Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Dirigible Diplomacy

(I don't know when I devised this variant - decades ago, no doubt, when I was devising Dipvariants regularly. I've just run across it in my note program, and as I've been contemplating a "steampunk" game involving "dirigible juggernauts", I decided to post this one in the blog.)

This variant is partially based on H.G. Wells' novel, "The War in the Air".  Written in 1907, the book depicted the development of air forces which were both very destructive and cheap and easy to build.  The main force were huge rigid-framework hydrogen-filled airships (known in 1914 as dirigibles or Zeppelins).  Wells however did not foresee the real expense and maintenance required.  Also, dirigibles were very vulnerable to special bullets fired by aeroplanes (such bullets did not exist when Wells wrote his novel).  For purposes of this variant however, we assume Wells to be partially right; dirigibles are stronger than they were in World War I.

1. There is an additional type of unit, the dirigible air fleet (D).  Several huge airships and heavier-than-air machines carried by them comprise a D, which is relatively cheap to build but also fragile.

2. Each supply center yields five supply points (SP) each game year.  Each year it costs the following to supply a unit:  Army or Fleet - 4 SP, Dirigible - 3 SP.  SP may not be accumulated or transferred to another player, so any extra are lost.

3. The game begins with a 1900 building session.  Using their SP from home supply centers (15 except Russia, 20) each player builds units of this choice in his home centers.  A dirigible may be built in a center which also contains a normal army or fleet.  Russia, however may not build fleet ST. Pete north coast in 1900.

4. D orders are treated as an additional set of conflicts taking place above armies and fleets.  As well as acting for and against one another, D's may support an attack on, or defense in the space directly "below" (the one the D occupies), but may not themselves attack.  Therefore a D cannot cut support by an army or fleet.  Armies and Fleets have no effect on D's.  When a D supports an army or fleet it may not do anything else and an attack on it by another D will cut the support.

5. Only one D may occupy a space, but an army or fleet, even one belonging to another player, may also occupy the space.

6. If a D is dislodged, it is automatically disbanded.

7. A D cannot be built in a center where a D of another player is present even though the opponents D cannot capture the center.  However, if the country is entitled to a build, an army or fleet may be built if the center is not devastated.

8. A D may not capture a supply center, but if alone in the center in spring or fall it may "devastate" it.  A unit may not be built in a devastated center and it is not counted in supply center totals, for the next adjustments only.  Afterwards it reverts to normal.  A player may not devastate a center he owns.

9. A D may not transport an army.

10. A player wins when he owns nineteen undevastated supply centers.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

"The War in the Air"

My vaguely Stratego-like game Doomstar (video version of unpublished tabletop game) was released on Steam September 16. Another, (tabletop) Pacific Convoy, is supposed to be published by Worthington Publishing, though one can never be certain about such things.

Continuing to move further from Stratego/L'Attaque (from which Stratego itself closely derives), I'm trying to create a Steampunk game "The War in the Air", that will use plastic figures with numbers on the bottom, reminiscent of the old comic-book-ad game Convoy Terror ( In Convoy Terror there were several different sculpts of ships, for example, a set of destroyers, a set of cruisers, and a set of submarines. But the strength numbers on the bottom of each cruiser differed from one another, as did the strength numbers on the bottom of the destroyers, though you could be sure that a cruiser could beat a destroyer. The ships moved on a rectangular map in rectangular locations, but it amounted to the same kind of board as Stratego. If you think about it, though, you gained a lot of information from being able to see the difference between a submarine, cargo ship, battleship (there was only one), etc.

What I intend is to use baroque steampunk notions, such as dirigible juggernauts and steam bombers and diesel fighters. I'll also use ships and possibly land units, again resorting to such things on land as massive slow juggernauts and steam tanks. The numbers on the bottoms will overlap, that is, a strong unit of a weaker general type will be able to tie the strength of the weaker unit of the stronger general type. This will all be on a hex board where units will be able to move their speed (usually more than one) in a straight line only, except for the aerial units which will be able to move in a dogleg. With good sculpting it could look really interesting, and looks seem to count for a lot these days.

In Convoy Terror you had 10 cargo ships and the objective was to get cargo ships through to the other end of the board. I adapted a form of that in Pacific Convoy, where all unit identities are hidden as in normal Stratego. I'm not sure yet what I'm going to do in this game, which depends partly on whether I include the land element or just air and sea. If I include the land I'll have ports/cities and you'll have to control three of the four to win the game.

By the way, "The War in the Air" is the title of a novel by H. G. Wells that I read a few decades ago. It was written before World War I (1907) and posits a war of airships and flying machines that more or less destroys civilization. (In the early 20th century people did not understand how resilient civilization can be.) It fits with the idea that the aerial arm is much stronger than was true even in World War II. But I don't intend the game to be a representation of the book, I just like the title. Of course, titles of games do change.

Now as I think about this game without having played yet, the problem I see is that when you know the type of unit and know the range of strength there may be too much certainty in play leading to "analysis paralysis". I thought about using dice, but that's neither necessary nor desirably as a mechanic that would frequently come into play (each conflict). So I've devised a method to test that increases uncertainty without introducing a random factor. Each player will get a set of 13 cards identically numbered with zero, one, or two. When there is a battle each player will play one of these cards face down in and reveal it, and this will be added to the strength of the unit (which is generally from one through five). There will be bluffing and card management involved, and when all 13 cards are expended the player will get them back again to continue. (Why 13? The two small decks amount to 26 cards, and 27 is half of a standard 55-card deck.)

(I'm reminded now, having just reread a review of Convoy Terror, that it used the equivalent of dice on a number of occasions, though infrequently in ship-to-ship combat.

My question is, will this introduction of the card element contribute to the interest of the game or will it be something that puts people off? (Keep in mind my game Swords and Wizardry (H. P. Gibsons, London, 1980), a much closer derivative of Stratego than the games I'm discussing now, did use a die when a player cast a spell.)

Friday, September 16, 2016

"Does playing board games with people always lead to frustration and anger?"

(This is another Quora answer, to the question quoted in the title.)

Of course not! Even with traditional-style board games that are directly competitive, most people remember most of the time that IT'S A GAME, not real-world.  A particularly cut-throat game like Diplomacy or Age of Renaissance may engender more anger than others, but there are lots of quite peaceful board games as well.

Traditional games are intended to frustrate, to pose obstacles, to create tension, but a well-designed game poses that tension in game terms, and most players are aware of the potential for frustration when they play the game. (Much of this tension is lost in single-player video games because you can save your game, and try over and over again until you like the result. In a board game, you can LOSE, and (in most cases) you can't call "REDO".)

Moreover, there are co-operative board games, and solo board games, where there is little or no conflict among players, who are playing against the game system, just as players usually do in video games.

There are certainly board games that are designed to de-emphasize conflict, to reduce emotion, usually because they are fundamentally puzzles rather than traditional-style games. Often they are so abstract that despite decoration/atmosphere, they have nothing to do with the real world (which tends to reduce unwanted tension). These games allow people to progress in their efforts to solve the puzzle, even if they don't do as well as someone else. They're parallel competitions where players can do little or nothing to hinder one another, like many Olympic sports, rather than direct competitions (such as in major-league sports). Most Euro-style games are of this type. I personally dislike this kind of puzzle-game, but they're very popular with many older folks, especially those who don't play video games.

If a person cannot accept that "it's a game", if a person cannot stand away from their own self-centeredness/ego, then they shouldn't play the kinds of games that provide direct human opposition. There are lots of ways to play against the system (computer or other programmed opponent as in co-op games) if the psychological side of game playing does not appeal.

My game Doomstar now available on Steam ($7.49 until Sept 23, list $9.99)

It's the boardgame in video form, not something designed as a video game from scratch. Works just like the (two player, turn-based) tactical boardgame. You can play against the computer (AI is weak), but it's mainly intended for playing against someone else online (which could include two computers in the same house, I think). It is vaguley Stratego-like, but much quicker (15-30 minutes for most games) and much more fluid.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

“Bad-ass Gamers”

One of the most worrisome aspects of the hard core video gamer culture is the ridiculous notion that being a "bad ass gamer" is both worthwhile and praiseworthy.  Not even close. It is unproductive.  It doesn't help your friends, your family, your community, your country, in any way.  It contributes nothing to the world.  It is purely empty egotism.  Virtually anyone who plays video games four hours a day (on average) is not acting as an adult.  (Which may be perfectly all right if that person is a youngster . . . or retired?)

A big reason why "the unwashed", those who are not into video games as a culture, tend to treat video games as "kid's stuff" is this childish egotism.  So what?  The "unwashed" includes a large fraction of the country,  especially of older people, the people who lead opinion and who make financial decisions.

It would be easy to write an article titled "When will video gamers grow up?"

In tabletop games males generally LIKE women gamers, because TT games are social, and because TTers don't tie their self-worth/ego to being a "bad-ass gamer".  (I met my wife in 1977 through D&D, when women gamers were much less common; two other people in that group of five married one another (though not attached when it began), and the last married my wife's best friend.  All still married.  Tabletop gaming is usually social.)

In video games we get a very vocal segment that appears to hate women, apparently seeing them as rivals.  The root of #gamergate is males who measure their self-worth through gaming, afraid of female competition.

I am also convinced that a significant proportion of rabid Hilary-haters use a different standard than they would with any male political figure, because she's a woman. If she were a man, Trump wouldn't stand a chance.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Video (screencast): “Snowball” and “Engine” Games

Following is the text of the slides:
“Snowball” and “engine” games
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

Snowballs – usually economic – occur when the player who is ahead, more or less inevitably continues to get further and further ahead
Like a snowball getting larger as you roll it through sticky snow
E.g. a game where you can research (or spend) to improve economic output, that allows you to produce more, which allows more research/spending, and so forth

“Engine” Games?
“Engine” games are all about providing the right inputs to get the best output
They are “natural puzzles”, exercises in optimization
An economic snowball game is usually an engine game, but there are other kinds of snowball games – the problem, though, is the same

More than Two Sides
Snowballs aren’t a serious problem in games for two or fewer sides
When one side gets the snowball rolling, the game should end
Whether by resignation or by the rules of the game
But we don’t have those options, generally, with more than two players
I do, in rules for a few point games that are multiplayer (more than two) wargames, provide for ending the game early if one side gets way ahead

Snowballs can occur when:
1) the game is deterministic and there are no explicit catch-up mechanisms AND
2) there are few ways for one player to significantly hinder another
When someone gets ahead, then naturally he or she continues to get farther ahead

How to Prevent Snowballs?
1) Ways to directly hinder or harm another player (as in wargames)
2) Chance built into the “system” that could cause the leader to falter
But this is “leaving it all to chance”, not a good idea
3) An explicit catch-up mechanism
But many players dislike these
Any combination of these three are also possible

A well-designed wargame cannot be a Snowball
Because there are lots of ways to hinder other players
Two or more players can gang up on the snowball leader
But there are 4X wargames that become economic snowballs
Partly because other players don’t know it’s happening, so cannot react to stop it
Also computer Civilization (which is in many ways a 4X game)
(4X: Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate)

Be Aware
Many games, by their nature, don’t suffer from snowballing
But “engine” games often do
It’s up to the designer to guard against this
If you keep it in mind, you can look for it, and do something about it

An aside: it seems players rarely play a game more than a few times these days
If that’s the case, the snowballing doesn’t become obvious
But you should always treat your game as though it will be played dozens of times

“Snowballs” that cannot be stopped are a design flaw. But not uncommon these days.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

"Essential" (as in Essence) 4X Tabletop Game

Recently, Oliver Kiley described his desires for a 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) video game that did not rest largely on warfare. His idea is to have players compete to Transcend, for the race to rise to a higher plane of existence.

The problem is that if the players cannot compete with one another in a way that hinders or harms the others, then you're back to a multiplayer solitaire (parallel competition) kind of game, which I wouldn't want. I think Oliver wouldn't want it either. So the question I've been asking myself is what can we substitute for all-out warfare that still enables players to affect each other as they try to achieve their objective, whether it's Transcendence or something else.

The not-so-long-ago concluded Cold War is the obvious example, but I have been reading a maritime history of the world, and you to use in a game the kind of competition that the Portuguese, Dutch, English, Spanish, and others waged during the age of European expansion. This was sometimes called "no peace beyond the line", a reference to the virtual line drawn by the Pope to separate the Portuguese and Spanish areas of control early in the age of expansion. English, French, and Dutch, but especially the English, harried the Spanish in the Spanish Main and even in the Pacific Ocean, raiding their commerce and sometimes attacking their towns. In effect, there were rules of engagement, rarely broken, that usually prevented the competition from becoming all-out war, although all-out wars did result at times.

While at WBC I was told about a game that offers only three possible actions, and suddenly decided I'd like to try making a tabletop 4X game with 3 or 4 actions, to be played one action at a time in turn! It's intended to be the essence of 4X, as simple as possible so that players can concentrate on strategy, certainly not on resource management.

When I tried to make a list of essential actions, I came down to:
Build Ships

You could try to combine Explore and Attack in a "Move" action, or Colonize with Explore or Build, and I may experiment with these combinations. But the list seems good, and as I couldn't make a full prototype and play it while traveling, I thought more about the game. I want a typical action to involve just one ship/fleet. At some point I realized that the Diplomacy model of movement and support would work, and adopted it here in a turn-based form that I've used in one other game years ago. I have a board I created for a co-operative space wargame that I've modified to try in play.

But mainly I tried to think of add-on modules, sets of rules that could be added to the simplest base game. So far I've come up with a Dipomatic module (possibly including forced non-aggression pacts), Sabotage, Trade, Technology, Culture (which could lead to "Transcendance"), and Commerce Raiding modules. Orbital Forts and Bishop's Rings (Halos) can be included in one module or another.

Now I have to make a prototype and test the basic idea. Delayed because "Britannia in Outer Space" has taken precedence!


I hope to get my comments about WBC and GenCon up here pretty soon.

ICYMI, the list price for my book "Game Design" has been nearly halved, to $19.99 (was $38). That's also reduced the ebook price to $9.99 (Kindle). This is much less than the price for any game design book I know of (not counting "anthologies" with many authors).