Monday, March 24, 2008

Playing vs. Watching

I am known to some as a person who doesn't actually play boardgames, other than his own--but I do play the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. I don't even play my games once they're published, though I'll play variations. Except for D&D, I'm always interested in the design aspect of playing a game, that is, improving the designs I'm working on.

Moreover, playing a game that is less than top standard is too much like work. And some games (like chess) are too much like work in any case. I am much happier watching or reading the rules than suffering through playing.

When I used to play boardgames, I played "for blood", to win. But about age 25 I got to where I disliked the competitiveness, what it did to me, so I stopped playing competitive games. D&D is a cooperative game, at least the way I play it.

D&D is an aberration in other ways, too. The games I design tend to be grand strategic, often covering long periods, or they are abstract. In either case, there is no "role assumption", the player does not think of himself as a single individual. And I don't feel a need for role-assumption. Yet D&D is often highly tactical, and players represent single individuals. I hardly ever design a game like that. (It has to be said, when I got back into designing games I stopped playing D&D, and only recently started again--but that may have been a matter of availability of players rather than distraction of boardgames.)

At Rick Steeves' Game Night recently, I played my new dice game that uses Law & Chaos principles, to make up the numbers; I didn't play Warhamster Rally but learned a lot from watching and reading the rules, yet I didn't have to concentrate on it. (I'm designing a "Rocket Rally" game, sort of broad market using RoboRally principles, so I was quite interested in WHR.) I also watched part of a Forumula De game, very clever yet not offering something I can use in any game I'm working on--not yet, anyway. I also had a look at TransAmerica. I'm always looking for methods and ideas that might help me, yet most of the games played at Rick's are Euro types rather than wargames, and most of the games I design are at least in part wargames, certainly conflict games.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Where variability comes from in a wargame

I've been thinking about where variability comes from in games, especially wargames.

Obviously, much of it comes from people, that is, from the opposition. And when there is more than one opponent, the variability becomes much less predictable. Some computer games try to reproduce some of this kind of variability, for example Civilization. In Civ IV the different "personalities" of the opponents are supposed to influence how they play.

It often appears to me that expert "Euro" game players are playing the players more than the system, though some of the more intricate mechanics mean the main point of effort is understanding and "controlling" the mechanic rather than understanding and "controlling" the people.

At any rate, here are some wargames and sources of variability:

Britannia--the combat system, that is, the dice rolls. In many of my Brit-like prototypes I'm trying to cut down on the randomness of the combat. Though 75% of the players think the amount of luck is OK, most others would like less luck. I laugh at people who say Brit is "too scripted", there seems to be great variation in what happens owing to both differing strategies and dice rolls. Freeform would make no sense in an historical game (note that Vinci and Risk, below, both freeform games, have NO element of history in them, absolutely none).

Vinci--the chit draws for the civilizations provide a random element. It is also very freeform. But mostly it is the people.

Risk--the combat system is the obvious variable, but even more, the territory cards and increasing reward for turning in sets; also there's the extremely freeform structure (you can go anywhere).

Diplomacy--there is occasional guessing in the tactics, but this game is almost entirely about people. Someday I may do a version of Dip stripped to its essentials, where there would be little or no tactical element, or perhaps a kind of a "Euro" version of Diplomacy (this might end up being two different games).

In most wargames, the dice rolling in combat is the main variable other than the people themselves. And that makes sense, combat is a very chancy business no matter how well-prepared you may be.

In many other games, especially those with little or no luck in the combat system, the Event Cards provide the variability. (E.g. Germania, Seas of Gold, Law & Chaos (yeah, that's not a wargame), etc.

Some games become "predictable" for lack of a random element other than the players--chess, checkers, Puerto Rico, etc. Yet when they are complex enough, there's still a lot of unpredictability. Checkers has been brute-force solved by computer, but that doesn't prevent people from playing.

I'm not sure where that gets us, but there it is.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Keep it simple

While at PrezCon I saw many games, even many "Euro" games, with hundreds of bits, lots of different kinds of bits, and wondered why anyone wanted to try to make sense of all the cardboard chits and cards and money and... My friend Rick played an eight hour Axis & Allies game, with vast numbers and types of pieces. (I played A&A a lot solo at one time, the computer version, where I didn't have to mess so much with vast numbers of pieces.)

I realized then that I never have been much interested in games with hundreds of pieces. My early favorites were Milton Bradley games like Broadside, then I discovered Avalon Hill games but preferred such as Stalingrad (100 pieces) and Arfika Korps (likely not many more). Then I went on to Diplomacy (34 pieces), and finally D&D (a dozen pieces). Britannia and the other games I had published in the early 80s and earlier had fewer than 200 pieces, often less than 100. And even those games don't have more than an average of 55 or so pieces on the board at one time (Britannia).

Of course, I like "grand strategic" games, not tactical games (D&D is the aberration there), and at that level a lot of different categories of pieces doesn't make much sense. Maybe a game with hundreds of pieces but few categories would be all right, but I'd then say, what can we do with hundreds of pieces that we cannot similarly do with dozens? The A&A game reminded me of my stillborn WW II strategic game intended to provide the strategy of A&A without the length and number of pieces. So I may go back to that.

I have already played the "broad market" Brit (which is really a gateway Brit, not broad market, that needs to be a game with cards). And miraculously, I've already written a full set of rules. Followed by a full set for Frankia. Maybe I'm finally "off the snide".

Gary Gygax R.I.P.

Gary Gygax, one of the inventors of D&D, died recently.

I'd call Gary the developer of the game for sure, I know Dave Arneson originated the idea of having individuals interact with fantasy miniatures battles (which became Chainmail), as Dave wrote me a letter about it when I was editor of my Supernova fanzine. I don't know how it got from that to strictly individuals as we see in D&D.

I first corresponded with Gary in 1966. He was a leading light in the International Federation of Wargamers club, and about all I recall of that exchange is him saying he was too young to be called "Sir". And he was, then.

I only met him once or twice, at conventions, and had had no contact with him for many many years, but something like this is much like the feeling when sports heroes of your youth die (Micky Mantle!). You feel old.

Someone whose brain temporarily ceased to function at Boardgamenews wrote the following disrespectful if not plain stupid headline:
"Where’s a Cleric When You Need One? – Gygax Dies at Age 69"
They need to find a new headline writer.

D&D, the older, simpler version, is still my favorite game, and I recently started playing--well, reffing--again after a three year hiatus.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Why I'm not an electronic game designer

Why would I want to design electronic games? I'm better off as is.

  • The "AAA list" electronic games are really designed by committee. When I design a game, it is almost all MINE. (The rest is playtesters and publisher.)
  • For most of the age of video games, you had to work full time in the industry, yet the pay was and is poor. I'd rather help young people as a teacher, get paid at least as well, and have lots of time to design games.
  • The working hours are bad. "Crunch time" (unpaid overtime) is common, though designers are not involved in that quite as much as programmers and artists.
  • Fighting with the electronics obscures the purity of design. You worry about what the computer can do instead of what the players can do.