Tuesday, March 29, 2011

In Praise of Basic and Advanced Rules

I finally picked up a copy of Hasbro’s Battleship Express the other day. It was part of a series of classic Hasbro game titles retooled in 2007 to feature faster, shorter gameplay. It comes in a round plastic “pod” intended to make the game travel friendly. The rules, designed by German board-game superstar Reiner Knizia, have little to do with the original Battleship game, a classic of the abstract battle game genre, but outline a basic “Captain’s” game and more advanced “Admiral’s” game expanding on the basic rules that offers some entertaining mechanics in fleet construction and engagement.

(I found it at Tuesday Morning, a great discount store with a fun toy section worth checking regularly. Aside from discount versions of chess, backgammon, dominos, and other standards, one occasionally finds lost gaming treasure like Battleship Express or Front Porch Classics’ elusive Valley of the Pharaoh at irresistibly good prices.)

Merits and flaws of Battleship Express aside, the game’s presentation of basic and advanced rules reminded me how much I admire this approach in games. Some games introduce the core game concepts in the basic rules, using the enclosed components, then expand upon those in advanced rules that further develop gameplay and strategies. This approach isn’t always the best for every game. It depends on the practicalities of the rules and components, whether the basic mechanic can stand on its own and develop into a more involved game with advanced rules.

Why bother with basic and advanced rules? Having short, basic rules enables players to dive into a game quickly without having to wade through lots of rules. They can enjoy the components in a meaningful play experience within the scope of the game’s theme, mastering the basics before further enhancing gameplay with more advanced rules. Basic rules also enable enthusiasts to more easily teach new players and entice them to more completely immerse themselves in the game.

Here are a few games featuring basic and advanced rules with which I’m familiar:

Battleship Express: As mentioned above, it presents a completely new rules set for playing a naval-themed game with tiles and dice. The basic mechanic of setting up a fleet and attacking other player’s ships with die rolls develops further with the addition of special abilities for different ship types.

Star Frontiers: A classic science fiction roleplaying game from TSR, the Star Frontiers boxed set offered a slim basic rules booklet and a more substantial expanded rulebook. The basic rules outlined character creation, combat, and equipment, then dropped players into the action using a programmed solitaire adventure to further illustrate the rules in practice. (I’m a strong advocate of using solitaire tutorial scenarios to demonstrate both mechanics and setting for roleplaying games.) A group adventure followed, using the host of maps and counters included in the game to help players better visualize the action and make the unsteady transition from concepts of traditional board games to roleplaying games.

Wings of War: Dawn of World War II: I’ve talked about this game before and admire its simple mechanics of card play on the game surface to simulate World War II dogfights. The basic rules cover the bare minimum to enjoy a game: movement, shooting, and damage. Advanced rules add more technicalities, including altitude, special damage, and bombing runs.
Sirocco: A desert-warfare strategy battle game simulating the World War II conflict between Patton and Rommel in North Africa, Sirocco teaches the core concepts of movement and combat in the basic rulebook, while adding a host of optional rules for terrain, range, command, supply, and troop quality -- plus several scenarios -- in the “Masters” rulebook.

Lego games: The constructible board games released by Lego all include basic rules followed by additional variations to bring gameplay to new levels. Given their basic audience, most of the rules, even the optional ones, remain pretty straightforward; but Lego encourages players to cooperatively change the game rules for additional fun, imparting a principle essential for good game design and creating “advanced” rules: “The secret to changing a game is to change only one thing at a time. That way, you can see if the change makes the game more fun. If it does, keep it and then try another.”

Friday, March 18, 2011

Nostalgia for Gaming Magazines

The recent post about “dead” games inspired some reminiscing about some of the old print gaming magazines that used to broadly support the roleplaying game hobby.

In the “Dawn of Roleplaying” (otherwise known as “The Early Eighties”), game magazines capitalized on two main strengths: they produced articles that explored the as-yet un-imagined potential of rules and settings, and they covered many of the different games emerging at the time, including those produced by companies other than the one publishing the magazine. They stood as buttresses supporting game lines between regular product releases. The monthly or bi-monthly supplements included additional material of a lesser degree than a complete sourcebook, but useful bits and pieces to incorporate into a game.

Dragon Magazine, in its early days, was the lighthouse of shared knowledge and enthusiasm for the roleplaying game hobby. Though it primarily served as a house organ for TSR’s Dungeons & Dragons game (and later other lines), its earliest issues offered coverage of games from other companies as well. As the game developed, Dragon served as a forum for a host of new ideas: new spells, classes, and game rules; questions and answers about specific game mechanics; debates about game issues from designers; original scenarios; and news about upcoming products and conventions (all elements now incorporated in good gaming websites). Over the years the magazine garnered six Origins Awards. After a short hiatus since the end of print production in 2007, Wizards of the Coast re-launched Dragon as a subscription website magazine supporting the current incarnation of Dungeons & Dragons.

GDW’s Challenge Magazine, successor to that company’s venerable Journal of the Traveller’s Aid Society, primarily remained a house organ for its own roleplaying game lines, too, but was unafraid to publish submitted material for other companies’ games, especially at a time when those other companies didn’t always have periodicala to support their game lines. Material for GDW’s Traveller, Twilight 2000, Space 1889, and Dark Conspiracy packed the front of each issue; coverage of other companies’ game lines followed, but was no less varied. The magazine ran a host of pieces on West End Games’ Star Wars Roleplaying Game, TORG, and Paranoia, FASA’s Shadowrun and Star Trek Roleplaying Game, Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, and R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk 2020, to name a few. (Full Disclosure: Challenge debuted my first professionally published gaming work, a Star Wars Roleplaying Game scenario called “The Limping Longshot.”) Challenge Magazine, more so than TSR’s Dragon, provided a platform for freelance writers to produce and publish material for their favorite game lines other than GDW’s, broadening the magazine’s content and making it more appealing to a wide range of gamers. Challenge ran from 1986, when it transitioned from the Journal of the Traveller’s Aid Society, to 1996, when GDW closed. Though Challenge has no active online presence, gamers can purchase PDF versions of issues from DriveThruRPG.com.

Shadis: The Independent Games Magazine, emerged in the early 1990s to cover a broad variety of games without the constraints of a house organ (when established it was not produced by a game publisher). The three-time Origins Award winner pioneered some innovative, independent article formats, many system-neutral for use in a variety of games, including articles on adventure and setting creation, the popular gaming comic strip “Knights of the Dinner Table,” and the notable “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” featuring non-player character concepts for a variety of genres. Of course, Shadis also offered the usual features for gaming magazines, including news, reviews, and scenarios for a variety of games, from Castle Falkenstein and Call of Cthulhu to Pendragon and Exalted. Shadis ceased publication in 1997. Some of its earliest issues remain available in PDF at DriveThruRPG.com and the Kenzer and Company website.

I regret I cannot speak much about Steve Jackson Games’ Pyramid Magazine -- primarily a house organ for SJG’s game lines, with GURPS having enough subjects to appeal in some aspect to most gamers -- except to say I contributed a few articles to its online incarnation under the editorial auspices of the august S. John Ross. It remains perhaps the one gaming magazine that successfully transitioned itself from print to digital format first; initially it was a subscription-access website with content and forums, but today it comes in PDF from the SJG website. Like Shadis, Pyramid has won three Origins Awards.

Today print gaming magazines have reached the point of extinction. Those that persist maintain their life essence on the internet (much like many periodicals do, including newspapers, with sites providing new content amid blinking banner advertising); some, like the lavish Wargames Illustrated, manage to persist in print format augmented by a strong and useful website (like many newspapers survive). Publisher’s websites, online forums, news sites, PDF publications, and fan sites have assumed the role of disseminating industry news, fostering debates on game issues, releasing new scenarios, and generally filling the ether with the useful gaming tidbits previously found in good hobby magazines. Like other media, gaming magazines had to adjust to the overwhelming freedom the internet offered. Without limitations to monthly publication and print format, the concept of a “magazine” has given way to innumerable websites -- from publishers, fans, freelancers -- all of varying quality. Few stand above the rest as “pillars” of the roleplaying game industry.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Game Over? The Fate of “Dead” Games

Is a game really “dead” when its publisher stops supporting it?

Fans debate this issue constantly. Do they continue playing a game, particularly a roleplaying game, after the publisher stops supporting it with supplements, scenarios, and additional rules? Or do they move on to the next big thing? While this remains a choice for individual gaming groups, as far as a game is concerned, it remains “alive” as long as the components (rules, boards, pieces, etc.) remain and fans continue playing it.

People have persisted playing chess, backgammon, and the classic games of history; thanks to research into ancient, medieval, and Asian games, we can even try our hand at games previously unexposed to our contemporary culture. Family board game classics remain on store shelves (and closet shelves), many with renewed graphics or redesigned gameplay to cater to modern audiences. Game publishing companies are only half the equation; without players (also consumers), their games remain lifeless.

“Dead” games seem a phenomenon of the modern game-publishing scene, particularly roleplaying games. A roleplaying game rarely consists of a single core rulebook, but an entire line of products supporting that game. The appearance of “life” comes from companies constantly publishing additional materials to support the initial core game release. Scenarios, rules supplements, setting sourcebooks, miniatures, magazines, and the numerous “splatbooks” detailing various factions, equipment, and other elements of the setting fuel the game’s momentum and drive sales (bearing in mind that publishing is a business). While continuous releases create the impression that the game lives, ceasing those constant publications seemingly “kills” a game; and for publishers, the game is essentially dead unless future resurrection makes good business sense.

But while today’s modern publishing scene causes the “death” of some games, modern technology enables a game to live on through the efforts of an active fan base and its access to internet publishing. Fans produce a huge amount of source material for their own games; sharing that with a broader audience seems natural. With the dawn of desktop and internet publishing, fans with a grasp of writing, editing, and layout can create good-looking material supporting their favorite game. Now it’s far more possible thanks to e-mail and the internet that in the early days of roleplaying games. Today, long after a game is gone, websites provide unofficial support for those still actively playing the game or luring former players back to a nostalgic pastime. The emergence of the “open gaming” and “creative commons” license concepts enables some games and systems -- the D20 and D6 Systems primarily come to mind -- to reside in the hands of gaming fans. Granted, these fan efforts do not represent a business endeavor, but an informal yet high-spirited volunteer effort to create and share new materials honoring a game’s legacy.

Dead Games We Love

In perusing my game collection, I’ve found a few “dead” games that still have an active fan following today.

Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons: Many gamers entered the hobby through the classic Basic and Expert Dungeons & Dragons boxed sets which included the rulebooks, dice, and seminal adventure modules B2 Keep on the Borderlands and X1 Isle of Dread. Older gamers don’t always have the time to immerse themselves in volumes of rules and numerous setting splatbooks published for the current incarnation of Dungeons & Dragons (now in its fourth edition). Some don’t care much for the new game system itself or the innumerable skills, feats, spells, and other powers one can use to improve a character when they “level up” like a computer game. An active fan base for “Old D&D” exists, one creating old-style modules or even distilling their own rules sets for fast, simplified play.

The Star Wars Roleplaying Game: Two versions exist, one by West End Games based on the cinematic D6 System and a second by Wizards of the Coast based on the D20 System also used in recent incarnations of Dungeons & Dragons. Both have their legions of fans with websites about their own campaigns, home-grown game stats and setting supplements, and a host of other resources. I still make a point of running one D6 Star Wars roleplaying game scenario when attending conventions, despite my urge to run other games; the Star Wars games still fill up with longtime fans of the setting and system. (Full Disclosure: I worked as a full-time game designer and editor for West End Games while it held the Star Wars Roleplaying Game license, and subsequently contributed to several D6 System supplements for West End after acquisition by Purgatory Publishing.)

Space 1889 and Castle Falkenstein: These two “steampunk” games enjoyed limited popularity and small but loyal followings when they released. Victorian-era games tend to do poorly with American audiences compared with other genres, possibly because of our educational system’s limited scope in covering the history of the British Empire. Occasionally fan-produced material for Space 1889 appears on the internet; regrettably Castle Falkenstein has far less online support. Space 1889 stands as a perfect example of a “dead” game coming back to life, in this case the classic GDW game coming back in a Savage Worlds edition from Pinnacle Entertainment Group.

Star Frontiers: In the earlier days of roleplaying games (the early 1980s…) industry giant TSR published Star Frontiers, one of the few space opera games with solid support a fun universe in which to play (especially when one of the other, harder science fiction games of the time, GDW’s venerable Traveller, included character generation with a life-path system that could conceivably kill a character before creation was complete). Online fan support remains high, spearheaded by the Star Frontiersman fanzine.

Pirates of the Spanish Main: The only non-roleplaying game to make the list (since many board and card games withstand “death” better than roleplaying games), this collectible “pocketmodel game” let players construct small pirate ship models which sailed in fleets to collect gold from islands and blast their nautical rivals. It was a fun concept with practical, good-looking ship miniatures; but due to corporate takeovers and maneuvering, the fate of the line has remained uncertain since the last expansion set was released in 2008. A small but avid fan following continues to provide support for the game by sharing their home-grown rules options and graphic materials.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Solitaire Gaming Experience

Most people view games as social activities where several players gather to partake of an entertainment involving boards, dice, pieces, and a common set of rules. “Solitaire” gaming seems like an oxymoron; to play a game, one naturally needs more than one player, especially when one must be the winner and the other the loser. But a developing gaming sub-culture revolves around a variety of solo game experiences.

Solitaire gaming brings back memories of early solo experiences from the “Dawn of Roleplaying” (otherwise known as “The Early Eighties”): Choose Your Own Adventure books, Endless Quest books (gaming giant TSR’s entry into the field), the occasional “solitaire tutorial” adventure in roleplaying game rulebooks, Tunnels & Trolls solo scenarios, and a handful of classic wargames like B-17: Queen of the Skies. Each provided its own enjoyment for a brief period, especially when gathering a group of players wasn’t always possible.

What makes a solitaire game more than simply a means of passing the time? Is it an exercise in storytelling? Does it have any educational value? Is it a poetic self-exploration of a particular genre or theme? (These questions don’t even touch upon the fact that plenty of digital computer/console games offer graphically fulfilling play experiences for lone players, thus drawing them away from the analog game pool.)

Solitaire Across the Genres

Some solitaire games stand as self-contained game experiences; the addition of rule for solo play in traditionally multiplayer games allows players to engage their enthusiasm for a new game and become immersed in the fresh setting and rules. Solitaire play has its purpose in several genres and forms:

Historical Wargames: Presenting a system so players can run skirmishes on their own enables lone gamers to explore the historical period and elements of combat characteristic of that era. The solitaire game acts as an educational experience. Solitaire rules also allow wargamers to test out the nuts and bolts of a new game system before facing other live opponents or introducing the game to a new audience (much like “Tutorial Scenarios” below).

Story Games: Games relying on storytelling -- including Choose Your Own Adventure books, Fighting Fantasy-style adventures (with minimal game rules primarily geared toward combat and spell-casting), and roleplaying games -- can provide a solitaire experience, some as their primary mode of play. These often rely on “programmed entries” detailing the player’s options and results of their choices. Such games provide a complete storytelling experience thanks to descriptive text and plotted action despite offering several endings.

Tutorial Scenarios: Some roleplaying games provide introductory scenarios in a “programmed entry” format that offer insights into the rules and setting for new players, allowing readers to try the game system and explore the setting before seeking a broader roleplaying experience with other players later. In these scenarios, entries rarely leave combat and skill test resolution up to players, but walk them through such rules procedures through numbered paragraphs based on both choices and game mechanic die rolls. While they allow a player to run a short adventure, they primarily teach rules and explain the setting.

Solo Game Experiments: A recently developed game sub-culture focuses on independent solitaire “exercises” that try to evoke a theme or atmosphere. These explore different ways to provide a roleplaying game experience using innovative solitaire mechanics. The results of this movement are probably best characterized by entries in the RPG Solitaire Challenge.

The Game as Opponent

All elements must work together to provide a fulfilling game experience for the single player, a responsibility usually divided among the mix of players and the game itself. For solitaire games, an engaging theme and enjoyable mechanics must evoke a satisfying game experience from the lone player. While themes depend on interest and inspiration from both author and player, creating a mechanic that enables gameplay while simulating a challenging opponent remains the more difficult aspect, one that hinges greatly on the kind of game and the traditional rules employed. To borrow a term from digital gaming, solo games must create a convincing “artificial intelligence” (“AI”) to simulate an opponent familiar enough with the rules to provide a challenge.

Some games rely on the lone player to roll dice and adjudicate combat as an opponent; the Fighting Fantasy-style games and many hack-and-slash roleplaying games often rely on this approach. Wargames sometime use this technique with guidelines on how enemy forces deploy, attack, and react to player moves. Roleplaying and story games frequently use the “programmed entry” method, similar to pick-a-path books, to walk players through choices and consequences. Perhaps cooperative games like Gamewright’s Forbidden Island offer the best insight into rules system as an opponent, since the players must work together to defeat the game before it conquers them. These basic generalizations barely touch on the different ways solitaire games simulate opponents; the systems solo games use could easily inspire a comprehensive discussion on their own.

Stay Tuned…

A recently established blog, Solo Nexus, covers solitaire gaming across the spectrum in its goal of “promoting the pursuit of solo tabletop gaming.” The blog has declared November 2011 as “Solo Tabletop Gaming Appreciation Month” and has challenged readers and designers to create and submit solitaire resources to inspire solo gaming. The blog includes news about upcoming solitaire games, interviews with those involved in solo game design, and links to fan-created solo alternate rules. Though it includes links to other blogs with occasional posts about solitaire gaming, Solo Nexus remains the primary blog dedicated entirely to the subject, and one to watch for new developments in the field.