Sunday, November 18, 2012

Orks in Space! Battlefleet Gothic!

My recent gaming experiences have been with an older miniature game called Battlefleet Gothic. This is a shit-to-ship combat game set in outer space in some far away nebula, galaxy, or universe. There are dark and evil forces at work! My favorite faction is sort of an underdog faction, but one of the cheapest to build fleets with. I like the Orks. These guys are sort of dumb brutes and their ships reflect that character. Some of their ships are nothing more that Brute Rams, designed to run into other ships. Others are nothing more than hollowed out asteroids retrofitted with bits and pieces from some cosmic junkyard. So where do you get miniature ateroids? Would you believe Home Depot? Yup.. most of my Ork models came from Home depot and had some finishing touches put together from leftover pieces from other ship models. My buddy, Scott LeMaster, put them together for me and they are fantastic. This brings me to my biggest gripe about miniature games. If you play either you demonstrate your cheapness and lack of skill by using unpainted miniatures (some circles frown on this) or you pay someone with skill to paint your armies for you. God forbid that you would actually take the time to learn to paint your own miniatures! So either you scrub some paint on your minis and show up with painted figures that look worse than a Picasso portrait or you pay an expert. Then the other factor is going to be buying the miniatures. Bsttlefleet Gothic appears to be a defunct game (the rulebooks are available for free at the Games Workshop Website) and no longer strongly supported. Therefore, you start scrounging the flea markets at the local gaming conventions, or you spend on ebay and pay beaucoup bucks for shipping those heavy units. Hey, I make a living as a working pastor and don't have time for assembling and painting anyway. So why do I like this game? First, entry level for an Ork player is next to nothing using the lava rocks picked up at the Home Depot. Second, in our local group, 750 point fleets are pretty much maximum, therefore keeping up with the other guys is not a big deal using my rocks and the few I purchased off of Ebay. So, with my second hand books and minis, my cheap rocks and Ebay finds, I'm pretty much as invested as I am going to get. After all, the new Fleets are coming out every six months or so. So, my entry level investment is low and that is a bonus factor for me, so I list it as number one. Second, the rules are simple enough to comprehend and get into play quickly. The Quick Reference card is excellent for most things and I can have the downloaded rules loaded on my ipad for quick reference if there is an issue I really need to look up. Nothing too difficult and the only rule that has seen significant change (to my knowledge) relates to how the Nova Cannon works. It isn't as if there is a ton of errata, unlike many of my favorite wargames. Third, I like the way the rules are explained and organized. The designers spent a lot of time designing a system that covered lots of variables and circumstances. They designed a number of races and powers and each faction is provided with options that make playing each one a unique experience with a need for its own unique strategy. None of the factions is overpowered or unconquerable. Finally, the best reason. I like the guys I play this game with. Steve is the consumate diplomat, always willing to explain a rule before a novice player does something stupid like move his miniature off the table by accident. Marty is a careful strategist who thinks every move out thoroughly. Scott is a fierce competitor who never lets you forgot the rule of payback. (payback is always double!) An evening gathered around a table playing Battlefleet Gothic with these guys is a pleasure.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

What was Avalon Hill Thnking?

I was listening to a podcast this week and part of the discussion touched on the font size in some of the old Avalon Hill Wargames. This led me to pull out my copy of "Afrika Korps" to see if it was really as bad as both the podcast hosts and I recalled. I was shocked to find out that it was even worse. The podcast host described the font size as 6 pt. Well, it looked more like 4 pt. to me. Sure they managed to fit the rules for "Afrika Korps" into just 15 pages of a small sized book which is mostly illustrations. Didn't they know that font size practically required a magnifying glass or powerful magnification reading glasses? As I recall, the rules for UP FRONT (and a number of other great games) also suffered from the Honey-I've-Shrunk-the-Rules syndrome. Recently, a friend needed a copy of ATTACK SUB rules to complete his collection. While those rules are printed on 8 1/2" x 11" paper and only comprise four or five pages, once again, that teeny-tiny almost microscopic print size was used. What I think I did was send him the original set of rules and use the enlarge feature on my photocopier at word to make my own enlarged set. Before trying to introduce my friends into WIZARD's QUEST, I took the rules and typed up a simple rules summary-- not because the rules were long and complicated, but because the print was so small that I felt I needed a microscope in order to read these rules and I knew that they would balk at attempting to read such miniscule print. Honestly, I don't think Avalon Hill's design department ever imagined that 50-70 year old people would still be picking up these old games via ebay, Thrift Stores, or game convention auctions. I don't think they envisioned the long shelf life of games. I don't think they understood that while the people playing these games in the 1970's were college and career age (some were teens) that these players would still be active in the hobby after their grandchildren were born. Their goal must have been simply to make the rulebooks as well-organized (they didn't always succeeed with that) and as short as possible. I know that the size of a rulebook intimidates many players. One of my first wargames was WILDERNESS WAR which has, as I recall, a fourteen or fifteen page rulebook. The gamer introducing it to me said "It only has a short rulebook." To me, the rules looked huge compared to games like Monopoly or Milles Bournes. To this day, my opinion of the WILDERNESS WAR rulebook remains solidly positive. It is well organized, has a readable font, and offers a clear understanding of the game leaving little or no room for questions. In recent years, one seller on EBAY is offering all of the materials he can gather on a game in PDF format on a CD. Perhaps those rules can be enlarged and printed out, I haven't bothered to see if this is the case. So, here's the scam artist in my thinking.. Would it be legal to create a new set of rules for these old games, streamlining, incorporating official errata,setting them in a font size visible by someone who was not endowed with Superman's enhanced vision and then offering them for a modest fee via the internet? Believe me, I have a lot of important projects to accomplish before I attempted such a project, but it would be nice to see rules printed in a font size that was actually readable. Ahhh... I figured it out. What was Avalon Hill thinking? That man was evolving so fast that gamers would develope enhanced vision that would allow them to read print designed to be small billboards for ant communities.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Bring Back the Classics

Most wargamers have a special place in their hearts for old Avalon Hill titles. Many folks cut their gaming teeth on such classics as Afrika Korps, Stalingrad, Luftwaffe, Hannibal: Rome Vs. Carthage, We the People, etc. The sorrow is that these old games wear out. They also get damaged in floods, fires, or idiot gamer friends who spill ULTRA GULP sized drinks on them. Good luck finding a decent copy on ebay, boardgamegeek, or the Consimworld marketplace. Sadly, the copyright license to a lot of these wonderful products is held, apparently in perpetuity, by greedy corporate morons employed by HASBRO. Avalon Hill, once known for its quality wargames, has become a repository for Euro style games that have little or no resemblance to an actual wargame. Instead of allowing another game company the privilige of printing the game, Hasbro would rather hold many of those titles hostage. Of course, there are a few exceptions, where designers were able to negotiate or otherwise wrestle the rights to their own games away from the corporate hacks. In other cases, designers were able to re-design original games into new incarnations that would not interfere with the rights of Hasbro. For example, "We the People" became "Washington's War", with some similarities to the original, but enough innovation to be a new game. Some products have returned to print. Valley Games managed to acquire the rights to what for many years was the Holy Grail of Ebay wargame purchases, "Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage." With updated graphics and rules clarifications, this title seems to have sold quite well for Valley Games. Mark Herman managed to get his card driven American Civil War epic, "For the People" printed over at GMT. Fantasy Flight Games published a really nice version of "Britannia" though the forum over on Consimworld indicates that the designer is shopping for a new publisher. Somehow, a new version of "Wooden Ships and Iron Men" is in the works. While some of us want to experience the nostalgia of playing an older title, some of us look forward to innovation. I'd love to see a new "Afrika Korps" printed maybe with some innovative rules. Or how about an update of the the old Avalon Hill "Gunslinger?" Wouldn't "Merchants of Venus" rock the Eurogamer world if it came it with some of the neat components that modern games feature? I'm certain others have their own ideas of what they would like to seed. With no disrespect intended to newer titles with the Avalon Hill brand name on them, "Battlecry" is no substitute for "Gettysberg." "Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit" is not a suitable replacement for "Starship Troopers." In the meantime, perhaps someone can explain to me the corporate mindset behind a company like Hasbro clinging to the rights to games they don't have any interest in publishing or setting such a high licensing price that the original designer can't shop around updated versions to other publishers. For that matter, why does Alderac Entertainment Group refuse to relinquish the license for Doomtown when it is obvious they lack the desire or economic ability to begin producing it once again? It is as if they fear that relinquising the rights, even for a small consideration will make them feel like the guy who trades his prizes on Let's Make a Deal only to find that behind his door is a donkey and a bale of hay. Has gaming become such a business that it is now run by people who not only do not undertand gamers, but they lack any real love for the games themselves? The obvious answer is, for some game publishers, absolutely yes!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Convention Envy

I think we all experience convention envy at some time or another. This is the emotion we feel when others start reporting back about attending PREZCON, WBC, ORIGINS, or GENCON and we know that, once again, we missed out. Why did we miss out? Work schedules, family priorities, lack of funds or lack of planning all play a part in missing some of our favorite events. So what can we do to deal with this envy? First, let's mock those who went. Try this on for size: "You spent HOW MUCH MONEY to go an play games?" Or maybe, "You didn't even PLACE in a single tournament?" Second, let's complain about how those who went failed to share the experience. For example, "You wrote down all of those details about all the games you played but you did not bother to take a single picture!" Or maybe, "How could you miss playing ________________________, its my favorite game and you didn't even know it existed?" Third, how about planning better for next year and making it happen for you? Choose the convention you want to go to. Check your calendar, start putting money in the bank (yes, sell some of those games you don't play), and start making every effort to set aside that time and go. Heck, if you can publish a magazine or create a podcast, or teach a class on game design at a prestigious educational institution, you might even find a way to write the entire trip off. So, I hope next year I don't have to suffer from Convention Envy. If I still do, I plan to give you guys who don't take pictures, etc. endless grief.. and You KNOW who you are! {grin}

Friday, July 20, 2012

Playtesting Blues

Do you ever get tired of trying to figure out what a designer meant from a written set of rules? Have you ever set down to play a game, only to discover that such a balance problem exists as to make the game an exercise in frustration? Have you ever wondered how anybody could design such a game that looks fantastic but the actual play itself is about as much fun as having an ingrown toenail removed? The answer is probably that the designer was either too close, or too distant from playtesting. There are some things about playtesting that should be obvious. I've probably stated this before, but here I go again, ranting and raving about playtesting. The major problem with platesting isn't the players, but rather the designers proximity to the playtesting process. It is my sincere opinion that a designer must insulate himself from the playtesting to some extent in order to discover a few things about the game. First, by taking a step back he can learn what portion of the written rules are unclear or ambigiuous. If he explains the ambiguity to the written rules to the entire group of playtesters, say via a mass emailing, then he may not see the need to write the rules in a clearer manner. Believe me, I've seen this done a number of times. Instead of explaining the rules as soon as a question comes up, the designer should answer the question by revisiting the portion of the rules from which the rules derive. If the designer simply explains the rules he permits the playtesters the ability to understand them. If he fails to rewrite the rules that needed such explanation he leaves them in a state that will only confuse the people who actually put out money to play the game. At least one playtester should be assigned the responsibility of compiling s simple alphabetical index to a ruleset. Of course, this may be problematice if page numbers are used as those are bound to change as the written rules are edited and rewritten for clarity. This also may not be necessary for shorter sets of written rules. I don't see the need for an index in a simple six page rulebook, but heavier rulebooks such as those use in more complex wargames nearly scream their demand for an index. If the designer is actually "playing" in the playtest, he needs to be tightlipped and utilize his keen powers of observation to note the flow of the games. In multiplayer wargames, he cannot sit back and say, "Well, I designed the French to _____________________ while I wanted the British to have a stronger ____________________." He needs to quietly see if that design intent is evident and balanced. If he openly shares his intent, players will attempt to steer the game towards that intention and skew the testing. A designer needs to be close-mouthed so that he can see if his design intent is naturally present. Finally, playtesting can not be pushed against artificial deadlines. For example, a boardgame based on a movie or book tie-in cannot have playtesting rushed because of the movie or book's release date. (saw this happen to one boardgame and what could have been a great game was harmed by huge flaws-- which were fixed, but by that time players had moved on.) I guess it is obvious that game companies should hire me to oversee their playtesting programs.. {wink} Okay, it is easy for a blogger to sit back and express his concerns, his ideas about what is wrong with playtesting, etc. However, in closing, let me state a concept that should be blatantly obvious. If a designer is too close or too far removed from the actual playtesting of a design he risks creating a game with confusing rules, poor game balance, and confused, frustrated players who will avoid his designs in the future. With that said, I have to remind the kind readers that while I speak fairly boldly about what they should and should not do, as of this writing and for the foreseeable future, I have no game designs on the market. Therefore, I'm like the movie goer who wants to tell Stephen Spielberg how he should make his film. While I think my points are valid, I'd like to know what you think?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Alien Frontiers Features Dice Placement

If you enjoy the dice placement mechanic of "Kingsberg" you might want to check out Clevermojo Games' "Alien Frontiers." In some ways, I think I like it better than "kingsberg." Why? Kingsberg has the "stick-it-to-the-other-guy" effect, that can actually prevent another player, depending on turn order, from placing some or even all of his dice. In Space Frontiers, there are limited spaces, but there is always something to do with your dice.

The dice in "Alien Frontiers" are actually space ships. The goal of the game is to dock your space ships (dice) on various spaces on the gamegboard to receive certain benefits. The goal is to take control of colonies on a planet (with areas named after great Sci-Fi writers such as Bradbury or Heinlen). Controlling an area gives you a benefit and a victory point. However, you have to dock your ships, obtain fuel and ore, and work on constructing colonies, they don't just magically appear. So players dock at a solar collector to gain fuel or at the lunar mine to obtain ore.

There is still the "stick-it-to-the-other-guy" factor, though. For instance, at the lunar mine a player has to dock a ship with a die result that is at least equal to the largest die there. So, a player might place a 6 there, causing the next player to also place a 6 there if he needs ore. Or it might cause the next player to be unable to place a die there if he didn't roll a 6.

In a major difference from Kingsberg.. players roll their dice on their own turn and complete all placement (dice stay in the spaces until their next turn) so one player doesn't know what the next player's dice will show when he is placing. Spaces are limited, with only one space having only one spot.. but docking there consumes the die (taking it out of play)as it converts a "ship" into a colony. Players can manage resources to purchase extra dice.

Mounted vs. Paper maps

One place a lot of wargame publishers save money is by printing folding paper game maps. Recently, a discussion broke out in the GMT games forum on Consimworld when it was announced that several new games would feature mounted boards. I was shocked to see that there are actually players who prefer the paper maps. For the most part it makes no difference to me, but I thought the subject was worth covering here. I suppose a factor favoring mounted boards would be durability. I'm not really certain that a mounted map will have more durability, but one assumes that if the board is properly constructed it will hold up longer than a paper map, which if mistreated is easily torn. On the other hand, a mounted board can be folded back the wrong way and then be broken. If players care for their games properly then the difference in durability will be negligible. A mounted board might allow for cleaning with a slightly damp cloth (a baby wipe) if it becomes sticky, etc. A glossy paper map might permit this as well. Of course, some people who suffer from game-owner OCD will wonder how dare someone bring food or drink to the war. One factor favoring paper maps mentioned by a player in the forum was that a paper map has more of a "military" feel to it. I guess he can imagine hunkering down in a bunker somewhere and ordering his troops about. I'd never thought of such a thing, but to a small extent I have to agree with the poster about the "feel" even though I never get that deeply immersed into my fantasy command. Paper maps certainly have an edge when it comes to weight and box-size. Especially if a gamer is packing around a number of boxed games. Obviously, a game box will have to be a bit larger to accomodate a mounted mapboard. If a gamer has a large collection of games then the space on his game shelf might be filled up more quickly. I can't think of any more reasons to prefer one over the other, except to say that while I tend to prefer mounted maps, and thicker heavier components for durability purposes, that preference doesn't translate into a factor when making a purchase. I may "oooh" and "aaah" over some really nice components, but the real deciding factor is whether or not a game offers a challenge and is enjoyable to play.

Monday, May 21, 2012

DeckBuilding- Innovative Game Mechanisms

Some years ago, Wargames took on a new subgenre as designer Mark Hermon presented "We the People" (originally published by Avalon Hill). This subgenre is the Card Driven Wargame. Following this innovative game came a number of game titles. These games rely on cards to provide the ability to move units, build units, construct defenses, or introduce historical events into a game. Now we're seeing a new type of design that may become "the next big thing" in wargames. It is the deck building mechanism. (I say mechanism because the phrase "game mechanic" would technically refer to one who repairs broken games, while a "game mechanism" would be a design concept that allows a game to function). This game mechanism is becoming popular in Euro stle games, and probably saw its genesis in the Rio Grande Publication "Dominion." Now, there are a number of titles out there that utilitze similar mechanisms to drive the game. I suppose it would be best to describe such a game for those who are unaware of them. In a deck building game, players obtain cards from a pool of cards by purchase or selection and gradually build a deck of cards that they have in their own personal deck. Such cards may provide particular benefits, victory points, or at times have more than one use. The first wargame example that I've seen of this style of game is "A Few Acres of Snow" designed by Martin Wallace and published by Treefrog games (apparently distributed in U.S. by Mayfair games). This game (for two players) allows players to play what is commonly called "The French and Indian War" between the British and the French in North America during the period shortly prior to the American Revolution. I've been trying to get my hands on a copy for some time, but online retailers seem to be sold out and the prices on Ebay have seemed exorbitant to me. In other words, it seems to be fairly highly sought after. Players either buy, draft (obtain at no cost) cards that allow them to produce income, increase defense, or permit movement to other areas. The French player makes his money primarily through trading fur while the British player collects cards that can later produce gold. Once a player takes over a village, city, or named space, he can add the card for that area into his deck. Those cards allow movement to other areas. A player has to have the right sort of movement card in order to move units into a new area. He might need a card which provides boat movement or a card which provides trail movement, etc. Some cards simply provide an attack or defense. A siege mechanism allows a player to being a siege and try to keep it going for multiple turns. Such a siege can be broken by play of militia defense cards. While I only had a limited introductory experience with "A Few Acres of Snow" I can easily see the mechanisms utilized in this non-traditional wargame becoming a new sub-genre of wargame. I don't know if this is really a good or bad thing, but I do know I want to see more of this game. Whether I want to see a World War II era game attempting to use these mechanisms or not, well, such a design I think would have to be genius. A Few Acres of Snow may serve one really strong purpose, however. It may whet player's appetite for meatier, more traditional wargames. I've heard that neumber of players who started out with this game quickly moved on to try GMT's "Wilderness War" which is an awesome card driven wargame. So, perhaps the greatest innovation is the ability to move Euro-favoring players into grognard type games.