Friday, February 15, 2013

Dragon Rage "Designer Diary"

(Eric Hanuise and I have tried since September to get this published amongst the Boardgamegeek designer diaries, with Eric even posting it in a BGG publishing queue in correct format, without success.  We are both puzzled about why we've been completely ignored.  We've finally decided to post it elsewhere.  LEP)


Dragon Rage Designer Diary
Lewis Pulsipher

While Dragon Rage was originally published in 1982, it was reissued in a much higher-quality format with an additional map and many additional scenarios in Belgium in 2011.  The game was very expensive to obtain from the US, as I’ll explain below, so I haven’t written this until the advent of good distribution in the USA through GameSalute.

This will be a quite different designer diary because it has been over 30 years since the original design.  Perhaps it will be instructive to game designers more for the publishing history of the game than for the development history.

Dragon Rage has had a pretty checkered history.  It was published in 1982 and sold very well I was told, but I was never paid for it.  The publisher went bankrupt for reasons having nothing to do with its boardgames, and their games went into a kind of limbo.  At the same time I took what amounted to a hiatus of 20 years from the game industry, and when I “came back” it took me many years to find a new publisher for the game.  Here’s the story.

The original publication
Dragon Rage was originally published in 1982.  I had already had some games published – Swords and Wizardry by H P Gibsons, the Diplomacy Games and Variants booklet, and Valley of the Four Winds (Games Workshop’s first game) – by the time I offered Dragon Rage to the Dwarfstar Games subsidiary of Heritage Models (Duke Siefried’s company).  Old-timers may recall that those publications were all in Britain, perhaps not surprising because I was living in London from 1976 to 1979 to research my doctoral dissertation on the Royal Navy.  By 1982 Britannia was also substantially complete and had been offered to Avalon Hill, who said games of that era don’t sell.  In 1984 I offered Britannia to Gibsons, and it was published in 1986, but by that time I was on hiatus and didn’t even see a published version of Britannia played until 2004.

I don’t recall what caused me to start working on DR.  I’d say the theme is quite obvious.  On the other hand Steve Jackson’s Ogre, which is closer to Dragon Rage in theme than any game I know of, was published in 1977, and though I never played it I was aware of it.  Much of the playtesting would have been done at the Drago game club at Duke University while I was finishing my Ph.D.  Further changes were made by Arnold Hendrick, Howard Barasch, and the developers at Dwarfstar, in cooperation with myself.  I’m including an image of the board as I submitted it, and those familiar with the game will notice that a second gate on the west side of the city was added during development.  The only other thing I recall - actually my brother recalls – is that the dragons might have one too few hits per wing, in our opinion.  But if you want a game to be more challenging for one side than the other, it’s probably best that the attackers have the challenge because attacking tends to be more fun than defending.

DR was designed as a hex and counter wargame, which was the typical hobby game of the time.  The game has the virtue as compared with many other hex and counter wargames that there are no stacks of pieces, only one unit per hex with very few exceptions.  The combat table is also a differential table so it’s not necessary to calculate odds by division, just to subtract.

The game was published along with seven others, six of them developed internally by Dwarfstar, in a Microgame format.  The boxes were 7.5" by 4.25", the 14" by 12" board was printed on thick cardboard rather than mounted, the half-inch pieces were also printed on cardboard though die cut.  On the other hand it cost only $10 (which amounts to about $30 in today’s money, but seemed quite cheap compared to game prices in 1982).

I was told that 10,000 copies were printed and that Dragon Rage was the best selling of the eight games.  I think I received maybe three copies of Dragon Rage and one or two copies each of the other seven games.  And as it turned out that’s all I ever received for designing the game.

The business failure
Now what I report I cannot swear to, I only know what I was told by the guys who developed the game, and I’m relying on memory about 30 years old. 

Dwarfstar was a subsidiary of Heritage Models.  Heritage was one of the big miniatures producers of the time, and even today Duke Seifried is very well-known in the miniatures community.  Like many small companies Heritage depended on a bank line of credit (loan), and according to my informants Duke and his bank manager got into a “spitting contest” (not literally of course - but I remember that phrase from 30 years ago) and the bank called in his loan.  That was it. Although Dwarfstar was doing well it went down with Heritage. 

There were reports in 1984 that the line would be revived, but I heard nothing about it directly, and nothing happened.  I suspect the unavailability of the printing plates was a deciding factor. The plates that were used to print the games were kept by the printer because he had not been paid.  This made it sufficiently expensive for someone else to pick up the games that they languished, and as far as I know the other seven languish to this day although you can find electronic copies of all seven at Joe Scoleri’s Dwarfstar games site at http://dwarfstar.brainiac.com/. 

(The importance of printing plates at that time:  Remember Avalon Hill saying games of Britannia’s era don’t sell?  When Gibsons showed that it did sell, and Gibsons had the printing plates already done, which is a considerable part of the expense of publishing, Avalon Hill decided to publish Britannia in the USA.  This is why there’s so much physical resemblance between the Gibsons and Avalon Hill versions, evidently they used the same printing plates.  And of course it turned out that games of that era could sell.  But maybe they hadn’t up to that time.)

Most likely the failure to be paid anything for this game was one of the things that convinced me that hobby boardgames were going to, if not disappear, diminish greatly.  I saw RPGs on one side – D&D was for 20+ years my favorite game – and computer games on the other side, squeezing boardgames in the middle.  And I was right about wargames, they now have an immensely smaller market than in the early 80s.  So I decided to ignore the game hobby and get a real job, and for the next 20 years taught myself computer programming, became a teacher of computer literacy and programming, worked as chief of networking in an Army Medical Center, and then went back to being a college teacher of computer networking and later of video game design.  One of my last actions in the hobby was to submit Britannia to Gibsons and two years later they published it, but when the copies arrived I looked at it and then set it aside because that was no longer where my mind was.

The Theme
As you may know, many times a publisher will choose a different name than the author’s for a game.  I think Dragon Rage is one of the best titles any game could ever have, and  I don’t think there was ever a possibility of changing from the title I’d selected.  As an example of a change, my name for what became Britannia was “Invasions of Britain,” or “Invasions” for short.   I discovered a few years ago that there’s a PlayStation 2 game by 3DO named Dragon Rage that has nothing to do with this boardgame.  Good title, eh?  I used it first.  But if you look up Dragon Rage on Wikipedia, that’s the game you’ll get.

The only game I can remember designing where I tried to conform to a particular story was Valley of the Four Winds.  I don’t do “simulations” but I do like a non-abstract game to be a model of something, and the model here is an attack on a fantasy city by various monsters.  As one recent reviewer said, everything in the game serves to illuminate and reinforce the theme.  DR has a ready-made “story”, not a story imposed on the game, but a story growing out of a situation. 
I like to set up a situation and let the players determine what happens.  If it’s an historical game then I recognize that what did happen in history is only one of many possibilities, and probably not the most likely one, which leaves a lot of room for different occurrences.  So in Dragon Rage I didn’t try to impose a story, I just set up a situation where the bad guys – a couple dragons, or possibly a bunch of evil humanoids and giants – are attacking a human city.

While I’m no longer much interested in tactical games (other than Dungeons & Dragons), and now prefer games with more than two players, more than 30 years ago I designed several two player games including many tactical games.  The tactical games are certainly a stronger way to present a personal story, that is, something that you can identify with directly.  In Dragon Rage you can identify with a dragon or a giant, or you can identify with a hero or a wizard.  In sweep of history games like Britannia there’s really no one to identify with; although there are leaders, even the longest lived leader is only there for a small part of a thousand years of history.

I’ve always thought of boardgames as competitions where people are trying to figure out the best move, but there is no absolutely clear best move because of all the uncertainties of warfare and reality.  (Chess and checkers have certainty, there is a best move even though no human is good enough to always know the best move.  In a sense they are puzzles.  I don’t like puzzles.)  So you have to do some thinking to succeed at Dragon Rage.  Some players might say “oh I’m a dragon, I’m going to just kick butt and blow those humans away.”  You can try to do that, and for a while it will work, but if it were that easy then who would ever want to play the human defenders?  You can charge right in but this will probably lose the game.  You have to be smart; you have to, in sports terms, take what the defense gives you, nip in and out rather than simply charge in and start smashing.  There’s lots of smashing to be done but if you let yourself get into a slogging melee early on, you’re going to die.  Yet the city defenders receive reinforcements periodically so you can’t “take your sweet time” to avoid all risks.

I think this fits the theme better than sheer mayhem, although it may not encourage the kind of power trips that are common in video games where you don’t have an actual opponent.  Dragon Rage could certainly be adapted as a video game, either for the defenders to defend against computer attackers or as a two player networked game.

The game is colorful and provides a great stimulus to the imagination without actually having a specific story attached.

Jump ahead to 2004
In the early 80s I was teaching myself computer programming and networking and playing D&D as I had since 1975.  Between 1984 in 2004 I had nothing to do with hobby gaming other than to play Dungeons & Dragons and some video games.  When I gradually “came back” to the hobby my first concern was getting Britannia back into print, but another task was to find someone to reprint Dragon Rage.  Microgames per se had pretty much disappeared, replaced by collectible card games and casual video games.  And Dragon Rage is, despite its simplicity, fundamentally a hex and counter wargame, which is a category that diminished immensely during my 20 years away.  In any case I wanted Dragon Rage to be published in a much nicer, larger format than a microgame.

Many readers have probably heard about the confusion about rights of the game Merchant of Venus that is now being published by Fantasy Flight Games with additions by Stronghold Games.  I had encountered problems with Britannia, in fact my first reintroduction to the game hobby was hearing that MultiMan publishing thought that they had the rights to reprint Britannia, as assigned by Hasbro after the end of Avalon Hill.  The rights had been licensed to Avalon Hill by Gibsons, not from me directly, and my contract with Gibsons specified that the game rights reverted to me once it went out of print, so I was quite sure that neither Hasbro nor MultiMan had any rights at all.   (Notice also that the Avalon Hill Britannia was copyrighted in my name, not by Avalon Hill.) Fortunately MultiMan wasn’t really interested in publishing Britannia, otherwise there would have been “a mess”.

In the process of looking for a Dragon Rage publisher I heard that Reaper Miniatures thought they had the rights to the Dwarfstar games.  I had no trouble tracking down the main man at Reaper and being sure that there was no confusion about rights.  Then I could try to find a new publisher.

So as I attended game conventions I looked for possible publishers.  After Fantasy Flight Games published Britannia they had DR for a couple years before passing on it.  In any case it is not an FFG-style game if you look at their product line.  Neither is Britannia but in that case the owner liked the game, and the owner of a game publisher has some latitude in what he does!   GMT games looked at Dragon Rage and said they thought they could sell it for something like $45 but they couldn’t produce it to sell at that price.

I have no recollection of how I first came into contact with Eric Hanuise, who to this day I have never spoken with either by phone or in person (I can say the same about the owner of FFG).  Eric says he heard about DR through Joe Scoleri’s site and wrote to me out of the blue.  But over the course of three years we got to the point that his new company, Flatlined Games, published Dragon Rage as their first game.   (I’ll interject here that I tried to convince Eric to pick a different name for his company since “flatlined” means dead, but it’s some kind of inside joke.)

My original idea for reissuing Dragon Rage was to retain exactly the wording of the rules, because I know all the problems that can occur whenever you change rules, and I had seen that manifest in the reissue of Britannia (2006).  The only thing I wanted to do was add rules for the Princess, who was mentioned in an original scenario but without any rules for how to deal with her.  Eric felt he should rewrite the rules in a more modern style, more “sequence of play” than the old rules which were written in a reference style as most were in the early 1980s.

Believing in reusability, I’m going to quote from my book Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish"

In older games, rules were written to be read thoroughly before play.  They were organized to be easily referenced when a player forgot a detail.  Now most rules are written in "Sequence of Play" style, on the assumption that the players will try to play the game while reading the rules for the first time.  If that’s true, then the rules must follow the order in which the players will try to do something in the game.  This makes for a poor reference, unfortunately.  But the fact is, most tabletop game players want to be taught how to play rather than read the rules, and if no one can teach them, they often try to learn the game as they play.

I still prefer the reference style because I’m convinced that anybody who tries to play a game at the same time that they’re reading the rules is inevitably going to screw it up.   In Eurostyle games that doesn’t always matter, but it tends to be more important in wargames.  Yet sequence of play is how it’s done nowadays.  And I don’t think I tried to talk Eric out of it.  In the end we have both kinds of rules included in the game, a sequence of play set and a reference rulebook.

Eric devised the map for Nurkott and added the scenarios for it.  He made the maps with Profantasy Campaign Cartographer.   See http://www.profantasy.com/rpgmaps/?p=571 for a brief description with the final maps.  The step-by-step process is described at http://www.profantasy.com/rpgmaps/?s=Dragon+Rage (scroll down to September 12, 2011).

At one point Eric sent me a rough cut of cover art which unfortunately looked to me like a Neogi from Spelljammer, not a dragon.  Fortunately the cover art that was used in the end, by Miguel Coimbre, is outstanding and nothing like that first cut.

So my function was more as a proofreader than anything else as the project took shape.  We did run into one problem that’s very instructive, an example of how a simple misunderstanding in the rules can break a game.

At one point Eric told me that the dragons seemed to be losing an awful lot of games in his playtesting with the newly written rules and asked me if I could figure it out.  So I took his preliminary art and mounted the board and pieces on foam board and painstakingly cut the pieces out.  Then I took it up to my brother's house (more than 300 miles - but he had experience of having played the original version).  I sat in his living room with my originally submitted rules, the originally published rules, and Eric's version of the rules and tried to make comparisons.

Fortunately it didn't take long before I got an idea of what had happened.  Corresponding with Eric confirmed it.  In Dragon Rage the defenders get reinforcements by ship after the game has been going for a while and at regular intervals thereafter.  The design purpose was to force the dragons to have a serious go rather than hang back and ticky-tack the defenders to death.  The dragons have to pick and choose their time and place to act but the reinforcements help induce them to actually attack rather than fool about.

The timing is determined by turns.  And Eric had counted turns differently than we did in the old days (and, I think still do in many wargames).  In the old days, play by one player and then the other constituted a single turn.  Eric counted this as two turns.  So the reinforcements started coming after five turns rather than 10 turns, and thereafter came twice as fast.  Keep in mind that Eric's native language is the Belgian version of French, not English, so this misunderstanding is not surprising.  But it made a huge difference in how the game played.

The rules had to be translated into Spanish and German, Eric having taken care of the French, and that actually may have delayed the entire project a while.

You may know that the number of copies printed of the game makes a huge difference to the cost per copy.  The setup cost is a fixed cost divided across the number of copies printed.  So Eric had to choose the largest print run that he thought he could afford to pay for, could sell, and could store somewhere, in order to have the best price for the product - 1,500.  The MSRP (which is several times the printing cost, of course - see http://boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/13334/observations-about-changes-in-game-distribution-a) came out to €50 or approaching $75 each.  This sounds like a heck of a lot compared to the price of the original game, but keep in mind the equivalent in today’s dollars, $30 rather than $10.  The new version has a much larger, mounted board with maps on both sides, and much larger pieces beautifully printed by LudoFact in Germany.  It is several times as good in physical quality as the original.

But the initial problem that raised the cost so much for buyers in the United States was that Flatlined Games is in Belgium, and the Belgian Post Office had a monopoly on shipping until quite recently.  As a result, shipping to most other countries cost €30, approaching $40!  So this made the game cost over $100 in the United States.

More than six months after publication, through contacts at Essen Spiel, the big game convention in Germany, Eric managed to sell some copies to online retailers in the US, but he wanted a more satisfactory situation.  The reasons are complicated, but at one point he was shipping games to Germany from which they were shipped to the US and Australia, because that was more practical than shipping them directly from Belgium!  In the end he has shipped his remaining English-language copies to GameSalute for distribution in the United States, and I saw GameSalute selling the game at GenCon for $75.  You can also get it at http://shop.gamesalute.com/products/dragon-rage.  That availability was the impetus for me to write this piece.

Future additions
Practically speaking, Dragon Rage provides a game system that can be used for many fantasy warfare situations involving fantasy creatures and battle magic.  And right now it seems to be one of the few, if not the only, fantasy hex-and-counter game in print and still supported by publisher and designer.

At some point Eric expressed a desire for ways to play the game with more than two players.  I devised a version, based on the idea that there is a competition to rule Nurkott, that works well but you need to have extra control markers to indicate who controls which pieces because there’s only two sets of pieces, the human pieces and the monster pieces.

Many boardgames have expansions these days but expansions have always struck me as very much limiting your market: if the expansion is an add-on to the original game only people with the original game have any interest in buying the expansion.  So we’ve settled on a standalone “expansion”, something that is a game in itself but can be combined with Dragon Rage for more scenarios and for play by more than two players.  But it will be a long time before that becomes available.

Dragon Rage is a niche game, not one that appeals to a broad market.  I think fans of the dry-as-dust, essentially abstract Eurostyle have started to want to play games where the theme really means something, where it makes a difference to how the game is designed and how it is played, and Dragon Rage is such a game.  It was designed as a game that can be played over and over again, not as a game that will be played a few times before people move on to something else.  Nor is it puzzle-like, there is no single solution as there are in many of today's “games.”  That's a large part of why it succeeded in the early 80s, and is succeeding today.

***

My book “Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish" is available from mcfarlandpub.com or Amazon in paper and electronic formats.   I am @lewpuls on Twitter.  (I average much less than one post a day, almost always about games, not about other topics.)   Web: http://pulsiphergames.com/

1 comment:

jeffro said...

I enjoyed meeting you at PrezCon and talking games with you. When saw the Britannia board, I thought... "wouldn't it be cool if Lewis Pulsipher were here?" Then I read your name tag. (!!)

I see from this Designer Diary that you have the same game mastering philosophy that I do (no imposed "stories") and you also neatly encapsulate why it is that I prefer some of the older thematic games over the more recent "dry-as-dust" Euros.

I was initially interested in Dragon Rage as I especially like microgames-- and the ones that come back from limbo are even more intriguing. The standalone expansions (in the tradition of Ogre/G.E.V. and Melee/Wizard) make Dragon Rage even more attractive.

I am really looking forward to getting that game!