Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Assembling Terrain for Valley of the Ape

Development on my Valley of the Ape kids’ game proceeds at a slow but steady pace. I have a workable draft of the rules and a solid idea what additional bits I need to prepare (explorer cards with rules summaries and encounter tiles). But the rulebook and other materials form only half the project, although the part I can most easily share online once completed. Along with the game design work comes the hobby work assembling and crafting miniature wargaming-style terrain for the playable bits of the game.

A selection of aquarium plants
from PetSmart.
Some of this material I own already, stored in various boxes beneath or near the four-by-eight-foot wargaming table in the basement. These include a swath of dark green felt dappled with paint to vary the terrain surface, numerous 54mm plastic soldiers (Zulus, British, Dervishes) from Armies in Plastic to represent explorer parties, the giant ape from Safari Ltd. I bought at a craft store, and a resin-cast giant man-eating plant I picked up years ago from Armourcast (though it could use a better paint job).

"Betta" foliage cut for better coverage.
I have considerably more work to do with jungle foliage and terrain. I’ve already sculpted a few foam hills and prepped some palm trees out of wire, artificial plant leaves, and masking tape. But to fill out large portions of impassible jungle terrain I needed a lot of fake yet exotic-looking foliage. So I drove on down to the local big-box pet store, PetSmart, and spent some time browsing their aquarium section. I found a host of very affordable pieces from Top Fin, including some single plantsfor $0.99, a few “peacock feather” plants with a nice high profile ($2.99), and – perhaps the most versatile find – two varieties of what they call “betta” artificial aquarium plants, plastic grids with small plant bits mounted at each intersection (for $1.99). These last ones provided versatile jungle cover, particularly when split along the middle or diagonally to make two uneven halves that, when positioned unevenly, offer some natural-looking uneven terrain. For less than $20 one could buy enough jungle foliage to set up some challenging and good-looking terrain; augmented with some custom pieces it’ll make for an easy-to-set-up “board” for Valley of the Ape.

A scene hastily assembled from my terrain,
including the giant ape and some Armies
in Plastic Zulus.
I’m debating whether to craft my own temple ruins from bits prepped for old Egyptian temple projects or just pay for one of the fish tank temples available from PetSmart (some manufactured by Top Fin and others by National Geographic).

Once that’s decided and I finish up the palm-tree terrain pieces I’m ready to set everything up and start playtesting the rules.

Armies in Plastic Addendum

Folks who read Hobby Games Recce know I love the 54mm (1:32 scale) unpainted plastic figures from Armies in Plastic, including the ones from my collection I’ve drawn upon to serve in my Valley of the Ape game (Victorian-era British soldiers, Zulu warriors, Dervishes). They’re big, historically themed, and great for small hands (or my clumsy fingers). The prices have crept up over the years as the figure count has recently diminished (20 infantry figures down to 18 or 16 in some cases). But I recently happened by the Armies in Plastic website to find an interesting sale: the company put their Battlefield Combo boxes on sale, an 18- or 20-figure mix from both sides of a conflict for $12 (the regular price for 18 or 20 figures in other sets is now $17...). Of particular note for my own gaming interests are 6 British Army in Shirtsleeves and 12 Zulus, as well as combos including Dervishes. Those interested in the burgeoning French and Indian war genre might like 8 Rangers and 12 Indians for skirmishes. Other periods include the American Revolutionary War, Boxer Rebellion, World War I, Napoleonic Wars, some Civil War, and modern conflicts. They’re a fun way to provide large, plastic soldiers to fight period skirmishes – or just to play with – at an affordable price.

Armies in Plastic Rangers fend off a
Woodland Indian Ambush.
I’ve recently been bitten by an inexplicable bug to dive into reading about and wargaming skirmishes from the French and Indian War...and my collection of Armies in Plastic miniatures lacks anything from the American Colonial period (having focused more on 19th century British colonial wars). Seeing the Ranger/Indian Battlefield Combo sets at the Armies in Plastic website – plus a “buy 3 get 1 free” promotion – I decided to order some sets directly from the company.

Normally I try to give my business to local stores (none of which stock Armies in Plastic sets, although I first discovered and bought my first Armies in Plastic sets from a now out-of-business hobby shop in Fredericksburg) and, barring that, wait patiently for one of the small, local wargaming conventions where vendors occasionally have a limited selection. But I was looking for something quite specific, and knowing how the prices have crept up recently, wanted to take advantage of a really good deal. So I ordered two sets of the Rangers/Indians, plus one with Loyalists and Militia (10 each, plus a cannon), and, for my “free” set, ordered British infantry (20 figures). Three days after placing my order the box arrived at my doorstep. Along with the French and Indian War skirmish rules set I bought earlier and with some old forest terrain I can now start exploring period battles with a minimum of work. Sure, the purists might scoff that I’m using unpainted figures, but I have two ready made forces in an appealing size. Thanks to Armies in Plastic for the good deals and excellent service.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Gaming Artifacts: Das Schwarze Auge

After having discovered roleplaying games – through Dungeons & Dragons – the summer before I started high school, I quickly began exploring other games in the adventure gaming hobby (including board-and-chit wargames). I bought and devoured nearly everything TSR released at the time, dabbled in Traveller, and started gathering whatever oddities I might run across. Then I discovered the German equivalent of a fantasy roleplaying game, Das Schwarze Auge.

In 1984 Schmidt Spiel – a German game publisher with roots going back to the early 20th century – published an original German-language roleplaying game entitled Das Schwarze Auge (translation: The Dark Eye). It was clearly inspired by D&D; the designer, the late Ulrich Kiesow, translated both D&D and Tunnels & Trolls for the German editions. It’s rise (and fall) broadly mirrored its American cousin, with a game system that seemed basic at first, with more supplements and editions adding layers of complexity to the rules and setting, and finally becoming a huge system and continuity creature that momentarily faded when the publisher ran into financial trouble and declared bankruptcy.

Back in 1984 my family was taking a week’s vacation in Germany after a two-week youth orchestra tour of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland; my parents drove the instrument van while my brother and I played violin in the orchestra. We’d visited Germany before in 1981, an opportunity to indulge my penchant for medieval history, castles, knights, legends, and other romantic Old World interests, but I’d not yet discovered roleplaying games. On one of our first days we wandered into a toy store in Munich – a wonderful shop (affiliated with the famous FAO Schwartz company) and I found two German-language roleplaying game boxed sets sitting side-by-side on a display: the German edition of Basic D&D (the Frank Mentzer red box version) and a taller, black box called Das Schwarze Auge. The game offered an opportunity to merge my interest in roleplaying games with my German language studies (a pillar of my junior high and high school years that fizzled out with the academic severity of college). So I bought it, brought it back to America, and, using my limited language abilities and a German-English dictionary, set about reading the game and rolling up a character.

Das Schwarze Auge basic boxed set came with one twenty-sided and a few six-sided dice, a main rulebook, and adventure book, an imposing gamemaster screen, and a host of sheets for mapping, character creation, and adventure tracking. The game had some similarities to D&D. Five stats defined characters, though one rolled only a single D6 and consulted a chart for the range of stat values one might get. It used a “class-as-race” system, so one could be a magician, fighter, elf, dwarf, or rogue-like vanilla “adventurer” (omitting such D&D tropes as clerics, thieves, and halflings). Magic-users had a reserve of astral energy expended to cast various low-level spells. A solitaire adventure took up most of the page count in the adventure book; it walked players through an initial encounter, then further exploration which led to the premise for the short if standard group exploration of a dungeon setting (the D&D basic set released around that time, the Frank Mentzer red box edition, was the first to include a solo tutorial adventure).

I didn’t get very far in the game beyond reading it with my very limited knowledge of German, rolling up a few characters, playing the solitaire adventure, and possibly running an adventure with my terribly patient brother (who also took some German). It helped fuel my enthusiasm for gaming and German language studies as I tried to learn how various bits of roleplaying game lingo translated into German. Several years later – when Das Schwarze Auge eclipsed sales of D&D in the German market – my Dad brought back some additional scenarios, including a solo adventure, from a business trip to Germany. At some point I also bought the “expert” version of the basic rules and a handful of adventures; possibly on that 1984 trip to Germany, I can’t recall, though I barely used the advanced materials.

Over the years I’ve acquired other German language game books from friends, industry trades, or chance opportunities, mostly as novelties: a Call of Cthulhu Dreamlands boxed set, a Stormbringer adventure collection, a nice hardbound GURPS basic set, a few Middle-earth Role Playing supplements, a handful of Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game books, and a Paranoia boxed set with the oddly understandable label “Acthung! Satire!” prominently displayed on the box. I’ve not gone out of my way to seek out German-language versions of my favorite games; my fluency has long passed with my fleeting youth, though I do appreciate the language and still read and speak some of it when necessary...just rarely outside the context of the adventure gaming hobby.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Connecting with An RPG Setting

Roleplaying games present several challenges for newcomers, whether they’re new players at an experienced gamemaster’s table or enthusiasts seeking to run a particular game for others. Aside from the initial leap complete neophytes must make in understanding the roleplaying game experience, gamers must also learn a set of rules governing character abilities and actions in the game setting; though some might argue most people have at least some experience with both “roleplaying” and rules, gaining those from “let’s pretend” play activities from their childhood and game mechanic concepts drawn from more traditional family board games or sports. But not everyone has prior experiences from which to adapt to some roleplaying games’ more exotic settings.

One reason Dungeons & Dragons remains so popular – aside from being the first commercially successful roleplaying game – thanks in part to its generic fantasy setting, one that relies on familiar tropes from popular media such as the Lord of the Rings films based on J.R.R. Tolkein’s Middle-earth epics; stories, comics, movies, and television shows based on Robert E. Howard’s Conan character; magical fare like the Harry Potter franchise; and many other sources such as those listed in D&D’s own infamous “Appendix N.” Warriors and wizards fighting goblins and orcs in subterranean caves and ancient ruins; these trappings hearken back even to the most basic Western cultural legends of King Arthur, Beowulf, and the tales of the Brothers Grimm. These media and cultural foundations help players easily grasp the setting concepts behind D&D than other more esoteric game worlds.

Some other games don’t suffer from player unfamiliarity with their setting. Nearly any game based on a licensed media property has a loyal fan following intimately familiar with the universe...some of those fans also share an enthusiasm for roleplaying games which they indulge in themselves and sometimes seek to share with other fans. Take your pick: Star Wars, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly. In these cases gamer-fans have to overcome the challenges posed by roleplaying game rules alone instead of both mechanics and an unfamiliar setting. Not familiar with the setting? Just sit down for a few hours with a DVD set for one season and immerse yourself in the setting.

Game designers and gamemasters do their best to present roleplaying game settings in familiar terms. Sometimes they can use a “crutch” to help impart the gist of a setting by drawing comparisons to familiar films, television shows, comics, and novels. For instance, one might describe GDW’s Victorian space fantasy game Space 1889 as Zulu meets Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels. One could compare Vampire: The Masquerade and other World of Darkness fare to roleplaying games based on Ann Rice’s vampire novels or the Underworld film franchise.

Sometimes game settings draw comparisons to other games or established genres. At the time of its release, Fantasy Flight Games’ Dragonstar was billed as “D&D in space” (though one might argue the Spelljammer setting holds that distinction). Wicked North Games’ Westward could easily be described as Wild West steampunk on another planet. R. Talsorian’s gorgeous Castle Falkenstein used comparisons to genre films and literature plus a healthy dose of fantastic artwork to bring its Victorian steampunk fantasy alternate earth to life for gamers. Aside from its groundbreaking game mechanics, Monte Cook’s visionary Numenera game also boils down to familiar if morphed fantasy tropes merged with lost science fiction bits amid the ruins of an extremely far future, all enhanced with inspiring illustrations.

Really esoteric and original roleplaying game settings can’t often draw on widely understood cultural elements. A few titles I’d consider “esoteric” come to mind include Skyrealms of Jorune – with which I regrettably have little exposure – and anything based on M.A.R. Barker’s Empire of the Petal Throne setting, including the recently released Bethorm: Plane of Tekumel game from adventure gaming luminary illustrator Jeff Dee (a subject I’ve discussed before). Some newcomers to the roleplaying game hobby might find some of the more exotic settings mentioned in earlier paragraphs just as esoteric. (As an aside Wizards of the Coast’s Everway game from 1995 remains largely forgotten primarily because of the inaccessibility of its setting – despite some groundbreaking game mechanics elements – at a time when many fans really wanted a game set within the rich world of the company’s wildly popular Magic: The Gathering collectable card game.) Certainly most provide at least a setting framework – if not comprehensive material on locations, equipment and treasure, meta-plots, characters, and potential adventures – though this often requires considerable reading and comprehension from an often voluminous core rulebook.

Some of these game settings are so intricately and deeply designed that players really have to immerse themselves in the source material to understand how to game in that environment. Aside from reading the rulebook’s relevant setting materials (possibly including some rule sections, too), what methods do gamemasters use to acclimate players to new and obscure setting material?

Media: It’s not always possible to find a corollary between existing novels, comics, film, and telelvision shows, but this remains one of the best ways to orient newcomers to at least the spirit of an unfamiliar if not esoteric setting. Sometimes the roleplaying game itself offers supplemental material specifically tied to the esoteric game itself; for instance, The Man of Gold, M.A.R. Barker’s first novel set in the world of Tekumel. I’ve occasionally dabbled in this kind of setting orientation myself; long ago in the days when Star Wars was all but a forgotten media property (the early 1990s, before the Timothy Zahn novels appeared), before embarking on an epic Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game campaign with friends, we all spent a day watching the classic trilogy (particularly because one player had managed never to have seen the Star Wars films before...).

Internet Surfing: Wandering the seemingly infinite halls of the internet can provide newcomers to an esoteric setting with some exposure to informative elements, from professional and fan-produced artwork to sites with game- or setting-specific material, actual-play reports, and encyclopaedic wikis filled with cross-linked information. Run a Google search on “Tekumel” and one finds a host of blogs, illustrations, maps, and comprehensive websites offering lots of setting information to absorb.

Player Handouts: Gamemasters can use a variety of handouts to both inform players and put them in the mood for the game. I’ve created information handouts for a variety of games in the past, usually focusing on knowledge the average character would possess. In some cases these include outlines on how players accomplish basic tasks using the game mechanics, but often they incorporate useful setting material. I even recall compiling a list of slang terms used in early Star Wars novels for my player orientation sheet used in running Star Wars d6 adventures at conventions (apologies for referring yet again for my involvement with the Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game).

Solitaire Tutorial Adventures: Frequent readers might recall I particularly enjoy solo tutorial adventures and have frequently discussed the subject before. These brief scenarios using programmed entries (similar to pick-a-path-style books of yore) to enable readers to dive into both the game setting and mechanics right away. Granted, this often requires sharing the rulebook with players (sometimes a limited resource), but it’s a good starting point to steer newcomers for quick immersion in both the game system and setting. Even such an esoteric setting as Tekumel has used this technique; Theatre of the Mind’s edition of Adventures in Tekumel presented much of its player-oriented material and several scenario books in the form of playable solo adventures (and some with lengthy narrative portions imparting the intricacies of the setting). I’ve used them to orient myself to new settings that interested me as a gamemaster, particularly West End’s Paranoia second edition and the multi-genre TORG.

The issue really comes down to how much investment players are willing to make in learning the setting beyond the time and focus required to comprehend the essential game mechanics. Not everyone can sit down, read, and absorb a hefty rulebook, nor are they always willing to do so to fully understand every game in which they wish to dabble as players. Familiarity with the setting genre goes a long way in enticing them to play and rewarding them with an entertaining experience (instead of a game session filled with complete bafflement). Some settings seem interesting but remain so foreign – despite various strategies to inform potential players – as to remain essentially inaccessible...a regrettable condition given the number of high-quality, esoteric game settings available today.

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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

“War” Inspired Battlefield Card Game

I don’t know why the card game “War” has been on my mind lately. I played it a few times as a kid more to pass the time than anything else; but as an adult game designer I realize, much as game design luminary Greg Costikyan posited, it’s not much of a game considering the completely random elements and lack of player choice (to which variants only add small, limited degrees of strategy). It’s an odd enigma among games – if you want to even call it a “game” – yet it incorporates some game-like elements: drawing and playing cards, comparing card values, and collecting “tricks” used for scoring.

The 5 of Clubs helps reinforce the meager 4 of Diamonds.
This inexplicable fascination feeds off my general predilection for developing new game designs and for adapting them to themes I find interesting (usually rooted in historical periods). The attraction to a basic childhood pastime ties into my urge to create games accessible to both a young audience and newcomers to the adventure gaming hobby.

In examining what few rules the “game” of “War” has, several elements stand out that I like in gameplay: pitting cards against each other with the higher value winning; the escalation mechanic when two cards tie (in which additional cards are drawn, with the top ones revealed to break the tie, winner take all); and a clear scoring mechanic of the player with the most cards at game’s end wining. But I also notice several deficiencies related to the obvious lack of any player choice to affect the game’s outcome: players have no hand from which to choose particular cards; they have only one position to deploy them and one opponent to face on the field; and even when additional cards are drawn to break ties, the result still boils down to comparing two completely random card values. A little bit of casual internet research shows a frightening number of “War” variants exist, some offering more player choice and strategy than others.

Since I have a passing interest in wargames (as well as other adventure games) I sought to infuse the basic concepts of “War” with some elements of battlefield strategy, enabling some meaningful player choice along the way and creating an entirely new game with a military theme playable with a standard deck of cards.

Battle Lines

I’m calling my “War” inspired game Battle Lines since that perhaps best characterizes the game’s core mechanic. Like “War,” players begin by evenly dividing one deck of cards (with the jokers removed). Each turn they draw or “draw up” to a hand of four cards. From these they deploy three to their battle line, one on the left flank, one in center, and one on the right flank; each of these stands opposite a card the opponent deploys in similar fashion. This leaves one card in each player’s hand as a sort of “reserve.”

Players reveal all their cards on the battlefield, comparing cards matched up in the same locations: one’s left flank to the other’s right flank, the center cards against each other, and 0ne’s right flank to the other’s left flank. The highest card captures the lower card in each contest (with face cards valued at 11, 12, and 13 respectively, and aces worth 14). Before anyone takes cards on the flanks, the player with the lower card may play his reserve card and add its value to his card in the battle line; but this flanking reserve card must either have the same suit as one of the cards played to that location. For instance, Player A plays the four of diamonds on his left flank opposing the seven of clubs Player B deployed to his right flank; Player A needs to have a card with diamonds or clubs to reinforce and increase his total, presumably higher than the opponent’s card (like in the photo at the top of this post). Cards deployed and captured at each position go into the winner’s discard pile. Should any confrontations result in a tie, each card on the line returns to the respective player’s hand; reserve cards used to achieve tied values go into the discard pile of the player who deployed them. The next turn players draw enough cards from their deck to make a four-card hand (three cards if they didn’t deploy reserves, four if they did).

The game ends when one player’s deck runs out, resulting in one last deployment with the player possessing fewer cards deploying them last (possibly having battlefield positions without cards, which the opponent wins by default). Each player counts their discard pile; the one with more cards wins the battle.

There’s a little more room for strategy than in “War” itself. Players have to evaluate their four-card hand to determine what they want to play to the flanks, where the reserve card might help them. After players reveal cards on the battle line they have to determine if they want to play a flank card based on their own cards or those their opponent plays to his flanks. And both players must evaluate and try to second-guess their opponent’s general deployment strategy (if any) within the limited seven, eight, or nine turns enabled by the small deck sizes; does the opponent tend to place strong cards in the center, or does he have any rationale to playing certain cards to the flanks?

The only rule I’m waffling on is what to do with tied cards in a battlefield location. Right now I think it best for them to return to their respective players’ hands, giving opponents a glimpse of what might come into play next turn. I’ve considered keeping them on the battlefield but forcing players to deploy them to different, non-opposed positions.

I’ve modified a few ways certain mechanics in “War” work to better mold the game. Battle Lines still retains elements like splitting the deck evenly between two players, drawing cards from the top of that randomized deck, and resolving combat by comparing the values of two cards. The differences alter or evolve from parts of “War,” particularly using a discard pile to determine the winner instead of feeding captured and used cards back into the active draw deck, deploying several cards at once against matched opponent cards, and using the extra “reserve” card to sway individual battlefield contests in one player’s favor.

So that’s my “War” inspired card game you can run with a standard deck of playing cards. Give it a try, offer some feedback (see the “Comments” boilerplate below...) and I’ll see if it deserves some revision and publication in some form or another, just for fun.

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