Sunday, July 21, 2019

No Five Player Version of Classic Britannia - For Now




After many experiments, I’ve decided that there’s no good five player version of Classic Britannia. There just aren’t enough nations, and with the points carefully designed for four players, it just doesn’t work with five.

In Classic Britannia there are rules for drafting (choosing up sides) that can be used for five players, but I don’t see that providing near-balanced sides!

Of course, there aren’t five colors of pieces, and that’s another problem for five players.

I did develop a freeform (less historical) version that appears to work with five (as well as three or four), but needs lots of playtesting. So it will not see the light of day for quite some time.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Three development paths for Britannia -like games



On the occasion of the kickstarter (closes Aug 1) for a reissue of my game Britannia but with plastic figures and other improvements in the interface but no changes in the rules, along with a two player newly-designed Duel Britannia that takes me 65 to 75 minutes to play, I had some thoughts about the different ways the development has gone for Britannia -like games

Britannia was originally published in 1986 by HP Gibsons in the United Kingdom. It was picked up by Avalon Hill and published in 1987. (I had submitted it to Avalon Hill a few years before, but they told me that games of that era didn’t sell. Evidently Gibsons proved to them that it could sell.)

To make a long story short, I was not participating in the game hobby at this time, I was playing Dungeons & Dragons and making additions for Dungeons & Dragons to use with my friends, period. When I received a couple copies of Britannia from Gibsons I opened the box, looked at the contents, said “that’s nice” and did not actually see a published version of the game played until 2004.

In all that time some people liked the Britannia game system and adapted it to other situations. I think the first was the Avalon Hill Maharajah, which came close to being a slavish copy except that it was set in India. So it continued the simplicity but considerable length of the parent game. This is the first branch of Britannia development. Other semi-commercial games such as the Dragon and the Pearl and Rus followed the same path. I’ve designed Normannia originally in this development path. I designed my prototype Caledonia as a somewhat cutdown version of Britannia, but I think I’m going to reduce it to the small development path.

But with Hispania we saw another branch of development, the bigger and more complex game. Where Britannia has about 200 pieces, games in this branch have over 500; where Britannia has armies and cavalry and leaders, this kind of game adds elite units and sometimes fleets. More recently, Italia, by the same designer, continued this branch, and in the past year we have Invasions (of Europe) by French designer Philippe Thibault. He has ready a successor chronologically to that game as well. These games violate my philosophy of design, which relies on simpler games where the players can play the other players. Or as Albert Einstein put it, “Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Or at least so I thought at the time, though I’ve since found that I can make games much simpler than Britannia.

My own prototypes “MegaBrit” and Dark Ages and Helennia, use a larger form though not with as many pieces. More recently a Spanish designer designed Corsica, with more than 500 pieces, which is scheduled to be published probably next year.

Of course, I was designing Britannia in the early 1980s, when long games were much more acceptable than today. (I made an all-of-Europe prototype during that period but the one time we played it we took 12 hours, so I set it aside and forgot it until I found the prototype 30 years later.) When I heard from the Mayfair guys at a convention that they were working on a “broad market” version of Catan (later published as Catan Junior) I said to myself, I ought to try doing that for Britannia. After quite a few years I ended up with Conquer Britannia which has just 12 nations and six turns and has been played in as little as 84 minutes. This is the third path, to make the game much simpler and smaller. (This requires a new board; in the late 2000s I designed a version of Britannia to play on the original board in a couple hours, as an expansion, but Fantasyflightgames who had published the Second Edition were not interested in the expansions.) There are something like 18 to 20 land areas on the Conquer board compared with 37 on the original board.

Having more or less perfected this method I have gone on to make prototypes for Frankia (but diceless), Barbaria (Europe from 410 to 1250 in six turns, has been played in 1:40), Rule Britannia (diceless), and have others in mind. And of course, when I got the assignment to design a two player 60 to 90 minute version of Britannia itself, which became Duel Britannia.



Why would anyone make these massive games like Hispania and Invasions? I suppose because they can; but I also suspect that the smaller the game is, the harder it is to balance. By including lots of units and lots of everything you have a game that’s easier to balance. I think that’s probably a general rule for asymmetric games.

From a marketing point of view the smaller game path makes much more sense for modern gamers, many of whom say they can’t handle even a three-hour game (although you can see many of those same people play a three-hour game if they’re enjoying it and if it has sufficient substance). Yet Philippe Thibault’s kickstarter for Invasions got 992 backers. (I suspect the French are more willing to play those old 80 style games than Americans are.)

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1992455033/lew-pulsiphers-britannia-classic-and-new-duel-edition

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Britannia Unbound!


I had nothing to do with creating the KS, so I suppose I can say that with three good videos and lots of information it's well done.

Btw, 90 minutes would be a *long* game of Duel.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Proto atl, the tabletop market, and my games on Kickstarter



Proto atl - 

a relatively new and specialized game convention

(and also about tabletop game publishing in general)
(and also about two Kickstarters for my games)

What is it?
Proto Atl is something like a Protospiel, but isn’t. Hence the odd name (Atl being Atlanta, or more specifically Suwanee Ga).

At a typical protospiel, designers playtest each others’ games. That happens a lot at Proto Atl, but also there are publisher representatives, seminars, this year a tour of the facilities of a fulfillment company (PSI), giveaways, and perhaps other non-playtesting activities I’ve forgotten. And there were a few people who registered as playtesters rather than designers.

This year was my first attendance, deciding at nearly the last minute, and I have to say there wasn’t much to help me understand what I was getting into before the fact. It didn’t help that if I searched for proto atl I got a previous year’s website that the hosts don’t control owing to previous deals, so they can’t get rid of it! You have to type in the URL (see below).

Andrew Smith is the host, with Steve Avery as sidekick and Eugene Bryant as a friend dragged in to help. Andrew’s friend Christy (or Chrissy?) took care of photography and other tasks. This is the third rendition of the convention, which has grown every year. The first was strictly protospiel for 50 people, now it has the other features I mentioned.

About a hundred people were there on Friday, the room was quite loud at peak. Attendance was capped at 150, likely more next year according to Andrew as he continues to expand.

Aside from two publishers I already knew, I didn’t see much of the 20-25 committed to be there. Unlike some conventions with publisher reps, there was no formal arrangement, and it turned out the expectation was that designers would arrange appointments with specific publishers. So if I go next year, I’ll be able to make better use of this part of the convention.

Playtesting
This was about board and card games, not RPGs, not full miniatures, not CCGs such as Magic: the Gathering.

I don’t go to conventions to playtest, by and large, other than with people I already know well. I’m very much not good at arm-twisting people into playing my games, perhaps because I am very large (6'4" despite shrinking 3 inches) and used to be quite intimidating (age tends to kill that) but don’t want to intimidate, partly because I dislike the typical parallel competitions that are the mainstay of the market (and so I won’t play them, I’m not in the target market).  In the end I had a good session with three others where my Do It Now (Naval Arms Race) was one of the games played, while on Sunday I decided to get out a finished game, Warp, and got in three 3-4 player “tests.”  (Of course, no game is ever truly finished.)

Neil Gaiman's advice about fiction readers applies to game testers: "when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong." (Gaiman is a well-known author of novels and comics whose books have been turned into movies, American Gods, Good Omens, Stardust, etc.)

The game designer has to fix things, not the testers. He/she has experience of many plays/playtests of the game, not just one or a few. And the designer is thinking in terms of what’s best for the target market (I hope), not what he or she would like best.

So in some ways, game designer are much less than ideal playtesters!

As an example, people were playing my prototype Warp, It’s a spaceship race to move your ships to the other side of the cluster (board). Opposing ships block progress, but can be "teleported" (sent back to their start) in three ways. Black holes help slingshot ships farther than their own (variable) movement allows, such that with the ideal arrangement you can go all the way across in one move.

These were actually the 65th, 66th, and 67th plays in my records. The game is finished, in my mind. But some of the testers had recommendations.

For example, one player felt that something more needed to be added to Warp - adding to a game is always something to beware of - such as cards with special powers. I quoted my motto: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."  (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)

And in this case I could also say, "that's for an expansion".  In another case, the player doesn't like blocking, so he suggested taking it out, and increasing the possibilities for capture. Same answer. In this case, clearly, the suggestion was a personal preference. What I want as designer is what will be best for the most players in the target market, not a personal preference. On the other hand, for 5 and 6 players I don't allow blocking (you can move through opposing pieces) simply because the board gets too congested if I allow blocking. So I can include this as an optional rule. (Optional rules are often rules considered and rejected by the designer, but which were nearly as good as what the designer selected.)

In either case, my job as designer was to decide whether the fault they noticed was something that needs fixing; their suggestions for change were very secondary, it was the fault (if any) that mattered.


I'd have liked to know beforehand how many designer attendees have actually self-published a game or had a game published by someone else. I suspect, not many.

The Market
Consistently, the games I saw being played were much more often card games than board games. This is consistent with what I see at college game clubs (not counting Magic: the Gathering). Many of the games using a board, used it as a status tracker rather than a field for geospatial relationships. (Like the board in Deluxe Munchkins versions that merely tracks level, which is easily done in other ways in the non-deluxe versions.) I didn’t see a single wargame (I wasn’t showing any either). Though I did hear someone say “wargames suck,” he was thinking of “wargame ghetto” hex-and-counter wargames, not representation wargames (which are quite different).

Groupthink in game design these days isn’t necessarily Euro, but groupthink IS “no war” and not much “death” in a game. (How would such people react to a co-op where you defend a galaxy from killing machines? LOTS of death - but surely a “Just War”.) Party games have become the “standard game” in the lower end of the market (for $30 and less), $60 and up games are the upper end. But there’s relentless pressure for simple, short, pretty much no-brainer games in the lower end. I was impressed with how many party games (at least, apparently, sometimes specifically said) I saw in PSI’s warehouse. Games of maneuver and geospatial relationships are rare. (Though paradoxically, many of the top Eurogames involve geospatial relationships.)

Remember, if you want people to try your game that could be called a wargame, use a different name (“historical representation”). People are much more likely to try (and perhaps enjoy) the game in those circumstances.

I suspect most of the designers were looking toward self-publishing. I haven’t tried to count (which would be a massive task) but I think the self-published games nowadays far outnumber the traditionally-published games, given there were something like 2,000 successful tabletop Kickstarters in 2018. And it’s really hard for an unpublished designer to get attention from traditional publishers. (Many of the traditional publishers started as self-publishers - Fantasy Flight Games for example.)  Moreover, some aspiring designers self-publish to maintain “full artistic control” (still subject to manufacturing limitations).

In any case, one publisher tells me the life of virtually any game is “45 days”. Shops have so many new games to choose from, even if their initial allocation of a title sells well, they’re more likely to get the “new hotness” than reorder the now-“old” game.

Zev Schlasinger (the Z in Z-Man, though he sold the company years ago), when I asked what kinds of games he's looking for (for WizKids), said because the market is so saturated, good is no longer good enough, he has to feel that he MUST publish the game. Though that doesn’t tell us what kinds of games he’s interested in; I guess it’s kind of a fishing expedition!

Other Notes
By look I'd say lots of millennials were in attendance, much more than a majority; some Xgen, few Baby Boomers. I was likely oldest at 68, I know a publisher who is 61 who said he was glad I was there so he wouldn't be the oldest, but others were likely in their 60s from appearance. It’s a much different demographic than, say, PrezCon or WBC, where older folks are numerous if not dominant. Proto Atl was more like GenCon (which many old-time wargamers stay away from, and most purely wargame publishers don’t attend).

The convention was at the enormous warehouse and premises of PSI, a game “fulfillment” company. For example, they will take care of all the tasks of sending the rewards of a successful Kickstarter to customers, but they work with large companies (including Target) as well as small. A fascinating tour was arranged.

There were four or five seminars, modestly attended (maybe average 15?). The quality was consistently better than what I’ve seen at GenCon over the years.


Proto Atl - early May. https://www.facebook.com/ProtoATL/   $40-55 for designers (depending on when you sign up, places limited to 150 this year) There is a website, but some info only appeared on the Facebook.

****

Since I’ve been talking about design and marketing, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say this:

The Kickstarter for Stalingrad Besieged ends July 8.  The game uses the Hastings 1066 system (modified) but has a mounted board and a choice of three sets of units: cards, blocks, or large chipboard (all included).  https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1456271622/stalingrad-besieged?ref=9naz9f&token=ee588ce8

The Kickstarter for the Classic/Duel Britannia package starts 11 July. Classic Brit plays same as FFG Brit except for use of plastic figures, and replacing Nation Cards with better methods. I deliberately have changed no rules in Classic (FFG).

Duel is two players, new board, 65-75 minutes. I skip most of the Roman era, and end the game with Cnut and Edmund Ironside (2 players, not enough for 1066).

Duel is newly developed, not a reissue.

So we have grand strategic games on the one hand, and a grand tactical game on the other.

Duel development went fine until final balancing, which has been an enormous headache.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Deconstruction of the game Shogun/Samurai Swords/Ikusa



A common occurrence in video gaming is the “deconstruction” of a game, an attempt to describe how the design works, perhaps what it derives from. While I spent several hours watching five people play this game it proved to be pretty easy to deconstruct.

This game of Japanese warlords was originally published by Milton Bradley and now Hasbro and dates back to about 1987. If designed today it would definitely be much smaller, perhaps accommodating not more than four players, to reduce the length from its current 4 to 6 hours for five players. One reason why it’s so long is that it derives from Axis & Allies and Risk, both often quite long games.

The Risk influence is clear in the board of many territories (a lot more than Risk’s 42) with lines connecting some territories to enable movement across the seas. There are some really long connecting lines “above” and “below” the three main Japanese islands to provide some circularity and width, because even with many territories the main routes through the islands are quite narrow, only a few territories wide.

The game includes a card for each territory as in Risk, and starts with a random distribution of cards so that each player’s holdings are randomly distributed throughout the three major islands (Hokkaido is not included, at the time of the samurai it was occupied by the white-skinned Ainu people). This is identical to the original French way of starting Risk, rather than players choosing their territories. There is no turn-in of cards as we see in Risk. The card turn-in is a kludge designed to bring Risk to a finish, whereas Shogun has a different method.

Allocation of new armies follows the Risk method of one per three territories. In Shogun the result is money rather than armies, which can be spent for a variety of activities (mostly new troops), and can buy as many as three of the weakest troops for one unit of money.

Where is the influence of Axis & Allies? I think the game would work as well with just one or two unit types (the two would be missile troops and melee troops). But in this case we have two kinds of missile troops and several kinds of melee troops, each with a different number required to hit with a 12 sided die (hit on six and lower is the best unit). In an initial combat the defender’s missile troops fire and anyone killed by that fire (victim’s choice) cannot retaliate. But in the end it’s rolling for all your troops against all the opposing troops simultaneously. (Amphibious attacks are at a greater disadvantage.) This is much as it is in Axis & Allies. Attackers can retreat, but defenders cannot, just as in A&A. (This is one of the stranger rules I’ve ever seen, from an historical point of view; I think it’s intended to speed up the game.)

The Army organization of the game is the part that comes from neither Risk nor A&A. Each player has a large cardboard layout allowing for the placement of many units in each of three armies, along with three flag markers (generals) each on a track that can increase their experience. The corresponding flags are placed on the board to show the location of the armies.



In addition there is a ninja which can be hired to try to assassinate a general (67 % chance); if the ninja fails the intended victim can hire it to try to kill one of the attacker’s generals!

Here’s the mechanism that enables the game to end sooner than otherwise. If you kill a player’s last general by defeating his army, you get all his remaining pieces and territories. Winning the game depends on controlling a certain number of territories, for example 30 in the five player game, more in games with fewer players. It’s a more elegant solution to ending the game than the turn-in cards in Risk.

There is even less history built into this game than into Axis & Allies itself. It’s a long game with a lot of miniature figures and a lot of dice rolling.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Brief Notes from the designer about Hastings 1066


The Battle of Hastings was the culmination of an unusual three-sided competition to be elected Edward the Confessor’s successor as King of England, with no chance of alliances, and each side the enemy of the other two. As is typical of most medieval and ancient conflicts, we have few close-to-contemporary sources, and little solid information. (Some historians like to sound much more certain than the evidence justifies.)

Weather prevented William of Normandy from sailing to England where Harold II was waiting, while Harald Hardrada of Norway was able to land in the north and defeat the local English earls at the Battle of Fulford. Harold of England, more or less in possession of the kingship, marched north and surprised the Norwegians, resulting in a great slaughter (and the death of Hardrada) at great cost to the English. Harold’s force at Hastings may have been smaller than his force at Stamford Bridge.
Meanwhile William had landed. A mystery is why Harold didn’t wait to gather additional forces (having left his archers behind). Instead he rushed down as rapidly as he could to fight William. William wasn’t doing anything, really, for example not attacking the heart of the country (London). Harold could have waited, but he was a brave man and experienced soldier. In the end, it cost him and his brothers their lives.

I actually got the idea to make a small game about the battle when visiting the (supposed) site as a tourist.

Hastings 1066 is the closest thing I know of to the microgames (such as Ogre (1977) and my Dragon Rage (1982)) that were so popular in the earlier years of the hobby. They were the least expensive type of wargame, simple, usually quick to play. Those were board games, but it’s impossible to persuade many people to buy a thin cardboard board and tiny pieces nowadays, so the clear alternative is to use cards.

Cards inherently do not show the maneuver and geospatial relationships that are at the heart of any battle, but I devised a simple method to provide a board equivalent using the cards themselves.
Ancient and medieval battles are inherently poor subjects for games if you stick with the reality, that the commander had little control over what happened once the battle began (still seen in many miniatures rules sets today). The initial version of Hastings reflected this. So to make a better game I ignored some reality, allowing the players to control all the units, making the battle more fluid so that the players had more influence.

The system can be used to depict many battles, even post-gunpowder battles. I’ve tried Fulford and Stamford Bridge, but they don’t fit the standard line-up battle that’s ideal for the game system. I have prototypes of Stalingrad (the city itself, reflecting the “meat-grinder”), Waterloo (focusing on artillery, line, column, and square), and the naval battle of Lepanto (cannons and ramming). The Worthington folks have devised others. Every game using the system can concentrate on what was really important, hence the possibilities that your leader will die during Hastings 1066, and the action of the Norman archers.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Reducing chance in games that use single die rolls


My recently-published design Hastings 1066, which well-known game reviewer Marco Arnaudo calls a “lunchtime wargame”, and which I call a successor to old-time microgames, reflects the amount of chance that occurs in a real battle: a lot. As with any historical battle game, simulating the chaos and chances of war is more or less the opposite of what gamers want as they explore generalship. (Commercial wargames are not representative of war, more of generalship). Gamers want to control the game, they want to feel that they succeed or fail by their own efforts; but war isn’t like that at all.

Some people won’t mind this, while others might hope there was less chance. Here I present a method of making sure that each player gets about the same number of good, bad, and middling die rolls during the play of the game. And it also might be faster than rolling dice.

To do this you need at least two decks of ordinary playing cards. Extract all the Ace through Six cards in a deck (24), shuffle them thoroughly, and draw from that deck when you need a D6 roll. Each player has his own draw deck, and each deck has an identical selection of cards. When you’ve exhausted your deck shuffle it and start over.

I think it’s more practical in some ways if you have two decks of cards per player, because it will be harder for players to memorize how many times a particular number has been drawn, and in the course of a seven turn game you’ll need more than 48 die rolls.

There’s still the chance that one player’s sixes will all be up front or all at the end of his deck, and one player might reshuffle well before the other; but in the long run this may be more satisfying than a lot of dice rolls. It’s up to you.

I make this suggestion because in one of my playtests I played someone who was not a wargamer and who was not a deep thinker, playing for the first time, but I couldn’t roll for shit and after a valiant fight I lost. It’s like the famous poker champion Doyle Brunson saying that if you consistently don’t get decent cards there’s not much you can do (when he went out of the World Series of Poker on the first day). Imagine how happy he might be if you could somehow be sure that the cards he was getting were about the same average value and frequency as the cards other players were getting, in the long run.

(Of course, dice rolling “evens out” in the long run; there is no such thing as a “bad roller”. What we’re doing here is trying to even it out in the shorter run.)

By the way, this method has flaws for rolling 2d6 or more. I wouldn’t use it for that.

(The game is available on Worthington Publishing’s website at $35. I haven’t looked for it on the usual online sellers.)

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Unbalanced tabletop games

This is from a quora question: "James Simonse wants an answer to:
What are some examples of badly balanced board games?"


Rather than list some unbalanced games, I want to talk about unbalance itself.

It isn’t always clear whether a game is unbalanced. Perhaps a group of players haven’t fgured it out, and as a result one side or another enjoys a big advantage or disadvantage. Or “the jury may still be out”.

Take Scythe as an example. It’s a popular game, though released only recently. I haven’t played or read the rules; I have watched the game for an hour or two. In the game I watched, one player ran rampant all over the map, while the other players passively allowed this to happen. When I asked a very experienced player who had played the game, his strong opinion was that Russia had a big advantage. Later I talked to another player, who knew a very experienced player with the same opinion. Later I talked with a local player, who said his group didn’t allow anyone to play Russia! Yet sometime later I talked to a player who thought one of the other sides (cannot recall which) was the one with most advantage. And a great many people play the game.

So is it unbalanced, or is it not?

Keep in mind what I call the “Invisible Hand”. This is the tendency of good players to know that one side or another is very strong or weak, and to compensate for that during play. Yes, the game is unbalanced, but the reaction of the players themselves rebalances it. Is the Invisible Hand strongly at work in Scythe? I don’t know.


Diplomacy benefits from the Invisible Hand. The inner Great Powers (Italy, Germany, Austria) are at a considerable disadvantage compared with the four outer powers (France, England, Russia, Turkey), who can put their backs easily against the “wall” of the board edge. I’ve won playing those inner countries, but I still think the game is unbalanced, and relies some on the Invisible Hand to even things out.


If I had a dime for every time someone had played my four player game Britannia (1986 and later) once, and then declared that had no chance to win, or wins way too often, I’d be able to buy a used car. Results at tournaments show that the four colors are very close to equal, even though one color or another may win disproportionately in a given year. 

So why the gripes? It’s not a game you can play well until you’ve played several times, that is, it’s a deep game, not the typically shallow stuff we get today. After one play, you can’t possibly know the balance; but many gamers now blame the game if they lose, and expect to understand how to play well after one play. Not this game. Yet there are lots of complaints about balance from novices.



Gareth Higgs commented on my answer "Rather than list some unbalanced games, I want to talk about unbalance itself....":

As a very experienced Scythe player, I actually think that Crimea is the best faction with their ability to use combat cards as resources. It’s an especially good faction with the Agricultural or Patriotic boards. However, I think the game is itself fairly well balanced - It just seems like it’s unbalanced when people of various skill levels play together.

That's another possibility, of course, that a game is unbalanced unless the players are of similar experience. Or even that the game is unbalanced with novice players, and balanced with experts.


Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Recent Videos on my YouTube Channel ("Game Design")

Recent Videos on my YouTube channel (“Game Design”)

Jan 10
Excessively misleading game box covers: http://youtu.be/xkwbXlahmVI?a

 Jan 8
One of my most-viewed videos of the last year: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EOBM3JD-sno&lc=z22meflabzrxyld3qacdp4350c4titjswgqqvwojfgtw03c010c&feature=em-comments …
Six reasons why wargames popularity has plummeted

 Jan 3
"A game I can bullshit my way through": http://youtu.be/uMTnh8pbdIM?a 

 27 Dec 2018
It's Impossible to forecast the success of a game: http://youtu.be/QnLA8oN5sBg?a

 20 Dec 2018
Ideal (for manufacturing) number of cards in a deck: http://youtu.be/3lNJWmJOeKE?a

 13 Dec 2018
Confusions of Game Design: Obscure can be bad or good: http://youtu.be/3ku63Wev8kw?a

 6 Dec 2018
What do I think about players changing my games: http://youtu.be/-2jTLThe54w?a

 29 Nov 2018
Scaling games for different number of players: http://youtu.be/ynUPdidl2WY?a

 22 Nov 2018
Why I don't write monsters and character classes to be published any more: http://youtu.be/5uC9HO4JT88?a

 15 Nov 2018
New game? Don't worry about "innovation": http://youtu.be/oxJti1METvI?a

 8 Nov 2018
War is not fun, not sport, so commercial games are not much like war.: http://youtu.be/fP46epnP_ro?a 

Lew Pulsipher @lewpuls

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Idle (?) Thoughts on Two Player Diplomacy

(This originally appeared in Diplomacy World #144)

People involved in creation of something out of nothing really do get their ideas in odd places, sometimes. I get a significant “input” to my game design when I’m in the shower and while I’m lying awake in bed. This idea popped into my head at “Oh Dark Hundred” recently.

A little introduction might help. My most well-known game is Britannia (1986 and later), and there’s going to be a reprint with plastic figures in the next year or so. To go along with that, the publishers wanted me to make a two player version of the game that lasted 60 to 90 minutes (Britannia itself is 4 to 5 hours.) I’m surprised and pleased at how well it has come out. It uses a new board, lasts 65 to 75 minutes, and is recognizably Britannia-like.

So it’s not surprising that now my thoughts occasionally turn to creating two player versions of games for more than two (Britannia has four players). Usually this is my own games, but this morning it was Diplomacy.

Insofar as the essence of Diplomacy is playing against the other players, a two player game cannot be Diplomacy. In other words, Diplomacy is about the psychological part of the game and much less about the game system. Yet the “Gunboat Diplomacy” variant has been popular, and that’s a game where any negotiation is prohibited. With two players, much of the psychology is gone.

So, I said to myself, if we’re going to abandon the essence of the game anyway, what can we do to change the game to make it more interesting for two players? Because with two players it would be a sort of a chess match that depended on who guessed best in the strategic/tactical part of the game, and would be devilishly difficult to balance fairly.

By removing the multiplayer aspect we remove much of the uncertainty of the game: with two players you can minimax it, you can assume the other player is perfect and play accordingly to maximize your minimum gain as in the premise behind the mathematical theory of games. Chess, Go, Checkers survive the situation because they are too complex to be solved by humans, though all three are played better by computers now than by the best humans. That’s not desirable, so I would replace the uncertainty of more than two players with two things: dice in combat and event cards.

Now I can hear many Diplomacy people sucking in a deep (dismayed?) breath at the idea of overt chance elements in the game, but I’ve explained why I think it’s necessary, and I have a dice combat system that would only mildly affect things but would provide an element of unpredictability. That method is that you roll one die per Army or fleet in the combat, including supports. The side with a higher sum wins the combat, with ties going to the defender most likely (or rerolled if both sides are attacking), but that’s something that would be determined in testing.

For example, a supported army (two) attacks an unsupported army (one). Rolls are 4,5 for the attackers, so the defender cannot win (can’t get more than a 6).

Occasionally a two on one would not dislodge the defender because the defender wins (or ties) the dice rolls. And in rare instances even a 3 to 1 attack might fail. On the other hand, a two versus three attack would occasionally succeed. The biggest change here would be that one-to-one attacks would sometimes succeed. (One vs one, 15 wins for each side plus 6 ties. If ties go to defender (assuming there is a defender rather than both moving), that’s 21 vs 15 (7 to 5).  Two vs one results: 15 ties, 21 wins for the weaker, 180 wins for the stronger. If ties go to weaker, it’s 180 to 36.)

I use this method in Eurasia (name likely to change to something like Surge of Empires), which is scheduled to be published sometime.


Another way to provide variance in combat would be to use combat cards rather than dice. Each player would have the same set of cards, but different ones in hand at different times, and it would be a guessing element involved in whether you play a strong card or weak card to add to the combat (there are also some special cards). I use such a method in several games but I’m not going to go into it here.


I don’t know if event cards would be necessary, and I haven’t tried to come up with any kind of scheme. But event cards are a way to add interest and variation to a game that the players can control in a way that they cannot control the dice, though with dice they can play to take account of probability.


The other point of uncertainty/variance would be in selection of the sides. While lying in bed I tried to think of an entirely fair three versus three and didn’t get very far. I’d probably use a combination of selection and chance to assign countries. The first player would choose a country, the second player would choose two countries, the third player would choose a second country. The third country that each received would be determined randomly from the three remaining. And for the one that was not controlled by either player, we could use a method known in some Diplomacy variants, where the players write orders (say, five of them?) for the units of the uncontrolled country. They can allocate all five (identical) orders to one unit or spread them amongst the units. If a unit received a majority of the same order then it would execute that order. Of course, you could go further and do that for all three countries that the players had not themselves selected.


How long would this game take the play? I should think it would hit that magic 60 to 90 minute length that is commonly desired nowadays in wargames, if not to the victory criterion then certainly to a point where one player resigns. It would be quicker, of course, if you had some electronic method of giving orders/moving the pieces. Handwriting orders for two or three countries takes a while.