Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Simultaneous Action Resolution

Many non-gamers assume players take turns in games, each one resolving their actions fully before moving on to the next player. Gamers obviously have a bit more experience with different player sequences and resolution, whether using an innovative initiative system in a roleplaying game, flipping playing cards to see which side’s units move and shoot in miniature wargames, participating in a shifting player order in a European-style board game, or, my favorite, resolving actions simultaneously so nobody’s knocked out of the game before they get a chance to take a parting shot.

Even in traditional turn-taking games I prefer every piece to have a chance to take action even if enemy fire that turn would normally destroy it; the Axis & Allies Miniatures Game and it’s War at Sea naval version do a good job of simultaneously resolving hits by noting how much damage units take and removing destroyed units at turn’s end after every piece has had a chance to move and shoot. In Panzer Kids, the beginner-friendly tank miniatures game I’m developing, I make sure to allow every tank within range and line of sight to a target a shot before accrued hits take effect and knock some tanks out of the skirmish.

While player sequencing helps maintain order at the game table, resolving actions simultaneously not only provides a better sense of fairness but forces players to remain involved and focused on the game throughout their and others’ turns. It’s a rules element I prefer, when available, in whatever games I’m playing; I try incorporating simultaneous action resolution into game designs when the mechanic seems suitable to the game’s style, overall mechanics, and theme. I’ve enjoyed some experience in other games with simultaneous action resolution:

Wings of War/Glory: One of the elements I like about Wings of War/Wings of Glory remains the simultaneous attack resolution. After all units have moved, everyone determines which enemy planes are in range and which ones they’re attacking, with target aircraft taking damage cards (or chits in the WWII version) with different damage values (including zero); aircraft with hits reaching their damage resistance value are destroyed. This procedure, however, allows the target plane to get off a shot even if, when taking hits itself, it would be eliminated at the end of the turn. In the Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game -- a direct derivative of the Wings of War/Glory game with some original innovations -- ships move and shoot according to their pilot skill value (higher being better); less experienced pilots move first and shoot last in those respective phases, while veteran pilots naturally maneuver last and attack first. Although movement might seem like a simultaneous action -- with maneuvers revealed on a previously set dial, much as flyers in Wings of War/Gloryreveal cards for maneuvers -- the addition of actions like barrel-rolling, targeting, evading, and focusing all reveal the intentions of players moving first. Since combat is fully resolved in turn beginning with the better pilots, they can knock less experienced pilots out of the game before everyone’s had a chance to shoot that turn. I enjoy Wings of War/Glory that much more because I know, even if my plane’s going down in flames this round, I have a chance to take a parting shot at an enemy aircraft.

D6 System Roleplaying Game: When I run roleplaying games with built-in initiative systems I generally resolve actions simultaneously in my head, with an eye toward fairness to player characters and unexpected plot developments from actions with results that often clash. I frequently discard built-in initiatives systems -- intended to impose structure on player and gamemaster actions -- in favor of an improvised yet simultaneous task resolution method. Typically I’ll announce the characters’ adversaries intentions then go around the table to each player (usually varying my start point each round) asking for their characters’ actions and letting them know what relevant skills to roll. I roll the gamemaster character skills, noting how well they did in terms of success/failure and degree of success (for opposed rolls). As players reveal their skill roll results I figure out what’s going on in relation to opponent actions, then narrate the outcome. This certainly makes a bit more work for the gamemaster to mentally keep track of what all the characters and their adversaries are doing, but makes for some interesting moments as simultaneous action resolution brings about some unexpected results. I also find the technique -- or the simple omission of an intrusive initiative game mechanic -- far more cinematic.

Oracle System: I’m building the Oracle System -- the basis for a retro-clone-style fantasy roleplaying system I’m developing -- on the concept of simultaneously resolving combat between two opposing parties, including chances to hit and defend in one roll. A hero rolls her dice while the gamemaster rolls dice for her opponent; each counts up defend results (2s and 3s), a number of which (equal to the character’s armor value) can cancel out the opponent’s hits (4s, 5s, and 6s), with any hits getting through armor lowering the defender’s overall dice (both an indication of ability and health). In this fashion two opponents can conceivably knock each other out of a skirmish; even someone about to be vanquished still has a chance to inflict damage with a parting shot. (You can read more about the Oracle System and its simultaneous combat resolution mechanic in an earlier blog entry.)

Simultaneous action resolution isn’t right for every game. They often becomes a choice over other game concerns. For instance, I’m sure the Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game designers felt using a pilot skill value was far more important to the overall game strategy than simultaneous attack resolution; in fact, offering different pilot expertise levels helps players build diverse squadrons essential for both varied skirmish scenarios and organized play (a cornerstone of the game’s appeal and marketing approach to the gaming community). Mechanics remain the primary consideration; if simultaneous resolution doesn’t work with the core game system -- or needs additional fiddling to fit it in -- it doesn’t belong. It’s a convention I enjoy in many games, but not at the expense of fluid and engaging gameplay.

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.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Kickstarter Satisfaction with Dungeon Roll

A Kickstarter game project I backed recently arrived in the mail and -- now that it’s in my hands -- I have to share that it was among the more satisfying Kickstarter experiences I’ve had since cautiously reviewing and backing a handful of projects engaging my interests. Frequent Hobby Games Recce readers might recall an earlier missive on Kickstarter projects focusing primarily on the numbers of projects I’ve backed, what was delivered, what wasn’t, and my core criteria that helped me determine whether I backed a particular project that initially caught my interest. At the time of that post’s writing Tasty Minstrel Games’ Dungeon Roll was the only project still undergoing funding operations through Kickstarter; now that I’ve received my copy and review my backer experience, I must admit it’s one of the more satisfying projects I’ve supported. DungeonRoll

Frequent readers might recall my affinity for press-your-luck dice games, particularly Steve Jackson Games’ Zombie Dice and its far more kid-friendly cousin Dino Hunt Dice. Designer Chris Darden’s Dungeon Roll essentially follows the form of a press-your-luck dice game with a number of innovative developments in dice management to emulate dungeon-delving-style action. Rather than a simple roll-and-keep system like the aforementioned games, Dungeon Roll employs two sets of dice, the player rolling seven white “party” dice and allocating them to vanquish monsters and activate treasures, with an adjacent player rolling the black “dungeon” dice to populate a theoretical dungeon and escalate the delve to a challenging combat encounter by accumulating dragon results. The active player manages his party dice to defeat monsters, gain treasure and experience, and bring previously used dice back into play, all while delving deeper with more dungeon dice rolled on subsequent “levels.” That’s a very broad overview of the gameplay; Dungeon Roll incorporates many nuances, including hero cards with special dice-managing abilities and treasures useful in dungeon delves, all enhancing a fun push-your-luck resource management game.

What are some of the features of both the game and the Kickstarter campaign promoting it that satisfied my expectations as a backer?

Price Point: The price to obtain a physical version of a game remains one of my primary criteria for backing a project, and at $15 Dungeon Roll made this an easy decision (even at the $19.95 retail price the game remains a good deal for a box full of dice). Domestic shipping was also included in that price (nothing made me feel like I didn’t get a good deal than when I backed an innovative game for $15 and later had to pay $12 for shipping).

Many Inclusive Stretch Goals: That $15 backer price automatically included a host of stretch goal rewards…five new hero cards (one with an additional party die), a host of new expansion pack hero cards, cards representing the dragon’s lair and graveyard locations during play, and the 10-sided level-tracker die. Normally the retail version comes in a fun treasure-chest-shaped box, but Kickstarter backers got an exclusive mimic treasure-chest-shaped box with subtle yet menacing eyes and teeth. I’ve seen Kickstarter projects whose “stretch goals” aren’t rewards as much as ad-ons backers can pay extra to receive, a kind of hollow victory for backers limited to donating at particular levels; Dungeon Roll’s inclusive stretch goal rewards helped invest backers in the campaign’s success and make it a fulfilling game package.

Production Values: The treasure-chest-shaped box might seem small compared to other games, but it’s packed with high-quality goodies. The core of the game remains the hefty handful of custom molded dice (17 in all) for the game; the numerous hero cards come on good stock with nice, tasteful images typical of fantasy-themed artwork. Experience point and treasure tokens punch out from heavy, die-cut cardboard. The addition of a dragon’s lair and graveyard location cards helps organize gameplay. Four duplicate player aid cards summarize how different dice work and remind players how they can use different treasures. The game also includes the rulebook and two hero books (one for the expansion) detailing different hero abilities. Not all these goodies come with the general retail version (I believe it lacks the heroes in the expansion pack, the Kickstarter-exclusive hero with its extra party die, two extra dungeon dice, and the two location cards); but the production values remain high for the $19.95 price point.

Light Engaging Gameplay: Dungeon Roll doesn’t promise an intense evening of gaming one might expect from something like Axis & Allies, Settlers of Catan, or even Ticket to Ride. One might even argue that Steve Jackson Games’ classic Munchkin exemplifies the light dungeon-delving game with a dose of outrageous humor. But Dungeon Roll packs a light, dice-tossing game experience with some solid resource management and enough strategy and tension as a light break from heavier fare or a primary game for a group of younger players. It’s also perfectly suitable as a solitaire diversion….

Solitaire Option: Although Dungeon Roll’s gameplay can serve solitaire players in its basic form to achieve their best score, the designers offer specific solitaire guidelines…and not just “here’s how you play Dungeon Roll by yourself,” but an experience point scale to grade performance and several notable “achievements” for encountering or overcoming certain situations.

Gamers who missed out on the Kickstarter campaign can still buy a copy (without all the cool Kickstarter exclusive bits) from their friendly local game store or other venues carrying game offerings from Tasty Minstrel Games.

Want to offer feedback? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The “Pay-What-You-Want” Experiment

Two months ago I decided to change all the free Griffon Publishing Studio material at my DriveThruRPG.com e-storefront to “free/pay-what-you-want” status (often abbreviated as PWYW). While these offerings were still technically free for the downloading, this option offered readers the opportunity to pay what they wanted for them either at the time of download or after perusing the material.

The One Bookshelf family of e-publishing websites initiated the PWYW option a few months ago. I’d read some initial feedback from participants, most of whom saw this as an opportunity to down-price small PDFs -- normally priced around $5 or less -- and make them available for free or whatever readers wanted to pay. I saw this option in a different light from the perspective of already free products; it served as a kind of “tip jar” enabling folks to make a donation to creators as a token of appreciation, even for something normally offered gratis.

This development occurred just as I was preparing two new, free PDF files for distribution to promote my Pulp Egyptand Heroes of Rura-Tongasystem-neutral game supplements. Unfortunately I’d already released The Labyrinth of Set before learning of the pay-what-you-want option, so my data for that month remained skewed, with “tips” counting only about half the month; throughout June 235 people downloaded it and several generous donors dropped $3.50 in the “tip jar” through PWYW donations. I released The Paranoia Pitin July as a free/PWYW offering from the start and had decent results; 123 people downloaded it and generous donors dropped $12.51 in the “tip jar,” a little more than the equivalent of someone purchasing the actual Heroes of Rura-Tonga supplement at full price. I promoted both free PDFs on my usual social networking sites and the Griffon Publishing Studio website in conjunction with a 25% off coupon on the purchase of the related sourcebooks; several customers took advantage of discounts each month. During that time -- after I switched all my previously free PDFs to free/PWYW status -- other PDFs brought in $2.40 in “tips,” though that’s “found money” considering everything was previously offered for free without any option for monetary appreciation.
Considering these remain free PDFs supporting game supplements offered for a price, I’m thankful to get a little additional income to invest in future projects. I’m flattered by people’s generosity; had I small enough PDFs for sale that I’d set at free/PWYW, I fear I’d find disappointment in meager donations. At this point, as I release any free, promotional PDFs for existing or future paid supplements, I’ll set them as “free/PWYW” for whatever it’s worth.

I don’t release enough low-priced PDF publications to consider marking them down to free/PWYW status; I’m still old-school in that I release supplements with substantial page counts (i.e., more than 16, sadly remarkable in a marketplace with products of 1-6 pages often priced at less than $2); naturally these take more time and effort and I’m less likely to let them go for free, though I try pricing them fairly and offer occasional sales and coupons. Releasing free/PWYW support material for larger paid product has served as and remains a core marketing strategy for Griffon Publishing Studio.

Other publishers who’ve “marked down” already low-priced PDFs to free/PWYW have shared positive results. I’m encouraged that they report an overall generosity on the part of a few readers to make up for others downloading such files for free. It’s a balancing act publishers accept; sure, many people won’t pay anything, and a few people “tip” fairly, but the PDF makes it into the hands of far more readers than it would have if offered at a set -- even a low -- price. It ultimately serves to support related games and boost interest in a publisher’s offerings, free, PWYW, or paid.

I remain grateful to my many fans, followers, and friends who support me with their encouragement, positive reviews, and their purchases and tips.

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.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Mythologizing History in Games

Gamers constantly debate the “accuracy” of their games -- particularly roleplaying games and wargames -- in simulating “real” conditions or processes. Discussions often range from those favoring lighter systems easier to engage newcomers to “crunchy” games heavy with detailed rules for “realistically” simulating various situations. Ultimately such precision falls prey to culturally mythologized concepts that -- though they contribute to entertaining gameplay -- often fail to portray the action with the desired degree of accuracy. In historical wargaming, designers often compromise between the “history” and the “game,” favoring the ease and enjoyment of the play experience rather than the sometimes murky and changing, often mythologized versions of history we uphold in our collective cultural consciousness.

During my visit to Historicon this summer I sat in on several seminars in the HMGS War College series, including “Civil War Rules and Scenarios.” The convention program description claimed:

“Members of the HMGS Legion of Honor, including Frank Chadwick and Glenn Kidd, will discuss elements of American Civil War rules design and how to create a great ACW scenario…. Discussion will include examples from ACW rule sets and a lok at some of the engagements in and around Fredericksburg.”

Led by Historical Miniatures Gaming Society (HMGS) luminaries Glenn Kidd, Duke Seifried, and Frank Chadwick, the seminar featured a number of other knowledgeable and vocal historical wargaming personalities in the audience who contributed to the discussion. Although I was hoping for some opinions of existing game systems and insights on “how to create a great ACW scenario” from the professionals, the discussion quickly diverted into a debate about what factors set the American Civil War apart from other period conflicts, with more regard for the historical theory, assumptions, and evidence than wargaming implications.

The panel speakers and audience participants explored a number of issues that might not otherwise occur to a casual wargamer with limited period interests:

Cavalry: While cavalry in Napoleonic times served to deliver the coup de grace by pursuing and destroying enemy infantry formations, in the Civil War cavalry served more as a scouting force with little military power to decide battles. (I would add the exceptions of the purely cavalry engagements at Brandy Station and Trevilian Station, but I’m a bit biased since they’re part of my local history.)

Why They Fought: Did views on American “aristocracy” -- with many immigrants fighting it on the side of the North, preserving a romanticized version as inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s literature on the side of the South -- contribute to both sides’ tenacity? Did a loyalty to officers from their own community and sometimes even elected by the rank and file play any role in soldiers’ devotion to duty on the field

Artillery: Cannon in the Civil War served more to offer infantry support using shotgun-like canister and grapeshot against advancing enemy units and to counter enemy artillery batteries on the field rather than its role in softening up distant infantry formations in a battle’s early stages during the Napoleonic era.

Rally the Troops: What role -- if any -- did the presence of varied terrain and a lack of destructive cavalry play in both sides’ ability to rally in the face of reversals and return to the fray?

Throughout the discussion audience members frequently challenged historical assumptions panelists made -- part of a friendly give-and-take in exploring the issues. The ultimate conclusion? Any wargame (and arguably any game) makes assumptions based on the popular mythology of the forces and conflict despite the “realities” according to the present version of history (and continued interpretation of historical evidence).

Humans have revised history with their prejudiced perspectives since the dawn of history. Ramses the Great’s “victory” over the Hittites at Kadesh in the 13th century BCE -- in the reality of modern historiography a near-disastrous ambush of pharaoh’s unprepared, scattered forces -- was retold on several prominent, surviving monuments in Egypt claiming the god Amun-Re himself aided Ramses in vanquishing the Hittites. Tennyson turned the disastrous charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War’s Battle of Balaclava into a glorious poem praising British valor and fueling the Empire’s enthusiasm for subsequent military exploits. Films about historical subjects often offer idealized or sanitized interpretations of historical events or eras created with an eye toward entertainment and not necessarily historical accuracy.

History as represented in wargames succumbs to similar compromises. No matter how much designers study aspects of a historical battle or era, they make certain assumptions on how the game universe works to craft a playable game based on the generally accepted history. Many of these assumptions evolve from mythologized concepts in  history or elements so adapted to a wargaming rationale that they lose some other historical aspect. When looking on the spectrum between actual “war” and “game,” wargames of any stripe -- from board and chit to visually stunning miniatures -- lean extremely close to game and very far from the realities of war they strive to simulate.

From my perspective as an advocate of games in education, this debate seems to devalue the role of wargames as historical learning experience. While I’m sure wargames offer students some feel for the events and issues beyond their rather static course reading and some classroom discussion, they serve a greater role: they provide an entertaining play experience that just might inspire them to learn more about the historical elements in the game, leading to further thought, research, and academic exploration of history as a personal interest.

Want to offer feedback? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.