Friday, November 20, 2020

Triptych 17 - Three Subjects in One Blog Post



Avalon Hill and Hasbro

I'm the sort of person who goes to Metacritic and reads some reviews of a movie to decide whether to go see it, rather than rely on trailers.  I don't turn on the TV just to see what's one, at most I might look at TitanTV for movies that I'd like to see. Atmosphere appeals to people who buy things on impulse, who buy a book because of its cover, who buy a cell phone or car because it's pretty.  (I once asked the salesperson, while buying new cell phones, how many people bought based on appearance rather than features.  She said people say they don't care about appearance, but often she'd show someone a phone that suited their needs and they'd say "I don't like how that one looks, show me another one.")

The trend for at least the past 50 years is that presentation has become relatively more important, and substance less important. Of course, it has become easier and easier to make something look good, regardless of whether it's actually worth bothering with in its substance. I'm reminded of a decades-old rule of thumb, that a poor novel with a good cover will sell well, while a good novel with a poor cover will not. Whether this still applies, when so many buy books without browsing in a bookstore, I don't know, but online sellers are careful to show the covers . . .

"Those who have too little, value quantity; those who have enough, value quality; and those who have too much, value presentation."  Originated with Will, aka the Class Guy (twitter)



I educated myself, and was formally educated as, an historian. The key to history is understanding the state of reality. If you don’t know what was happening, how can you explain why it was happening? Historians must be ultimate realists.

Similarly, leaders must be ultimate realists. This is not to say that they ignore emotion and irrationality, because a great deal of life is about emotion and irrationality. But they still need to know what is, “the facts”.

I’ve specialized in military and diplomatic history, where we see again and again and again that leaders must understand what’s actually happening in order to be able to achieve their goals. A military leader has to first know where his units are and what their capabilities are, and where the opposing units are and what their capabilities are. Or tends to be a vast chaos of uncertainty, and those leaders who can make the most sense out of it are the ones who succeed.

Political leaders also need to know what reality is, even if they then choose to ignore it, or to convince their followers that the truth is something else.

In the modern world we see many politicians relying heavily on wishful thinking and promoting wishful thinking in their followers. The most obvious example is Donald Trump, whose entire life is about persuading people of what the truth is rather than paying attention to the reality. Trump will make up anything he thinks sounds good to his followers, while anyone who is devoted to discovering what reality is wonders where he gets these stories. If Trump doesn’t like reality he tries to ignore it, as in the pandemic, where even now he says we’re turning the corner, that the pandemic will just go away, despite all the evidence in deaths and hospitalizations to the contrary. It’s inconvenient for him, so he ignores the 250,000 deaths and all that goes along with it.

Conspiracy theories are one of the heights of wishful thinking, fueled by ignorance and often by stupidity.

The older I get, the more I recognize how important leadership is to nations and other political and business entities.


According to former Avalon Hill (AH) employees, among them Don Greenwood, talking about the demise of AH at a get-together at WBC a few years ago, Hasbro asked to buy Diplomacy, and was told they'd have to buy the entire company.

Rex Martin, formerly of the General magazine, wrote a doctoral dissertation showing that wargames are a Baby Boomer hobby that didn't translate, by and large, to later generations.

Hasbro had no idea what they had. One of the games was my Britannia. They sent that on to Multiman Publishing. Fortunately, MMP didn't republish it, because the rights had reverted to me when it went out of print - but Hasbro had no clue. I was unaware of all this because I spent 20 years away from the hobby (except for playing D&D). When I came back, in 2003-4, I sorted this out and did a new edition for Fantasy Flight. (And now there’s a new edition (same rules, plastic pieces) from PSC Games (UK).)

Thursday, November 12, 2020

A New Thing #3 (Have to think of another name, as it’s not new any more. . . Bites of Writing?)

Kind of like the Triptych but with much more than three topics per.


Has anyone made a list of Euroish game mechanics (mechanisms) that are generally unsuited to games that are models of something (because the mechanic has nothing to do with reality)?: worker placement, drafting, and change-each-round role selection are three that come to mind.


Video games: the games (and the players) now depend so little on imagination.  Then "immersive" is almost necessarily about photo-realism.  But they're wrong.  Tabletop RPGs  can be immensely immersive, if players and GM provide the necessary imagination.


Another claim sometimes made about video games is that they are far more interactive than other forms of entertainment. That's true if you can compare them to movies, plays, and books, but not true if you compare them to tabletop games. In fact tabletop games - some of them anyway - are much more interactive because you are interacting with humans, not with software (the game).


A person doesn't play a multi-sided game like Diplomacy or Britannia five hundred times to figure out the system, or to learn the story the system tells them.  In these cases, the story is an abstract version of World War I, or a representational version of a thousand years of British history.  They play to enjoy the interaction of the system and the players, to learn how people cope with the system and how they can be persuaded to think or act in certain ways.


A hallmark of a game of maneuver and geospatial relationships: position can be as important as possession.


SO amusing to see people who pirate copyrighted material, complaining that someone else scams that to get their credit card info! Justice?


"We give the fantasy author one giant leap away from reality, then demand tight-nit probabilities and no coincidences thereafter." -Robert McKee (Talking about novels)


"Poor technical decisions coupled with the newly hired team led to all key metrics being below thresholds required for an ROI positive title," Niccolo de Masi   [ROI - Return On Investment]

Means, they lost money for all kinds of reasons.


Sue's reading about people who set what seem, to her, to be odd goals.  Such as visiting the north pole, south pole, and peak of Everest all in one year.

I observed, we're more and more a nation of destinations, not journeys.  The same thing has happened in video games, in college, and in lots of other places.  People don't seem to enjoy the journey.


For multi-sided games with significant player interaction, the better the players know/understand the system, the more they can concentrate on playing the other players.


Creativity requires you to murder your children. If you are so enthralled with your designs that you can’t let them go, then you’ll never have the hard-bitten creativity of a truly good designer. -Chris Crawford (Eastern Front and other famous old video games)


The "zeitgeist" of 1e/2e AD&D was cooperation and exploration. For 3e it was "be a one-man army" and finding rule imbalances, showing off. ...

For 4e it was cooperation, purely tactical play, and a lack of real challenge (WoW-ification).  What is it for 5e?  The lack of real challenge is still there. But there's more than just tactical play. And co-operation is still important.


Gygax said: "There is something in D&D that strikes a chord in many people; the call of adventure."

But that's lost when you can't lose


A reason why historical interpretation changes from decade to decade, or generation to generation, is that the data is never as solid as some people want it to be. Even historians are subject to wishful thinking.


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. "Outdated"? Poppycock!


Henry Ford said "You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do."  Yet that's what many try to do these days, to rely on intention and vocalization and (so-called) plans rather than on action.


Online Britannia sales - shipping is extra at all, afaik.

80 pounds at PSC Games (UK)

$$74.97 But listed as out of stock.

Atomic Empire is preorder $84.99

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Responses to Dave Shapiro's questions for a Risk book, part 3


In December 2012, Dave Shapiro contacted me to contribute to a book about Risk he was co-authoring.This took the form of answers to a series of questions. The book appeared recently, sans this material. This is part 3.

The following questions are specifically about the Risk relationship in your designs.

What games most influenced your designs?

Heavens, it all started so long ago that that’s very hard to say.  I loved American Heritage Broadsides, I loved the old Avalon Hill games such as Stalingrad and Afrika Korps, I loved to play Risk when I was a kid, and when I got a little older (high school senior) I “graduated” to Diplomacy.  The old hex-based games obviously influenced my Valley Of the Four Winds and Dragon Rage, though you can say that about any hex-based game I guess.

What games do you consider the foundations of modern gaming?

There are many games that more or less started certain genres.  But some games are exceptionally important.

Charles S. Roberts' games for Avalon Hill such as Stalingrad and Afrika Korps showed us that you could have a strategic game modeling some reality (which Risk or Backgammon does not do) that also included dice.  Dungeons & Dragons is probably the most influential of all games because so many video games owe so much to tabletop D&D.  I’m not at all in sympathy with the “pay to win” original philosophy of Magic: the Gathering but it obviously started an enormous genre of its own.

In video games, it’s a little harder to point to games that “started it all” because frequently the breakthrough game isn’t the first game.  The Sims, for example, was preceded by a game called Little Computer People that was not successful.

Do you feel that Risk has influenced gaming? If so, in what way?

Risk is the quintessential conquest game.  And it has its own niche, a board game for young fellows who want to trash talk each other and be competitive, kind of hanging out with the guys.  Because it’s a conquest game it’s not really very cerebral, it’s too much attack Attack ATTACK!

But I’m not sure how many games there are, at least, well-known games, that directly derive from Risk.  It kind of stands on its own.  Yes, there are all the recent variants published by Hasbro, but they are all much, much younger than Risk.  What Hasbro is doing with Risk, as it is with its other games, is relying on the brand to sell more games.  Hence you have “Sorry Sliders” which really has very little to do with Sorry, but trades on the name.  “Battleship Galaxies” is another one.   

Risk also appeals to younger people because, thanks to the dice rolling, there’s always a small chance that a weak player will overcome a strong player, a chance to really doesn’t exist in Diplomacy with its diceless system.  I recall playing a two player game of Risk where I rolled one “6" the entire game.  I lost.  It probably wasn’t long after that that I switched to Diplomacy!

It’s not the fact that there are dice, it’s the fact that you have almost no opportunity to try to mitigate the effects of dice.  As I said my favorite commercial game is first edition Dungeons & Dragons.  There are lots of dice in that game but you can treat it just like some (wise) people treat life, you can try to minimize the times when you need to get lucky to survive.  (As in, wear a seatbelt in a car - yet some people don't. Or wear a mask during a pandemic.)   Sooner or later it’ll get you, but that’s life as well.  You don’t get those opportunities much in Risk.  First edition D&D also required players to cooperate to survive.  Second edition was much like first, third edition was about “one-man armies” and a lack of cooperation, 4th was back to cooperation, though you really have to screw up pretty badly to die.  

You designed Hyborian Risk in 1981 (a revision appeared in 2006). As this was prior to any of the published commercial versions, including Castle Risk, why tackle a Risk game? (I have not mentioned anything about your new versions - if you choose to mention/discuss them, it would be interesting.)

The 2006 version was by Chester E. Hendrix, I just host it on my website.

A way to practice designing games is to modify existing games.  If a game has a simple system that can be applied to lots of different situations then it’s more likely to be the subject of variants.

Although I’ve designed perhaps only one or two Diplomacy variants in the past 30 years, because of all the ones I did in the 70s I still have designed more Diplomacy variants altogether than anyone else in the world.  And as I much prefer Diplomacy to Risk, if I’m going to design a variant it will usually be a Diplomacy variant.  I don’t recall the origins of Hyborian Risk but for some reason I decided to make a Risk variant rather than a Diplomacy variant, perhaps because play balance is much, much easier to get right in a symmetric game like Risk as opposed to an asymmetric game like Diplomacy.