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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.

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