Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Hastings 1066: How to make a board game that costs you a lot less (microgame)

A Board Game that only Uses Cards, OR,
What Matters is Function, not Appearance ORHow to make a board game that costs you a lot less

My game Hastings 1066, about the famous battle where William of Normandy conquered England, is a board game in disguise. It functions as a board game, yet uses cards, with the result that it costs buyers a lot less than if a physical board were included. Yet I’m told by a publisher that wargamers don’t generally care for card games. I think I understand why, but the objections do not apply to Hastings 1066.

When most gamers think of “card games” they think of Magic: the Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Pokemon. These are a combination of slick marketing scheme and appeal to children, so it’s not surprising that wargamers (who tend to be older people, often Baby Boomers, who don’t “get hooked” on things) are put off. Moreover, these games make more revenue than all other kinds of tabletop games put together. MtG alone makes more than all board games combined. (Figures from IcV2, US and Canada only.)

Moreover, collectible card games (CCG), certainly the three I’ve mentioned, are far from depicting warfare. There is no maneuver, next to no geospatial relationships. Perhaps that makes a little sense in a wizard’s duel (though I don’t think so), but you cannot depict battles that way.  "Battles are won by slaughter and manoeuvre. The greater the general, the more he contributes in manoeuvre, the less he demands in slaughter." --Sir Winston Churchill

If you’re not depicting maneuver (and the geospatial relationships that make maneuver meaningful/possible) then you can’t depict battles – and it’s hard to depict wars. We can’t model wars in games, we model generalship, but without maneuver there is no generalship.

Wargamers may also feel that card games are “taking over,” and they don’t like it. I recall walking around the dozen tables in use at a big meeting of the NC State Tabletop Gamers, noticing that every game being played (none of them a CCG) was primarily a card game, and the only board game was the one being playtested at my table.

Not surprising that wargamers would rather not have deal with card games.

The Board Function

The fallacy of this perception is that you can use cards without a physical board to depict maneuver and geospatial relationships, as in my game. In practice, Hastings 1066 is a board game, not a card game, that happens to use cards for units rather than using blocks or tiny counters.
The purpose of using a board in games, originally, was to depict maneuver (or placement) and geospatial relationships. Think of Chess, Checkers, Go, even race games such as Pacheesi and Backgammon. They’d be very difficult or impossible to play without a board. What’s important is not the physical board itself, but the depiction and control of maneuver/placement and spatial relationships. It’s the function that counts in the game, not the appearance. (Computer Civilization, for example, is a board game.)

A board game isn’t a game that uses a board; many games that use a board are only tracking various statuses that could be tracked as easily in other ways. For example, some of the recent Munchkin (deluxe) versions have a board, but all it does (in Zombie Munchkins at least) is to track the experience level of each player. This has been done in other (non-board) ways for many years. Is Zombie Munchkin a board game? Not only no, but “Hell No.” The appearance is of a board, but the function is not.

Hastings 1066 uses cards for double duty, as units and as the board (in conjunction with two strips of cardboard). The layout looks like a grid.

I could have used a board with that same grid, but that would have raised the price of the game drastically.  A board is the most expensive part of a board game, and if it’s a mounted board, it requires use of a much larger box. Mounted boards are printed in 11 by 11 inch segments; that requires an 11.5 by 11.5 inch box. The larger box costs significantly more than a smaller box.
Moreover, Hastings is not only a deck of cards. There are the map strips, the cubes for marking arrow wounds, and the markers for William and Harold. Those components would be the same if it were a “board” game.

CCGs vs Hastings

A comparison of Hastings with CCGs shows great differences. CCGs are usually “special powers card games”, as I call them for lack of a better name. Each card has a different exception to the standard rules. They tend to be tactical games, and rely on combos for much of the interest. My game uses no combos or exceptions, though it is tactical as any game about a singe battle is likely to be. It is much more like a board game than a CCG.

In appearance, CCG cards have tiny text and numbers. Everything you need to see in Hastings is in large print on an uncluttered card.

I’ve designed a number of card games, but none of them in the CCG category, nor in the special-powers-combo style. Yet wargamers may tend to assume that a card game is CCG/combo style.
As an example of the latter, recently a game called “Tears to Many Mothers” (really?) that is ostensibly about the Battle of Hastings was Kickstarted. But if I can judge from its Kickstarter, it’s a special-powers game with virtually no maneuver or geospatial relationships. That is, it cannot be a wargame despite the supposed topic. But with gorgeous artwork, and an audience on Kickstarter that tends to like gorgeous art (and special powers combo games), it Kickstarted very well. Wargamers, however, might point to it as “what’s wrong with card games”.

Pay attention to the components of a game that count. It’s function, not appearance, that determines whether it’s a good game to play.


Another topic that comes to mind is microgames.  These were popular board games of the 1970s and eighties.  The most popular was Steve Jackson’s Ogre in 1977, while my game Dragon Rage (1982) was another.  These games had thin, tiny unit counters and cardboard boards, and originally came in a plastic bag (DRage was in a small box). You could carry them with you and play (most of) them in less than an hour. Yet they were fully functioning board games, usually for just two players.

Microgames disappeared a long time ago - people no longer accept thin, tiny cardboard units. They have largely been replaced in the market by card games, CCGs and otherwise. DRage cost $10 in 1982, which is equivalent after inflation to $25.42 in January 2018. A $5.95 game from 1970 would be $37.82 today (big inflation in the mid-70s). The pre-order price for Hastings is $24 (same as the Kickstarter price), MSRP is $35. Hastings 1066 is an example of a “new” microgame, something you can carry with you and play quickly when you have a little time.

Dragon Rage was reissued in 2011 with large, thick cardboard pieces, a mounted board, and an additional map and scenarios on the other side of the board. It cost more than three times the $24. Hastings 1066 could have been made much more expensively, but it would no longer fit that niche of a board game microgame.

The Kickstarter for Hastings 1066 ends tomorrow (Wednesday Feb 28).  https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1456271622/hastings-1066-game/description
Preorder (version with black core French Linen cards only available via KS) at: https://worthingtonpublishing.com/?product=hastings-1066-preorder

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Should Games Cope with Resignations and other forms of Quitting?

This is a very good question sent to me by someone I didn’t know. He’d designed a “Civ Lite” game for 5 or 6, where he’d written rules for resignations. But he was told that was “outdated” by an experienced designer.

I don’t believe in “outdated” rules or concepts in game design, that’s pointless snobbishness rather than clear thinking. What’s good is good whether it’s old or new, and it always depends on the situation. If it’s bad, it doesn’t matter if it’s new or not.

If a game can be designed so that a player can leave the game, whether it’s an official resignation or for “life reasons” (emergencies, rides, etc.), that should make it a more flexible, and consequently better, game.

Similarly, if a game can be designed to allow people to join in after it starts then that should make it a better game. I have some simple games using cards that allow the latter, in fact someone recently came into one soon after the start and won.

But I don’t think I have any game with rules for what happens when someone quits. I do have games (other than Britannia) with submission rules so that a player who would otherwise be wiped out can continue to participate in the game, and perhaps if things fall his or her way, can do fairly well in the end. I’ve seen it happen.

Go back far enough, and resignation was an option in a two player game only, but most games were two player games. If a player thought he or she wasn’t going to succeed it made sense to resign, end the game, and play something else rather than continue futilely. But in a game for more than two, players are usually expected to do the best they can for the entire game. In that sense of expectation, a resignation rule is irrelevant for a game with more than two players.

I confess I see it my duty as a gamer to fight to the bitter end rather than give up, and from that point of view you could say a resignation rule should not be written into a game because it encourages players to give up. But that doesn’t cover the life reasons, which I think are more common than a simple desire to quit.

I encourage rules that cope with the player leaving the game for whatever reason, when there are many players in the game - but I wouldn’t in those rules encourage the mentality that if you are not doing well it’s okay to quit, quite the opposite. Unfortunately, many players who feel
“trapped in a bad situation” and want to quit are simply weak players and don’t realize how many options are available to them that might bring them back into contention. Another way to say this would be that many players are lazy, but that’s the nature of contemporary hobby game players.

For me, a serious game is not “an engine designed to convert effort into fun” (my correspondent paraphrasing someone else). This is an attitude common to the Age of Comfort, when no one ever wants to be “uncomfortable”. There is more to it than that. You might be able to say that about a casual game, and very likely about a party game. But in serious games there’s more than mere fun involved. And expectations are different.

(Keep in mind, I don’t myself use the word fun, because it means such different things to different people. Some games are intended to be funny-fun, but others certainly are not.)

“Resignation” rules are relatively easy in incorporate into a game with low player-to-player interaction such as most Eurostyle games, where people are really solving their own puzzles with little or no reference to other players. It’s likely to be much more difficult when the game is a high player-to-player interaction game where what players do depends heavily on what other players do, as in wargames especially.

Unfortunately, quitting when things aren’t going well is a feature of modern life. I’d say my correspondent did well to include rules to cope with someone leaving the game, but I ask everyone to encourage the players to stick with the game all the way to the end rather than quit. Don’t encourage quitters, as players aren’t likely to become better players if they quit when things don’t go their way.