all 7 voyages. The Barbarian wins automatically if he occupies all the Chinese Borderlands. As in The Cousins’ War, players can exploit out-of-turn actions. Battles can occur in the Borderlands. Here, players use their 3 dice to roll for triples, doubles and singles that are better than their opponent’s rolls. Reserved cards can be used for re-rolls – but if you reserve a card, you don’t get the Action.

We’re currently working on the final artwork for both games. Here’s a sneak peak at The Ming Voyages board (work-in-progress).

Kingmaker: moves afoot!

I’ve been working on a proposed revision to the Kingmaker board using ‘regional’ movement. In this idea, noble pieces using non-road land movement simply move from 1 region to an adjacent region, rather than having to count up to 5 ‘squares’. In this way, players can avoid many of the difficulties and inconsistencies with the original Kingmaker map, and also the slightly counter-intuitive diagonal movement that is available in many places in the original board. Although there are some necessary compromises, the actual distancies moved are similar in the new mechanism compared with the old one.

When a noble piece lands in a new region, the player selects a specific area within the region for the piece to occupy. This enables a noble or stack of nobles to end up in a specific named location (town, city, castle), in the ‘open field’ or on the road network, ready to exploit road movement in a future move. For ease of play, and maybe a bit of historical realism, I don’t force nobles to decide immediately whether they are in a specific location, thereby avoiding potential random plague death; the decision about the noble’s precise whereabouts can be made when a potential hostile force enters the area. However, if your noble is sent to a location by a raid or revolt, then he should be in that location – so, if it’s a fortified town or city, the noble will be risking plague in this case.

We played the revised map last weekend at Eclectic Games, and it will have another outing or 2 at HandyCon this weekend. It was well received. In the meantime, here’s a sneak preview. Bear in mind that this is a prototype version for playtesting purposes, based loosely on the old game board; it is not a newly created production version; that will only be commissioned once we have the prototype finalised.

In this map, the purple lines are ‘region’ boundaries, the white lines are area borders. Wooded areas are passable only on roads. I would also note that the current draft hasn’t been fully checked, so there may be the odd line missing or spelling mistake; it’s very much a work-in-progress. Also, many thanks to my wife Charlie for much sterling work on this board. Finally in addition, we’ve not yet addressed the heraldry and any geographical anomalies that fans of Kingmaker have identified.

Combined arms and command in hobby wargames – early thoughts

The following comments are a few early thoughts on combined arms and command in hobby games. I wrote a version of this brief note a while back; now I’ve finished reading Piercing the Fog of War: The Theory and Practice of Command in the British and German Armies, 1918-1940 by Martin Samuels, I hope to add a bit more depth to these reflections. I wish I’d read that book before Pete Connew and I wrote the Mission Command Players Manual, because it has an excellent analysis of British and German doctrinal development prior to and in the early part of WW2. It would be interesting to take this forward into the late war period, when practice, on the German side at least, was severely restricted by a lack of experienced officers and men, and a lack of resources in comparison with the Allies. Much of our development of the Mission Command game was focused on how the armies used combined arms to try to deliver successful outcomes. My comments below cover combined arms in WW2 and Napoleonics, owing to my recent activities.

In practice in the real world, co-ordination of combined arms is difficult, and this should be reflected in a model that includes command and control as significant features. This is both a mechanics issue and a decision-making issue for a game-as-model. Mechanics simplified for playability can make co-ordination easier or too easy, or too predictable for players. For example, in a WW2 game, calling in artillery by rolling for availability at point of use is over-simplified. You know in advance the probability of success and can factor that into your planning. Alternatively, if you must put the request in in advance, it has to be co-ordinated in space and time, requiring player decisions and possibly player interactions.

Changing and issuing orders takes time. This is doubly so, if you are trying to co-ordinate more than one unit. Again, in a WW2 context, withdrawing under cover of smoke requires co-ordination of the smoke and the withdrawing unit, which is probably under pressure! Command elements need to communicate both up and down, and sometimes sideways. Commanders must be free to communicate, and inability to or restrictions on communications is part of what Clausewitz called ‘friction’. Where mechanics in the game take away the human interaction element, they impoverish the environment’s friction. I’m suggesting that ‘rich friction’ is good in wargames!

It happened inadvertently in a game I played on Saturday. This was a General de Brigade 2nd edition game using the Katzbach 1813 scenario. Towards the end of the game the Prussian C-in-C changed the orders of a brigade to send it in a different direction – but the player moving it failed to implement the change and the brigade kept going on its previous trajectory. When this was discovered, the Prussians were allowed to rewind a turn and correct the move – in accordance with the changing orders mechanic. It would have been better to have retained the realistic friction generated naturally by the players.

More in some later blog posts.

(War)games as models

I’ve been having some game-as-model thoughts over the last few years of a more philosophical than perhaps practical nature. As a way of at least getting them out of my brain, and hopefully as a way of stimulating some discussion, I’ve started to post them here. Tell me what you think!

A played ‘game-as-model’ is an instance or instantiation of a model rather than the model itself. This echoes comments by Volko Ruhnke, who, like me only better, applies systems thinking to games design.

It’s useful to realise this when thinking about game-as-model. It means that there are variables specific to a particular instance of the game. You could think of this as a specific ‘run’ of a process. Individual players have their own unique understanding of their particular role in that game. They also have their own psychological states while playing, and these are likely to vary between different plays of the game. There might be specific scenario details, for example, relationships between terrain components, peculiarities of actual combat elements, and unique mechanisms for the scenario.

Each play of a miniatures game is a unique experience, with fewer similarities between plays than most board games, I think. There are (nearly) always variations in troop composition, and in layout – precisely where terrain is placed will be different – even if the same scenario is being played. In contrast, successive plays of a board game have greater commonalities through perhaps gridded layouts for movement and stricter rules interpretations – firmer rules if you will – especially when compared with an umpired figure game.

However, there may be some general lessons to draw in terms of the interaction of players with instances of the model. One of these lessons may be not to draw too many conclusions from one instance!

I hope to return to this topic in a later post.

Kingmaker: Raids, Revolts and other shenanigans

I don’t want to change the Kingmaker Event deck much at all, as so much of the flavour of the classic game comes from there. One of the basic mechanisms in the Event deck is to break up turtling stacks of nobles through raids and revolts that send powerful office-holders hither and yon. Part of the game is to be in a position to exploit this, either by picking off individual travellers, or by instigating a major engagement before a key noble can get back into position.

Offices can give a noble many more troops, the Marshal of England doubly so, in that he has 100 extra troops anywhere in the country, whereas others have only 50, with some having extras in restricted geographical locations. However, allocating the Marshal of England and the Bishop of Norwich to Mowbray for example isn’t a great idea. In the original game, this would be the cards for that allocation:


It’s not obvious to a new player why this might not be a good idea. A difficulty for new players is not knowing the details of who gets sent where by the Raids and Revolts in the Event deck. I think one way to help resolve this issue is to put more information on the Court deck cards to reference the Events that might occur. At the moment, I’ve put a simple number at bottom left in square brackets – this probably needs a better graphical and layout treatment, but it’s a start:

Although Mowbray in this example has 160 starting troops, there are 16 cards in the 90 card Event deck that move him involuntarily around the country. That’s slightly more than 1 in 6 times per Chance Phase. So, in a 4-player game, he’s likely to get moved approximately every other round (1 Chance Phase per player). This grossly reduces his effectiveness, and you need to take this into account when allocating the cards.

Hopefully, putting some of this information on the cards will help. I wonder whether increasing the information to ‘Events: 4/90’, ‘Events: 11/90’, ‘Events: 1/90’ might be better – at the expense of more clutter.

Kingmaker: Red-faced

Hmmm. The colours on the Events cards didn’t work. My print facilities failed to differentiate between the 2-1, 3-1 and 4-1. Now revised:

Not exactly pro graphics standard, but I hope good enough.

Playtests of Kingmaker upcoming: Sat 11 January at Eclectic Games in Reading; HandyCon 17-19 January.

Kingmaker: Events, dear boy, Events

I’ve been re-doing the Events Deck to make the lookup of odds easier for players to process. I’m using a bit of colour and a bit of layout amends. I’m still unsure whether to completely overhaul Events card wording (for clarity and consistency) – that sounds to me more like a final production process, so I may not. Also, I’m pondering the whys and wherefores of revising the Event content; I’m wary of that, because the ubiquitous Peasant Revolts, along with Marshal to Black Heath, are iconic.

However, there are 90 Event Deck cards – it takes a while to scan, prep, stick ‘em into InDesign and then add stuff and check! Here are a couple of examples:

Without InDesign and Photoshop (other s/w programmez are available) this would have been pretty much impossible. I now have an intimate knowledge of the makeup of Kingmaker cards. Apparently, left align wasn’t a thing in those days, and neither was consistency of positions on a card. Also, consistency of font size and CAPS was not pursued. Ah, well sans DTP, I guess it was very tricksy.

The ‘victory block’ will match up with the lookup table, currently much like the original in the Gibson’s rules, but with added colour and amended heading. This will be subject to proper design and layout by graphics experts – this is just my prototyping.