Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Wargaming Revelations in 1776

I recently had a chance to play Avalon Hill’s American Revolution wargame 1776 and discovered I fulfilled several of James Dunnigan’s statements about wargamers in The Complete Wargames Handbook: How to Play, Design & Find Them (revised edition). Playing the basic game revealed to me that I not only fall into what he considers the majority “favorite mode” of play – solitaire – but that I do so for one of his two major reasons (“lack of an opponent” instead of “preference to play without an opponent”) and that I particularly enjoy exploring the historical aspects of the situation in “that the player may exercise his own ideas about how either side in the game should be played without interference from another player.”

A month or two ago I acquired a small pile of well-used but mostly complete wargames for $10 (thanks to my wife’s sharp eyes perusing Craigslist). The haul included several Avalon Hill games I was keen to try given my varied historical interests, primarily Panzer Leader and 1776 (and one of Dunnigan’s own games, Empires of the Middle Ages, from the company he founded, SPI). Most needed a bit of attention: some tape to repair the boxes, a good deal of sorting punched chits from numerous plastic bags, and some online research to find and print out some missing chart inserts. But overall these activities and my rulebook reading have rekindled an enjoyment and respect for these classic games often overlooked in today’s flashy marketplace.

So I finally sorted out the pieces for 1776, read the pleasantly brief “Basic Game Rules,” (about three pages), and sat down to play the beginner scenario, covering the last seven months of 1776 in New England and the mid-Atlantic colonies of New York, New Jersey, and eastern portions of Pennsylvania. Each side began with relatively equal combat strength, the British concentrated in New York and a few outposts in Canada, with the Continental Army gathered in Morristown, NJ, and some adequate forces at West Point and Albany, and a few stray bits scattered in Philadelphia, Boston, and the Mohawk Valley. To win one side had to occupy several key locations with at least one point of combat strength to gather victory points exceeding the opponent.

Since I was playing both sides in this solitaire affair I decided beforehand to establish general strategic objectives for each side and carry them through at least the initial turns. The second and third turns would bring sizable reinforcements for the British, first in New York and then in a port of the British player’s choosing; the Patriots got about half the number of reinforcements in dribs and drabs allocated to Albany and Philadelphia. I decided the British would go for a very non-historically accurate aggressive strategy, leaving token forces in their Canadian towns and heading down Lake Champlain to take Fort Ticonderoga and then march on Albany, all while the New York forces sought to hold the Continental Army at bay and send a second force north to aid in Albany’s capture. The Patriots decided on a bold strategy to try taking New York. Both sides had aggressive agendas, but only the British had the strength to successfully undertake theirs. The British smeared the Continental Army outside New York, marched down from Canada to take Ticonderoga and West Point, then spent the rest of the game mopping up token Patriot resistance. Luckily for America the historical British were not so aggressive.

I’ve discussed Dunnigan’s book at Hobby Games Recce before; it’s helped guide me in looking at board-and-chit wargames in a new light and in examining my own gaming preferences. In reading and playing 1776 solitaire I came to a few realizations:

Basic Game Rules: These days I prefer basic rules to more complex fare. I have less time and focus to read, comprehend, and play out fully advanced games, but enjoy dabbling in ones with simplified rules that still impart some sense of the gameplay and historical context. I really like games that provide basic rules to enable newcomers to play with advanced rules to add levels of complexity later if players wish to continue (a subject I’ve covered before). I’ll admit, after trying the initial basic game scenario I’m tempted not only to try it again but to read ahead in the rulebook and incorporate more advanced rules into my gameplay.

Scenario Replay Value: 1776 comes in Avalon Hill’s famous “bookcase” game format, that sturdy two-inch-thick box that holds all the quality components...which means it’s not a cheap game to purchase new. Anytime someone pays a large price for a game – whether miniatures, board, Euro-style, or roleplaying game – they expect to get some good gameplay out of it beyond a simple game or two. 1776 provides four “scenario cards” listing the starting disposition of forces and victory conditions for several campaigns during the Revolutionary War as well as rules for the “campaign simulation game” so players can play out the entire conflict starting in January 1776. Combined with the solitaire wargamer’s urge to replay scenarios to “exercise his own ideas about how either side in the game should be played” as Dunnigan suggests, 1776 (and probably any similarly presented board-and-chit wargame) offers a solid replay value.

Combat Resolution Table: Dunnigan summarizes the concept of a table on which each side compares its fighting strength in a ratio, then rolls to determine the exact outcome of the battle within a range of outcomes based on that ratio. Although the results 1776 primarily include elimination of all or half of the attacker and/or defender strength, other games incorporate other effects, including retreat. In gameplay I realized the limited options provided by a six-sided die roll often seemed arbitrary without overwhelming differences between combat strengths, but I understand this is a wargame-design convention of the time that also allows players to quickly transition to other wargames, particularly those from the same company. In perusing the materials for Avalon Hill’s Panzer Leader I found encouragement that the game uses a similar “combat resolution table” based on ratios of unit strength values. Along with similar design in unit counter stats (such as combat value and movement allowance points) it provides a comfortable framework to wander from one game to another. Using the “rules master” system Dunnigan described in his book – in which many companies used similar rules text templates customized to historical and situational detail – as well as similar design concepts allows players to easily port their attention from one game to another.

Small Components: Playing 1776 also helped me realize the game’s components, while nice, aren’t quite suited to the older gamer. I often fumbled the half-inch-square chits of thin cardboard across a hex map and had some difficulty interpreting place names and terrain features on the board. It started me thinking about larger “showcase” game versions of board-and-chit wargames with oversized maps and counters...something akin to Steve Jackson Games’ massively impressive (and expensively Kickstarted) OGRE Designer’s Edition (I imagine...I’ve only seen the game once at a convention).

Overall I enjoyed by brief solitaire encounter with 1776’s basic game rules; with a little more time and focus I hope to revisit the beginner scenario, quite possibly incorporating some of the advanced rules options for a deeper game experience. A more realistic strategy for the Continental Army might help, too.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Permanence of the Written Word

I consider myself first and foremost a writer. The fact that I happen to have spent much of my life writing game material comes from merging my ability to distill ideas onto “paper” with my enjoyment of various diverse subjects (literary genres as well as historical periods) and a fondness for ordering things within rules and related systems.

I am fond of the past and the ways of my younger days. As a youth I learned to touch type on a reliable Smith-Corona portable typewriter. I still relish browsing the stacks in a used book store. I don’t care much for and don’t use electronic devices like tablets and laptops at the gaming table. For me words set down on paper still retain a kind of powerful permanence that even words in today’s ubiquitous electronic internet media still do not and cannot possess.

Even as a young gamer I had an overwhelming need to write down rules, scenarios, and other bits to make them “official” in my own eyes by their very act of occupying the page. Nothing was real until it existed on paper in text or map format. Even when I received an electronic daisy-wheel typewriter as a going-to-college gift I still wrote out adventures longhand (and made some nice pocket money in the age when a college freshman could make $1 a page typing term papers for other students at 70 words per minute). The mystique extended into my more mature gaming days, when I typed out (on an electronic typewriter, then a personal computer) or printed manuscripts of scenarios for the James Bond 007 Roleplaying Game, Cyberpunk 2020, Space 1889, and, of course, the Star Wars Roleplaying Game. I still have binders with those printouts...documents far more accessible than the computer files (and 5.25- or 3.5-inch floppy disks) upon which they were originally written and stored.

I’m not alone. I’ve heard about folks who print out their favorite PDF game books and take the time to bind them; not just three-hole-punch them and stick them in a binder, but actually indulge in the mostly lost art of book-making to create actual tomes to read and use at the gaming table. Some board and card game designers have turned to the “print-and-play” model, releasing game components in PDF format for players to print, mount, trim, and otherwise prep for actual analog play. The roleplaying game hobby – particularly among fans of the “Old School Renaissance” movement – has seen a recent upsurge in printed gaming zines. I have tons of gaming PDFs on my computer, but when I get a zine in the mail, I sit down immediately and read it...and it resides on a shelf where its physical presence reminds me it’s there filled with interesting ideas to bring to the game table. I can’t recall the numerous free gaming PDF files I’ve downloaded to my computer and simply forgotten about after absently perusing. I print the most noteworthy and file them in binders or folders, but these remain an extremely small fraction of the material on my hard drive.

I understand printed words will eventually fade, the books fall apart, the paper disintegrate – and all of it’s prone to physical damage by unfortunate events, natural and man-made – but since such physical artifacts do not require an electronic interface to read (one that contains built-in obsolescence and a dependency on electricity and compatible software platforms), one can enjoy them at nearly any time and place.

I fondly remember my old production manager mentor at West End Games who was, in that naive pre-Internet Age time, enthusiastically proud of the Starfighter Battle Book: X-wing vs. Tie Interceptor and Lightsaber Dueling Pack products, combat picture book games designed by and based on Alfred Leonardi’s award-winning Ace of Aces line of World War I aerial combat books and the Lost Worlds fantasy combat booklets. They allowed two people to play out a head-to-head dogfight or duel without the use of a computer, network, or electricity. You didn’t need a computer, you didn’t need a compatible operating system platform, you didn’t need power. Granted, you had to haul the books around, but they provided some fantastic head-to-head gameplay in a medium that didn’t require a large board, pieces, and dice.

Don’t get me wrong...I immensely appreciate the freedom and ability to share gaming material enabled by today’s technology. Electronic publications make it possible for gamers to carry around their entire library in their tablet device or laptop for immediate reference, without hauling around bulky backpacks or wheeled dollies. Certainly the internet has granted gamers the means to reach around the globe on an unprecedented scale to share their ideas, from basic opinions and reviews to adventures, settings, and entire games. Even then, though, they maintain only a fleeting presence. Some folks claim things never die on the internet, though I can recall several items – interesting PDFs, articles, blog posts, forum posts – I’ve sought out and found no longer available. Perhaps the domain disappears, the files get deleted, websites fold. Some PDFs exist on people’s computers and tablets, some remain in virtual bookshelf libraries for future access, but they don’t maintain a physical presence and thus remain subject to the whims of the internet.


Where do you fall in the print versus electronic spectrum? 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, September 16, 2014

Developing Valley of the Ape

Here I go again, charging off into the wilderness to pursue a spontaneous game-design fancy while leaving behind several far more substantive projects that really deserve my attention. My latest impulse emerged from an experience the Little Guy and I had at Historicon and my urge to transition his free-form play activities into something slightly more structured yet still entertaining (and maybe get a convention event out of it). I’m tentatively calling it Valley of the Ape.

Kim Allman’s “Jungle Gods” game at Historicon 2014
It all started the first day I took the Little Guy to Historicon this past July. We were just going to pick up pre-reg badges and programs, look around the dealers hall, and see what games were playing. After marveling at Tim Broome’s massive “Sword Beach” set-up the Little Guy immediately gravitated toward a lush table strewn with clumps of jungle foliage, ruins, and a muddy river...Kim Allman’s “Jungle Gods” game in which a host of explorers and mercenaries (including Teddy Roosevelt in a small river steamer) seek lost treasure in Africa around 1900. Having been fully indoctrinated into the giant monster movie genre by Mommy – including such Japanese fare as King Kong vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes – he was immediately drawn to the giant gorilla rampaging among the 25mm figures. While the Little Guy surveyed the table (and looked with glee at the as-yet-unrevealed wild animal miniatures the referee brought out for him) I glanced over the table and at the various gamey bits strewn along its margins. The game used the Valor & Steel & Flesh rules and seemed adequately complicated for Historicon, but a bit of a stretch for “children under 12 allowed with an accompanying adult player” as the event description noted in the program. The entire drive home I listened to the Little Guy talk about how he wanted to play a King Kong game in which he played the giant ape and moved around the table attacking all the smaller figures strewn across the jungle. Thus an idea was born.

I immediately began compiling a short list of essential components: figures, terrain, and, of course, some rules framework and associated accessories to facilitate gameplay with a younger audience (a subject of a recent Hobby Games Recce missive).

Kim Allman’s “Jungle Gods” game at Historicon 2014
I always try to use “toys” I already own for such projects. A ready stock of useful bits await near my basement wargaming table from which I can easily draw pieces and terrain. I have a host of 54mm plastic figures from Armies in Plastic – Zulus, British infantry, Dervishes – from which I could draw various forces; the fact that they are single-tone plastic and larger than more traditional 25mm, hand-painted metal wargaming minis means they’re easier for little hands to manipulate and can sustain some rough play. I have some miniature “set pieces,” as I call them, wargaming terrain bits I can swap to different games, plus a vast piece of deep green felt dappled with browns and lighter greens for a basic play surface.

But I do not own many elements essential for such a showcase game. I need several bases covered in lush foliage made from aquarium plants and other fake greenery. A few marshy terrain sections would help, too. I’m not sure my Egyptian-style temple would work well in its non-ruined state as the centerpiece and repository for the key treasure. Luckily the local pet store carries a relatively inexpensive line of plastic aquarium plants and, if I want to spring for it, some adequate jungle-ruin pieces.

But, of course, the biggest challenge remains crafting a rules framework for defining the various groups exploring the Valley of the Ape and its numerous hazards, including the eponymous ape; much of this I intend to summarize on cards for each faction or foe.

Kim Allman’s “Jungle Gods” game at Historicon 2014
My ultimate goal is twofold: to create a game engine and wargaming terrain environment so the Little Guy and I (and maybe some friends, or Mommy) can enjoy some structured play with Daddy’s toys; and to create a game, brief rulebook, handouts, and an engaging visual tabletop wargaming display to run this as a kid-friendly convention event.

Without going into the details of game mechanics, I’m focusing on a few elements central to the experience of playing a danger-filled treasure hunt in deepest, darkest Africa:

Explorers: Each group of explorers has some pretty basic wargaming traits – movement rates, ranges and chances to hit targets – with some variations in those and a few special advantages, all with a decent degree of balance. Some can move through otherwise impassible jungle terrain and can take cover from other groups in that terrain, potentially negating successful hits. Others have increased ranges and chances to hit. I’ve done my best to balance these advantages, though I expect I’ll note some disparities during actual play. Although they can attack each other at long range or in close combat, they can only attack the giant ape at long range.

Giant Ape: I found a large plastic ape figure which, while not to really monstrous scale, will suffice as “Mungo” (a slight change lest my use of “King Kong” in any capacity rouse the ire of the copyright infringement trolls). The referee – or I expect my Little Guy – will end up controlling his actions, with a basic, programmed urge to move to and attack the nearest party, or the one which last attacked at a distance. He can only attack a group after moving into contact with it, not a huge difficulty given a 12-inch move allowance, twice as much as the explorers. He inflicts 1d6 hits (not sure if I’ll allow the better of two die rolls to give him a slightly more lethal advantage), eliminating one explorer figure for each hit (with the exception of the big game hunter, who can take three hits) before sending the survivors fleeing six inches toward the nearest table edge (giving them some help in retreating further from Mungo if they want). I’ve decided he can take up to 30 hits before he’s defeated, meaning I can use a recently acquired, large d30 to track hits.

Hazards and Treasures: I initially decided that the explorers who delivered the fatal attack defeating Mungo win the game. This might make games extremely focused and thus quite short, discouraging players from maneuvering around the terrain. I’ve devised a mechanic to encourage players to send their explorers across the board seeking treasure and inadvertently uncovering additional hazards. I’m using a “blind” system of cards, each with an “X marks the spot” graphic on the back, but containing either treasure or a hazard on the other side. Treasures give players victory points while hazards cause their forces to take damage or lose a turn; in some cases hazards might introduce smaller monsters (like a T-rex or giant octopus, depending on any extra toys I acquire) to roam the table like Mungo. Defeating the giant ape, of course, would bring in the most points, with all other treasures and defeated monsters granting smaller rewards that might add up and enable someone to win the game without vanquishing Mungo.

We’ll see how this develops; perhaps some previews or in-progress work might find its way to Hobby Games Recce. If it all comes together, I’ll compile the rules and player handouts into a small booklet for general distribution; but first I need rules on paper, more terrain, those hazard cards, and a few games with the Little Guy to see how things work out.


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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Tale of Two Freelance Projects

[Introduction: I wrote this blog post more than two years ago, when my toddler son, the infamous “Little Guy,” was a little over two years old (so we’re talking around the summer of 2012). It initially served as a reflective piece about a personal learning experience; I kept the text to someday use in the blog, but primarily to remind myself to remain true to the kinds of projects that suit my creative strengths and my unconventional work situation. I am grateful to the folks who hired me for “The Game Project” since they have subsequently hired me for several other enjoyable assignments in the time after I first drafted this article.]

Not too long ago I finished two freelance projects for very different clients and learned a lot about myself in the process. One was quite enjoyable, despite the initial uncertainties of what was expected of me and my lack of familiarity with the source material. One was a trying misery mitigated only by a patient and understanding editor; I walked away from it having completed as much as I could and canceling any prospect of future contract work on subsequent, related projects I might have expected.

I apologize in advance for this self-indulgent missive, part confession and part self-reflection, which might offer readers some insight into the chaotic world of freelancing. To paraphrase John Dewey, “education equals experience plus reflection.” I consider this piece a reflection on two very different freelancing experiences.

To place my plight in context, bear in mind that I am a full-time dad taking care of a Little Guy who was fully engaged in the Terrible Twos at the time; I was trying to help him learn about the world around him, and his own feelings, while he was busy testing his limits (usually to the accompaniment of body-shuddering screams); I also handle as much of the housework as my time allows, plus the duties of a homeowner, and somehow find time to write semi-regularly for a blog and do some game development and writing (with no significant output in the two years I’ve been a father). My wife works full-time in her career of choice and helps out as much as she can given her work commitments and other interests.

I have more than 20 years of professional publishing experience. Although most of that comes through my involvement as a full-time or freelance game designer and writer, I got my start in journalism, spending three years working on my hometown, weekly newspaper…two years as a reporter and one year as an editor. This provided a firm foundation for my later editorial work and a good work ethic for my freelance endeavors. I’ve done a lot of freelancing for the adventure gaming industry over the years. Like anyone who works with numerous clients on projects of varying natures, I had good experiences and bad ones, had trouble getting paid sometimes, and saw a number of projects languish or die before publication, despite lots of work researching, developing, and writing material.

To protect the identities of those involved, I’ll call one freelance assignment the Game Project and the other the Business Project.

The Game Project

The Game Project consisted of developing and writing six creatures for an at-the-time unpublished roleplaying game in an innovative setting. While the game system was based on one with which I’m very familiar, I spent some time learning how it modified rules from the baseline I understood. Beyond that I was given the freedom to create stats and descriptions for six creatures that would fit into the setting, with an established word limit on each.

The clients and I agreed on terms and maintained a “gentlemen’s agreement” about content, word count, deadlines, and pay rates/schedules. I don’t usually operate without a written and signed contract covering all the bases, but I had a good feeling about this relatively new gaming company; besides, the project was small enough that I wouldn’t feel particularly upset if something fell through.

Compared with past clients, these folks treated me quite generously with the pay schedule: half upon committing to the assignment, and half upon submitting it to the editor. Bear in mind that many contracts under which I’ve worked maybe pay half on approval of the work and half upon publication; most in the industry pay only on publication. The pay was also generously more than the usual per-word rate most adventure gaming writers get. Enjoying the assignment and working for friendly and supportive clients were welcome perks.

I’d not done freelance game material writing for a while. After re-acquainting myself with the game engine and immersing myself in the setting material the clients sent, I started thinking about creature concepts to develop. I tend to work out material in my head, let things percolate a little, then write everything out and modify ideas as I go along. This was all work I could undertake in the hour or two each day I had to myself between fatherly and household duties…morning time interrupted by requests to read books and make breakfasts, maybe an afternoon hour during nap time, and evening time after the Little Guy went to bed. Creating six creatures for the setting was quite enjoyable, the writing was a snap, and it was all a refreshing taste of what I’ve missed being out of the gaming freelancer loop. It also helped that the folks for whom I was working respected me, made sure I knew they admired my past work, and remained in constant touch to guide my efforts. I was very pleased with my final submissions and performance on the assignment; I’d work for them again without a second thought.

The Business Project

The Business Project consisted of writing short features on clients who took out advertisements in a quarterly business supplement a local newspaper was starting. The length varied based on the size of their ad, but required me to contact them by phone or e-mail, find an angle for the article (beyond “this is what our business does and we started X years ago”), write an engaging article within a limited word count, and get their approval before submitting it to the editor. I not only had to work within the constraints established for the publication by the editor, but work to make sure clients were happy with what I wrote.

I freely admit I had reservations about taking this assignment from the beginning and reasons to try making it work despite the constraints a two year-old constantly placed on my time and focus. The job had the prospect of continuing for future quarterly issues of the business supplement, giving me work, contacts, and exposure for that inevitable time with this full-time father must re-enter the workforce (though ideally he’d prefer to develop, write, and publish games full-time…). I was quite intimidated that I could fit all this around my paternal responsibilities; I recall a particularly bad day I was having when I called the editor to decline the job, and he managed to talk me into taking it (after having a weekend to reconsider).

I should have listened to my instincts. I knew I was going to have to manage with a two year-old, but I didn’t take into account the massive amount of legwork calling businesses and hoping to interview someone for an article. I spent far more time phoning and e-mailing than I did actually writing. I quickly found that business people are, understandably, busy running their businesses and thus have little time for returning calls (or reading e-mail) on a deadline, let alone during the hours when a full-time father can handle phone calls. The project also started several weeks later than I anticipated, cutting my time for work by one quarter thanks to a previously scheduled family commitment. Everything but the writing was like pulling teeth: getting people to understand I was a writer and not an ad rep selling advertising; leaving messages and having folks call me back when I was out (despite asking them to call in the afternoons, when my toddler routine allows me time in the office); understanding their business enough, and posing engaging questions to get them to give me enough material for a good feature.

In the end I turned in about two-thirds of the project completed, submitted any additional notes about the businesses that didn’t find time for me, and walked away. I didn’t like doing that – I hated doing it – but the project deadlines conflicting with a previously scheduled family commitment combined with non-cooperative interview subjects made finishing the project impossible.

I submitted my invoice and got paid about two weeks after the supplement’s publication, and I only got paid a set amount per piece that reached publication. Adjusted for those pieces I completed and submitted (as opposed to the entirety of what I’d expected to write), the sum was only very slightly more than what I got paid for the Game Project.

What Did I Learn?

Both assignments taught me several valuable lessons. I suppose I was fortunate enough to undergo these quite different experiences so close together, for the contrast between them gave me some insight into what I like and don’t like, and it boils down to this:

I don’t like depending on other people to successfully complete my job.

The number of people on which one depends is inversely proportional to the chance of effectively completing the project on time; the more people, the lower the chance of success. For the Business Project I had to interact with more than 15 different contacts, some of whom remained unavailable for interviews; this directly contributed not only to my inability to complete all the articles but my overall frustration with the job and my decision to drop it. For the Game Project I relied on one person to provide me with the assignment parameters, basic source material, and guidance on how I was doing. Otherwise I relied on my own imagination, game knowledge, and writing ability, having essentially the freedom to fail or succeed on my own. I was not hobbled by others’ inability or unwillingness to help me complete the project.

Both projects required submissions by a deadline (and both offered about four weeks for completion). I like working at my own pace toward a deadline on assignments that depend on my creativity and writing ability independent of other burdens. Sure, sometimes I procrastinate, more so when I’m on my own; but when others procrastinate or delay their cooperation, I’m at their mercy and must then hustle to meet my deadline on their casual schedule.

Given my myriad other obligations in life at the time and the fact that I had little control over my own time, taking a freelance project whose success depended on the willing participation of other people during business hours was a mistake. I prefer being my own boss and working at my own pace to produce material that pleases me, my clients, and readers. Does that make me lazy or spoiled? My game-writing endeavors work well with my current paternal duties; I can develop and write game material when I find time (during naps and after the Little Guy goes to sleep at night) on my own deadline. I’m not as productive as I’d like, but I’m not stressing to meet someone else’s arbitrary deadline dependent on getting in touch with busy people during the most chaotic portions of my own day.

I’m sure with further reflection I’ll find other lessons learned from this experience. For now, however, I’ll remain content to work for myself and the adventure gaming hobby at my own pace, leaving the often arbitrary, indifferent, and unrewarding frustrations of the business-writing world to others.

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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Running Kid-Friendly Con Games

I’m a huge advocate for introducing newcomers to various aspects of the adventure gaming hobby. Most of us engaging in this crusade focus our efforts on fellow adults, but some face the added challenge of drawing in younger players without the wealth of knowledge, experience, and patience more mature players possess. Conventions serve as natural venues to attract and teach new players; as gamers mature and have families, the hobby more often sees younger kids at conventions...and they want to play their parents’ games!

Tempted by cool Martian game....
But crafting a successful convention game with kids in mind takes some time and planning to accommodate their youthful whims and engage them enough to create a positive play experience. Too often kids (and even some adults like myself) become overwhelmed with the complexities of established rules, tire of turns that seemingly take forever, and become bored or frustrated...none of which contribute to an encouraging game session.

In this missive I’m glossing over board and card games; aside from the suggested age range, these tend to have obvious traits making them appropriate or unacceptable for kids. Nobody’s going to try to teach a seven year-old how to play Diplomacy or Axis & Allies – aside from the complexities, they’re not going to sit still for half a day to play – but such fare as Roll for It, Dino Hunt Dice, Robot Turtles, Otters, Godzilla Stomp, even King of Tokyo, as well as most Gamewright titles remain both interesting and playable in their basic form. Most of my discussion below remains applicable to roleplaying games and miniature wargames, frequent offerings at the small, regional conventions I frequent.

I don’t always run convention games for kids – they’re a formidable challenge – but I have enough experience teaching games to adults and playing games with children to offer a few constructive strategies when preparing a convention game one might label “kid friendly.” I’m drawing primarily on two personal experiences: my work on the introductory children’s tank miniatures game Panzer Kids (including playtesting and convention games with the target audience); and my endeavors introducing my preschooler, the infamous Little Guy, to various aspects of gaming.

Subject Matter

Subject matter plays a greater role in drawing kids than game systems, though the latter can seriously cripple a play experience regardless of one’s enthusiasm for the genre. Offering a game with a theme that excites young players not only draws them to the table but keeps them engaged. This sometimes results in a disparity between what a gamemaster wants to run and what children want to play; it requires a willful choice to run a game geared toward general convention attendees or one specifically tailored for kids.

At a regional wargaming convention I recently attended I noticed a host of young players gravitate toward a colorful Gnome Wars game and a skirmish game with what looked like pirate ships...all despite more historical offerings of “kid friendly” games at those times. The issue also pertains to gaming with kids at home. The Little Guy wanted to try Daddy’s airplane game (the World War I flavor of Wings of Glory), and I stripped it down for him, but after one game he wanted to go back to playing the X-wing miniatures game with the quick-start rules because, you know, Star Wars.

To illustrate the opposite end of the spectrum, I’ve seen excellent demos and full games of both the X-wing and Star Trek miniatures games where the gamemaster deploys ships on the starfield playing surface, with the corresponding ship and upgrade cards (with appropriate counters) arranged along each side for potential players to read. Just the simple visual appeal of the ships on the starfield helps draw players familiar with those franchises regardless of age. When I run Panzer Kids demos at conventions I make the battlefield as visually appealing as possible, with tanks in their starting positions, mountains, oases, and minefields on the board, and signage with rules summaries and tank stats around the table edge so prospective players can take a closer look if they like. Popular kids games at wargaming conventions often incorporate fantastic elements like jungle temples, floating islands, or Martian tripods.

I’m not saying every convention game for kids should have a blatantly silly or child-like theme; but the presentation (both in the event description and at the table itself) should attract children and make clear the game’s appropriate for and interesting to them.

Strip Down Rules

I’ve discussed cutting down rules to their bare essentials for kid-friendly play before. I dislike few things in life more than catering to the lowest common denominator, but I make an exception when it comes to teaching kids games. Gamemasters can address this challenge by approaching the game as a completely new player. What are the absolutely most basic rules essential for a meaningful and positive play experience? This strategy runs the danger of simplifying rules to an existing game so much that it becomes a different game altogether, without the possibility for players to move on to the full rules later. As long as the stripped down rules contain the base elements for the complete game, participants can take the first step on their journey to understanding the complete rules, assuming they sustain any interest; but to throw all or most of the rules at a complete newcomer – child or otherwise – risks overwhelming and confusing them beyond their willingness to learn.

The X-wing Miniatures Game offers a fine example of this technique. The quick-start version of the game focuses on the movement and combat phases, setting aside for the moment the complexities of actions (taken after movement), upgrades, and special pilot abilities, all of which contribute to the diverse gameplay of the full version. It’s not always possible to distill core rules down to something kids can easily learn and play, especially if you’re working in the realm of roleplaying games and wargames which, by their nature, have a great degree of depth. Gamemasters should choose between running a game in its intended form or running something suitable for kids; finding a workable middle road is rarely easy or successful.


Gameplay-aid handouts serve several purposes in kid-friendly games. Set out on the table beforehand they can function as a tempting sample of what players can expect (much like the X-wing and Star Trek miniatures game card set-up I mentioned in “Subject Matter” above). Handouts can quickly summarize key rules for quick reference during play. Print out enough and kids can take home a fun souvenir of their experience; a website address can help them find more information about the game if they choose to pursue it on their own.

Roleplaying game handouts generally consist of some kind of character sheet, though I’ve offered brief summaries of how core rules operate or overviews of the setting. Player maps always help, too. For wargames brief summaries of the turn sequence along with movement and combat rules for individual units provide ready reference at the table.

When running Panzer Kids games I have two flyers prominently displayed at the table, even before the game begins: a rundown of the turn sequence with summaries of the movement and combat rules, and a diagram showing what different numbers on the tank stat cards mean. Each tank deployed on the battlefield gets its own stat card players keep afterward...each with a promotional blurb and website address for the game on the other side.

I’m slowly preparing to run a few skirmishes for All Quiet on the Martian Front with my wife and the Little Guy, both of whom love the concept of early 20th century forces battling Martian tripods but don’t really get into the complexities of miniature wargames. Aside from learning the rules and assembling and painting all the units, I also plan on creating a card for each unit detailing its game stats and summarizing special ability rules for easy reference at the game table. This might serve me well if I ever decide to run kid-friendly games at conventions.

Keep It Short

Distracted by PRETZEL!
Kids (and some adults) have limited attention spans, especially at conventions with various dealers, games, and other activities to tempt them. Plan events for short periods and allow for players to come and go. Quick demo games give newcomers the freedom to try the rules quickly, then move on to something else or continue playing. Longer games might run a maximum of two hours, but don’t be surprised if some younger players wander off or get bored once they realize what kind of game commitment they’ve made. In a way running a convention game takes on aspects of a public performance, including the ego of the principle actor. Don’t get discouraged or distracted by kids who don’t maintain interest or wander off to try something else.

When we have a family game night with the Little Guy we keep things short. Rarely do we run past an hour of gameplay, though depending on the game we might get in a few sessions. Having a game day with adult guests inevitably means the Little Guy comes and goes; he plays in some games, then wanders off to his toys during others (though he often watches and wants to play in the more advanced game fare we offer).

Bear in mind that not all kids of a certain age are ready for a particular game. Everyone, even adults, have different attention, comprehension, and adaptability levels that makes them more inclined toward certain games and less inclined toward others. Generally, though, kids from 5-11 years old might play with the active participation of an adult, with those 12 years and older able to play well-planned, kid-friendly games on their own (all depending on their maturity level).

Looking back over past Hobby Games Recce missives I realize I’ve talked a great deal about gaming with kids; these might offer additional ideas for introducing gaming to children at home and at conventions: “Children’s Programming at Conventions” discusses kids at cons in a general sense, with a short bit on gaming; “Teach Your Kids to Game Week” briefly covers a few strategies for introducing games to children (some expanded upon in the bulk of the current article); “Roleplaying Games for Kids” and “Crafting A Roleplaying Experience for Kids” offer specific suggestions for this particular field of the adventure gaming hobby.


Have any additional tips, techniques, or experiences in preparing and running convention games for kids? Want to offer feedback? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.