Home Store Products Research Design Strategy Support News
 News February, 2011

Designer’s Blog: February, 2011

26 February, 2011

Playtesting has been continuing with the 2nd edition of Bonaparte at Marengo, with the current version being V14 (the same as V13, but with lower initial morale). I think that V14 is a step in the right direction from V13, and I think that the lower morale helps the mid-game, but I remain concerned about the endgame.

There are three endgame problems, I think. First, allowing the Austrians to win by taking any three of the nine objectives is spreading the French too thin along a north-south line. Second, and this is related to the first, having nine objective locales that need to be protected, creates defensive depth problems for the French if one or more Austrian cavalry pieces sneak through the French lines. Third, the northern objectives are more attractive to the Austrians than they should be, from a historical perspective, owing to their distance from the French 4:00PM reinforcements. All of these together create a fourth problem, a balance problem where endgame play excessively favors the Austrians. (Superior French early and mid-game play can still result in French wins in V14, but if the early or mid-game is close, or favors the Austrians, a French win in the endgame would be quite difficult.) Overall, I don’t think that this set of objectives is likely to produce a satisfactory endgame — and certainly not one that is better than V12, which remains the best version of the game played to date.

And so, I am looking at a revamp of the objective locale design that is intended to address all of these issues, tentatively planned for a V15 version. First, the number of objective locales has been cut from 9 to 6, however, the Austrians only need to take 2 of them rather than 3 to accomplish a marginal victory. The distribution of the objectives has also been changed: rather than being distributed 3-3-3 on the northern, central, and southern roads, they are distributed 1-2-3, with one on the northern road, two on the central road, and three on the southern road.

So, how are the revised objectives supposed to improve the game? Well, first, it allows the French to lose the northern road without automatically losing the game, since there is only one objective there and the Austrians need two to win. This reduces the north-south coverage strain on the French; it is helpful for the French to defend the northern road, but it isn’t absolutely necessary. Second, the reduction in the number of objectives reduces the defense depth problem. Third, the “tilt” in the objectives towards the south will increase the number of games where the southern road is the main point of contention, as it was historically. And of course, the end result should be a more competitive endgame, that (hopefully) will be as good or better than that of V12. That’s the theory, anyway.

You can see the planned revisions for V15 below. Also present are a few minor graphical adjustments, to move some of the roads away from the extreme corners of the locales, where they can be hard to read:

Marengo Board

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

20 February, 2011

Well, we’ve gotten some more playtest results on V13 of the 2nd edition of Bonaparte at Marengo. I think the opening game is quite nice in V13, more interesting and more historical than in V12. However, the mid-game is another story. Balance has been an issue as a repeated theme in the mid-game has been for the Austrians to get hung up on the Bormida and break out very late or not at all. (The mid-game play hasn't been boring, just unbalanced.) Also, the French morale is so high that an Austrian victory by French demoralization is too hard to achieve. Because of the mid-game problems, it is hard to properly assess the endgame; the end-game redesign of the objectives might work, or it might not.

Looking forward, I think that V13 has enough going for it to merit some additional development work. I think the proper thing to test is lower starting morale levels: in V13 the initial morale levels are A17/F13 (Austrian 17, French 13), and I intend to try a V14 with initial morale levels of A14/F11. No changes to the objectives yet; if we can get a version that enters the endgame in better shape than V13, that will be the time to assess the endgame.

Things have been quiet on Stavka as I’ve been considering alternatives to making the winter of 41-42 play better. I have some ideas partly worked out, but haven’t tried them out yet.

I have also been trying to work out some issues on an idea I have for the game after Stavka. The potential subject for that game is an operational game based on the campaigns between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia in the American Civil War. I have made some progress, but not enough that I feel like starting active development.

The basic problem with an ACW operational game is avoiding having a game where the players spend all their time marching forces around before battle, and end the game by rolling a die to determine out who wins the battle, which settles the outcome of the campaign, making all the marching the players did kind of irrelevant. One thing designers sometimes do is to create some sort of battle-board (the game Napoleon, for example, does this) where the players take the pieces off the main board and use them to fight the battle in a sort of abstract space. I’m not enthusiastic about this approach, as the generic battles aren’t interesting to me in terms of game play or history. I understand why designers do it, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it or want to do it myself. Anyway, I have some thoughts on the subject, but I’m by no means sold that I have a solution, and I don’t want to start work in the absence of an idea on how I intend to have the game work in this critical area.

13 February, 2011

Well, let’s see. There was a face-to-face playtest with the revision of Bonaparte at Marengo shown below. (In playtest terms, it is referred to as V13; the prior version was V12.) The first test of V13 ended up with a fairly easy French victory, but the Austrian player thought that it was better French play, rather than the game balance, that was the cause. Another playtest has started, using Cyberboard, which has already revealed at least one change to V13 that would need to be made to it.

The most recent test of BaM2 V12 ended in an Austrian victory, which I think reflected the play of the opposing players. (The French player described his play as how NOT to conduct a French withdrawal.) V12 is a quite solid game, but the jury is still very much out on V13. Maybe there is something good there, or maybe not. I do think that the opening game is more interesting than in V12, so there is some promise there and as of now it merits further investigation.

Another Stavka playtest took place. For once I’m pretty happy about play up until winter of 1941-42, which is a pretty big deal in the game’s development. However, I’m not happy with the play of the 41-42 winter itself, which I think is too skewed in favor of the Soviets. Whether I should just adjust production numbers or whether rules changes are needed is not yet known. (There are special rules for winter in general, and special rules for the winter of '41 in particular, but these are not yet working as I would like.)

Overall, things are pretty encouraging on the testing front, but it is always a long process.

10 February, 2011

Well, it’s been a few days since my last entry. I have been more or less stuck for a while on both the 2nd edition of Bonaparte at Marengo and Stavka.

In the case of BaM2, it really came down to whether or not the game was done. Was there anything more I really wanted to do or try? The development direction I had been working on since I reset the initial morale levels for the opposing armies had, I think, pretty much played out. The game was solid and worked well, and tweaking it wasn’t going to make it significantly better. But was the direction I had set out on the best direction for the game? That’s always hard to say because there is no fixed number of directions a game can go, so there isn’t a list you can check off. It essentially is a problem of creativity, of seeing new possibilities and ways to get there.

I had been poking around with a few ideas for some time for BaM2, but they hadn’t really jelled into anything I was in a big hurry to try. I ended up spending a number of days when I really didn’t think about game design at all, and that was probably a good thing. Sometimes in a design, you can feel like you’re just driving around in the same circles over and over again, driving the ruts deeper and deeper but otherwise not accomplishing anything.

Anyway, after being poked by the playtesters as to whether there was anything new for them to try, I suddenly realized that there was. You can see the map revision below:

Marengo Board

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

Now, the revisions are not that obvious, so I’ll call them out to you.

First, the locales near the Austrian entry locale have been revised in a way discussed in an earlier entry. Second, the initial morale levels of both armies have been raised (from 9 to 13 for the French, and from 12 to 17 for the Austrians), and third, the objective locales have been completely revised, now being all of one color and arranged along the three east-west main roads rather than along the eastern edge of the map. Unseen changes not reflected om the map are to the rules, which now allow the French to initially activate two pieces instead of one, and redefine an Austrian marginal victory as the simultaneous occupation of any three objective locales.

Now, to understand these changes, it is best to start with the reason why they are being made. The first goal is for the game to have more combat. The second goal is to make the opening game more interesting. The third goal is to make the closing game more interesting.

So, how is this supposed to work? Why are these changes supposed to effect these changes?

First of all, the ultimate limiting factor on the amount of fighting in the game is morale. Once one army or the other reaches demoralization, that ends the game. So, if the armies are already fighting to demoralization (or very near to it), then the only way to increase the amount of fighting in the game is to increase the morale levels of the opposing armies.

Second, the opening of the game generally takes place at the bottleneck near the Borminda river, and the French generally hold it as long as their morale holds out. Now, this isn’t where the historical French resistance took place and it isn’t that interesting a place (in game terms) for the French to fight. Historically, the main French initial resistance was a little further back, on the Fontanone, which would also, in game terms, would be a more interesting place for combat. Thus, both history and the game suggest that having more action taking place on the Fontanone would be a good thing. Effecting this, however, is a subtle problem. Partly this is achieved by the redesign of the entry locales, but the increased morale levels also play a role, so that the French have the morale required to defend the Fontanone longer, should they wish to do so. (The main constraint on the length of time the French can hold the Bormida bottleneck is the number of pieces they can activate early in the game.) However, having increased French morale, it has been made possible for the French to delay the Austrians for a longer time; that leaves the Austrians less time to reach the objectives. To offset this, the objectives have been moved closer.

Fourth, the objectives have been changed to require a wider French commitment and to give the Austrians more ways in which they can achieve a marginal victory. Previously, for a marginal victory, the Austrians had to pretty much win by a northern strategy or a southern strategy — in both cases combined with a push in the center; the theoretical Austrian combination of a push in the north and south but not in the center rarely appears in practice. The change to the objectives is to allow the Austrians a richer set of ways to a marginal victory. They could take the three locales all in the south, all in the center, all in the north, or any combination of northern, central, or southern objectives.

So, that’s the theory. How about practice? Does it work? No idea as of yet. Not everything that looks good on paper necessarily works in practice. Always, in game design, the test is when people actually play the game. I could have screwed this up in any number of ways. Maybe the initial morale levels are now too high and the Austrians can’t break through (at all, or in time to threaten a marginal victory). Maybe the balance is now broken. Maybe the objective changes spread the French too thin. Maybe the entry locale redesign combined with the activation rules allows the Austrians a way to slip past the French defenses before the French can wake up. And finally, maybe the resulting game just isn’t a better game than the previous version; maybe it works in terms of what I was trying to do, but maybe it isn’t as much fun as I thought it would be.

There are a lot of uncertainties about something like this, and I have had enough changes blow up in my face that I have a cautious attitude about them, but certainly I hope that the game will be better. I have plenty of time to get this ready, and I would really like it to be the best game that I can make it, as is true of all the games I design. If it isn’t, then for me at least, there is no reason to do it at all.

6 February, 2011

I thought I would take some time away from my own games and talk about somebody else’s. Below you can see what is, for me, an old friend: The fire table from Wellington’s Victory, a game on the battle of Waterloo, designed by Frank Davis and published by SPI back in the 70’s:

Wellington’s Victory Fire Table

Now, I always loved the design of this table. At first, it can appear a little complicated, but it is actually wondrously easy to use and is extremely cool. Let’s suppose we wanted to resolve an attack by an 8 gun battery of French heavy artillery against a regiment of British cavalry at a range of 4 hexes.

To do this, we start by tracing down from the top-left corner of the table until we find the correct line for the firing unit. Now, in Wellington’s Victory, 4 hexes is medium range for artillery, so we would use the line labelled “Three Rank Line/Med Range Art”. This is step 1 of 5:

Wellington’s Victory Fire Table

Next, in step 2, having located the correct line for the firing unit, we trace along it to the right until we find correct column for the strength of the firing unit. In the case of an artillery unit, the strength of the unit is the number of guns. Thus, our 8-gun battery has a strength of 8. We will use the column labelled “7,8”:

Wellington’s Victory Fire Table

Next, we need to trace down and then figure out which sub-column to use (1, 2, or 3) which is based on the firing class of the firing unit. (The lower the number the better.) For artillery, heavy artillery is firing class 1, medium artillery is class 2, and light artillery is class 3. Our artillery in this attack is heavy, and so it will use the class 1 sub-column:

Wellington’s Victory Fire Table

We have completed finding the right column on which to resolve our attack. Now we need to find the correct row. For that, we scan down the ”Target Class” labels until we find the one that corresponds to our target. Our target is cavalry, and so the target class labelled “Line and Cavalry Formations” is the one we want. Our target is target class 2:

Wellington’s Victory Fire Table

Next, to find the correct sub-row, we roll a die and trace down until the find the correct number. If we rolled a “4”, then we would (of course) use the sub-line labelled “4”:

Wellington’s Victory Fire Table

And, finally, we cross-index the sub-column we located earlier and the sub-line we just found, and the number where they intersect is the result: A loss of “2” strength points to the target:

Wellington’s Victory Fire Table

And for review, we can see all the steps showing how we got there at once:

Wellington’s Victory Fire Table

Now, the neat thing about this table is that it uses no modifiers, requires no calculations or arithmetic, and can handle every type of fire combat in the game in a single table. Love this design. Since, however, we are interested in critiquing as well as appreciating design, there are some critical points I will make.

First, the choice of the word “class” for both the firing unit and the target is unfortunate and unnecessarily confusing. For either, the word “category”, for example, could have been chosen, avoiding the unnecessary overloading of the world class.

Second, having the lower numbers of the firing class be better is contrary to the general direction of the design, in which higher numbers are better: higher strengths are better, higher morales are better, higher cannon-weights are better, and so on. Given this, the best firing class should have been firing class 3. This would also have allowed the design of the 3 sub-columns to get better left-to-right, which is consistent with the graphical direction of the design.

Third, the target classes would have been better to have been reversed, so that the least-vulnerable classes were in the top row, and the most-vulnerable in the bottom row. This would have had two benefits. First, it would have generally oriented the table so that the worst results were to the top-left and the best restuls were in the bottom-right, which is visually consistent. Second, it would also have facilitated a more logical scan: for example, if we were looking for a line-infantry formation in soft-cover, then scanning from top to bottom we would then have found the soft-cover line first, which is the correct one to use. The numbers used for target classes, are by the way, inherently ambiguous: as to whether “1” represents a “better” target class than “2” depends on whether the perspective is that of the shooter or the target. The numbers can certainly be reversed if that is desired.

Now, let’s just do a little table redesign. We won’t change any of the values, or the basic concept of the table, we’ll just re-arrange things a bit in line with the above critique and see how it looks:

Wellington’s Victory Fire Table

I don’t think the improvement is anything dramatic, but I do think that the changes do make the table more consistent in how it is read, even if the effect is fairly subtle.

There is one interesting effect to the way I’ve re-arranged things, and that is that the upper-left corner, which is visually the easiest corner to reach, in that when we trace horizontal and vertical lines, the shortest lines reach the upper-left corner, while the longest lines reach the bottom-right. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? This, and more substantial WV design questions are something I will be taking up at a later date.

2 February, 2011

Well, I’ve started working on trying to lay out play aids on the mapboard of Stavka but I haven’t been particularly happy with the initial results. The initial layout attempts have all resulted in a rather cluttered and messy-looking board. I think I need to step back and re-think this.

The 2nd edition of Bonaparte at Marengo continues to be playtested. I think it is a good game, but I have this sense that if I could see how, I could make it a better game. It may be that the various locale revisions discussed previously would do the job, but I’m not completely sold. The first few turns still have too little in the way of play variations for me to be completely happy. I think I need to think some more about this too.

Overall, a day more characterized by dissatisfaction than with positive progress, but, taking a more positive perspective, improvement begins with dissatisfaction with the status quo.

1 February, 2011

It’s been a while since I had any new artwork to show (apart from reporting on old The Guns of Gettysburg art that I sent off for printer quotes). But, here is some actual, new art added to the Stavka map. What’s new here are country names and river/lake/sea names.

Now, rivers are about the only place on this map where I curved text along a line and very nearly the only place where text isn’t oriented to be read from the south side of the map. Curving text along river courses is an old map-making technique, and I saw no reason to depart from it here.

I did try out curving the names of large bodies of water (like the Baltic Sea) and writing them in a much larger font, but it was much too distracting; there is no naval component to the game, and the graphic design needs to reflect that. And so, the names for even the largest bodies of water on the map are written in a moderate-sized font and are in a low-contrast medium blue against the background water light blue. For the same reason, I also decided against labeling some other bodies of water (such as the Gulf of Riga) in order to avoid pulling the eye too much towards water.

Country names have also been added. They are semi-transparent, so that they can be written in larger font sizes (as befits the names of large areas) without overwhelming the eye. As I mentioned in a previous post, the political boundaries shown are those in effect on 22 June, 1941, which means they are mostly the result of actions on the part of the two antagonists: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The German-made borders did not survive past 1945, but as the winners, the Soviets were able to preserve their border “adjustments” in the post-war world.

There is one special situation I’d like you to note: the oddly-named Generalgouvernement (General Government), which basically covers a rump Polish territory after annexations had been made by Germany and the Soviet Union. It might be thought that Poland would have been the obvious name for this territory, but the Nazi government did not want a place called “Poland” to appear anywhere on any map, nor the name “Poland” to appear in any official documents. At the same time, they were not willing to incorporate the territory’s large Polish population into Germany proper. And thus, the deliberately non-descriptive name, “General Government”.

Anyway, you can see the map as a whole below as it currently stands.

Stavka Board

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