Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Repurposing A Project

My recent missive on chit-and-board wargames caused me to look back on a forlorn, abandoned project and find new life in a different form. In the blog post I looked at current efforts in this “traditional” wargames sector and noted several factors I’d find appealing in new games, particularly more streamlined rules with fewer (and larger) pieces. I posted the article, then sat back and wondered, how could I create a traditional wargame that would satisfy my own criteria? In my mind I ran through the various historical periods that engage my interest, recalling particular battles with which I have some degree of familiarity or a good stock of research material in my personal library. I put the idea aside for a day or two, and then an idea dawned; I could repurpose an unpublished article on miniature wargaming the Battle of Ridgefield (April 27, 1777) into a chit-and-board wargame.

A few years ago I volunteered to help produce a regional wargaming club’s newsletter. It had languished for a while after having a good run with informative articles, news about club activities, and a listing of local resources for gaming. I thought I’d bring my years of publishing experience, both editorial and layout, and try giving the newsletter new life. The club representative told me they’d received another offer for a volunteer editor, so they asked us to work together. My grandiose vision for resurrecting the periodical and infusing it with engaging material and new life fell afoul of the co-editor syndrome (a good author friend once told me that co-authoring was twice as much work for half the pay...and in this case, my half of the “pay” was nothing in exchange for lots of work and some friction with my co-editor about what made a good wargaming newsletter). Although I was pleased with the final product, my experience was less than rewarding, so I just walked away. The club hasn’t published a newsletter since.

One of the articles I intended to contribute covered the Battle of Ridgefield during the American War of Independence, a subject dear to me since I grew up in that small, Connecticut town, was steeped in its history, and had seen a 200th anniversary reenactment of the skirmish as a kid. I relied on a very well-researched history of the event – Farmers Against the Crown by Keith Marshall Jones III – and drafted a summary history of the event, with a focus on the forces engaged, the terrain, deployment, and how miniature wargamers might stage the skirmish. I submitted it to the co-editor for comments, some of which helped focus my writing; however, I allowed my general dissatisfaction with the direction the newsletter was taking to temper my enthusiasm, and I shelved the article for a “future issue” which, of course, never materialized.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

My Favorite Flavor of D&D

Recently I’ve been seduced by all the buzz about the Old School Renaissance (OSR) games that hearken back to the earliest editions of Dungeons & Dragons in their mechanics and presentation. I’ve acquired a few print copies of various games and source material (including some quality ’zines). It’s all fueled by an interest in returning to my medieval fantasy gaming origins and thus to the nostalgic origins of my immersion in the adventure gaming hobby. While I appreciate a number of the OSR games I’ve seen – most notably Old School Hack, Basic Fantasy, Barbarians of Lemuria, and Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox rules (admittedly not all hardcore OSR) – I find myself returning to the original source of my early wonderment and inspiration in gaming: Basic and Expert Dungeons & Dragons.

Aside from the game I designed myself based on watching two friends muddle through some rooms in B2 Keep on the Borderlands, I started with the Moldvay-edition D&D Basic Set (received as an Easter present when I was 13); I quickly expanded my gaming activities that summer with the Expert set. Although I soon got the triumvirate of core books for first edition AD&D, most of my earliest gaming focused on Basic/Expert D&D. I certainly bought into the AD&D game line, playing several games and often borrowing scenario material for my own D&D experience, but I often felt AD&D had far too many rules and, as the line progressed under TSR, far too many supplements defining in detail various aspects of the mechanics and settings.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Chit-and-Board Wargames Still Live

I don’t often talk about chit-and-board wargames (or “traditional” wargames for brevity’s sake). Although the adventure gaming hobby evolved from this sector of gaming (and from its miniature wargaming cousin), it seems the prevalence of roleplaying games, board and card games, and more visually appealing miniature wargames have eclipsed their popularity. We don’t always hear about these through the usual buzz on the internet. News covers the latest OSR games and supplements, Euro-style games, major releases from publishers with pre-painted miniatures and numerous collectible powers to enhance tournament play, Kickstarter juggernauts, licensed games, and a host of flashier products.

Regrettably the days of traditional wargaming’s popularity have long passed. Giants like Avalon Hill and SPI have faded, though the former lives on under the auspices of Wizards of the Coast and focuses primarily on proven brands (such as Axis & Allies). Rare are massive bookcase game boxes with cardboard-mounted maps and hordes of half-inch, die-cut unit counters. Traditional wargaming has given way to the more visually appealing miniature wargaming hobby and to lighter “battle games” like Memoir ’44, Battle Cry, Wings of Glory, and the Axis & Allies Miniatures Game which incorporate more elements from board gaming with a wargame theme.

Yet that extremely niche portion of the hobby still remains active, with a handful of companies still producing new titles to satisfy this aspect of gamers’ interests. Some remain minimalist efforts, thin rulebooks with a half-sheet of counters (at best). Others revel in the massive boxed games packed with components, frequently financed by crowdfunding efforts like Kickstarter. I’ve come across a number of traditional wargame publishers who remain active; the list below is by no means comprehensive, but offers a relatively current glimpse at this sector of the adventure gaming hobby:

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Imitating Graphic Design

I’d had some graphic design experience in college and at my newspaper job before coming to West End Games to start editing the Star Wars Adventure Journal; but I learned some of my most valuable lessons from the company’s production manager, Richard Hawran, one of the oft-unknown people working behind the scenes who really kept the game lines and the company together. Rich managed to simultaneously keep the often-volatile creative egos of the editorial staff focused on projects instead of vendettas, moderate management’s intolerance for game designers and its intrusive bureaucratic whims, and ensure the company maintained a rigorous production schedule through a generous dose of troubleshooting and maneuvering. One of the first of many lessons I learned dealt with laying out a book: find a graphic design scheme in a product you like, a visual look that works for you, and imitate elements of it with practical modifications for your own project.

Certainly publishers and graphic designers bring to any project their own preconceived notions, parameters, and overall “vision” for a product’s appearance. We were already working under particular constraints determined by management’s strategy for the Adventure Journal: a digest-sized publication layout and set font choices from other Star Wars Roleplaying Game products for article subheads (Eras Bold) and text (Cheltenham). The head of the art department – who’d viewed the Journal layout as his domain – had been taken off the project for a variety of reasons: he had allegedly run late on numerous projects, did not seem open to working as a team with editorial staff, and no doubt clashed with management personalities and egos. (Regrettably these contentious attitudes seems standard for the roleplaying game industry, as anyone reading the four-volume history Designers & Dragons would know.) So Rich and I hunkered down and hammered out the layout for the Adventure Journal one snowy Saturday in January, a month before the first issue was due to head to distributors. For the first hour we looked at similarly sized publications to judge the pros and cons of how they presented their content. At the time few digest-sized publications approaching the 288-page count existed (or I would have suggested the little black Traveller books). Rich and I paged through two I remember, TV Guide and Reader’s Digest, both seemingly obsolete in today’s information-overload Internet Age. I can’t recall what specific graphic design revelations we gleaned from examining the layout of both magazines, but it holds an interesting lesson in using layout elements you like and that work for your intended publication (and, conversely, avoiding the ones you don’t like or don’t work).