Archive for February, 2007

Learning (Not Much) from Board Games

Steve Meretzky, who once upon a time wrote interactive fiction for a little company called Infocom, weighs in on “What We Can Learn From Board Games.”

The “we” here are electronic game designers, and while the sentiment—that board games are relevant—is much appreciated here at ZOI, the article mostly irks me.

Meretzky seems content to wallow in a kind of ludic pastoral. Board games offer “innocent delights,” in contrast to the loud, bellicose, heavy metal pixel monsters that stomp across the virtual landscape. Reading a little further, we learn that the “innocent delights” include stepping into the shoes of “a modern art dealer, a Mesopotamian king, a colonial-era governor, a 19th-century railroad magnate, a bean farmer, a Vegas casino mogul, and an Egyptian deity.”

Meretzky, in other words, is a Euro gamer. He has no stomach for hex and counter wargames—which is fine, each to their own—but he’s apparently willing to forgive the Euro market its ongoing obsession with Orientalism, capitalist fantasy, and colonialism. He wants to insist that Euro games are “wildly original” despite the fact that most hew to a handful of well worn genres and conventions, with similar underlying mechanics lurking just beneath the near-infinite variety of themes skinned on top. He also thinks that board games transcend market forces and material economies—a good board game “can still be created by one or two people at a cost of next to nothing.”

I appreciate that neither Euros nor wargames enjoy the kind of budgets that are the coin of the realm in commercial computer game development, but in fact board games rely on volunteerism and gift economies where hobby enthusiasts donate their time as play-testers, developers, proofers, even artists, for no compensation other than a gratis copy of the game.

It’s pleasing and ironic to find that it’s the virtual economies that are now seen as laden with the baggage of materialism, but by romanticizing board games (we are in their “golden age”) Meretzky risks reinforcing a schism that is already being actively exploited in other quarters, perhaps by those with baser intentions (see below).

[Thanks to Dennis Jerz for this.]

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Remediation: Playing Games in Second Life

Second Life has become a venue for board games. Part of a genre of so-called “*ingo” games (sort of souped up Bingo, fast playing and very addictive), the latest, Zingo, is typical of the lot: “you comprehend it instantly, can play it reasonably well right away, and soon discover layers of strategy.” Game play involves transactions of Linden dollars, and thus becomes part of Second Life’s economy, to such an extent that according to one write-up the games have “dramatically changed the landscape.”

Of interest to me here is the recursion and overt remediation: Zingo is apparently derived (ripped) from the 1994 board game Take It Easy!.

[Thanks to Mike Siggins on Perfidious Albion for this.]

Zingo in Second Life      Take It Easy

Zingo in Second Life and Take It Easy! in real life.

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Robert Louis Stevenson at Play

A surprising number of literary figures played “wagames” of one sort or another. H. G. Wells, of course, but also the Bronte sisters (who made up elaborate games with their brother’s toy soldiers). Fletcher Pratt, the fantasyist who was also an amateur naval historian. Hans Christian Anderson. And, as we see here, Robert Louis Stevenson. This is a nice facsimile reproduction of an 1898 Scribner’s article that describes Stevenson’s campaigns with a set of Napoleonic wargame rules.

Stevenson at Play

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Your Author in Action

With the DC Conscripts last weekend (left).

Author in Action

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ASL Boards on Google 3D

Someone’s been using Google 3D to do some cool basic renderings of the ASL geomorphic map boards.

ASL Board 3 Made with Google 3D

Update 2/25: Here’s another.

Another Google 3-D ASL rendering

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Bonaparte at Marengo Sample Game

Here’s a nicely laid out sample game of Bonaparte at Marengo, which I’ve previously written about. BaM is not your typical hex and counter wargame—for one thing it uses neither hexes nor counters nor dice—but it’s well worth a look from anyone interested in just how innovative and elegant wargame mechanics can get. There’s no analytic commentary, just turn-by-turn illustrations of the moves, so the casual reader won’t take away much about actual strategy and decision-making, but the rules themselves are also available for free download and will illuminate the sample game.

See also designer Bowen Simmons’ essay, “Chance and Wargames.” Rumor has it we should see his next project as soon as the end of this month, Napoleon’s Triumph, an expansion and revision of the BaM system to cover the battle of Austerlitz.

Austerlitz, incidentally, is a notoriously difficult battle to game, which gives me an idea for another post . . .

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Game Play: Musket and Pike

So I mentioned I did some pike pushing last weekend.

The game in question is entitled This Accursed Civil War, designed by Ben Hull and published by GMT Games. The box contains maps and counters for playing five battles from the English Civil War. This Accursed Civil War is itself part of a series of games entitled the Musket and Pike Battles Series. Other games in the series cover battles from the 30 Years War on the continent, a conflict characterized by the technological transition from armies with long, pointy sticks to armies with gunpowder weapons. Hence the title, Musket and Pike.

The series concept is worth a note or two. As I’ve previously suggested, learning rules is probably the single biggest impediment to the actual play of board wargames. With series games, however, you have a common rules set that is applicable to multiple titles in the series. Having learned the Musket and Pike rules and owning all four games in the series, there are about 20 different battles I can play right out of the box. Some readers will recognize this as an expansion of the old SPI concept of the quadrigame, which also used a common rules set to play four different games all packaged together. Relying on a single rules set to cover diverse situations can sometimes straightjacket a designer, but the format also allows for a page or two of game-specific rules that apply only to the battle at hand.

The idea of gaming a “battle” is also worth a mention. As I’ve also noted elsewhere, wargames come in several different scales. Rather than gaming a particular battle, I could have opted to play a game that would cover the entire English Civil War. The battle game is the mainstay of the hobby, however; sometimes referred to as “grand tactical” level games, the appeal is that you have a well circumscribed historical event and the player has a clear role to occupy, namely that of the army commander.

The battle we played was Marston Moor, the largest and bloodiest fight of the English Civil War, featuring a mixed force of Parliamentarians and their Scots allies against a Royalist army under Prince Rupert outside of York. See Wikipedia for more of the history. Here’s how the game looks set up; the Royalists are in blue, the Parliamenterians in red, and the Scots in green:

This Accursed Civil War, Marsten Moor

And here’s a close up of the Parliamentarian cavalry wing under the command of one Oliver Cromwell:

Marsten Moor, close up of Cromwell's cavalry

Because the armies of the day needed open ground to deploy effectively, most battlefields in this period were anonymous open terrain. There were no inherent geographical objectives, nor were the battles themselves subtle affairs; the objective was typically to drive the enemy from the field and one did this by killing. Here the only terrain feature of note is the hedge which affords a portion of the Royalist line some scant cover. One wins the game by inflicting casualties on the enemy.

What’s subtle is the actual game play, or as a tactician might put it, “battle management.” Here’s also where the current state of the art in game design becomes visible. Were this an old style SPI wargame, such as the once very popular 30 Years War Quad, each player would be free to move all of his units every turn in whatever manner he wished, subject only to the limitations of terrain and the presence of the enemy. Units would engage in combat until eliminated, and units would perform at peek effectiveness until eliminated. The player enjoyed an omniscient perspective on the proceedings and was free to act on it.

Here, however, things work differently. As was the case historically, these cardboard armies are divided into “wings,” left, center, and right. In this era one typically had a heavy infantry center, and cavalry on either wing. The game system mandates that each wing always be in one of four Orders States: Charge, Make Ready, Receive Charge, and Rally. Each Orders State comes with inherent constraints that dictate a unit’s offensive and defensive capabilities. Changing from one Orders State to another is the job of the Wing Commanders, who are represented by counters rated for their historical performance. Thus Cromwell will prove much more adept at changing orders for his wing than another, more mediocre commander on the field. (The success or failure of the actual orders change is resolved by a die roll, modified for various factors.) Note that the player’s authority is here being dispersed among his cardboard representatives; as Army Commander, you might spot a perfect opportunity for your cavalry wing to charge, but if the Wing Commander can’t convert orders from Make Ready the rules will forbid engagement with the enemy. What we have then, is fog of war via procedural abstraction—the game system willfully imposes friction on a player’s ability to operate in an effort to model a variety of battlefield effects that would impinge on the abilities of a real commander, everything from a bumbling performance by subordinate to literally being unable to see through the thick powder smoke.

Most armchair generals will drive their cardboard troops relentlessly; this often produces a-historical results, because it allows an army to fight to the last man. Thus the critique that a game system is too bloody is one of the most common in wargaming. Far from being a hawkish virtue, a “bloody” system means that the game produces too many casualties, typically because the armchair generals are using their troops in a way that no historical commander ever could or would. At Marston Moor there were about 4000 casualties in some two hours of fighting, extreme by the standards of the day. A good recreation of the battle should produce about the same loss rates. A good game system thus reflects the way a unit gradually looses effectiveness over the course of an engagement. Musket and Pike actually tracks a unit’s current effectiveness on three separate vectors: formation, morale, and casualties. Mechanically this is done by placing marker counters on top of or underneath the individual unit.

It is extremely rare in Musket and Pike for a unit to dwindle away to nothing through actual casualties received. Typically, what happens is that the unit’s morale—an abstract representation of its will to fight—degrades until it eventually “breaks” and retreats (“routs”) from the combat, regardless of the wishes of the player. Likewise, given that the armies of the day required tight, disciplined formations to fight effectively, the game system tracks the deterioration of ranks through movement over difficult terrain, contact with the enemy, and other debilitating effects. Formation and to some extent unit morale, though never actual casualties, can be restored through Rally actions, but this involves pulling units out of the fight and giving them time to recover. Hence battle management, that is managing your martial resources by feeding fresh troops into the fray in order to maintain pressure on the enemy. Musket and Pike battles are typically won when one player is able to break the other’s battle management cycle, that is inflict losses faster than his opponent is able to recover from them, eventually causing their position to collapse, at which point the army will rout and cede the field.

In the actual game, I had the Parliamentarian allies. After an ineffectual artillery barrage my heavy infantry center lurched forward, a couple of formations foundering due to the enemy guns, but if there’s one thing the Roundheads have in this scenario it’s heavy infantry. The real action, though was over on my left, where I activated Cromwell’s cavalry wing. Despite managing to get Cromwell himself killed early on I pretty much pulverized my opponent’s right wing and was able to turn the whole flank. The constraints of the orders system meant he couldn’t get his guys out of Receive Charge to redeploy and meet the threat. The Allies achieved a decisive victory, dear old Cromwell fertilizing the daisies notwithstanding.

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ZOI Meets Zotero

ZOI is now Zotero-enabled, via a cool plug-in that adds COinS metadata to each entry. (If you don’t know what Zotero is, go find out.)

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Floor Games

Was out at my favorite local game store today, the Game Parlor in Chantilly, Virginia, where I gamed Marsten Moor, a musket and pike battle from the English Civil War (more on that in a separate post).

Despite a thriving scene with throngs of players having at board-, figure-, and role-playing games of all stripes, brick and mortar game stores get by these days by the skin of their teeth; so I always try to spend a little money after spending a part of my day under their roof. Today I restrained myself and rather than a game took home a copy of H. G. Well’s 1911 book Floor Games.

H. G. Wells, Floor Games

Now Wells is best known in ludology circles for a book he wrote a couple of years later, Little Wars, “for boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girls who like boys’ games and books,” as the text is most obnoxiously subtitled, which introduces simple rules for playing games with toy soldiers. Floor Games is a gentler sort of book, though it’s not above references to “negroid savages” and other charming trappings of Empire.

Here’s how it begins, seeming to anticipate the idea of the magic circle several decades before Huizinga set it down in Homo Ludens:

The jolliest indoor games for boys and girls demand a floor, and the home which has no floor upon which games may be played falls so far short of happiness. It must be a floor covered with linoleum or cork carpet, so that toy soldiers and such-like will stand up upon it, and of a colour and surface that will take and show chalk marks; the common green-coloured cork carpet without a pattern is the best of all. It must be no highway to other rooms, and well it and airy. Occasionally , alas! it must be scrubbed—and then a truce to Floor Games! Upon such a floor may be made an infinitude of imaginative games . . . (3-4)

The chapters that follow sketch out a series of games with titles like “The Game of the Wonderful Islands” (not so wonderful, perhaps, for the aforementioned indigenous populations, consigned by Wells to chasing wild goats around the hills or accosting the encroaching imperialists). Indeed, the unabashed colonialist trappings of those Edwardian spaces are unfortunately reminiscent of the premise of the highly successful modern Euro game Puerto Rico (Rio Grande), in which players are cast in roles that essentially amount to slave traders (excuse me, “plantation owners”). What all of the scenarios have in common though is an emphasis on improvisational play, emergent narrative, and building physical play spaces out of common house-hold materials (here, as in Little Wars, Wells exhibits a general disdain for commercial toy manufacturers).

As the introduction also notes, in several places he comes very close to articulating the principles of what we would today recognize as a role-playing game. It’s worth a look, at least for the historically-minded ludologist. More on my pike pushing anon.

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