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 News November, 2010

Designer’s Blog: November, 2010

30 November, 2010

Just a short entry today. I’m still working on the Stavka playtest pieces. I’ve also continued very limited Stavka system playtesting. So far, so good. (Actually, pretty darn great, but there’s plenty of time to discover some hideous flaw that will make the whole thing blow up in my face, so I’m not declaring victory yet. Besides, I haven’t actually finished anything in that game.)

Below you can see the Bonaparte at Marengo 2nd edition numbered reference map. The reference map makes it easier for anyone who wants to give any map feedback: Locales are identified by number, the reserve area by locale number and "R", and approaches by locale numbers separated by a "/". Thus, "2" refers to the locale with the number "2" on it. "2R" refers to the reserve area in locale "2". "2/3" refers to the approach in locale "2" opposite locale "3"; "3/2" would refer to the approach in locale "3" opposite locale "2".

Marengo 2nd Edition Reference Map

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

29 November, 2010

Well, I continued to make Stavka playtest components today, and even ran a very small systems playtest. It looks very promising, but it is already clear that I need to shrink most of my physical pieces some: they are just too physically large and make the game board too crowded. I already scaled them down some, but I think I need to keep going in that direction. I am running into a problem in that it is easier to mock up the production pieces in clay if the pieces are larger, so as I reduce them, they will be harder to mock up. I would show you what they look like, but the clay mock-ups are so crude that I think that they could be beautiful only to a mother’s eyes. I would hate for you to judge what the production game will look like based on the misshapen lumps of clay I’m testing with, so I think I’ll hold off on that for a while. Still, for me, when I look ahead to what I know the game can be once I sort out the various issues in the current physical design, I’m very pleased and think that it will in the end be a striking looking game. Will it also be a fun game? Well, the ingredients are all there, I think, so it is just a matter of tuning everything so that it really sings. Time and effort should cure all ills. (I hope.)

I’ve hardly talked about anything but Stavka lately, but I thought I would talk about the 2nd edition of Bonaparte at Marengo a little. A poster on CSW asked how the 2nd edition improved on the original. Well, it will (I hope) be as fun to play, or even more fun, but I’d like it to be fun in a more balanced way, in at least two senses. First, many Bonaparte at Marengo players found that a French delaying action was easier to carry out than an Austrian pursuit, and so for many players the game is a long delaying action without much actual fighting in it. I’d like to increase the among of fighting in the game, and adjust the delay/pursuit balance so as to make a fighting withdrawal more difficult. I hope that this change will make game play less predictable. These sorts of adjustments are delicate, however, and it is much easier to make the game worse than better. It will take a lot of playtesting to get this right.

Not all the changes, however, are related to game play per se. I’d also like to improve on the historicity, presentation, and approachability.

The orders of battle of the opposing armies required no revision for the new edition, but aspects of the French positions at the start of the battle have been the subject of some controversy. Since I published the first edition, I think I erred in a few areas and wanted to correct them. A much larger issue in terms of historicity has been the map. Now, basically my original sources for the game map were the maps commissioned by Berthier and an Italian 1:25,000 military map produced at the end of the 19th century. My sources were fine, but the path by which these sources became the first edition map was indirect and responsible for a number of errors.

About 25 years ago, I designed a hex-and-counter game of Marengo based on the Wellington’s Victory game system. At a scale of 1 hex to 100 meters, it was very large (4 22"x34" mapsheets). I actually submitted it for publication by SPI, but it was rejected. I then re-designed the map to fit on two mapsheets (with the orientation reversed) which was pretty tight and required some compromises: the area closest to the Bormida was cut off, and I adjusted the East-West scale vs. the North-South scale to take into account the change in the direction of the hex grid. All of this was prior to the PC revolution, so it was all done by hand. Fast-forward 20 years. When I set out to make Bonaparte at Marengo, it seemed like the easiest way to proceed was to take advantage of the previous map work I had done and make the Bonaparte at Marengo map from my Marengo hex map, rather than going all the way back to the original source material again. It was only years after Bonaparte at Marengo was published that I happened to look closely at the original source maps vs. the game map, and realized that a number of mistakes had been introduced by the indirect process used to make the Bonaparte at Marengo map. And so, I decided that if I ever did a new version of the game, I would correct the map problems.

I was also interested in the presentation. Bonaparte at Marengo was my first game using computer drawing tools, and it showed. I’ve learned a lot since I made it and knew I could make a much more attractive map. However, it wasn’t just the map: I thought the rules could be more attractive as well. First, I switched from black-and-white to color, which makes the illustrations clearer and easier to follow. Second, I switched from a 3-column to a 2-column format, chiefly to allow the illustrations to be larger, but also because it would reduce the number of hyphenations and odd spacing resulting from justification.

In terms of approachability, I wanted to make the game easier to learn. One part of this was tightening the rules, which were written in a style that was rather too-wargamey: wordy and redundant. I don’t want to post the entire 2nd edition rules as yet, but I will post page 2, as it currently stands, so that you can compare it to pages 2-3 in the the 1st edition rules. (The 1st edition is on the top, and the 2nd edition is on the bottom.) They cover essentially the same subjects, but the 2nd edition has has only half the word count. If you want to look more closely, you can see the differences and why the 2nd edition is shorter:

Stavka Playtest Map

Stavka Playtest Map

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

The Quick Start section from the 1st edition has been deleted. I don’t think it was helpful to most players and leading with it only gave them one more thing to wade through in learning the game. The order of the Game Components/Equipment and the Introduction have been reversed so that the Introduction is the first section, which I think aids readability though it does not in itself affect the rules length. The Introduction has had a historical summary of the battle and situation added, but the game flow summary has been greatly reduced in length. The Playing Pieces section has been tightened. The rules for “face-up” and “face-down” in the 1st edition were unnecessarily fussy and easily trimmed. The important rule about when you can shuffle has been moved into its own section later in the rules (and has been liberalized from the very restrictive 1st edition rule). The section about The Game Board has also been tightened. The 1st edition terrain rules attempted to explain too much, and did so out of context, such that it all had to be repeated again later. In Napoleon’s Triumph, I over-reacted against this redundancy and excised it completely. Here, I tried to retain a brief introduction to terrain, but only in the quickest and most general way, with references to the later rules sections where it is explained in some detail. So far, the reader reactions to the 2nd edition style changes have been very positive. Not everyone will think so, I know: people have different learning styles, and a rules format that may work better for 80% of the readers can still work worse for 20%. Still, I like the 2nd edition rules and think they are the best I’ve done to date, from a style point of view. I think they retain the best changes introduced when I wrote the Guns of Gettysburg rules, but have a cleaner look to them, thanks to a reduction in the number of paragraph styles.

28 November, 2010

Still the holiday weekend…

The rain ended and I was able to coat the German cards for Stavka, and they're currently sitting in the garage until the smell is weak enough that they are fit company for human beings. (Based on the Russian deck, it looks like that will take about 36 hours or so.) I also finished the a test set of front line pieces from polymer clay. At some point I will be showing the Stavka piece design, but I thought I’d wait till I had actually finished the designs and made up test pieces. (The armor piece design is actually still up in the air a little, although I have pretty firm ideas about how the other types of pieces should look.)

The appetite of this blog for images may be more than I am going to be able to satisfy on a sustained basis: I don't do new artwork every day, but here is an image of the rough map that will be used for initial Stavka playtesting:

Stavka Playtest Map

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

The map is done in the ink-saving style which has minimal use of fills. Since this is a system test, I don’t need a complete board, so the cities are only partly in, and the road network is even less complete. Further, all of this is pretty rough and will no doubt change as the game system evolves. Important elements such as production centers are missing altogether, not to mention that the map is missing all its play-aids. I won’t be working on this for a while. Current Stava efforts are all about producing the various playing pieces, and once they’re done, I will be doing system tests. Eventually, I will go back to the map and finish it, but that won’t be for a while yet.

There is one more thing I want to touch on: the borders used. As far as I am able to tell, the borders shown are correct for June 22, 1941. There is some uncertainty regarding Yugoslavia; I have multiple sources, but I don’t especially trust any of them, and they conflict in a number of areas. I’ll have to look into this some more before publication. In general though, you can see the violence done to Europe’s maps by the Soviet Union and Germany (particularly Germany), something that most maps obscure by showing pre-war borders. For operational reasons, the game needs the actual borders that were realities on the ground, so the wartime borders had a functional role to play. I thought about showing the pre-war borders as well, but it complicated the map unduly, and the game had no need for them.

Anyway, that’s it. If all goes well, tomorrow I’ll have some more pieces done, although I’m not sure which ones I’ll be tacking next.

27 November, 2010

Another light workday on the holiday weekend.

I printed out the German cards for Stavka but didn’t coat them. Because of the smell, they really need to be coated outside, and it was raining off and on all day. (And I bet you thought wargame design was indoor work.) I did, however, begin making some mock-ups of what I hope will be the game’s metal pieces, using something called Polymer Clay. It isn’t a real clay, but a kind of plastic that can be molded like clay but which hardens when baked for a short time in an ordinary oven. In Napoleon’s Triumph I had experimented with ordinary modeling clay for playtest parts, but couldn’t make satisfactory test pieces. Given the shape of the NT metal pieces, I’m not sure that I could have made them from polymer clay either, but the Stavka piece shape is less demanding. The idea for the Stavka pieces is that they will be stamped from sheet metal, and so what I needed was a clay that could be rolled into thin sheets and then cut and shaped, approximating what could be done with stamped sheet metal. For this, I think polymer clay will work, although it will take some time to hand-produce the required number of pieces.

Stavka is intended to have at least four kinds of metal pieces: front line, defense in depth, armor, and penetration. A possible fifth type of piece (production) may or may not be needed — the desirability of metal for that type of part isn’t clear to me yet and I will be looking at alternatives. So far, the only one I’ve tested is the front line piece, but it is the most challenging. I think polymer clay will work fine (Yay!) saving me the trouble of having metal mock-ups made, which I know from NT to be expensive.

Speaking of playtesting, I tend to use that term to describe two quite different activities, which I’ll differentiate here as system testing and game testing.

System testing is something I do alone. There are no written rules, nor even clear unwritten rules. The point of system testing is to go from a set of game system ideas to a more-or-less functioning game system from which could be built a workable game. System tests are often very short; often I won’t complete a single game turn before I decide there is something I need to fix before bothering to go any further. The point of system testing is to try to work out how the basic game mechanics of movement and combat (and whatever other specialized systems the game might need) work. Everything is very fluid; I might change the rules multiple times in a single test, so that one turn and a turn that follows aren’t even played with the same rules. Eventually, I get to the point where I think I know how things are going to work (more or less) but find that I can’t hold all the details of exactly how they are supposed to work in my head; mostly because I honestly don’t know.

To really work out the system, I change gears and stop testing and start trying to write the rules. Sometimes the process goes more or less smoothly and sometimes not. Sometimes I find that once I start to write things down that what I thought was clear really wasn’t and I go back to system testing. Eventually, though, unless the game has reached a nasty dead-end, a complete set of game rules emerges. It is really the existence of a set of ostensibly complete rules that differentiates system testing from game testing. The emphasis switches from trying to figure out how the game system works to making the game itself work. Sometimes system problems are discovered and the game system itself needs changes, other times the problems are game-specific, things such as balance, pacing, or just the way the game flows. Game testing means bringing in other people, and iterating on the game again and again until it really works the way I want it to — or at least until I can’t think of any way to get it any closer to the way I want it to.

And so, when I say that I’m trying to make a playtest copy of Stavka, and I say that the 2nd edition of Bonaparte at Marengo is in playtest, I don’t really mean that the games are really in almost the same state: in the case of Stavka, I’m trying to get it ready for system testing. Stavka has no rules, not written down, not in my head; it only has ideas for rules. The 2nd edition of Bonaparte at Marengo, on the other hand is a working, functional game. It may not be as good a game as it needs to be before it can be published, but it is a real game that other people besides myself can actually play. Stavka isn’t a game. Nobody can play it, not even me. It is only a collection of parts from which I’m trying to build a game, and the collection of parts isn’t even complete.

Thought I’d clear that up. Not that anybody asked.

Anyway, there ought to be a picture, so here’s one you haven’t seen yet: the 2nd edition box top of Bonaparte at Marengo as it currently stands. I’ll talk about it a little in the next entry, but for now, here it is:

Marengo 2nd Ed. Box Top

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

26 November, 2010

Well, after completing temporary art for the Soviet and German Stavka decks, I started printing out some temporary playtest card decks. As it happens, you can buy blank, printable playing cards from a company called PlainCards. I originally looked into this when I was developing the (abandoned) playing cards for The Guns of Gettysburg and even printed out a test deck. I still had a lot of left-over blank cards from that and just used those. Now, I have to say that the micro-perforated cards PlainCards sells work pretty well, although the coating that you apply to them has a rather strong chemical odor that lingers for a L...O...O...N...N...G time after you apply it. Also, the paper is really too thick and too stiff for my laser printer, so I actually got an ink-jet printer that really was only purchased for this one job. Now, one thing about ink-jet printers (or at least my ink-jet printer): they are really, really precise about laying down those tiny dots of ink, but the alignment of the dots to the physical sheet of paper is not at all precise. Just because something is SUPPOSED to print 1.5" from the edge doesn't mean that it won’t end up printing 1.375" from the edge instead — one time — and then 1.45" from the edge the next time, then 1.4" the time after, and so on. When you’re trying to line up cards to pre-perforated lines, that is kind of a problem. For my playtest purposes, as long as the ink actually goes onto the right cards, it is no big deal, but the fact is that the backs of the cards don’t all look the same, since the alignment of the design to the card varies VERY visibly from card to card. So, if you’re thinking about printing your own cards, this is something you might want to be aware of.

Now, I usually try and put a picture in a blog entry, because, you know, people are really visual and we all like to see pretty pictures. While I hope to have some more interesting things to show you soon, I don’t have much new right now, but I can show you something else about how I produce a copy of a game for playtesting. Now, I can take my map art down to Kinko's or another local printshop and get a pretty decent map printed out, but it is like $40 a pop to do that (depending on the size of the map), and given that the playtest maps often change during the playtesting process, the printing bill can mount pretty fast. A cheaper way is to print them on my laser printer on 8.5" x 11" sheets and then composite a map together from those.

If you’re going to paste up a large mapsheet from lots of smaller sheets of paper, there are a couple things worth knowing: First, anybody can get the first 2 sheets together reasonably well, however, as you add more sheets and try to get them lined up in the X and Y dimensions at the same time, it can get kind of challenging. So, one thing that helps a lot is to print tiny registration marks where you know the corners are going to be, and then cut the top sheet for each overlap on that mark. Using pre-planned registration marks is a lot more reliable than relying on trying to line up whatever terrain happens to be on the paper edges. The second thing is you will make mistakes and you will want to be able to recover from those mistakes, and for that you will want to use re-stickable glue. So get yourself a couple of Scotch Restickable Glue Sticks (or the 3M equivalent, or whatever). This will make your life SO much easier during construction. However, the glue isn't really that sticky, so after it is done, putting some tape on the back will keep the thing from falling apart during handling. (I suppose you could also carefully apply a stronger glue join-by-join later, but really, if durability is that important to you, go to a print shop.)

Oh, one more thing I’ve learned more recently is that for testing, given the nosebleed price of printer ink and toner (thanks to razor and blade pricing strategies), for a temporary map, cheaper is better. With very little effort, you can knock out all the color fills and turn this:

Marengo 2nd Ed. Map

into this: (Note also the little registration 'x's.)

Marengo Playtest Map

(Click on either map to go to open it in its own window.)

The white map saves about 90% of the ink or toner, doesn’t look awful, and is fully functional. Anyway, short workdays with the holiday and all, so that’s it till tomorrow.

25 November, 2010

More Stavka card design work.

Stavka Soviet Cardss

The left-most graphic shows a Soviet tank factory, used for the card backs as a replacement for the provisionally discarded propaganda poster design. The photo is pretty lousy, but the plan is to hire an illustrator to re-do it (and the rest of the card art) in a consistent (and hopefully attractive) style. For the German cards, I intend to use the same factory background, but with Panzer IV's being manufactured instead of T-34’s. The previous propaganda design emphasized the differences between the two regimes, but this design will take the opposite route and emphasis the similarity. I can’t say I like this approach better, but I think in the end it will produce attractive and usable cards.

The right-most graphic shows a Soviet infantry card. I like the pose and the choice of Soviet winter uniforms, but the photo quality is terrible and I will throw this over the wall to the illustrator to give me a usable image.

The middle card, in terms of art, is the same T-34 I showed before, so nothing new there. I do want to call your attention to one thing: and that is the number “3” in the card corners. The idea is that most of the Soviet armor cards will have a number; no German and no Soviet infantry cards will have one. The number is the minimum number of Soviet tank armies that have to be in play before the card can be played at its face value: until that many are in play, the card plays as an ordinary Soviet infantry card. This allows me to change the composition of the Soviet deck over time, as the Soviet army gets more proficient, without actually changing any physical cards: what changes is how the cards are read. So, in 1941, the Soviet deck will be heavy in ordinary infantry cards, with few armor or leadership cards, but as the war progresses it will grow heavier in both. (As a reminder, “leadership” isn’t a separate category from armor and infantry: it is just an attribute of an armor or infantry card. The center card is an armor card that is ALSO a leadership card; the rightmost card is an infantry card that is also a leadership card.)

In terms of the play mechanics, changing the card decks by changing their interpretation is MUCH easier for the players. Physically changing cards would mean going through the deck, taking some cards out and putting others in and then re-shuffling — doing it over and over again during the game would be tedious beyond belief. I think this approach will work pretty well, but I won’t know for sure until I try it out in playtesting. If players tend to make mistakes differentiating which of their armor cards are playable as armor and which have to be played as infantry, then I (hopefully) will be able to fix that problem by graphic changes. However, I’m not going to spend any time worrying now about it; I try not to spend time trying to solve problems that may or may not even be actual problems. In other words, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

That’s it for now. Happy Thanksgiving! (For those outside of the U.S., Thanksgiving is one of our big national holidays.)

24 November, 2010

My Stavka card art death march continues.

Every once in a while you hit some aspect of a game design that doesn’t look like it is going to be hard, which turns out to be a grueling ordeal. For Stavka, card design has definitely been that. The original photo-based effort for the cards is pretty much dead. I don’t see any way that I’m going to get an acceptable outcome that way. I got the idea of buying some 3D soldier models and then manipulating them into desired poses, but that looks completely impracticable: The 3D software market is really designed for full-time artists who specialize in it, and the products have a price and complexity level in line with that expectation. Now, you can buy a posable German soldier model for about $100, but the Autodesk 3DS Max application you use to manipulate it is about $3000.

The 3D investigation wasn’t a total waste. Sketchup, a very basic 3D program I used to design my metal bases for Napoleon’s Triumph, actually has a large library of models available for free, including pretty decent Pz IV and T-34 models. The big advantage of 3D tank models over photographs is that you can set the angle however you like. The downside is that they look neither like photographs nor illustrations and so don’t really fit with graphically with a design for either, and Sketchup is really designed for buildings: it can stretch far enough to do tanks, but not really people.

I also looked around for clip-art. Now I found a reasonably priced set that has a quite usable German soldier, but the Russian soldier in the set is wretched and quite unusable. If you look below, you can see designs using the German clip-art soldier and Sketch-up tank. Either is fine by itself, but they don’t really work together. They're just a style mis-match, that's all.

Stavka German Card Fronts

As far as the Soviets go, the Sketchup T-34 isn’t quite as good as the Pz IV, but it isn’t bad. However, I have no usable image from any source for a Soviet soldier. I have a photograph showing a good pose, but it is bad photo and completely unusable. (The Soviet Union was the world capital of wretched photography for pretty much its entire existence.) So what’s my way forward? Well, the current plan is to hire an illustrator to take the various incompatible sources I have and render them as illustrations in the same style. I can probably use the German soldier as-is if he can manage to do a Soviet soldier in that style, and re-do the Sketchup tanks to match.

Which of course leaves the card fronts. I have a lousy photograph of a Soviet tank production line, and I’m thinking of having the illustrator use it to make up a pair of tank factory images: one making T-34's and one making Pz-IV's and use one for the Soviet deck and one for the German deck. The problem that nags me about this is that essentially my plan is to take this whole gnarly mess and throw it over the wall to an illustrator and hope he can come back with a solution. Given that no illustrator has told me he can do that for me at a price I can afford, the plan clearly has risks associated with it.

So, it is a plan with issues, but right now it really is the only plan I have. My own drawing skills are hopelessly inadequate to the task and my efforts to find usable pre-existing source material have failed rather miserably. The loss of the solution for the card backs definitely hurt my morale. Its a bad thing when after a substantial effort you think you have a solution you really like for a problem and then it blows up in your face. Still, as Scarlett O’Hara said: Tomorrow is another day...

23 November, 2010

I have received a friendly warning that my use of the German propaganda poster might not work for several different reasons in Germany. First, that it might be a copyright violation. I have looked into this, and the poster seems to be exempt under German law since it was produced by the German government for public information purposes. Second, that it might violate the German anti-Nazi laws. Now those laws are (deliberately) vague, so it is difficult for certain to tell what might or might not constitute a violation. Because of this, when I first began looking into this I was worried that even if I didn’t have trouble (I don’t live in Germany and am not subject to German law regardless) that resellers in Germany might refuse to carry it for fear of legal trouble, and that resellers would prefer to err on the side of safety and drop it. However, when I looked into it further, it doesn’t seem likely: the law has to date been interpreted quite narrowly for games. Swastikas (by themselves or embedded in any other design) look to be off-limits and are routinely censored, as is the Nazi salute. Things that are generically German army (such as iron crosses and what-not) are routinely sold in Germany. Now, the poster I’ve been planning to use has no Nazi symbols in it at all and only the shape of the soldier’s helmet identifies it as German, so I can’t imagine that the poster is falls within the narrow scope within which the law has been applied.

However, that only leads to the third issue: that it carries too strong of a Nazi taint for German sale: not because of what the government might do, but because it would creep people out too much. Now, on the one hand, I understand this sort of thing very well. In the U.S., the use of Confederate symbols has long been associated with violent racism, long after the end of the Civil War (even today), and their use in certain ways and certain contexts is understood as an expression of racist sympathies, and even as a threat. However, in other contexts, the symbols are not understood that way and can be used safely. Now, to somebody not from the U.S., it would probably quite difficult to tell one context from the other and to be able to distinguish between provocative and non-provocative usage. Where things get hard here is that I’m not German and consequently can’t really tell how the use of such things would be read inside Germany. I was really quite shocked to be told that I might even be regarded as a Nazi sympathizer for using the poster.

Now, I like the poster for a number of reasons (detailed below) that have nothing to do with my political sympathies. I like the Soviet poster too, and I have no political sympathies in play there either. Even, however, if I disentangle myself from any suspicions of Nazi sympathies, there is one last problem: the “ick” factor. This I understand. When I was adding the WWII research materials to the website, I needed to add a graphic for those sources. Now, I had used a portrait of Napoleon for the Napoleonic Wars and a portrait of Lincoln for the Civil War, both being the personages most prominently associated with those conflicts. Now, when it came time to add WWII, frankly, the obvious choice was Hitler. This bothered me. I actually made up a picture and tried it out, and it was way over the line in terms of the “ick” factor. A portait of Hitler next to a portait of Lincoln was just majorly creepy and on an emotional level I wanted nothing to do with it. So I substituted Churchill, who is the second-most iconic figure for the war and doesn’t have that taint. (Not that I’m entirely comfortable with Churchill either: major historical figures pretty much all have REALLY nasty skeletons in their closet if you look for them and Churchill's was that he was an unrepentant imperialist who earlier in his career argued that poison gas should be used on Kurdish villages in Iraq, and even authorized its use.) Ordinary historical evil is something that everybody who studies history learns to deal with in one way or another. However, there is ordinary historical evil — and then there is Hitler. There are bombs, and then there is the Atomic Bomb. They both kill people, but everybody knows, somehow, that when you go from one to the other that there is a line you’ve crossed.

Anyway, to get back on track: The ick factor has a certain subjective quality, and what will trigger one person’s won’t trigger another’s. Eventually, though, you get to the point where you trigger a lot of people’s ick factors and at that point you can be reasonably suspected of doing it deliberately and just being rather icky on a personal level. (Saying you didn’t know will often not help you much in those situations: It only gets you promoted from being anti-social to being socially-obtuse; being promoted from thug to boor is very little in the way of consolation.) The thing is that the ick factor is not subject to reason: it is an emotional response not a rational one. I understand very well why Hitler should logically appear in my research page, but it isn’t going to happen and no amount of argument can change that. I sleep better at night for his not being there. It occurred to me that I might even post the test picture I made here so you can see for yourselves, but I don’t even want to do that. It would creep me out too much to look at my design diary and see Hitler staring back at me, even in this context.

So, anyway, the person giving me the friendly warning let me know that the poster creeped him out, and that he would be reluctant to touch a deck with that design. And I understand that he feels that way. Would a lot of people feel that way? I don't know. Does the design need to be changed? Should I change it? Maybe. Probably. I just don’t know but I suspect that it does. It may be legal, it may be my right to use it, it may be that I mean nothing at all objectionable in using it, but that still doesn’t mean that it is a good idea to use it. Bummer.

22 November, 2010

So, the last couple of days have been a tedious search for art for the faces of the game cards. I really only need four images: (1) Germany infantry, (2) Soviet infantry, (3) German armor, and (4) Soviet armor, one for each of the four types of cards in the game. For the infantry images I’m looking for reasonably detailed images of one infantryman from each army, reasonably detailed, full-body, not cut off by an obstacle in front, and in something that looks like a combat pose. (I don’t care if it is staged, as long as it doesn’t look staged.) It doesn't sound hard, but it has been a huge pain and I’ve almost given up after looking through hundreds of pictures of Soviet infantrymen: you’d think that with millions of Soviet infantrymen doing service during four years of war, at least one good picture would have been taken, but as far as I can tell, you’d be mistaken in thinking that. Even if I find one, I have another problem that’s been nagging at me: these four images need to look like a matched set, rather than a collection of unrelated pictures found in a rummage sale. I’m beginning to think that what I’m going to have to do is find four images that will serve as models, and then have an illustrator draw pictures from them, so I get a reasonably coherent set of images.

The armor situation is much easier, apart from the matching problem. Below you can see basically what the faces of the armor cards will look like, although the images shown are very unlikely to be final:

Stavka Armore Card Fronts

As far as design variations go, that’s about it. The current plan is that all the armor cards have two tanks, signifying a value of two points. Some of the cards will have Lt. General epaulettes on them, indicating that they are, in addition to being armor, are also leadership cards. (Leadership cards are more valuable for combat than non-leadership cards.) Infantry cards will also come with a leadership version. Now, I THINK that these are the right insignia and the appropriate ranks here, but I’m not entirely sure. The Germans had something called General der Panzertruppe, which looks to be equivalent to Lt. General, and I’ve havent seen any distinct epaulettes for that rank, but they might not be. I will be double-checking this. It makes no difference in the game per se, but I know if I get it wrong I’ll never stop hearing about it.

This isn’t a tactical game (very far from it) so it doesn’t matter what type of tanks are used for the cards, but the choices were pretty easy. The T-34 and Pz. IV were both tanks that served throughout the conflict, and the models shown, the T-34/76 and the Pz. IV with the long 75mm cannon (the one pictured is an H model, I think) are probably good selections for “typical” tanks used by the armies during the war. I have thought of using multiple tank models, even though it doesn’t matter for game purposes, just for a little visual variety, and for tanks this wouldn’t be too difficult. However, if I use multiple cards for tanks, I really need multiple cards for infantrymen as well, and given the trouble I’ve been having finding even one decent Soviet infantry figure, the prospect of producing a dozen or so makes my head explode.

One thing I can say is that I’ve learned my lesson from the miserable failure of this abomination I designed for The Guns of Gettysburg, at a time when I was thinking about using cards in that game: Gettysburg Failed Cards

Yikes. Memo to self: Keep it simple, stupid.

21 November, 2010

In the last entry, I published a peak at the board design for the 2nd edition of Bonaparte at Marengo. Now, BaM2 is much further along in the design process than Stavka is: it has a functioning board, a complete set of game rules, and it even has a box top. Further, it has also entered playtesting. When will it be released? No set date but is the next game in the pipeline after The Guns of Gettysburg. The new process I’m trying to put in place is conceptually something like this:

Process

So, the idea is that I will have at any given time one game in each stage of development. Now of course in the real world things don’t work this cleanly (far from it) but it is nice to have a structure in mind as to how things are supposed to work, and this is the one I’m trying to move to. At this point, The Guns of Gettysburg is the farthest advanced and is moving towards production, Bonaparte at Marengo 2nd Ed. has just entered testing, and Stavka is still in design. I actually do have another game in the conceptual stage, but there are some other contenders as well if the lead contender doesn’t seem to be coming together.

I could post the revised rules for the 2nd edition of Bonaparte at Marengo, but I think I’m going to hold off on that for a while. I will, however, give you the 10,000 foot view: the rules are about 90% the same as the 1st edition in content, but have been completely rewritten for concision and clarity. The game is slightly closer to Napoleon’s Triumph, but only slightly: if you were to place them on a line with BaM1 at 1 and NT at 10, BaM2 would be at about 1.5. The changes made haven’t been to make BaM more like NT, they’ve been made to make BaM2 a better BaM. I have a lot more to say about the the 2nd edition of BaM, but it will have to keep till later.

I do want to talk a little about Stavka. Stavka is a WWII Eastern Front game, as the title would suggest. The main priority is on low-complexity: the game is intended to have an 8-page rule book, including cover, design notes, and play aid, so it is supposed to have only 5 pages of rules. The second priority is on playing time: it should set up and play from start to finish in a single evening.

Physically the game is a complete break with what has gone before. It will not have wooden blocks, or cardboard counters. The plan is in fact to use metal pieces that resemble neither, but we’ll have to see how that looks from a cost perspective. (The alternative is probably plastic, but that definitely is not my preferred material.) Stavka will not look like any game that has been done before. Hopefully, different will be good. That it will look cool I’m certain, but I’m less certain that it will play smoothly physically.

The game system bears a slight resemblance to Histogame’s Friedrich in that it uses playing cards as part of the combat system, but the cards themselves are not like those used in Friedrich. The Stavka cards are also conceptually tied to production. One of the things I’ve been working on is trying to do the graphic design for the cards, but it has been difficult going, at least for the faces. For the card backs I’ve found just what I was looking for: (You should be able to guess which deck is Soviet and which is German>)

Stavka Card Backs

It wasn’t long after I started to look that I realized that period propaganda posters would make very cool art for the back of the cards. Given the tie to production, production-themed posters would be just perfect if I could find the right ones and I just love these.

The first cool thing is the sexual contrast: the woman factory worker on the Soviet card vs. the über-masculine male worker on the German card. This works on several levels: First, it fits with traditional Russian Motherland vs. German Fatherland imagery. Second, it reflects on the difference in sexual politics between the regimes. Third, it also represents the differences in economic mobilization. For the Soviets, a total war economy with women filling the factories so that men were available for the army was embraced very early on, while the Germans were highly resistant to dedicating their entire economy to the war effort. (The Blitzkrieg model of warfare was supposed to make such a thing unnecessary.)

The next is the contrast in modernity: the woman in the Soviet card is clearly an assembly-line worker in a contemporary factory, while the German figure has a distinctly pre-industrial blacksmith-style look. Both are tied closely to the ideology of the respective regimes. The Soviet Union had just spent the previous decade in a brutal forced-industrialization campaign, and for the Soviets, the modern, the industrial, was the ideal. Nazi ideology, on the other hand, tended to look backward towards an idealized, even semi-mythical, past.

You can even see in the cards, to an extent, the attitudes of the two nations towards production. The Soviet economy, like the American, embraced quantity as the main goal of war production and was willing to produce material that may not have been the best quality, as long as there was plenty of it. The German war economy, on the other hand, always always had a kind of artisan-quality to it: lots of models, relatively small production runs that were constantly being tweaked, and a continuing quest for qualitative superiority, a quest that often resulted in weapon shortages. Even this contrast is implied in the two posters. If you look a the Soviet poster, there are rows of identical shells in the background, and a pair of identical bombs in the foreground: all appear ready to go and quantity is the visual theme. In the German poster, there is only one item being produced, and it isn’t actually even ready — though no doubt it will be really something when it is.

(And if you’ve noticed that production is the theme holding the two parts of this entry together, give yourself a pat on the back.)

20 November, 2010

Yesterday, in addition to the site organization changes, I completed another proofing pass through the rules for The Guns of Gettysburg. I made some corrections, but nothing major. It has been a while since I made a pass through the rules, and that helped since I was seeing it with fresher eyes this time. You can see them yourself here:

Gettysburg Rules

(Click on the cover to open.)

I also thought I’d post a link to the old Guns of Gettysburg tutorial. This was originally written as part of the GoG design diary, but it was always my intent to break it out and make it a separate feature on the site. There is another turn of play that wasn’t present in the original diary, but the tutorial isn’t yet complete. I think it makes sense to carry it out a couple more turns, far enough to get a good-sized attack in it, since that is the main thing that is still needed to make a respectable tutorial. The map graphics also need to be revised (sigh) to match the graphics changes I made to represent elevations. A pain, but it needs to be done at some point. Click on the image below to see it:

Gettysburg Tutorial

(Click on the picture to go to the tutorial.)

Finally, I thought I would post this:

Marengo 2nd Ed. Map

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

As an aside, don’t bother trying to play it with the old rules: it won’t work. There are some rules changes that go with it. That’s all for now.

19 November, 2010

A couple of things:

First, once I added the blog I noticed that the blog and the "New" page on the website were more-or-less doing the same thing, but in different ways. So I decided to change the "New" section to "News" and make it the blog home page. This makes the blog a lot more discoverable on the site, which I think is a good thing. I also added an RSS feed for it. I never did anything with RSS before, but it seems like it is working ok. Let me know if you’re having problems with it.

Second, I mentioned at the end of the last post that there was a story about the map research for Stavka, and I thought I’d tell it. I started doing my map research in my usual way: I went to the Library of Congress Map Room and asked the helpful staff there for assistance in map research for the European Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during WWII. I wanted maps in the range of 1:500,000 to 1:4:000,000 with enough detail to show main roads. They actually had some maps there produced by the German army during the war, which were pretty cool, but the coverage was spotty and I couldn’t make my map from them. Then it suddenly occurred to the staff member who was assisting me that the International Map of the World was exactly what I was looking for. Now that project has an interesting history, which you can read about here. Happily, the maps were exactly what I was hoping to find, so I photocopied the sheets I needed and took them with me. (Incidentally, if you ever need to do map research, I don’t think there is any other resource in the U.S. to compare with the LoC Map Room.)

Once I got back home, I set to work to take my stack of photocopies and assemble them into a usable source map for the game. The first order of business is to scan the sheets into the computer. I have a big Microtek 12"x17" scanner for exactly this sort of work and set to it. Once I had all the pages scanned, I began to assemble them. Now each map sheet in the LoC was bigger than 11"x17" and so had to be photocopied onto multiple pages, and I had to use these pages to re-assemble the original sheets. I’ve done this sort of thing before (lots of times) and it is a pretty routine business as a result. The manual process of putting a map on the photocopier and then scanner inevitably produces a slight rotation of each page that is different than the others. In re-assembling them, the extent of the rotation has to be identified, and then the scanned pages need to be counter-rotated digitally. The pages also typically have a small amount of linear distortion, but it is usually so small that it isn’t worth correcting. Once the pages are all at the right angle, they are digitally cropped and re-assembled to reproduce the original mapsheet.

Some mapsheets have enough coverage that an entire gameboard can be produced from a single sheet, but in other cases the gameboard requires the coverage of multiple source mapsheets. That was the case here. Now assembling different mapsheets can be problematic is because of the little problem of the spherical earth vs. flat map. The process of projecting the earth onto mapsheets inevitably produces distortion, and this distortion is managed by the choice of map projection used. For very large scale maps (like the 1:25,000 maps I generally use for 19th century battlefields) the choice of projection doesn’t matter much because small sections of the map surface are good approximations of a flat surface already. Where the thing gets messy is when the scale is small and the areas large. At a scale like 1:1,000,000, the distortion introduced by the map projection process is substantial. The Stavka source maps were made using conic projections, which is probably the most common projection method used at this scale. Now the key thing about a conic projection is that it has an optimal latitude (or two, depending on the type of conic projection you use), and the farther you move from the optimal latitude, the more distortion you get, so in making a map using a conic projection, you generally want that optimal latitude to be more or less in the middle of your map. Now, the makers of the International Map of the World decided that the projection for each sheet would be optimized for its own latitude, so while sheets at the same latitude used compatible projections (the sheets naturally fit together) the sheets for different latitudes used incompatible projections (the sheets do not naturally fit together). And so, to assemble my source map, I had to adjust the individual sheets to a common pseudo-projection of my own devising, and for this I used Photoshop. The result was this:

1:1,000,000 IMW

(Click on the map to go to its page in the research section of the website.)

Source map complete, I then set to work to draw my game board from it. I started by tracing the outlines of the ocean, lakes, and rivers, and while this was a slow process, it was largely uneventful. However, when I got to drawing the elevation contours, I began to run into difficulties. The first was that although the sheets were supposed to be standardized as to the features they showed, when it came to elevation, they weren’t standardized at all. Some sheets might show 100m-200m-300m-500m-700m while others might show 100m-200m-400m-800m. And so, for most contours, I could only approximate their locations on some of the mapsheets. The second was that on many maps the contour lines were obscured in places by other map markings and so close together than it was often hard to tell which line was which. (One of the sheets for Yugoslavia was particularly bad in this regard.) Third, it was just taking forever. After two weeks of tracing contours I was maybe half done and was getting sick of the whole thing.

It was out of desperation that I decided to try something else. Now I knew that digital maps existed (essentially giant binary files of map data from which maps could be constructed) and decided to look into those and see if I couldn't build a map from that. After some poking around, I found this, digital elevation data available for free download. Now, the nominal resolution of this data was 30-arc seconds, so it had one elevation measurement per square kilometer or so. This resolution would have been hopelessly inadequate for one of my tactical games, but it was just enough for the Stavka map. And so, I read through the file format specifications, downloaded the files that covered my area of interest and set to work converting them into a graphical form.

As it happens, for a couple decades I was a software engineer and writing a program to do this was well within my skill set. The only thing I didn’t like was the part where I had to transform the grid used in the source data to the pseudo-map projection I made up to fit my sheets together. People tend to think that programmers are good at math, but I never was and the mathematical parts of programming is always tedious and error-prone for me. Eventually, however, I did it and produced a set of image files for each elevation I wanted. I then imported these image files into Adobe Illustrator, used its "trace" feature to turn the raster image into a vector image, and voila! All done. Now it only took me about a day to write the program, and just a couple hours to get the image into Illustrator, so this was a huge net win for me. If you want to see the program source code, you can see it here.

There were, however, two bits of outstanding business remaining from this process. The first is that the elevation data and the river data came from different sources and as a result don’t quite line up. If you look very, very closely at the Stavka map, you will find places where rivers, rather than running down their valleys, run next to them instead. Cleaning this up is still a task remaining to be done. The second bit of outstanding business is that the nominal resolution of the digital data and its actual resolution weren’t always the same. In some cases the actual resolution was lower, and it looks to me like this was the case for the below-sea-level data around the Caspian Sea. Visually, there seem to be some blocky digital artifacts present and I will likely hand-smooth out the worst cases of that at some point.

Well, this was a longer entry than I meant to make, and it may well be more than you want to know, but I thought it was interesting and so passed it on.

18 November, 2010

One piece of unsatisfactory business about The Guns of Gettysburg noted in the design diary was the design for the box bottom. In the time since, I’ve re-done that design in what I think is an entirely more satisfactory way. It keeps the things I liked about the old design while fixing the things I didn’t like. Anyway, here it is:

Gettysburg Box Bottom

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

The interesting thing (to me) is that to make it I composited a real photograph of the pieces with the digital art for the board. I tried taking actual photographs of the board, but they just didn’t work. The problem is that the production path for the real board will be like this:

    Computer File => Printed Board

But the production path for a picture of the board will be like this:

    Computer File => Camera => Computer File => Printed Board

If you had a good enough camera and good enough technique, I suppose, you might be able to make the second production path look as good as the first, but I have neither and the picture of the board never could match the quality of the actual printed board. And so, I was able to best reproduce the board for the box by reproducing the production path that the printed board itself will take:

    Computer File => Printed Box

Incidentally, I snuck the source maps for the Stavka board into the research section here if you're interested. There is something of a story there, but I will wait until a later entry to tell it. That’s it for now.

17 November, 2010

As I mentioned in the previous entry, I will be making changes in the way I run the business. I’ve never talked much about the business side of things, but some discussion will be necessary to make sense of what’s going on.

One of the things I’ve come to dislike about the way I’ve been doing things is the levels of inventory I’ve been running, which have been deliberately high in order to avoid any risks from lost sales. I think, however, that while I will eventually sell everything, in the meantime I just am keeping too much working capital tied up in inventory. Another issue has been the slow release schedule. I had hoped when I started to do a game a year and of course I haven’t come close to that. Finally, in addition to being slow, releases have been really unpredictable: games get stalled and I can’t figure out how to fix them and so nothing much happens for months at a time.

My overall plan for dealing with these issues has been to: (1) hold off releasing new games to let inventory levels on the existing games drop, (2) Build up a backlog of releasable games so that a new game can be released when one is wanted, and (3) to begin a program of parallel, rather than serial, game development.

While I hope that in the long term this plan will make the business better, in the short term it has been making it worse. I’ve been deliberately holding back on releasing GoG to give inventory levels of the existing games time to drop further and to allow new games in development to get further along.

Because I want to keep these entries short, I’m going to more or less close off here, but I thought I’d drop a picture of the board of one of the in-progress titles, which has the working title of Stavka. What I’m showing isn’t much beyond physical geography, but the regulatory layer (the art that regulates movement and combat) is coming along and early playtesting should begin before long. Anyway, here’s the map art as it currently stands:

Stavka Map

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

16 November, 2010

This is an idea that I’ve been playing with for a long time now. Starting with Napoleon’s Triumph, I began communicating what I was up to with design diaries. While I’m not saying I won’t do that again, I believe I will try this for a while instead and see how it works. The main issues I had with the design diaries: were (1) the format was rather restrictive, and (2) I got into the habit of a relatively small number of high-effort entries.

As I will be discussing in a later blog entry, I’m going to be making some changes to the way I run the business, and the restrictive format was going to be a bigger problem than it has been, and I think I would communicate more often if I was working in a lower-effort format.

I know that the main thing on everybody’s mind is likely to be the status of The Guns of Gettysburg, and I just want to reassure folks that the game is fine. There aren’t any open issues with it and the various art files and such are ready for production, although the rules (as always) could probably benefit from yet another proofing pass. The game is very largely the same as it was when I last wrote, although I have been doing a little tinkering with the map graphics.

As I am wont to do, I ran the map graphics up really close to the map edge. In terms of production, this isn't a good idea, as I know, but somehow I keep pushing the limits on this. When I added the labels for the entry areas in the margin, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back; my margins were down to about 1/8", and that just isn’t enough. Fixing it was a bit of a nuisance: I didn't want to reduce map area, and the size of the pieces locks in the physical scale of the positions. After a while, though, I decided that I could shrink the map area by about 1.5% without impacting playability, and that would give me the extra space on the margins I needed. It was kind of a pain to actually do, for a number of reasons, but it really was necessary.

I also continued to play with the use of color and how elevation is represented. I thought how I had it was ok, but I didn’t really want it to be ok, I really wanted to love it. (There are many things about GoG that I love, but the map color unfortunately has never been one of them.) After making some tests, I decided to get rid of the edge enhancement I was using (which was also used in NT) for contour edges and just go with a more traditional contour line. The thing was, the edge enhancement doesn't work well when the lines get too close together, as they did in a number of important places on the GoG map. Anyway, the revised map is shown below:

Gettysburg Map

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

Do I love the map colors? Not quite. It is a handsome map, historically accurate and highly playable, but the color is just ok. Sigh. That’s it for now — remember, shorter entries is one of the main points of this format change — but I do have quite a bit more to say on a number of subjects and plan to address them soon.