Monday, 27 October 2014

Ideas - we've got 'em!

So I was talking to a friend of mine about maybe trying to morph ‘of gods and men’ (the mega game I played and did not overly enjoy) into something suitable for a smaller group of people – and he said ‘why not design something from scratch?’

To which I replied ‘Well I really like ancient Greece so that’s a good theme – and something new would require a new theme which I don’t have.’ 

About 30 seconds later he got an e-mail that said ‘Aye dark overlord/dungeon master the mega game' and I had a theme…..  What follows is the early draft of some ideas – nothing specific but generally getting stuff written down…..

So we’d be looking at something for at most 20 players – running at either Stabcon and/or Bounceon in early January (assuming there was enough interest at either of those).

It’s not got a final name but for now it’s called ‘Upon a Throne of Bone’ (‘…and tomorrow the world!’ was one suggestion but that made me think of 1960’s evil organisations and supper spies rather than fantasy).

First decision – is everybody an evil overlord?  I’d say not – I think you want a team made up of one evil overlord and a number of minions with the evil overlord being in charge but limited in some way and so reliant on their minions.

One thing I noticed out of gods and men was that based on the game structure our team only had one goal – gain prestige for the city – which rather removed internal conflict (or at least it did on ours).  So that’s the first change - even if you are in a team – you need to have goals that don’t totally line up. 

So we shall have an evil overlord that wants to the greatest evil overlord – while the minions just want to be the most loved of the minions for their Evil overlord - which immediately gets us the rather joyful tittle tattle and sucking up that makes ‘Aye Dark Overlord’ fun to play.

The second decision – what about the good guys?  Well if you are looking to have teams of bad guys, and those teams are in conflict, then we need at least 4 of them and each one of at least 4 players.  That’s 16 of your players already used up – if you've got some GM’s as well – that’s your twenty players.  So for now – the good guys are a facet of the game to be manipulated and used by players – not players in and of themselves.

So the third decision - evil Overlords are the decision makers but since limiting information makes game then they are reliant on getting information from their Minions in order to make those decisions.   This means that (generally speaking) an evil overlord needs to be chained to their base – not able to get out and look what options are available.  Note of caution – of gods and men chained there ‘Wanex’ to the table and it caused problems because it never felt (at least for us) that the Wanex had that much to do.  I was certainly bored when I was the Wanex so need to do something about that….

Decision the 4th – I thought the turn structure of ‘Of gods and men’ was not clearly split - specifically the time to make decisions and the time to negotiate rather ran into each other.

So the turn structure I’d go with would be……

  • Scouting - 10 minutes.  Minions run round talking to people and finding out what is available.  But no decisions are made - nothing can be deployed to anywhere.
  • Decisions - 5 minutes. decisions get taken and stuff get sent to places.  Once placed it can not move so there is an element of brinkmanship
  • Resolution - 10 minutes.  Resolving the stuff that's been placed down.
  • Explanation - 5 minutes.  Minions taking stuff back and explaining what happened to there overlord.

And then back to the top – one turn every 30 minutes.  A fair amount of time pressure – but it kept the game flowing.

The presence of a player – a minion – has to be significant. More than just a tie breaker – having a minion there will allow you to swing things in your favour.  The flip side of this is that you will sometimes be deploying resources without a minion – so any rules system has to be able to handle that, and the range of options big enough that doing that seems like a plan.

So decision the 5th – a player brings with them an inherent bonus, and there are more things you have to do in a turn then you have minions.

Heroes’ are clearly something important – and since there are no good players they need to be under bad guy control. But they need to be different from monsters and other things that are under the direct control of players. So they are a weapon to direct against others players– something you don’t might losing because you won’t control it next turn……

Design decision 6 – it is possible to get given temporary control of heroes. These can be placed in areas to act as bonus to defence against any attackers – or placed on a villains table to attack them. They can never be combined with monsters or the forces of darkness – they just do their thing even against you if you end up facing them.

That’s as far as I’ve got so far…..

The next key decision is action resolution – so any suggestions for  favourite action resolutions mechanisms that might work in this situation?

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

There's a theme developing.....

This is not really a coherent set of ideas – more just a bunch of stuff about them thrown at a wall to see what sticks.

All themes great and small

So battles lines is allegedly a game about the battles of Alexander and Darius – and personally invokes the feeling of being a general in the ancient world but does not make me feel like either Alexander or Darius.  Does that have a themed lightly papered on?  It has certainly failed to draw out it’s specific theme but with regards it’s general theme it’s done very well.

Then there is Caverna which makes me feel like a farmer; with the sending of people out to work and the breeding of animals the growing of food it really does invoke farmer to me. Dwarf on the other hand – I don’t really get that. The art work does, the names of the cards are fine, but the game play does not make me feel dwarven. Which is a shame – as I do love a good dwarf.

These are both case where a game invokes its grand theme but fails to invoke a more specific theme.

I suspect that grand theme can be invoked by game mechanics but invoking a specific theme requires fidelity. The game mechanics can make you feel like a civil war general but only fidelity will make you feel like you are commanding at Gettysburg.

As a side note I'm not sure how a game would make me feel like Alexander the Great other than by convincing me I could not possibly lose before the game started, giving my opponent all the possible benefits and then have me still winning. Hmmmm maybe Darius gets all the fixed advantages – more troops, better supplies but Alexander gets a big hand of cards that lets him break the rules and win anyway…… Digression over.

Weakly Themed Games

For some people a game having a weak theme is a problem but it’s not a new thing - theming has been here since the first person looked at a chess board and said “we call that one castle”. Not every game has a theme – new abstract games are being produced but they are definitely in a minority. Why did Reiner Kentize look at the bidding and set collection game design that became Ra and think “Ancient Egypt – that’s what this says to me……”

I can think of 4 reasons to theme a game.

The first reason is money – a game about ancient Egypt will sell better than ‘utterly abstract set collection game’ if only because it gives marketing weasels something to hang hooks on. I can certainly see somebody turning up with their game and being told ‘pirates are big right now – make it about pirates’. I've no practical experience that says either way– but I've been told it happens in novels. Apparently most serialised novels start life as standalone novels, get told it’s not good enough but if they change it around a bit it would work. Which is why sometimes events/technology/actions occur that make no damn sense in world – I'm looking at you Babylon 5 book where they set their PPG’s to stun….

The second reason is design drift – it started off connected to the theme but over the course of the design as things got updated, altered, or even completely changed it lost that connection. Having seen how much changed over the course of Giant Stone Head this I can believe – when faced with playability/balance issues I was willing to ditch theme/fidelity pretty easily because that first set matter a lot more.

The third reason is that game designers are weird people –and see connections that other people just would not. If Giant Stone Head had ever been published then people might well have looked at it and gone ‘the theme is just pasted on!” despite the fact that it was always themed around Giant Stone Heads and the destruction of your environment in pursuit of something impractical.

The fourth is that everything needs to be called something. You've designed a novel and interesting mechanic now you need a way of refereeing everything. You could invent words or symbols but that’s awkward.  Players often do stop using the words you chose and say ‘you’ll need three blue and a green’ so it’s not impossible but it’s easier for them to do if they choose then you to enforce it.  Actually is that a decent way of detecting  ‘Weak Theme’?  If the players stop calling it what the game says it represents and starts calling it by some name that is a descriptor for example blue cube?

Anyway – that need for reference is especially true of a really complicated game – you might consider Ora et Labora to be weekly themed around monks and it’s a fair cop. But try and imagine that game without any theme at all –keeping track of the different resources and how they interact and update would be hellish.

Using names also allows you to hit another key word- intuitive. A game where things flow together and make sense is easier learn and generally better than one where things don’t mesh. The rule X turns into Y is awkward– where as iron turns into weapons is much easier to remember. Considering Ra - A’s force discard of B’s unless C is harder to remember then drought forces loss of Nile unless there is a flood because that already got somewhere to hang that info in your brain.

Feeling is expectation

So this article by game designer Bruno Faidutti (the designer of Ad astra) is an interesting look at the meaning behind the themes that board game designers choose– and how certain elements get ignored. I mean does anybody think those little brown disk in Peurto Rico are really ‘colonists’? It’s ok there’s an English translation below the foreign.

I liked the article and it chimed a cord with me; after all having  played (and enjoyed Brass) I found I was struck by the total absence of people and the hideous working conditions they underwent to make the industrial revolution happen. Which is why one of the ideas in the game design pad is ‘these dark satanic mills’ in which while you mine coal and process cotton your victory points come from maiming and killing poor people in your hideous factory’s. It has never got beyond the concept stage sadly.

For me the standout sentence of the article was

“For the game designer, India or Chine, Middle Ages or Antiquity, are not geographical places or historical times, they are just topoi, sets of standard references, which must not be more sophisticated than those mastered by the player.”

This fits my idea that theme is really about feeling. Because if I as a game designer was 100% accurate in what I did but you as a player had a different understanding of the circumstances then the game would lose any thematic feel to the player. Playing Istanbul over Essen weekend somebody said “Of course there’s are rugs – if you set a game in Istanbul and there were no rugs I’d be really disappointed’ I agreed with him – of course there are rugs in a game about Istanbul because that’s the stereotype I share with him.   Somebody over at board game geek has already suggested an additional character to encounter – the dancing girl! Why because it’s the mythic orient – and that’s got dancing girls. Full stop. End off.  But why does the game have a location called ‘the great mosque’ rather than the Hagia Sophia?  It’s believable that the game designer simply felt that not enough of the player base would know what that was – that it would not ring true enough with the players.

I had an interesting clash of theme over the weekend while playing Arkwright over Essen weekend. It’s a heavyweight game of building factory’s in the Victorian age, while managing costs and quality in order maximise profit. It’s good, smooth and hits a fine spot between fidelity and playability for me. Despite that I found myself slightly rubbed up the wrong way by a couple of things because of my own personal expectations and beliefs.

Hiring people increase the demand for goods and also increase the cost of labour – which is fine and a really net mechanic. But when you fire people the cost of labour does not go down, nor does the demand – or more accurately it does but only very very slowly. That rubbed me up the wrong way – it ran counter to my expectations and world view. I'm happy enough in brass where that whole aspect is just ignored and abstracted away but once you made it a feature it needed it to reflect my own internal vision.*

Likewise as the pile of unemployed people grows nothing bad happens – there is no fear of rebellion, no threat of the working classes overthrowing there oppressors, not even a general strike. Equally there is no way of being Titus Salt – or any other great Victorian philanthropist- it simply does not exist in this game you either mechanise or lose money.

I should point out that Bruno Faidutti is definitely wrong about at least one thing -there is steampunk music and it sounds likes this…... (Any excuse to post a link to the Men Who Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing and there shouty music).

He’s not wrong however in that Steampunk is primarily aesthetic movement and I think he’s correct that a lot of its fans want to go back to a reassuring world where drinking tea is the answer to all of life’s problems**.  

It’s certainly a good theme to drape around a game – allows for cool art and fantastical situations well still allowing access to something that feels familiar to western board game players (by far and away the majority).

 *Interestingly enough the game designer has explained what they think is going on here - and why they think this is as sufficient fidelity over at board game geek

**Not all of them however as seen by the fact that Andrew O’Neill the lead guitarist for the Men Who Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing (and cross dressing, vegan, occult, death metal comedian – niche hardly does him credit) published a rant entitled ‘Fuck Steampunk’ railing about how Steampunk was twee. By published I mean on paper - I think there are about 100 copies in the whole world and it’s not on the internet anywhere.***

*** Turns out my years of hanging round with Dr Geof has given me more than a passing knowledge of that sub culture despite not being a part of it.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Spiel or why my unplayed shelves are so big

So I've just got back from Spiel which is the largest board game fare for consumers in the world (previous post here as I tend to go every two years).  It's really big – no bigger then that. I swear after 2.5 days of being in that hall and just walking and walking I played only a fraction of the games and only saw a fraction of the things. It's held in Essen in case your wandering and uk games nerds often use the term “Essen” and Spiel interchangably.

Spiel is very different from a UK games convention – because a UK games convention is about playing games and it might have a table down one end to buy stuff from where as Spiel is about selling games and ends at 7 o'clock. In fact for local people (ie Germans) it's a case of storming in buying everything and storming out again but then there so much closer. Our plan involves overnight ferry’s and a hotel who's bar gets invaded by gamers every night.....

That is not a convention – it's just what happens when you fill a hotel with gamers.

If you and your play group can read German you can pick up some amazing bargains but if you are an English speaker the bargain aspect is much less significant (although the rise of international versions is helping with that -as long as the 'German' version also contains English then the price will be very low)  and very quickly outweighed by the cost of doing it at all. So your going for an experience rather then a cost saving exercise. It is an experience because where else would you be able to find people selling a game based around running a heavy metal festival who got meeples throwing the horns made?

If it had been in English – we'd have totally brought it.....

It is possible to save money – bargain hunt, by an awful lot of games, pick up things you might otherwise have had to pay delivery from states (for example anything kick started) but I don't buy enough to actually save money and this is the amount I buy.:

Which looking at it is pretty similar to two years pile.

Of the things I brought 7 were not on my list before the event – so why did I buy them?

Sylla was brought because it was 5 euros and I've seen it in the works sale previously and it's got a reasonable right up. And it was 5 euro's.

La Isla was brought because it's by Stefan Feld and well I was only going to buy one Stefan Feld game but then it was there and it was only 25 Euro's and I was already buying something from that stall and....

Kings Pouch I played and quite liked – pouch drawing mechanics are in this year so I thought I'd best get at least one of them.

Camel Up I brought because it won a game of year award which is generally a good sign – it's not going to be a terrible game even if it's not your favourite game.

Istanbul I brought because it also had a game of the year award and I rather liked it.

Praetor was a last minute impulse buy because it had an interesting mechanic about retiring workers once they got to the top of there tree – and having played it on the ferry home I suspect another play through will want me to write a review about it.

Fields of Arle I brought because I managed to haggle 5 euros of the price and it's by Uwe Rosengerg who's game I generally like. Although quite how many different farming games I need is a bit of mystery – and when I'm going to play a two player game is rather unclear.

And finally the Antike 2 conversation kit which I did not know exist – and I'd been tempted by the the new version anyway but decided I could not justify it......

Comparing my purchase with the Hotness at board game geek is interesting - because a lot of the stuff in the hotness I've not even heard off....

One other thing you might not be able to see is some bags of little bits – as I brought a pile of meeples and disks in matching colours to try and help me get back into doing stuff. I suspect this is the game designer equivalent of buying a nice fresh notebook......  But hopefully there

It's very tiring – and you know what – I think a nap might might a really nice idea....

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Mega Game - Mega Post

So this weekend I had plans that involved DIY – and then I got an e-mail asking me if I wanted to take part in a mega game set in Mythic Greece on the Saturday to which my response was obviously 'What the hell is a mega game?' Having found that out my response was 'hell yes!' and so it was I found my self in an upstairs room of the Royal Armouries with 50 other people at 9.30 on a Saturday morning ready to play 'Of Gods and Men'

So what is a mega game?

If a murder mystery dinner party is a larp with really fixed roles and no game mechanics then a mega game is a larp with lots of game mechanics, no outfits and very little role-playing. Well I say no outfits – but a few people dressed up and I did kind of wish I'd brought my Greek Helmet from the fireplace.

There are three groups of players – the gods, the heroes and the city states. We were the 3 players representing the city state Arkadia (should have been 4 but one of our group was randomly taken up to join the God game). It was our job to decide what we did with the resources of our city -

We responsible for assigning the resources of our city – deciding if we built boats, men, temples or city walls, then sending our boats and men to trade and pick fights either with other cities or far away lands.

The hero's were looking for quests and monsters and needed cards to deal with them while the gods were up to something that was rather unclear but could intervene in basically anything they wanted. The hero's seemed pretty straight forwards but the gods had a really interesting design – there were three players for each god and at any point one was behind the scenes doing something that was never clear, one player was the oracle of the god and could be spoken to and one was the hand of the god who could intervene but not otherwise interact. Created a rather interesting mechanic.

Based on the above you should be able to tell that the three groups of players did not understand each other rules sets – and indeed it was clear that each group was not getting a full understanding of there game space and there was meant to be some exploration over the course of the day.

It was designed with a pretty punishing schedule – a turn every 30 minutes and no break for lunch. If you were out of the room for a wee when something went down – then you were out of the room for a wee. Kudos to them – they kept everything on track for that schedule which could not have been easy.

Just like a larp it had a really big of volunteers supporting the event and making it run – with a really high ratio of GM's (or control in there terms) to players as they had one per a city state stationed who sat on your desk at all times. With other ones for specific areas – trade, overseas combat, gods and quest resolution.

So how was it? I want to tell you it was great – but if I'm honest I found it really frustrating.

I found my self initially a bit worried by the 32 page rule book and not only because it was written and set out in a way which gave me flashbacks to games from the 1980's but it also contained the following sentence...

However, certain heated historical controversies, such as the “New Chronology”, the “Dorian Invasion” and the causes of the “Dark Age”, are treated with deliberate liberty.”.

So this game is written by and for people who feel the need to point out that a game with gods in it might not be historically accurate.

Having seen the game in play, and thinking back to the article about theme, I personally think the designer of the game prized fidelity above clarity and simplicity. When your trying to get 50 people playing 3 separate but interrelated games who don't know a game to interact then your rules need to be simple – not simpler then you might normally use but simple. Take for example the 'prestige gain rules' - they ran to about half a page of text and apply differently for attackers and defenders with a different set of modifiers for each – and it certainly felt like they were often ignored or pointless in favour of (you won – have a prestige). And boil down – basically to – did you get really luck on your dice roll because if you did have more points. Randomness has it's place – but basically that seems odd.....

I know from talking to people that in the hero game there was a fundamental disagreement about how one set of rules about cards were applied – which might well have borked an entire element of the hero game.

In one case we were handed a bundle of divine power to support an attack on Attika – only to find out that mechanic did not work that way and the divine player was doing it wrong. Likewise there were tons of little counters flying around that did things (gain resources – have a re-reoll - +1 on all dice rolls for this city state) which had nothing on them to help explain how they were used.

These things are going to happen – but you can limit how much of this happens – design your systems to be simple with an obvious flow, while making sure the UI helps people know what is or is not allowed. A simple city icon on a card will make it clear where it lives.

Equally if you have rules about how can talk to who – then damn well make sure every player knows what they are – not burried away in the rules. Want to talk to a god – you have to have at least a shrine. I'd read that rule – and so did not talk to gods on the first turn – pretty damn sure most other people ignored that. Hell I think – I think – that you were meant to sacrifice 3 resources to a god if you wanted to speak to them (because otherwise I'm not sure what the hell the petition rules did) but I'm still not sure.......

But what really made it frustrating for me that the game was built to have a resource bottle neck into it – gold. Basically everything cool required gold and there was one way to get it – trading. We invested heavily in boats – I mean heavily – and lost every time. Because apparently that god can flip you down two spaces irrespective of your boats, while that person can cock block because you because they control that province, etc. And this happened turn – after turn – after turn. We lined up gods to help us – and it turns out there not that useful in this place or they wandered off and did something else..... And second place is basically pointless while your progress to what you actually want is reset to zero every turn.

Then you discover that yes – you've got this horrible resource block but two groups of players don't because they just get given a gold every turn you wonder why your bothering and seriously consider going home. The icing on the cake being after the end of the game when you discover that a) you can stop those people getting there free gold by attacking them but nobody did – and when you point out you did attack them (twice) so it seems that rule was being missed and b) that every nation should have had some sort of starting advantage but your control did not give you yours (not that two boats is in anyway equivalent to a free gold every turn in balance terms).

The game also needs to work out what it is – because the game makes reference to internal challenges and alternative victory conditions but it's not that sort of game. It's not an RPG – where I can set some personal goals and still have achieved something because it's got victory points.....

The game also had roles for the city people – specifically the wanex who was required to sit at his table at all times. Gods that was boring – being a wanex locked you to a table and often for no damn point......

So we came joint last – we really came last but we got bonus points for how cool our national sign was and while it was a glorious sign that still feels odd to me.

In case your wandering the two sides you can not see say “Ask us about our man eating horses” and 'This space available for advertising”.

Oh – another thing where got rather screwed was from the monster cards – specifically man eating horses. Now I can now see what they sort of where meant do – monster cards go on your table – hero's want to defeat them and in doing so give you the city prestige. Don't defeat them – you don't get a new one (I think). So when card hit our table that nobody seemed to be able to defeat – then that just ground to a halt. Half the game we had hero's coming up – looking at the specifications and going 'There are rogue cards? Huh?' and wandering off. As a city I'm not sure what we where meant to do about this – but it certainly moved us out of . On the day – the need to clear out monster was a lot less clear – they did no harm to the city and so we did not see the incentive to deal with them. That said – I don't know what we could have done to help sort it out – as a city we did not seem to have any levers to pull.

Looking back I can see what we did wrong – we should have got involved in colonies specifically the ones that give control over gold, we should have been less defensive (but getting randomly attacked on the first turn rather put us on the back foot), and we should have been clearing out monsters.

It's all well and good to say what went wrong – but if I don't provide some constructive advice then what's the point. Some of this is very specific – some of this is very general.

Drop the injury and death rules – it seemed pointless and slowed things down a bit. If you need to – give people an injury token if they lose a dual which gives them a negative for the next turn.

Drop character stats for city players – there basically pointless as it stands.

Invest in a projector -and project something up on the wall which shows a) what turn it is, b) what phase it is, and c) how long you've got left till the next one.

Have some more phases – specifically -split the 'admin' phase into a 'ten minute' negotiations phase and a 'five minute' action phase. So make it clear that people are meant to be moving around and talking in that phase – and the pull them back to quickly do there book keeping and actually do what they have to do. Then split the 15 minute 'resolution' phase into a '5 minute go to your space' phase and a 10 minute actual resolution phase. Under the current design a player (be that god, or a hero) could try and do a bunch of different stuff a turn – which lead to some odd waiting around. We've invaded – but there going to get there hero – and are delaying until he gets there. Wait – can they do that? When we got invaded they said “you got a hero? No – lets go”.

Make player presence important – so having a player at a specific trade location or battle is significant. It's ok to make having a hero matter more but if a player is somewhere make that matter.

Drop the roles for city states – but make it clear if a city state has nobody at it when an attack is launched then they just lose....... It's ok to have somebody be “ultimate decision maker” but just revolve that round the table.

Now I'm into more general stuff. Cities, gods and heros need to meshing more – apparently all gods wanted was a battle dedicated to them (Which is another thing – if it's a vital part of the game – make it a required stage not an optional one.....). The cities needs to be holding more resources which both gods and hero's want – that are limited – in order for there to be proper negotiations and deals. A hero will come and lead your assault because it's better then doing nothing. Specifically I'd make a city sacrificing gods to a God an important thing because it boast a god, while a city can acquire hero cards by spending resources (specifically I'd drop the free ones you give players – unless that was a special advantage).

Things need to be more based around how you are doing – so if a city that is doing well attacks a city that is doing badly then it should be worth less to them. While a city that attacks a nations that is doing well should be rewarded for warning.

There needs to be rules around alliances – and where the prestige goes. This should be a major bone of contention when joining up – rather then the current 'we all get it!'.

The trading needs to be less winner takes all and/or not reset to zero every time and/or less susceptible to dickery so that boats are the thing that actually decides trading. So a god can only remove one of you boats per point of power not just move your whole ranking, or an associated colony gives a special token that worth X boats in that place or you can also spend resources/manpower in a one off boost.

Anyway – bit long but there needed to be a lot of background.

I'll not lie – I was disappointed, I had high hopes, and they were not met. If they come back to Leeds I'd be willing to give another one a try but probably not the same game unless they make some radical changes to it.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Theme or the butler is in fact a flimsy justification for a logical deduction game

Theme is a word that gets used a lot when talking about board games but I consider it to be rather like pornography – in that people know it when they see it but defining it is much harder to do.*

Theme is also often a hot button topic because it is given as the defining feature given that splits Ameritrash from Euro-Style games; and in board gaming terms that the equivalent of the Hatfield-Mcoy feud.

I find it vanishingly unlikely that anybody reading this is not aware of the difference – but I had fun writing this bit about the difference between them so I’m going god damn well use it.

Ameritrash fan: “Textile Merchant – Norfolk edition is dull and dry. All we do is shuffle cubes around; this game could be anything the theme is just tacked on. While I’m at it - why am I not allowed to burn down your warehouses! We should be playing Cowboys Raid R’lyeh! Look at how cool the figures that represent your character are.”

Euro-Style: “Oh god no – that game is unbalanced and involves no skill. The game basically comes down to who ever draws the most Baked Bean cards because there 2.7% more efficient than any other card and 7.5% more efficient than the average card. Also you keep destroying everything I play – so I can never plan my turn. It’s stupid!”

Ameritrash fan: “You mean its fun– that thing your allergic to.”

*Sound of a table flipping*

It’s a fair point  - some games do seem to be a mechanic with a theme lightly brushed on at the end by some naming of resources and the art of the graphic designer .  A friend of mine recently looked up from a game of fresco – in which he was notionally painting a renaissance ceiling  but was actually doing pre-planned worker placement over a series of unconnected mini-games and said something along the lines of “Game designers are strange people - did they ever really think ‘this is a good representation of the life of a jobbing 16th century Italian artist.”  or words to that effect…..

Of course some games don't have any theme - there purely abstract games which is fine.  It's just when it says it's about Pirates and it's really about optimal worker placement and forward planning - that's when people start coughing politely.

But for all that theme is often seen as the battleground – nobody thinks theme is a bad thing.  Nobody ever finished a game and said ‘I enjoyed that game – but honestly the game play was just a little bit to connected to the mechanics for me’.

It’s not even a question of priority (which is more important mechanics or theme) because I don’t think there is anybody who thinks theme alone makes for a good game.  

Theme is actually like salt – for some people a meal without salt is a bland and pointless waste but other people consider it great in its place but don’t think it’s needed in every meal. This analogy might breakdown for you around the concept of ‘to much salt’ but I’m not sure such a thing exists – just look at Canarian Potatoes.

Yes that is salt there encrusted with, yes I've eaten them, yes there amazing - with a chilli and garlic dip.

As I’ve said – I think defining theme is tricky – but something that is often considered an important part of theme is ‘fidelity’ or ‘truthfulness’.

A lot of the time this means historical accuracy which is what the English language game designers of the 70’s and 80’s prized about all else and that leads to Campaign in North Africa *shudder*.  This abomination has a play time 60,000 minutes (that’s not a typo) and rumour has it that one player per a side should just handle the supply trucks while Italian troops use more water on a Tuesday because that is when they eat pasta. No – I’ve never played and never will.

But it’s not just historical accuracy – because Eclipse has oodles of theme – and since it’s about conquering the universe in giant space ship is not accurate to anything.  Then what I think people mean is that it provides  fidelity in decision making – when playing  the game you make the decisions you would get to make in that situation.

A cube shuffling game about the roman invasion might well have you take an action that moves red cubes from one box to another – where as a themed game will have you move the II, IX, XIV and XX legions from France to the Southern coast.  I’d say one of those has fidelity – while the other does not.

Seems reasonable enough – but I think fidelity can take a hike.

I don’t want fidelity – I want my games to invoke feelings and stimulate my imagination.   So when playing that game about invading Britain I want to feel like the person invading England – maybe make little stompy noises under my breath as my men march around crushing trouser wearing savages that’s what’s important to me – that’s what I really mean when I talk about ‘theme’.

But wanting the games I play to be evocative changes things because theme and fidelity are external factors and as such they are subject to review.  Whereas evocation is by its very nature is internal. If you want to claim that Textile Merchant Norfolk invokes in you the feeling of being a 16th century textile merchant then can I say you’re wrong? I might say it does nothing for me, I might say your just plain odd, but saying your wrong seems a bit awkward.

Equally wanting feelings allows freedom from game mechanics in a way that theme and fidelity don’t.  Because you can be making any sort of decision provided it comes with that feeling in you.  Bidding mechanic that invokes being a general – sure! Territory control mechanics that make you feel like a merchant – bring it on! Set collection that makes you feel like a terrified child hiding from the boogyman –it’s all good?

Don’t get me wrong – it’s easier to invoke feelings of being a civil war general with a map, units, and rules about just how unreliable royalist cavalry is (go on – admit it – you thought I meant the other civil war) then it is using some weird movement programing mechanic but I don’t think it’s impossible.

One of my favourite games is battle line– a lovely little two player game – allegedly all about the battles of Alexander and Darius. I say allegedly because if ever a theme is paper thin then it’s this. That’s really clear when you realise that it’s a reskinned version of a game called schotten-totten which was themed around comedy clansmen beating each other up around boundary stones.

Despite that it still invokes in me a very strong feeling of being an ancient general. The act of playing a card from my hand and then drawing – somehow – in this game makes me feel like I’m ordering groups of men around while trying to pull them formations in pursuit of my plan while hoping my own plan comes through.  The battle front shifting and changing until one of us claims victory either by sudden push or slow grind.  I should say in complete honesty that it does not in any way really make me feel like either Alexander or Darius…..

So brothers and sisters in board games give up questions of theme, forget the struggle between Ameritrash and Euro-style and ask a simple question.

Does this game invoke the appropriate emotions for me?

And if it does – then go for it and fuck what they think.

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” Apparently one of the most famous phrase in the history of the Supreme Court - t

Sunday, 5 October 2014

3 hour Republic of Rome or Euro Tu Brute

I love republic of Rome – I must do-as I played it for 12 hours straight recently without ever having a reasonable shot at winning.  This is partially because I took on the role of adult in the room keeping Rome afloat through the turbulent days of the early Republic (a role I won’t bother with again – let it all burn!)……

But by Jupiter’s Cock it’s long, fiddly, filled with a billion tiny rules, baffling, has a rule book where even the modern version hurts, contains excessive dice rolling, and is basically a crackling example of why the English language board game design of the 1980’s (ok it was published in 1990 which means it was designed in the 80's) got eaten alive when the Germans came along and demonstrated there was a better way.

When two random people asked to join us and take the two empty seats caused by absence we felt it only fair to warn them what they were letting themselves in for but apparently they thought we were joking.  They learned – oh yes they learned (one of them did win so don't feel to sorry for them).

If I'm still playing it some 24 years after its release – it must have something going for it – so what is it?

While ‘the co-operative game’ era is often considered to have started with ‘Lord of the Rings’ anybody who has played it will tell you that if you don’t work together in the early republic then the Republic of Rome will chew you up and spit you out.  It is in fact intensely unfair given that you can be dead men walking after the first card draw (Hannibal on the first Punic war is basically a death sentence no matter how much you pull together).

Well it’s got detail and authenticity – in an era where theme often feels an afterthought you know these rules were written for fidelity; playability and ease of use be damned!

But that's not enough to make it worth playing - and what it really brings to the table is politicking – the horse trading and arguing over what you are going to do – as you try and walk that fine line between saving Rome and lining your own personal pockets.  It's all about what happens once the Senate is open - everything before and after that is just book keeping and clean up to set the sage for the next round of arguing.

While that's the game strong point - I'm not sure the game really helps it self even in the Senate phase.  Often there are too few things to argue over, with too much power bundled together in giant packages reducing the amount of horse trading.  Veto's exist - and swing from very powerful to pointless (as they can be dodged by making tiny amendments over and over again) - and have no negative consequences for the person vetoing.   Throwing your toys out of the pram and bring everything to a grinding halt should be ever present threat, but something that a player is very worried about doing.  It’s too easy to side line somebody – just cut them clear out of the process giving them nothing and the game can have a terrible death cycle.  Doing badly leads to doing badly as you lack the power and influence to do anything.  You will be pulled out of the cycle because you'll be the 'safe' candidate at some point but that might take hours.

Equally the games UI does not do a good job of helping you sort and organise the motions and the results- although the new version at least has a vote tracking wheel so you can see what's votes people have.  It's a step in the right direction at least.

Are there modern game that show how you might do it better?  There is Article 27 - the game of the UN security council that comes with a gavel that you bang to call a vote and there are no many games that do that.

It's a very abstract game - you get given some random tiles that reflect what issues you care about (military, environment) - sometimes you want a there to be action on an area and some times you don't.  The chair sets up a proposal - which will give or take VP's depending on your scoring tiles and then the arguing starts.  Those that are happy are in agreement - while those who stand to lose are against.  The kicker is that any single player can veto - however it costs them VP's and it also costs the chair VP's the chair is often seeking to find the lowest common denominator position while not being sure what people are about.  When they have done enough - gavel comes down - vote happens and if the majority like it and nobody veto's then the scoring conditions are revealed and people see who did well and who did badly.

Sounds complicated to track - but actually the UI of the game helps with screens and voting areas where players can indicate which areas they are happy or unhappy with - which looks like this....

And it takes about an hour and half - which makes it an interesting model to consider if you wanted to make a three hour version of Republic of Rome.  

So if you were going to work on a euro Republic of Rome - what would you do?  

Well you'd have to have concrete things to discuss rather then abstract issues - which means you'd need some sort of underlying co-op game style system that you are battling/puzzling up against.  One that is not actually that hard if you did it as a true co-op - but where unresolved issues have a way of biting you all in the arse. 

You'd make sure that there were a lot of issues/rewards on the table each time - and that each player had a hand of secret agendas that would give them a bonus depending on what happened.  So that province might not look good to you - but if he's got an income boasting card then it might be a reward not a punishment.

You'd need a good UI - that meant that what ever was up for voting would be clear and obvious to everybody.  

You'd want voting to be a more dynamic process - the words 'me and you can outvote them both on everything so what are we doing' is the death knell of fun.  

You'd try and keep the action focused in the Senate - make the rest of the game as minimalist as possible.  So each player quickly does some stuff (like drawing cards for themselves or for the table)- and then onto the arguing. Minimal decisions or dice rolling to be done either side of the senate - the important stuff is in the Senate (although there would be some because you'd want a random factor in deciding battles).  So specifically you'd split the single deck of cards into two - one with cards for players hands and one with cards for the table.  The table cards would contain issues, wars, and events all bundled up together.    

You might want to get rid of the 'people' that Republic of Rome has - and just make each player 'a faction'.  I'm torn on that - they add a lot of flavour and theme - but they also add a lot of fiddling around.

Thursday, 2 October 2014


So there is an interesting article about dice in board games up at boing boing (there doing a bunch of stuff about board games including some nice reviews at the moment).

Which I mainly agree with because I like dice in the 'roll and then use' sense - but dislike them in the choose then roll sense- which is basically what they are talking about.

But I do  think it misses a trick because it does not really talk about games that use non-numerical* dice.  Those times when you've still got a nice cube in our hand but they don't have a number on at all.  For example roll through the ages  in which the dice have a mix of pots, coins, skulls, workers, and grain on their six sides – and published in 2008 before both alien frontiers** and castle burgundy****.  That's very much a roll and see what you can do with it kind of game (with re-rolls) and a chunk of ‘push your luck’ as you skirt around the disasters.

The 'hey this is new!' tone made me think about other  “not just rolling the dice” mechanic I could think of, which if your me gets you back as far as 1974 with Apocalypse: The Game of Nuclear Devastation (more generally known as classic Warlord apparently) in which while you have dice you don’t roll them – you use them to secretly choose a number that the other person has to try and guess it.

Then I got thinking about how what both Alien Frontiers and Castle Burgundy are doing is using the numbers on the dice as symbols – but allowing the pre-existing relationships between those symbols to carry on existing.  So while the game talks about adding or subtracting one from your dice  - it just as easily could have talked about allowing you to move  1 forward or backwards around some arbitrary track.  They could have easily had A through to F on the dice and it would have been the same (other then that custom dice are expensive and so if you can use a standard D6 then brilliant).

All of which led me onto thinking about the broad type of dice based mechanics I can think off.   

Roll – and then do as the dice dictate (ie move that many space forwards)
Choose action – then roll (pick your thing then find out if you succeeded or failed - the first one might be a subset of this it's just your choice of actions is 1......)
Roll – then choose action (throw dice and then work out what you can do with that roll).
Pick/store a number on the dice (using a dice as a variable value counter)

Some additional things you can do with dice….
Change them (manipulation)- add, subtract or flip them over to their other side
Roll them again- throw them again 

Some dice scoring mechanisms

Every dice that rolls over (or under a number)
Getting over/under an amount in total

Any I've missed?  Any earlier examples?

EDIT - couple of good examples of other mechanisms I've missed.

Rolling for distance - as in the utterly bonkers Konig der maulwurgel (which is odd since I own a copy and introduced people to it.)

Stacking them on top of each other  - as in the rather interesting blueprints .

In both the new example the value on the dice is significant - so in Konig - some roles are 'invalid' and you don't get to take that move, while in blueprints the value determines what can be put on top of each other.

*Some dice have a different distribution of numbers (for example 1-3 twice) but they generally consider the numbers to be numbers – ie one better or worse than the others.  Even something like the fudge dice which had + blanks and - on them are really numeric dice.....
**Side note – I was unimpressed by alien frontiers when I played it – I probably owe it a revisit as lot of people say good things about it.   My problem*** was that having more dice is good, and you get more dice by getting a pair – once you’ve got a third dice then getting a 4th dice is easy.  Or like me you only role a pair when some bugger with more dice has already stolen the "get more dice" spot....
***From memory – about 4 years ago – I might be totally wrong about the rules.
****Where as I love castle burgundy.*****
*****Apparently this shit is addictive – who know?