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Designer’s Blog: December, 2016

31 December, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 December, 2016

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

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

Plato's Laches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chuck Jones and The “Yes” Session

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Generate ideas. What might be useful?

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

Computing and the Combinatorial Explosion

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

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

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

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

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

3. Combinatorial play to build a solution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(As before, click to open.)

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

(You guessed it: click to open.)

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