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 News November, 2017

Designer’s Blog: November, 2017

27 November, 2017

I did a lot of things in the first edition of Bonaparte at Marengo that worked really well, but the assault balance between attack and defense was shifted too far towards the defense. I had initially been over-focused on the fighting on the Fontanone as my model, terrain that had strongly favored the defender, and had baked too much of its strength into the assault model rather than the terrain model.

So, one of the goals for the new version of BaM was a set of assault rules that were less punitive to the attacker. The implementation details changed early and often during playtesting, but this as a goal never wavered. Shown below are the steps of the assault example from the rules, with annotations describing how each step changed from its equivalent in the first edition of the game.

Assault declaration in the new edition is extremely minimalist. It just identifies the attack and defense approaches and says nothing about which pieces will be making the attack. Napoleon’s Triumph veterans should see something familiar here in its resemblance to the “Attack Threat” step in its attack procedure. This change, by forcing the defender to respond while knowing so little about what is coming, is one element of how the balance between attack and defense is shifted in the new edition.

The first consequence of the change in the attack sequence is apparent here in that the defender has to name the defense leading piece without knowing what piece will lead the attack. This pressures the defender make his choice on a worst-case scenario basis. Naming a 1-strength leading piece, as the defender does in this example, is generally quite dangerous, as in most of the terrain on the board that piece will lose if the attacker has a 3-strength infantry or 2-strength cavalry available to lead the attack.

And in fact, in this example, the attacker does have a 3-strength infantry to lead the attack. The attacker also names a second piece as participating in the attack. In the first edition, naming additional attacking pieces in an assault was often of crucial importance, as there was a restriction that only the pieces participating in the assault could enter the defense locale after a winning assault. Without enough advancing pieces, a victorious attacker risked being driven right back out by the defender in their turn, forcing the attacker to start the process all over again. The new edition is more forgiving in that it relaxes that restriction. In this example, the attacker could choose to name just the leading piece as the attack piece, and, if successful, use additional commands to move additional pieces into the defense locale later that same turn.

One step of the assault procedure that didn’t much change between the two editions was artillery defense. The only change I made was to prevent artillery defense if there was an artillery penalty in the attack approach. (This restriction really should have been in the first edition as well; its omission was just an error on my part.) As an additional note, in the game, artillery defense is an odd thing: you rarely see it (the French artillery piece tends to arrive late, and the Austrians tend to use their artillery offensively) but when it does occur it can be dramatic in its consequences.

The defense counter-attack is new to this edition of Bonaparte at Marengo, and was borrowed in large part from the combat sequence of Napoleon's Triumph. What the first edition had was a cavalry pursuit step, which this edition does not. The simulation function of the old cavalry pursuit rule is carried into the counter-attack rule, but the counter-attack rule has broader use and functionality. Because counter-attacking pieces take immediate reductions, they are expensive for the defender and are more a desperate measure than a solid basis for a defense. If this assault had occurred in a real game, the defender would probably not have counter-attacked here; in most cases, preserving the strength of the cavalry for later use would have been the preferred defense tactic.

The only change to this step was a consequence of adding counter-attacks to the assault sequence. It is otherwise the same as the first edition. For a long time in playtesting, however, there was a change that allowed the attacker to win if all the defense pieces in the approach were eliminated, regardless of the differential. There were two reasons that was tried: first, it was frankly counter-intuitive to have the defender eliminated and yet win, and second, the change shifted the balance towards the attacker, which was a result I wanted. In practice, however, that change had a serious negative side effect in flattening the differentiation between the different types of pieces, making the game less interesting and less historical at the same time. And so, somewhat reluctantly, I backed the change out and went back to allowing an eliminated defender to win.

The calculation of reductions substantially changed. In the first edition, it was one for each enemy leading piece plus (for the loser only) one for each point of the result. The new edition uses a different formula that about in most cases produces fewer reductions for the loser. The motivation of the change was to make it less costly for the attacker to make attritional assaults to weaken a defensive position, preparatory to a final assault to break it.

There was no change to the rules governing reduction assessment. Reductions still apply first to the leading pieces, divided as evenly as possible, with the excess distributing to non-leading pieces participating in the assault.

There were two changes here: both simplifying and both shifting the balance towards the attacker. First, the attacker withdrawal rule for when the attacker lost an assault was simply dropped. Second, the exception preventing retreat reductions from applying to pieces in the defense approach was likewise dropped. Of these, the first was the more important because it is a pretty routine event in the game. The second is less important because the defender has to be pretty weak to lose an assault and so the defense pieces in the defense approach are often eliminated before the retreat anyway.

In reading this entry, it might strike you that this is a lot of down and dirty detail stuff. And so it is. But if you’re interested in my design process, dealing with these sorts of issues is a lot of what I do. In fact, this entry only hits on the major points of the evolution of the assault rules in the game. For every assault rules change mentioned about, there were about ten more which were tried and discarded during the playtest process. And that's only the changes that actually made it into the actual rules and reached the playtesters. For every one of those, there were probably ten more that were considered, but discarded based on comparison with alternatives and thought experiments, and which even the playtesters never saw.

And so, for me, a lot of my process isn’t about big flashes of inspiration, it is about just slowly grinding through different alternatives, often on pretty minor points of detail, trying to find the best combination of them that makes for the best game. And that was very much the process governing the development of the assault rules for this edition.

26 November, 2017

In late 2016, I had resumed work on a new edition of Bonaparte at Marengo (continuing a new edition effort I had started and stopped back in 2011). One of the changes I was making was to replace the morale track with morale tokens. I didn‘t think much about it at the time. It made managing morale increases over time easier for the players to keep track of, saved space on the map, and looked nice, but I had no great plans for them otherwise.

But as playtesting proceeded, and especially after it started running into problems in early 2017, I began to feel somewhat dissatisfied with the morale tokens I had added. It wasn’t that they were bad, but it felt like they were under-used, that if I was including them in the game, I really should do more with them when I was doing. But, by March, when I stopped playtesting and put the design on hold, I hadn’t come up with anything more in particular for them to do. It just felt like there ought to be something worthwhile there.

Of course, after March, I was pretty fried, which made it hard to work on that or any other game design problem. But, still, the idea kept coming up as the weeks went by. I would periodically play with ideas for an hour or two, then move on to something else. My initial thoughts were that maybe I could use them as a sort of assault modifier: expend a morale token, get a +1, that sort of thing. I also got the idea of putting them in locales, where they could function like a pot in poker: players could ante in with them, call, and raise, that sort of thing, and at the end, whoever had more tokens in the pot would have an advantage in the attack, and after the attack the loser would lose any tokens they put into the pot for the locale.

I thought of a lot of variants of this sort of thing, but while they seemed kind of interesting in a theortical-game-play sort of sense, none of them seemed like the sort of thing that would make BaM, as a specific game, better, or address the problems that had caused me to abandon work on it.

This process of playing with design ideas continued through the summer. I would think of something, critically examine it, then drop it. And some days later I might do it again with another idea. By August, I was mentally recharged enough that I could actually think about the problem in a sustained and systematic way: What specific problems did I need to solve? What could I come up with to address them? This focus on problem solving gave my creative process the focus it needed to really make it productive.

By September, I was actually working through the details of a specific method for using morale tokens, rather than just trying to think of new ideas to try. My main problem, I decided, was the endgame, which typically kind of petered out as an exercise in time management rather than combat. The midgame, I felt, contributed to the endgame problems in that it just took too long for the Austrians to drive across the map, leaving the Austrians with very little time to do much of anything. The opening game was the only phase of the game that was actually working pretty well. The endgame and midgame, in their own ways, suffered from basically the same problem: the game made it too easy for the French to set up defensive positions, force the Austrians to deploy to attack them, and then just pull back to avoid an actual battle.

And so, I made my focus on the use of morale tokens on the map to increase the cost of abandoning a defensive position. The act of blocking or having pieces lead a defense against an assault would cause morale tokens to be put in the defense locale: if that locale was subsequently lost, the tokens were lost as well. This system also tended (as a good thing) to simulate the historical tendency of armies of the period to fixate on certain pieces of terrain. In the game, successive attacks on a position caused every-increasing numbers of tokens to accumulate there, making that position into a piece of critical terrain where the battle would be either won or lost, so that both armies would tend to rush reserves there.

This basic system was what prompted me to restart playtesting in September. That the morale token commitment idea was a winner was clear even before the first September playtest game was complete. More testing and adjustments were needed to get the game ready for print, but the idea worked. The change made the game more interesting and historically accurate at the same time, at only a very modest increase in complexity.

And for some eye candy, here is a game photo with some committed morale tokens.

Anyway, this carries the narrative to September. Discussing how the design evolved from September to the present I will leave for later blog entries.

25 November, 2017

In my last post, I promised a discussion about the problems I had in the design of the new edition of Bonaparte at Marengo. In this post, I’m going to talk about what led to the abandonment of the design back in March.

Sometimes, pictures can tell the tale. If you look at the series of map illustration below, the areas in red are the different Austrian objective areas I had through different versions leading up to March. What this series shows is an uncontrolled design process that simply can’t make up its mind where it’s going. Map 1 shows the objective area when I started. I then progressed to map 2, where I made the objective area larger. Next came map 3, where I made the objective area larger (slightly) again. Then in map 4, I reversed direction and made the objectvies smaller (close to, but not the same, as they were in map 1). Then in map 5, I made them smaller still. Then in map 6, I reversed direction (again) made them larger again (close to, but not the same, as they were in map 2). Then in map 7, I made them much larger. And then, in map 8, I reversed direction again and made them smaller. There was no map 9, not because map 8 worked, but because the design effort was exhausted and had nowhere else really to go.

As a process, the above sequence doesn't converge on anything. It lacks direction. It is aimless wandering, trying to find something that worked. What's more, there is additional variability that the above doesn't show: some versions had different colored stars for objectives, other versions required different numbers of Austrian pieces in the objective area, others different numbers of occupied locales, and others awarded ”points“ based on a combination of pieces and locales. I went through 42 different versions of rules in this time, and it was a quiet version that didn’t change how the objectives worked in some way. While adjusting the objectives, I also was constantly tinkering with morale levels, raising and lowering first one army’s morale, then the other’s. (If I were to graph morale levels, you would see a similar aimless wandering as you see with the objectives.)

So why was I doing this? Well, what I was trying to do was produce a version that was balanced and with an endgame that represented the climax of a Napoleonic battle. What I kept getting were versions where the French avoided battle altogether by withdrawing at the end, or versions where the French got overwhelmed at the end and couldn't offer battle. Occasionally I would get an interesting game, and thought maybe I was on to something, only to have subsequent games fall back into one or the other negative pattern. And it was here that, out of ideas, I abandoned the project. I had gotten stuck on design problems before, but I don’t remember ever feeling so exhausted and beaten before.

But, sometimes, a design is a phoenix, and arises anew from the ashes of its own self-destruction. And so it was in this case. The story of how the design returned to life six months after its demise I will take up in my next post.

24 November, 2017

Wow. It's been a while, and there is much to say.

But rather than bury the lede, I have good news: the new edition of Bonaparte at Marengo has completed playtesting and is being readied for production. (These tasks include proofing, packaging, production specifications, etc.) It is a fine game, and very much what I hoped it would be. I think people will really enjoy it.

Here's a look at the post-playtest mapboard:

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

So, what's been going on? Why haven't I updated this blog for so many months?

Well, back in March, the redesign effort for BaM crashed and burned. I had exhausted all of my ideas, and although I had gone through many (too many, actually) variations on the design, the version-to-version changes simply hadn‘t ever converged on what I had wanted the game to be. I had reached the point where I was creatively blocked and emotionally spent. It was a major bummer, but I shut down playtesting. And, on top of that, I had family stuff going on that was a major emotional distraction.

I just didn’t do anything materially game related at all until September. While I had a new concept for use in BaM that I had begun to play with, every time I tried to come up with the details of how it would work, I came up empty, and so committed nothing to writing. I just couldn’t keep up the focus I needed in order to really solve a design problem.

So, what happend was that in September, I had recovered enough that I was able to really work through how it could work. I printed up a copy of the mapboard and began to push some pieces around. It seemed good, but honestly my confidence wasn’t high after the design fiasco of earlier this year. I did see if the core playtest team was up for another go, and total champs that they are, they were willing. And so, the band was back together and we got back to work.

Pretty much immediately, we could all see that this version was different than the others: It actually seemed to work. It was rough, and needed polish, but there was clearly a good game in there waiting to be brought out. And so, we cycled playtests and adjustments from September to the present. It was a pretty smooth process this time. Each new version made progress towards fixing some problem or other in the previous version, moving the design by a pretty straight-line path towards its final form. (We had very few cases of corrections that failed so badly that they had to be backed out rather than refined.)

Of course, I haven’t at this point said much (at all) about what the problems were and how they were addressed. My plan is, over the next few weeks, to review that in some detail in subsequent entries. For now, however, I’m going to just tie it off here.