Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Cutting Down to the Essentials

In adapting Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game for play with a three-and-a-half year-old preschooler I’ve learned some lessons about cutting down a game system to the essential rules, a task applicable to the kid-friendly tank skirmish game I’m developing.

Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game

My preschooler son has reached a point where he’s voraciously absorbing everything Star Wars we allow (i.e., only original trilogy material), primarily inspired by the numerous Star Wars toys, games, and other images in my office. Over the past few months we’ve read him the pop-up book, listened to the soundtrack in the car ad nauseum, got out some old Playskool figures (and the Millennium Falcon) he plays with, and finally watched Star Wars: A New Hope together (the pre-special edition version).

We spent a day at Historicon this past July where he inevitably noticed and intently watched the last half of a Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game playing out, including such ships as Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon and Darth Vader’s advanced TIE fighter. Between that and actually watching Star Wars he was hooked. Luckily I found a nicely discounted copy of the X-Wing Miniatures Game in the Historicon dealers hall; after adding a few more starfighters acquired in numerous quests to gaming stores near and far we were ready to play.

The game itself offers several levels of play, from the extremely basic quick-start rules to the main game and several more involved “additional rules.” The system includes some innovations on a style of miniature wargame “lite” popularized several years ago by the World War I aviation-themed Wings of War (an Italian game Fantasy Flight Games distributed in America). They’ve added several layers of complexity beyond the basic move-and-shoot system, including pilot actions (barrel rolls, focusing, evasion), pilot cards for each spacecraft to vary the pilot skill and actions, upgrade cards to enhance individual ships, and special eight-sided dice for attack and defense rolls.

Stripping this all down to the level of a three year-old seemed daunting at first, until I focused only on the quick-start rules, designed to get people playing right out of the box. These rules use the main ship stats, maneuver dial, movement templates, and dice in a very bare-bones game even young players can comprehend with a little adult gamer guidance. Gameplay focuses on the essential basics of movement and attack; no fancy actions, no dealing with pilot skill, no starship upgrades or special weapons. Granted, we play with lots of parental assistance using these extremely basic yet functional rules. From a parent’s perspective, it offers a chance to teach numbers using the movement and turn templates (“How far do you want your ship to move?”), counting dice to roll and their results, and direction (straight, left, or right; gradual turn or sharp turn). We also let the preschooler fly the Millennium Falcon, which, thanks to guns mounted on turrets, has a full 360-degree field of fire, so he doesn’t have to worry about lining up his target in a limited forward-facing fire arc. (It also gives him plenty of shields and hull strength so his ship has only rarely been eliminated during a game.)

We’ve played it several times, usually with Mommy flying Luke Skywalker’s X-wing fighter and Daddy fielding a pair of TIE fighters or the newly acquired TIE interceptors. With our help the preschooler has quickly mastered the basic game concepts (though his moves on the starfield don’t always make sense); so he’s recently asked for (and his parents desperately sought) some new additions to enhance his game experience. Although I thought he might appreciate the range rules -- allowing an extra attack die when firing on close targets or giving an extra defense die for those at long range -- my son saw the cardboard punch-out asteroid pieces used in some of the game’s missions and wanted to use those. Of course, they made the game harder for Daddy’s TIE fighters….

Panzer Kids Basic

My approach to a kid-friendly tank skirmish game takes a similar strategy as the X-Wing Miniatures Game’s incrementally more involved rules. I intend to release Panzer Kids in two stages, the free/pay-what-you-want PDF basic edition containing the barebones rules, several tank stat cards, rulers, and print-and-play top-down tank pieces (in lieu of miniatures kids can find or purchase from other sources). The for-pay Deluxe Edition would include all the basic rules plus tons of optional rules players can learn piecemeal and include in their game when they feel ready to add greater depth of play.

I’m in the process of drafting the core rules based on pages of notes and disparate paragraphs hastily written as inspiration came in the design process. As I write I’m finding a number of things to toss out of the basic edition. I knew I’d relegate many rules essential to complex miniature wargames to the more advanced deluxe edition -- hull down vehicle cover, static anti-tank guns, shots at close range, traversing difficult terrain, mine fields, and mission objectives -- but I’m still finding concepts I thought might work in the basic edition to move to the deluxe edition or even eliminate altogether. Here are a few I’d thought to include in the basic game that, in the course of developing a rules set for a younger audience, I ultimately decided to cut to stick more closely to the absolute essentials:

Variable Scale: I’d originally intended to include information (primarily speed and range, both measured in inches) for both 15mm and 6mm “micro-scale” tanks. I personally like wargaming with both, and have a small collection of tanks from the North African theater in both scales. But in considering what kids might have available to them, or what they might find in hobby, toy, and game stores, I decided to cut references to the 6mm scale. I’ll include some top-down pieces kids can print and play with in lieu of actual miniatures, but will relegate the 6mm information as an optional appendix in the deluxe version of the game.

Deployment Options: In determining how players set up games, I’d devised a few alternatives to the basic “put your tanks along your edge of the battlefield” strategy reflecting the terrain set-up and any slight disparity in the total unit point costs between Axis and Allied player forces. For instance, with cover terrain set up along the middle of the play area, the side with the slightly lower total point cost might deploy tanks up to 12 inches from their edge of the board. In writing these conditions out, however, I realized it might be too much for kids to comprehend amidst all the other nuances of miniature wargame rule. These options might go into a sidebar in the deluxe rules’ movement section, but they don’t belong in the basic game.

Unit Point Cost: The gamer in me insisted on rating each tank type with a “cost” to field it, a value reflecting its firepower, armor, and speed. Theoretically this helps each side build a force of relatively equal strength to make sure each has a fair chance of winning. But when I took a closer look comparing Axis and Allied tanks, I realized they had fairly close values. Rather than spend an entire section explaining the concept of unit point costs and balancing forces, I cut it and instead offered some suggestions for Axis and Allied tank face-offs (mostly from the North African theater). Most represent equivalent numbers of tanks (3 German Pkw IIIs against 3 British Crusader IIs), though the one exception proved the Pkw VI Tiger tank, which I paired against two M3 Stuart tanks.

Two miniature wargaming concepts remain essential to playing the game beyond simply moving and shooting in the open: line of sight and cover. Both might seem too complex to include in the basic edition, but through playtesting I realized they really form the core of tactical decisions for a small skirmish. Players need to maneuver their tanks around the available cover (mostly hills and oases in my desert games) to hide from enemy tanks and gain some small advantage from cover.

I also realize these rules remain bound to other constraints I’ve placed on myself, notably some foundation in the tanks’ historical performance (demonstrated in the tank stats themselves) and a desire to introduce young gamers to wargaming concepts one degree beyond simply moving and shooting. I have also, rather foolishly I might argue, taken on the challenge of trying to draft a set of miniature wargame rules intended for kids 10 and older to pick up on their own, learn, and play without adult supervision. Old Dominion GameWorksMein Panzer Junior offers a set of basic move-and-shoot tank rules with some slightly more complex stages; but it presumes involvement and supervision from a miniature wargames-informed adult. (Downloading these free rules requires registration at the ODGW website.)
We’ll see how my continued development and writing for the Panzer Kids rules challenges my ability to hone rules down to their bare minimum while still clearly and concisely explaining game concepts to a younger audience.

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.