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 News August, 2014

Designer’s Blog: August, 2014

8 August, 2014

You know, most designers don’t do their own art. They design with roughed-out art, and when everything is ready, they hand it off to an artist to make it pretty. Among those designers who do their art themselves, I’m pretty sure they still follow that two-stage process: design first, art second. That is really a very sensible way to go about things, much better than the way I do it, which is to produce art before the design is set, throw it away when the design changes, do more art, change the design, throw that art away, etc. If you ask me why I do it the way I do, the only real explanation I have is that the design doesn’t feel real to me without art. And so, inefficiency and illogic rules the day.

And so, even though I have nothing resembling a finished design, I have some art to share. I may change it. I may keep it. Who knows? But this is where I am right now:

Stavka Sample Art

The black circles are points designating cities. (Riga is a major city, which is why it gets the solid black dot in its circle.) If you see any name issues, by the way, don‘t stress. Very little effort has gone into getting the names spelled right at this stage. Anyway, the little diamonds indicate movement directions that are legal. For example, the diamond at Saldus pointing to Riga (with the corresponding diamond at Riga pointing to Saldus) indicates that it is legal to move directly between Saldus and Riga. Mostly, this is pretty intuitive in practice. If two cities seem close enough that you can should be able move between them, you almost certainly can, and if they seem too far away, you almost certainly can’t. There are no intentional gotcha’s hidden in the map, and the diamonds serve mainly to eliminate ambiguity in edge cases. Oh, and also to mark terrain. The color of the diamonds indicate whether there is any terrain penalty. White means none, blue means a river penalty, green means a forest penalty, and brown (not shown here) means a mountain penalty.

And there is not a lot more to it than that.

Now, you might well wonder why I don’t connect the cities with lines to indicate when you can move between them. As far as I know, every other point-to-point game does, and the previous iteration of Stavka did as well. Well, mostly, I just don’t like the visual clutter of all those lines. But there is another reason as well, having to do with a hidden feature of the point-to-point designs generally work. This will take a little explanation, but I’ll give it a go.

Generally speaking (I know of no exceptions, but it is certainly possible that instances exist unknown to me and so I hedge), in a point-to-point game, the lines connecting the points do not intersect except at points. In fact, the intersection of lines can be understood as what defines a point. (In this view, the map is not a set of points connected by lines, but a set of lines where points mark intersections.) When you draw the lines on the map, not allowing lines to intersect except at points seems very sensible, because the point-less intersections just seem odd. Still, you can get into difficult design situations where points are arranged in roughly a square, and it would be sensible to have lines running through both diagonals, but you can’t without either: (1) putting a point there, which might not make sense in terms of point density, or (2) having lines intersect at a non-point. And so, only one diagonal line can be drawn, even though it would make more sense to have two.

I have run into this repeatedly when I have played with point-to-point designs, and have never failed to be annoyed with it. And so, a second, subtle reason for the current line-free Stavka design, is that it will allow me to smuggle in diagonals in both directions (as wanted) without it being obvious that that’s what I’m doing. (Sadly, the art example doesn’t show one of these.) It is a very small thing, but in designing the map, I find it very liberating.

Anyway, that’s it for this entry. I still am working on figuring out what cities go on the map; I’m maybe a third done with that right now.

6 August, 2014

First, I’d like to thank the various people who have expressed their support and good wishes in the wake of my coming out. It is very much appreciated.

But that really isn’t what this blog entry is about.

What I wanted to talk about was Stavka. First, simply, I have resumed work on the game after a long time away from it and I plan to make it my next game. I have no definite plans as to how to release it at this point, but I have had no lack of interest from publishers, so if I do not feel that I want to continue Simmons Games as an independent publisher, I am still confident that I can get the game released. In any case, that’s a problem for later. The problem at the moment is that the game isn’t done yet.

When I left off development previously, the main problem was the map, which really wasn’t working. Although the game was notionally a point-to-point system, I had imposed constraints on the map design that drove me to space the points far apart and at a very narrow range of distances. These two, taken together, resulted in a rather unsatisfactory map, both from a historical and game play perspective.

From a historical perspective, the decision to space the points so uniformly made it very difficult to make good use of the historically important locations in the war. I kept being forced to ignore major cities and include small towns, just because the small towns were at the right locations for points and the major cities were not. It made for a very odd map.

Things were much worse from a game play perspective. The distances between the points were too great for any operational fidelity (even at the level of a resolutly strategic level game such as this), so that game play suffered from a poverty of options in terms of the movement and positioning of forces. Second, the fixed distances tended to force a grid-like design on the arrangement of the points, producing stereotyped play that didn’t vary with location on the map.

Now, to put this in perspective, poorly-functioning maps are a common problem in the game design process for me. Both Bonaparte at Marengo and The Guns of Gettysburg had major map problems that had to be corrected during the design process. The problems come up, you work through them.

As part of working through them, in the last several days, I’ve been re-thinking the map system for Stavka and have had some very promising ideas on how to redesign for a higher-density of points and less uniformity in their arrangement. I have resumed work on the map in order to test them out. I have very little to show at this point though: just a mess of in-progress map artwork dominated by measurement graphics, which you can see a sample of below:

Stavka Measurements

Basically, the black circles are proposed point locations, and the transluscent blue circles around them are measurement devices to help me be aware of minimum and maximum distances between connected points that I try to maintain in the layout. (In this design, "connected" points are to be between 0.75" and 1.5" apart, which some exceptions permitted here and there.)

If you think it looks god-awful, you're right. But you're looking at the scaffolding around the building, not the building itself, so try not to panic. Once I’ve finished the layout, I’ll replace this crap with actual production artwork. And I’ll let you see it then.