Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Craft-Build A Family Game

I’m always looking for both game and craft ideas appropriate for my four year-old “Little Guy” who often needs a more active diversion from the television (even if it’s stuck on PBS Kids...). So I was momentarily excited to receive an e-mail from one of the arts and craft stores I frequent with the subject line, “Family Winter Games Night - DIY Style!”

I’ve often wondered when “big box” arts and crafts stores would start customizing website content, project ideas, and events toward kids seeking to create their own games using supplies from the aforementioned stores. I naively thought this event might be a step in that direction...and was promptly disappointed to find out it wasn’t about making family games in winter, but gathering the family to celebrate the “winter games,” otherwise known to the rest of the world as the winter olympics. (No doubt the craft store lawyers were just being careful by not using what some might argue is a proprietary, trademarked legal nightmare....) The crafts in question included making an olympic torch out of a paper tube and colored tissue paper, creating “team uniforms” with t-shirts, and painting wooden disks tied with ribbons for award medals. These were nice, creative activities on their own, but not quite what I as a gamer parent was looking for.

Like office supply stores, crafts stores serve as vast toy stores for gaming adults. Whether you play board games, miniature wargames, or even roleplaying games, craft stores offer a fantastic variety of materials for gamers: model trees, flocking, and foam for building terrain; wooden bits for creating different kinds of game pieces; cheap paints and brushes for painting miniatures; felt for simulating base battlefield terrain; wooden and cardboard boxes for game storage or in-game props; even corner rounder punches for giving print-and-play cards a more professional look (as demonstrated by Cheapass Games’ amazing James Earnest).

I’ll offer two resources for craft game ideas, both of which can send you off to the craft store for supplies and additional ideas.

The first I’ve discussed before: R.C. Bell’s Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations (1969). The book remains one of several core references on historical games I keep in my office. It offers overviews of numerous board games throughout history and across cultures, including diagrams and photographs of game components, historical notes, rules (some extrapolated from sketchy sources, but still playable), and numerous variants in painstaking detail. Bell also categorizes games into various types, many of which focus on common components and themes. An all-too-brief chapter, “Making Boards and Pieces,” discusses using different materials to create game components based on the historical descriptions provided. (I’d also recommend David Partlett’s The Oxford History of Board Games [1999], which draws on Bell’s work, provides far more commentary on some games, and may be more available.)

I’d also recommend a website I recently discovered – Aunt Annie’s Crafts – specifically the website’s “Craft Project Index.” Scroll down to “Games To Make” and you’ll find instructions for making boards and pieces for several games from around the world, including instructions for playing and brief histories. Most include PDFs of game boards for use as patterns, but they might easily serve as print-and-play components. These projects come framed as family craft projects and include a host of tips for using different materials for boards, pieces, and other elements easily suited to a variety of visual tastes.

These options focus more on classic games from history, but a trip to the craft store can prove inspirational for original board games, miniature wargames, and roleplaying games. What do I look for at craft stores to satisfy my gaming needs? The woodcraft department offers a host of toys: wood and cardboard boxes for games and props, glues, craft “popsicle” sticks, and, of course, wooden pieces for games, from cubes and tiles to pawns and specialty shapes. The floral department usually stocks colored glass and real stones for playing pieces as well as foam pieces for crafting into wargaming terrain and buildings; floral tape and reindeer moss found there can help turn some wire into a tree for the gaming table. Many stores stock school diorama supplies including pre-painted plastic figures, trees (like my favorite to horde...palm trees), stone and grass flocking, and model trees; some even carry models and plastic toy soldiers from various eras with various gaming applications.

Other odds and ends I’ll check or purchase include three-foot-square sections of felt for small wargames or roleplaying game miniatures; pens, brushes, and paper (parchment paper is great for medieval roleplaying game props); tracing paper; peel-and-stick laminate sheets for protecting props, reference sheets, and home-made cards; and a host of paper crafting materials.

Some day, I suppose, craft stores might catch on and offer at least some encouragement – in the form of website content project ideas and some in-store promotions – for kids seeking to create their own games with craft-store materials. Until then I continue visiting craft stores when I can to provide a host of supplies for my numerous hobby gaming activities.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Sergeants Card-Driven Miniatures Rules

Sergeants Card-Driven Miniatures Rules

I recently had the opportunity to play in several beginner-friendly games of the Sergeants Miniatures Game from Lost Battalion Games and – despite a steep learning curve for what looks like a huge board game with cards and minis – really enjoyed the World War II squad-level action driven by some innovative card mechanics.

Sergeants incorporates elements of a board game, particularly a modular board of squares that recombine to form various map boards depicting typical Normandy terrain. It uses pre-painted 20mm miniatures of German and Allied soldiers much like a historical miniatures game, although each has a base with an individually named and numbered dog-tag. Each soldier comes with a single stat card depicting its abilities (movement, ability to rally pinned comrades, range for spotting and shooting enemy soldiers, victory points) plus seven cards keyed to that soldier for resolving randomized elements within the game. These cards form the core of the Sergeants game.

Card-driven mechanics aren’t new to board or wargames – take a look at Richard Borg’s incredible Memoir ’44 or Collins Epic Wargames’ Spearpoint 1943 – but using cards with different sectors of game information for several mechanics within the game remains the central concept behind Sergeants.

In preparing for a game each player builds a squad based on soldiers’ victory points and extra points for special equipment and ordnance. The average point build used in our demo game gave each player a squad of six to eight soldiers. Once players select soldiers they set aside the stat cards for future reference and shuffle all the soldiers’ other cards together into a huge “action” deck.

Cards from the action deck serve numerous functions in resolving operations during the game:

* Stats on players’ NCO cards determine how many action cards they draw each turn, which offer a variety of “orders” – look, hide, move, shoot – given to a variable number of soldiers as listed on the card. Each turn players also draw three “story” cards from a common deck with pairs of matching actions (“move then look” or “shoot then hide,” for instance) that determine permissible actions during each of a turn’s three phases. The more action cards in a player’s hand, the greater the range of options they have. (And if a player loses an NCO in combat, he also loses the cards he allows them to draw each turn....)

* A dog-tag graphic on each card not only denotes from which soldier’s card-set it comes, but allows that soldier to take the associated action again or in addition to the number of soldiers listed who receive that order.

* Some cards include a blue or white “narrator box” with additional instructions, such as ordering the named soldier to move a certain way (toward or away from an enemy, toward a structure), make an attack, or even become visible to enemy units! White boxes remain optional (and are usually beneficial) while blue boxes are mandatory. These not only add some personal idiosyncrasies for the individual soldiers but force players to choose between the actions and numbers of soldiers activated on these cards or other, non-narrator cards.

* A red box lists and determines “hit checks” for various attacks at long, short, close, and blast range, such as “Long: Miss” or “Close: Hit.” Each time a soldier attacks he draws the top card from his action deck and checks the appropriate ranged attack: a “hit” result causes the target to draw from his own action deck....

* The lower right corner contains one of four damage results a target may receive if an attacker scores a hit: zip (near miss, no penalties), pin (pinned down, all soldier stats are halved), wound (soldier stat cards flipped to show reduced wounded stats), or killed. Wounded soldiers taking another wound are killed. These results are used differently in grenade attacks and are also used in a slightly different way in close combat.

(I will freely admit I’m no fan of the actual artwork on the cards; I found it distracting at best. While I understand the urge to tie cards into individual soldiers within the game, the overall functionality of the cards might have been better served with a more neutral image and larger game-relevant information. I also admit that artwork remains an extremely subjective issue and that the designers have no obligation to satisfy my particular artistic tastes.)

This is an extremely simplified overview of the multiple uses of cards in the Sergeants game; the interaction of cards, soldier figures, and the board makes for some engaging, squad-level gameplay, although I’ll admit the learning curve remains steep.

Squad-Level Play

Some folks might like the grand strategic action of the Axis & Allies boardgame or the battlefield simulation of Memoir ’44; others might prefer more tactical action like that offered by Spearpoint 1943 (I’ve featured a number of these games before). Sergeants offers a very focused play experience of squad-level infantry operations in World War II, with each player commanding a handful of individually named soldiers with variable abilities, including foibles exhibited through mandatory blue narrator boxes.

This requires a solid investment in leaning the rules (aside from a financial investment in the game itself), but rewards players with a very focused experience. Aside from managing only a handful of soldiers in a squad, choosing orders and action cards to maximize their impact on the battlefield, players identify more with individual, named soldiers than simple, anonymous “game pieces.” It helps that each soldier has specific stats different from others of the same rank; giving named soldiers an extra action when playing one of their cards makes players pay attention where they deploy different soldiers.

At first my own inability to view soldiers as individuals put me at a disadvantage, a clear demonstration of the steep learning curve I experienced with the rules. In my effort to move a core group forward and a flanking group off to one side, I gradually realized my senior NCO was a terrible shot (very limited range) and I’d inadvertently left my most powerful piece of firepower – the guy carrying the MG-42 machine gun – way in the rear of the group and conveniently at a worse range to attack enemy soldiers. In the second game I played I made sure the guy with the MG-42 was well placed in cover next to a soldier with a high enough range he might as well have been a sniper; the guys with good throwing ranges went off down the flank to close with enemy troops and later delivered crippling grenade attacks; my senior NCO stayed in the back in good cover so he didn’t have to expose himself to enemy fire when shooting at poor ranges.

I particularly enjoyed my view of enemy soldiers. Each painted miniature on the opposing side was also an individual – some NCOs, others armed with certain weapons – and I had no visual idea which ones were the better targets. It wasn’t even easy to recall which ones had particularly effective weapons or ranges unless I paid attention to the other players measuring ranges and consulting their own soldier cards. This provided a very realistic sense of a skirmish beyond what other miniature wargames and board games offer.

Other Banes & Boons

The Sergeants game demonstrated several key gameplay elements that stood out beyond the card mechanics; it also presented a few drawbacks one might overlook.

Besides the option to point-build individual squads (and that’s before considering any of the add-ons for soldiers, squads, and terrain noted below...), the ability to rearrange the “puzzle-piece” board for different scenarios gives Sergeants fantastic replay value. Each five-inch by five-inch square terrain piece (double that for “landmark” pieces) has puzzle-like tabs and indentations to fit with all the other pieces. Since the pieces are double-sided, this enables the game to present a host of terrain options and arrangements.

Each tile displays action modifier information right on the tile, making calculating ranges for moving, looking, hiding, and shooting easier. Although movement relies on measuring inches, other actions measure range by terrain tiles (with larger landmark tiles counting as two). When line of sight between soldiers for spotting and shooting cuts across several square tiles diagonally, those tiles and their modifiers count as well. This sometimes led to some debate at the game table about whether or not a line nicked a tile corner, a small issue considering the utility of having terrain modifiers listed on the terrain itself.
At least to my particularly frugal finances, the Sergeants game has a high price to buy into a base set – $89.95 for either Day of Days featuring American paratroopers or Red Devils with British paratroopers – not to mention pricey yet great-looking add-ons, from punch-out, three-dimensional terrain and new terrain tile sets to extra soldiers, complete with pre-painted minis and card sets. That’s not to say the basic game set isn’t packed with amazing components – one can’t argue with re arrangeable map tiles, a host of cards, markers for spotted and pinned soldiers, and pre-painted miniatures – but it represents a high buy-in for a hybrid board/miniatures game with cards. It’s certainly what some might call a “boutique” game that delivers a rather unique play experience particularly satisfying for gamers interested in World War II.

Perhaps the best way to try Sergeants and see if the investment’s worthwhile is to find a regional convention, game store, or gaming group where a Sergeants fan offers a demonstration. I lucked out in finding several games at a regional wargaming convention. I had the pleasure of participating in two games run by Jason Williams, who ran the Sergeants demo and the more involved game I played at Williamsburg Muster 2014. Despite what for me was a steep learning curve with the rules, he did a fantastic job of explaining the essentials and patiently shepherding us through various gameplay issues as they evolved on the board.

Overall I’d have to admit I was really pleased with the game experience Sergeants offered. If it weren’t for the high price tag for even just the base set (which could occupy me with different terrain and objective scenarios for a while) I’d dive right into it to satisfy my interest in World War II game action.


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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Blog Housekeeping: Consolidation, Best Posts

This is the last blog entry for both my Hobby Games Recce blog at LiveJournal and Schweig’s Game Design Journal at Blogger; I’m porting everything to a new hybrid blog – Hobby Games Recce at Blogger – where I plan to continue posting missives about the adventure gaming hobby and game design every Tuesday. Bookmark the new Hobby Games Recce blog site for updates; the old sites will remain, though this will stand as the last entry.

When I split my efforts with the two blogs almost a year and half ago I’d intended to use the Game Design Journal as a more personal insight into my creative efforts rather than the general survey of news and features in the adventure gaming hobby in Hobby Games Recce. While this broadened my scope, it restricted me to a general theme each week, one that sometimes oozed from one blog to the other. It also split my efforts between two blogging platforms which took time to transition between. Although the Game Design Journal enabled me to explore some interesting game design issues, it wasn’t really inspiring the interactive discussions for which I’d hoped (though the few discussions it did engender were rewarding).

I garnered several revelations from the experience. It makes more sense to focus all my blogging efforts in one place, both for my ability to navigate blogging interfaces and to direct people to one place for my gaming missives. It offers me the freedom to cover general adventure gaming hobby issues with occasional intrusions of personal game design when so inspired, without the self-imposed, every-other-week restriction on content.

I also realized, reluctantly at first, that I prefer Blogger as a platform better than LiveJournal. It didn’t crash as often, gave me more control over the look of the page (as you’ll see from keeping the Game Design Journal template), provided more information on my posts (specifically page views and +1s), and interfaced nicely with my other Google-based applications.

I intend to merge all the old posts from both blogs onto the Blogger Hobby Games Recce site for easy reference and to provide a continuous record of my past blogging exploits. While Blogger made things easy transferring Game Design Journal entries to the new Hobby Games Recce site, LiveJournal did not make a similar transition easy at all; so this may take some time to transfer several years' worth of entries locked up in LiveJournal’s byzantine interface to the new Hobby Games Recce site on Blogger.

In looking back on the 37-entry run on Schweig’s Game Design Journal, several posts stand out as ones of which I’m most proud:

“Admiring Interesting Game Developments” might easily have come under the purview of Hobby Games Recce; it allowed me to examine two games that recently caught my eye with some innovative game mechanics.

Posts about my random dungeon experience tied to my development of Schweig’s Themed Dungeon Generator included “Thoughts on the Random Dungeon” and “Revisiting the Random Dungeon with Themes.”

“Charging Off on Another Diversion” allowed me to indulge a sudden inspiration in using 54mm plastic soldier minis in a basic game in which a refreshing “horde” charges a fixed position of defenders.

“The ‘Pay-What-You-Want’ Experiment” offered my impressions of the sales trend encouraging customers to offer a “tip” for otherwise free online material.

“Oracle Game Engine Dice Mechanics” outlined my original die-rolling and reading mechanics for an upcoming fantasy roleplaying system I’m developing, based on “The Allure of Dice in Fantasy Games” post noted below.

My examination of the “D6 System Core Rulebook” garnered the most +1s from readers on Google+.

“The Allure of Dice in Fantasy Games” won the prize for most views.

Schweig’s Game Design Journal has enjoyed a good run during the past year or so, with some engaging entries that inspired a few encouraging discussions and a lot of self-examination. I’m looking forward to exploring more adventure gaming issues in the newly relocated Hobby Games Recce. Happy gaming!

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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Sails of Glory Versus DIY

My interest in the Napoleonic era has always been fleeting, whether I’m reading its history, trying to engage it through fiction and media (such as the Sharpe novels and television dramas or Aubrey-Maturin novels and the related Master & Commander film), or immersing myself in wargaming. I have a few Osprey books on campaigns, Emil Ludwig’s epic about Napoleon (many times started, never finished). I even own a copy of Avalon Hill’s Hundred Days Battles mini-game I acquired and tried playing in my earliest years in the adventure gaming hobby.

SailsofGloryI’ve heard wonderful accolades for Ares GamesSails of Glory, a naval miniatures game building on the basic concepts of based minis with movement template cards the company pioneered with Wings of War and the relaunched Wings of Glory games covering aerial dogfights in World War I and II. While the rules (available online) seem a bit more complex than the games predecessors, they still follow the model of presenting basic, full, and advanced rules to gradually bring players into increasingly intricate levels of mechanics. The four miniatures included in the base game seem to have the same high level of detail as the other games’ aircraft miniatures. But being only an occasional dabbler with wargaming in the Napoleonic era, I’m deterred by the princely $89.90 price tag. (I’m also dismayed with the current unavailability through regular distribution channels in the United States, although I’ve heard the company announced it’s reprinting the starter sets for release in the spring.) Typical of these kinds of expansionist games, Sails of Glory also tempts gamers to further invest in the game and purchase more vessels from its solid roll-out of additional ship packs with price-tags nearing $20 (though similar “ship expansions” for other games based on this model, such as WizKids’ Star Trek: Attack Wing and Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game offer such expansions at around $15, with larger ships closer to $25 and $30).

I don’t mean this as a condemnation of Ares Games or its Sails of Glory game – from what I’ve seen it’s an amazing product at all levels, with a price to reflect the high quality of components – it’s just that, for me and my level of interest, it makes more sense to dabble in the period from the do-it-yourself perspective.

Sails of Glory focuses primarily on playing out small naval skirmishes in this period, usually two or four ships (as offered in the starter set); I’m interested in replaying a specific battle with many ships, namely the Battle of Aboukir Bay near Alexandria, where Nelson’s Mediterranean fleet surprised the French fleet that brought Napoleon and his army to Egypt in 1798. Nothing quite as involved as fighting Trafalgar, but still, such massive engagements call for streamlined rules to handle such a large number of vessels to play out a battle within a reasonable amount of gaming time.

I've found several resources on the subject (including the Wikipedia entry on the battle), but rely primarily on the Osprey book about the battle for details like ship names and compliments. The Junior General website offers a variety of period ship pieces to print and assemble (though trolling the internet might offer additional images to use), as well as a basic yet playable system for Napoleonic naval action as outlined in the Trafalgar scenario. Rather than buy into an expensive – albeit well-produced – game I might play once or twice, I can satisfy my historical interest printing off some ships and playing a battle in an afternoon’s time.

This reflects an overall trend in the adventure gaming hobby across the spectrum of board games, miniature wargames, and roleplaying games: although many consumers purchase and support professionally produced products, many, thanks to technological advances and new means of distribution, take the route of free or do-it-yourself materials. This follows a longtime tradition in the hobby, from gamemasters creating their own adventures and settings to wargamers tinkering with rules and drafting their own.

I’ve previously discussed the dichotomy of publishers producing professional products versus hobbyists creating their own material and occasionally sharing it across the internet. For many of us dabbling in different historical periods or gaming genres, buying into a professional game release to satisfy these small, often passing yearnings seems extravagant when we can explore such gaming possibilities under our own efforts. Those who take the do-it-yourself path gain inspiration from the professionals; yet they sometimes turn to those companies, or others in the adventure gaming hobby, when they discover products that engage their other gaming needs. Ares Games does that for me: while I’m unwilling to invest in Sails of Glory to satisfy a tertiary interest in Napoleonic naval battles, I have and will continue to support their fine Wings of Glory aerial combat miniatures lines, games which satisfy my far greater interest in World War II and early aviation.

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