Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Finding Immortality

Over a year ago, I was blogging about free games on the web. One of the games I still play (almost daily) is called Dragon Tavern, a constantly changing experience that is like a math-heavy (under the hood where the PC does all the work, of course), light-hearted (if you aren’t reading the weird names of loot as well as monsters/enemies, you’re missing half of the fun), and advancement-oriented (the game not only keeps track of your rank within the entire game multi-verse, but also within one’s character class and within a cohort of characters born under your (totally imaginary) “birth sign.”

Recently, the game added the capacity to train to ride a “mount” (not just horses, but steampunk engines and monsters) in order to reduce the cost of adventuring outward in APs (Action Points such that each action takes one point and you only get 25 points per day as your standard allotment.) and extend your actual time in the adventuring world. I thought that addition increased efficiency and was quite happy with it.

Then, the game opened the Immortals Hall. Now, any character at Level 55 or higher can “remort,” essentially be born again as Planeswalker, Demigod, Vampire, Ascended, Dragonsoul, Abyssal, Celestial, Timelord, as well as specialty immortals like Avatar and Chosen (Steel Empire only), Lich and Shadelord (Deadlands only), and Elemental and Primal (Mountain Kingdoms only). Within these new immortal character classes, one gains immortal powers, as well.

Such powers include: Berzerker Rage (wounds trigger anger which, in turn, increases your likelihood to hit in attack—counterintuitive, but effective), Stone Gaze (gives one a Medusa Glare to not only turn one’s enemies into stone, but sell them off as objets d’ art), and my favorite Animate Enemy (good chance of converting an enemy into an undead thrall to fight for you in upcoming battles where they take the first damage). Other powers include: Death Aura, Legendary Avenger, Force Field, Flaming Weapons, Immortal Knowledge, Proven Fate, Invisibility, Precognition, Legendary Hunter, Legendary Explorer, Reaper, Soul Stealer, Legendary Drinker, Legendary Luck, and Rapid Regeneration. There are so many that I can’t remember off-hand what they all do.

By now, you’re probably asking yourself a question. If there are so many cool, new things to do, why isn’t everybody at Level 55 or higher converting (“remorting”) over? The simple answer is that everyone who “remorts” starts all over again at Level 1. Now, admittedly, one is likely to advance faster since you get to keep all of your permanent artifacts and you’re gaining those great new immortal powers, but it does require a reset of experience points. Yet, it seems well worth it. One still has the feeling of being powerful, but gets the joy of new discoveries.

Personally, I opted to “remort” one of my characters and keep going with the other. My rationale was totally tied to the fact that one was in the top 11 of his character class and the other was somewhere in the teens in his respective character class. They had become so similar (in spite of being different character classes) that it was less interesting to play both of them, especially when they died an incurred an experience point debt.

However, now that I have one immortal character and one regular high-level character, I feel like there are truly new discoveries and new challenges for both characters. Of course, there are a lot of people who won’t like Dragon Tavern. It doesn’t have any animation, much less 3D. Over the long haul, you’ll make lots of interesting decisions with regard to skills, purchases of armor and weapons, strategies and tactics, and purchasing advantages. Yet, the actual play is mostly deciding when to explore ordinary venues and when to challenge extraordinary venues. An actual play session is primarily clicking on a hyperlink and watching print statements display the percentages of a d100 roll against the percentages needed to hit an opponent. If the player character rolls under the “to hit” percentage, the opponent is wounded. Conversely, if the player character rolls over the “to hit” percentage, the character himself is wounded.

At the conclusion of this long series of calculations (predicated, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, on such a long string of preliminary calculations that I use those algorithms with introductory game design students), one gets the experience point reward and treasure pay-offs. You don’t have any interactive conversations and there are no mini-quests. Gamers who played Traveller back in 1977 would probably think of Dragon Tavern as being an extended version of the Traveller character generation. Traveller, if you recall, required one to enlist in terms of military service (or later, civilian occupations) in order to advance one’s character’s skills and wealth. I can’t recall any other game where you risked having your character die in character generation. Yet, lots of people remember that original Traveller character generation as being lots more interesting than the character generation in Dungeons & Dragons, Boot Hill, or even Game Designers’ Workshop’s own En Garde!.

Since I liked the Traveller character generation, you can well imagine why I treat Dragon Tavern as my early morning Solitaire. It only takes about 10 minutes per character to use all 25 daily Action Points and compare my character’s current rank with the two lists mentioned earlier. But if you’re looking for real-time action and animation, it’s not for you.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Going Beyond Hadrian's Wall

Some months ago, I spent a few bucks to download a “print and play” game from Guild of Blades. Beyond Hadrian’s Wall takes place after 122 CE. Even though the rules are very simple and the Caledonian tribes are presented in a totally generic fashion, the game was intriguing enough that I created a Cyberboard gamebox for myself, both “colorizing” the black and white counters (deep red for the Roman units and three shades of green for the three different barbarian tribes) and numbering each of the territories represented in Scotland. The generic Caledonian tribes could represent the Cornovii (anywhere from 77, 78, 79, or 80 on the map I adapted for Cyberboard play by adding numbers to each unmarked territory), the Smertae (we suggest 67, 68, 75, 76, or 81), the Lugi (possibly 61, 62, 65, or 52), the Decantae (possibly 47-51), the Caereni (anywhere around 86), the Caernonacae (circa 56, 57), the Creones (54, 55, 59, 60),the Venicones (7, 8, 19, 20, 21), the Taexali (22, 23, and 24), the Caledonii (39, 40, 44, 45, 46), the Vacomagi (24, 25, 26), and the Epidii (10, 11, 14, 15, 16).

The game itself doesn’t name the Caledonian tribes or give definite starting positions, but my Random Caledonians assistant (a downloadable Excel spreadsheet I designed) chooses a random territory from those listed under the Vacomagi, the Caledonnii, and the Epidii in order to have what I consider the most viable starting positions. This forces the Romans to come to very defensible Caledonian positions and allows the tribes time enough to build villages so that they can start rebuilding right away. It also allows the Caledonnii to get into the game sooner, rather than later. One’s initial tendency would be to choose one of the northern tribes and make the Romans come all the way up, but the fact is that the Romans rebuild too fast to make that a good play. Even if they lose a bunch right off the bat, they can call on those emergency legions and keep on coming.

I created the spreadsheet so that the Caledonian tribes could have random set-ups where all three tribes would be involved early in the game. This proved disastrous for the Epidii because the starting territory was #11 and one of the Roman legions could get there quickly, before the Epidii could build a village in #14 (villages have to be built at least two territories away from a town). As can easily be seen in the screenshot, it was easy to get the legion with Leader #7 to the town belonging to the Epidii. With the leader being able to reduce die rolls up to seven (7) total points in order to get the maximum number of hits, it doesn’t take long to reduce the town.

I initially thought my strategy was totally flawed and kept pushing the Romans forward, but soon discovered that encountering the Vacomagi without bringing in one of the two fresh legions wasn’t a wise idea. The remains of the first legion evaporated against an advance force (the maximum three units allowed in a mountain region) when the legion could only bring three units at a time into the mountain territory. I opted not to continue the fight when I was down to my leader and one unit, but couldn’t retreat in time from a barbarian cavalry unit and archer moving in to finish them off. The archer actually didn’t finish them off. I only had one barbarian archer get a hit in the first six turns of play (either special long-range or standard short-range) and one Roman archer get a hit in the first six turns (of course, Roman archers get eliminated pretty fast when they’re ineffective).

Speaking of which, does it seem odd to you that archers could fire from one territory into another when the scale is obviously as large as it is on this map? I mentally abstracted this to mean that archers are skirmishing units who fire and retreat to the next territory. But I’m not sure but what Roman cavalry could have intercepted them and taken them down even in that circumstance.
By this time, the Epidii were history in the game in the same way they’re history today. But, as the screenshot on the left shows, the Vacomagi and Caledonii would have at least a few turns to build up before the emergency legion could arrive.

Unfortunately, the Vacomagi would have to apply all build points to merely beefing up the garrison in their initial town. Much more fortunate for the Caledonians was the early ability of the Caledonii in reaching the three town point. At this point, the Caledonians were producing two times the Roman build points per turn and the Romans only had one reserve legion to call on. Each turn the Caledonii could survive meant the Roman cause was getting further away from the potential win.

The sole opportunity for the Romans was to be able to reduce the Vacomagi in their initial town and bring the final reserve legion in to reinforce before the Caledonii could swarm onto them. The III Legion was more than decimated, breaking off combat with one cavalry and one leader left because the Vacomagi also had one cavalry and one leader left. With modifiers, that would mean almost sure annihilation. It was better to consolidate a few units together while the IV Legion was coming into play. Regardless, things didn’t look good for the Romans at the end of their Turn 10.

By the end of Turn 11, the Caledonii were on the flanks of the Romans, ready to pounce after the remainder of the III Legion and the mass of the IV Legion experienced attrition by attempting to dispose of the Vacomagi. Of course, it was always possible the Romans could turn on the Caledonii, but that would be, at best, a neutralizing move as the Caledonii now had three towns and a village for seven (7) build points per turn.

On Turn 12, the Romans decided to attack three (3) Caledonii cavalry and a leader (5) with three (3) Roman cavalry and a leader (8) in a mountain square, hoping to reduce the fast-growing Caledonii by attrition. The strategy backfired when both armies eliminated the other. [Actually, the rules were unclear as to whether the leaders could have retreated after battle when all of their combat units were destroyed or not. I decided to destroy the leaders as my house rule. They are cheap to replace but have to come back in the fortresses on the wall for the Romans and in a town or village for the Caledonii. It would have been to the Romans’ advantage to let the leaders retreat, but the rules were unclear and I’m not a big fan of “I only am escaped to tell thee” scenarios.]

By the end of Turn 14, the Roman threat was eliminated and only the Vacomagi and Caledonii remained. See the picture at the bottom of this posting. It was clear that the Vacomagi could not recover in time to win a war of attrition against the superior and fast-growing Caledonii, so the Vacomagi agreed to pay tribute and concede the victory to the Caledonii until circumstances would change. As one can see by the final positions before the Vacomagi capitulation, the Caledonii had options for spreading out all over the map and the Vacomagi were structured so that they couldn’t build enough villages and towns to beef up their military at all.

All in all, I felt that the set-up in my assistant assured some randomality and a viable starting position for all except the Epidii. Since then, I have adjusted the assistant so that it will take longer for the Romans to reach the Epidii. I’ll share the results of that later when we move to the next phase of the assistant, random village placement for the tribes. Coding an Excel spreadsheet to perform combat calculations is easy. Coding a spreadsheet to perform artificial intelligence calculations is a horse of a different color. Oh, well. At least there are plenty of cavalry in the game!

By the way, I'm willing to share both the cyberboard gamebox and the Excel assistant as works in progress (they work with limited aesthetic and functionality) to anyone who has purchased the Beyond Hadrian's Wall game. If you're looking for a nice "gateway" game to get someone involved with wargaming or a quick 60-90 minute game for up to four players, this one offers a lot of bang for the buck. It isn't a historically tuned game, but it offers plenty of interest for those who enjoy Ancients gaming and want interesting flavor without going the entire "Iron Chef" route.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Hall of Fame Harwell and Ur-Sports Games

Not having grown up in Michigan and mostly rooting for the Detroit Tigers only when they played the dreaded, hated, despicable New York Yankees, I never had to sneak my transistor radio under the mattress in order to hear Ernie Harwell's broadcasts. My sneaking had largely to do with listening to Vin Scully broadcast the Dodgers and Dick Enberg (and his predecessors I have sadly forgotten) broadcast the then (and now again) L. A. Angels. My only experience with Ernie Harwell was on an old PC version of APBA Baseball for Windows. Harwell was the voice for that product, a marvelous but clunky digital rendition of the popular board game. Yet, that experience is enough to make me feel diminished this morning as I hear about Hartwell's death.

I suppose nearing the magic 60-year-old mark is having a psychological effect on me. I find myself glancing at the obituaries a little more attentively each day. I shake my head sadly when I see more and more people younger than I am listed there. Yet, here I feel diminished by the death of a 91-year-old man who only retired about 8 years ago. Even though I'd only heard him via digitized voice within the context of this sports product (that I'll be digging out of storage soon for sentimental reasons), it seems as if some of my memories of youth--watching the CBS telecast of The Baseball Game of the Week on Saturday mornings with the late Dizzy Dean and late Pee Wee Reese, live from the old Tiger Stadium--have lost energy. I experience a personal sense of loss.

Yet, I was able to hear a rebroadcast of Harwell's final broadcast this morning. I was struck by what he said. He started out by stating that it was the last broadcast of his career. He hated to say good-bye, so he preferred to say "Hello" to a new life and "Thank You" for allowing him to be a part of his listener's lives. He assured his listeners, "God has a new adventure for me...." Wow! Could there ever be a more eloquent epitaph than gratitude combined with certitude. Thank you for what we've experienced together. Take comfort that I'm certain to be moving on to a new adventure.

This is a great example for all of us--especially the old geezer who has been so negligent in keeping up this blog. I've always had trouble saying "good-bye." It always feels like I'm leaving a part of myself behind so that I am constantly disintegrating. Too often, I forget that while I'm leaving a part of myself behind, I'm also departing with accrued experiences, relationships, knowledge, and wisdom from those with whom I've worked and played. If I could only learn to say, "Thank you for letting me be part of your lives!" and then, share that I'm certain that God has a new adventure for me, transitions (even that one of which I'm so conscious as of late) would be easier.

I do want to share some thoughts about sports games with all of you, but I want to take some time to take care of some long, unfinished business. For those of you who knew me during what I consider my golden years at Computer Gaming World, I want to say "Thank you for reading my editorials, even when I was 100% wrongheaded, but believed in them passionately. Thank you for putting up with my bad Rumor Bag humor and groaning inside with all of the improbable, if not impossible, ways the bag guy claimed to get his rumors. Thank you for all of you who shared "off the record" and "deep background" material with them. I hope you never felt betrayed because I consistently tried to maintain confidences and treat any information I received with respect. Thank you for those who accepted my verbal NDAs. Thank you for those of you who let me see your innovative products, computer game history in the making." I need to say this in public because I've been very resentful of CGW's transition and demise after my stewardship. But for the record, I'm tremendously thankful and feel incredibly warm about all those years there.

And for all of my colleagues: Russell Sipe, our founder, Vince DeNardo who taught me to get over myself (sort of), Chris Lombardi who forced me to grow as a person as he matured even faster than I did, Ken Brown who literally saved my life, Alan Emrich who collaborated with me on numerous wicked projects, Terry Coleman who was my frontier marshal to solve any problem, a great competitor, and tremendous collaborator, Jeff Green who always made coming to work fun, Denny Atkin who inspired me with his professionalism and challenged me when needed, Mike Weksler who showed me the meaning of curiosity, Dave Salvator who showed me the value of consistent testing, Robert Coffey who proved that there could be quality freelancing and quality editing overlapping in a single person, Charles Ardai who transformed my perception of quality by constantly raising the bar, and Loyd Case who still blows my mind with his prolific activity in both technology and gaming. And even though I mentioned more names than most of you wanted to read, I know I will always have a fondness for Charlotte Panther whose intellect was even more compelling than her beauty, Kate Hedstrom who broke the gender ceiling in "Johnny's Boys Club," Joe Vallina who tried to help us move from U of Chicago to AP style, Thierry (sic) Ngyen (sic) whose boundless energy and enthusiasm spilled over to the rest of the staff, and all of you I have shamefully failed to mention.

And, while I'm being indulgent, Thank you to everyone who made my experiences at Wizards of the Coast and Paizo such a wild ride. Thank you to Charlotte who hired me, John Dunn who led us into a new frontier technologically, Pierce Watters who worked circulation magic, and all of the creative people like Chris P, Jesse D, Erik M, and Dave G who made those universes come to life. I so regret not being able to work with you again, but be assured that I remember our experiments, our successes, and our failures fondly. My new adventure in academia is much quieter, but still challenging.

And now, something about games. You know, I truly regret the loss of control compared to what I used to experience in SSI's Computer Baseball, the Lance Haffner text-based games, APBA for Windows, XOR Football, and even Dani Berry's (Dan Bunten's) Computer Quarterback. I know those first games had about 16 offensive plays and 5 defensive formations for football and extremely limited physics (compared to Earl Weaver Baseball and Tony LaRussa Baseball) for baseball, but there was something tremendously satisfying about making a play call and watching how it played out. You see, I haven't fantasized about being a professional ballplayer since I was cut from the freshman basketball team in high school. I never deluded myself with the idea that I was coordinated. However, anyone can second-guess a baseball manager or football coach. So, I fantasized about taking on that role.

I know Accolades' Hardball! won hearts and minds by giving us that TV-eye view from center field and offering us a chance to choose pitch location. I know High Heat offered the most satisfying pitching simulation with high-res, high-speed performance. Still, I remember those days of waiting for the clunky old Apple II to spit out those Computer Baseball results with the same kind of intensity I used to listen to San Francisco Giants games on the radio when Mays, Cepeda, Alou, and my personal favorite, Stu Miller, were playing. I remember my heart almost stopping as I awaited each pitch when Leon "Big Daddy Wags" Wagner was batting for the Angels in Chavez Ravine (the euphemism for the ballpark when the Angels were still playing in Dodger Stadium). That's the way I used to wait for the Lance Haffner baseball game to resolve its calculations.

Maybe it's because those earlier games were all words and statistics that I'm reminded of them with regard to Harwell's passing. I love going to games and I love watching games on television (or even streaming on the web), but there is something basic, comforting, and exciting about listening by radio and having to fill in the gaps with my imagination (I get twice as tense listening as I do watching.). Maybe that's why I loved those early, crude simulations (as well as some of the early versions of Front Office Baseball and Baseball Mogul. They seemed to be the primordial baseball experience--not all they could be, but enough to keep me fascinated. For those of you who have grown up with the more vivid displays and reflex-testing versions of these sports, I just want you to know that those of us who played those ugly, primeval versions of your favorite sports games enjoyed them the same way some of us listen to radio broadcasts of sports games--with great anticipation. Text games may be commercially dead, but they live in some of our memories and they still have a place in our hearts. And, in case none of this made sense to any of you, a lot of you still have a place in mine. Thank you! I'll still be here for a while and I'll try to post more regularly. But even when this old ticker stops, know that God has a new adventure for me.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Little Wars

One would think that someone who espouses the value of gaming and loves to play games as much as I do would take better care of this blog than going months upon months without updating it. It isn't that I'm not playing and that I'm not involved in working behind the scenes on some game projects, it's just that blogging keeps falling back to a low priority. I apologize.

A little over a week ago, I was privileged to attend a gaming convention I've always wanted to attend, but used to live far enough away that the travel was prohibitive. I arrived in the Chicago area and let this convention slip past me twice before I finally made it--mostly because the convention organizers changed the date last year from its traditional date. But this year, I made it to "Little Wars," the convention named after H. G. Wells' classic set of rules for playing with "toy soldiers" on table-tops. I've been to GenCon where I've played board games, role-playing games, and wargames with miniatures. At Origins, I've played board games, role-playing games, and miniatures. I've even enjoyed World Boardgame Championships as the most amazing experience in concentrated board wargaming, ever. But this was the first time I've been to Little Wars.

My friend, Don Perrin, goes every year. I've known Don by reputation as a wargamer for years and now, I'm privileged to be in a writer's group with him. I've also read a few of his books. In fact, I saw Don at a great little seminar on designing scenarios specifically for conventions. Imagine how thrilled I was to listen to guys I've only read about like Jim Purky (brilliant figure painter and scenario designer for Seven Years War games like the one he did at Historicon, last year) and Keith Leidy (believed by many to be the grandmaster of hosting Napoleonic games like this one).

I was intrigued by Tod Kershner, author of Pig Wars, the now out-of-print skirmish rules for looting during the Dark Ages, when he quoted Donald Featherstone (the father of our current era of miniatures gaming)as stating, "Never let history get in the way of a good game." And, I was a firm believer in his basic rule of thumb: "By the end of Turn #2, you want everyone to be able to read/understand the charts--you don't need tight command/control rules."

Keith Leidy had a slightly more organized approach. He said that there are four elements to a good game: 1) beautiful aesthetic, 2) playable rules, 3) good players, and 4) a balanced scenario. He further defined the latter as saying that if there are four players on each side, "Every person needs an objective or something that puts them in immediate conflict with someone across the table."

All of the panelists agreed on things to avoid. One shouldn't put unmanageable terrain in the middle of the table because it tends to divide the entire conflict into two very different games. Leidy suggested that if you do have significant terrain features, you need to give at least a 2:1 advantage to the attackers.

Of course, I must confess that I wasn't really at the convention to listen to seminars. I'd done enough of that at a comic book convention the weekend before. I went to play. I met Trent Burg, author of Warbirds in Miniature, and he led a short Pacific Theater WWII scenario using those rules. I hadn't realized that these rules were inspired by an old favorite of mine, GDW's Blue Max. The great thing about these rules (besides playing quite fast and being easy to learn) was that the miniatures were all enhanced with Airestands. These have components representing different heights that can be easily adjusted in increments of 10, 5, 2, and 1 so that you can simulate any given altitude. In addition, they have magnets in the top section so that you can adjust the angle to reflect that of the plane within its given maneuver.

Our particular scenario was going great as our P-40 Warhawks took down a bunch of Japanese Kates. Things were going quite well until I crashed into my own wingman (both of us rolled 7's on simultaneous 2-12 die rolls). One plane immediately exploded and the other three had to limp home. Technically, we thwarted the bombing mission, but at what a cost!

Another game used the Mein Panzer rules for an obscure Russo-Japanese battle (not in the Russo-Japanese War, but in 1939) just prior to WWII. It was called "One Rickety Pontoon Bridge: The Battle of Khalkhin Gol." My Japanese troops (with meager platoon of tanks trapped on the wrong side of the river) managed to hold off Zhukov's units (only a splinter of the bridge was holding everything together at the end of the battle, but it wasn't destroyed). Most impressive was getting to move lead (okay, pewter) alongside the author of the rules, Jonathan Coulter. By the way, he didn't "rules lawyer" even when the referee didn't rule quite as he had intended the rules to work.

Finally, I was reminded that old magazines are still good magazines. Someone had created a miniatures game based on Kamikaze, a magazine game published in Fire & Movement #31, back when Alan Emrich's Diverse Talents, Inc. were publishing it, if I recall correctly. This was the only full game ever published in F&M to my knowledge, but it's a player and a half. Unfortunately, my U.S. convoy was annihilated in the game. Yet, it's a fast-playing game with lots of waves of incoming. If you like lots of die-rolling, you'd love this game.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Flames of War-A Personal Reaction

Please don't expect a detailed review or even "after-action report" on Flames of War. I've only played a few scenarios of the game, but I've enjoyed my experiences thus far. My first experience with the system was a minor meeting engagement using the starter set. This engagement, set late in the war and featuring smaller U.S. tanks versus larger German tanks was surprisingly well-balanced. My opponent and I played the same scenario, changing sides after each turn, before we finally managed a victory for the Allies.

The reason for this is that the system so accurately portrays the "tin-can" or "rolling coffin" nature of tanks that one doesn't need too many good shots to put a vehicle out of action. So, our very introductory scenario led us to believe that forsaking maneuver in favor of "dice" was the wiser course of action. Indeed, even with my propensity for lousy luck with these cubes of destruction masquerading as random number modifiers (random doesn't quite account for the number of poor die rolls I accumulate in the course of the average game), I always fared better eschewing maneuver for an extra die.

What our introductory experience didn't teach us was what would happen when an aggressive player inexorably moved in with adequate combined arms. At that point, those tanks with their big cannon didn't seem to accomplish much against infantry (all armor-piercing ammo) and my machine gun dice seem to have jammed. It seemed almost as easy for infantry to put my tank crews outside their vehicle as it had to put entire tanks out of action in that first meeting scenario. In short, once I teamed up with guys who had lots of models/bases and could take advantage of 2-3 books of the prolific series of expansion rules, the game simply became better.

Below are some pictures taken with my telephone's camera (sorry about the slight blur). First, my Soviet infantry group began to deploy on the grounds of this farm. Some tanks were already using the walls as partial cover and firing on the advancing Nazi units, so my units were reticent to enter what would soon become a killing zone. In other words, I failed a dice check.

However, I soon discovered a marvelous wrinkle in the Soviet infantry rules. Each infantry unit has a commissar (I believe they are referred to as "political officers" in some WWII accounts) who have the power of shooting a soldier as an example to the others. In Flames of War, one can place a base of infantry in the dead pile in order to get another die roll for maneuver. Wow! What a tough call!

I started the evening with so many troops that I felt like Zhukov himself. I had "high ideals" of serving the Motherland without having to sacrifice her precious soldiers. Yet, as the Nazis seemed to have sufficient momentum (die rolls) to keep moving in every situation, I ended up having to sacrifice three bases in this manner before I was through. I was certain that the troops would have killed the "political officer" (commissar) before they would have allowed this, but I was now desperate enough to give up my "ideals" and merely "game" the situation. We scrambled into position behind the haystacks (the round European-style painted by Monet) and quickly discovered that the line of sight problems we expected to cause the enemy had become as much of a problem for us.

Unfortunately, with all of my political posturing necessary to get my infantry to move, the Nazis attained the haystacks before we did. They crossed the bridge under abysmal machine-gun fire and managed to establish enough of a beachhead that the tanks had to focus on them instead of their opposite numbers. We might have been able to stalemate the enemy infantry with more consistent fire (again, the dice were not good to me), but things looked so bleak on my side of the farmhouse that my colleague tried almost a suicide attack (in all fairness, he was trying to work out some of the nuances of the Close Assault rules) on the left flank.

Our left flank faltered and it was only a matter of time before the Germans would have positioned all of their forces against my relatively tenuous position. In spite of the presence of the murderous commissar, Stavka (two tired Russian players, in this case) elected to surrender. You would think that losing so badly in one's first big engagement would have soured the entire experience. Instead, I found myself continually shaking my head in realizing what I had done. I had been as ruthless as Stalin himself in terms of sacrificing men for objectives (and, even then, as with Stalin, failed a lot). In spite of the fact that the flow of this game (in spite of all the rules expansions) is fast and many of the typical nuances of WWII miniatures have been abstracted away in a trade-off for fast, efficient play, I found that there was just enough color to get me hooked. What little I had played of the game felt just right. I experienced just enough sense of real history that I'll be back for more.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Critical Gameplay

Critical Gameplay?

On Friday evening (April 17, 2009), I attended a fascinating exhibition of original games by a colleague in the Game Art & Design department at Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago. The exhibition, entitled Critical Gameplay, consisted of several games which challenged the typical preconceptions of electronic games. Indeed, the concept behind each game was counter to usual game play.

For example, one game was entitled Black vs. White (not to be confused with Peter Molynieux’s classic game). It consisted of a platform-style game where, contrary to the expectations in the title, all of the characters were black. Also contrary to typical platform style, not all of the characters were enemies. You couldn’t tell from originally looking at the characters on-screen which were enemies and which were not. You had to watch for changes in facial expression that suggested behavior. Then, you could pounce on them to remove the threat or drop objects on them to remove the threat. Obviously, the purpose of the game was to remove stereotypes (because of “color,” the racial stereotype comes to mind, but since all of the characters look the same, the lessons apply to gender and social stereotypes as well).

Another intriguing game was simply titled, Kill! The interface was set up as a if it were a first-person shooter. Indeed, you had the choice of shooting a variety of enemies. The twist was that every time you shot an enemy, you were “rewarded” with a multimedia presentation on that person’s life, a photo montage honoring the one you killed. Certainly, fans of the FPS genre will not appreciate having either the flow of their game experience interrupted or being reminded that actions have consequences.

While I’m mentioning breaking the expectations of FPS players, there was a fascinating game called Wait! In this game, the longer you would wait, the more detailed the scene would become. Once you moved, you would get a fogged-in view that would clarify as you would wait. Most gamers at the exhibition found that they couldn’t get over 1,000 points, but I noticed one team of women who were patient enough to score over 6,000 points. Of course, I don’t expect that a game that is so Taoist that one is not expected to act will satisfy many gamers.

Another game was a variant on Pong! The intent of this game was to “give” the “ball” to your opponent rather than to get it past her or him. If you were successful, your opponent's paddle would grow larger (empowerment?) and if you played it like Pong!, your own paddle would diminish. It was a fascinating experience to play, even if it just seemed "wrong" from a gamer's perspective. Of course, that was precisely the point. Sometimes, we simply don't think about the overall statements about ourselves and about life that we are making when we simply give in to game conventions.

It's encouraging to me to know that someone is doing this kind of thinking about computer games. Maybe, if there were more professors of Lindsay Grace's caliber, game design would start to mean something more than pushing more polygons through the art pipeline, creating bigger monsters and larger waves of enemies, and conceiving of more and more powerful weapons. I concede that there is a need for conflict in order to have interesting games, but if life were only conflict, I'm not sure life would be interesting. I thank Lindsay Grace for a provocative and thoughtful exhibition.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Free and Easy

In teaching the theory of electronic game design, one of the basic concepts that has to be ingrained in my students is the fact that everything you see on-screen has a mathematical underpinning. Even if that mathematical underpinning is as simple as a percentage chance that something will or won't happen (what we actually call an "algorithm" in the trade), there is an equation that determines all outcomes. That equation may be a simple percentage chance based on one character's attribute (the simplest pen and paper role-playing game may use this), a chain of calculations designed to create a percentage chance (based on attributes, skills, weapons, terrain, range, defender's armor class, and lots more), a chain of percentages that use look-up tables to determine outcomes, or even complex physics calculations based on speed, materials, and cover.

To illustrate this principle, many of my math-challenged students have to learn to simulate some algorithms using a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that calculates percentage chances and uses a look-up table to check against certain attributes or situations that they have quantified. Then, I introduce them to a free game on the web called Dragon Tavern. Dragon Tavern is a free, fantasy role-playing game with a host of character class options that is a hybrid of high fantasy and steampunk. It features a minimum of artwork and all results are strictly text-based. But, if you mouse-over various spots on the page, the algorithms used to determine your percentage chances for success are clearly delineated. In addition to the fact that I've been addicted to the game for so long that one of my two characters is in the Top 100 of its character class and the other is closing in on position #330, it is a dynamic teaching tool for basic game design. Plus, I've had students who have continued to play a half-dozen characters after discovering the site during their course work.

To be sure, the character sheets may look amazingly like those of Dungeons and Dragons, Tunnels and Trolls, and the Fantasy Trip of old, but the process is almost (though not quite) as interesting as generating characters for the old Traveller series. In the old Traveller series, one would enlist in various branches of a futuristic space navy or merchant service and develop the character's skills, attributes, and weapon sets via rolling the dice through various terms of service. Of course, Traveller had the strange anomaly that your character could die in character creation before you ever got into the game. That anomaly no longer exists in the newer (and quite beautifully done) Traveller D20 version.

In Dragon Tavern, you don't "roll" through terms of service, but you do focus on the type of character you want to be. My oldest and best-performing character is a Steam Crafter, a steampunk-type character. I chose the character class and the place from which he hailed before the program gave me my basic attributes and weapons. Naturally, I was able to select some adjectives describing my character's appearance and a catch-phrase for being triumphant, as well as one for the inevitable deaths.

Battle is far too simple for some players to enjoy. Although Dragon Tavern provides a ton of calculations in the background (available for viewing via mouse-over), it is simply one-click combat. Then, the program rolls the percentage dice as modified by that ton of calculations. with a regular "monster," you only have to roll the success percentage (or less) on one occasion to win the fight and gain the experience points and treasure. With "boss monsters," you may have to roll the success percentage up to five times (at my highest level so far). Whenever you miss the percentage roll, you take a wound.

When your wound total is equal to your wound allotment, you're dead. You aren't finished with the game. Your character is automatically resurrected and you don't lose a character level, but you incur (remember this old chestnut?) an experience point debt. So, until that experience debt is paid, you only receive half credit for the experience you're gaining within the game.

As a free game, you are allowed 25 action points per character per 24 hour period in your real life. You can purchase additional credits to perform more than 25 action points in a day and you are given bonus action points whenever you level up. I actually spend less than 10 minutes per day between my two characters, but it's something I look forward to on a daily basis. Some of my students play up to a half-dozen characters per day and, alas, there have been times that they were supposed to be working on their own game designs that I have walked by their monitors in the computer labs and seen them catching up on Dragon Tavern.

That's probably a good sign. If hardcore game design students who have grown up on the likes of Gears of War and Half-Life are interested enough to keep playing a text-based game, the designers must be doing something right. And, as I hope you'll be able to see from the "boss fight" pictured below, the designers seem to have hit something that I enjoy, as well.