Thursday, January 19, 2012

Why rules should be written for the casual player

"It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience."Albert Einstein, “On the Method of Theoretical Physics,” the Herbert Spencer Lecture, Oxford, June 10, 1933.

I first discovered wargaming when I was 18 .  The W40K introduction set for 2nd Edition was my first taste of what has become a nearly 15 year obsession with little metal (or plastic or resin) men, and forcibly drew in both the analytical and creative sides of my psyche.  The models were fanciful and unlike anything I had seen to that point, and when fully painted presented a vivid picture of war that I immediately felt a craving to replicate.  The game it had lots of niggling little details to remember, plenty of nuance in how units inter-related and in short many ways to engage my mind in feverish study and calculation - while still being entertainment.

Fast forward nearly 15 years.  I'm now married with a child, a full time job and a part-time attending college addiction (chasing that bachelors degree I never got in my 20s).  Compared to my 18 year old self, the block of time I can set aside for 'me' is pretty limited.  Typically it entails checking at least two people's calendars (my own and my friends), making sure I'm not trampling any family obligations, and most certainly ensuring that I have plenty of husband points to burn off.  I suspect I'm not that dissimilar to many other Americans out there - who for some reason have some innate pathology that makes us budget our time poorly from a work-life perspective.  And because of these time constraints I'm looking for games that are approachable and accessible from a causal gamer's perspective.

Naturally, that begs the question - what does 'being casual' mean?  Well, first off - it doesn't mean you have to be simple.  Games with rules that approach the simplicity of Go (which has incredible depth despite that simplicity) are certainly casual; but that doesn't mean a casual war-game needs to be that simple.  Part of the appeal of a war-game, at least from a rules perspective, is the complexity of interaction between different components - you want some level of rock-paper-scissors in play to give a feeling of depth and tactical achievement.

Yet too many games today are still designed to be innately complex, with either rules that are complicated and hard to grasp (unless you play over and over again) or model interactions that are dazzlingly intricate.  Both are failures rooted in either a blindness about where the market is heading or a desire to keep a game 'pure' and true to its original roots.

Many historical wargames fall in the first trap with their desire to replicate history as closely as possible; the classic example is having humidity tables to determine if your flintlock rifle can fire or if the powder has become too damp.  Sure, that's an exaggeration - albeit a humorous one - but some games are still wrapped up in the idea that gamers want convoluted play that matches some idea of reality.  There are some players out there that want the minutiae of each conflict to be played out the same way over and over again, or that want so much detail because it's required to match their expectations for verisimilitude.  The problem is that, unless your playing the same game over and over again, those little details get lost - and you spend more time looking up rules than playing.  Or even worse, arguing about interpretations of said rules corpus which says X here and Y there, but shouldn't apply because Z says this instead.  The level of commitment required to make these games work just isn't something I can muster anymore, and while I wish the audiences that enjoy these games well I am encouraged to find that most games are (slowly) recognizing this design theory as a flaw.  Leave these details for computer games - where an impartial judge can keep all these factors and more in mind - and make the game easy to pickup after you've blown the dust off.

Unfortunately, several modern games fall into the second trap (complex model interactions) in an attempt to provide the perception of 'depth'.  Each unit seems to have its own special rule, and that rule interacts with another models rule in a different way. Throw in thirty or more models, and six or seven factions, and you get a game where you can't just pickup and play whatever models strike your fancy.  Instead you have to spend time online, figuring out if you have the interactions down pat or not and what sacrifices you have to your ideal lineup for the sake of a fun game.  And even more frustrating, your local group's meta-game (the collection of models in play) may differ from the meta-game discussed online or at conventions, rendering any advice you ferreted out largely inaccurate.

Warmachine and Malifaux seem to be two good examples of this tendency, requiring that you play several games before you 'get' just exactly what your activation order (and action choice) should be against a single opposing force.  Throw in new armies, and you have to learn how to play your own models all over again, as the old tricks just don't work.  My recent drift away from both games has been specifically because of the requirement to keep up to date with what all models can potentially do in order to have a fun, challenging game.  When the folks I play with brought their Crocmen to the table for the first time (Blindwater congregation), my Cryx was quickly tabled in a rather unfun game.  After three games I had developed a decent rythm to know what to do; then he shifted his army layout as a new caster came to the table.  Same basic army, very different style of play - and one I wasn't as prepared for.  Thow in a change to dwarves on my part and we're on game 5 and still feeling each other out.

At the end of the day, I find myself drawn to games written to be easy to pickup no matter how long between play sessions it's been.  Common rules for all models that I can easily reference, a lack of model specific rules and a relatively flat heirachy of unit interactions are what I can find time for these days.  I leave complexity to computer games, and want something I can enjoy as a social event between friends whenever I can find time to meet up with them.  I just wish more wargames understood this trend and made accommodations for it.  To paraphrase Einstein, "Make things as simple as possible, but no more".  Is that too much to ask?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Gaming and Metaphor

"Key metaphors help determine what and how we perceive and how we think about our perceptions."
M. H. Abrams

The practice is wargaming is in many ways the telling of a story. That story can have many different layers of meaning; for some a wargame is simple martial contest aided by some (supposedly) random number generators. Other people treat wargames are a stage-play for a fiction that's being narrated in the confines of their own mind. And still others find them to be a pleasant divergence from the hassles of day to day life, a convenient excuse to gather with friends of like mind and relive the more care-free days of youth. Most of us experience wargames through these facets (and others) in varying degrees, but what separates a wargame from the vast seas of board games, card games and more esoteric pursuits is the simple pageantry of toy soldiers on terrain that inspires the imagination.

It shouldn't come as a surprise then that wargaming always has at least one foot solidly planted in the realm of metaphor. Even players for whom the models are little more than playing chits must find something compelling about the visceral appeal to a coherent force marching in tune to an imaginary drum across the battlefield laid out before them. For those who take the time to play up the illusion with exquisite paint-jobs and coordinated armies the experience is even more intense. But that willing suspension of disbelief - that fragile balance that allows us to put our rational mind behind us and just enjoy - hangs by a slender thread. Something dissonant that detracts from the performance of our armies quickly tears into the mortar holding brick after brick of enjoyable distraction in place. Players have the lion's share of burden to prevent the curtain from falling; hopefully everyone contributes to ensure the terrain looks characterful, armies are inspiring and in short the make-believe is plausible.

But clumsy handling of the metaphor of a game system can tear us from the cradle of our fantasy as well. There is a level of stark disbelief that snaps to the front when your model that is carrying a comically over-sized gun finds it to be of more use as a club. Or when a skilled bowman seems to have barely more range than a normal man can walk in whatever unit of time the designer has chosen to represent the eponymous 'round of combat'. In some cases these artifacts are unavoidable; using a ground-scale inevitably means there will be a mismatch between what we expect the effective combat range of our 28mm figure to be and what must be in place for the system to allow enough variety to not turn into trench warfare of the Great War. Yet sometimes the fault must lie firmly on the heads of the designer who put conflicting ideas about the game into play.

Surely, if we like the tenets of a game we get acclimated to the curiosities that tear down immersion and they fade from our mind. Perhaps we even embrace the oddities and find redeeming qualities in them that give us reasons to ignore the obvious weirdness and just get back to enjoying the game. Unfortunately these can serve as impediments to adoption of our favored game system by new players; or even worse cause them to speak out against the game. A player that finds a game's metaphor to be inconsistent might warn his friends about it, or even (oh no!) make a nasty blog post about the offending game. This can poison other would-be players from trying out the game, which shrinks an already small community further.

Ultimately how tightly a game defines its metaphors is a function of how much polish it has undergone, in my opinion. Games with poorly thought out interactions often have conflicting metaphors are play - are we playing cowboys and aliens, or Aztecs and Godzilla? Games are predominantly melee based often run into this when a 'shooty' army is introduced; suddenly the norms get flipped around and inevitably the shooty army is seen as 'unnatural', 'poorly balanced' or 'ill-conceived'. The same goes for 'shooty' games that suddenly find themselves with an unstoppable melee army, or a racing game that has you doing derivatives trading to figure out how much fuel you have in your pit stop. Most of the time someone comes across these oddities the thought that comes to mind is 'Did nobody notice this?'. And unless that willing suspension of the dissonance kicks in, that little pebble of conflict can grow as more and more pebbles aggregate to form one big bolder of 'this game sucks'.

As in any product, polish is essential to having a desirable product. In my (not quite so humble opinion) I wish that more designers would step back, ask themselves just what metaphors their game (and all it's pieces) are trying to capture. And then objectively gauge if they are meeting their own expectations, much less their target market's.

Otherwise, its back to the polishing stone; at least until you get something you can ship.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Why probability is important


It's a dirty word, to a great many people.  It has connotations of being a discipline that only 'geeks' and dweebs should be interested in, and of being an arcane practice that few people can understand well.  It underpins much of our modern life, and has enabled a great revolution in human development, but remains seen as something not quite approachable.  However we may feel about it, each and every time that we unfold our favorite gaming system to play a game and throw dice we're at the mercy of the gods of math.  Specifically, we're dealing with the disciplines of statistics and probability with each chuck of those cubes we love to hate so much.

Now, I'm not here to talk about why each of us should learn basic probability - it simply isn't something that everybody needs to know to make it through their day.  However, its my opinion that every wargame designer should be at least acclimated to the ideas of probability, if not outright able to articulate every detail about the math backing their gaming system.  That's a pretty bold claim, especially coming from a guy with zero game design credentials to his name; why precisely does a designer need to understand these interactions?

Here's the deal.  As I see it, rules sell games to a very limited minority of the gaming populace.  Instead, miniatures sell games.  People buy games because they like the miniatures, or they like the background material - in short, the aesthetics of a game are what makes sales.  But the rules of a game are what give it life, and make you want to use those models over and over again.  They are what drive communities to get together and play a fun game.  And at the very core of that idea - of a fun game - is the unalienable fact that probabilities control the interaction between the players and the ideas your game expresses.

At the most basic level, that's what rules are - they are expressions of the designer's intent, filtered through the players, about what makes for a 'fun' time.  Taking my favorite system as an example again (Heavy Gear Blitz!), the game tries to portray semi-modern combined arms warfare - with the addition of giant robots.  At some point, there's going to be an intersection between an infantryman (or squad of infantry) and a Gear - and how that situation resolves is as much about what the designer writes the rules to be, as the probabilities those rules work out to be.  A designer that's ignorant of probabilities just says something like 'a machinegun should kill infantry most of the time', fudges a number that works with the dice system they are given, and 'playtests' until that 'looks' right.

Unfortunately - playtesting isn't enough.  It's important, most certainly - and I'll talk about it soon enough. But playtesting is subject to many vagaries; different people can remember the same situation slightly different, dice can be badly weighted and few iterations of a playtest can give skewed results.  All of these things are just part and parcel of dealing with people, but they are a poor standard to gauge an interaction over time.  Because if the play testers happen to be lucky, or have a bias towards thinking infantry are too weak, or any number of other factions - the designer gets the idea that the rule isn't solid, and needs toned down.  Repeat ad infinitum and soon enough a rule goes out the door that appears solid on paper; but once it hits the wilds of the gaming tables it's obvious that it's a bad rule.

Enter probability.  By knowing how your system works mathematically, you can match your assumptions to the game mechanics more precisely.  If your expectation is that 'a machinegun kills infantry most of the time' works out to be 60% in your mind, working the probabilities for several scenarios will tell you if that 60% mark is reached or not.  If a playtester comes back saying 'infantry die all the time' you know their report is bogus, or biased - over some aggregate amount of tests, infantry only die 60% of the time, not 100% of the time.  As a designer, this strips away some of the ability for an individual playtester's bias to shine through, and puts that knowledge firmly in your own control.  If every playtester comes back and says 'infantry are dying all the time', maybe your 60% mark is too high.  If only a small group say that, then maybe they have a bias - and you should discount their remarks.  Or maybe there's an interaction you're missing that you need to account for.  But either way you have more context than the guy who flung a dart and hoped for the best.

Therein lies the difference between a designer that understands how his system works mechanically, and one that does not.  The latter designer is a slave to perception, bias and luck; the former still has to contend with bias, but has checks against it, and luck is out the door.  In addition the designer who understands his mechanics can establish 'principles' of the game as a sort of test to see if new units or rules are skewing the design too far from his or her idea.  He can do design independently of playtesting, which allows for more rapid production of material and a more unified finished product.  After all, the success or failure of the line should rely on the people responsible for creating it - not the fans who want their own particular bias to be enshrined as law.

Taking an example from Heavy Gear; in a standard roll of 2D6+0 versus 2D6+0, there's a 40% chance of 'success' for the attacker.  Somewhere down the line, the designers said you need 2 points of success to do damage with a typical weapon.  So the actual chance of doing some sort of total damage is in the 22% range, not 40% - in short, less than 1/4 of the shots in the above situation will result in something a player would consider a 'success' (i.e. damage boxes on a target).  Changing the roll to 2D6+1 vs. 2D6+0 makes it a 60% chance of a 'success'; but still only a 40% chance of a perceivable 'success'.  Does that match the expectation of the designer for the game?  Hard to tell.  But I suspect that somewhere a designer didn't consider exactly how often they wanted a player to have 'success'; instead they just kept massaging numbers until it 'looked right'.  But they are groping in the dark in this case - instead of knowing firmly "I want the success rate to be 60%".

After all, that's what a designer is paid to do - they are there to build a mental scaffolding for the rest of us to participate in.  They are there to chart a course through the conflicting ideas in all the different wargames out there, and hopefully navigate through the shoals correctly.  A large part of that relies on business sense, a good sense of aesthetics and knowledge of their market.  But it also relies on understanding just what their rules are doing - beyond the filter of the biggest fans.  And that requires knowing probability.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Why playing (lots of different) games is important

During Gencon 2011, I ran into an apocryphal story regarding the then the lead designer of the Classic Battletech franchise. According to the legend (which I have never been able to corroborate), the designer had posted to the Classic Battletech forums the comment that he had played his first game of Battletech in seven years, and had remembered how much fun it was. This of course caused an intense cacophony of hate and questions, as fans questioned how a lead designer could be so out of touch with the game. The person who held control over the future of their game, they supposedly cried, was incompetent to actually lead the game into the future. How could he know what course to plot, if he didn't know what the problems were in the first place?

Now, I'm not a Battletech fan (instead being a rabid fan of the Heavy Gear universe published by Dreampod 9). But being a fan of Heavy Gear I've often expressed a similar frustration rooted in different causes - namely, why exactly are people who aren't familiar with the wargame side of the house running the show? To be sure, there is some element of these frustrations that are the natural effect of wanting your favorite thing (be it a sport, religion or game) to align to your own ideas of how it should be organized. Everybody wants to be a generals, and few want to be troopers. That's normal and expected anytime there's a leadership structure in place.

Focusing on the natural leadership dynamic misses an important criticism that's being made in the above statements, though. Wargames are a hobby primarily, and a hobby with a considerable investment. Smaller wargames in particular tend to be risky expenditures of money due to the lack for used material in smaller communities. Most people want to see their games grow and evolve as time goes on, so that it has a continual lifespan. Unlike video games which tend to be picked up and put down within a span of a month or so, wargamers tend to hope for a long 'shelf-life' during which they can enjoy their chosen system or miniatures. To this end refinements and additional 'hooks' need to be continually introduced into the game, in a way that it maintains its identity but still continues to grow.

To this end, a designer has to understand the community's interpretation of a game in order to improve upon it. And the only way to understand is to play; you have to put models to the table and see how your preconditions stand up in the face of evidence to the contrary. Analysis can only get you so far; most wargames (even simple ones) tend to feature enough complexity that it's nearly impossible to keep the entire ruleset in the front of your mind, much less every permutation of rules intersections in your mind. And that's even before you start to interpret the results of those interactions, and see if they match the end design goals for the system you're working on. Most players understand that very clearly, even if at a instinctual level; how can you understand what's not working if you're not playing with it on a regular basis? If you don't play at all, you are going to be nature be blind to the relevance of flaws as exposed by your community - your decision making is entirely intellectual, logical and without any consideration to the psychological and presence implications of any given rule.

Further compounding the outrage is the observation that every group plays a slightly different game, even if the rules are the same. Interpret a rule slightly differently and it may have a very large impact on the way that the game turns out; what we would loosely call the 'metagame' of your local area. Interpreted one particular way a rule may make artillery more powerful than shooting someone with a rifle, while an equally valid alternate interpretation makes the rifle more powerful. The ambiguity of the English language makes these differences possible and potentially disastrous to a community. So not only should game designers be expected to play, but they should be expected to play lots of different groups. Like any good company head they need insights into how the game is played in small enclaves because the insights they can pickup from those games yields a better 'big picture' view of exactly what the game is in the wild - and how much that diverges from your idea of what the game should be.

Now to this point I've talked about why designers should play their own game; but that's only a part of the picture. Remember, gamers want their games to grow, preferably while keeping the games' identity intact. However, growing the game means expanding the boundaries of the game - which is contrary to the march towards perfection that introspection tends to funnel you towards. There is where other, competing games come to the fore; the time-honored tradition of stea... er, borrowing from others is perhaps the most important tool in any game designer's handbook. It's better to leverage the wargaming community as a whole rather than just the limited subset of community that is relevant to your particular game; by doing so not only do you find novel solutions to related situations in your own game, but you also start to keep a pulse on the industry as a whole.

Taking Heavy Gear as an example, it has problems with its Stealth system. It's been through several iterations of design, with varying degrees of success. In each case though the 'solution' shows obvious signs of 'in-the-box' thinking, trying to make the current system work 'better'. The are fewer signs that someone has sat down and said 'look, Infinity does it this way, and Mercs does it this way, and Warmachine does it this way. Do any of those fit the conceptual model we're gunning for?'. You really need to occasionally step back and look at the problem from a high-level rather than trying to ram a solution in using a shoe-horn.

But to do that, you've got to play. You've got to sit down and figure out what Infinity does that you really like, and what it does that you really hate. You need to play Warmachine and figure out that shooting sucks, which is fine for a medieval game, but note that the abstracted bases works just fine in their case. And you need to play Malifaux to learn about their objectives - what works, and what doesn't - and how it can apply to your game.

In short, to be a good game designer, like anything else in life, you've got to be a professional. You've got to practice the craft of designing a game, of learning about all the possible competitors, and welding all the various pieces you have floating about in your mind - and the minds of your community - into one larger whole. It's got to become something you think about, and wonder about and say 'how can this be better?'. You have to contribute to pushing games forward into the future rather than wallowing in past successes.

In short - in order to be a good game designer, you have to be a good gamer. Otherwise you're just a snake-oil salesman.