Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Simultaneous Versus Alternating Turn Rules

I’ve been playing around with Battefront’s Flames of War on the under-used basement wargames table lately to gain a better grasp of the rules; it’s helping me realize I like simultaneous movement and combat resolution in miniature wargames more than strict alternating turn systems.

WargameFoWI’ll admit my experience with Flames of War remains limited. I’m still painting up (and slowly collecting) elements for two companies to fight skirmishes in North Africa, a Panzer company and a British armored company (though light or heavy I haven’t decided -- I have a platoon of Lees and one of Crusader IIs, only one of which being painted and ready for action). Most of my forays into the game consist of pitting my disparate bits of painted units against each other on desert terrain trying to wrap my head around the comprehensive but often-times complex rules. Maybe I shouldn’t pit superior German tanks against British Cruisers and Crusaders, which, despite relatively equal point values, seem to simply fold up in the face of Rommel’s panzers, especially when they sit idly in their final movement position from last turn to let the panzers pound them into oblivion. Nothing says “You Lose” like an entire platoon of Crusaders wiped out under withering panzer fire in one turn. (Obviously this is a deficiency in my collection of painted 15mm figures; I must paint up some British Grant tanks and some anti-tank guns…or maybe I just need to collect an entire German panzer company and field it against some folks at the Friendly Local Gaming Store to really get my butt kicked.)

I recall a Flames of War demo run by Jon Baber of What Would Patton Do at a Richmond-area game day a few years ago. It was an all-tank battle (without infantry or artillery, which was fine since I prefer all-tank engagements anyway). He walked me through the basics of the rules and taught additional rules as I rolled a panzer company through some French village surrounded by fields. Aside from my natural discomfort learning a new rules system, I also experienced a great deal of frustration from the alternating turn progression. Granted, both players follow the same rules and both take turns acting while the other helplessly watches; but turns can take so long, especially for a novice, that the feeling of helplessness drags on beyond the hope of possible victory and ultimately the enjoyment of the game. One might argue since both players use the same rules each benefits equally from alternating turns rather than simultaneous resolution. At least for me the play experience seems far more frustrating. For one entire turn I can do nothing while my opponent maneuvers across the board and shoots at my pieces, possibly destroying them before I have a chance to respond.

Simultaneous Bias

Most wargames I’ve played rely on a simultaneous system where each player resolves movement and then combat at the same time, giving each a chance to act and have what feels like a fair chance to react to the opponent’s tactics without sitting idly and often helplessly waiting for the next turn. Whether or not it’s technically evenhanded, it gives the impression of being fair.

I particularly like the simultaneous mechanics of Wizards of the Coast’s Axis & Allies Miniatures games. While I’ve not played -- and have little interest in buying into -- the latest air combat game, I’ve enjoyed the land-based minis game and War at Sea, the naval version. In both games players each take a turn moving all their units, then fire at targets in turn (and in several different phases in War at Sea to simulate different kinds of ordnance); but damage inflicted by successful attacks doesn’t take effect until the end of the combat turn or phase, giving each player’s forces an opportunity to attack the other from their present positions.

I enjoy Wings of War/Wings of Glory especially for its simultaneous movement and combat system, particularly when numerous airplanes cover the board maneuvering, shooting, and steering clear of other planes. At the beginning of each turn every player reveals and executes his maneuver, then determines if any enemy aircraft are within the fire arc and range. The truly simultaneous movement and combat can lead to some really unexpected and entertaining moments, including two opposing planes shooting each other down in the same turn.

I’m a fan of The Sword and the Flame, the Victorian miniatures rules covering many colonial wars I enjoy fighting (primarily Egypt and the Sudan). Those rules offer an interesting modification of the simultaneous move and combat systems, allowing players to move forces based on the random draw of cards; the British player moves one unit if red cards are drawn, the “native” player when black cards are drawn, until the one with units left over moves remaining forces at the end of the movement phase. The ranged combat system works the same way, though casualties take effect immediately. (Close combat is handled differently and, of course, quite savagely, though still simultaneously no matter who closed to engage.)

When I run roleplaying games, regardless of the system, I tend to favor resolving actions in a round -- particularly combat -- simultaneously, with considerations for extraordinary circumstances or exceptional character initiative (i.e., “Mack tries shooting the Japanese officer’s hand before he pushes the plunger detonator....”). Keeping track of who’s doing what, whether they succeed, and what the opposition does can prove quite the mental and imaginative challenge, but it moves the action a little more from an alternating turn-by-turn game simulation toward a slightly more dramatic, simultaneously resolved scene.

Alternating Defense

I believe alternating turn movement and combat resolution has its place in more traditional, war-themed board games. Obviously when one plays Risk, Stratego, or other such games there remains some element of frustration naturally inherent in the competition between players, but one isn’t left feeling quite so helpless while the opponent determines movement, hits, saves, damage, etc., often while consulting or explaining numerous rules and special exceptions. These turn-based games move far more quickly than often ponderous miniature wargames with comprehensive rules systems.

I enjoy “battle games” like Days of Wonder’s Memoir ’44 or the old TSR Sirocco; like most board games, these rely on alternating turns between players. For some reason -- possibly because of the smaller, board-game feel -- I don’t think my Memoir ’44 play experience is diminished by alternating turns. This might come from the games' limitation on player actions based on the command cards he holds, which can restrict his options to using troops in the left, right, and center (or some combination of those) or to particular troop types. Perhaps the feelings of helplessness in these games doesn’t coalesce as quickly given the quick turn progression and relative ease of the rules.

I was impressed by the Severed Union rules Gordon & Hague recently released for fighting American Civil War battles with 10mm miniatures. On the surface Severed Union seems to rely on an alternating turn system whereby one side moves, fires, and charges into close combat before the other player repeats those phases; except after movement and before long-range fire from infantry, any artillery on the defender’s side has a chance to fire at enemy targets. In fact artillery only fires on the opposing player’s turn, allowing for some degree of defense in the face of unrelenting combat phases.

In my own dabbling with miniature wargame design I’ve leaned toward simultaneous movement and combat resolution, streamlining rules for greater speed and ease of play with relatively few tethers to realistic simulation. Any designer -- for wargames, board games, card games, and roleplaying games -- struggles with a balance between complexity and playability. Historical wargames balance complex rules simulating realities of a period battlefield with ease of play. Some offer very realistic game engines simulating all aspects of warfare within a particular period, but they aren’t as accessible to general players due to their complexity. While some hard-core wargamers might downplay the importance of “battle games” like Memoir’44 and Wings of War/Wings of Glory, they serve as both entry games enticing newcomers into the gaming and wargaming hobby and worthy gaming pursuits in and of themselves offering in-depth play opportunities and solid replay value.

I’m no expert on wargames rules, and I’m certainly not familiar with even most of the popular systems so these remain broad generalizations reflecting my particular gaming tastes.

I’m drawn to the Flames of War “hobby” -- a term the company Battlefront Miniatures uses as a nod to the Games Workshop Warhammer “hobby” on which its modeled its sales and promotion structure -- primarily because it’s so ubiquitous these days among Friendly Local Gaming Stores that stock miniatures (much like its Warhammer forerunner). It remains perhaps the most popular World War II miniatures game today, with a vast, worldwide network of players, tournaments, and host game stores. I’ll continue learning the rules and painting my minis with an eye toward the day when I can field a full tank company at the Friendly Local Gaming Store’s regular Friday night Flames of War gathering, where I’ll fully expect to have my tanks burning on the field before the night’s out….

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Gamification & Summer Reading Programs

Gaming and libraries luminary Professor Scott Nicholson of Syracuse University's School of Information Studies has recently been exploring and discussing “gamification” -- “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts” -- especially its relation to increasing usage of library services. His musings on the subject come at a time when I, as a parent and gamer, am finishing up my son’s first public library summer reading program. I admire Nicholson’s examination of the subject -- I follow his scholarly activities about gaming as part of a self-edification kick and because the intersection of gaming and other elements of society interests me -- and while I agree with his general theory that gamification alone doesn’t guarantee development of an independent motivation and interest in a rewarded behavior, I myself haven’t seen overuse of gamification to boost participation in programs at my own local public library.

I think public library summer reading programs strike a balance between far too much gamification of library services and making an honest and effective effort to keep kids reading outside the school year. No matter how many “prizes” libraries offer for children reading a certain number of books, I’d wager such programs mostly attract kids whose parents take an active part in their education and have already instilled in them some affinity for recreational reading. (I have no hard-and-fast data to support it, though I’d love to see some from the ALA or scholars like Nicholson; I’m no librarian and I have been told in no uncertain terms that without an MLS I shouldn’t even consider applying for a part-time library job, so  my opinion on this matter carries little weight.) At least in suburban and rural areas without decent public transportation kids participating in the program need parents or guardians to drive them to libraries to sign-up, select books, participate in events, and redeem their rewards. Participating in library programs that interest me and my family remains the true prize (as Nicholson has pointed out in some discussions), and one not viewed as a reward for participation but as part of our own worthwhile self-edification.

Lifelong Interest in Reading

I myself don’t recall participating much in summer reading programs as a kid, and had (and continue to have) a love/hate relationship with public libraries. Yet I still have a hearty appetite for books across the fiction and non-fiction landscape.

I have one memory that stands out. When I was a kid the local library summer reading program offered a free poster with great Dragonriders of Pern artwork to kids in my age group who read a certain number of books. All the neighborhood kids loved fantasy (I can’t recall if we’d discovered Dungeons & Dragons yet). One kid I knew boasted he’d get his mother to sign off that he’d read the required number of books just so he could get the poster without much effort (I have no idea if he actually read any books or simply carried out his scheme). To me this exemplifies the ineffectiveness of “gamification” of such library programs (at least for children) and reinforces that its effectiveness lies with parents.

I’ve been a voracious reader most of my life, so I really never felt the need to be driven to read by library summer reading programs. I was terribly proud the summer of 1977 when I finished reading my first “novel” in a week, the novelization of Star Wars. Let’s face it, this young geek spent the summer before his senior year in high school consuming every Larry Niven and Michael Moorcock paperback he could get his hands on and then some -- probably a book each week all summer long -- without any summer reading program incentive.

The Little Guy’s Experience

I registered the Little Guy for the local library’s summer reading program despite my skepticism…kids his age had to “read” 20 books to fulfill the requirements for receiving prizes. My wife and I regularly read to the Little Guy every night as part of his bedtime routine, and we have a variable but standard litany of titles to choose from, usually ending with Teddy Jam’s Night Cars, which we find far more lyrically hypnotic and engaging than Goodnight Moon. So we logged in the titles as we read them, often seven or eight a night, and didn’t note how many times we read them. We signed up in mid-June with a deadline of July 29; after a month we’d read 25 different books.

After a summer storytime session we stopped by the summer reading program table where a young teen fellow (heck, he called me “sir”) checked the list and loaded us up with prizes: a summer reading certificate, a star on which we wrote his name to paste to the bulletin board (the Little Guy was upset because he wanted to keep the star…), a plastic bracelet that’s too big for him, and wads of summer reading program-themed stickers, coupons, a ticket to the “after party” for the program, and a free book. Let’s face it, my two year-old toddler doesn’t really care about the coupons for free chicken nuggets, Italian ices, and curly fries (though ultimately he will enjoy most of those treats). He may go to but probably doesn’t care much about the ice cream party for successful participants at the program’s end (though we might see if he has a clown phobia…). He’ll lose the stickers after about a week. But the Little Guy really cares that he got a free copy of Clifford the Small Red Puppy. He also enjoys most of the events associated with the summer reading program: the goofy magic show, wild animal showcase, and participatory music program. Those and the summer storytimes go on our menu of late-morning excursions we take to get out of the house and expose him to more of the world. Those are the real rewards.

In another aspect of my fractured life I volunteer regularly at the library’s teen gaming events, hosting board games and trying to foster a sense of good sportsmanship and a positive experience. The teens for these once-monthly events -- and those at the one associated with the summer reading program since it occurs in July -- don’t have to reach goals to participate; they attend primarily because they enjoy games with their peers (and oddly enough, more play analog board games than the digital games offered). While attendance throughout the year varies due to a number of factors, it’s usually well-attended, if not packed. No gamified library incentive there other than playing games and having fun.

I’m not aware of any other library programs beyond summer reading that gamify services. The local library offers a host of resources beyond the ability to browse and check out books and other media, from children’s storytimes and teen gaming events to job search coaching, computer classes, and grant seeker training, not to mention special programs throughout the year.

The Hidden Prize: Numbers

But there’s another, hidden, gamified “prize” in library patronage. Visiting the library -- to check out books, enjoy kids’ storytimes, volunteer or play in gaming events, or enjoy other programs -- benefits the library by adding to the tally of people using its services and programs. The library’s annual budget report to the county includes numbers for usage of library services and programs; if the library can show it’s serving more people, the more it’s justified in asking for and getting a larger budget…or, in these Great Recession days, asking the county to hold the budget at previous years’ levels and not cut funding further. Additional funding circles back to benefit me and others in the community with more offerings from the library to entice us to use its services and enjoy its programs.

Like many of us, public libraries are trying to redefine themselves according to today’s constantly changing technology, balancing well-established programs with new innovations while striving to remain relevant in local communities. Gamification seems like a tempting means of drawing more patrons to use library services and thus increase numbers for the bean counters (both in library administration and local government). I’m happy to say if there’s any gamification at my local library, it’s limited to the summer reading program. I’ll continue reading to my child for as long as he’ll allow it, and plan on encouraging him to read on his own when he’s ready. If we get a few prizes for that beyond the sheer joy, knowledge, and satisfaction of reading, that’s nice, but not required.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Summer Re-Reading

Summertime brings the local public library’s inevitable Summer Reading program, with logbooks and prizes and entertaining programs for the younger ones…all intended to foster some sense that recreational reading has a place in our lives no matter our age. Many who fall into the category of adventure gamers have a love of reading that transcends incentive-based programs flogging kids to read for prizes. It reminds me of books I consider relevant classics of science fiction and fantasy that I haul out every other year or so and re-read like comfort food for the mind.

The Library of Congress recently released its list of “Books that Shaped America.” I didn’t expect to find many titles from the science fiction and fantasy genres, so I was pleasantly surprised to see two classic science fiction novels among all the fiction and non-fiction: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Robert E. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.

One of those titles resides on my own very short list of novels I read over again periodically. Many people have favorite books they re-read now and then, in part because they offer enjoyment and because something within those tomes speaks to the frequent reader and appeals to their own character. When the Lord of the Rings films released, I recall Christopher Lee saying how he read the trilogy every year; since then I’ve noticed various other personalities have noted significant books they re-read.

I certainly don’t have time to read these once every year, but frequently enough over the years that they’ve influenced me in various ways.

The Hobbit

I discovered the J.R.R. Tolkien classic around the time the Rankin/Bass cartoon aired on television, and well before I read the thick, intimidating tomes of Lord of the Rings. With none of the overwhelming weight of the trilogy’s themes and language, The Hobbit still embodies for me qualities of the quintessential fantasy story: quest for treasure, the contented hero leaving home for unknown adventure, and a host of elves, dwarves, a wizard and a dragon. It’s written for children, though certainly in a narrative style better read aloud than to oneself (as I’m discovering slowly reading it to my toddler). On the surface it’s an enchanting fantasy story with all the expected trappings, perhaps one defining the genre like no other since Grimms Fairy Tales. On a deeper level it illustrates -- sometimes very blatantly -- how stereotypes can change (that of “burglar” and “thief” to hero), how greed, entitlement, and stubbornness lead to strife and tragedy, and how one can overcome self-doubt and temerity to rise to the occasion when the time comes. The Hobbit remains an enjoyable read that inspires the very roots of my interest in fantasy gaming.

Stranger in Strange Land

I first read Heinlein’s classic way back my senior year in high school, when I took what many considered a semester-long “fluff” English course in science fiction. For me it wasn’t “fluff” since I was already heavily immersed in science fiction novels (and gaming) and had ambitious plans to write for the genre myself (though little did I suspect those publishing endeavors wouldn’t be in novels but roleplaying games). Whether one reads it as provocative examination of human nature, society, and spirituality or simple satire on life, love, and religion, it pushes readers to think and react to themes brought to life by rich and diverse characters, many of whom politely demand our compassion and respect: what is the divine, how far do we go in standing up to the establishment, how does religion shape society, is humanity on the right path? Each time I read it something new comes to the forefront, whether the concept of divinity in all (“Thou art god.”) to the ancient Martians lurking in the background, wondering whether humanity remains worthy of existence (and humans wondering if they’re really wondering that and capable of acting on it). Reading it becomes an exercise in challenging my accepted perceptions of authority, the norm, and belief.

A Canticle for Leibowitz

Unlike Heinlein, Walter M. Miller, Jr., published only one novel in his lifetime, A Canticle for Leibowitz. I recall reading it the summer before my senior year in high school, when I tore through mass market paperbacks of science fiction and fantasy from a local bookstore whose owner made sure he stocked all the books of series or authors in whom I took interest (primarily Larry Niven and Michael Moorcock). I picked up Leibowitz for the post-apocalyptic setting; back then I lived in the waning years of the Cold War, where television movies like “The Day After” and other nuclear-war-themed post-apocalyptic fare filled the media with images of missiles raining atomic death into the lives of ordinary people. The book conveys a sometimes overwhelming pathos that, no matter what we learn from our past, we always seemed doomed to repeat it, if only with a few contextual deviations. Throughout the novel readers keep seeking hope that, maybe this time, humans can set aside their vices and selfishness and move toward something greater, the improvement and future survival of humanity; but ultimately it paints a bleak picture that humanity can’t, and won’t, change from its self-destructive tendencies, that even the influence of religious institutions cannot sway humanity from that course, though it might help in smaller ways.

Right now I’m busy reading my beautiful, illustrated edition of The Hobbit to my toddler in bits and pieces as his patience allows. Once his tolerance evaporates, it’s back to reading more toddler fare to reach our 20-book goal so the Little Guy can earn some cute prize from the Summer Reading Program….