Blogs

  • I have grouped the blogs in four categories. As the Frontline Gamer once put it: there's really three sides to (miniature) wargaming. There's the modelling and painting, the gamingand the background study. So these will make up my first three categories. But I´ve added an extra category to keep my options open.

    Front page of one of the Squadron Forward rules, available through Too Fat Lardies

    The first section is that of those whose creativity is focused on the rules of the game. Have a look atJoe Legan's blog, whose development of campaign settings for all sorts of miniature rules at Platoon Forward  I think is a fantastic service to gamers. Campaigns are the best way to enjoy gaming. Other contenders in this section are the reflections on Wargaming4GrownUps and David Crook of Wargaming Odysee has been steadfast pursuing his block rules.

    Screenshot from Dark Age Wargaming

    In the military history section, Dark Age Wargaming by Historian On The Edge comes out on top as it has some of the best articles on the subject and has been inspiring to my Dux Britanniarum endeavours.  Also highly recommended comes Midlist Writer by Sean McLachlan for exotic travel with a wargaming theme, like Iraq and Ethiopia.

    Bob Cordery of Wargaming Miscellany and Big Lee Hadleyoften make me jealous of their trips to historical sites and museums. Jim Hale of Arlequins Worlds has these really deep backgrounds on many wars. Both Bob and Jim actually have a big part of rules development as well, so transcend the categories.

    Pijlie's scratch built inn, as photographed by himself

    In the modelling and painting category go to Jan-Willem van der Pijl's Pijlie's Wargame Blog. Excellent painting and modelling, especially his 17th century inn. Other Dutch blogs worthy of mention are René van den Assem's Paint-In and Michael Fisher's MiniStories which show the high quality of painting around here.

    Other favourites of mine are Analogue Hobbies (I love the WWI in Grayscale), Trouble at t´Mill and Sidney Roundwood. Furthermore, Musings of A Frustrated Wargamer, Tales of a Tabletop Skirmisher and Frontline Gamer have been excellent in pointing me towards new miniature companies and kickstarters. Even though I haven't fallen for any of it, it's still great to enjoy the eye candy.

    Jeremiah's excellent design of graveyard tiles for Zombicide

    Front Towards Enemy in the Extrascategory is Jeremiah Terry's continued effort to produce new characters, counters, map and other gaming assessories for FFG's Tannhauserand Dust Tactics,as well as Zombicide. He really puts in a lot of skill and effort and I think all gaming companies should encourage fan contributions, especially of this high quality. Other extras are Savage Tales, for my dose of high quality pulp.

     


  • I was thinking about a time when my department head came to my game design class unannounced to evaluate my teaching, and I wasn’t “lecturing” to the students.  They were working on game projects.  (This was not an introductory class.)  She seemed surprised that I wasn’t lecturing, but that may be because she typically taught introductory computer literacy style classes such as how to use Microsoft Office.  Classes that teach use of specific office software can be taught more or less by rote: if you want to make something bold you highlight it and press control-B or click the Bold button.  If you change margins you do thus and so.  And so forth.

    These intro software classes don’t have to be taught entirely by rote but commonly they are, complete with what I call “monkey books”.  These books have students follow steps to accomplish something, but students tend to focus on getting through as rapidly as possible, and when they’re done they don’t know what they did and haven’t learned much.  Like the monkeys who, if they type long enough, type Shakespeare’s works . . .  You can learn from monkey books, but only if you want to learn and make the effort to learn.

    Designing games is not and can never be taught by rote.  Teaching by rote is training, not education.  Education is about why you do things, why some things work and others don’t, about understanding what you’re doing.  Training is about exactly how you get a particular thing done.  I recognize that not everyone follows those definitions but I find it very useful to make this distinction, and other people with other purposes when defining education and training may make different distinctions.

    Designing games is about education, not training.  Designing games is about critical thinking, and much of it is thinking, which is the antithesis of training.  You’re trained to do things automatically, without thinking.  (Reiner Knizia on twitter recently said, "To summarise my experience: Design is a way of thinking!")

    Video game production at the outset can be taught by rote because people are learning how to use particular software, for example Maya or 3DS Max, or they’re learning how to program.  In the long run there is a process of education there, especially for programming, but in the short run for introductory classes a lot of it is simple straightforward “this is how you do it”.  There just isn’t much of that in game design.

    But where the Eureka moment occurred was when I realized that an analogy can be made from this to games and puzzles.  A puzzle is something that has a solution, or perhaps several solutions, with the defining characteristic that once you figure it out the solution(s) always works.  So you can teach someone by rote how to beat the puzzle by teaching them the steps required.  It’s possible that those steps require certain skills such as hand-eye coordination levels that the person may not have attained, but once they attain those skill levels they can follow the solution and complete the puzzle every time, or as it is said in video games, “beat the game”.

    A game does not have these kinds of solutions, and cannot be “beaten.”  To be good at the game requires something much more akin to education than training.  You have to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, and when that isn’t the best thing to do, when something else is the best thing to do.  There is certainly problem-solving in games, but there aren’t solutions to the game as a whole that will always work.  Frequently this is the difference between having human opponents and having no opponent or a computer opponent, though computer opponents continue to become better over time.  Frequently this is the difference between, on th one hand, perfect information or uncertainty that can become predictable, typical in puzzles, and on the other hand uncertainty that cannot be predicted or accounted for by simple mathematical processes–the kind of uncertainty that comes from having several human opponents.

    You can teach someone, by rote, how to win at Tic-Tac-Toe, or even Tetris, and you could for chess if anyone had completely solved the extremely complicated puzzle.  The checker program Chinook, as I understand it, plays by rote, playing what it knows to be the move most likely to lead to a win from whatever the current position is–no reasoning required.  You cannot teach someone how to win at Britannia or Dragon Rage, Diplomacy or even Risk, by rote, they have to understand how it all works and then think as they actually play.

  • I've played a bunch of fun stuff with a bunch of fun people over the past few weeks:

    Galaxy Trucker

    Murder City

    Bump in the Night

    Escalation

    VOC!

    Snow Tails

    Cosmic Encounter

  • a game of thrones board game second edition review

    In this hobby, some of us are fortunate to have a regular game group. Some of us are even fortunate enough to have a group of gamers that like to play all the same kinds of games. Yeah, okay, I’m not that fortunate either, but that’s cool. Although my groups is a disparate group of gamers (made up of a hardcore Ameritrasher [me], three casual wargamers [also me] and a few Eurogamers [hell no, not me], we do have a selection of games we all really dig. This is one of them.

  • Years ago, Brad H. posted a game review.  After that review, Rylen introduced me to the game that changed everything:  Aliens.  A fast paced sci-fi dungeon crawl type game where creatures jump from the wall on your face.  I was sold.

    For years, Aliens was my grail game.  Today, I got the game in the mail, and my wife saw the rapture on my face:  A SHRINK copy of Aliens for $120 bucks.

    My problem:  I have an issue breaking shrink, ESPECIALLY with a hard to get game.  Should I get a less pristine copy and sell the shrink copy for probably more than I bought, or should I just be a man and crack it open.

    I'm also highly neurotic, so playing this game around cats should be interesting.

  • After reading the Tom Vasel thread and posting a list of the crayon rail games, I figured that it would be nice to have a blog post dealing with those.  So here goes.

     A crayon rail game is one where you have various loads that have to go to various cities.  You build your track by drawing the rails on the map.  The costs are dependent upon the terrain you are building your track on.  The winner is the person that connects a certain amount of cities and has a certain amount of money (this varies depending on the map).

    The list is not in any particular order.

    1.  Empire Builder - I think this is the first of the series.  The original was set strictly in the United States, a few years ago they added Mexico to the map (this is the version that I own and play).  It is a good introduction to the series as you don't have to spend time figuring out where things are on the map (we are American).  There is a good mixture of loads and cities supplying them.  There is enough variation on terrain that it forces you to make strategic decisions (i.e., should I plow straight through these mountains costing more money but giving a more direct route or should I circumvent them saving money but adding time).  There are a couple loads that pay off really well (sugar from San Francisco and coffee from Vera Cruz).  There aren't too many chokepoints, so there isn't the competition for building first through certain areas.

    2.  EuroRails - This one is also a nice map.  It adds a wrinkle to the game by adding ferries and the alpine rail markers.  These are considerably more expensive, so it adds a little more to the strategy.  The map is wide open enough that there aren't many choke points but there are a couple places where this happens (England for one).

    3.  Iron Dragon - This one throws the rail games into a fantasy setting.  It adds ships and foremen.  Ships allow you to move goods over long distances without building the rail infrastructure to support this.  Foremen allow to have discounted builds over certain territories.  There is also an underground area with rules for having to pay to move over them.  I would like to see these things incorporated into the other games.

    4.  Australian Rails- The one adds dry lake beds and dry riverbeds with different rules.  This one is also a pain in that loads are pretty much to the coasts causing some congestion in the lines.  It also doesn't allow for the intermediate loads that are on the way to where you get the really big payoffs.  It's not a bad game, but I think the others are better.

    5.  China Rails - The Taiwan rules make for an interesting twist, but all of the main cities are pretty much to one side of the map, so you are taking a chance if you go for the large deliveries.

    6.  India Rails -  This map is a pain in the ass.  It has many rivers and moutains, making the threat of floods a major factor in the decision tree.  The only reason I like this is because of the nuclear variant floating around.

    7.  Japan Rails- This map sucks giant donkey balls.  It is too long and narrow.  If you are aren't the first one to build in certain areas, you stand a good chance of getting locked out or spending tons of money to build.

    8.  Martian Rails - This is a fairly difficult map to build on.  It adds the wrinkle of insurance (which seems to be a waste of money).  I like how the connection points work and it gives you the feeling of building on a round rail.

     I've never played Lunar Rails, so I can't comment.

    One of the biggest difficulties I have with these games is when to muck my cards (throw the three deliveries for new deliveries), all too often I will try to make what I have work instead of rolling the dice and trying to get better deliveries.  I know I've lost a few games because of this.

     All in all, I like the crayon rail games, I just wish there were more opportunities for direct interaction.

  • Roughly 20 years ago, Victory Games released a series of Modern (at the time) Naval Games called the Fleet Series.  They were a pretty good operational view of modern combat and had enough meat in them to recreate ship to ship battles (sort of).  Each was set in a different part of the world.  After a while, I managed to get all of them.  Anyways, here is a guide to them.

    A game turn is roughly 8 hours of time and it broken up into phases.  In the morning you have allocate resources to strategic missions.  This includes recon and interception.  This allows you to strategically detect stuff, which means it stays detected until the next morning.  You have to have something detected before you can attack it.

    After that, a turn is broken down into three phases and you can only activate units of one type during each phase (sub, ship or air).  This is where you conduct attacks.  Attacks are pretty simple and have modifiers depending on circumstances and then there is a die roll.  Combat can get pretty bloody.  Scenarios range from the very simple to covering a whole theater.  There are rules for combining maps, but each game is really meant to stand alone.

  • Atheris Games will be backing a new Kickstarter every day for the entire month of October. 

  • I come from a time and a place when all board games,  proper board games,  had the Grand Canyon running through the middle.  Pop-o-Matic games were cult-of-the-new trash, fit only for acid-dropping hippies.

    Sport

    If I could summon up the energy to get excited about sport it would be Rugby League Football. You know,  proper football.  None of this nancy boy Association Football (a game Americans think is fit only for girls to play and I'm inclined to agree with them), nor Rugby Union Football (too many rules to enjoy watching and too much broken play to enjoy, er, playing).  Nope,  it would have to be League. "Would" except for Rupert Murdoch and his big money ways. It now has to fit into his TV schedules, it's now a summer sport, it now has cheer-leaders and mascots, and the teams now have stupid names.  What was wrong with "Wigan" or "Leeds"? Why do we have to have "Wigan Warriors" or "Leeds Rhinos" or, God help us "Wakefield Trinity Wildcats". Why? Because any type of top flight football, no matter the form or code, is big business, mass entertainment.  Gone is any sort of civic pride or common spirit.  Anyone anywhere could claim to a "Bulls" supporter, buying (or not) the merchandise, and to blazes with the good folk of Bradford who spent Sunday after miserable,  sleet-sodden Sunday supporting their beloved team prior to the formation of the Super League.  Is Bradford R.L.F.C. a going concern?  I no longer know nor care.

    I do, however, recommend this YouTube delight.

     

    Music

    Lately I have been listening to late Baroque and early Romantic, leavened with the lighter Modernist offerings and, since I turned 50, the music of my youth: X-ray Spex (I was there),  Siouxsie and the BansheesMagazine,  Joy Division, and of course The Fall. It might be of interest to anyone with the initials “M” and “B” that I first saw The Fallback when Mark E Smith still had teeth.

     

    Televison

    Waste-of-time sack-of-shite.

     

     

    Reading

     

    I’m embarrassed to say that it has been a long time since I read a novel. I tend to go for audio books from the library or listen to Radio 4 on the BBC iPlayer. I used to be an avid reader, but sharing a bed and the change from Myopia to the need for reading glasses since the cataracts has pretty much put an end to reading for pleasure. Prior to the cataracts I was enjoying Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Mark Twain. “Treasure Island” is an all time favourite

     

    From the age of 12 to about 29 I read almost exclusively Science Fiction. Some detective, some horror/Lovecraft, and, except for Terry Pratchett , no fantasy. Fantasy is something I never “got”. Like many 9 year olds I read “The Hobbit”, but “Lord of the Rings”? Unmitigated arse gravy.

     

    S.F. versus Sci-Fi

     

    If S.F. is 90% crud, then Sci-Fi is 100% crud. I loathe and detest the very word (phrase?) “Sci-Fi”. Forty years ago Brian Aldiss wrote “Only would-be trendies use ‘Sci-Fi’”. Nowadays Sci-Fi seems to be Pseudo-Science Fiction written by those who neither know about nor care for science, to be consumed by a mass market which dislikes science fiction anyway. PDK is dead, alas.

     

     

    Work

     

    I’ve worked for over thirty years in I.T. one way or another, and have never felt it necessary to have a Blog. Until now. Nor I have deemed it a must to carry a mobile/cellular telephone. I don’t trust any computer I’ve not assembled myself. Apple products are infuriating with their auras of smugness.

     

     

    Fashion and Dress Sense

     

    I’ve started wearing grey cardigans and brown brogues, often at the same time. With my dad’s gaudy 1970s cuff-links.

     

     

    Health

     

    A bollock’s hair’s width away from Type 2 Diabetes. Hey! It’s genetic, okay?

     

     

    Games

     

    I have always liked playing most board and card games. Having said that I hate with a vengeance any game where you throw dice, or whichever, and do whatever the square or card tells you to do, and have done since I was four years’ old.

     

    I have always been attracted to strongly themed games, with masses of bits, but was always disappointed by the game-play. I have never played a science fiction game that has not left me feeling somehow cheated and let down by its false promise of S.F. goodness. Most pirate games are a let down, and fantasy themed games hold no attractions. I prefer competition over co-operation and direct confrontation (it’s an Aperger thing) .

     

    I so desperately want find that thematic game that scratches my eurogame itch, without the tedious spreadsheet calculating of Caylus or the programmed procession of Princes of Florence. I want drama and fuel for the imagination. Whenever I read Lovecraft  as a child I always wondered why, after letting the sense of dread and foreboding build up in the reader he pissed it all away by describing the previously “indescribable horror that lay beyond…” . I don’t care how well crafted that Cthulhu figure is; it’s never going to be a good as the Cthulhu of a 13 year old’s imagination, besides which this game is clearly “a theme with a pasted-on game”. Want a winning strategy for Axis and Allies? Throw lots of ones. And anyway a war-game is only a war-game if it has hundreds (thousands if it’s Napoleonic) of properly painted figures in 20mm (6mm seems to work well for ACW).

     

    So why come here?  Well thanks to the cataracts of 2007 I missed the Great Casting Out of the Unbelievers from Another Website (although the schism had been apparent for 2 or 3 years prior). Maybe here I can find that elusive Thematic Euro-like Bottom-Kicking Board Game. Or maybe I will learn to happy with my lot.

     

    I have a lot of mediocre games I cannot bring myself to get rid of  (it’s an Aperger thing) .

     

    I also have a few games I enjoy greatly: Martin Wallace economic-industrial-historically themes integrated into the game and turn-of-the-century Reiner Knizias. I’ve even been known to play Doom(as the Invader, natch).

     

  • Sorting out unfinished business


    A few years ago I made a couple of passing references—one, writing about my Penumbra’s Talons; the other, writing about GW’s mighty Space Hulk 3rd edition—to a project which involved a nameless friend and a Space Hulk set. I am pleased, at long last, to be able to tell you that this friend- Matt Forbeck, who I met at Bill King’s wedding back in 2005, will soon be getting his hands on that set of Space Hulk 3 he’d almost, but not quite, forgotten about (who could forget Space Hulk 3?).

  • On Blades in the Dark and the surprising joy of failure.

  • Does anyone even remember days before deck-building games existed? I remember the first time I played Dominion, back in the fall of 2008. Even though it cribbed generously from both CCGs and efficiency Euro games, it did so in a way that felt completely fresh. I remember that sense of "awakening" that only a few games before have given me. And I wasn't the only one to feel that way either. Dominion has become one of the few genuine crossover hits in the hobby, up there with titles like Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride as games that will convince the average Joe to enter the dankest game store.

  • In honor of my gaming buddy Lyman Hurd, who often eschews gaming in favor of going to the opera (join me in heckling this bourgeois top hat-and-monocle mentality, won't you), I would like to present my review of TANNHAUSER. It's not about nazis. OR IS IT???

    This is a copy of an article originally published on the old F:AT blog. Read original comments.

  • Zendikar novel

    I'm a massive Magic: The Gathering fan, so I was pumped when the new Zendikar: In The Teeth Of Akoum novel came out - Zendikar is one of my favourite Magic settings because it's like Avatar only GOOD. Pretty much the world of Zendikar is James Cameron's Avatar designed by somebody who didn't need 3D effects to sell an idea. The Zendikar: In The Teeth Of Akoum novel on the other hand, it's pretty strange for me to read a novel set in the Magic universe, because I was a pre-Planeswalker player and it appears Wizards of the Coast are trying to market Planeswalkers as star characters of novels and in some cases comics.

    The problem with this isn't so much that Planeswalkers are bad as a new type of legendary character - but it's that more importance is given to the characters who are ultra-rare Mythic cards rather than what could have been a more compelling look at how smaller scale soldiers muster forces for skirmishes that decide the fate of a region in a world like Zendikar.

    The upside to this is that the Planeswalkers - although I've never got one in a booster pack or even used one in a game that I would have bought as a single - are kind of interesting characters who function as world hoppers that decide the fate of the Planes they set foot in. Zendikar: In The Teeth Of Akoum also gives you a pretty sinister if vague point of view of how disturbing the Kor really are in terms of them being quite unconventional for traditional White Colour creatures. They're pretty much described in the same light as the tribal people in Peter Jackson's King Kong remake, and I had no idea they spoke in sign language going from the cards in my Kor deck. I'll never look the same way at my Kor Sanctifiers again, I'll tell you that much. Some things related to female Kor customs you can't un-read...

    Licensed novelisations of board and tabletop games are a fascinating thing to behold, but they're not a new thing. Games Workshop's The Black Library has been selling Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 branded novels written by a lot of writers for beer money for years. But why do these books exist? Well it's quite simple really - tabletop gamers are the kind of people usually already indoctrinated into genre fiction - and licensed novels for Warhammer 40,000 and Magic: The Gathering give the game companies a chance to expand the lore a bit more, much like the Star Wars Expanded Universe novels work. They're tie-in novels to some of the more popular tabletop games - you wouldn't get this for a board game like Talisman but you're likely to see one for something like Blood Bowl for example instead of say, Monopoly or a Eurogame like Samurai which are much more rooted in gameplay mechanics instead of lore.

    Yeah, some of them are pretty badly written *cough* Dungeons and Dragons novels *cough* but so far I reckon the more recent Magic: The Gathering novels and a lot of the Warhammer 40,000 novels are ripping reads. That's the thing - in some ways the novels based on CCGs and tabletop miniatures wargames are more successful in quality because the writer actually has to imagine the motivations of a soldier like a Space Marine or a wizard as powerful as a Planeswalker. Dungeons and Dragons novels in my experience when I tried to read the ones in my school library came off as being like Dungeons and Dragons stripped of its core elements of interactivity in making your own stories.

    I also bought The Purifying Fire, another Magic novel based around Chandra - another of the more popular Planeswalker who got her own manga series in Japan based on this novel as an adaptation of the core story. And in that I'm not surprised - the Japanese are well known for reading what are called "light novels" - that is to say novels written for young people that read very quickly and are very genre based - some of them like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya got anime and manga adaptations. So while I'm surprised that Chandra is now a manga character to the Japanese I am not surprised at all she got her own manga based on a novel because the Japanese younger generation are used to reading light genre fiction that to us would seem akin to... Warhammer 40,000 fluff only more anime like really.

  • Ladies and Gentlemen THIS . . . is the Singer 160th anniversary featherweight sewing machine. Fully modern in every way, it offers sixty stitches at your fingertips, a hopping foot built in and a high neck bend to facilitate meandering on wide quilts.

    singer

    It's obvious to even the most casual of observers that, though modern, it's designed to look and feel like the legendary black-painted Singer featherweight machines of 50+ years ago, many of which are STILL doing hard duty today and keep begging for more. My wife's 100th anniversary edition still runs like dream. It's just this simple -- if you're serious about sewing, you own a featherweight. Because as the old ladies in the quilt guilds will tell you, "once you go black, you never go back."

    Now you may be wondering why I would spend the time to present this fine piece of engineering and history and, frankly, art on a gaming web site, but the answer is obvious to the married men in the house. In spite of its 30%-off sale price and the Quilter's Guild discount, I have a matching $315 worth of "store credit" at the game store of my choice, so it's time to grab some suggestions on how to spend it. Fury of Dracula is already on the short list and there's a part of me that wants to put Lost Battles just underneath it. but now is the time to give me your wisdom. Take care to speak only of games that carry legendary status, for they will sit on the shelf next to this icon of sewing history.

    S.

  • An awful lot of Combat Commander

    Designer Chad Jensen's WW2 tactical boardgame Combat Commander has ruled over my gaming table since early 2007. More than 200 plays to date mean that it is second only to the majestic Up Front as my most played tacsim ever (it had been a close run thing with Squad Leader and ASL for a while but it's safe to say that CC is now well in front and showing no signs of stopping); is second only to Ivanhoe as my most played game in those 6 years (and that's all down to 2011's marathon run of games with Liam); and it shows a clean pair of heels to Dominion, which comes in third at 130 plays.

    So many games of CC mean that it has also been a regular feature here at RD/KA! since my first post about the game back in April 2007 (Combat Commander is the game most named in my Labels). In that time I've written:

    • Battle reports. These have done more than just report my games of CC; they have also driven and charted the development of RD/KA! itself as I learned new tricks with the GIMP so that I could better illustrate my articles:
    1. Basic crop jobs to provide crude illustrations: June 2007.
    2. Scenario sheets and simple setup maps: April 2008.
    3. Scenario background studies, scenario sheets and situation maps: April 2009.

    After so many games and so much coverage down the years here at RD/KA!, I've decided that it's about time I celebrated the Combat Commander series with the full 'A rash of enthusiasm...' treatment.

    Breaking new ground in cardplay

    Combat Commander: Europe was a minor personal landmark for me even before I got hold of my copy: it was the first game I ever bought after reading an online preview of the rules- routine practice these days, across which I'd stumbled quite by accident while looking for something else. Little did I know back then what I was getting myself into when I finally took that big box home and ripped off the shrinkwrap. At the centre of my gaming since then, I can honestly say that CC has changed my gaming life for the better in a variety of ways.

    Hexes, counters and cards: another definite viewpoint

    Anyway, that personal geek accolade aside, I'm convinced that CC is quite simply one of the most innovative designs to hit WW2 tactical wargaming since the publication of Up Front nearly 30 years ago; a seamless mash-up of Squad Leader, Up Front and Ambush (a debt which Chad freely acknowledges in the Combat Commander: Mediterranean Playbook) distilled into something far more than the sum of its parts. That 'far more' is an easy-play card-driven WW2 squad-scale tacsim complete with random events and other surprises as served up by the Action decks.

    When I enthused about Up Front and Memoir'44, the crucial feature arising from these games' card-driven command systems was that they establish a definite viewpoint for the player- analagous to a viewpoint character in a story, instead of delivering the more generic overview corresponding to no one in particular which is typical of boardgames. My argument was that this is doubly good: the more clearly defined viewpoint encourages immersion because it puts the player in the role of a specific commander; this viewpoint immersion meanwhile delivers a working model of command uncertainty and fog of war thanks to the card-driven C3i.

    Getting concrete with the abstract

    Part of Courtney Allen's design genius with Up Front was the way he stripped everything back to the cards. All other considerations aside, this neatly conveyed the viewpoint of the platoon leader; the lack of the familiar overview simultaneously expressed the leader's closeness to and distance from his men:

    • Closeness: hence the lack of the familiar overview.
    • Distance: hence, eg. the way that terrain 'arrives' in Up Front; obviously the men in the line can see terrain ahead, but terrain which meets the platoon leader's tactical requirements — the discovery of which is as much as matter of communication as anything else — might well be a different matter.

    So, if Allen's decision to abstract everything into the cards was the source of Up Front's greatness, Chad's decision to return to the familar hex and counter format- ie. to re-concretise what Allen had abstracted, was a key decision which underpins much of what makes Combat Commander so good. This decison was undoubtedly a practical one (Chad himself notes in the Combat Commander Playbook that this decision was what revived a stalled cards-only design which had hitherto been gathering dust), but the practicalities aside, this is again a matter of viewpoint.

    Combat Commander is a squad-scale company-level game. Following the logic of my argument about Up Front, this means that the players' viewpoint in CC is located at the battalion command echelon. Use of maps is commonplace in battalion command, so their use is appropriate in CC, with the result that immersion is retained- deepened even, despite the increase in scale and precisely because of the return of the familiar map and counters, especially the map. The thing is, in terms of units and number of actions/turn, Up Front and CC are quite similar- they both typically feature 10-20 units/side with 1-3 actions/turn. However, in UF, there are only 20 locations in the space 'between' each side (ID chits E & Z and -ve range chits are typically only usable/viable by special rule, so they can be ignored in this simple calcuation of raw statistics) Compare this to CC's 150-hex maps: that concretisation alone increases the gamespace by up to 750%, and that's before you consider the variations in units' positions. The reconcretisation of space, in short, delivers immersion and rich game space, which are patently crucial to CC's success.

    That wibbly-wobbly time-wimey stuff

    Time in tactical CDGs like Up Front, Memoir'44, and CC is abstract; that is, it doesn't flow in turns of some notional equal length (eg. ASL's 2 minutes/turn), it instead moves exactly as fast as the action each turn requires- and the same actions need not necessarily represent the same amount of time according to circumstance, typically the actions' success or failure or the responses they provoke; eg. not getting shot at while moving could suggest slower more cautious movement making maximum use of every scrap of cover to keep out of sight, which would take longer, naturally enough. This action-driven time enables phase-less IGO-UGO turns, a simple structure which doesn't intrude on the action- another plus on the immersion front.

    The net effect of this is that time is no longer a simple clock advancing to a certain end but instead becomes an uncertain resource which has to be managed- an essential feature of the card-driven mechanic as pioneered by Courtney Allen. Time is doubly uncertain in CC because of the time triggers which force early deck reshuffles and time advances. This peculiarly doubly open time in CC again deepens immersion because you're no longer outside the action looking at a clock, you're inside the game's time. This already open-ended time is rendered more immersive still because of tempo.

    Tempo in CC represents seizing time and using it to your advantage instead of just sitting back passively and letting time 'happen' to you. This goes to the heart of the psychology of hand management: when to play cards for orders/actions and when to discard in search of a better hand. You can only seize tempo by playing cards for orders and actions, but a poor choice of orders and/or a bit of bad luck can give you a subpar card-cycle which leaves the tempo dangling for your opponent to seize.  Cards held uselessly represent holding out against misfortune or distracting imaginary opportunities- ie. "I'll (be able to) do that if or when", but 'when' never comes and 'if' comes all the sooner because subpar card-cycling has surrendered tempo to the opponent. Cards properly discarded aren't just those imaginery opportunities ignored to the benefit of tempo; they are also the steely nerve which didn't hold out against future misfortunes- a concrete practical and psychological boon in other words.

    Further matters of the unexpected

    Combat Commander's model of concrete space and dynamic time would be good enough for an interesting game if that was that; what makes the game peerless is the extra measure of the unexpected the cards deliver. Events are most obvious here but actions are a second degree of variation from the norms of the map, counters and dice. Actions in CC are like stunt plays, ringing the changes on the familiar orders. The events are particularly satisfactory, neatly solving the problems of when and how to check for and reference events which make dice-driven events tables cumbersome to say the least. A working random events system is not just fun- and it is, naturally enough, it also enhances the viewpoint. Why? Because the viewpoint battalion commander would typically have other platoons and/or companies in action nearby, and the random events can be seen as those other actions impinging on the players' battlefield. Hosowever they are rationalised, the events' slick integration into the CDG makes them truly random and distinct events as opposed to being just the effects of extreme dice rolls, a fact attested to by the oft-repeated remark that CC games all have their own unique story.

    Viewpoint, viewpoint, viewpoint!

    I have already explained how much I like the way that card-driven tactical games deliver a strong viewpoint for the player, making them very immersive. Combat Commander scores very well for viewpoint: the card systems are slick so that the mechanics slip quickly out of sight; the return of the map and counters, and the events both enforce the players' battalion-level viewpoint quite neatly; and the time mechanic is uniquely immersive. The resulting immersion is in a game space rich with variation in dimensions- eg. the narrative dimension of the action-driven events system, hitherto unseen in WW2 tacsims. And that's why I can't get this peerless game off my gaming table! ;)

    NB. You can read the fully illustrated version here at RD/KA!@blogger.

    Related@RD/KA!

    - A rash of enthusiasm for Up Front

    - A rash of enthusiasm for Memoir'44

  • When Fantasy Flight first began their "Living Card Game" business model, I told a friend that if they ever leveraged their Tolkien license into an LCG, I would be first in line. When they announced that very thing last summer at GenCon, I was all a-flutter. I'm a dedicated fan of Tolkien's classic novel, but all of the in-print LotR board games have left me somewhat cold. The best of the lot is the mammoth War of the Ring, but that was a game that was difficult to get to the table, since it required another reading of the rules before every session. And 2009's Middle Earth Quest was an easy game to admire from afar, but it faded fast down the stretch. Then of course, there's the classic Knizia design, one of the first of many cooperative board games. That was a very good design, but I had trouble actually loosening up and enjoying it. But I do think that the cooperative design is the best one for Tolkien's novel, since the villains are viewed in long shot. Fantasy Flight agreed with me, since The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game is also a cooperative game. 

    Now's as good a time as any to admit that I have never really gotten into a collectible card game. Part of that was my own childhood, largely spent overseas. And then when I was in a financial place where I could support a hobby like that, thereweren't any that interested me. So this is my first foray into the world of customizable games. When I opened the box, I was not disappointed. This game looks really good. The cards are, as far as I can tell, entirely new artwork. And the threat dials and tokens all look sharp too. If first impressions mean anything, this game was already off to a great start. 

    And my first few plays bore that out. Playing largely alone, using two different decks, I worked through the first scenario without really breaking a sweat. The second scenario was also excellent, though it was more difficult. I tried that one a few times, but was never able to conquer it. There's one more scenario, where the players need to collect items to free a character from Dol Guldur, although I think it'll become more beatable with further cards. The scenario design is very impressive here. They all feel varied, and they work hard to forge some really solid narrative. After only a few games, I was completely ready to dive into the game and build decks, and keep chugging away at the more difficult scenarios. I was a real cheerleader for this game. 

     So what happened to make me ready to trade this game away? 

    As is often the case, it's a lot of little things. First of all, I have a feeling that the whole customizable card game scene (be it "living" or "collectible") may be one that I'm just not cut out for. Despite the strong narrative in each scenario, the game felt incredibly mechanical to me. Each turn is broken into a half-dozen phases, all of which take a couple columns of rules. This isn't tough to understand, and apparently it's par for the course with LCGs. But it wore me down after 8-10 games, and I grew weary of forgetting steps and needing to go back to redo something. No doubt this was exacerbated by the fact that I played mostly solo games, where it's easier for me to miss rules and steps. So I'm willing to say that this is on me, and probably not something that will bother an experienced LCGer. 

    And of course, in an age when our gaming dollar is stretched further than ever, it's exhausting to think about another expansion treadmill to run. I already have enough games where I've "fallen behind" on expansions. I need another one like I need a hole in my head. But of course, Fantasy Flight is very transparent about this. The game is marketed as a "Core set," so it's pointless to complain about any future purchases or perceived lack of content in this box. That's more a problem with me, and not the game. I can't criticize it. 

    But I HAVE played a lot of cooperative games, and I do feel like I can criticize the game here. Lord of the Rings makes the cardinal error of cooperative designs: it confuses difficulty for excitement. The second and third scenarios are both difficult, the kind of thing where you can try dozens of times before the game deigns you are worthy to taste the now-withered fruits of victory. Monsters keep pouring out of the encounter deck, and they keep piling up in your stage area. You see the game digging you in a deeper and deeper hole. This is common in a lot of co-ops, and I have no problem with it. But the game offers nothing in the way of a Hail Mary. There are very few moves you can make that run the risk of wild success or spectacular failure. The players have too many other things to juggle to really commit to something epic, and often the game gets out of hand early. When that happens, you can almost call the whole thing. It's challenging, but it's almost never thrilling. And any game with a narrative this strong deserves to have some amazing moments that will live in legend. 

    The difficulty also shows that perhaps the cooperative model is at odds with the LCG model. If I play an LCG against my friend, and we flail around wildly, at least one of us has the satisfaction of winning. Here, we mostly just feel like we played poorly. That's not a great incentive to continue buying cards. A game has to do more than offer "do better next time" as an incentive to continue playing. It needs to provide thrills in spite of wild failure. I've heard this game compared to last year's terrific Death Angel. If only Lord of the Rings had the wild tension of that game. 

    Am I being unfair? Maybe a little. It's not the game's fault if I can't get into the LCG model. And it's my own problem that I was a little wearied by the structure of the game. Experienced LCG fans won't have any problem with that. But I do have a problem with its relentless refusal to offer satisfaction beyond the experience of winning. A good cooperative game may not let you win once in 10 games, but it will make sure that you have fun each time you fail. Lord of the Rings doesn't do that. It just raps your knuckles and tells you to try harder.

  • So there's a game design I've been working on (and off) for the past year or so, called Jesters, where the basic idea is that each player is an indie jester working on the medieval entertainment scene. After a couple of early versions that didn't really work in playtests, the third main version worked reasonably well and drew some prototype requests from some small publishers who had read the rules. But the thing is, once I playtested that version, which was kind of a combination of worker placement, efficiency and area majority, I was thinking, yeah, there's some strategy involved here and the framework of the game system works at least (which I couldn't say about the previous versions), but it's *really dry* and it's just not really the kind of game I wanted to create or would want to play... (Imagine that, worker placement + efficiency + area majority = dry?!)

    So I kind of shelved the idea for a while and mused on some different ways to inject more life into the game. In recent months I started to get an interest in checking out some of the adventure games out there, which I hadn't really played before... Talisman, Prophecy, Runebound, Return of the Heroes, etc. I still haven't played any of those games (I travel a lot, and even when I'm home, those probably aren't the kinds of games my local game group would be into), but I've been reading up on them a lot, and suddenly it hit me that maybe Jesters could work as an adventure game. The first version of the game actually had individual jester characters with different attribute levels like Talent, Charisma, Energy (akin to RPG/adventure stats like Strength, Wisdom, etc.), and so I realized that maybe I was much closer to what I really wanted with that first initial idea; I just didn't go far enough with it to depict the kind of thing the theme described, and maybe putting it into an adventure game framework could help it come alive in the way the last version did not.

     

    For example, instead of traveling to perform "quests" or to find monsters to defeat, the players travel to find gigs and have to, in essence, defeat the audience (as in the showbiz term: "You really slayed 'em!"). Different gigs/audiences would have different strengths or preferences, so you'd have to gather different types of "material" and certain special abilities or items (ad libbing, pyrotechnics, props, etc.) that would help. The material would be represented by cards that have different types and strengths; songs, magic tricks, jokes, juggling, acrobatics, etc., some of which in each type are considered better than others, but which may change depending on the venue (the way a raunchy country song would bomb at an opera house but do great at a roadside bar). Instead of finding "allies" to join your party, you recruit people as part of your "entourage"... publicist, manager, groupies, roadies, tech guy, etc. Instead of finding or stealing treasure or magic items, you gain fans and money and fame and "satisfaction" (a "VP" substitute, which is one of the details I liked from the recent version of the game).

    Instead of the "big bad" to fight as the ending, there would be one big Woodstock-esque show that everyone performs for... how well you've developed your material and how many fans you have in the audience will determine how well that goes and who ultimately wins.

    So you get the idea... I think it fits really well and would give a much better sense of depicting and enacting what the subject is, as opposed to some boring worker placement Euro-ish kind of thing... I guess what I'm thinking about at this point is how to make it so I'm not just lifting the adventure style so directly. In other words, I don't want this to be just Runebound with a showbiz theme. Then it almost seems like a parody. Yeah, this is meant to be light in feel and there will probably be parody elements involved, but I'd still like the game to be considered unique for what it is, even though it will likely borrow some adventure game mechanics. So in a way, I do want to match some of the expected adventure game things, because it seems that they'll work well for this, but I also want to add some unique elements that will fit the theme even more specifically. I'll also want to add more interaction and keep the game within 2 hours... knowing that lack of interaction and game length are two of the main criticisms of the adventure game genre. In terms of interaction, I can imagine some aspect of players meeting up and working together, like when different bands connect to do a combined show at a club. Inasmuch as they do that in the game, they can gain benefits from that, but there might also be the danger that if you are on a bill with another jester, and you follow them, you'd better be better than them or they'll end up "winning" the event and maybe grabbing some of your fans and fame. So there could be some combination of cooperation/competition in that sense... you might want to make certain alliences or share certain members of your entourage to help others at certain times. I also might like to have a fully cooperative version, where the final event is a charity thing, and everyone has to collectively get enough fans to that event in order to raise enough money for the cause.

    With that in mind, I have some questions and would appreciate some F:ATtie feedback... First of all, I'm wondering if there are other games that have used the adventure game format but which have a totally different theme? I so, I'd like to check them out to see what's been done in that sense. I mean, can adventure games only have the orcs and wizards and dwarfs and monsters kind of theme?? If so, that seems kind of lame and repetitive. I suppose that's the theme that the board game buying market likes for that type of game, but I can picture a lot of different themes working well in that basic framework, so maybe it's just a case of people buying what the market is giving them, where the market could be more creative.

    Also, I'm realizing that a lot of different showbiz genres could work for this idea, so maybe I shouldn't lock myself into the jesters thing... perhaps something else could work better? For example, punk bands or stand-up comedians or hair bands or philosophers or blues singers or folk singers or magicians, etc. Any thoughts about that? Anything that involves a showbiz act that tours around a region could work well in this context. I'm not sure about the idea of a "band" thing, though... In one sense, I really like the idea of having to recruit and assemble a full band (drummer, singer, guitarist, bassist, etc.) as if that is your band of warriors, and having to deal with some of the problems that can arise from that (drummer quits, singer is a flake, bassist doesn't quite fit in, guitarist has a drug problem, etc.), but I can also see that adding more complexity and length than I'm comfortable dealing with for now.

    Anyway, I'd really appreciate any comments or suggestions as I go forward to work on this again.

  • So. I got 3 of the multiple copies of pre-ordered Space Hulk games in.  I had 3 pre-orders.  I was annoyed since I wanted a copy myself but... whatever.

    Now, one of my customers has cancelled his pre-order leaving me with a copy free.

    I'm not debating what to do with the copy.  My options seem to be:

    a) Put the game up and let whoever buys it, buy it at our normal pricing

    b) Put the game up, but jack up the pricing significantly since it's out-of-print already

    c) Keep the game for myself.

    d) Put the copy up as part of a prize for a contest.  What contest still seems to be the question.

    Option (a) doesn't seem to do much (well, beyond making 1 customer happy).  So it seems the least interesting. 

    Of the options available, I feel that option (b), while producing the most in profit, is probably not that great for the business.  After all, we're a discount board game store and jacking up prices just 'cause something is out-of-print seems rather counter-intuitive for what we want to do.  It's also likely to potentially alienate customers.  

    Option (d) seems to work somewhat,  but until I know what contest I take, I'm not sure what the result could be.

     Of course, option (c) is really what I want to do.  And is realistically, the worst option for the business but the best for me.