Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Preparing for A Convention

I’m getting ready to attend a convention and run a game – something I haven’t done in a while – so I’m slowly pulling myself and my materials together in a somewhat-familiar way so I’m as prepared as possible to put a positive face on the event.

I haven’t attended a convention as a gamemaster in a while. Before becoming a father I had a regular calendar of several regional conventions each year, at which I’d do the gaming guest thing running roleplaying game sessions, speaking on panels, mingling with gamers, and occasionally hosting a dealers room table. I’ve since had little time or energy to regularly attend conventions; most of my recent forays have been as a regular con-goer, hanging out with gamers, playing in a game or two, and shopping among the dealers. Having worked both ends of the spectrum – from hard-sell game designer to average con-goer – I can appreciate the amount of work gamemasters put into their convention games as well as the relaxed and friendly atmosphere a good convention offers.

But I’ve set myself the goal of taking some new game designs to demo, playtest, and showcase at some small, regional conventions in the new year; so I’m trying to get back into the groove to make myself and my game look as professional as possible.

I’m planning on running a free-form, four-hour demo/playtest session of Panzer Kids, a kid-friendly wargame of World War II tank battles I’m developing. Although the first draft of the basic rules is complete, it hasn’t quite entered the layout stage yet. (And I’m still drafting “optional” advanced rules for the deluxe version.) So I’m prepping some essential materials for running a game at the convention, most of which are planned components of the final game: simple stat cards for various tanks for reference, a one-page summary of the stats on the cards, and a one-page rules summary to display at the table. My brilliant stroke of marketing genius (or shameless self-promotion) came in devising the stat card backs; since I intend to print and trim a host of them to give out to players, I put a short blurb about the game on the card back with the Griffon Publishing Studio website address so they can watch for further updates about the game in development.

Aside from game materials I need to produce, I must prep and pack all the wargaming paraphernalia for the convention: tank miniatures to match the stat cards, terrain pieces, my 4x6-foot, tan felt “desert terrain” mat, dice, hit tokens, and sign holders (for the aforementioned one-page game reference materials).

I always have to psych myself up for conventions where I’m presenting my game design projects. It’s not that I’m immersing myself in a role of game designer, but more training myself to project a positive, friendly, and open presence. Much of this actually comes down to believing in myself and what I’ve created to overcome a natural degree of self-doubt.

Once I finish with the “business” end of con prep – including making hotel arrangements, registering the game, and registering for the convention itself – I can move along to more enjoyable activities based more in my convention-goer role: perusing the program to look for games I’d like to join as a player, packing some board games to try in any open board game areas I find (and resisting the urge to pack everything...), compiling a short list of game goodies to seek among the dealers, and e-mailing a few friends I hope to see.

Over the years I’ve kept a small journal with notes from my past convention participation: game sessions I ran with times and number of players; impressions of convention space, attendance, and dealers; contacts I make; and ideas for future convention appearances. It’s all done in the spirit of learning by reflecting on past experiences. Using this method I’ve learned a lot and changed how I approach conventions, yet I also realize I am always learning, that I always have something I can improve and must adjust to new situations. I’m looking forward to the upcoming convention and my Panzer Kids demo/playtest session; we’ll see what notes I add to my convention participation notebook and what areas I can improve.

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

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

World War II-Themed Games

World War II has always held some appeal for me, inspired as I was at an early age by my father’s Life’s Picture History of World War II (I’ve since acquired my own copy). I fueled this interest at various periods in my life through films, books, and games of the roleplaying, board, card, miniatures, and board-and-chit variety. It’s led me to develop several game projects with World War II themes, including a roleplaying game sourcebook for Raiders of the Lost Ark; Pulp Egypt and Heroes of Rura-Tonga, two system-neutral sourcebooks for the pre-war years; and the solitaire wargame Operation Drumbeat (not to mention a few gaming and fiction projects on the back burner of my mind). Build for Navy

Many complex games cover aspects of World War II. The venerable wargame company Avalon Hill produced a host of World War II games, including such titles as Breakout: Normandy, Victory in the Pacific, Rise and Decline of the Third Reich, the solitaire B-17: Queen of the Skies, and Squad Leader (with its other iterations, Advanced Squad Leader and the card game version, Up Front); the company also published more basic, introductory wargames, many now sadly out of print. The late, lamented West End Games got its start producing wargames (purportedly ones covering battles the owner wanted to play), including such World War II titles as Against the Reich, Eastern Front Tank Leader, the solitaire RAF, and Rommel in North Africa. Although several well-established miniature wargaming rules exist, perhaps the most popular – and most exhaustively supported – remains Battlefront’s Flames of War rules and miniatures. But these cater more to hard-core gamers than newcomers, people from wargaming backgrounds with an understanding and enjoyment of the complexities of the hobby, whether immersing themselves in a rulebook, setting up chit-and-board wargames, or painting armies of miniatures for tabletop play. Those who have a strong interest in World War II without a gaming background – or even knowledge that such games exist – might find more complex and hard-to-find wargame options intimidating or limiting; but “gateway” games can more easily draw such aficionados into the adventure gaming hobby, satisfying their interest in re-playing the war’s significant engagements and tempting them to further channel their enthusiasm into gaming endeavors. A number of gateway World War II games remain on the market today. They merge factual elements with game mechanics to provide a gaming experience grounded in some degree of historical accuracy (as much as manageable in an abstract representation of warfare largely removed from reality). I’ve compiled a short list of such gateway games, most of which I’ve played myself and have satisfied my own interest in World War II:

 axisalliesboxAxis & Allies: Possibly the most complicated gateway game on this list, Axis & Allies was a longstanding and much-played title from Avalon Hill. Since Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro acquired Avalon Hill the company has released many iterations of the game beyond the basic one covering the conflict at a global, strategic level. I recommend the basic world-encompassing game of Axis & Allies since it offers the global perspective, merging economies of production and scientific research into military technologies with the actual movement and clashing of armies, navies, and air forces. Granted, the rules remain quite involved compared to other gateway games, and a full session of Axis & Allies can take many hours, or even days. But it remains high on the list of games that simulate the war’s comprehensive military actions and economic factors. The game also benefits from its availability in the toy departments of mainstream stores like Target and Walmart. Other Axis & Allies Games: The other board iterations of the main game focus on individual theaters of the war. While I haven’t seen or played them myself, I’m sure they have good play value based on the brand, it’s high-quality components, and a rationale of rules that don’t quite tread into the realm of complex wargames. Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro also released several collectable miniatures games with the Axis & Allies branding covering land, sea, and air engagements at the tactical level. While I love the pre-painted miniatures and the clean, intuitive rules (particularly War at Sea), these games have passed out of the primary hobby retail market and into the realm of collectors. Besides, the collectible miniatures sales model distributed packs of random minis, providing an expensive challenge for gamers who wanted to play in specific theaters or with certain forces. Nonetheless, for those who can find acceptable forces from these games, they provide a good gateway into the miniature wargame hobby.

Wings of Glory WWII: Originally released as Wings of War: Dawn of WWII and retooled as the compatible Wings of Glory, this game enables players to recreate aerial combat scenarios using authentic aircraft models on stands and decks of maneuvers keyed to each airplane’s historical performance parameters. Each turn players choose a maneuver card which, when revealed, they place in front of their aircraft model’s stand and move it according to the arrows describing the maneuver. Any enemy fighters within range and field of fire receive a damage token tallied against their overall strength; a very intuitive, easy to teach system that simulates aerial combat well. (I’ve discussed the World War I version – which uses very similar rules and movement systems – at Hobby Games Recce before.) The range of aircraft available includes many early war models from most nations, primarily fighter craft but also medium bombers. I’ve managed to collect enough models for engagements simulating combat from the Battle of Britain and the Flying Tigers, with a few other models for good measure. The game has a thriving online support community over at the Wings of War Aerodrome, with plenty of rules options (including solitaire), new missions, new cards, and other accessories, along with engaging forum discussions. Alas, this game has seen limited release in the United States (in both iterations), with rules sets and miniatures found almost exclusively at supportive hobby stores (or, in my case, from dealers at wargaming conventions). spearpoint1943

Spearpoint 1943: This game combines deck building set-up with card game mechanics and dice rolling to create a fast-playing, head-to-head skirmish experience. Set during the campaign to overrun Italy in 1943, it pits German units against American forces, each represented by a host of cards. Using a point system to build a small skirmishing force including infantry, tanks, artillery, even aircraft, players then deploy available units in head-to-head encounters. Don’t let the unit card appearance fool you; it might seem complex at first with various numbers to hit different targets with available weapons, but it all works quite intuitively and the rules concisely explain what might look like numerous fiddly bits. The archival photos add an authentic touch to each card. Since tanks, artillery, and aircraft require separate crew cards to deploy, players must rely on the luck of the draw to bring units into their hand and then deploy them to the tabletop skirmish. Players can also enhance deployed cards with advantages from command cards. Damage cards offer different effects for various unit types printed along one of each of the card’s sides, adding an extra dimension of limitation for those surviving combat from one turn to the next. The variable nature of each force – as created from the overall pool of cards based on a point value for each battle – ensures a varied game experience with solid replay value. I discussed the game elements in slightly more depth over at my Game Design Journal blog. The Russian front version of the game – Spearpoint 1943: Eastern Front – recently concluded a successful Kickstarter campaign, breaking several stretch goals that significantly enhanced the game...five-card additions for both the German and Russian forces, and a 50-card heavy weapons expansion (25 cards for each side). Collins Epic Wargames no doubt has future plans for additional versions of the game covering other theaters of the war. 

 Mem44compMemoir ’44: This hefty boxed game from Days of Wonder provides everything for playing out major tactical battles from the Normandy campaign, including the rulebook with numerous scenarios, large board, terrain tiles, cards, dice, and a host of plastic miniatures for Allied and Axis infantry, tanks, and artillery. The game board offers a graphically impressive sight, not simply from the numerous plastic figures but from hexagonal tiles enabling players to customize the terrain to particular scenarios. The rules use the tried and true Command and Colors system designed by Richard Borg; command cards enable units on the battlefield’s left, right, and center (or combinations thereof) to move and attack, with combat resolved by the roll of special dice. With a box packed with quality game components, 15 scenarios in the main rulebook (and many supplemental scenarios available online), and several additional expansions for boards, terrain, pieces, and scenarios, Memoir ’44 offers fantastic replay value. The basic game remains available in many hobby gaming stores and occasionally finds its way into the toy departments of more mainstream retailers.

These games all have far more comprehensible rules for newcomers than traditional wargames of both the board-and-chit and miniature variety. They vary across the many theaters of global conflict, though any World War II aficionado should find at least one of them catering to their interests. Some relevant gateway games have regrettably fallen out of print and hence remain hard to find among the various collectable venues. These include two Avalon Hill classics that haven’t (and probably won’t) see any redesign or re-issue from Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro anytime soon – the very comprehensible board-and-chit wargame Victory at Sea and the wonderful solitaire B-17: Queen of the Skies (which I’ve discussed before and inspired my own solitaire Operation Drumbeat). TSR’s old Sirocco board game deserves mention; it’s a classic “dead game” from a sadly long-gone company, but one that did a nice job of presenting basic and advanced rules for numerous skirmishes in North Africa.

No doubt I’ve overlooked a few pertinent World War II gateway games. Let me know what I’ve missed. 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, January 14, 2014

Six Pilgrims

I’ve diverted slightly from some of my projects at the start of the new year to pursue a quick exercise channeling some recent inspiration into a personal challenge. The inspiration came from my recent admiration of the interesting “randomizers as pieces” element of CoinAge and an urge to explore the issue of whether mechanics or theme came first in designing a game (a topic I’d like to address in a future Game Design Journal entry). The result is a quick, abstract game with a medieval theme called Six Pilgrims. I apologize in advance...this is one of those posts where I ramble through my creative process, so please bear with me.

One of the elements I liked about Coin Age was how each player’s casting of the coins served both to randomly determine what action they could take in a turn and also define the available pieces to deploy on the map. Once placed the pieced didn’t move, but played a role in the territory control aspect of the game. Using randomizers as pieces appealed to me as a concept, though I wasn’t quite sure where I’d go with that.

I wanted to experiment with an idea of using six-sided dice as both randomizers and pieces in an abstract game I could lightly overlay with some basic theme elements. I decided to use a simple gridded playing surface like a chess board, though I chose to narrow that down to six dice on a six-by-six square grid; this would accommodate my intention to use a seventh die to randomly affect dice during play. I also imposed upon myself the condition that the game rules serve both a solitaire player as well as two players head-to-head (each using six dice on the board and a seventh one on the side). For my “randomizers as pieces” element I determined that during set-up players would roll each playing-piece die and deploy it on the resulting space within a column; for instance, rolling a “4” would place that die in the fourth square up from the player’s side of the board. In this way one die would occupy each column at a variable “height.” I wanted to use a roll of the seventh die at the beginning of each turn to randomly determine one column whose die would “drop” one space, possibly even moving it off the bottom edge of the board and out of play.

I played around with a game objective motivating players to manipulate the dice on the board. Moving off the top of the board seemed diametrically opposed to the “downward” movement randomly determined at the beginning of each turn; so I settled on lateral movement, making the random “drop” each turn a nuisance and a means of eliminating pieces that might score at the game’s end. I decided a die could move off the right edge of the board only if all the dice lined up on the same row; for extra depth I allowed other dice of the departing die’s value to leave as well...so if a die valued at “5” departed the right edge of the board, all the other dice in the line showing “5” leave, too. This led to a short list of player actions each turn: move one die up or down one space; move one die to the right one space into an unoccupied column (possible only after dice start moving off the board); change the value of one die by one pip (to increase scoring or enable multiple, similar dice to move off the board). No action could affect the single die “dropped” by the random roll at the beginning of that turn. After outlining these rules in a far more clearly organized manner – and determining how conflicting dice would work with two opposing players – I ran a few solitaire games for myself to iron out the kinks and adjust the rules to those hastily explained above.

When creating games I generally tend to focus on a theme first – one that engages a personal interest – then develop mechanics based on a fulfilling game experience keyed to that theme. This exercise in employing a “randomizers as pieces” element proved quite the opposite of how I normally go about conceiving of and developing a game. I now had a set of mechanics I liked, but no theme to add some flavor (or even an interesting title) to an abstract set of rules.

Two generalized themes became apparent in the rules as I’d envisioned them: falling down and off the bottom of the board; and bringing the dice into alignment to “escape” off the right side of the board. I was immediately reminded of and inspired by a review of the Titanic SOS game (which fired my subsequent search for material about that game). I also thought about other themes involving evacuation or escape in my general field of interests such as history, science fiction, and fantasy, like abandoning a damaged spacecraft or leaving a doomed planet. Meh. Nothing really came together to excite me or provide some basic theme elements (like a title) to enhance the rules. I looked at the dice sitting on my chess board, thought about the medieval origins and importance of chess, and thought what general medieval setting ideas I had floating around. Then it dawned on me: it might fit the Infinite Cathedral fantasy roleplaying setting I’ve had on the back burner for a few years.

I envisioned the Infinite Cathedralas an alternate plane of existence where people were magically and inexplicably dumped from various other medieval realities, a vast expanse of mostly ruined cathedral architecture, grids of columned naves and transepts with cloisters in the spaces between them. Inhabitants (and their trapped descendents) frequently face a choice between accepting their fate and settling down in small enclaves or continuing a seemingly hopeless quest for some means of returning to their home worlds. With the religious overtones of the Infinite Cathedral and a built-in escape motif I found a thematic means of framing my abstract rules. The dice represent six pilgrims seeking to escape or “ascend” from the infinite bounds of the cathedral, with the downward mechanic symbolizing the pull of despair threatening to deter them from their quest. For one to “ascend” they must all align geographically and philosophically.

To complete this exercise I need to revise my draft rules, include a few diagrams and examples, work up a print-and-play board, and send it off to my usual keen playtesters; but overall I’m pleased with this simple diversion.

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

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Confluence of Gifts

My holidays were blessed with an abundance of well-chosen gifts from my family and in-laws. I’m often at a loss when gift-giving occasions arise (usually my birthday and Christmas, conveniently located at opposite ends of the calendar) and people ask me what I’d like; this year when I couldn’t think of anything, I simply referred folks to my Amazon.com wish list. It yielded some surprising and satisfying results.

I’ve maintained my Amazon wish list partly as a tool for reminding myself of various books, games, soundtracks, and films I’d like to add to my collection (and often forget about) and as a means of communicating with family and friends both specific and general ideas for gifts. They haven’t always used it in the past, but it offers both a means of buying exactly what I’d like as well as a guide to my general interests when buying other gifts. Sometimes they order directly from Amazon, other times they find the items in brick-and-mortar stores.

TrekAttackWingThis year my relatives unknowingly conspired to outfit me with a nice starter package for WizKids’ Star Trek: Attack Wing miniatures game. My parents – who usually manage to find a fun game-related gift for Christmas or my birthday – got me the game’s basic set. My in-laws ordered the Miranda-class starship USS Reliant and my brother-in-law’s family got me the Klingon IKS Gr’oth (D7) cruiser. We’ve already played a few games using the quick-start rules with the Little Guy, but I’m also looking forward to playing the full game using the more versatile standard rules (though it remains to be seen how well the mechanics translate from its Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game origins to the Star Trek universe).

I suppose it helps I’m also vocal in my interests. Most folks know I enjoy learning about World War II. My in-laws have for several years renewed a subscription to WWII History magazine; while some articles cover familiar ground for me, each issue offers glimpses into new aspects of the war about which I’d not known or only heard about in passing. They (with some help from my wife) bought a book I’d noticed about a little-known tragedy: the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. The German cruise ship served as a transport evacuating military and civilian refugees fleeing the Soviet advance in January, 1945, but was torpedoed and sunk by a Soviet submarine. Death on the Baltic sheds some light on this obscure but tragic event, which by some accounts claimed more lives (an estimated 9,000) than the Titanic disaster (which claimed about 1,500 lives). Unknowingly playing on this theme of German maritime disaster, my brother gave me two DVDs: the equally little-known Titanic film the Germans made in 1943, and a History Channel documentary about the making of that movie and its ironic behind-the-scenes drama.

The holiday season – which also includes our son’s birthday – also proved that we are passing on our interests to the Little Guy. Among the gifts from my wife’s friendly co-workers were a bulbous yet extremely plush Cthulhu and a gift certificate to the recently opened Friendly Local Game Store in town (he went and purchased an expansion for King of Tokyo, which he enjoys immensely). While one might argue gift-giving is an art form in knowing individuals and intuitively identifying meaningful gifts, our Internet Age and such tools as Amazon’s wish list can help both those seeking to give gifts and those hoping to broadcast their wishes on items to receive.

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