Sunday, September 25, 2011

Impressions of Ancient Conquest I

The Britannia "game system" has been used in other published games such as Maharaja (Avalon Hill), Hispania (Azure Wish), Rus, and most recently Italia (Phalanx) and China: the Middle Kingdom (Decision Games).  Some people categorize these and other games such as History of the World as “sweep of history” games.  The original game of this category may have been Ancient Conquest, which was recently reissued.

A fundamental idea for Britannia (and for most sweep of history games) comes from Ancient Conquest.   I read the rules while watching a game being played in the late 70s.  The idea: having each player control several nations each having individual objectives.  I did not see the game again until I bought a used copy several years ago, to see what resemblance there is between it and Britannia.  And now the original publishers, under different ownership, have issued a new edition of the game, so I have the opportunity to compare the new edition with Britannia.

This is not a review, because I have not played, nor have I watched anyone play, the game since that day decades ago.  I can't tell you how well the game plays.  But I can describe it and compare it with Britannia.  Hence "impressions".

Although the idea of having several nations controlled by each player is implemented in Ancient Conquest I, the game has very little in common with Britannia otherwise.  It's hard to say which of two things is the biggest difference:

First, Ancient Conquest I is a battle game and Britannia is a war game.  That is, economics and grand strategy are very important in Britannia, while Ancient Conquest I is a game of strategy and tactics because there is no economy, rather there's an order of appearance, and because there are thousands of hexes to maneuver in.  You always know what force your opponent will have available in the future, and control of particular locations does not generally affect the force available.  In Britannia the nations can vary immensely in strength owing to their economic success, which derives from their success in holding territory.  In a battle game territory is only useful for the terrain and geopolitical implications, and details of maneuver can be very important.  In a war game territory usually equates to additional forces, following the age-old principle that land equals wealth.  This is no longer true in the 21st century, but has been true for agriculturally-based nations through most of history.  Sometimes maneuver in such games is very important, sometimes not.  Axis and Allies equates territory directly with economy, and uses areas rather than hexes, but maneuver can be fairly important, so there are all kinds of degrees to these differences in emphasis.

Second, and not surprising given the first, Ancient Conquest I is a hex and counter wargame, with numbers on the counters representing combat strength and movement; Britannia is an area a game with larger counters that have no numbers on them.

The sequence of play is also different between the two games.  In Ancient Conquest I a player plays all of his nations at the same time, and they can cooperate with each other to the point of attacking a common enemy or garrisoning a single town.  In fact, if you ally with another player then troops of both colors can defend a single city.  In Britannia each nation is entirely separate, and plays in nation order.  Once in a while you will see a nation controlled by a player attack another nation he controls because that suits the strategic situation.

In Ancient Conquest I each player can score a maximum of 40 victory points, rather than the variable numbers used in Britannia-like games.  How you earn points differs as well, because more than a third of the point entries involve destroying a minimum number of enemy combat factors.  Most of the rest involve holding a city at particular times, often through several turns.  (There are a couple dozen large cities on the board, and a lot more than that which are fortified.)  The “kill the enemy” victory criterion fits with the “battle game” instead of “war game” nature of Ancient Conquest I.  Where there are no economic objectives and no way to generate more units than normal, it makes sense that destruction of enemy units becomes a primary objective.  Scoring is tracked on the four 8 by 11 cards that list the possible scoring.  The rules say that scoring the maximum is very hard.

Each player has from 20 to 31 ways to score.  7 of those 20 are kill points.  11 of those 31 are kill points.  Because there are no area borders on the board, cities are the territorial representation for points.  The most important nation by far (for points) is Assyria, which can score 28 of the 40 for its color; no other nation can score more than 15.   The 17 nations are grouped as:
•    Assyria (both Middle and Neo-), Marsh people (southern Sumeria), Mitanni, Lydia.
•    Elam, Hittites, Cimmerians (presumably including Scythians as well), Judah-Israel.
•    Egypt, Media, Urartu, Arameans.
•    Kassites and Babylonians, Chaldeans and Neo-Babylonians, City States (Neo Hittites?), Phrygians, Philistines.

Mitannia and Assyria were traditional enemies until Assyria turned them into a vassal state.  The Chaldeans conquered the Kassites, who were more or less broken by a bizarre Hittite raid.  These are the only combinations that are a bit odd, but it’s just about impossible to set up four sides without having some odd combinations.  For example, historically the Picts and Angles were deadly enemies but are the same color in Britannia, while the Scots succeeded the Picts peacefully but are enemies in Brit.

Because the game uses hexes there are many more locations than there are in Britannia, which has 37 land spaces and a handful of sea spaces.  The board in this edition is plasticized paper, 22" x 34", with hexes sized for the 200 half-inch counters.  (Some of that width is for tables.)  It is after all a traditional hex boardgame from the 1970s.  Yet it does avoid one standard hex practice, big stacks.  Two missile units or a missile and foot can stack together, otherwise only one is allowed in any location except cities, where three can be placed.  This is the reason there’s a siege table, because those three defend together.  I’d forgotten how small half inch pieces are, but this is mitigated by the limited stacking.

In other differences from standard hex wargames, there are no zones of control and attacking an adjacent enemy is not required, so you could send several units adjacent to several enemy hexes but only attack one of them.

Combat in Britannia is "independent", that is, the strength of the defender does not affect the damage done by the attacker, both sides rolling.  Ancient Conquest I has only one die and combat tables (normal and siege) something like the original Avalon Hill 3-1 combat table.  You calculate the odds, attacker rolls, table gives result.  Hence combat is "dependent" on the strength of the other side as well as your side.

There are 17 nations in Ancient Conquest I, 17 in Britannia (though one, the Romano-British, is a successor to another).  As I have made more than one ancient Near Eastern prototype, I find the nation choices interesting.  But my prototypes cover longer periods of time.  This game is about 1500 BC to 600BC, so Hammurabi is not involved, nor empires before him such as Sargon’s.  There are a couple nations representing Sea Peoples, though no other indication of the ancient Near Eastern “Dark Age” around 1200 BC.  

Aside from horse/chariot, foot, and missile troops there are war machine (siege engine) pieces and pieces representing items involved in objectives, such as gods and the “Chosen People” who must be carried off the Babylon for the Babylonian player to score.

It’s impossible to successfully legislate against negotiation over the table, because players can comment endlessly about the state of the game in order to try to influence other players.  Nonetheless this game attempts to outlaw oral negotiations (presumably, secret oral negotiations) while allowing a player to send one written message and one reply to another message each turn (that’s not “per player”, that’s “altogether”).  (The rules mistakenly say “verbal” negotiation is not allowed; it should be oral, as “verbal” means “with words” and so includes writing as well as speaking, even though many people now mistakenly use “verbal” as a substitute for “oral”.  In another few decades we’ll no longer have a word that means “with writing or speaking or both”, in fact even now you can’t really use “verbal” any more because it may be misunderstood.  Your pedantry for the day... make sure your rules mean the same thing to everyone.)

Rules say this game takes five to six hours (presumably longer for beginners); there is no version for other than four players.  Ancient Conquest I is priced at $44.95 according to the Excalibre 2011 catalog.  The game was designed and originally developed by Denis P. O’Leary, and development for this edition is by Robert Mosimann, owner of Excalibre Games.

I’ve made a comparative table in WordPerfect, but that won’t display well here.  See a version of it at
Notice that is case sensitive, and it's an I, not a one.

Since this is a description, let me describe the other physical aspects of the game.  The 200 half inch pieces contain two numbers (combat strength and movement) and a silhouette and country name.  The words and numbers might have been easier to read if printed in black.

Aside from the board, pieces, and rulebook, there are four victory point charts, a double-width combat chart, and an order of appearance chart.  All are on heavy plasticized card stock.  The 12” by 9.5“ by 2” box is also coated for better resistance to wear, and a tighter fit than any game box I can remember.  You’re most unlikely to have it come open accidentally!

The 20 page rules (LOTS of photos) left me puzzled in a couple places, but that might be sorted out in actual play.  Unlike Britannia there are no leaders, but there are special rules such as the David and Goliath rule and Plague rules.

You can see from the copyrights on the various components that this game has been several years in the making, back to 2006.  It is part of a group of four reissues that Excalibre are offering to kick off a new series of game publications under new management after a very long period of inactivity.  The other games are Conquerors, A Mighty Fortress, and Battle for Stalingrad.

While we’re comparing, if you are familiar with Charles Vesey's Chariot Lords (Clash of Arms) you would notice a considerable resemblance to Ancient Conquest I, not only in the subject but in the way points are earned.  Vesey's game is also a battle rather than war game, in this case you generally receive reinforcements from your dead unit pile at a set rate.  Yet it is an area game, not a hex and counter game, so it's a mixture of Ancient Conquest I and Britannia and unusual ideas (most notably random movement order each turn, which makes for a very chaotic situation).

I have not tried to compare this with the original game, since the current game is what counts to potential buyers.  From memory I’d say it is very much the same game. 

While this is a “sweep of history” game (perhaps the first), it will be a very different experience from playing Britannia-like games.  It will be interesting to hear about the gameplay from people who play the game several times.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

There are some typical questions that come to mind in people who want to design games but haven't really done so yet.  One of these is "how do you actually start a game"?

I have written about how games originate, what element starts the thought process.  This time I want to focus on questions you can ask yourself, lists you can make, techniques you can use, rather than on specific aspects of the game.

I am supposing that you don't want to make a game that's just like some published game.  This can be good practice, but unlikely to result in a commercially viable game.   I'd rather spend less time modifying an existing game rather than make a clone from scratch.  No, that's not commercially viable, but it's good practice. 

There are various ways to approach game design, for example as problem-solving to create something that succeeds mechanically, or secondly as a way to find interesting things for people to do (play).  The first doesn't always result in a particularly-interesting game, and playtesting can show this.  The second may have a potential to be interesting, but you may never be able to figure out how to make it happen, how to have the game provide the interesting things to do.

Some designers are very cerebral, some design from the gut, and the rest are somewhere in between.

The extreme gut method is "I've got some notions written down, can quickly make a 'kind of' prototype, let's play and make the rest of the rules as we go along" method.  This might be called the "seat of the pants" method or "winging it" method.  This reminds me of a D&D referee who prepares almost nothing before an adventure and makes it up as he goes along.  Some game designers can manage to do this occasionally and get good results, some make a hash of it.  But there usually has to be a partial game as a starting point.

What it reminds me of is a painter staring at a canvas, about to paint something, he has a vague idea of what.  I'd call it the "artist" method of creating a game, as opposed to the more "scientific" method that many use.   My guess is that people who are making commercial games rather than art games would rarely proceed this way.

The beauty of paper prototypes is that this can be done pretty quickly.  It doesn't work for video games unless you are a dynamite programmer and aiming at a quite limited game.

If you're lucky, and if you have experience, another way a game may start is that it all leaps pretty clearly into mind, and it works when played about like you thought it would.  But that still means there's a long, long process of playtesting and modification to be done.

This "leap forward" may be preceded by a long gestation period when you're trying to get your ideas to fit together, and then suddenly it all comes together.  You nibble at it like a dog chewing a bone (and sometimes dogs bury them or just forget about them for a long time).  Once again, you usually have to have something in mind to start with, so it's one step beyond "the start".

Now let's look at some things you can do to organize your thoughts, to be more "scientific" in your method, and to help you avoid making games that are purely derivative.  Recognize that it's still going to take a while. A game isn’t built in a day.

Likability of Games
Make a list of games you really like.  List the three or four outstanding reasons why you like the games, each one in turn.  Do some of the reasons occur again and again? 

Now do the same for games that you really don’t like.  This time, list three or four things you do like along with three or four that you don’t like.  Do some of these “bad” games nonetheless have some “good” characteristics?  This will often be the case; a really good game succeeds not only by having good characteristics, but by avoiding bad ones.

At some point you may want to list of three or four things you’d really like, that you want in a game you’re working on.

The Essence of games
Another approach is to write the essence of games you like.  The essence is a two or three sentence description that gets to the heart of what the game is about.  Do the same for some games you don't like.  Then try to do it for a game you want to design.  I've written about this separately:

What is the player going to do?
You might find that the things you like about games are often related to what the player does.  One of the most important aspects of game design is the question, “What is the player going to do?”  Try making brief lists again of what the player(s) do in games you really like, and what they do in games you dislike.  Then make a list of what you want players to do in a game you’re working on.

What’s going to happen?
Another way to look at a game is, “what happens”?  A way to approach this in game design is to make a list of events you’d like to have occur in your game.  Some of these events may occur many times, some only once, some may not occur in every play of the game.  You can make such lists forever if you go into enough detail.  Try to end up with a list of 10 to 20 events at roughly the same level of detail (“granularity”).  (Those familiar with Systems Analysis will recognize that the Event List is an important part of analysis.)

The two methods above are both aspects of what legendary video game designer Chris Crawford says in his First Law of Software Design, “Always start by asking, ‘What are the verbs?’”

Answer a "what if" question
This seems to be the start of many science fiction stories.  Do you have, or can you think of, any "what if" questions that can be turned into games?  These are legion for alternative history ("what if Napoleon had died in one of those early battles in Italy").   And many historical games can be designed to allow exploration of alternate histories.  Or it may be as simple as "what if chess pieces had differing combat strengths". 

Monday, September 12, 2011

Reality Management for Game Designers

For a couple decades I regularly taught graduate computer management classes.  One of the most important themes of those classes was that a manager/supervisor has to recognize what reality is, not what he would like reality to be or what he thinks it ought to be.  If you don’t know what’s really going on, how can you make it work better?  Yet a great many managers lose track of reality, and the really poor ones are often in what I call “cloud-cuckoo land.”

You might feel that this shouldn’t matter to game designers but in fact it’s very important.  Game design in some sense is project management.  Your project can’t come to fruition if you don’t recognize the reality of it, the true state of your game.  The classic project management cycle is plan-execute-monitor-control-replan and continue with execution.  That’s the same thing you’re doing with the game as you create it and especially after you have a playable prototype.  In case it’s not clear, “monitor” means observe what is happening (the execution) and how that doesn’t match the plan, and “control” means act to change how things are going when they’re not going according to plan.  Of course, if you have no plan you don’t know where you’re going and so you’re most unlikely to get there.  For a tabletop game the plan isn’t so much a prescription for how things will go (because things will change), as a description of where you want to end up.  For a traditional AAA video game the plan is more prescriptive because it takes so long to get to a playable prototype.

Your principal reality check is playtesting.  That’s why it’s vitally important to pay attention to playtests and to *listen* to playtesters.  If you’re making a game with a team rather than solo (solo is common for tabletop games), you can also hope that the team will provide a reality check.  Unfortunately the team’s view of the game will be so skewed by their closeness to it that they will have lost touch with its reality to some extent.  (Clearly you can’t rely on your family and close friends as principal playtesters to keep you grounded in reality; though that depends a lot on the family!) 

In other words, insofar as the purpose of most games is to satisfy the target audience, it’s important that the playtesting is with the target audience.  Otherwise playtesting doesn’t match reality.  I’m convinced that this has been the flaw in many video games that fell on their faces, although it still more common that the games are issued before they have been sufficiently tested owing to unchangeable marketing schedules.

Remember that there are facts revealed by playtesting that the playtesters won’t tell you, won’t even notice.  I recall specifically a game that worked well and playtesters seemed to enjoy, but which had the flaw that whoever was ahead halfway through almost always won.  I had to keep track of the points and notice this before I had a chance to fix it.  With a great deal more playtesting it might have been noticed by the testers, but don’t wait for playtesters to reveal flaws you can detect yourself by monitoring a series of games.

The heart of game design is monitoring and control, not the planning.  Video game design books often give an entirely different impression because they concentrate so much on planning.  That’s because, for AAA games, so much planning must be done before the playable prototype stage is reached.  The focus on planning is in fact a defect of the software creation process, at least as it has been traditionally practiced.  Nowadays we have Agile and Scrum and other methods of speeding up the process so that a playable prototype is reached early rather than late in the production.  But it’s still the case that it takes a long time to make a playable prototype of a video game compared with the time it takes to make a tabletop prototype.  That’s why many experts recommend that people planning a video game make a paper prototype as soon as possible, if that’s practical at all.  I know of at least one video game where the entire game was “played” in a paper version before the software was created.  (Shadow Complex,

The need to focus on reality is why I sometimes say that game design is about critical thinking and self-criticism.  One reason why novice game designers struggle is that they’re not accustomed to “getting down to reality”.  Young people especially have been encouraged to “follow their dreams” and “be creative”, and are told that they’re special and wonderful, consequently they can be pretty far into cloud-cuckoo land when they are evaluating a game that they have created.  Experience helps, both experience in game design and experience with a broad variety of life.  A broad and deep education helps as well.

A reason why free-to-play online games have been so successful is that the players provide a strong reality check as the game is developed.  The game is usually made available to players long before it could be called “finished”.  Then if enough players like it they are likely to tell developers what they like and what they don’t like, providing a strong reality check as long as a relatively small group’s opinion does not become dominant by virtue of being noisier.  That’s the danger of online communities.  They may have opinions that don’t jive with the majority of players, yet because they are amongst the minority who talk online about the game their opinions may be taken as representative of all the players.

Recognition of reality in the sense of what your target audience wants and needs is very important.  I recently talked in a post on my primary blog ( about avoiding arithmetic in games because so many people find it frustrating.  Some respondents were dismayed that I didn’t recognize an opportunity to help improve arithmetic skills by putting them into games.  But that’s a venture into cloud-cuckoo land.  People in this century don’t want frustration in their games.  The reality of the commercial game market is "arithmetic frustrates most people".

There is a well-known book about creating usable websites called “Don’t Make Me Think" by Steve Krug.  What the author means is, don’t make people think about how to get at the information that’s on the website, because this distracts and frustrates them.  This has to be modified specifically for games.  In many games we want people to think, but we want them to think about the mechanics and dynamics of the game, and about the opposition, not about something that is ancillary to the game, that is not part of success or failure.  What’s important in a D20 tabletop RPG is whether or not you hit, not whether you can add modifiers to calculate your to-hit total.  Doing arithmetic is ancillary, though there are other games where arithmetic is central to success or failure. 

Don’t make people think about doing math unless math is central to the game.  Don't make people think about anything that isn't necessary to the game.

But it all depends on your target market.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Last year I was asked to write a blog post for Buffalo Games, a maker of family games. This was originally posted on their Facebook page.

          What’s important in board and card game design

Game design is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.  Don’t think that the idea is important.  What makes a marketable game is the execution, the creation of a complete game, not the idea.  Some ideas are better than others, true, but there are hardly any original ideas–if you’ve thought of it, probably a hundred others have as well.  Virtually no publisher pays for an idea, publishers pay for completed games (though they may then change them...).  So be prepared to work!

The second most important thing to remember about ideas is, you need to work at getting lots of them: maybe a few will work out well.

Ideas come from everywhere, from all kinds of associations: you must actively seek to get ideas, don’t wait for them to come floating by.

Lots of people have game ideas, fewer make a prototype, fewer still actually play the game.  You don’t really have a game until you have a prototype that can be played.  It needn’t be pretty, but it must be functional.  If people enjoy playing a merely functional version of the game, they’ll enjoy the pretty published version even more.  Maybe when you submit the completed game to a publisher you’ll make a pretty version.

You don’t have to have a full set of rules to start with, you just need to know how to play.  Writing nearly-perfect rules is the hardest part of designing a game.  Trying to write perfect rules when the game is new may be a waste of time, as the game IS going to change.   In the end, though, if the rules are inadequate, the game won’t be played correctly, which is usually a disaster, and you can’t leave rules writing until the very end because the rules must be tested just as the game must be tested.

“Playtesting is sovereign”.  Play your prototype, probably solo at first to work out the worst kinks, then have others play.  And play.  And play.  Virtually no game prototype is good at first.  The key to a good game is to playtest it, revise it, playtest it, revise it, playtest it, revise it, and so forth until the gameplay is polished to a gleam.  Change is the norm. 

You will probably get sick of the game before it’s “done!”  As Reiner Knizia says, it’s easy to get a game to an 80% completion state, hard to get it to 100%.   And you may think it’s “done” only to find that something MUST be changed.

Getting your game playtested is an invitation to say it sucks!   Your playtesters must be in your target audience (you ALWAYS have a target audience), and you need a lot of them.  Your family is not sufficient!  You need people who are willing to tell you the truth.

If you just want to design one game at a time, go for it.  If you want to be a game designer, you need to be designing a lot of games at the same time.

Unless you are very very lucky, you aren’t going to get rich designing games.  Do it because you love it, and perhaps you’ll make some money along the way.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Risk Legacy

Someone I was corresponding with mentioned Risk Legacy to me, and I found the rules online and read them.

The idea is that you a series of games (beginning as more or less standard Risk) are connected together, and as you play the board and other parts of the playing environment change, and rules change, from one game to the next. In the process you write on the board, destroy cards, stick stickers on the board in the cards, open sealed envelopes, write on stickers, and other things which render the game unplayable if you want to start from scratch. This is all in the name of personalization, that what the player does makes a difference to the environment in the long run.

Some people seem to think this is an innovative or cool idea. What’s cool about destroying your game? There’s nothing cool about destruction, period. Too many people look to express themselves, look for their reason (excuse) for existence, in destruction rather than in creation. Top that with what I can only describe as another of the destructive Triumphs of Capitalism, planned obsolescence: it’s not only built in obsolescence, it’s programmed destruction.

What’s innovative about rule changes? There lots of games where the rules change, though perhaps not very many where the play of one game changes rules in the next game. But so what? There are lots of games that have well tested variants and you can play the game with a variant whenever you want, hence changed rules. Here you have a more chaotic set of changes in rules. Yes, the choices you make in one game affect another. But does it really matter? And is it worth rendering the game useless?

There is no reason why this game could not have been designed so that it could be reusable. As it is you buy a game that you immediately start to destroy after you play it once. In fact there seems to be a celebration of destruction, disguised as personalization.

Moreover, it appears to be designed for a situation that will rarely occur, where you have the same 3 to 5 people playing a long series of the same game. But even if you do have that situation, at the end you need to buy another copy of the game to play again. Duh?! The cynic in me says that Hasbro may have hit on a real bonanza, a way to persuade people to buy the same game over and over if they really like it. I’d be ashamed to sell it. *Shakes head*.

Quite apart from that, do we have built-in design problems? As if leader bashing wasn’t a problem in some games, here we mark the leader off very clearly over a series of games.

Again I can only shake my head. My ego isn’t so weak that I need to personalize everything, including my games. Though I have nothing against personalization when it isn’t destructive. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but to me this whole idea is destructively stupid as implemented.

Lew Pulsipher

Friday, September 02, 2011

Review, The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell , 2004-5 Harper-Collins.

This is the first of a series of historical novels about Anglo-Saxon England facing Viking attacks, especially the Great Army. Some of the Britannia players at WBC put me onto this, though it was sheer luck that I passed by it in the library stacks while browsing the other day.

I haven't read an historical novel in 35 years, but this one feels kind of like fantasy without the magic; in any case, you can see that my interest in the setting is greater than normal, thanks to the game Britannia.

Bernard Cornwell is a very well-known author of historical military related novels, especially the ones about Sharp that have been turned into a series of TV movies starring Sean Bean (I've never seen any). This novel is pretty intense and pretty grim at times, told very much from the first person point of view of a single person, the young heir to the earldom of Bamberg in Northumbria. A major character is King Alfred the Great, shown here as a very pious, sickly man who values learning as well as military prowess.

As many historical novelists, Cornwell appears to know his subject very well and to take as few liberties as possible. But with so few sources of information for that time this is a case where the historical novelist has a great deal of room to maneuver in.

I only had this book from the library, otherwise I'd already be reading the next. I look forward to reading more of this series, which will reach six books in October.