Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Teaching Rules: Core Plus Options

I’ve been developing a kid-friendly tank battle miniature wargame for a while -- as if I need any more projects to fragment my already taxed time, focus, and energy -- and am organizing a means of presenting core game concepts as a foundation followed by individual options players can add to provide greater depth of play as they master the rules.

Coincidentally a recent demonstration of Japanese taiko drumming at a local library’s children’s summer reading program helped reinforce this method in my mind. Aside from having a wonderfully humorous rapport with his young audience, the drummer managed to teach some very basic concepts of taiko drumming. After an initial piece to catch the kids’ attention, he explained some of the basic taiko “notes,” demonstrating each new one in turn, then adding them to all the previous ones until he combined them all in a very basic piece in which the children (and adults) could identify the elements he’d demonstrated. The program culminated in groups of children taking up drumsticks and playing along in an improvised piece with the taiko drummer as best they could.

My presentation of the kids’ tank game takes a similar approach: explain the essential core play concepts, then offer optional rules players can add as they become more familiar with the game. Granted, the elements forming the core rules for a playable game remain quite a bit more involved than the basic “notes” in taiko drumming (though I’m not disparaging that as an intricate musical form); but once kids can understand the basics enough to play a simple move-and-shoot skirmish, then they can start learning new “options” to add depth to a game with which they’re already familiar.

I stripped the core mechanics down to the absolute basics, moving and shooting, and even then each has some more intricate yet essential concepts to learn. Movement proved the easier of the two phases to simplify to the core: each tank has a movement value in inches, and players take turns moving individual tanks up to that maximum value. It ignores complications or slower movement rates traversing difficult terrain, treating any such tabletop scenery as obstacles through which one cannot pass (elements saved for later optional rules). Shooting involves a few more complicated concepts younger players might find difficult to comprehend, notably range and line of sight, elements I’ll have to carefully and cleanly explain rather than relegate to the optional rules to add later.

My original “to hit” mechanic required a bit of refinement. At first each tank had an attack and armor value added to a 1D6 roll; the shooting tank rolled 1D6 and added its attack value, while the defending tank rolled 1D6 and added its armor value, with the attacking tank scoring one hit if it beat the defending tank’s roll (with three accumulated hits destroying a tank). In playtest this proved too much die rolling on both sides. I settled for giving each tank a static defense value based on its historical armor and a bonus reflecting a slightly lower than average die roll (3). This way the shooting tank’s player just rolls 1D6, adds his attack value, and sees if it exceeds the target’s static defense value (though I’m also including a critical hit/failure mechanic primarily so underpowered tanks still have a chance of making that miracle hit against a seemingly impregnable target, and heavy tanks that might “automatically” hit have some chance of missing).

This approach lends itself to a marketing strategy I like: release the bare-bones yet playable core game elements as a free rules set, then offer a “deluxe” paid version incorporating the free rules with a host of optional add-ons along with cool cards, scenarios, expansive tank lists, and other play aids. Seasoned wargamers might wonder what kinds of “optional” rules were stripped from the core game or planned for introduction later once players have mastered the basic concepts. I’d like to design the optional rules as independent add-on elements players can review and choose to actively use piece-by-piece in their game. A few of the optional rules I’m designing include those outlining how cover, hull down vehicles, static anti-tank guns, shots at close range, difficult terrain, mine fields, and mission objectives all work within the parameters of the core game rules.

I’d love to more closely analyze this approach in relation to other games I’m developing -- not just those for a younger audience, but for adults, too -- though the complexities of some board games, not to mention the numerous elements essential to roleplaying games, seem somewhat too overwhelming for a clean execution of this method.

In distilling my original rules to the core elements I was helped in great part by playtesting an early, more involved version of the game with my young nephew. The sessions demonstrated several areas that needed cleaner mechanics and concepts that were more optional than essential to the game’s foundation from the eyes of a 10 year-old boy. After he got over the initial excitement of playing with Uncle Pete’s toy tanks and terrain (he has little exposure to games and no experience with miniature wargames), he quickly grasped the basic mechanics, particularly using the line of sight rules to keep terrain obstacles blocking my own shots.

As always, I encourage construction feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.