Tuesday, September 25, 2012

On Playing at War

Upon hearing I was designing the Operation Drumbeat solitaire wargame someone asked me if I was really going to publish a game where the player captains a German u-boat sinking American ships during World War II. I tried not to get too discouraged, but the question challenged me to reflect on why I -- an American citizen descended from German immigrants who takes some degree of pride in his heritage -- was creating a game where the villainous Nazis preyed on the innocent, patriotic Americans.

These stereotypes illustrate one reason I wanted to develop Operation Drumbeat. Throughout human history patriotic propaganda has vilified “the enemy” during wars to dehumanize them and thus through fear inspire citizens to join the fight. The Nazis and the SS tainted the German collective history by committing horrific atrocities against humanity; this game in no way serves to justify and glorify these crimes or their perpetrators. They ultimately led, however, to a world-wide war, one fought primarily by ordinary citizens on all fronts. As Americans we’re more apt to appreciate our own nation’s soldiers during World War II, their sacrifices and their heroism, as well as average non-combatant citizens on the home front stepping up and taking responsibility to do “their part” for the war effort. Yet citizens of other nations -- both Allied and Axis -- bowed to the wills of their leaders and dutifully served in their own armed forces whether they volunteered or were drafted into service. Regardless of nationality, they all belong to a brotherhood of citizen-soldiers -- willing or unwilling -- whose ordinary lives were interrupted to fight and die for their country.

Many games refight World War II, requiring one player to take on the role of the villainous Nazi forces. Whether you’re playing Wings of War: Dawn of World War II, Flames of War, Memoir ’44, or any flavor of Axis & Allies, someone needs to play the Germans. Do these games validate the atrocities committed by the Nazis and the SS? Do they promote the continued perpetration of such horrific and hateful behaviors and attitudes? Do they glorify the suffering of combat and inspire younger generations to pursue the bloody wages of war? If anything, such games put all the players in the position many dutiful soldiers found themselves; doing what must be done, serving their country, right or wrong, by slogging it out on the bloody battlefield. Wargames from any period face this stigma that war shouldn’t be a game. Yet perhaps H.G. Wells -- one of the fathers of science fiction and pioneer in the field of miniature wargames -- summarized the best response, written for his own Little Wars game rules published only a few years before World War I: “You have only to play at Little Wars three or four times to realize just what a blundering thing Great War must be.”

By putting us in the first-person perspective as a player, games might help us better understand both our past and current events, giving us a personal perspective on some of the battlefield challenges soldiers faced and the risk and courage required to overcome them. Operation Drumbeat enables players to experience some issues German sailors might have experienced aboard u-boats during the last of the “Happy Times” of submarine operations in the Atlantic:

Grid Map: Plotting patrols on a grid map based on actual charts used by u-boat commanders offers some insight into the German navy’s map reference system and gives players first-hand experience in procedure and geography.

War Logbook (Kriegstagebuch): Recreating this historically based document for each cruise offers players a chance to partake in an exercise required of every u-boat captain; maintaining a detailed log of patrol activities as an operational report for naval commanders back in Germany and, incidentally, as a later historical account people today can use to further understand daily routine, attack and evasive procedures, and the general attitudes aboard u-boats. For players of solitaire games like this one, it provides a narrative souvenir of the play experience.

Tension of Battle: Does the captain continue to attack a freighter, or does he leave a stubborn target before reinforcements arrive to hunt down the u-boat? In this “push your luck” game players must choose whether to risk the survival of their crew and vessel to ensure a successful attack.

Escalating Defense: Initially the u-boat captains in Operation Drumbeat met with great success. They marveled at the lack of defensive measures from American armed forces in the face of war declared against Germany. They tracked targets silhouetted in the glowing lights of coastal towns and cities that hadn’t yet realized the value of blackout precautions. They took newsreel footage of New York City’s illuminated skyline. In the few months after Operation Drumbeat began taking its toll on shipping along the east coast, however, American forces so significantly increased their patrol presence that Admiral Dönitz felt deploying u-boats to that region no longer seemed a viable strategy.

By the end of the war more than 30,000 u-boat crewmen -- more than 75% of all such crews deployed by Germany -- were killed. They wreaked havoc on Allied shipping in the Atlantic at a great cost in lives and materiel that could have more quickly ended the war in Europe. They served diligently in perhaps one of the most dangerous theaters of war; 48 men aboard lone submarines prowling the vast, swelling ocean for targets and often hiding for their lives in the watery depths. Operation Drumbeat invites players to experience only a small part of their story.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Ares Announces Wings of Glory Duel Packs

Ares Games recently announced it plans to release “duel packs” for its World War I Wings of Glory aerial combat game. These seem like ideal products to draw new players into the game by matching classic aces and their aircraft…assuming Ares Games can produce and get them into broad hobby distribution by the promised “end of 2012” to capitalize on the holiday shopping season.

WingsGloryDuelPacksEstimated to retail around $30, the packs include the Wings of Glory rules (both basic and advanced), maneuver and damage cards, counters, stands, range rulers, and figures for high-profile dogfights between two historical aces and their aircraft: Manfred von Richthofen in his Fokker Dr.I against Arthur Roy Brown in his Sopwith Camel in one set and Paul Baumer in a Albatros D.Va against Frank Luke, Jr., and his Spad XIII in the other.

These seem like the perfect introductory sets to get new players started with the popular Wings of Glory game (formerly known as Wings of War). They contain everything needed to start playing, plus two aircraft miniatures; the earlier Wings of War starter sets relied on cards to represent airplanes, with miniatures as optional yet far more visually appealing accessories. The $30 price point sits around what most people interested in quality games might pay, and it includes the rules in both basic and advanced formats. The game is great for kids, who grasp the basic rules rather quickly and gravitate to the miniatures, as I’ve seen many times at gaming conventions, where they hold their own in dogfights against adult gamers.

The duel pack starter set format seems ideal not only for introducing new players with a complete, play-it-right-out-of-the-box format, but might also prove a useful model for repackaging the World War II version of the rules (with some adjustments for different components) to enter other sales venues. I lamented the lack of games in museum gift shops in another Hobby Games Recce post; the Wings of Glory duel packs would fit my criteria for complete games at reasonable price points. Ares could offer several duel packs to appeal to those interested in different operational theaters, such as combining a Messerschmitt Me-109 with the Spitfire for a Battle of Britain set, or a P-40 Warhawk with a Mitsubishi Zero for a Flying Tigers set.

I enjoy the Wings of Glory, have played both the World War I and World War II versions at several conventions, and primarily focus on collecting aircraft miniatures for my favored theaters in World War II (Battle of Britain, Flying Tigers, Japanese in the Pacific). After trying the world War I version at a convention, I’ve become interested in buying into that game, though have held off due to the high price point of getting into the game (a Wings of War basic rules box plus two miniatures adds up); but at $30 for rules and two aircraft miniatures, the duel packs are perfect for me. Miniatures and rules sets for the old Wings of War games remain available on game store shelves, dealers tables at wargaming conventions, and through online vendors like Amazon.com, sometimes at retail prices, others at some level of reasonable discount.

Most of the company’s promised releases have slowly made it to American distribution. Game stores and dealers I’ve noticed who carried Wings of War finally started displaying the first wave of Wings of Glory aircraft miniatures over the summer, including the American P-40; I’ve also seen the starter set containing four fighters from different nations, as well as the WWI Wings of Glory Rules and Accessories Pack containing everything short of the actual aircraft miniatures to play the game. I’ve not yet seen the promised bombers, though; acquiring one each of the American B-25 Mitchell and German Heinkel He-111 are high on my wishlist. (I regret I don’t follow the World War I version closely enough to have noticed whether and how quickly the new line of miniatures have reached American distribution.)

Congratulations to Ares Games for producing an entry level product with rules and two cool miniatures to play right out of the reasonably priced box…and hope that we see it (and can purchase it) soon.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What’s in Development?

I’ve considered blogging about my thoughts as a game designer for some time. My natural instinct to keep my proprietary projects secret until ready for release has prevented me from taking this course before; but now seems the time to discuss projects and my approaches to them openly. I’m hoping the process not only helps me clarify my design rationale through presentation and discussion, but provides those who admire or take interest in my work a glimpse into my thought process. In doing both I hope to foster some sense of community, explore game design issues with friends new and old, and, of course, encourage a loyal fan base for my work.

Although this blog will probably focus on elements for roleplaying games, I’d like to briefly introduce some projects across the gaming spectrum I’m currently developing to provide a basic framework for exploration of relevant game design issues:

The Roleplaying Game Project: I’m in the early stages of designing a fantasy roleplaying game combining elements appealing to old-school-renaissance gamers as well as those seeking to introduce kids (10 and up or so) to such games. I don’t consider myself much of a game system designer -- my expertise really shines more in setting and adventure design -- but I’ve succumbed to the egotistical inclinations to develop a game engine I feel has unique and entertaining qualities that also fulfills my other ulterior motives. While I also have ideas for a basic yet engaging medieval fantasy setting, that’s only a secondary element to an enjoyable game system suitable for kids (and adults) to explore roleplaying.

The Roleplaying Game Setting Project: A long neglected project, my Infinite Cathedral medieval fantasy setting has been languishing on a back burner for years. Significant portions are written, though other major sections remain neglected and require further development. The project outline, in my mind and on paper, has undergone revision from one massive sourcebook to a multiple-release line of setting supplements, including a brief (and possibly free) player guide, basic setting sourcebook, and separate, themed location supplements.

The Pen-and-Paper Wargame Project:Frequent readers of the Griffon Publishing Studio website know I’ve developed a solitaire wargame similar to Avalon Hill’s venerable B-17, Queen of the Skies; my game, Operation Drumbeat, focuses on German u-boat patrols along America’s east coast in the opening months of 1942 when America seemed unprepared for war. It employs a similar table-driven game system as B-17, replacing that game’s flight log with a similar resource, the war logbook (Kriegstagebuchfor you German speakers), and providing a historically inspired grid map on which players chart their patrol courses. At this time the game has gone through playtesting and revision to the final layout stages.

The Abstract Board Game: I’ve been toying with a design for an abstract board game tentatively entitled Kadesh: Pharaoh’s Chess. The piece movement and placement reflect the Battle of Kadesh in 1300 BCE, which Ramses the Great won by what seems like sheer luck (or divine intervention if you believe the pharaoh’s official and copious propaganda), but it takes place on an abstracted square grid with simple pieces. The rules currently exist in a format suitable for playtesters, though I might send it out again to a new set of playtesters since my previous response was somewhat lackluster. The rules need a formal rewriting before going into layout, and I’m toying with various ideas for graphics on the board and pieces.

The Miniatures Wargame: I’m dabbling with a simplified miniatures wargame for kids with a World War II tank warfare theme. The basic rules rationale exists, and it’s endured some playtesting with the 10-year old audience for which it’s intended. For this I’m looking at a two-part approach to publication; releasing a “basic” game containing the bare-bones yet playable rules followed by an “advanced” rules set containing options kids can add to enhance their play experience to reflect more generally accepted elements of miniatures wargames. This is clearly a case of the egotistical game designer thinking he can do better than the myriad offerings in the field ranging from homegrown rules to well-established hobby games.

Yes, there’s a theme to some of these games, that of introducing younger players to any kind of gaming hobby. Certainly I want to bring new players into the fold, but I’m also looking a few years ahead when my own son, now two years old, might wish to explore his father’s esoteric gaming hobby.

I’m also afraid it’s not easy for me to shed my guarded nature; thus I apologize for the nameless, sometimes vague project descriptions. No doubt more will come to light as I explore different elements of game design for various projects.

Now that I’ve offered some idea what’s been simmering on the back burners of my mind we can move forward and start exploring some game design issues that influence these projects and, hopefully, some of the games you Kind Readers are developing and running.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Playtesting A Kids’ Wargame

I recently enjoyed a playtest session that enabled me to see my gaming pursuits from the fresh perspective of a 10-year old. Our nephew visited us for a week in August. He proved a great companion to our two-year old Little Guy through a host of excursions: Shenandoah National Park, Lake Anna State Park, Luray Caverns, the Richmond Zoo, and the National Air & Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center. During the course of his stay he ventured several times into the basement to help his aunt with laundry and rummaging around for items in storage. He saw the under-used basement wargaming table laid out for my dabblings with the Flames of War rules: a blotched tan felt for desert, several high desert hills and rock formations, a small oasis, Panzer IIIs, Crusader IIs, Indian machine-gunners, some A13 Cruisers, and a German 88 on anti-tank duty (yes, my collection is a ragged hodge-podge of the North African Theater). When he learned it was all part of a game he expressed an interest in giving it a try.

Now much as I admire the Flames of War rules I’m in no position to try teaching even a simplified version of it to a 10-year old (heck, I’m still trying to wrap my own head around the detailed, rich rules set). But I have in development a more basic set of miniature wargaming rules for World War II tank combat (both at 15mm and 6mm scales) in rough draft form, specifically designed to introduce kids of his age to the basic concepts of wargaming, in a period I like and for which I have some models. Inspiration for this game came from several events I’ve seen at conventions geared toward introducing younger players -- generally 10 and up -- to the basics of miniature wargaming. They ranged from extremely simple yet fun to somewhat more complex (but nothing approaching the vast intricacies of most modern wargaming rules). So I jotted down some stats for the Panzer IIIs and Cruiser IIs, grabbed some dice and tape measures, and gave the nephew a good chance to handle the tanks and terrain before diving into the game itself.

The rules I’m developing follow a model I’ve admired for a while (and written about here at Hobby Games Recce); they present the core mechanics simply and clearly in a “basic” rules section, then add extra nuances in an “advanced” rules section. In this case the tank game “basic” rules cover the simplest core actions: moving and combat. I plan to add “optional rules” more in line with the expectations of more developed wargames in an “advanced rules” section.

It took my nephew about ten minutes to grasp the basics of moving and combat, including the very simple rules covering line of sight, range, and cover. We played through two full games (about an hour or so each) once with me running the German tanks and again with me running the British tanks. We each won one game (the Germans tended to prevail both times). During the course of our two games I realized some of the rules I’d thought I could incorporate in the “basic” section really belonged in the “advanced” rules. I dropped the minor long-range penalty for firing at a target farther than half a tank’s full range. I noticed I had to clarify rules for using cover (and realized the cover bonus was too small). Overall the experience impressed on me the importance of stripping down a game to its barest essentials. Designers trying to appeal to kids must balance simplified wargaming rules with attention spans, even when moderated by a kid’s interest in the cool miniatures, terrain, or the historical period.

Bear in mind I’m making these observations specifically regarding miniature wargames; most kids eagerly grasp the rules for more popular fare such as department-store board games and even more sophisticated “Eurogames,” and some even have an obsessive approach to the complexities of rules in some roleplaying games.

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I’ve been doing a bit of self-evaluation lately, including a hard look at my work at the Hobby Games Recce blog. With this entry I’ve exceeded 100,000 words in 89 blog articles over the course of a year and a half. Although I’ve touched on many subjects that interested me -- from nostalgic looks at games and examination of game elements to commentary on current industry news and releases -- I’m altering course slightly to veer a little away from the general gaming blog and more toward something supporting my own game design endeavors…something along the lines of a “Schweig’s Game Design Journal” accessible from the Griffon Publishing Studio website, where I’d talk about issues relevant to my current projects or overall game design challenges.  I’ve tried to update the Hobby Games Recce blog every Tuesday morning; at this point I’m looking to alternate that with posts to a design journal. We’ll see. I appreciate the kind support of readers and hope you’ll follow my other writings when they start appearing online.