Saturday, February 10, 2007

When do you write a full set of rules?

When you're ready to. That's a facile answer, but true. The real question is, when should you write a full set of rules? I find the idea of writing complete rules without playing a game breathtaking, because it will be SUCH a waste of precious time. Early in the "history" of a game you need to concentrate on changes, not on things staying the same, but a full set of rules tends to make one more reluctant to change. Moreover, you can waste a lot of time writing rules for something that will be thrown out of the game at first play.

I have designed a great many games now, so my "mind-conception" gets better and better. That is, when I finally decide to play, I'm more likely to find that the game works fairly well at first play than I was a couple years ago. Nonetheless, I have never written a set of rules before first play. At best I have a set of notes, almost always on computer though I may have written them in a notebook originally.

Those notes are in a program called Info Select (somewhat like Microsoft OneNote, but it's been around far longer). I might have a note for combat, one for movement, one for the economy of the game, one for how to win, one for the main purposes of the game, and so on. At some point I decide to put the notes into a rules template, so that I have something that is still too rough for other people to figure out, but which will provide the basis for the full rules. With this version of the rules I have a pretty settled notion of how to play, but no one else could figure it out from the rough rules. In contrast, the initial set of full rules ought to be good enough that someone can play the game from them, though they might misunderstand things and make mistakes.

In the most extreme case, I wrote a full set of rules after three plays of a game--a game that I now think may be the best I've designed. I have just played another new game five times, and I have a nearly-full set of rules. In other cases I may have a game that is years old and has been played several times but still is only in note form, or in rough form.

Once again: I find the idea that you'd write (or even try to write) a full set of rules before playing a game, breathtaking. This is sure to be a big waste of time; moreover, it is likely to make you less willing to change the game when you actually get around to playing it.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

A quickly generated full prototype

I've had a possibly-unique (for me, anyway) experience the past couple weeks. After my last trip to Rick Steeves' monthly game night, I thought about a game that would combine history (a little) with war (a little) in a one-hour game that might sufficiently appeal to some of the more extreme Euro gamers--something simple that takes an hour or so.

I've made several attempts at "one hour wargames", and while they are good, they tend to be 90-120 minutes.

One of the games we'd tested was Agonia (TM), a development from Law & Chaos (TM) that introduces territoriality and victory points to the L&C idea of changing capture methods. My "leap" was to imagine using the Agonia system in an historical instead of abstract game, and the key here was to accept placement of pieces as well as movement. People like me who started playing Avalon Hill games 45 years ago are so accustomed to having to move pieces from one place to another--which, after all, is how it is in the real world-- that placing pieces from off the board to "out front" is a foreign idea.

But it works here to simplify the game, though after five playtests I now do not allow placement to attack or explore, only to deploy more pieces.

Having come up with this notion, I thought about scenarios and decided to pursue the European Age of Discovery --a game with exploration, trade, and possibly fighting, on a familiar map of the world. As I already had a computer version of a board for Lands of Gold (TM), which is similar in scope but much more complex, I adapted that board. Lands of Gold will be a representation; Age of Discovery i(TM)s a "thematic" game, not one that's realistic in any sense, though I have found myself trying to add some features that contribute to a more historical feel.

The other thing I've eliminated from what I'd call a typical Euro(war)game is Event Cards. Instead I have a card, selected from the top of the deck at the start of each round, that can alter how conflicts are resolved. This is the only overtly random element in the game. Any other randomness, if you can call it that, comes from not knowing the intentions of the other players, because players play Action Cards simultaneously. They are resolved in card initiative order. (This method is also used in Colonia(TM), which is about Mediterranean colonization more or less; but that game is quite different in many ways.)

What makes it all unique is that, having come up with the idea, I've pursued it through five solo playtests (of up to six players--it works better with more players rather than fewer) in just a couple weeks, hardly working on any other game. As I normally jump from one game to another with considerable frequency, this is really different. I am now at a stage where I have a full set of rules (still a bit rough, but a full set) and a pretty polished prototype, and I need to have other people play. Going from idea to full-rules polished prototype in a couple weeks is the unique experience.