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18 January, 2017

A peek at what’s coming down the road.

(Click on the image to go to open it in its own window.)

14 January, 2017

So, originally for this blog entry I had this grand plan that having discussed two eastern front games (Stalingrad and War in the East) I was going to drill down into how those games handled production, and then use that as an introduction to my thoughts about production in Stavka, an eastern front game of my own that I’ve been working on. However, once I finished discussing Stalingrad and War in the East, I found that the blog entry was quite long enough already, and that it made better sense to just go ahead and post it, and talk above Stavka another day. And so, that’s what I’m going to do.

Anyway, I’m going to start with Stalingrad, the older and simpler of the two games I’ll cover today. (Incidentally, the Stalingrad rules refer to production as "replacements", but we’ll use a more generic term in this discussion.) Below is a process model, focused on representing inputs and outputs.

As you can see, it is super simple. Production cites make production points which are used to buy units. The production rates (points per turn per production city) are low for the Germans at start and stay low. For the Soviets, on the other hand, rates start low but go up over time. The result is that the production system is designed so that the Germans generally grow weaker over time, as their production can’t keep up with their losses. The Soviets, on the other hand, tend to grow weaker early in the game, but as their production rates rise, so does their strength. The only way the Germans can win is to capture production cities to cut off the Soviet ability to replace losses. The importance in the game of German capture of production cities is reinforced by the fact that production cites are the actual objectives in the game. If the Germans capture them all, they simply win. Game over. The system, which unifies military and game play goals, is neat, clean, and easily grasped. The production rules are covered in about 650 words, or about 15% of the Stalingrad rulebook.

Considered as a simulation, the system is more synecdochical (the part representing the whole) than directly representational. Essentially the three cities if captured represent such large territorial losses that the Soviet Union would genuinely have been in dire straits, even if not exactly in the way represented in the game. The biggest disconnect between history and the Soviet production system, I would say, is the inability of the Soviet army to ever exceed its pre-war strength levels, since the only units that the system allows be produced are those the Soviets had at the start of the game. But given the game’s general indifference to the latter half of the war, when the Soviets switched to the offensive, this is at least consistent with the way the game treats the history of the war generally.

Now, let’s move on to War in the East, and take a look at how it handles production. (Note that this discussion is focused on the system used by the Soviets for the campaign game. The Soviets don’t use it in the single-year scenarios, and the Germans have a completely different, more lightweight system of their own.)

Obviously the system looks (and is) significantly more complex, so let’s walk through it. The Soviets have personel and arms centers, which produce personel and arms points. Those points are used to buy units. The units are then placed on training centers, and after some period of time the units are trained and ready for use. An additional wrinkle is that units can be re-cycled through the production system to produce other units: units can be both a production input and output. And that’s it. If we compare the War in the East system to Stalingrad, the most important functional difference is time. In Stalingrad, unit production is instantaneous, and in War in the East it takes time. The basic arithmetic of the War in the East system (personel points plus arms points plus time buys units) is somewhat more complex than Stalingrad’s (production points buy units). Where things can be quite surprising though, is if we look at the cost in rules text for the two systems. The rules for production in Stalingrad take up 650 words, or about 15% of the rules length. The rules for production in War in the East take up about 8,000 words (!), almost 30% of the game’s total rules length, over ten times the length of production rules fo Stalingrad, and almost twice the length of the entire Stalingrad rules book. Even allowing for the fact the the rules writing style of War in the East is quite a bit more verbose than that of Stalingrad, that’s a lot.

So what happened? Why is the rules word count for the production system of War in the East so high? In general, the answer is that the production system in War in the East has a very process-heavy focus. Arms and training centers are movable pieces on the board, and each has its own special rules. There are three or four different ways (depending on how you count) of using units as production inputs. Unit training is literally localized on individual training centers, and building units involved placing them on the tracks shown below, each of which corresponded to a training center:

After being placed on a training center track, a unit being trained is literally pushed forward by the player, one space a turn (and yes, it did get old real fast to do that), until it is ready, when it can be moved to the front. Because units frequently required other units as inputs, units often have to be moved to training centers, as well as from training centers. Ironically enough, The entire localized training center system is frequently rendered irrelevant, as training centers can be moved to the abstract space of “Siberia”, where centers no longer have a specific location. This left the rules to regulate both non-localized arms and training centers (those in Siberia), as well localized arms and training centers (those on the map).

Now, the actual management of a war economy was a vastly complicated thing, but the things that made it complicated weren’t the things that War in the East simulates. In the actual war economy, factories didn’t produce generic “arms points”, they produced specific types of weapons, ammunition, parts and supplies, and they in turn depended on the production of various kinds of raw materials. Further, the factories themselves need machines for production, and those machines had to come from somewhere. People drafted into the army weren’t able to keeping doing what they had been doing: if you draft your agricultural labor force into the army, who’s going to be producing your country’s food? So finding people to serve in the army while keeping your economy going was a difficult problem. War in the East doesn’t simulate any of those things. It abstracts them. Now, to be clear, I think abstracting them was an excellent decision. Big, long game; lots of other things for it to do. No need to open that can of worms. But if you aren’t going to simulate them, what do you need a complex production system for?

I can’t know for sure why the War in the East design team went with a system that abstracts so much, yet remains so complex. (Incidentally, the 2nd edition of War in the East, designed to integrate with War in the West to make War in Europe vastly simplified production from the first edition.) I can, however, make some reasonable guesses. First, I’m pretty certain that when the design team started down this path, they didn’t realize how complicated it would ultimately prove to be. I think they thought the whole production system would be a fun and interesting game-within-a-game, a mixture of representation and abstraction. The design just got away from them. (Complexity creep is a problem in all systems development. An unexpected problem arises, and the system is modified to fix it. Over and over again. It might be that none of the individual modifications is large, but they add up over time, and eventually the system becomes much more unwieldy than ever envisioned at start. And for the record, I’d really like to say that if that’s what happened to the SPI design team on this one, that I have a lot of sympathy for them. I’ve been there.)

And with that, I’m going to close off this blog entry. A Stavka discussion is coming. I promise.

12 January, 2017

I would like to begin today by telling you a story.

Years ago, when I was just out of high school, a store opened near my house that sold books and wargames. I applied for and got hired there as a clerk. (For me, at that age, it was the perfect job; sure beat the dry cleaners where I had worked before.) Anyway, the store hadn’t been open long before it became the home to a group of Napoleonic miniatures players. (Not all were miniatures players before joining the group, but all were wargamers of one sort or another.) At the endorsement of their host, my employer, friend, and owner of the store, they began to use an informal adaptation of the rules to Wellington’s Victory, Frank Davis’s game on the battle of Waterloo, for their games.

I wasn’t a part of the group at first. Miniatures weren’t really my thing: you either had to have tons of money or a love of painting tiny figures, and I had neither. Still, I watched some and began to get interested. I could see that they were having problems because their adaptation wasn’t really written down anywhere and they had to work out issues on the fly. Anyway, I offered to see what I could do to help. And so, with my copy of Davis’s rules to Wellington’s Victory in hand, I wrote an adaptation for Napoleonic Miniatures, dropping the things that were Waterloo-specific, and introducing generic rules where they were needed. And from that point on, I became both a member of the group, and (at first) the keeper of their rules, and later their in-house designer. (Because they later wanted a series of strategic rules for campaign games, being their in-house designer was actually a fair amount of work, but it was also great fun.)

Anyway, because of this group, the rules to Wellington’s Victory were the core of my wargaming life for about five years. I got to know them about as well as it is possible to know a set of rules, what they did well, and what they did less well. I loved them. I loved how creative they were. I loved how much they rewarded study and thought. I loved how clean they were. I loved their capacity for drama and excitement. I had previously greatly admired Davis’s Frederick the Great but my experience with his Wellington’s Victory system took my admiration of him to a whole new level. He was my hero and everything I aspired to be as a game designer.

It was during this period that I got to meet him. (It was at my request. We were both at the Origins gaming convention in Baltimore.) I was very nervous and very excited. I worried that he would take offense at some of the changes I had made in adapting his design for miniatures. I hoped that he would help me with advice on how to design wargames professionally.

The meeting did not go at all as I expected. He was kind, but seemed quite sad. I was sure that things were not going well for him in his life, though I had no idea in what way. (I still don’t. I could speculate, but don’t see the point.) Anyway, at one point when I was gushing in my enthusiasm, he just said, “Where were you several years ago?” It almost broke my heart. Of course I had been in high school then, but I knew he wasn’t asking the question literally. It meant that at a critical time in his life, he could have used my enthusiasm, but now that time had passed.

I never met Frank Davis again. I heard occasional snippets of news about him, and it seemed it was always sad news. Eventually, I stopped hearing anything at all. Because of this, I concluded that at some point he had died, and have never heard anything to contradict that impression.

But Frank Davis is still my hero. I titled Napoleon’s Triumph as an homage to Wellington’s Victory. They say that you die twice: once bodily, and a second death the last time your name is mentioned. I don’t know for certain if Frank Davis’s first death has happened, but I do know for certain that his second death can never happen as long as I am still alive.

A week or so ago, I found out that Decision Games had published what they call a second edition to Wellington’s Victory. (They actually published it over a year ago, but I knew nothing of it then.) This news really upset me and still does. An actual second edition of Wellington’s Victory, as far as I know, is no longer possible. Now, I am not upset at all that a new game on the same subject in the same scale by a different designer was published. In fact, as I think of design in our community as a long-running conversation, and so each new design is welcome and adds to it. What hurts me here is that calling this new game a second edition of Wellington’s Victory it doesn’t so much add to the conversation as attempt to erase and overwrite one of its most distinctive voices. Anyone who read the design notes for Wellington’s Victory knows what a personal project this was, how much of himself Davis put into it, and how long and hard he worked on it. He should not now be treated this way. It shouldn’t happen. It is morally wrong. I don’t think there is anything I can do at this point beyond voicing my protest, and remind you of the person I will always think of as the greatest designer whose work I was ever privileged to play, but I can do that, and I am doing that.

10 January, 2017

I thought I would follow up my previous post about the progress of playtesting with new edition of Bonaparte at Marengo with a more general discussion of playtesting in terms of process.

Generally, I move a design from development to playtest once it has a playable map, order of battle, and rules, and seems to function more or less as designed when I play it solitaire. At that point, I look for a playtest team. It is much my preference to get a fairly small group of people (5 or 6 is a good number) who have the time and interest to play basically the same game (with adjustments between games) over and over again. People who playtest for me will learn the game so well they could play in their sleep, and that is what I want. It is their expertise that I count on to ensure that the game that ultimately ships is balanced and the way it plays is well-understood. We live in the age of the Internet. If players find that a game is broken in some way, everyone in the community will know it. This is a good thing for players, but it is challenging for designers. Still, I firmly believe it to be a very good thing.

Anyway, if we look at playtesting from a process perspective, the core of the process is the playtest cycle, as illustrated in the diagram below:

One of the important things to understand about playtesting is that it isn’t necessarily the number of hours that matters: it’s usually more about the number of cycles. If you just play the early turns of of a game, you haven’t learned how it will behave in the later turns, as these cannot be necessarily predicted from the first. (For example, a version of Bonaparte at Marengo can work just fine in the opening and middle game, and fall apart completely in the endgame. And you wouldn’t know about the problems unless you play all the way through to the endgame.) Further, after you make a change, that resets the playtest clock to an extent and you really need to play it through again (at least once) to get even a basic understanding of the consequences of the change. In general, the faster you can get through a playtest game, the more cycles you can run, the more problems you can find and fix, and the more confident you can be in the fixes.

Because of the need to run full cycles, one of the most intractable problems in the design of long-playing games is how much time it takes to complete a cycle. Bonaparte at Marengo takes a couple hours face-to-face, and a few days over Cyberboard (roughly: Cyberboard playtime can be wildly variable due to wide differences in player availability from game to game.) Guns of Gettysburg was somewhat longer than Napoleon’s Triumph, for example, and so the playtest cycle time was longer as well, and for that reason alone it took longer to playtest. (Additionally, Guns of Gettysburg had a complex testing problem because of its variable reinforcements and moving objectives. Testing game balance took forever, a process I described at the time as the playtester death march.)

And this leads into a discussion about a game that I did not design, but which is relevant to a discussion about playtesting and time. (I said I was going to occasionally talk about games other than my own.) This game was SPI’s War in the East (1974). In a previous blog entry, I discussed Stalingrad, published in 1963, and the intense interest people had in making a better Stalingrad. This desire also was very much present in SPI, which took the form of the Stalingrad II project. (For SPI, better meant first and foremost bigger: they wanted an immense division-scale eastern front game.) Stalingrad II never happened, but with GDW’s publication of the conceptually similar Drang Noch Osten, SPI was challenged/provoked/inspired to go ahead with their version, dropping the title Stalingrad II in favor of War in the East.

If we were to compare War in the East to Stalingrad, an entirely appropriate comparison for a game whose origins lay in making a better Stalingrad, the first thing that would strike us is its size. It had four map sections, each as big as the Stalingrad map, and used about 5 times as many counters to represent the armies. (The total number of counters was enormously greater: 2000 vs. about 100, but only a fraction of the War in the East counters were units that would be on the map together at the same time.) But by far the most transformative aspect of the design was playing time.

In terms of playing time, Stalingrad was a longish game, but nothing more than that. Players whose expectations of board game length were set by Monopoly, for example, would have seen nothing extraordinary in the length of a game of Stalingrad. War in the East was so different in terms of playing time that it didn’t even really belong in the same genre as other boardgames. It wasn’t a game that you got out of its box, played for a few hours, then put back. War in the East was an ongoing, long term activity that demanded its own, large, dedicated space that it could share with nothing else: it was more like a model railroad set than a game. You could start a game of War in the East, and you could play it, but you could never really finish it: it had in the neighborhood of 200 turns.

And here we return to the subject of playtesting. I am certain that War in the East received more hours of playtesting than, say, the new edition of Bonaparte at Marengo, but it had many fewer cycles. (I infer from the design notes that in fact it never had even one full cycle.) So, if you can’t run playtest cycles, how do you test your game?

The short answer is that you can’t.

The long answer is you can try and test parts of the game independently from each other, and hope that if the parts seem to work ok in isolation, that when they are put together they will fit reasonably well. In practice, however, I think SPI had lots of evidence that their parts weren’t going to fit together, but knowing you have a problem and knowing how to fix and test it are very different things. Even their partial game tests (like yearly scenarios) had very long playing times in and of themselves. They wrote a computer program to try to test their production system, and as someone who spent many years writing computer programs, I can say that one of their worst features is that they are quite hard to dynamically change. If your program finds a problem in your production system, and you devise a new system in response (not merely minor changes to the existing system), you will likely have to write a new program to test that. As a way to test a subsystem for a boardgame? Not cheap. Not fast.

If we step back from theory and look at the actual game, we can see that design failures pervade War in the East. It is hard to think of a significant part of the game that doesn’t have serious problems, both in simulation terms and game terms. (Stalingrad may not have worked as a simulation, but it did work as a game.) I believe it isn’t so much that the design ideas in War in the East were bad starting points for a game, it was that without any real ability to run playtest cycles, there wasn’t any real way for SPI’s design team to find and fix the problems. It was a hugely ambitious project and badly needed playtest cycles to really get it working properly, but the game’s length made it impossible to run them. That it wouldn’t work very well was almost a certainty, and it cannot surprise that it didn’t. The SPI design team weren’t incompetent (far from it), just overwhelmed by how hard it was to do what they were trying to do. It wasn’t as if anybody then had a lot of experience then trying to create games this big, complex, and above all, long. There is no doubt that the game is a failure, but given the degree of difficulty, I think it was a respectable one.

Oh, and one more thing. Whatever its failings as a game, War in the East looked damned impressive on the table. And looks matter.

9 January, 2017

We’ve been continuing playtesting of the new edition of Bonaparte at Marengo. What makes the last week unusual is that I personally played a playtest game, which is very much not my usual practice. The “playtesting” I do tends to be fairly brief solitaire exercises of a few turns to make sure a change looks promising before sending it to the playtest team. Nothing like the full-length two-player games that makes up playtesting proper. This time, however, I played out a full Cyberboard game against one of the playtesters. So, why do I usually not playtest, and why did I decide to this time?

The reason I don’t usually playtest is that it takes time and mental energy that I think is best reserved for design work. There are design problems to be solved, rules to be written and edited, and map work to be done. Not just on the game currently in playtest, but in designing the next game to follow the one currently in playtest. I can’t do this work simultaneously with personally playing playtest games. Every hour I spend playtesting is an hour I don’t spend doing design and development work.

So, why did I do it this time? Well, it looked like the V20 version of the game (we generally refer to versions of the game by the rules version numbers, so this was version 20 of the rules) had a serious problem. V20’s first playtest looked really good to me (and it did solve a real problem with the game), but the second game went poorly and the playtesters were expressing reservations about the morale levels being too high (and a couple other things). I had some ideas on how to play the game that were different than what the players were then doing, and I wanted to test them out, to see if their concerns were valid for that play style as well as the ones they were using. And so, I played a game. The test taught me quite a bit about problems with the changes I had introduced in V20, but where it really got interesting was the endgame, which I hadn’t even intended to test; I expected to quit the game about midday.

What my playtest game taught me was that the game play was both super interesting and involving (very good) but the opening game balance was badly broken (much too tough for the Austrians) and the endgame balance and historical accuracy were also pretty broken (very bad). These were things I wasn’t even trying to test. I will say that doing the occasional playtest myself is something I should do periodically, in spite of the time cost. Looking at the game from the perspective of a player rather than an observer is a different enough experience that some problems (but not all) are just much more clearly seen from that perspective.

Since then, I’ve done a couple of new rules drops (V21 and V22), aimed at opening and endgame issues. V21 went through one playtest, reminded me forcefully of another endgame problem (a French late game retreat) that’s been there forever but which I had gotten so used to I had stopped really thinking of it as a problem. I decided that that was one tactic that really needed to go: it was ruining the endgame every time it happened. We’ll see how it works. These are both pretty substantial changes, and will need time to work through so that we understand the ramifications better. You just can’t rush playtesting. It takes as long as it takes, and if you hurry it, you run a real risk of shipping a bad or even broken game.

3 January, 2017

Well, the new edition of Bonaparte at Marengo continues to get a good playtest workout. We’ve had about 20 playtest games, mostly Cyberboard, but also some face-to-face. We’ve had 20 different versions of the rules (many of which contain only textual clarifications, and not actual content changes) and 11 different versions of the map (changes have tended to mainly concern of the morale schedule and objectives). In all of this, we have quite a few small changes, but nothing at all dramatic. We spent a lot of time working on the French activation/organization rules, and got to the point where we’re all pretty happy with the result. We’re currently working on getting some subtle but important combat changes tested, and also the latest version of the objectives/marginal victory conditions. It’s all very important work to making the final game one that customers will enjoy, but it does not make terribly exciting reading: you really need the kind of familiarity that comes from playing the game to “get” the changes. I am happy to say that the game has not gotten more complex; in fact, I think it is slightly simpler.

Regarding this blog, for the last month or so, frequent entries concerning actual game development have seemed quite unnecessary, given the kind of changes being made and the pace of those changes. And so, I’ve had fewer entries, and they’ve been more about theory and process than details about the actual game.

However, there is no need for a design blog to be solely focused on my own games, and so I thought I’d do some commentary and analysis on some other games: not from a player’s perspective, but from a designer’s. I have no particular schedule in mind, nor any set list of games. (Although I definitely have some candidates in mind.)

Right now, I would like to discuss Avalon Hill’s Stalingrad (1963). Although it is obviously not a modern game, and however often it may have been played in its day, it certainly is not a game that gets much table time from anybody today. Still, I think there is interest in discussing it, and I hope that by the end, readers will feel that it was worth their time.

Anyway, Stalingrad was of the first generation of commercial wargames, and had a great deal in common with other games of its generation. You can see the counters and map below (not to the same scale):

By modern standards, the art and print quality were exceedingly basic. The order of battle and map were considered marginal in terms of accuracy even by the standards of 1963. (Famously, Sevastapol was put on the wrong side of the Crimea.) Likewise, the core game system was not really up to the job of simulating its immense subject, and simply cannot play out in anything resembling history. Balance, in the first edition, was marginal: it was possible, but very far from easy, to win as the Germans.

Given all of the above, you might think the game was rather a failure. It was not. It was actually a great success. It was widely played and widely discussed. Game play (especially the Soviet set-up) was examined in almost microscopic detail, and there was an immense cottage industry in alternate counter sets and rules. (I don’t see such alternate rules and counters as necessarily indicating game design failure, any more than the existence of a thriving aftermarket for custom parts for a car necessarily means that the car design was a failure.)

In attempting to understand why Stalingrad succeeded, I would suggest that a good place to begin is if rather than think of it as a failed simulation, we think of it as a sort of an early, eastern front Eurogame, with more than usual attention to its theme, and go from there.

Part of the game’s success was of course simply that its subject was the largest military campaign ever fought, and there was real anticipation for it as a result. But to chalk it up to solely that, I think, misses its real virtues as a game. The first thing I would call your attention to is the short, muscular rule book. It was just about 4,300 words. If we were to graph its word count by subject, we would see the following:

About 45% of the text (about 1900 words) is devoted to the core game mechanics (sequence of play, movement, and combat). Another 30% of the text (about 1300 words) are devoted to the key strategic sub-systems (production, supply, and rail movement). Everything else divides up the remaining 25% of the text. I would say that the rules reflect an admirable focus on what the game is really about. It is a very direct, unfussy game. There aren’t many pieces to move to complete a turn. Combat resolution is quick and relatively painless (long division aside). Production (replacements and reinforcements) is likewise quick and painless: you get production points and choose units to spend them on. There is only one thing in the rules that really strikes me as a weakness: and that is the handling of rivers. Because the game put rivers in hexes rather than between hexes, the extremely simple idea that attacking across a river doubles the strength of a defender turns into a long, complex, confusing labyrinth of rules text. Somebody should have slapped the designers and forced them to put the rivers between the hexes: the world would have been a better place for it.

If we turn to the game play experience, the heart of Stalingrad game play is tactical, and the heart of tactical game play is mathematics. The game uses a probabilistic, odds-based system, so 14 points attacking 7 is quite a different thing in terms of statistical outcomes than 13 points attacking 7. With a wide range of unit strengths to choose from, optimally mixing and matching units and working out the various probabilities to get the best possible likely outcomes for attacks (including “soak-off” attacks which the rules force through mandatory attacks on adjacent units) is a genuinely interesting challenge. The spatial element of game play is important but plays a clearly supporting role to the mathematical engine. Spatial play is dominated by the terrain on the map that can double the strength of the defender, and the linear nature of rivers in particular substantially enriches the range of possibilities for attacker and defender both. Overall, tactical planning of where to put defending units and how to attack them is involving and rewarding for both players. The design effort put into the combat rules is well justified by the player interest that results.

Undoubtably the greatest weakness of the game play experience is strategic. At the strategic level, there is just not that much going on, as play is relentlessly tactical. Yes, there are some strategic considerations, particularly in the form of the three Soviet production cities (Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad), which double as objectives, to focus the energy of attacker and defender alike, but game play overall is dominated by tactical considerations as the Germans grind east, trying to keep the loss ratios as favorable as possible. It is also true that in the game the roles "attacker" and "defender" almost invariably map onto "German" and "Soviet". Winter does nothing that would tend to re-create the historical Soviet winter offensives, and with the game ending in mid-1943, the year-round Soviet offensives of the last two years of the war aren’t going to happen either. (What to do about the last two years of the war in an eastern front game is just a tough design problem; if Stalingrad took a pass on them, I don’t think that later eastern front games did much to persuade anyone that taking a pass was not a reasonable idea.) Anyway, the sharply defined attacker vs. defender roles for the opposing sides don’t make the game bad (generally players alternated between the two sides in different games anyway) but there is definitely a sense that an opportunity for drama, at least regarding the Soviet winter offensives, was lost.

So what can a modern designer learn from Stalingrad? Quite a few things, I think. I mentioned that the game was unfussy and direct. The core of the game is the mathematics of its combat system, and it presents that in a very clean way. Constructing and attacking a defensive line is a thoroughly involving process. There is no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all way to play Stalingrad. You always need to think through the individual implications of every single hex as a unique problem. Stalingrad also has a nice gradation of results for bad-to-good play, which makes it fairly forgiving for players of different skill levels: the weaker player can (and sometimes does) beat the stronger player, making the experience enjoyable for both, without being so random as to make thought and skill seem futile and pointless. Overall, the game is true to itself and what it is about. Game sub-systems that are intended to support game play do just that: they support it with a minimum of complexity and player effort. If Stalingrad is not played much any more it is not because anybody ever discovered that it was a bad game, it is because other games have come along since have its strengths but not its weaknesses. When you consider how many years and how many failed attempts were made before it happened, that’s a pretty impressive legacy that should not be lightly dismissed.

31 December, 2016

As sometimes happens to me, I started a blog entry with one idea in mind, then after developing it for a while, decided instead to take a different direction with it.

So, what I want to talk about is a sort of conceptual model for wargames. (Non-computer wargames, at least.)

To begin, let’s just consider a wargame just in terms of the physical game, independent of external relations.

Considered just as this, if we had to say something, we might say that a wargame is a game with a board on which pieces engage in conflict. (There are, of course, a small number of wargames, such as Up Front, that lie outside this level of generalization, but the existence of exceptions does not obviate the usefulness of generalizations.)

Still, at this level, we could be describing any number of abstract games (such as Chess) that are not wargames. And so, to this conceptual model, I’d like to add a relation that brings wargames, as a distinct category of games, into sharper focus: the subject.

The subject, I think, is an essential quality of wargames: the subject can be ahistorical (it could be from fantasy or science fiction, for example) but it does have to exist. While I am generally loathe to say what is and is not a wargame, I feel comfortable saying that a wargame without a subject is just not a wargame. Beyond simply having a subject, a distinctive quality of of wargames is the closeness of the relationship between game and subject. Eurogames, for example, have themes as a sort of subject (the difference in terminology here corresponds to a fundamental difference, I think) but Eurogame themes are worn pretty lightly. Nobody, for example, would criticize Puerto Rico for not being a very accurate depiction of the island’s economic development. It isn’t supposed to be, and it doesn’t pretend to be. Yet any wargame, by its nature, not only is open to, but invites such criticism regarding how well the game models the subject.

The closeness of the relation between wargame and subject has long dominated discussion of wargame design, to the extent that the basic “game” elements of the physical game (hex grid, cardboard counters, movement allowances, attack strengths, combat results tables, etc.) are often simply assumed as existing prior to the actual “design” work, which is almost entirely concerned with how to map the chosen subject onto that basic physical game framework. One reason for this design absorption is that the subject-to-game relation is the signature characteristic of wargames: one “does” wargame design by attending to it. Another, I think, is simply the degree of difficulty: the complexities of reality can never be mapped fully onto a game, but even if a perfect mapping is not possible, it always seems that a better mapping is, so the subject-to-game relation is an infinite sink for design time and attention.

However, if we follow this tradition of focusing on the subject-to-game relation, we might miss, I think, an even more vital relation: that of the player to game.

The player is the game’s motor, without which it is not a game at all, and is instead simply an inert object, a game only in potency (to use Aristotelian analysis) rather than act. Only through the agency of the player does a game become a game; and this is just as true of wargames as any other sort of game. But the importance of the player-to-game relation runs still deeper. Again, to use Aristotelian analysis, being played is not simply the efficient cause, the means by which the game becomes fully real, being played is also the final cause, the reason that the game was created in the first place.

The player-to-game relation, however, is not all about the game: in fact, what really matters is that it is about the player. The game exists to benefit the player, the player does not exist to benefit the game. So, how does the game benefit the player? Well, first, it is simply an object for the senses: in particular, it has form, color, texture, and weight. The overall aesthetic impact of a game is important, especially visual. Anything that a person stares at as hard and as long as players do wargames really should be a pleasure to see. Beyond the senses, it engages the intellect. The game presents goals and means by which those goals might be achieved (or fail to be achieved), requiring and rewarding intellectual engagement. Finally, the game operates on feelings and emotions. Tension, fear, excitement, and happiness (and we hope not boredom, but those hopes are sadly not always rewarded) are all commonly experienced during game play. By playing a wargame, we make the wargame more real, but more importantly, we also make ourselves more alive, by increasing our engagement with multiple aspects of our being.

Up to this point, we have considered two relations (game-to-subject and player-to-game) in isolation, but things get considerably more interesting when we consider both relations together.

The game then emerges as a central element, a link between player and subject. By playing a wargame, the player does not just relate to the game, but through the game as locus, to the subject as well. At one time, I regarded the common wargame practice of solitaire play as simply a reaction to the lack of opponents, and so it often is, but regarding solitaire play as only that misses the importance of the player-to-subject relation which the game enables. Enjoyment of the subject, even if the enjoyment of game-as-game is wholly absent, can be enough to reward the wargame player for his time and effort in learning and playing the game. Of course, the richness of this added relationship to the experience of game play does not come without a cost. To the player who is indifferent to the subject, the subject is at best an irrelevancy, and at worst a complicating burden.

The completion of this particular conceptual model, however, is only achieved once we introduce the final element: the opposing player.

It is through the opposing player that the game truly emerges as a game. Really, with just one player, without reference to subject, the game is really being enjoyed really as a puzzle: a set of problems to be solved for the enjoyment of solving them. On the other hand, when an opposing player is introduced, the game takes on its own life. By responding to both players, the game also responds to neither, as it takes on situations and forms that neither player foresaw or intended. But more than that, the game also serves as a locus for a social interaction between the players. So much of friendship lies in common experience and common interest, which the game facilitates not only through the game as game, but also through the shared experience of the game-to-subject relation.

C. S. Lewis, in his book, The Four Loves, wrote, “Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest.” While I think Lewis may have sold friendship a little short, as friends can have more care for each other than that image suggests, the common interest, is I think, commonly of great importance in friendship. Wargaming was so important in making so many of the friendships I’ve had in my life as to be almost impossible to overstate. More than that; in fact, I feel friendship for the community of wargamers as a whole. And here, I think is the final relation, in my model, in which wargames as a whole serve as a locus for the community of wargamers as a whole. We are all linked and bound together, however far apart we may be in space or time, and however many barriers might otherwise separate us. And that is a wonderful thing.

To all my friends reading this: Happy New Year. Now and always.

7 December, 2016

First blog entry in a couple weeks, so I thought I’d catch you up. Mostly what I’ve been working on is the new edition of Bonaparte at Marengo, trying to improve the quality of the opening game. The initial changes I made definitely shook things up, but they had quite a few issues that were proving difficult to resolve. Since I was having considerable difficulty in getting things to work the way I wanted, I decided to use a more formal method of analysis, rather than just thinking out it a little and throwing whatever I thought of into the rules to feed to the playtesters.

So what does it mean what I say a more formal method of analysis? Well, for me, the answer to that begins with Plato’s dialogue “Laches”.

Plato’s Laches

At the start of the dialogue, we have two older Athenians, Lysimachus and Melesias. They are interested in the question of whether to have their sons trained in fighting-in-armor (an Athenian activity that doesn’t translate well into anything in modern English, but which we can perhaps think of as being as a sort of gladiator-style method of fighting.) Anyway, seeking expert advice, they seek out the distinguished Athenian generals Nicias and Laches for their views. On finding them, they also find Socrates, and he is recommended to them as being worth asking as well.

So anyway, Nicias speaks first. He speaks at length, arguing that learning fighting-in-armor is a great idea and will be extremely valuable to their sons. Next, Laches speaks. Laches also speaks at length, but to the opposite position, that learning fighting-in-armor is utterly impractical, and more than a waste of time, that it would be actively detrimental to their sons for learning it.

Lysimachus and Melesias are pretty flummoxed. What are they to make of this? How should they proceed?

Then Socrates takes his turn. Rather than evaluate fighting-in-armor, he asks the men what they want their sons to be, and after some back and forth, the men affirm that what they really want is for their sons to become virtuous men. With that as the object, the question of fighting-in-armor training is dropped and never returned to again. As it turned out, Lysimachus and Melesias had not thought properly about what they wanted, and so had been asking the wrong question.

Now there are many ways to think about that dialogue, but the thing that has always struck me is that it is very hard to make headway on anything if you haven’t formed a clear idea of what it is you’re trying to do. And so, this gives us the first stage of what I mean by a formal analysis:

1. Understand your goal. What are you trying to do?

Now, let us suppose we have followed Plato and thought well about what we are trying to achieve. It is an excellent start, but in and of itself it doesn’t give us any answers. What might well be helpful next is some creativity. And for that, we turn from Plato to a second person whom I have found invaluable, Warner Bros. animator and director, Chuck Jones. (Even if you don’t know him, if you know Bugs Bunny, you know his work.) In his book Chuck Amuck, Jones talks about a key aspect of the process he and his fellow animators used, “The ‘Yes’ Session”.

Chuck Jones and The “Yes” Session

Rather than summarize Jones, I think I will just quote him:

“This session was, I believe, an event unique to Warner Bros. Unique at that time, perhaps anytime. Because this was not a brainstorming session in the usual sense, it was a “yes” session, not an “anything goes” session. Anything went, but only if it was positive, supportive, and affirmative to the premise. No negatives were allowed. If you could not contribute, you kept quiet. …

“The “yes” session imposes only one discipline: the abolition of the word “no.” Anyone can say “no.” It is the first word a child learns and often the first word he speaks. It is a cheap word because it requires no explanation, and many men and women have acquired a reputation for intelligence who know only this word and have used it in place of thought on every occasion. The “yes” session lasts only for two hours, but a person who can only say “no” finds it an eternity. Negative-minded people have been known to finally inflate and burst with accumulated negatives and say something positive, because it is also true that a person who heretofore can only say “no” is also a person who must say something.

“A “no” is defined as any negative: “I don’t like it.” “There must be a better way.” “I don’t like to criticize, but…” “I’ve heard that one before.” “I don’t know.” Or: “Oh, for Christ’s sake, Chuck.” All are roadblocks impeding the advancement and exploration of the value of an idea and are forbidden.

“Of course, all story ideas are not good or useful, and if you find you cannot contribute, then silence is proper, but it is surprising how meaty and muscular a little old stringy “yes” (which is another name for a premise) can become in as little as fifteen or twenty minutes, when everyone present unreservedly commits his immediate impulsive and positive response to it. And, of course, the enlightened self-interest of pouring your contributions unreservedly out in another director’s story session is sufficient motivation; your turn will inevitably come to present an idea to the group in another session, and at such a time you, too, will want, need, and expect full cooperation. A good premise always generates the most astonishing results.”

Now mine is not as collaborative an activity as Jones’, and so the collaborative aspects are not as important to my process as his, but the “yes” session absolutely can be used by one person. Just try to list ideas. Don’t devote mental energy to shooting them down, coming up with reasons why they won‘t work, or critiquing them. Just suspend that reflex to say “no” and let the ideas flow. Each idea isn’t necessarily the whole solution to our design problem, but each idea could contribute to that solution and be part of it. And so we have the second stage of what I mean by formal analysis:

2. Generate ideas. What might be useful?

At this point in the process, we will have a list of goals, and a second list of potentially useful ideas. What do we do with them? That is the third and final stage of this kind of formal analysis. This stage came from to me from mathematics by way of computing, where it is almost always used negatively, but which here we can use positively: the “combinatorial explosion”.

Computing and the Combinatorial Explosion

A combinatorial explosion describes a class of computational problems where the number of potential solutions increases exponentially with the number of elements in the problem. We encounter combinatorial problems routinely, but a classic example is what’s called the travelling salesman problem,

“Given a list of cities and the distances between each pair of cities, what is the shortest possible route that visits each city exactly once and returns to the origin city?”

In that problem, if we have three or fewer cities, there is just 1 possible route (in this problem a route and the reverse direction of that route are the same), at four cities, we have 3, at five cities we have 12, at six cities, we have 60, at seven cities, 360, and so on. By the time we get to ten cities, we have over 180,000, at twenty cities we have over 60,000,000,000,000,000.

In computing, combinatorial explosion problems get horribly hard to solve, for any but a tiny number of elements, and while enormous effort has gone into finding algorithms that can make these problems easier to manage, they’ve never really been tamed. So how does this help us? Why is this terrible thing in computing a good thing here?

Well, first of all, we don’t need a ‘best’ solution. In game design, it isn’t even clear what ‘best’ means. Second, people tend to be really, really good at coming up with ‘good’ solutions to many combinatorial explosion problems, even if not necessarily the best ones. (Look how much time and effort it took to develop a computer that could play at the same level as a strong Chess player.) Finally, we are in a creative process here. What we want is a set of possible solutions from which to choose, and the more combinations we have, the more possible solutions we have. And so, we are now at step 3:

3. Combinatorial play to build a solution.

Each new idea generated at step two hugely increases the number of possible solutions we can play with. And play is what we are doing. We have our list of ideas, we have our list of goals to guide us in combining those ideas. So, now we play. We create possible solutions: We start a proposal with idea A (our favorite), then consider our goals: which goals remain unachieved? Which ideas might help? We look and see that idea C might. We add it to the proposal. Look at our list of goals again. Once more, which ones haven’t we achieved? Once more, look at our list of ideas. We can look critically at our proposal: where does it contain redundancies? If we have ideas A,C,D, and F, is C really needed, or do D and F between them do the same thing? If so, we can delete C. In the process of working on our proposal, we may come up with new ideas, if so, we add them to our list of ideas. We may think of new goals that we missed the first time. If so, we add them to our list of goals. We may decide we just don‘t have enough ideas yet. If so, we go back to step 2. We may decide that our goals are in practice unachievable. If so, we go back: do we really need them all? Can we drop some? Can we come up with alternative goals that are good enough? We tug and pull at our goals and ideas, we subtly reshape them as we combine and compare them. Finding a solution will take time and effort, and at times it will seem impossible, but we persist. We have faith that the answer is out there.

All of this might sound rather vague. What does it look like in practice? Well, at one time, it isn’t something I really could have showed you, but since I’ve adopted the iPad, Apple Pencil, and GoodNotes into my design workflow, I can. And so, I’m going to show you some notebook pages from the work I did on the opening game of the new edition of Bonaparte at Marengo, which centered on coming up better rules on French Activation:

1. Understanding my goal 2. Generating ideas 3. Combinatorials

(Click on any of the above to open; the last two are multi-page.)

One thing, by the way, that you really should understand is that all of the above were dynamic throughout the process. They were constantly being edited during the process: in fact, to a large extent, editing them WAS the process.

Where this process took me was proposal B. I worked hard on it. I liked it. I believed in it. I wrote it up, put it on the game board and started play the game using it. And you know what? It didn’t work. It blew up on the launchpad. Which leads me to the step after the final step listed above:

4. Test. You aren’t as smart as you think you are.

It is well that Christianity teaches that humility is a virtue, because life gives me lessons in it so often. It is extremely hard to really get a good game design solution through thought alone. You just can’t think of everything without actually trying it out. Sometimes problems are there but won’t emerge for days, weeks, even months afterwards. (And yes, even years, but if it takes a problem years to emerge, in the game business, we call that a win.)

Now, a test failure, partial or total, doesn’t mean the process has failed you. It just means you haven’t finished yet, and it is time to get back to work. In this particular case, I felt rather starved of ideas. I seriously doubted that there was a solution in my set of ideas to the goals I had set forth. I needed more ideas. Sometimes, I have found, in historical games, that just going back to history can help. And so that’s what I did. I decided to order a copy of James Arnold’s Marengo and Hohenlinden: Napoleon’s Rise to Power. Now, back in the day, I read tons of Marengo stuff, much of which is actually on this website in the research section, which you can peruse at your leisure. I must have seen Arnold then, but I don’t have a strong memory of it. I had an awful lot of primary source material, and may have undervalued the work of professional historians, but that is a topic for another day. Anyway, sure enough, it had the hoped for effect: an alternate reconstruction of French initial positions, and parts of it, if used, would resolve my biggest problem for the opening of the game. You can see it, and the new proposal derived from it, below:

2.1 More ideas: the Arnold map 3.1 New combinatorial: using the Arnold map

(As before, click to open.)

Now this proposal held up well in my personal tests. It was written up, and an updated map and rules were sent to the playtesters. So far, so good. I think we have a much improved game, but it is much to early to say what other changes may be needed as playtesting continues. Anyway, you can see the revised map and an extract of the rules below:

(You guessed it: click to open.)

And what a long blog entry! Can’t say you didn’t get your (non-existent) money’s worth this time, can you? At least if we count by the word. Whether you found it interesting or not is another matter entirely. Anyway, until next time.

30 November, 2016

So, for the last few week or so, the new edition of Bonaparte at Marengo has been in playtest. We have three Cyberboard games complete, and a physical copy I made up should arrive for a group of face-to-face playtesters for some in-person testing this evening. (Assuming USPS is good on its word and nothing else comes up.)

So, how does the game look? Really good in some areas, and in others it needs work.

Where it’s doing well is in the core systems of movement and combat. While probably 80% of the core systems are carry-overs from the original Bonaparte at Marengo, there are also a variety of new elements. Some of the new elements were carry-overs from the 2nd edition of the game, some were borrowed from Napoleon’s Triumph and others are brand new and specific to this game. So it was mostly tested and well understood material, still, when mixing new elements together you do sometimes get unexpected interactions. Still, I’m pretty pleased and considering no significant changes to the core systems.

What’s not doing well is the quest for improved game balance and more dynamic end-game play. Right now, it still looks entirely too much like the original Bonaparte at Marengo, in spite of the changes I’ve made. What I’m still seeing is a lot of French running, Austrian chasing, and the Austrians running out of time. What I want to see is reasonably good balance, and some exciting play at the end to create a dramatic climax of the game.

In reviewing the playtest games, I decided that while some of the new ideas in victory conditions and morale were fundamentally sound, and would fit in well as part of the solution, in and of themselves they weren’t the solution. After pondering this, I developed a hypothesis that the real problem was not in the end of the game at all, it was in the beginning, and it was merely becoming manifest at the end. And so, I’ve dropped in a package of opening game adjustments. The goal is to slow down an early French withdrawal, to accelerate the Austrians, and open up new lines of play in the opening game.

Now, a possible effect of these changes is that it could produce a version of the game in which the French are bugs on the Austrian windshield. And that would actually be ok. Knowing that one set of adjustments produces French victories, while another produces Austrian victories, allows me to look into some mix from the two extremes where the game works well. Of course, for me, balance along isn’t enough. If game play is pretty much like it is now, except that the Austrians and French each win half the time, that’s better, but I won’t publish it that way. I want drama, not just balance. If the only goal was to balance the game, I could have done that just by taking the original and tweaking the starting morale levels.

I suppose I should put in some visuals here. People love pictures. (And I don’t exclude myself.) So how about pics from the end of two of the Cyberboard playtest games?

Anyway, that’s it for now. I have not forgotten that I was going to talk at more length about morale. Still going to do that.

25 November, 2016

Today’s entry is going to be mostly about morale tracking, but we will also take a look at differences in graphic design between the 1st and 3rd edition of the game. Here are the corner areas for the two games, where time and morale are tracked:

1st Edition 3rd Edition

The most striking and immediate difference is in the level of graphical detail and information conveyed by the 3rd edition compared with the 1st.

Most obviously, the 3rd edition includes a map legend, which the 1st edition could certainly have used. The function of the 3rd edition legend isn’t really any different from any other map legend: it just explains the meaning of the various map symbols, and gives the map’s scale. The content includes both the art elements of the map (elevation, roads, streams, woods, etc.), as well as the regulatory elements (approaches, penalties, etc.)

If we move onto comparing the time tracks on the two maps, we can first see that the 1st edition is much more graphically austere. The 1st edition style is very much in line with much contemporary thinking about this sort of thing: clean and functional. Yet, I think for a map about a 19th century battle, it was an unfortunate choice. It isn’t visually evocative of the period, and I think that it should be, especially given that that sort of evocation is kind of the whole point of the way the game is designed. And so, we see in the 3rd edition, a much more period graphical style. We can also see a small functional improvement in that the reinforcement labels in the 3rd edition label where the reinforcements are coming from, while the 1st does not.

The real functional differences between the two, however, are in the handling of morale. The 1st edition had a highly conventional system. There is a track, and a pair of markers that are moved to indicate morale levels, one for each army. On a purely mechanical level, the 3rd edition works quite differently. It doesn’t have a morale track at all. What it has instead is a morale area, and some rather mysterious red and blue dots on both it and on the time track. The dots indicate morale tokens, which are small wooden disks that will be included in the game: red for Austrians, blue for French. The dots in the morale area indicate the number of starting morale tokens, and the dots on the time track indicate tokens added to the morale area over time. As armies take losses, tokens are removed from the morale area. When an army runs out of tokens, it is demoralized.

So why do it that way? What is the advantage of tokens vs. a track? The driving reason was the decision to have time track additions to army morale. Expecting players to remember to update the morale track each turn is a burden. It is too easy for players to suddenly wonder if they remembered to do it or not, and with a track, there is no easy way to check. Tokens, on the other hand, are memory proof this way. If you forgot to move a token to the morale area, it is still on the time track. A glance alone tells you whether or not you remembered to update morale.

I also think there is an added psychological advantage to morale tokens. There is hardly anything as alien to quantification in war as morale, and I think that the use of tokens is a less cold, less harsh representation than numbers, even though the ultimate function of tokens vs. numbers is the same. It is also consistent with my general philosophy of trying to avoid numbers in the graphical design of the game. They are not wholly absent, but there are many places where I could have used numbers (such as unit strengths) where I did not.

This of course begs the question of why the 3rd edition has time-based morale updates at all. However, this entry is already long enough, and so I will leave that question for another day.

24 November, 2016

So, one of the areas of improvement I’m hoping to achieve with the new edition of Bonaparte at Marengo is learnability. I’ve worked on this in several ways, but one of them is a major departure for me, a "how-to-play" discussion. You can see the first complete draft (be very sure it will not be the final draft) below:

(Click on the image to go to open it in its own window.)

Back in the day, when the 1st edition was still new, I read a comment from a player who said that they had read through the rules, and everything seemed clear, but when they sat down to actually play the game, they had no idea what to do. I’ve read what a lot of people have had to say about the game, but that is one comment that kind of stuck with me through the years. Now, you might think that I might have acted on it before now, like in Napoleon’s Triumph or The Guns of Gettysburg, but I was really, really committed for a long time to the idea of discovery as part of the game. And I still am trying to preserve that, because it is something I still believe in, but I thought maybe I could kickstart things a little.

The basic goal of this discussion is to get players to think like a Bonaparte at Marengo player: which means being able to see where pieces can move, where maneuver attack threats exist, and how to create and exploit such threats yourself. Bombardments and assaults, though terribly important in play, are really situated in the context of movement and maneuver attacks: you really need to be able to move and maneuver before you can even create the possibility of bombardments and assaults, still less see where they may be useful, and even necessary.

Now, many of you may be thinking in seeing me finally decide to do a real how-to-play discussion, "Good God: How could it take anyone over 10 years to do that?" Like I said: I get very committed to things sometimes.

Anyway, that’s it for now. Hope you have a Happy Thanksgiving. (Those of you in the U.S. who celebrate the holiday anyway.)

23 November, 2016

Well, Bonaparte at Marengo, 2nd edition (or 3rd, depending on how you enumerate these things) has entered playtesting. We’ve gotten the band back together for the playtest team for BaM last time around (plus one new face), and a great group they are too. I’m so lucky to have them on board. Really.

So far, they’ve given the rule book a read through, found some typos, some omissions, and some inconsistencies. A few of these would have been really nasty if they hadn’t been caught, even though none of them was much trouble to correct. We are already at version 04 of the rule book, as I’ve been turning the crank to put out a new version for pretty much every rules email I’ve gotten. (Generally revisions don’t come that fast.)

One of the team produced a Cyberboard game box for testing. Cyberboard is well known in the community, of course, but it is at least as useful for playtesting as it is for regular play. Its ability to produce permanent records of playtest games has proved its value many times over, and it also lets me watch games being played by remote testers, without even having to do it in real-time. One downside of Cyberboard (from my point of view) is that it’s Windows-only, and I’ve been a Mac user since more or less forever. Fortunately, with Parallels Desktop, I can create a virtual machine for running Windows, and can then run Cyberboard on my Mac as you see below:

Cyberboard on Parallels Desktop on a Mac

Just so you know, the Cyberboard version of the map is custom made for that purpose. The dark locale reference numbers are to facilitate discussion, and the regulatory elements of the map (locale boundaries, capacities, and penalties) are much bolder and darker than they will be the printed game. Computer screens are better than they used to be, but still not at the point where they can reproduce the resolution afforded by paper. The multi-century head start printing had vs. computer display technology does still make a difference.

Not all testing is by Cyberboard. We also do in-person playtesting as well. I can print out playtest copies and send them to testers for their use. I hope to get one off today. I was hoping to do so yesterday, but I had ordered this thing:

Dahle Model 556 Professional 37 1/2 Inch Rolling Trimmer
to cut down the paper, which was supposed to arrive, but didn’t. Anyway, along with the game board, I send other parts on as needed basis. Sometimes I scratch build parts, sometimes I use off-the-shelf substitutes, such as generic disks and cubes. It depends: whatever seems appropriate. For this game, I will just be sending red and blue discs to use as morale tokens. They are bigger than the production tokens will be, but they’ll serve as adequate playtest substitutes.

In-person playtesting has value in two ways: first, an in-person playtest game can be completed much, much faster than a Cyberboard game (a couple hours instead of a couple weeks, which is typical for Cyberboard), and it can give the testers a much better feel for the final product on a purely physical level. Cyberboard is a wonderful tool, but boardgames in general (and certainly my games in particular) really are designed for face-to-face play, and you don’t really get that experience playing them online.

Anyway, I think I’m going to close this off for now. Lots of logistics stuff in this entry, but that is part of the job. Till next time.

19 November, 2016

Anyway, so I mentioned at the end of the last blog entry, I restarted work on the 2nd edition of Bonaparte at Marengo. Because the changes made in the last month or so have been fairly extensive, I think of this new effort as being not a set of changes to the 2nd Edition, but as a 3rd Edition after the unpublished 2nd. And so, in this discussion I will talk about the 1st edition (the version published in 2003), the 2nd edition (developed in 2010-2011 and never published), and the 3rd edition (now in development in 2016).

So, why do a 3rd edition? What happened to the 2nd?

Certainly the plan in 2011 was to publish the 2nd edition. Playtesting had wrapped up successfully. The playtesters said they liked it. I thought it was good and said so. Well, what happend is that the more I thought about it, the more I thought that the 2nd edition just wasn’t really what I wanted it to be. It wasn’t bad, just different, and I didn’t really want it to be different. I wanted it to be what I wanted it to be.

It will take more than one blog post to described what I did (and undid) between the 2nd and 3rd editions, and so I won’t cover it all here. In this entry I thought I would focus on the map.

One of the first things I did, and really wanted to do, with the 2nd edition was re-do the 1st edition map art to make it both more aesthetically pleasing and more historically accurate. When I did 1st edition map art, I didn’t actually work directly from my historical sources. Instead I started with an unpublished hex-based Marengo design I had worked on over 20 years ago. Unfortunately, my work on the old hex map really wasn’t as good as I had remembered it as being, and that were accuracy problems that the 1st edition map of Bonaparte at Marengo inherited. Further, just as a piece of graphic art, the 1st edition map was decidedly on the basic side.

So, I created an entirely new map for the 2nd edition. Now, setting aside the locale layout, the 2nd edition map is pretty darned nice, and it is carried forward almost unchanged into the 3rd. The 2nd edition locale layout, on the other hand, was a problem. I had shrunk the sizes of the locales somewhat, but enlarged the coverage area. This meant that the number of locales went from 66 locales in the 1st edition map to 111 locales in the second. What’s more, the distances from the Austrian entry point to the far edge of the map for the northern, central, and southern roads respectively went from 11,13,11 to 14,18,14. The added distance was supposed to be offset by rules changes, but in practice not nearly enough.My new locale layout had kind of wrecked the game balance: the added distance made it extremely difficult for the Austrians to reach the objectives before the end of the game.

My response to this problem in 2nd edition playtesting was to make a lot more changes to the game system, morale, and victory conditions, changes I had never wanted to make, to fix the broken game balance. Even though the work was ultimately successful, it still left a bad taste in my mouth that never went away.

And so, for the 3rd edition map, I scraped all the 2nd edition locales off the underlying map art, and with the 1st edition map as my guide, redid the locale layout to bring it much closer to that of the 1st edition, limiting my changes largely to the demands of historical accuracy. The result is that the number of locales between the 2nd and 3rd edition dropped from 111 to 89, and the distances along the map roads dropped from 14,18,14 to 12,14,13. Still higher than the 1st edition, but a difference more manageable with rules changes that I had wanted to make anyway. If you look below, you can see the three versions of the maps, with locale numbers to make comparison easier.

1st Edition
2nd Edition
3rd Edition

18 November, 2016

As I mentioned in the last entry, the sale of the Napoleon’s Triumph has kicked off a revival of Simmons Games. This has partly been financial, and partly a renewed commitment of time and energy. In the two images below, you can see both.

HP T520 Wide Format Printer Bonaparte at Marengo 2nd Edition Playtest Map

One of the things I always wanted was a wide format printer for printing playtest maps and other game images. (These are development prints only: they’re too expensive and not high enough quality for production.) When I was originally running Simmons Games, I looked into them, but unless you paid a lot of money, they really weren’t that great. Well, time moves on in technology, and that’s changed. And so, with Napoleon’s Triumph money in hand, I went out and bought one. It can do an entire playtest map on a single sheet. My former method was either to go to Kinko’s, pay money, wait, and hope for the best, or print it out on home on a bunch of 8.5" x 11" sheets of paper and then cut and tape them together. I kind of hated doing the latter method: so much work for such a crappy result.

No more.

Now, the playtest map you see pictured is very white. (Much like the Trump administration. Too Soon? Sorry about that.) The production map won’t be that white, but ink costs money, and playtest maps tend to have a short lifespan (generally a week or two), and it just doesn’t make sense to spend a significant amount of money inking a map that will be in recycling before you know it.

Anyway, you may be not be thinking about the color of the playtest map at all. You may instead be thinking, "Why is there a Bonaparte at Marengo 2nd Edition playtest map at all? I thought it was all wrapped up." Well, things change. But that is a story for a later blog entry.

17 November, 2016

In September, I started selling off the remaining inventory of Napoleon’s Triumph, and have been steadily reviving Simmons Games, piece by piece, in the weeks since. Well, it is now the design blog’s turn. There is actually a great deal to say, but I thought I would start by talking about my design process a little bit. In general, my process consists of three stages:

  1. Conceptual. In this stage, the game’s subject matter and scope is identified, preliminary research is conducted, the physical components of the game are defined and the general game system designed. In the past, I’ve done very little that is visible or tangible at this point in the process. A game doesn’t move on to the next stage if there are any major questions outstanding. (Like, how is combat supposed to work?)
  2. Development. This game is about building the game as an actual physical thing that can be played. It includes creating a game board, game pieces and game rules. Ideally, no major snags turn up in the work done in the conceptual stage. Things are never ideal. Problems always come up. They can be serious. Both Napoleon’s Triumph and Stavka encountered major problems that caused an extended pause in development as work went back to the conceptual stage.
  3. Playtesting. Playtesting is about taking a game that can be played (the result of the development stage) and making it into a game that is actually fun and engaging to play. The changes are mostly to the rules, although some adjustments to the map and pieces are common. Depending on how things go, the focus of testing may be on balance, historical fidelity, or just plain "fun". It is pretty rare for a game to be kicked back to development from playtesting, but it has happened.

The most difficult stage of the process has always been conceptual. Frustrating, completely unpredictable as to how long a design would be stuck in conceptual hell, and frequently productive of nothing but wasted time. Part of the problem has been that it was a stage without any real processes or tools: mostly just thinking, although occasionally supplemented by making a few notes in notebooks every now and then.

Since October, however, I’ve been found an extremely useful tool for conceptual work. (The video’s a little gushy, in that Apple way, so if you want to bail before the end, feel free.)

Anyway, I’ve been using an iPad app called GoodNotes to organize my conceptual work. Each design project gets its own notebook. Shown below is the cover and a couple sample pages for the notebook for Stavka. (No, you can’t zoom in on them. That isn’t really the point here.)

Stavka Notebooks

These are not the only pages I have for Stavka, and this is not the only notebook I have for game designs. At present, there are five different designs with active notebooks. Sometimes I work on one, and if I run dry, I switch to another. In addition to Stavka, there are two other games in active development. I can honestly say I’ve never felt this organized and productive in conceptual work.

An interesting question is why it makes such a difference. First of all, I think it is because the iPad and pencil are with me almost all the time. If I have some time and want to do some design work, it is always easy to take it out and just start writing. I can also edit my ideas easily. I can move notes around on a page, move pages around, take notes on one page and break them out into separate pages, and so on. I could never do anything like this with paper notebooks, which always kind of ran aground in terms of my ability to edit and reshape my notes.

Another question is why typing on a laptop isn’t just as good, or even better. Certainly typed text is more legible. And the sort of basic editing operations I do with my handwritten iPad notes have been available on laptops literally for decades. Partly it is because it is super easy for me with the iPad to switch back and forth between writing and drawing, and I make quick and dirty sketches fairly frequently in this stage. But I think the more important reason is personal and psychological. Typing is a very precise business, and its very precision tends to put me into a mental model of trying to be well-structured, precise and perfect. (A great place to be when editing rules, not a great place to be when working with ideas.) Writing by hand, on the other hand, can’t be perfect or precise, and it keeps me out of the trap of trying to structure my existing ideas rather than come up with new ideas.

And then of course there is another question, which is why it is better than just thinking: why should writing help at all? I think part of it is just that it both captures ideas so that I don’t forget them, and it engages me more fully just in terms of learning. Seeing and writing activate parts of the brain that just sitting and thinking does not. I wouldn’t say that I never get stuck on problems in this process, but certainly not as often as before, certainly not as long, and it is now certainly easier for me to leave one problem, go work on something else, and come back to what I was stuck on later.

Anwyay, there is plenty more I can talk about, but I am going to let this go for now. Until next time.


August, 2014

April, 2014

March, 2014

February, 2013

November, 2011

May, 2011

March, 2011

February, 2011

January, 2011

December, 2010

November, 2010