Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Wisdom comes from examining and reflecting on one’s experiences with an eye toward learning from them. The turn of the New Year offers a milestone at which many people stop to reflect on where they’ve been the past year and where they’d like to go in the coming one. Some set their expectations high with those pesky annual and often-forgotten “resolutions.” Others examine where they’ve gone right or wrong in the past year and resolve to be more mindful of such opportunities to improve themselves in the coming months.

The New Year’s holiday offers a chance for me to reflect on my professional game activities over the past 12 months with an eye toward evaluating my strengths and weaknesses, finding my inspiration, and re-focusing my efforts

Achievements in 2013

Looking back over the past year I see my accomplishments range across a number of activities, few of which one measures in quantitative terms: publishing and promoting gaming product, communicating with the vast gamer community, and connecting with key individuals for both playtesting and networking. Some endeavors have had particular significance for me:

Blogging: Over the course of 2013 I wrote 52 blog entries on adventure gaming and game design. Yes, everyone seems to blog these days and many argue it’s going out of vogue; but blogging fulfills two goals for me. It enables me to communicate with gamers on both general subjects in the hobby gaming field at Hobby Games Recce and on specific issues of game design here at the Game Design Journal. Blogging also requires me to maintain discipline, both to produce relevant, polished editorial content in more than 750 words each week, and to do so on a schedule (every Tuesday morning at alternating blogs). I’m not always successful in the “relevant” and “polished” categories, but the exercise keeps my writing skills active.

Online Playtesting: I sent several projects through various stages of playtesting using online contacts and access through Google Docs (or whatever they’re calling it these days). I viewed this as an offshoot of my activities to increase my online interaction with the gaming community. Early in the year I sent various iterations of my fantasy roleplaying game engine using some innovative dice mechanics (the Oracle System,about which I’ve written before). When inspiration hit me to create a customizable random dungeon generation system, my playtesters rose to the challenge and helped me refine my vision for the product. As with any playtesting effort, some participants offered vague suggestions and impressions (if any at all), but more than I expected provided constructive criticism, fresh ideas, and positive encouragement. I am fortunate to have cultivated a small group of intelligent and loyal playtesters during 2013, an asset I intend to continue using throughout the new year.

Pay What You Want: In 2013 DriveThruRPG.com and its affiliated websites offered publishers the option of pricing products as “pay-what-you-want,” giving customers the option of downloading product for whatever price they wanted, even “free.” The trend quickly gained popularity among publishers for a variety of reasons. I chose to convert all my previously free downloads -- mostly short scenarios supporting my Pulp Egypt and Heroes of Rura-Tonga supplements -- to “free/pay what you want” in an effort to raise some extra revenue from generous donors. (I examined the pay-what-you-want issue and my views of it as a “tip jar” in an earlier journal entry.) The change provided some additional revenue each month; subsequently released free product has fallen under the pay-what-you-want price rationale.

Themed Dungeon Generator:An unexpected project evolved from playtesting the fantasy roleplaying game rules under development. In seeking to self-test the character and combat systems I turned to the venerable random dungeon generation tables of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide (with my own modified monster encounter table keyed to my own game). After finding that experience haphazard and thematically meaningless, I set about creating my own one-page, fillable PDF form to customize my own randomized-yet-themed solo dungeon experience. It suited my needs; with some polishing and quick online playtesting it released to the public through my DriveThruRPG.com e-storefront. It was one of several small game design diversions in which I indulged and the only one to yield saleable product. I generally don’t like releasing small supplements with low price points, but this one sold rather well and made what seemed like sidetracked efforts pay off. (You can read about my solo dungeon delves and the rationale behind Schweig’sThemed Dungeon Generator in past blog posts.)

Goals for 2014

I think I set a positive course for 2013, so many of those trends I intend to continue in the new year; however, many new directions and challenges remain:

Project Completion: I’d like to complete and bring to publication two projects that underwent significant development and playtesting last year: my introductory tank wargaming rules for a younger audience called Panzer Kids; and a fantasy roleplaying game using the Oracle System’s innovative dice mechanic for a basic gaming experience similar to old school renaissance retro-clones, tentatively titled Basic Fantasy Heroes. (I’m also allowing myself to go off on a few other diversion to develop a small abstract board game inspired by some interesting game elements and a quick battle game using 54mm plastic soldier miniatures, which I’ve mentioned before on this blog; I intend both for eventual publication in PDF form, quite possibly for free.) I fully subscribe to the philosophy that “We will sell no wine game before its time.,” which, regrettably, means projects take their time to reach publication, but they meet my personal quality standards on several levels.

Convention Scene: I’m hoping to return to the regional convention scene this year, partly to playtest, demonstrate, and promote my game projects, but also to enjoy myself, mingle with gamers, try new games, and enjoy old ones with new friends. Unlike my previous convention experiences years ago where I attended as a gaming guest running games, speaking on panels, and hosting a dealers table, I’m taking a more relaxed approach, especially in these times of fewer and smaller conventions, tighter finances, and fewer invitations to gaming guests. I have plans to visit a few conventions I’ve attended before, as well as leads on a few others, both well-established and relatively new, I’d like to try.

Continued Blogging: I sometimes debate whether it’s worth my time to continue writing two blogs, one each week, especially when I’m light on relevant topics, have little time and focus to write, or simply don’t feel as enthusiastic about my subject as I should. Part of my blogging satisfaction comes from a need to create meaningful content, but another comes from the interaction I enjoy in sharing these views on the adventure gaming hobby and game design issues. On occasion these missives and discussions inspire me in new directions. I’m looking forward to generating more discussions through blog topics that interest me and the gaming community at large.

E-Publishing: I need to re-focus some efforts to promote my e-publishing endeavors more effectively, beyond actually producing and releasing product (a challenge given my limited time, focus, and energy). I learned during 2013 to use social networking, blogs, word of mouth, and the Griffon Publishing Studio website to promote my activities and publications and intend to continue those practices. But I need to spend time to more effectively market my materials using the publisher tools offered by DriveThruRPG.com and its affiliated sites -- particularly the “featured product” messages -- to boost sales. I also need to start seriously looking to make several of my PDF products available through that website's print-on-demand program.

My reflections on where I’ve been and where I’m going with my game-design endeavors serves as both a kind of “annual report” of the past year and an outline of some tasks that lay ahead. In reviewing last year’s “New Year’s” post I’m relatively satisfied that I’ve at least confronted the challenges I set for myself in 2013; I’m looking forward to moving into 2014 with renewed purpose and some solid goals to achieve.

As always, I encourage constructive feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Season for Fantasy

[Note: December’s always far too busy in our household between preparing for the holidays and our son’s birthday. So I hope regular readers will excuse me reprinting -- with some updated sentiments -- a blog entry from two years ago appropriate for the eve of one of the major winter-solstice-based holidays. Enjoy.]

Around this time of year I’m reminded how the holiday season always seems to herald a time ripe for fantasy across the full spectrum of books, games, films, and television shows. For adventure gamers who feast on many of these similar mediums, the holidays remain one of the prime periods of the year for indulging in our  hobby.

GamingPresentsThe general spirit of the December holidays (which really begin around Thanksgiving) contributes to the illusion that anything is possible despite the darkness of the days and the times. Let’s face it: the notion of a jolly obese fellow flying around on a reindeer-driven sleigh delivering gifts to everyone around the entire world in one night is sheer fantasy unto itself (and I’m not even touching the nativity story with a 10-foot pole, though obviously un-American and heretical skeptics might classify elements of that tale as hopeful fantasy, too).

Everyone’s tempted toward fantastic hopes for expected and presented gifts, holiday displays and decorations, plans for parties and feasts, and the overall joyousness of the season. Our unrealistic gift expectations are inspired by an increased flood of commercials, catalogs, and sales for toys (both grown-up and child-level) and manifest in requests (sent by mail or in person at the mall) to the aforementioned jolly obese fellow for unrealistically fantastic gifts. Fantasy of all types abounds.

Enough pontificating; suffice it to say that the holiday season already predisposes everyone toward fantasy, and gamers in particular gleefully indulge in this excess.

The holidays bring a host of fantasy related media into our homes. Every year visions of our favorite holiday-themed tales waltz out of the television, from the stop-motion delights of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town to mere animated fare like Frosty the Snowman and the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. New holiday-themed movies premiere in theatres at Thanksgiving and play relentlessly until Christmas (and often beyond); former holiday film releases, like Will Ferrell’s delightful Elf, run constantly on television.

But holiday-themed fantasy offerings often pave the way for more traditional fantasy material at this time of the year. While the summer, and particularly Memorial Day, has been the territory of action and science fiction film releases, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas has recently brought a horde of fantasy movie premieres. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and the first two Hobbit films were released in theatres in the weeks before Christmas. Although only four of the eight Harry Potter films were released in November (the others hit theatres during the summer movie season), several usually appear around the holidays on a major television network (not to mention cable).

Rankin/Bass’ animated version of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit was first broadcast on Sunday, Nov. 27, 1977, on NBC, at the tail end of the Thanksgiving weekend that year. Such science fantasy fare as Star Wars was not immune. Though the films all released on prime summer movie weekends, the three made-for-TV specials all first aired around Thanksgiving: CBS first broadcast the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special on Nov. 17, 1978; ABC aired Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure on Nov. 25, 1984; and that same network broadcast Ewoks: The Battle for Endor on Nov. 24, 1985.

The holiday season also brings a break for kids -- both high school and college -- when they spend time at home with family and friends they can subject to such frivolous and fantasy-themed time-wasters as roleplaying and board games. Unlike the summer, that other “season of gaming” when kids have loads of time and friends around (yet often balanced by family vacations or summer jobs), the holidays offer time off without many expectations for productive use of free time, especially when playing outside remains limited by one’s ability to withstand intense cold.

I fondly recall my first Christmas after discovering Dungeons & Dragons, for I received such appropriately themed gifts as module A4 In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords, Grenadier Miniatures’ Wizard’s Room miniatures box, and the soundtrack to ET the Extra-Terrestrial, which I found as inspiring as almost any other John Williams score at the time.

As a young gamer I reveled in the two “seasons of gaming” throughout the year: the holiday fantasy season and the summer vacation (it also helped that the bounty of gaming-related Christmas presents was balanced by a host of gaming-related birthday presents for a boy born in July). Christmas always seemed a bit more festive for me as a gamer; call it a combination of the magic of the season, the infusion of game-related gifts, and the immediacy of a shorter break that didn’t linger as tediously as the hot summer days yet required. I have blurry memories of visiting with cousins during the holidays and engaging in gaming activities: one Christmas I attempted to run an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game, the daunting A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity, no less, using the pregenerated characters provided; another year a cousin tried to teach us Avalon Hill’s formidable Dune strategy game right out of the box!

As I somehow manage through middle age, however, I find my child-like ability to revel in the holiday season’s fantasy appeal challenged by the responsibilities and anxieties of adult life. While I vicariously relive my sense of wonder through my toddler’s experiences, I have difficulty re-capturing my own delight and satisfaction with the adventure gaming hobby pastime. This might become a bit easier as my toddler grows and can share in more of my interests that, right now, aren’t quite appropriate. Maybe next year….

Want to offer feedback? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Admiring Interesting Game Elements

I occasionally like to highlight and discuss interesting game elements I notice, whether they can actually influence or inspire my own game design work. Collins Epic Wargames’ Spearpoint 1943 by Byron Collins impressed me with its multi-faceted damage cards and overall smooth interpretation of World War II tactical skirmishes in a card game format. Tasty Minstrel Games’ Coin Ageby Adam McIver incorporates an innovative mechanic in which the random elements determining what actions one can take also serve as the pieces one places, all on a “micro” map that can fit in your pocket. By sheer coincidence both games are running Kickstarter funding campaigns, though Coin Age’s ends in the next few days.

I first noticed this game while attending a small miniatures wargaming convention in Williamsburg, VA, where the creator was running demos. A friend who manages a comics and gaming store showed me a demo copy and was particularly impressed with the damage card mechanic, which, on first glance, offered a different damage complication on each of its four edges corresponding to one of the four unit types (infantry, tanks, aircraft, and artillery). I’ve had my eye on the game ever since -- in a casual sort of way -- but always hesitated at the $29.99 price tag. This past Thanksgiving Collins Epic Wargames had a Black Friday sale that, even with shipping, brought the game into my acceptable price range…so I ordered a copy that was promptly delivered two days later.

The game comes with 50 cards each detailing German and American forces, 25 command cards with advantages and special actions to play as the skirmish develops, and 25 damage cards. Players customize a force based on card points, deploy several units, then engage in combat. The skirmish game concept reminds me somewhat of what I’ve read about Up Front, the card game version of Avalon Hill’s venerable Squad Leader, though I imagine Spearpoint 1943 is a bit more streamlined than that hard-core wargame.

During the course of combat units can sustain damage in the form of points deducted from their endurance (a numerical value indicative of overall strength). Spearpoint 1943 employs an elegant little mechanic in which a card keeps taking damage throughout the turn, but at the turn’s end it defaults back to either full endurance or, if damaged below half endurance but not yet destroyed, then back to half endurance. Any unit taking more than half its endurance in damage also draws a damage card. Each edge of the card contains text for specific damage effects to one of the four unit types. Tucking the card beneath the damaged unit -- with the specific damage effect edge text showing -- also reminds players the unit’s now at half endurance.

Spearpoint 1943 also uses a few other innovative mechanics I like. The game requires players to commit crew cards when putting vehicles and artillery into play. This might seem like an unnecessary detail in a basic skirmish game, but functions as game balance for more powerful units. Players initially deploy only four cards, so a vehicle card and crew card to make that vehicle operational take up two card spaces that might otherwise go to two infantry units. In playing additional forces from one’s hand one must wait until both a vehicle and the associated crew appear when drawing from the reserve deck.

While the cards at first seem overly complicated with many different stats and the rules might seem a little overwhelming as players try to put together all the numbers and procedures, the mechanics work intuitively when everything’s put together on the game table. (I wouldn’t mind finding rules for solitaire play….) Although the interesting elements I admire don’t seem to fit into any games I’m developing right now, they’re certainly approaches I’ll keep in mind for the future.

Collins Epic Wargames is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to fund a version of the game set on the Russian front (the original Spearpoint 1943 covers tactical engagements during the campaign in Italy in 1943). While I’m not planning on backing this particular version of the game -- I’m not really a huge fan of action on the Eastern Front -- I’d love to see a version covering German and British skirmishes in North Africa in 1942-43.

Billed as an “area control microgame,” Coin Ageconsists of a credit-card sized map with four similarly sized pages of rules; players provide the “pieces” using pocket change (one quarter, two nickels, three pennies, and four dimes for each player), though the Kickstarter campaign has already funded the stretch goal of a set of punchboard coins.

The game’s innovative mechanic involves using the coins not only as randomizers to determine player actions but as available pieces to place on the map to control territories. One player is “heads” and the other “tails,” enabling all coins to serve as double-sided counters on the board. Players “roll” (or more accurately “slap!” as demonstrated by the Kickstarter video) the two-sided randomizers (“coins”), with the combination of heads or tails to match the player’s side determining what actions the player can take: placing one, two, or three coins matching the player’s side, moving an already placed piece to an open territory, or even capturing an already placed piece and adding it to their “bank” of available coins to “roll.”

Players aren’t limited to placing pieces on empty territories; they can put a piece on an opponent’s piece on the board as long as the coin is physically smaller than the one upon which they’re stacking. For instance, a player might put a nickel on top of their opponent’s quarter, taking that territory as their own; but their opponent can re-take the area with a penny or dime on a later turn.

The game ends -- and the scoring begins -- after someone claims the last open territory or uses up all their coins. Scoring not only depends on who holds the most territories, but who has majority control of several “regions” consisting of one, two, three, or four spaces. Smaller coins score fewer points than the larger coins, which are already scarce within each players’ bank of available pieces.

Both the “randomizers as pieces” concept and the “stacking territory capture” elements appeal to me, though not for any game I currently have in mind. I could easily see rolling dice and using them with the values they roll as pieces of different strengths (and I’m sure someone’s already done it somewhere). Stacking pieces to capture areas from lesser-value pieces also adds a good bit of strategy to the game: if you make a grab for someone else’s territory you do so at a lower-scoring point value. (Hmmm, the stacking capture mechanic might work for a Gordon Relief Expedition game I’ve causally had in the back of my mind….)

I’m impressed and encouraged by several strategies in Coin Age’s Kickstarter that appeal to me as a potential backer:

Free PDF: Regardless of whether you back it, you can still preview and play the game for free with the PDF download rules and board available at the Kickstarter website. Try before you buy, so to speak.

Low Price Point: The minimum backer level (including shipping anywhere in the world) is a minimum $3, with a suggested “donation” of $5. When was the last time you paid $5 for a well-nuanced strategy game?

Stretch Goals for Everyone: The Coin Age Kickstarter campaign offers a veritable horde of stretch goals that apply to everyone backing the game. As of this writing people who back the game at any level get an additional map on durable “credit card-like” material, cardboard coin tokens (so you can save your change), stickers with the cardboard coin token design to apply to real coins, and -- yet to be unlocked at this time -- one or two additional maps! All this in addition to the originally promised main microgame board and rules. No add-ons or exclusive stretch goals for those backing at extremely expensive levels…just basic rewards for everyone to celebrate the game’s Kickstarter successes.

Support Our Troops: Midway through the campaign Tasty Minstrel Games added an extra backer level in which supporters could not only get copies of the game for themselves, but could also pay to have copies sent to troops overseas through the Operation Gratitude organization. [Edit: Kickstarter administration has since rescinded this pledge level as it supposedly violates their terms in not donating funds to charities...the exact wording and intent of which backers have debated -- and expressed their displeasure with -- at the Coin Age crowdfunding page.]

Ultimately I backed this project for multiple copies, one for myself and a few as gifts for friends.

As always, I encourage constructive feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Holiday Game-Gift Recommendations

I don’t have many gamers on my holiday gift lists; most folks just get one of my stollens (a German holiday bread I bake in several massive batches). But I like to think I’m qualified to make a few recommendations to those seeking gifts for people on their list who have enough of a casual interest in games to draw them further into the adventure gaming hobby.

GamingPresentsI’ve previously discussed several games suitable for borderline gamers and a few we’ve tried (or would like to try) as supervised games with young children. After reviewing those lists, I’m still convinced they’re right for casual gamers seeking a more involved play experience.  

Here are a few additional suggestions to add to the long lists from those other posts:

Gift Certificates: Gift certificates allow recipients to browse on their own and select something that interests them first-hand. Get one to a Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS), if one exists nearby; or to Amazon.com, which enables one to order from a broad range of game products or, if all else fails, an interesting book (or book download…). The FLGS gift certificate exposes them to a deeper slice of the adventure gaming hobby since it gets them into the store and focuses their browsing (and purchasing) on concrete items they can explore by reading sales copy, talking with staff, and in some cases even trying demos of games that pique their interest.

Books: Several books come to mind that might interest casual gamers and help them think differently about the adventure gaming hobby. A.C. Bell’s classic Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations (which I’ve featured before) offers an exhaustive study and catalog of traditional games from different historical periods and geographical regions, with discussions of the games’ origins, explanations of typical and alternative rules, and diagrams showing boards and demonstrating gameplay. Game scholar Professor Scott Nicholson summarized his research and analysis on both analog and digital game experiences in libraries in Everyone Plays at the Library (another title I’ve previously discussed here). The book offers a framework for evaluating and discussing games in a social context to help determine what kinds of games are idea for different audiences and venues, including many game suggestions. Those interested in the origins of the miniature wargaming hobby might enjoy one of the seminal works on the subject by one of the fathers of science fiction, H. G. Wells. His Little Wars (and the associated Floor Games) in many ways laid the foundation of modern miniature wargaming (along with the Prussian Kriegsspeil). While the text remains available for free online and in the public domain, several good print editions exist that are worthy of any wargamer’s library. Those seeking a suitable magazine gift might find a copy of Wargames Illustrated to tempt the history-minded reader with gaming possibilities, good cartography, and fantastic photography. Single copies often occupy the magazine racks in miniature wargaming-heavy game stores (particularly stocking Batlefront’s Flames of War supplies) and subscriptions are available online.

Euro-Style Games: More big-box retail outlets like Target and Walmart have started stocking more sophisticated board games than the usual fare of Candyland, Sorry, Risk, and Monopoly. Such popular games as Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, Smallworld, and Forbidden Island (or Pandemic, its more darkly themed cousin by the same designer) remain familiar to adventure gaming hobby enthusiasts but are still slowly breaking into the mainstream cultural consciousness (I’ve even seen the Star Wars: X-wing Miniatures Game at the local Target alongside Settlers of Catan.) The aforementioned games remain high in popularity among gamers (and retailers) and consist of what amounts to my list of “top” Euro-style games I’d recommend to friends seeking to dabble in the adventure gaming hobby.

Most gamers remain well-connected to internet resources, particularly venues like Amazon.com where they can maintain “wish lists” with relevant products. You don’t have to order from those online venues, but they offer a glimpse into what kinds of games -- generally and specifically -- gamers might want…just see if you can find them at the FLGS before ordering online.

Want to offer feedback? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Appropriate Games at the FLGS

Upon hearing that a new Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS) opened in my town a mere 10 minutes’ drive from my house -- unlike the other good FLGS in the area, at almost an hour’s drive -- several people commented that I now had a place to a) run a classic D6 Star Wars Roleplaying Game session or b) run playtests of my game projects in development. While I’m flattered by the suggestions, the FLGS is no place for such blatant displays of fond nostalgia or self promotion; however, game conventions remain one of the best places to indulge in unsupported “dead” games and test new projects with some willing gamer guinea pigs.

It’s one of those common sense rules one might think goes without saying; but younger people are coming into the hobby, and some folks don’t generally maintain an awareness of such game-etiquette nuances. A call recently went out from my other, farther FLGS seeking people to run roleplaying games…with the understandable caveat that the games use rules currently offered in the store. It’s a gentle reminder to help avoid misunderstandings and bruised feelings when we interact, especially with such a face-to-face social activity as games in the FLGS.

The FLGS is a business and relies on sales. While some accommodate loyal customers running games not sold by the store, most expect players to run games currently available on the shelves. Even then, I believe if I drop in to use the FLGS’s open gaming space -- and the store doesn’t charge a fee to do so (some do) -- I feel obliged to either make a game purchase, however small, and if I can’t find something relevant to my gaming interests, I buy a soda or two.

I’ve enjoyed my two forays into gaming at the new FLGS in town. One Friday night -- the night the store designated for both Magic: The Gathering and the Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game -- I brought along my ships and starfield felt to play with a friend from our occasional board game group; he’d previously only played with the extremely basic but engaging quick-start rules with several other friends and our Star Wars-obsessed toddler, the Little Guy. (I’ve discussed games acceptable for toddlers with adult supervision before.) So this evening provided an opportunity to try the full game with its numerous complexities that enriched gameplay. We had a great time and met a few other players trying out the game. My friend bought a graphic novel and I bought a soda, so we felt we’d duly discharged our minimum loyal customer obligations.

Then last Saturday afternoon the Little Guy and I needed to get out of the house. He’d spent most of the day watching somewhat-kid-acceptable kaiju DVDs and Return of the Jedi and had done little else; my wife needed a break, and I just needed to get out. So the Little Guy and I packed up King of Tokyo and my box of Star Wars: X-Wing Miniaturesand headed out to the new game store. After looking around at games we checked with management and found a spot to pull out King of Tokyo. After finally winning a game we took a break, checked out some of the other games running in the store, looked at some merchandise, and then returned for a quick X-Wing Miniatures Game. The store staff was very friendly and had a great time talking with the Little Guy, who can be extremely gregarious with adults. We felt very welcome and the Little Guy felt at ease. As a reward for his good behavior and to take advantage of the store’s Thanksgiving Weekend “Buy One Get One Half Price” sale (and some credit I had from old comics I’d traded in) we bought another A-wing fighter and the HWK-290 (a ship I’d been lukewarm about, but can be ideal for either a Rebel-allied smuggler ship or a bounty hunter ship) to round out our available forces.

Much as I’d like, I wouldn’t consider running any kind of game at either FLGS that those stores did not actively carry, especially games I’m developing that aren’t yet for sale or might only see release as a PDF available online. Granted, that limits me in what I can play there in the fields of roleplaying, board, and war games; but I respect the FLGS as a brick-and-mortar retail establishment. Some stores don’t mind what customers run, and that’s fine; others charge a small fee to use open gaming areas, and one might see that negates any obligation to run games available in the store. But overall it’s just good manners to make sure the games one runs at the FLGS are acceptable to management…and to respect the store’s decision.

Game conventions offer a good environment in which to run old games or try new designs still under development. A good con offers a wide range of gaming to cater to a diverse crowd, from “dead,” unsupported or out-of-print games, obscure games, or those yet-to-see-publication that creators wish to playtest. Although many conventions offer dealers halls, no obligation to exclusively run particular games exists. While conventions still reserve the right to approve and schedule games according to their own considerations, they’re generally more receptive to offering games one might not find in the FLGS.

I have several games in development I’m looking forward to testing at upcoming conventions. I’m hoping to playtest my beginner-friendly set of tank wargame rules with progressive, add-on complexity (tentatively titled Panzer Kids) at a few small wargaming conventions this spring. I may try playtesting my fantasy roleplaying game rules -- something with a retro-clone feel but some innovative yet basic dice mechanics (an engine we’re calling the Oracle System) -- though I’ve yet to find a suitable regional convention for that. And I always look forward to running a good old D6 System Star Wars Roleplaying Game scenario at game conventions.

As always, I encourage constructive feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Competing Game Sources: FLGS vs. Online Retailers

Where do you buy your games? That’s one of the contentious questions that can easily fragment the broad gamer community. Do you buy exclusively from your Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS) or from online retailers; and do you back Kickstarter game products? In discussions we often veer toward extremes to make our point. Some folks loyally shop only at their FLGS while others assert online vendors offer better deals and a greater range of available product. Although Kickstarter provides some unique opportunities for new games across genres and styles, it certainly can’t cover all of a gamer’s needs, though it might siphon off money otherwise destined for the other two sources. What’s best for gamers and what’s best for the game sources?

We Want YouIt’s a challenging balancing act between three sources and the diverse interests of gamers. On one hand you have retailers (and creators/publishers in the case of Kickstarter) trying to survive and succeed financially. On the other you have consumers trying to satisfy their gaming needs for the best price…or at any price to loyally support their sources. All considerations have their merits.

FLGS: Local establishments offer great incentives for gamers, including in-store gaming space, a face-to-face gamer community, a chance to physically examine games (sometimes even offering demo copies to try), the opportunity to purchase and possess an item without delay, and discounts for frequent customers. While they might not stock every item gamers want, most seem willing to make an effort to special order particular items for customers. They can’t always offer the deep discounts some online retailers provide, but they make the most of their physical location as a community hub for gamers -- game space, copies for review, special events, friendly staff and customers -- all of which contribute to the overall play experience of the games customers buy.

Online Retailers: Ordering merchandise online offers more convenience and discounts to many modern shoppers, and gamers are no exception. The internet helps expedite finding products, comparing prices, and ordering, though this alternative often includes additional shipping charges and a wait time for delivery. But not everyone has a FLGS within reasonable travel distance, nor is the local game store always the supportive, friendly place gamers expect. Some material -- particularly PDF gaming product -- is only available through online venues like DriveThruRPG.com. Online retailers are part of the free market competition inherent in our economy, though some claim a sale online takes money away from the FLGS.

Kickstarter: This model throws an odd wrench into the debate between online and FLGS sales. Individuals pledge to back projects in development, paying only after the campaign has raised the requisite funds (and not paying if it doesn’t reach its goal). Stretch goals and add-ons offer more goodies should a project exceed its funding expectations. While management claims customers are backing projects and not “purchasing” items, per se, project developers are essentially marketing product directly to consumers. In some cases Kickstarter-funded games remain exclusive and unavailable through the general retail stream (online or FLGS); but most use Kickstarter to fund an initial run of a game (including set-up costs), offering backers an early copy of the game before general distribution to the public. Kickstarter projects cater to a very narrow spectrum of gamers; matching gamer interest with affordable backer levels keeps these games from breaking too far into the mainstream…but they still siphon off money gamers might otherwise spend on either online or FLGS purchases.

I sometimes see some pretty intense animosity between advocates of one particular game source. Understandably the FLGS, being a brick-and-mortar entity, might see online retailers and Kickstarter games as taking money from customers who might otherwise support their store with those dollars. Gamers buying through online vendors might argue such websites offer deeper discounts than they might find at the FLGS. Proponents of Kickstarter projects enjoy many benefits from backing projects they like, including purchasing the newest and shiniest games before they’re available elsewhere (if at all) and supporting creators and publishers directly, with all the interactive experience Kickstarter offers.

As a gamer I spread my dollars primarily between my FLGS (two stores, since one just opened within 10 minutes of my home) and interesting Kickstarter game projects. I sometimes save up to purchase from vendors at conventions I attend, though I consider this an extension of the FLGS model. I rarely use online retailers; although I maintain a wish list on Amazon.com, I do so more for the benefit of friends and family members looking for gifts and to remind myself of games I’d like to acquire. I back game-related Kickstarter projects that combine interesting subjects, engaging gameplay suitable to my style, and an affordable price point to acquire a physical copy of the game. This isn’t a detailed financial analysis of my game spending habits, but I’d ballpark my game spending at about 80% FLGS and 20% Kickstarter.

Where do you stand? Head over to Google+ and start a discussion: share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment, or look for my post promoting this blog entry.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Season of Thankfulness

 “We count our miseries carefully and accept our blessings without much thought.”
-- Chinese Proverb

As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches I find myself reflecting on the numerous things in my life for which I’m thankful…and many of those revolve around gaming, both as a player and a creator. Some come thanks to the communication wonders of our Internet Age, but many still rely on good old face-to-face interaction.

Like so many positive messages holidays promote, we really should remain thankful throughout the year. It’s easy to succumb to the overwhelming negative issues in our lives, even as gamers and creators: a general uncertainty and lack of self esteem; producing work in a hobby with such a vast scope and seemingly innumerable others promoting (to various and often more successful degrees) their own product; the challenges of channeling creativity into workable products, through the stages of design, text, layout, playtesting, and publication; and above all (for some of us, anyway) the urge to compare ourselves and our accomplishments to those in our field who seem more popular and successful.

So for at least this month -- and with a mindfulness to reflect on these boons more often throughout the year -- I consider the many game-related aspects of my life for which I’m thankful:

Positive Community of Gamers: The internet has enabled me as a gamer and creator to reach out to gamers across the world: the many customers who’ve purchased Griffon Publishing Studio game titles from my e-storefront at DriveThruRPG.com; intelligent playtesters who provide constructive criticism, new ideas, and some encouragement for my efforts; gaming friends and colleagues, many new, some lifelong, who continue our engaging correspondence; clients like the folks at Wicked North Games who gave me the opportunity to contribute creatures and adventure ideas to their sci-fi steampunk Westward roleplaying game and to D6 Magazine; friends and fans who offer positive comments on my blog and social networking posts. I try very hard (and don’t always succeed) at keeping these interactions positive, but overall my involvement with an encouraging gamer community online has lifted my spirits this past year.

Internet Opportunities: The internet has also exposed me to some opportunities beyond the ability to publish my games in PDF and reach out to gamers, fans, and customers. Kickstarter has brought to my attention several fantastic game-related projects I’ve backed, games that inspire me and encourage me to pursue my own game design work. I’ve also learned of fellow gamers and friends in need and -- through crowdfunding websites -- donated to their charitable causes to do my very small part in helping others.

Family Gaming: I’m thankful to game regularly with my family. As my toddler son -- the almost four year-old “Little Guy” -- learns more about his parents’ geeky obsessions, he’s wanted to take part in such games as the X-Wing Miniatures Game and King of Tokyo(albeit modified for simpler play). It’s only a matter of time before we expand to more involved games, including some basic roleplaying game experiences. (I recently discussed my family gaming experiences over at Hobby Games Recce.) Our weekly game nights offer us a chance to turn off the television and computers and spend some quality time face-to-face enjoying games and learning some lessons along the way. I’m also very thankful that my family allows me the time, focus, and energy to pursue my game design projects.

Local Gaming: This past year I’ve had the opportunity for some local, face-to-face gaming, both with a group trying out new, primarily indie roleplaying games and with some friends who gather occasionally for good food and board games (including the Little Guy when we can). Both have occurred sporadically, but hold the promise of more gaming in the coming months.

FLGS: A new gaming store (with comics) recently opened within a 10-minute drive of my house…it’s already posted a schedule with some interesting events (notably X-Wing Miniatures Friday nights and board games all day Saturdays). It holds some promise for more face-to-face gaming and the chance to expand my gaming horizons. I’m also thankful for the FLGS I’ve frequented over the past few years at a slightly inconvenient 45-minute drive from home; it offers a different selection of gaming product and events as well as staff that remains friendly to a stay-at-home dad who often brings his inquisitive and talkative toddler son into the store.

In reflecting on all these factors that have enriched my life I’m reminded to remember and appreciate them throughout the year. I’m inspired to help others discover gaming as a worthwhile and enjoyable pastime in their lives; indeed to use games as a platform for positive interactions among us all.

“In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.”
--  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

As always, I encourage constructive feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Holiday Gaming with the Kids

As we rapidly descend into the Vortex of Chaos caused by the American holidays (typically including Thanksgiving, Hanukkah/Christmas/Kwanza, and New Year’s), thoughts turn to gatherings with family and friends…and games. I’ve reminisced about games at the holidays before: the sense of fantasy inherent in the season, the gaming-related gifts, the time to play around with one’s hobby, new toys, and friends. As my son nears the four year-old point and the coming holiday season, I started thinking about gaming with kids. HistSWGame

By “kids,” I mean preschoolers in the three- to four-year-old range, possibly as old as five or six. Some of these insights might help parents introduce older “kids” to the adventure gaming hobby, but by those ages they’re reasonably bright enough to know what engages them and thus dive into anything (like gaming) with the possibility of challenging fun (and opportunities to best their parents). I’m limiting my own discussion to board games, since, at this young age, the only roleplaying activities I expect them to show any interest for remain creative play options with toys, even if those toys are PlaySkool Star Wars figures, Disney’s Cars toys, and other normal-play fare.

Gaming with kids presents a wonderful opportunity for family time together, not simply sitting around basking in the feel-good glow of the holidays, but interacting in positive ways that can have lasting effects on behavior. We’ve established a weekly “family game night” with our Little Guy, trying some of the fare listed below; he looks forward to it every week and seems open to trying new, appropriate games. Whether he’s really understanding the games at this age, we’re still making important gains:

* We’re spending family time together without the constant distraction of electronic devices.

* He’s reinforcing lessons from preschool: following instructions, identifying numbers, letters, and abstract gaming symbols (okay, he’s not learning that last one at preschool…), realizing his actions have results and influence other people’s actions.

* He’s learning some basic gamer etiquette, such as being careful with food or drink around games, following game instructions, taking turns, re-rolling dice that tumble off the table, respecting game components, and generally learning to take advances and setbacks, victories and defeats in stride (or at least without tantrums).

My general tips for gaming with youngsters usually fall back on gentle, encouraging parenting. Some games require simplification of rules. Some require an adult to offer a good deal of assistance simply to get through a turn, though our experience has shown kids quickly learn for themselves and eventually refuse offers of help. Use games as “teaching moments” to learn numbers and letters, right and left, turn-taking, and good behavior. As adults we join games as regular players; while we sometimes give the Little Guy an advantage (playing the Millennium Falcon in the X-Wing Miniatures Game, for instance), we don’t usually hold back during games to let him win outright…he has to work for it.

Games We’ve Tried

While I have visions of my son several years from now sitting down to face his father over such games as Memoir ’44, Ticket to Ride, Smallworld, Sirocco, Axis & Allies, Carcassonne, and Ra -- not to mention the possibilities roleplaying games offer -- I realize he’s capable of only limited game challenges right now, as are most kids in the three and four year-old ranges. We’ve tried a number of games with the Little One over the course of many family game nights and a few games on weekends or with friends…and most have proved successful:

Dino Hunt Dice: This affordable, fun little game from Steve Jackson Games lets kids enjoy rolling dice and then identifying the three kinds of dinosaurs, the leaf result (dinos hiding), and the stomp result (dino hunters stomped!). Kids love dinosaurs and the game theme of hunting them tricks them into learning to identify the symbols, count their captures or stomps, and decide whether to continue and press their luck. It’s a much more thematically acceptable alternative to the game’s cousin, Zombie Dice (I’ve discussed our experience with Dino Hunt Dice in greater depth before).

Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game: After seeing it played at a convention, the Little Guy wanted to play it himself. He’s seen enough Star Wars toys around the house -- and finally saw Episode IV A New Hope (it’s just good parenting) -- so he knows most of the major characters, locations, and plot points. We bought the starter set and a few (okay, more than a few) extra ships, including the Millennium Falcon, which is “his” (it also helps that it has a 360-degree field of fire, unlike other fighters that have to maneuver to line up shots). The extremely basic quick-start rules included in the game provide a practical set of rules he can follow while still keeping the adults interested. We’re hoping we’ll eventually graduate to the regular rules to enjoy more of the game’s complexities, but we occasionally work in some advanced rules, particularly those related to asteroids (though we’ve played with a basic, programmed Imperial shuttle intercept scenario, too).

King of Tokyo: The Little Guy inherited his mother’s love of kaiju movies, so this game -- with its push-your-luck dice mechanic, monster stand-ups, and power cards -- seemed a good one to test the bounds. Initially he needed some guidance in determining what he wanted to do with his dice and getting through the turn sequence, but he quickly caught on and rejected all assistance. Heck, he won the first two games we ever played! Although it’s not always apparent he’s actually using a strategy, he enjoys rolling gobs of oversized dice and collecting enough energy cubes to buy monster power cards with cool illustrations (again, without really exhibiting any strategy beyond the exciting appearance of the pictures). His favorite monster? Cyber Bunny.

Pizza Party: I found this in a local teacher store and thought the Little Guy might find it interesting, especially considering I make homemade pizza once a week, a ritual with which he often helps. It’s less a game and more an exercise in matching dice-rolled toppings to pizza cards; but it still keeps the Little Guy engaged and hones his skills at matching symbols (and rolling dice). I’ve modified it to focus solely on him rolling dice, identifying the symbols, and matching them to slices. I have some doubts about the game -- shrimp and sardines figure prominently as toppings, while olives and onions were not included -- but, using a similar competitive mechanic as Roll for It (see below), it might have more promise.

Star Wars: Escape from Death Star: The Little Guy saw Kenner’s classic board game high on a shelf in my office -- a relic of my earliest days of board gaming and sci-fi fandom -- and insisted we try it. The cardboard stand-up pieces have seen better days, the spinner often landed on a line between numbers, and the cards seemed quite arbitrary, but we all had fun bumbling around the Death Star trying to get the plans and shut off the tractor beam before escaping to the Rebel Base. I recall frequently playing it with family and friends in my youth, the first manifestation of my love for Star Wars. The Little Guy took to it easily, though he had some trouble navigating the board.

Games I’d Like To Try

Several games wait in the wings to try with the Little Guy. Some we’re just waiting for an opportunity to introduce, others we hope can push his bounds a bit further when he’s ready:

Wings of Glory: The forerunner of the Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game engages my interest in World War I and II and has miniatures that capture the Little Guy’s eye. The one item he insisted I buy for him at a convention was a “cow bomber,” the Heinkel 111 plane for Wings of Glory WWII in arctic camouflage, white with dark green blotches, looking somewhat like a holstein cow’s coloration. The game’s use of cards for movement and maneuvers seems more intuitive and less complex than the full X-Wing Miniatures Game. Should we try this I’ll streamline the rules and simply have each participant reveal a maneuver card simultaneously (using only the slow maneuvers in the WWII version) before resolving shots and damage instead of plotting out two or three cards at a time. The Little Guy has requested we play “Daddy’s airplane game” sometime, so this remains high on our list.

Dungeon!: Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro re-released this classic fantasy board game with new artwork and components, and my parents -- who’ve nurtured my interest in sci-fi/fantasy and adventure gaming from the start -- got it for my birthday. It seems fairly straightforward as heroes explore the dungeon, defeat monsters, and take their treasure. The rules offer a very basic gameplay, though I’d expect adults might have to guide youngsters through the more involved procedures like traps and spells. While the board artwork seems impressive, I’m not sure it clearly indicates corridors and spaces well enough for a three year-old to navigate during gameplay. Many of the numerous components are quite small, including the illustrations, which normally remain key in captivating a kid’s interest. We’ll see if the box, board, and card artwork tempt him enough to at least start a game.

Roll for It: A copy of this recently arrived in the post as a backer reward from the game’s Kickstarter campaign. Players roll dice and match them to cards showing different combinations of results. Match all the die faces and take the card to score. The basic gameplay allows multiple players -- each with six dice of the same color -- and offers a nice balance of random die results, resource management, and press-your-luck. The Little Guy likes his dice and makes a great show of rolling them, so this one’s high on my list of new games to try.

Whatever the age of your kids, we encourage you to shut off the television, turn off the tablets and phones, and sit around the table this holiday season to enjoy some face-to-face gaming and make some fond family memories.

Want to offer feedback? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

To Attend or Not To Attend

I enjoy attending gaming conventions; but the past few years I’ve altered my con-going habits thanks to changes in my own life and the ever-fluid convention scene itself. A great deal has to do with transferring my promotional activities from live conventions to online venues, leaving me free to enjoy conventions as an adventure gaming enthusiast without the additional obligations required of a gaming guest.

The Way It Was

Years ago, even after West End Games’ bankruptcy pushed me out into the world of non-corporate-affiliated freelancing, I maintained a regular convention attendance schedule at local conventions -- with occasional appearances at a few not-so-local cons -- as a gaming guest. I ran roleplaying game sessions to showcase my own materials (as well as the obligatory nostalgia D6 Star Wars game) and promoted my activities on panel discussions and at a dealers room table when possible. Granted, this was in the early days of the Internet Age (the late 1990s and the early 2000s), with such social networking sites like Facebook and Google+  yet to come into their prime.

As a freelance game designer and publisher of my own material, attending conventions had their benefits and drawbacks. Creators derive a great deal of satisfaction and encouragement from positive interaction from fans, particularly face-to-face. Conventions offered an opportunity to run games first-hand, giving games an in-person taste of my own gamemastering style featuring my original material. Panel discussions challenged me as a guest to speak meaningfully on a relevant gaming-related topic, often one not directly related to my own work but one that pushed me beyond my comfort zone. Downtime allowed me to simply hang out with fans talking about topics ranging from upcoming releases, stories from behind-the-scenes at West End Games, and the inevitable talk of how to break into publishing or produce their own game. Not every interaction generated a sale, but the face-to-face contact helped make the convention memorable for many con-goers who subsequently became longtime fans of my work.

Attending a convention as a gaming guest takes a lot of time, effort, and money which sometimes interferes with other priorities (family, day job, household, and freelance work). My typical outlay of effort for a convention included printing out scenarios, tent cards, pre-generated characters, and promotional signs for games (sometimes even creating a new adventure wholesale instead of pulling material from my gaming repertoire). Travel, hotel, and food expenses require a significant outlay, especially for someone “working” the convention instead of a con-goer with the freedom to enjoy the entire con. Only a few conventions cover their gaming guest of honor’s hotel expenses (a practice rapidly becoming extinct in the struggling economy); even well-known gamemasters with publishing credits simply get a free convention admission badge as compensation for running games. Game designers can sometimes offset expenses with revenue from a dealers room table, but many conventions have limited such venues to “author alley” tables shared with others over reduced hours.

I still post my criteria for attending a convention as a gaming guest on the Griffon Publishing Studio website -- a complimentary hotel room being the main requirement (since it’s the greatest expense) -- along with the various benefits my attendance could bring to a con. Nobody’s taken me up on it in a number of years; I don’t worry much about it, as attending conventions as a guest has passed beyond an essential strategy in promoting my game design activities and become more of a tertiary luxury.

Interacting with the Gaming Community

For years I’d occasionally debate a longtime gamer friend who questioned why I placed so much emphasis on attending conventions to meet fans and showcase my roleplaying game materials six players per game session; he argued my time was better spent using the internet to reach out and cultivate new customers. Interaction with the gaming community has transformed so much since the mid-1990s and even the early 2000s, when I was still regularly attending conventions. Thanks to the glorious advances of the Internet Age game designers can still remain involved with the gaming community and assertively market their products without attending a single physical convention. Press releases go out to numerous adventure gaming news sites. Many of those offer forums for announcements and other dialogue with interested gamers. Podcasts and other interviews offer opportunities to promote one’s work. Electronic storefronts like DriveThruRPG.com provide publishers with tools to directly market materials to past customers, those with related items in their “wish lists,” and those following favored publishers. Blogs and websites allow creators to directly speak to their audience, offering behind-the-scenes insights, word of new developments right from the source, and free promotional materials. Playtesters review and comment on material online. Designers can even run playtest sessions of their own, or just run games for fun, via online tools like Google+ Hangouts. They can even run events at an increasing number of online virtual conventions.

I’m not saying face-to-face interaction at actual events has no value. I still believe it’s worthwhile in building an audience and promoting new product; but the internet has made the daily accomplishment of this objective much easier and more effective than promoting one’s games among a handful of gamers from one con to the next. Certainly game designers should attend conventions when possible; but it’s no longer an essential strategy in marketing one’s creations.

Changes in My Life

Certainly changes in my life have limited my involvement with gaming conventions. Juggling a family, household responsibilities, and some spare time for game writing and development doesn’t leave a lot of time or energy to do conventions properly. Schedules and finances remain subject to other, more important forces, with conventions rating rather low among numerous priorities. As a full-time stay at home dad, I’m also charged with raising our three year-old; as he shows some interest in his parents’ geeky pursuits we’re gradually introducing him to our activities, including gaming.

Most of my interactions with gamers takes place on the internet, posting about my game design activities on Google+ and Facebook, writing weekly about adventure gaming developments on two blogs (Hobby Games Recce and Schweig’s Game Design Journal), posting press releases about product on various websites and forums, discussing new ideas and game materials with trusted playtesters, maintaining the Griffon Publishing electronic storefront and offering occasional deals at DriveThruRPG.com, and occasionally holding conversations through Google+ Hangouts or in forum exchanges. Conventions as the means of interacting with gamers and potential customers have become less a necessity and more a luxury, a marketing opportunity above and beyond what I’m able to accomplish over the internet.

Enjoying the Hobby

After a short respite from attending my regional gaming conventions, I’m returning to look at the con scene with as a means of celebrating the adventure gaming hobby. Conventions offer an opportunity for me to attend as a game enthusiast without the scheduling and time obligations required of a gaming guest. I certainly enjoy running games occasionally, but I’m not beholden to them as a guest who feels a duty to entertain con-goers constantly. I can attend panels and play in games, hang out with gamer fans and friends, and enjoy a far more relaxed experience.

I’m looking forward to attending some local conventions with roleplaying game programming, in part to run a session promoting some of my own game work, but primarily to play in other games I enjoy. And if I happen to run into old friends and fans, all the better; I’m always happy to talk about my game-industry past, promote my current projects, or just reconnect with old friends.

As always, I encourage constructive feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Dabbling in Civil War Games

These past few years I’ve dabbled with various games focusing on the American Civil War to varying degrees of success and satisfaction. Several games have caught my eye, with some acquired and played, while a few remain yearned-for yet too-expensive additions to my game library. My experience is in no means comprehensive, nor does it encompass the vast panorama of Civil War-related games available over the years; but a few come within my realm of experience and touch on elements I enjoy or admire in games. BobbyLee

I’ve always nurtured an interest in the history of the various places I’ve lived: Ridgefield, CT, site of the Battle of Ridgefield during the American Revolution; Honesdale, PA, birthplace of American railroading with the first steam engine to run (briefly) on rails and once the staging point of a vital canal system supplying New York City with coal; Williamsburg, VA, colonial Virginia capital and living history restoration; and Culpeper, VA, a central Civil War location between the Shenandoah Valley, Chancellorsville and Wilderness battlefields, and site of its own engagements at Cedar Mountain, Brandy Station, and Culpeper Court House. (I discussed the subject of local history a while back in another blog post.) My interest in some of these locations sometimes inspired my game-related activities. I’ve long hoped to find a system and medium to replay the Battle of Ridgefield (and might have found one in my Charge! rules under development). Living in Culpeper has certainly spurred me to find some means of playing out small cavalry engagements -- Buford’s crossing of Beverly’s Ford as the opening move for the massive Battle of Brandy Station, Mosby’s raid on a train at nearby Catlett’s Station, and, of course, Custer’s action against the artillery and cavalry guarding the Confederate withdrawal from Culpeper Court House.

Over the years I’ve acquired a meager collection of Civil War-themed games; now that I’ve lived in Virginia for more than 10 years and currently live in a nexus of many related historical sites, I’m drawn more to investigating this period of history through games. I regret I sold my boxed set of West End Games Civil War wargame titles long ago when money was tight; though I’ve rarely had the time, attention, or interest for indulging in complex “chit-and-board” wargames (despite owning a few).

My interest in Civil War games has ranged across several resources and titles, some I’ve acquired and played, others remaining on my “wish list” for future investigation, though the material I’ve seen so far intrigues me:

Junior General: The website offers Civil War gamers several scenarios for miniatures battles and a few other games (card and matrix/map battles) for the historical period. Scenarios for First Bull Run and two segments of Gettysburg (Little Round Top and Pickett’s Charge) provide very simple rules and well-researched historical notes (though a familiarity with  miniatures wargames can help understand some of the basic gaming concepts). Although the materials on the website seem intended for adults to find resources and run games to help students explore history, it’s a treasure trove of materials for wargamers dabbling in various periods. Browse the site’s vast archive of military units to print out, assemble, and muster on the gaming table using the well-researched scenarios. Junior General remains a great starting resource for wargaming any historical period.

Sundered Union: Several years ago a new game company, Gordon & Hague Historical War Games, published a full set and then a quick-start version of Civil War tabletop rules to support its line of 10mm period miniatures. Both versions remained available as free PDF downloads from the company’s website until recently; a full-color, soft-cover printed version was briefly available for purchase, and I’m thankful I managed to obtain a copy from a convention vendor. While far from perfect and nowhere near as comprehensively complex as other, well-established miniature wargaming rule sets for the period, Sundered Union provided a basic framework for Civil War battles and included rules for most of the generally accepted tactical elements for these engagements. The quick-start rules -- at a concise four pages -- streamlined the main game further and offered newcomers to wargaming (or those of us who prefer lighter games) a more simplified yet gratifying experience. Regrettably Sundered Union is no longer available as a free PDF download from the Gordon & Hague website in either the full or quick-start versions. The game served as a solid platform for the company’s short-lived line of pre-painted 10mm Civil War miniatures and could easily work with its upcoming line of pre-painted 15mm minis. The company recently concluded a successful Kickstarter campaign for a massive board wargame using accurately illustrated top-down counters or the pre-painted 15mm minis, both of which, alas, remain beyond my own rational budgetary allowances.

Battle Cry: Board games packed with hordes of pieces, dice, tiles, huge map boards, and cards seem the norm for everything from light wargames to Euro-style games these days; Battle Cry is no exception. It uses the Command and Colors system developed by Richard Borg for simplified wargames focusing on a deck of command cards and custom dice to determine the outcome in combat. I have no direct play experience with this game, though I’ve perused an old version of the rulebook. I have played Borg’s engaging Memoir ’44, a World War II Command and Colors game incorporating many similar elements: a large hex board easily customized for scenarios with terrain tiles; plastic pieces representing different units and their strengths; left, center, and right flank card-based actions; specialized dice to resolve combat; and an easy means of creating or playing historical scenarios. Like it’s World War II counterpart, Battle Cry comes with a box filled with the aforementioned goodies (board, terrain tiles, plastic soldiers, dice, cards) as well as the understandably high price tag of $60 retail.

Dixie: At the height of the collectible card game craze of the mid-1990s Columbia Games jumped in by adapting to card play mechanics the designers ported from the tactical portion of the Bobby Lee block wargame (which I realize in retrospect thanks to the Kickstarter campaign mentioned below). Each deck of Dixie contained enough cards to run a battle, with cards depicting infantry, cavalry, and artillery units -- each with an original illustration of individual soldiers in uniform -- as well as generals, terrain features, and special conditions to modify the battle. Like the tactical combat in Bobby Lee, players deployed units on their left, right, and center, with forces held in reserve. Units revealed themselves advancing against and engaging the opponent’s positions, resolving combat, and taking ground. I can’t recall how I acquired the few decks of this game I possess (two of the Battle of Bull Run edition and two Gettysburg edition); possibly as a giveaway at a game industry trade show, maybe purchased at a convention or game store. They impressed me as a basic, card-driven means of refighting battles using historical units and some degree of tactical accuracy.

Bobby Lee: In 1993 Columbia Games also published a wargame covering the Civil War in Virginia (including Maryland and southern Pennsylvania, to include Antietam and Gettysburg). What seemed like a conventional “chit-and-board” wargame -- complete with a nicely-rendered map-board, detailed rules, and numerous pieces for various military units -- actually moved beyond those bounds by including two innovations Columbia Games incorporated in its many wargames: pieces on wooden blocks and a tactical battlefield combat to resolve engagements between forces meeting on the larger strategic map board. Each block represents a unit, with the usual wargaming stat information on a sticker; when stood on its side, however, the blocks enable a fog-of-war mechanic allowing a player to see his own forces but hiding the opponent’s armies from view until encountered in battle. The game combines both strategic action across the campaign theater map-board and more focused tactical engagement resolution on a separate skirmish board utilizing gameplay similar to that of Dixie (and probably derived from games like Bobby Lee). Columbia Games is funding a revision of Bobby Lee through Kickstarter; the campaign ends on November 11, 2013. This looks like a good game -- with tighter rules than the original -- for someone dabbling in the period. The $75 price tag seems quite daunting, considering many high-end Euro-style board games come in around $50. Still, the components look good, the map is huge, and I’m very interested in the fog-of-war mechanic with pieces using blocks.

These titles are the ones that come to mind or have formed my experience playing Civil War games, though I know more exist and I’m sure the Hobby Games readership has its own favorites and suggestions

Want to offer feedback? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Revisiting the Random Dungeon with Themes

Several weeks ago I explored issues in random dungeons based on my own experience with the original Gygaxian method from the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide and John Yorio’s No Budget No Frills Pencil and Paper Dungeon Generator, Ver. 3.0 over at the Tabletop Diversions blog. After my admittedly limited initial experiences I set off to devise a slightly more focused “random” dungeon experience incorporating an overarching theme for the delve and table results skewed to allow for some escalation from basic encounters to more challenging ones.

I wanted to structure a blank form outline with tables for determining corridors and chambers, traps, treasures, and encounters, with most of the die types and ranges left blank for users to fill in with their own preferences. For instance, choosing a 1D6 roll for determining corridors or chambers might allow one on a roll of 1-2 and the other on 3-6, skewing the results to favor a preferred structure. They could populate a trap table with theme-appropriate devices. Treasures could reflect the theme as well. But the most integral of all is the encounters table, where users “seed” the delve with themed encounters rather than relying on random monster tables by dungeon level. An escalation mechanic -- in the form of a bonus to the table roll equal to the number of previous encounters -- skews results to the higher and more challenging encounters, culminating in a showdown with an appropriately powerful “boss” monster.

The result is a PDF document with forms to fill out and then “save as” or print to create a one-page set of tables for a “themed dungeon” with randomized elements skewed toward a particular experience.

Here’s a look at the rationale I followed:

Intent: Since this serves as a side-project for me -- a quick jaunt exploring an interesting idea and game-design exercise -- I imposed a few restrictions on development. I wanted to keep the tables to one page with adequate room for users to customize the material with their own ideas. My urge to keep things relatively straightforward influenced me to leave out several traditional elements and interesting concepts; in some cases I’ve marginalized them from their more prominent places in previous random dungeon generators.

Secret Doors: Most random dungeon generators include some means of noting secret doors in passages and chambers. I overlooked this element in the interest of simplicity, though also partly to make sure the tables had more space for encounters, special treasures, and traps. I’m considering (and may have already implemented) a section on the “Chamber” table to account for the possibility of secret doors.

No Exits: A keen playtester noted the current “1D4-1” roll to determine the number of exits from a chamber could result in a complete dead-end in the very first chamber. I’ll alter the wording to eliminate that “-1” modifier until after explorers have visited four or six rooms.

Special Corridors & Chambers: I’d originally hoped to include results and additional tables for creating special corridor elements (stairs up and down, exits and entrances) and chambers (pillared halls, chasms with bridges) users could customize to the theme. At this point I’m considering including a “special” result on the corridor table with parenthetical suggestions for such remarkable features beyond the basic passageways.

Empty Room Table: The gamer community occasionally vents on the subject of empty rooms in dungeons, a result of random tables I personally found frustrating in my own solitaire delves. Unfortunately space considerations forced me to omit a table on which users could roll to generate some themed setting descriptions for trappings within empty rooms: abandoned shrines, barracks, common areas, or even caves with partially collapsed ceilings.

Take a look at Schweig’s Themed Dungeon Generatorand see how the system flows. I’ve included the blank, fillable form on one page and a sample dungeon on the second page to demonstrate how it might work. The document is still in flux, though I intend to revise it with an eye toward publishing it through my e-storefront at DriveThruRPG.com as a free/pay what you want product. For now it remains accessible from this blog post, though in the future the link will migrate to the e-storefront.

As always, I encourage constructive feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.