Monday, April 17, 2017

I've Been Diced! episode 76: Series games

There are a lot of series games in the hobby, both in the market and in our personal collections. This episode, our panel talks about series wargames and other boardgames. What are the advantages and disadvantages, for both the game consumer and publisher? Plus, a game off the beaten track that has special resonance for Yours Truly. (c) 2017 Tom Grant

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

I've Been Diced! episode 75: Back in action, serious games, games played, and more

We're back after a long hiatus. In the first segment, I talk about games played recently, including Across Suez, Cry Havoc, Bloody Inn, and more. This episode contains the first installment in an introduction to serious games, the use of games in education, business, politics, and more. Plus, a quick discussion of why you might want to own more than one game covering the same topic. (c) 2016 Tom Grant

Links from this episode:
The Serious Games At Work web site.
The refugee megagame.

Send feedback to

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

I've Been Diced! episode 74: Greg Stafford

Greg Stafford, designer of Dragon Pass and other board games, creator of the fascinating fantasy world of Glorantha, founder of Chaosium, and designer of Runequest, Pendragon, and other RPGs, makes a royal visit to the podcast. We cover the whole gamut of this interesting bit of gaming history, the future of Chaosium, why Pendragon is a special game, and how to correctly pronounce Genertela. Plus, a few musings about fantasy settings for games that aren't a kabuki-like replay of the same old tropes. (c) 2016 Tom Grant

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

I've Been Diced! episode 73: Mitchell Land and the Next War series

Mitchell Land, designer of the Next War series of wargames from GMT, discusses the interesting design challenges behind those games, and we get a sneak peek at the next title, Next War: Poland. Plus, a few words about a departed friend. (c) 2016 Tom Grant

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

I've Been Diced! episode 72: Sam Mustafa and miniatures gaming galore

Sam Mustafa, designer of Blücher and other miniatures wargame rules, stops by to discuss his designs and the miniatures side of the hobby in general. Sam and Tom describe the path for boardgamers who might want to give miniatures a try. (Blücher might be a good start.) Plus, Tom shares lessons learned from his recent experiments with miniature wargaming on the cheap. (c) 2016 Tom Grant

Sunday, January 24, 2016

I've Been Diced! episode 71: Mutants, game studies, and 2015 in review

Our first episode of 2016 is a whopper! We start with an interview with Gordon Calleja, designer of Posthuman, and associate professor and head of the Institute of Digital Games at the University Of Malta. Yes, not only does he design games, but he also teaches game design! Gordon and I talk about professional game studies, whether boardgames can be immersive, our deep fascination with apocalyptic stories, and, of course, his game. After that interview, our regular panel talks about 2015 in gaming: the highs, the lows, the pleasant surprises, and the deep regrets. (c) 2016 Tom Grant

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

I've Been Diced! episode 70: John Kranz of Consimworld

John Kranz, the founder of the Consimworld wargame community site, joins me for a discussion of the past, present, and future of Consimworld. Our Game Off The Beaten Path is right in time for football season. We also have news about a new serious game, and I talk about Le Vol de l'Aigle, a multi-player, umpired Napoleonic operational game with a lot of friction and fog of war. Copyright (c) 2015 Tom Grant

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

I've Been Diced! episode 69: Troy Goodfellow on computer and board games

Troy Goodfellow, founder of the Three Moves Ahead podcast, joins me for a discussion of computer strategy games versus boardgames. What do computer games do well that boardgames don't, and vice-versa? What can the two genres learn from each other? Plus, this episode's Game Off The Beaten Path is W1815, a brilliant little game about the Battle of Waterloo. (c) 2015 Tom Grant

Sunday, July 5, 2015

My game designs

When I was interviewing Randy Lein and Roger Miller a couple of weeks ago, they asked if I had any game designs. I've alluded to them in the podcast, but I've never really said anything about them.

Maybe it's time to unleash them on the world. Actually, I already have, but not in the gaming hobby. I use games quite a bit in my day job, as someone who helps software professionals become better innovators. A lot of it falls into the category of Agile training and coaching, if that means anything to you. If not, don't worry, it's just a way of saying, "There are times when a game can get a point across better than a slideshow." I also use games to help people test out different software innovation strategies, using games as a kind of simulator.

I've also been inspired, on the odd occasion, to design a game that I thought would help the dialog about important public policy issues. Most recently, the sad state of the health care debate inspired me to design a couple of games on the topic, with two goals: (1) educate people a little on the topic; and (2) encourage constructive discussion among people who disagree strongly.

Last but not least in the "serious game" category, my wife and I have worked on a couple of games together, with an eye to using them in psychotherapy. They started as games strictly for fun, but she spotted their potential usefulness in therapeutic situations.

There are also games for fun in this list. Yes, I do know how to have fun.

I'm glad to answer questions about the game, and take any helpful suggestions about them. If you're interested in serious games, here's a handy introduction I put together.


Agile Portfolio Management
  • Type of game: Boardgame
  • Number of players: 1
  • Goal: Provide a way for software professionals to assess the impact of going Agile on portfolio management. For many organizations, particularly IT departments, the shift to a team-centric approach opens many questions about managing the flow of projects or products.
  • Status: Designed and playtested. Part of my Agile coaching toolkit, used when needed.

Dice of Debt
  • Type of game: Boardgame with lots of dice.
  • Number of players: 1 (though really designed to be played as a team)
  • Goal: Show the effect that investment in technical debt-reducing measures has on a team's ability to deliver value. Often, teams find it hard to justify making these investments in the face of short-term pressures, even when the long-term benefits are substantial.
  • Status: Designed and playtested. Considering donating it to the Agile Alliance as part of a technical debt working group. Demonstrated at the Cutter Consortium's 2015 Summit. Part of my Agile coaching toolkit, used when needed.

The Planning Fallacy
  • Type of game: Boardgame
  • Number of players: 3-5
  • Goal: Show how susceptible we are to over-optimistic estimates. Although the inspiration was helping Agile teams account for the unknown and make more realistic assessments of the impact of overhead, the game could easily apply to any methodology. 
  • Status" Designed and playtested. Part of my Agile coaching toolkit, used when needed.

Business Vs. IT
  • Type of game: Card game
  • Number of players: 2-4
  • Goal: Illustrate the structural sources of friction and failure in corporate IT. Limited information and communications undermine their ability to collaborate. Primarily a 2-player game, with the option of adding two other players as intermediaries (who don't help).
  • Status: In design.

Volcano Island
  • Type of game: Board game
  • Number of players: 2-6
  • Goal: Show how teams can effectively collaborate, even in the face of great unknowns, and still reach their goals. Designed to be a fun way to address a frequent source of anxiety for teams.
  • Status: In design.

  • Type of game: Boardgame
  • Number of players: 1-4
  • Goal: Demonstrate the public effects of private health care choices. Designed to fill an informational void during the debates over health care.
  • Status: Designed and playtested. Looking for a publisher.

Health Care Tug-Of-War
  • Type of game: Boardgame
  • Number of players: 4
  • Goal: Describe the tensions in health care policy among insurers, physicians, pharmaceutical companies, and hospitals. Patients are pawns moved around a grid, representing the current state of health care options. Government actions restrict the players from making some policies.
  • Status: In design.

It's Like This
  • Type of game: Card game
  • Number of players: 2-6
  • Goal: Get more interesting insights into customers, who have to describe their wants and needs in unconventional ways. Designed to be both funny and revealing, as opposed to some market research efforts.
  • Status: In design.

The Old Dark House
  • Type of game: Card game.
  • Number of players: 1-8
  • Goal: Provide an easy, fun way for people to collaborate on a ghost story, with each person adding another character, plot twist, and other story elements. Also useful in psychotherapy as a form of narrative therapy.
  • Status: Designed and playtested. Looking into publication options.

Legends of the Old West
  • Type of game: Card game
  • Number of players: 1-8
  • Goal: The same as The Old, Dark House, but with a Western motif. The genre inspired me to add mechanics that help players flesh out characters more, and deal with the kind of direct conflict that's assumed to be part of Western stories (but can bring them to a rapid end, if you're not careful). Also useful for narrative therapy.
  • Status: Designed and playtested. Looking into publication options.

  • Type of game: Boardgame
  • Number of players: 2-5.
  • Goal: Show a real marriage of the political and military elements of insurgency and counterinsurgency. At its core, it's a 2-player game, pitting the insurgents against the regime. Optional rules allow for additional players, representing different guerrilla factions and the regime's superpower patron. I actually started working on this long before the COIN games appeared, even before Brian Train was the first guest on the podcast.
  • Status: Playtested, making revisions based on feedback and results.

Battle Cry Of Freedom
  • Type of game: Boardgame
  • Number of players: 1-5.
  • Goal: A multi-player Civil War battles game.
  • Status: In design. I've tried and rejected a couple of earlier approaches before finally hitting on something that looks like a promising design approach.

Space Opera
  • Type of game: Boardgame
  • Number of players: 2-5
  • Goal: Create a space empires game in which the focus is on the epic story. Players compete to finish important story arcs to accomplish the goals of their species (not always through conflict). The experience is less like Master of Orion, more like reading a novel.
  • Status: In design.

Warhammer: Titan
  • Type of game: Boardgame
  • Number of players: 2-6
  • Goal: Warhammer 40,000 factions battle over the galaxy. Uses core ideas from the classic boardgame Titan to streamline the 4X mechanics, while also giving each faction a definite personality and toolbox from which to pick units and abilities. Done purely for my own enjoyment, since I imagined publishing options might be limited.
  • Status: Core mechanics drafted.

The Starry Road
  • Type of game: Boardgame
  • Number of players: 2-4
  • Goal: Create a science fiction boardgame with a strong emphasis on exploration. Early FTL technology lets humans explore a handful of the nearest stars...And then things start getting interesting.
  • Status: Core mechanics drafted.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

I've Been Diced! episode 68: Randy Lein (Legion Wargames) and Roger Miller (Revolution Games)

Not just one guest, but two! Roger Miller of Revolution Games and Randy Lein of Legion Wargames take time away from Consimworld Expo to talk about life as wargame publishers, muse about the state of the hobby, give us some previews into upcoming games, and give sage advice to anyone interested in submitting a new design to a company like theirs. Plus, I'm not done talking about space empire games, particularly since there are more stories they could be telling than just another cardboard re-creation of Master of Orion. (c) 2015 Tom Grant

Thursday, June 25, 2015

I've Been Diced! episode 67: Mark Herman

Mark Herman stops by to talk about his new grand strategic WWII game, Churchill, plus oh so many other games he has designed over the years. During our whirlwind tour of Mark's career as a wargame designer, we make brief stops at SPI and Victory Games, and even get a peek into professional Pentagon wargaming. And if you're wondering what comes next after Churchill...Well, it's more than just Empire Of The Sun, 2nd edition (though that's pretty interesting, too).  Plus, be sure to listen to the very end of this episode. (c) 2015 Tom Grant

Thursday, April 23, 2015

I've Been Diced! episode 66: Combat systems

Our panel discusses combat systems in games — many of which we like, and a few that we don't like. Air battles that are genuinely exciting, deck-building games that lead to interesting results, the genius of Dune's commitment mechanic, a defense of hex-and-CRT wargames — all these topics, and many more, in the course of our discussion. Plus, a recently-published game off the beaten path that takes traditional wargame mechanics in an interesting direction. (c) 2015 Tom Grant

Monday, March 2, 2015

I've Been Diced! episode 65: Andy Loakes, designer of Toulon 1793

Andy Loakes, designer of Toulon 1793, takes us behind the scenes of his first published wargame. Why hasn't someone done a game on this topic before? Andy and Tom ponder that issue, along with other questions about Napoleonic history and wargaming. Plus, this episode's Game Off The Beaten Path is a little wargame on a major event in military history, previously thought to be ungameable. (c) 2015 Tom Grant

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

I've Been Diced! episode 64: Richard Borg

Richard Borg talks about everything from the Command & Colour wargames to the X-Men games from Pressman (with a cameo from Stan Lee). We also discuss the Kickstarter for his new World War I game, Mutant Chronicles: Siege Of The Citadel, and much more. Plus, a game off the beaten path that should have an electronic version, but doesn't, really. © 2015 Tom Grant

Sunday, February 15, 2015

I've Been Diced! episode 63: Sandy Petersen

Sandy Petersen, designer of Cthulhu Wars (among many other games), talks about the origins of the Call of Cthulhu RPG, the early days of Chaosium (which also published the Runequest RPG, the original Arkham Horror, and plenty of other innovative games). Sandy also tells us how Cthulhu Wars was almost his swan song as a game designer, how he slipped Lovecraftian references into video games on which he worked (ever heard of Doom or Age of Empires?), and the upcoming Theomachy game. (c) 2015 Tom Grant

Sunday, February 1, 2015

I've Been Diced! episode 62: Our 2014 in review

Our regular panel looks back on 2014 in gaming — the ups, the downs, the pleasant surprises, the grave disappointments. Where do games like Dead Of Winter, Fire In The Lake, Nations, and The Hunters fit into this picture? Plus, the recent arrival of Cthulhu Wars inspires Tom to muse on the value of our games, and why recent developments in the game market is making it even harder to figure out the relationship between the real value to the owner and the price it costs to buy a game. (c) 2015 Tom Grant

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

I've Been Diced! episode 61: Worthington Games

I drop by the HQ for Worthington Games to talk about their wargames, past, present, and future. Forged In Fire, Band Of Brothers, Cowboys, Hold The Line, and others -- what kind of games does Worthington choose to publish? And how does a small publisher find its niche in today's market? Plus, this episode's "Game Off The Beaten Path" is a world-famous fantasy writer's design. (c) 2014 Tom Grant

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Watch the alternate history of Rome evolve

Here are some pictures from our session of Microscope, as described in episode 60 of the I've Been Diced! podcast. You can see, step by step, how the timeline evolved. Listen to the podcast to hear us build this timeline.

I've Been Diced! episode 60: Making history with Microscope, and games that tell stories

Our regular panel plays a session of Microscope, the game of collaboratively building a grand historical narrative. We put our creative powers to the test by writing the history of a world in which the Roman Empire never fell. This innovative game should appeal to anyone interested in epic sagas in science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, you name it.

Plus, we want our games to tell interesting stories, from fighting the Battle of the Bulge to stopping the Great Old Ones. But what's the secret to designing a game that can generate an interesting narrative? (c) 2014 Tom Grant

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

I've Been Diced! episode 59: Jon Compton, modern wargames, and gaming taboos

Jon Compton of One Small Step and the MCS Group tells a gripping story of the trials and tribulations of being a small wargame publisher. We also muse about the popularity of modern wargames. Plus, our regular panel discusses gaming taboos: What behavior elicits gasps of horror from fellow hobbyists? (c) 2014 Tom Grant

Monday, August 25, 2014

I've Been Diced! episode 58: Mike Nagel on Flying Colors and more

Mike Nagel talks about his Flying Colors series of Age of Sail wargames, his new "captaincy" game covering the same era, Sun of York, and what drew him to design a game about the battle of Attu. Plus, Tom lunges headfirst into the subject of what is a wargame. Actually, he talks about when the question is worth asking, and when it isn't. (c) 2014 Tom Grant

Monday, August 18, 2014

I've Been Diced! episode 57: Greg Smith on The Hunters and computer wargames

Greg Smith, the designer of The Hunters and the upcoming Silent Victory, talks about his games, solitaire wargames in general, his work on computer wargames at HPS Simulations, and why boardgame design can be more challenging than computer wargame design. Plus, Tom gives advice to wargamers visiting Paris, and he proves beyond a doubt that he cannot do impressions. (c) 2014 Tom Grant

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

I've Been Diced! episode 56: John Poniske

John Poniske, designer of Hearts & Minds, King Philip's War, and Lincoln's War, discusses the reasons why he developed a different game system for each of these games. Plus, John tells us about some upcoming designs, including games about the Plains Indians Wars and the Haitian rebellion. (Note: Apologies for the poor sound quality during the interview. Skype was not our friend that night.) Plus, a quick shout-out to some other wargame/boardgame podcasts. Copyright (c) 2014 Tom Grant

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

I've Been Diced! episode 55: Jim Day

Jim Day, designer of Iron & Oak and Panzer, talks about these two recently-released games, cross-pollination between miniature and board wargaming, and possible new versions of MBT and IDF. Plus, we look at a key requirement for the success of any tactical wargame. What is it? I'll lay out the scenario for you. (c) 2014 Tom Grant

Saturday, April 5, 2014

I've Been Diced! episode 54: Kim Kanger

Kim Kanger, designer of Ici, C'Est La France! and Tonkin, discusses France's counterinsurgency wars, and how differences between these wars led to different game designs. We also discuss Kim's upcoming game on the siege of Dien Bien Phu. Strap in for another deep discussion of insurgencies and insurgency-related games. (c) 2014 Tom Grant

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

I've Been Diced! episode 53: John Gorkowski on WWI wargames and a future WWI-like scenario

John Gorkowski, designer of WWI-based games like Guns Of August, Guns Of Galicia, Red Poppies, and In The Trenches, as well as the upcoming The Great Game. We talk about what fascinates us about WWI, the need to take a fresh look at a conflict before dropping game mechanics on them, and why a future conflict in the South China Sea might look a lot more like WWI than WWII. (That future scenario is the subject of John’s Game, Breaking The Chains). Plus, your host’s recent eBay purchase makes him wonder aloud, “Is there a better way to keep wargames in print?”  

The storm of wargame designer interviews continues to rage! Kim Kanger (Tonkin, Ici c'est la France!), Jim Day (Panzer, Iron & Oak) and John Poniske (Lincoln's War, Hearts And Minds) are our guests in future episodes, coming soon. (c) 2014 Tom Grant

Monday, March 31, 2014

I’ve Been Diced! episode 52: Steve Kendall of Ragnar Brothers

Steve Kendall gives us a brief history of the Ragnar Brothers and the games they’ve produced. Ponder why Angola may have had more successful innovations than any other single game. Hear about the playtest of a new epoch for A Brief History Of The World. Learn why Viking Fury / Fire & Axe is a more accurate depiction of the Vikings than that History Channel series with Gabriel Byrne. Find out about the careful word choices and interesting design decisions behind Promised Land. Get the news about their new game, Steam Donkey. Plus, we look back on two classic microgames, Melee and Wizard, and wonder, where the heck is anything like them today?

The storm of wargame designer interviews begins! In rapid succession, we will be publishing interviews with Steve Kendall, John Gorgowski, Kim Kanger, Jim Day, and John Poniske. You’ll be getting them as fast as we can edit them! Copyright © 2014 Tom Grant

Saturday, March 8, 2014

I've Been Diced! episode 51: The PrezCon 2014 edition

We're at Prezcon 2014, where we talk about the games we played, such as A Distant Plain, Theseus: The Dark Orbit, Coup, Cosmic Encounter, Napoleonic Wars, and the recent favorite A Study In Emerald. Plus, wargames that give a little extra historical something. (c) 2014 Tom Grant

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

I've Been Diced! episode 50: Joel Toppen

Joel Toppen is our guest this episode, here to tell us how he designed Navajo Wars, and give us a sneak peek into his next game, covering the Comanches. Joel also provides useful advice on building Vassal modules (he's built dozens himself). Finally, Tom gives some recommendations for solitaire wargames. (c) 2014 Tom Grant

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

I've Been Diced! Episode 49: 2013 in review

We look back on our 2013 in gaming. Best and worst experiences, biggest surprises (good and bad), best fun per dollar, best digital boardgame translation...Vicariously share our action-packed year of gaming. Plus, the Up Front! Kickstarter project's woes point to some serious risks for boardgames that start as Kickstarter projects.  The first podcast of 2014, completed in spite of my sound board's apparent demise, and problems uploading the podcast. I will not be defeated!  (c) 2014 Tom Grant

Sunday, November 10, 2013

I've Been Diced! episode 48: The Bobby Lee Kickstarter campaign, and why you should play more wargames about the American Civil War

Tom and Grant Dalgliesh stop by to discuss their successful Kickstarter campaign for Napoleon, and the new Kickstarter for Bobby Lee. Plus, your host has seven reasons why you should be playing more wargames about the American Civil War. (c) 2013 Tom Grant

Monday, July 29, 2013

I've Been Diced! episode 47: Ignoble successes and serious SF games

Remember two episodes, when we discussed noble failures? Now it's time for ignoble successes, the games that were more successful than they should have been. Plus, Tom gives his list of 10 science fiction boardgames for people who are serious about science fiction. (c) 2013 Tom Grant

Friday, July 12, 2013

I've Been Diced! episode 46: Paul Rohrbaugh of High Flying Dice Games

Paul Rohrbaugh of High Flying Dice is our guest this episode. If you're not familiar with this publisher of low-cost, print-on-demand wargames, you should be. Paul and I talk about the company, his game designs, and games as educational tools. (c) 2013 Tom Grant

Monday, May 6, 2013

I've Been Diced! episode 45: Noble failures, and Eclipse on the iPad

Many games come oh so very close to being good, or event great, but don't...quite...make it. That's the topic for this episode, noble failures. Even if they didn't completely succeed, from a design or a market perspective, these games deserve respect. Plus, Tom reviews Eclipse, both the new iPad version and the original boardgame. (c) 2013 Tom Grant

Saturday, April 13, 2013

I've Been Diced! episode 44: Grant and Tom Dalgliesh on Columbia Games and the new, Kickstarted edition of Napoleon

Tom and Grand Dalgliesh of Columbia Games talk about their Kickstarted new edition of the classic block game Napoleon. We also delve into the secret of Columbia Games' sustained success, the history of the company (including Hârn), some possible new games, and the reasons why the real history of Macbeth would make an awesome game. Plus, a game off the beaten track that's the best solitaire wargame you'll ever play that doesn't have any pieces. (c) 2013 Tom Grant

Monday, March 18, 2013

I've Been Diced! episode 43: A Descent into frustration, and a belated best/worst of 2012 list

Tom, TJ, Kevin, and Jason have a therapy session about Descent 2nd edition, with some primal screaming. Why was this game so hard to love? Is it time to break up? Plus, Tom's belated list of noteworthy games from 2012. (c) 2013 Tom Grant

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

I've Been Diced! episode 42: Volko Ruhnke

Volko Ruhnke is our guest, and boy, do we have a lot to talk about. From Wilderness War to Labyrinth, from Andean Abyss to the next games in the counterinsurgency series, we've got it all. How do you portray guerrilla warfare and terrorism in wargames? Why haven't there been more games about the most frequent conflicts of the last century, the internal ones? And what's a Tupemaro, anyway? (c) 2013 Tom Grant

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

I've Been Diced! episode 41: Jason White, fantasy wargames, and iOS boardgaming

Jason White, formerly of the Point2Point podcast, chats with Tom about the games we've been playing, from No Retreat on the table to Summoner Wars on the iPad. Our game off the beaten path is not one, but two fantasy wargames with a very different backstory. Tom worries that companies porting boardgames to mobile devices might listen to the wrong customers. (c) 2012 Tom Grant

Monday, September 17, 2012

I've Been Diced! episode 40: Jason Matthews

Jason Matthews, designer of Twilight Struggle, 1989, Founding Fathers, 1960, and Campaign Manager 2008, drops in for a discussion of his games, the Cold War, and political games. Plus, your host nominates the top 10 modern conflicts that don't get enough coverage in wargames. (c) 2012 Tom Grant

Sunday, August 19, 2012

I've Been Diced! episode 39: Martin Wallace

Martin Wallace talks about his wide, wide portfolio of games, when he got the inspiration for many of them, how he starts the design with a fundamental mechanic, why he doesn't get train games, and what to expect in his new Doctor Who game. Plus, why the heck would you want multiple games on the same topic? (c) 2012 Tom Grant

Monday, August 6, 2012

I've Been Diced! episode 38: Jerry Taylor

Jerry Taylor stops by to discuss his games, Hammer of the Scots, Crusader Rex, and Richard III. What makes the Middle Ages great source material for wargames? How do subtle differences in Columbia block games translate into major game effects? How do you simulate asymmetric situations, such as the Third Crusade and the War of the Roses, while still making the game fun to play? Plus, some musings on what wargame companies owe us, if anything. (c) 2012 Tom Grant

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

I've Been Diced! episode 37: Adam Starkweather

Adam Starkweather tells us about his collaborations with Japanese designers on A Victory Lost, Warriors Of God, Fire In The Sky, and A Most Dangerous Time. Adam also tells us about the origins of his two mega-tactical games, Devil's Cauldron and Where Eagles Dare, and his upcoming wargames, including a Normandy version of Cauldron/Eagles. Plus, our panelists provide pointers on pedagogy -- or, some tips on teaching boardgames to new players. (c) 2012 Tom Grant

Monday, July 16, 2012

I've Been Diced! episode 36: Ed Beach

Ed Beach discusses his boardgames, including Here I Stand, Virgin Queen, and the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War series. We also talk about Ed's work on the Civilization V computer game, including the new Gods & Kings expansion. How similar or different are board games and computer games, from a design perspective? Plus, Tom gives some recommends some Civil War games for the new wargamer. (c) 2012 Tom Grant

Monday, July 9, 2012

I've Been Diced! episode 35: Carl Paradis, designer of No Retreat!

Carl Paradis talks about the genesis of the No Retreat! series of wargames, and where they're headed. We also journey into Carl's secret Napoleonic room, and we find out about the challenges designing a simpler, faster wargame that's true to the history. (c) 2012 Tom Grant

Saturday, May 26, 2012

I've Been Diced! episode 34: Ben Hull

Ben Hull stops by for an in-depth discussion of his wargames, including Fields of Fire, the Musket & Pike series, and his upcoming operational game of the Thirty Years War. Plus, Ben throws in a recommendation for historical fiction buffs at the end. (c) 2012 Tom Grant

Monday, May 14, 2012

I've Been Diced! episode 33: Go east, middle-aged man!

Tom's trek across the continental United States is done, so we're back to blab about boardgames. In this episode, we catch up about the games we've been playing, from fishing fleets in the Atlantic (Upon A Salty Sea) to battling Brits in North Africa (Battle Academy). We find interesting parallels between FFG's A Game Of Thrones and Radiohead. Other games discussed include Mage Knight, Nightfall (physical and iOS), Ascension (iOS), Neue Heimat, Conflict Of Heroes (PC), 1989, Tonkin, and more. (c) 2012 Tom Grant

Sunday, April 8, 2012

I've Been Diced! And now a special announcement

In which your host explains why we're pressing the pause button briefly, as he makes his way from one side of the continent to another.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Hours of fun per gaming dollar

In the latest podcast, I proposed a measure for the value of games, the ratio of gaming hours per dollar. (Let's abbreviate this ration HPD, for convenience.) The HPD for a game like Mage Knight: The Boardgame is pretty high: out of the box, you get a very good game with a lot of depth. A lot to explore, even if there were only one scenario, but the designer provided several scenarios to explore, out of the box.

I'm repeating the phrase out of the box for a reason. The HPD for a game should depend on what you get, prior to any expansions. That's what makes the HPD very high for Mage Knight, and even higher for its granddaddy, Magic Realm. Good gravy, that game provides a lot of different dimensions to master, and a lot of different options to explore. Again, out of the box.

Which brings me to another recent publication, the new edition of Wiz-War from Fantasy Flight Games. I'm not such an old fogey that I swing my cane at any young whippersnapper of a designer who dares tinker with a time-honored classic. The tweaks in the FFG edition of Cosmic Encounter, for example, made sense, and were thankfully limited. Cosmic Encounter might have needed a tune-up, but not a brand new engine.

But some people can't help but open the hood and start pulling out parts. Decision Games has a bad track record of damaging games like Empires of the Middle Ages and Imperium through unnecessary changes. FFG altered the combat system for Dungeonquest for no good reason, and it seems as though Kevin Wilson went a rule too far with the new Wiz-War.  Over at Boardgame Geek, Rusty Ballinger provides a very balanced critique of this new edition, which unfortunately echoed some of my concerns when I started perusing my copy of the game.

Yes, I know, you can easily ignore some of the new rules. It doesn't cost you anything to change the victory conditions back to the classic "capture two chests." But there are other aspects of the new Wiz-War that, I fear, reduce the HPD ratio. Read Rusty Ballinger's review for some examples, and I'll add one of my own:

The old Wiz War might have been underproduced, but you sure got a lot of plays out of it.

The box was small, so it didn't take up too much room in your gaming closet. There were only two expansions, and each was relatively inexpensive. Even without the expansions, out of the box, you'd get a lot of plays out of the basic set. Which makes the HPD ratio even higher than it is with the new edition, almost by definition.

Given the choice, I'd rather have nicer components than uglier ones. But the components don't really add much to the HPD ratio. Sure, it gives you that "good all under" feeling when you first look at it, but how long does that frisson last? Especially when compared to more durable aspects of the game, like its replayability?

Nothing comes for free. You focus your attention on the components, and you invest less in other things -- like the rulebook. As Rusty Ballinger asks, "Dammit, you guys had twenty years to straighten out ambiguities  & questions; how could you leave old ones & add new ones!?" The answer to that question is, the rules were a lesser priority for this edition. Rules problems -- holes, ambiguities, changes, misinterpretations -- are a net loss in HPD terms. You're spending less time actually playing, and more time figuring out the right way to play. Ugh.

I've Been Diced! episode 32: Mage Knight

We heard that Mage Knight: The Boardgame was mildly popular, so we're providing an introduction to the game. What are the core rules, and how do they work together? What are some tips for beginning players? But first, we bemoan the frequency with which many recent games become unavailable. And later, Tom outlines his theory of gaming hours per dollar. Has that ratio gone up or down over time? Are we getting more or less out of the box? (c) 2012 Tom Grant

Monday, February 6, 2012

I've Been Diced! episode 31: Three player games

Three gamers walk into a bar. So what do they play? We discuss three player boardgames: which ones are good, and what makes them work. Plus, a quick historical overview of Eastern Front wargames. Which is a history of history, really. (c) 2012 Tom Grant

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

I've Been Diced! episode 30: The games that got away

What are the boardgames we regret not buying, when we had the chance? Which ones do we regret selling? In this episode, we discover how light of heart Dave is, and what a great burden of remorse Tom carries with him. Plus, since we've frequently discussed Martin Wallace's Princes of the Renaissance, Tom gives a quick overview of the game and a recommendation for a related Wallace game. (c) 2012 Tom Grant

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The historical pleasures of playing wargames

We've talked about the dual appeal of wargames, as both games and explorations of history, in both the I've Been Diced! podcast and the blog. Here's another great example by Bruce Geryk from another blog, where he explains how he fell in love with an historical Advanced Squad Leader module about an obscure battle on the Eastern Front.

Are iOS boardgames better for new or experienced players?

Yesterday, I had my first crack at the iPad version of Caylus. Amazingly, I've never played the physical version, even during the stampede of enthusiasm right after its initial release. Just something I never got around to, and now I can.

My first impressions are fairly tepid. It may be the game, or it may be the port of the game to the iOS platform. The developer, Big Daddy Creations, did a fantastic job with Neuroshima Hex, which is still one of my all-time moible versions of a boardgame, something I still play when I'm waiting for the subway train or otherwise need to kill a few minutes.

In contrast to my first impressions, people at BGG seem to like it. Reading through this thread, I suspect it might have something to do with their prior experience with Caylus. Where I need to keep clicking multiple times to find out what a building does, they already know.

Or, I could be wrong. So, research nerd that I am, I started a poll at BGG about iOS boardgames generally. Do they have any different level of appeal for people who have played the game, versus people who are new to it?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

I've Been Diced! episode 29: 2011 in review

Our obligatory but spirited take on 2011. What we liked and hated, what surprised us, what disappointed us. Plus, why Pursuit of Glory is both a great game and a great history lesson. (c) 2011 Tom Grant

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Excavating the Great Escape tunnels

Probably anyone reading this blog will want to follow this link to an article about the excavation of the tunnels that Allied soldiers used for the largest escape from a Nazi prison camp in World War II. You may have heard of the event. What was that movie called, The Big Escape? The Economy-Sized Escape?

Avalon Hill's magazine The General available in digital format

You may have heard me wax nostalgically about Avalon Hill's "house organ," The General. That magazine was a foundation of Avalon Hill's success, since it helped initiate people into the hobby and kept them engage. The series replay articles, for example, showed you how the game worked and what basic strategies one might employ, easing adoption of even the most complex game. They gave you a "See/Try/Buy" moment, as a customer, albeit in a surrogate fashion. And they were fun to read, often including hilarious smack-talk.

Other types of articles in The General were equally good. Designer notes, strategy articles, variants -- all great content. I wish this sort of journal still existed, in printed or electronic format. It kinda does, but the content is scattered all over the place, from the publisher's web sites to Boardgame Geek to Consimworld to blogs to the lost Crusader kingdom of Prester John. (OK, not the last one, but definitely the rest.) In the process, the collection of content around a game list coherence. When Avalon Hill published a new game, you expected to see an article by the designer and a series replay, at the very least. Both are very valuable kinds of content that largely don't exist today, or are very hard to track down.

So, imagine my delight in hearing that someone was digitizing The General and selling it on DVD. I make no recommendations about how to interpret their claims that the content is in the public domain or not. I'll just say that, if you buy these electronic version, or the old printed versions, you'll find great articles about games still played today, such as Titan, Third Reich, Magic Realm, and others.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

I've Been Diced! cameo appearance on The Dice Tower

The first part of the Dice Tower's 2011 in review is up, and I'm one among many contributors to it. Here's a direct link to the MP3. Many thanks to Tom Vasel for permitting me into such illustrious company. (But what happens if you don't join the Dice Tower network? Do Guido and Knuckles pay you a visit?)

You'll hear our own 2011 in review in a day or two. Not only do we provide our usual lively discussion, but you'll hear how boardgames might drive me to a life of crime. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

I've Been Diced! episode 28: Eric Lee Smith

Our game designer interviews continue with Eric Lee Smith. Aside from designing classic wargames like Across 5 Aprils, Panzer Command, Ambush!, and The Civil War, Eric is also the founder of Shenandoah Studio, which is bringing wargames like these to the iPad. Plus, a review of both Titan the beloved boardgame and its iPad version. (c) 2012 Tom Grant

Monday, January 9, 2012

Introductory wargames should teach you something

The introductory wargame is an elusive creature, like the Questing Beast, Nessie, or the informed news anchor. There have been lots of candidates, but nearly all of them have fallen short. For example, Memoir '44 might give someone who has never played a boardgame more complicated than Monopoly a sense of what a boardgame that simulates military conflict might be able to do. Unfortunately, it doesn't do much in the simulation department. If you were looking for a game experience that feels like the landings at "Bloody Omaha," or the slog through bocage country, or any other aspect of World War II that Memoir '44 tries to represent, keep looking.

If you're willing to put the time and effort into a game about World War II, or any other topic in military history, it should provide an experience that feels right. The experience is not a function of detail or complexity; in fact, detail and complexity often get in the way. People who want to experience history in a new way, other than a book or documentary, want to reach that moment when they say one of the following, either to themselves or the person on the other side of the table:
  • Yeah. That felt about right.
  • Huh. I didn't know that.
A single game doesn't need to provide the Yeah or Huh moments across every aspect of warfare that might conceivably matter, from firepower to logistics to political constraints to leadership to God only knows how many other relevant details there might be. Games tell a story, and you can make one or two dramatic points in even the shortest of short stories.

Most of the discussions about wargames, including the "gateway" games, have focused on the Yeah moments. Did this game reinforce our perceptions of what armed conflict is all about? Did A Victory Lost do a credible job of depicting Operation Saturn, or does it have too many "gamey" elements to suspend disbelief? (Which is one of my complaints about Memoir '44, the painfully gamey left/center/right division of the battlefield, which might have made sense for the Civil War or Ancients, but makes no sense for WWII battles.)

As I said, the Yeah factor has to be there for the game to seem credible, and therefore worth playing for the interest in history you share with your opponent and the designer. The Huh factor needs to be there sometimes, too, and not just in games for well-entrenched grognards. At least one Huh moment needs to be in every introductory wargame, to hook the neophyte into the hobby.

Lots of classic wargames of relatively low complexity -- in other words, good introductory wargames-- provide that Huh factor. For example, in The Russian Campaign, Germany's gradual loss of the airpower advantage makes a big, big difference. At the start, you get three counters that you can drop into any battle to shift the odds greatly in your favor. Congratulations, you've just learned why Wehrmacht generals used the word Schwerpunkt a lot in sentences. With airpower, you can blast your way through a critical location in the Soviet defenses, then pour your armor and mechanized infantry units into the enemy's rear areas. This operational advantage gives you a major strategic edge, being able to seize the initiative. Later in the war, you lose airpower, which means you lose the ability to create a Schwerpunkt, which means you lose the initiative. Sure, you might have read that story before in a history book, but words alone are a far weaker way to drive home the importance of air power than experiencing it, even if it's in a surrogate and simplified way.

You'll find another good Huh moment in Napoleon, the classic block game about the Waterloo campaign. Napoleon throws you into the deep end of the strategic pool right away, even if the game has only a dozen or so pages of rules. (Maybe fewer. I don't have my copy available to check.) Most low-complexity wargames leave out fog of war because it's too hard to simulate without adding complexity ot the game. Sure, it'd be great if you could have fog of war in Command & Colours: Ancients, so that you really didn't know how strong the left wing of Alexander's army is, after hammering at it for a couple of simulated hours. However, it's not worth the extra bookkeeping or double-blind rules you'd need to make it work. In Napoleon, the blocks depicting the enemy's units face away from you, at start. Is that column of French troops headed towards Ligny the crème of Bonaparte's army, or just a few weak troops used as a diversion?

Again, a relatively simple wargame includes a detail that makes you say, Huh. You've read about the frustrations generals experienced when they had to make life-or-death, win-or-lose decisions with little or no reliable information. Or, perhaps, you're so new to military history that you've not ready how much limited intelligence played a role in Napoleonic-era warfare. Once you play Napoleon, you'll get the point, usually after blundering into a battle you didn't want to fight.

Experienced wargamers will play new titles, even if they don't add any Huh moments. You might buy your fourth or fifth simulation of the Battle of the Bulge, not because you think you'll learn anything new, but because you think the latest effort might be a more interesting game to play, or a better simulation of the event. Of course, you'll have to have been hooked into the hobby already to have reached that point, which begs the question, what was it in the first wargame you played that excited your interest as a history buff?

Two new episodes of I've Been Diced! on their way

I'm currently doing the production work on two episodes of I've Been Diced!, for publication this week:

  • An interview with Eric Lee Smith, designer of classic wargames like The Civil War, Ambush!, and Across Five Aprils, and founder of Shenandoah Studio, which is bringing these sorts of games to the iPad.
  • Our obligatory "2011 in review" episode. Scott, Paul, Dave (virtually), and I nominate the best, worst, most surprising, and most disappointing games of 2011.

Plus, this week, I may be making a cameo appearance on another boardgame podcast. I'll let you know if and when that happens.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Why I don't review games after one play

I've been interested in Eclipse, since I'm a big fan of space empire games. I know that there's a Cabbage Patch Doll-like craze for it right now, since available copies sold out quickly after Eclipse got very positive early reviews on Boardgame Geek. I don't have a white-hot passion for getting a copy of the game right now, so I'll happily wait until April when the publisher, Asmodee, prints more copies.

Assuming, of course, once the typical puppy love phase wears off, later reviews describe the sort of game I might like. I've been burned by the "puppy love" reviews, wasting money on games that turned into huge disappointments. Frequently, I was relying on the opinions of people who had played a game only once or twice, which is hardly enough to really give a game a chance. (Or even get the rules right.)

The flip side of the "puppy love" review is the strongly negative "I hate my vegetables" review, also written after only a couple of plays, and therefore equally useless. I've harped on this point before, so forgive me for repeating a rant you may have already heard already. I'll keep it short: you don't really know a game until you've played it at least three times. At that point, writing a review is a potentially valuable exercise. It's a rule I apply to myself, which is why you haven't seen an official review of Mansions Of Madness here, even though my two plays were big disappointments.

Following that rule doesn't necessarily earn the respect and admiration of your readers, particularly if you write a negative review. Case in point is this recent review of Eclipse, written by someone who has played the game six times. It's a pretty sober article, pointing out a combination of both (1) elements of the game that weren't to his taste, and (2) other elements of the game that might be real defects, such as mechanics that lopsidedly favor one particular strategy over alternatives.

Cue the people who can't help themselves but to pounce on a negative review like this one. You don't see this same level of, er, engagement with positive reviews on BGG. Very few people are eager to tell you that you liked something too much. Many people are ready to tell you that you liked something too little.

The only way to deal with the critics of the critics is to have a good handle on the game, possible only through repeated plays. Otherwise, you leave yourself open to charges of You played that wrong and It's a deeper game than you realize. But even if you've played a game six times or more, be prepared for the slings and arrows.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 27: An expanding universe of expansions

Tom, Scott, and Paul discuss expansions. When is a game worth expanding? What kind of value should expansions provide -- More complexity? More of the same? A fix for a core game that didn't work? Plus, Tom reviews Elder Sign and two iOS board games, Loot And Scoot and Legion Of The Damned. (c) Tom Grant 2011

Monday, November 7, 2011

At long last, the feeds are fixed

When we started I've Been Diced!, there was only one feed for both the podcast and the blog. While this approach kept things simple, it also meant that, over time, some of the older episodes of the podcast disappeared from iTunes. The more I posted to the blog, the more episodes disappeared from iTunes...

No longer. We now have two feeds, one for just the podcast, and one for the blog (including podcast episodes). The links to these feeds now appear on the right, under "IBD blog feed" and "IBD podcast feed."

Practically speaking, what does this mean?

  • If you're subscribed to the original feed, you're now getting the podcasts only.
  • If you want the blog entries, subscribe to the new feed.

Sorry for the inconvenience.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 26: Colby Dauch, designer/publisher of Summoner Wars

Colby Dauch of Plaid Hat Games stops by to discuss Summoner Wars, his upcoming game Dungeon Run, the iOS version of Summoner Wars, Heroscape, and more. Plus, a Star Trek/Tales of the Arabian Nights hybrid is this week's Game Off The Beaten Track. (c) 2011 Tom Grant

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 25: Genres that do or don't work as boardgames

Summer blockbusters based on comic books are now the norm. Publishers release hundreds of new mystery novels every year. Westerns are still iconic parts of American popular culture. So why are there so few good games based on these genres, and so many better games based on medieval merchants, farmers, and castle builders? Plus, Tom recommends a few superhero games that succeed where others have failed.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 24: Jim Krohn, designer of Space Empires: 4X

Jim Krohn, designer of the just-published Space Empires: 4X, talks about the history of this game, plus some of the key design decisions that went into it. What started as a two-player monster game became something playable in a few hours. Plus, a new iPad game, King Of Dragon Pass, makes Tom nostalgic for one of his first board games. (c) 2011 Tom Grant

Thursday, September 1, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 23: Why we wargame

Paul, Dave, and Tom discuss the distinct appeal of wargames. We play them for different reasons than other boardgames, and we judge them according to different standards. Plus, three classic wargames off the beaten track, and we discuss how Origins: How We Became Human can break your brain. (c) 2011 Tom Grant

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Back after a brief hiatus

While we've been keeping pace, podcast-wise, I haven't posted to the blog in a while. I've been on the road an insane amount, had other work responsibilities, and some family stuff that needed attention. So, not much time for blogging, but I hope to catch up soon. Meanwhile, we are staying on track for the podcast, so expect a new episode next week.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 22: Alan Emrich of Victory Point Games

Alan Emrich drops by to talk about designing games, publishing games, and teaching game design. What's his company, Victory Point Games, working on next? How do you teach game design? Is it harder to design a small game than a big one? What's the plan for getting VPG's titles onto mobile devices? Plus, the strange case of a game that deftly blends politics and war, A Line In The Sand, but didn't get the attention it deserved. (c) 2011 Tom Grant

Monday, July 25, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 21: Arkham Horror

The stars are right for summoning our opinions about Arkham Horror. Why do we keep coming back to it, in spite of the insane amount of setup? Which expansions are worth getting? How should new players dive into Arkham Horror's murky depths? Plus, during our discussion of games we've played recently, Tom and Paul recount their return to ASL, via VASSAL. Verily. (c) 2011 Tom Grant

Sunday, July 17, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 20: Brian Train on wargames about revolutionary and asymmetric warfare

Brian Train, wargame designer, joins us to discuss simulations of irregular warfare. How do insurgencies differ from conventional wars, and what's different about how you simulate them in wargames? We talk about many of Brian's published games on these topics, such as ¡Arriba España!, Battle for China, Shining Path, and Algeria, as well as his upcoming games. For more info on Brian and his games, visit Copyright (c) 2011 Tom Grant

Monday, July 11, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 19: Magic Realm

We love Magic Realm, so why not spread the love? This episode, we give an overview of the game for new players, and we talk about what makes Magic Realm both unique and great. Later, Tom has Spain on the brain, so he gives a quick overview of wargames about the Spanish Civil War. Plus, an announcement about future episodes that will rock your world! Or just mildly perturb it.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

LA Noire: Watch the silliness evaporate

This morning, I finished LA Noire. As some reviewers have said, the good parts are truly brilliant, and the bad parts are teeth-gnashingly awful. The good news is, the further you get into the game, the more the silliness evaporates. By the last few chapters, the game is tightly focused on the main plot, which is very well-written. Unless you don't like mysteries at all, it's worth wading through the muck to get to the conclusion. But man oh man, why so much muck? Why the endless car chases, foot chases, shoot-outs, and time-wasting non-clues?

How UX made me a Ticket To Ride player

After playing a few sessions of Ticket To Ride with friends, I lost interest. It struck me as an OK game, and I could understand why it had a strong fan base. However, given limited boardgaming opportunities, I happily let my copy go.

That was several years ago. Today, as a dedicated iPad user, I was mildly interested to see how well Days Of Wonder implemented Ticket To Ride for this medium. Now, in spite of my earlier diffidence to Ticket To Ride, I'm a regular player.

What changed? First, there's the lack of setup. Even with a simple game with relatively few components, the process of setting up and breaking it down factors into my interest in playing it. (One reason why I don't get Arkham Horror to the table that often.)

Second, there's the speed of play. Ticket To Ride played face to face took longer than I had hoped for the class of game it is. Playing Ticket To Ride on the iPad takes only about 15 minutes, even when played online against other people. Dealing with players suffering from analysis paralysis is much easier in the anonymous online world than when sitting across from the table, worried about how that player will react to urging to get along with it already.

Finally, there's mobility. On the couch, on the train, on the plane, I can jump into a game of Ticket To Ride whenever I feel a need to take a short mental break from my work.

In other words, the iPad version of Ticket To Ride has a completely different user experience (UX) than the boardgame. The rules are the same, but it's essentially a different game. Ditto for similar games, such as Carcassone, that I've revisited in their iPad incarnations.

Another interesting case is Joan Of Arc. Because of the subject matter, I've been intrigued, but never took the plunge because it seemed at risk of being another game that was too Euro-ish and too long. Many times longer, in fact, than Ticket To Ride, which would try the patience of my regular gaming group if it turned out to be less than stellar.

The iPad version is pretty good. I'm glad I bought it, both in and of itself as a game I enjoy playing on the iPad, but also as something I might consider buying, now that I have more experience with it.

That's a pattern I hope to see repeated with other games in general, and wargames in particular. The user experience of physical wargames may be too much for neophytes, interested in the history and gameplay, but not sure about the investment of time. Having played Washington's War on the iPad and enjoyed it, a newbie might then want to introduce a friend to the physical version. Learning how to play any iPad wargame would certainly help the new player understand wargame conventions in general, lowering the barrier of entry to the hobby in general.

Again, it all comes down to user experience. As I said in my earlier post, software often fails because the initial user experience is confusing and difficult. If eventual complexity is necessary, you need to provide some kind of simpler initial user experience that suggests where to go next, and the rewards for going there. That, by the way, is where many "gateway" games fail, for some players. While Memoir '44 might be easy to grasp, it's also not much of a simulation. The leap from Memoir '44 to Washington's War is a lot tougher than the transition from the iPad version of WW to its physical one would be. So, here's to companies like Shenandoah Studios, providing the initial user experience that may get more people playing wargames.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

User experience is more than mechanics

Boardgame fans are, by and large, a forgiving people. While emotions might run high sometimes, as they often do on public forums like Boardgame Geek and Consimworld, they often sound like lovers' tiffs. For instance, in last week's podcast, I got a bit worked up over the utter disregard that FFG shows for first-time players of Twilight Imperium, but I still love the game anyway.

People are a lot less likely to suffer the imperfections in other things. Software designers, for example, only recently admitted to themselves that (1) the average user really hates the average application, and (2) there's a harsh economic penalty (lost sales, wasted resources, etc.) for delivering software that is too difficult to figure out or use. Developers build applications for people unlike themselves, and boy, does it show.

As a result, concerns over user experience have skyrocketed in the last several years. In fact, if we roll back the clock a decade or two, the average programmer might not even have heard the phrase user experience. If they had, it might have been limited to trivia, such as where to put buttons in a dialog box, or how many menu items is too many.

User experience, in the sense that we now use the term, is a much bigger concept. What are the steps the user expects to take, in doing a task like entering an invoice or reviewing case files? How much does the actual experience of using the software match the expected experience? What are the details of the actual experience that matter to the user, and why?

User experience (abbreviated UX) is more than the sum of its parts. The positioning of buttons doesn't matter if the dialog box is incomprehensible. A well-designed dialog box is useless if the user can't find it. A highly accessible dialog box is worse than useless if it gets in the way of completing a task. Providing an easy path through one task has limited value if it takes 10 minutes to start using the application at all. A bad experience in some parts of the "application flow" will tarnish the user's perception of the other, better-designed parts.

Games can provide a bad user experience, too. The average gamer might have more personally invested in playing Dominion than using an airline ticketing application, so they're willing to put up with a bit more. However, their patience isn't bottomless.

Unfortunately, game designers don't usually think in terms of user experience. Instead, they craft a set of game mechanics, bundle them together, and declare the game to be finished. They use some rough measures of user experience, such as rules complexity or average playing time, but these are very incomplete measures, much as the number of clicks needed to finish a task is only a partial measure of user experience in software.

This rule applies as much to video games as boardgames. I'm nearing the end of LA Noire, and man alive, what a disappointing user experience it has provided. The parts that excel — the interesting mystery plots, the overarching story about the aftermath of WWII —  are buried in game mechanics that are irrelevant and irritating to people who enjoy mysteries or film noir. I had hoped to play the game with my wife, who's a big fan of both, but there's no way she would sit through the repetitive car chases, foot chases, and shoot-outs.

Is user experience a problem, if boardgamers are a forgiving bunch? Yes, for one big reason: staying power.

Boardgames that provide a poor user experience, or just the wrong one, lose market presence. After the initial enthusiasm for new games, only a few retain a strong following. In December 2008, Battlestar Galactica was played 1231 times, among players who record gaming sessions on Boardgame Geek. In June 2011, that number dropped to 531, which isn't bad for an older game. Ghost Stories, another popular game in 2008, dropped from 1121 plays to 353 in the same period.

You can't attribute Battlestar Galactica's success to the popularity of the TV show, since many if not most licensed games are miserable failures.  Marvel Comics may be responsible for two summer blockbuster movies, Thor and Captain America, but the Marvel Heroes boardgame has only 38 logged plays in June 2011 on Boardgame Geek. Battlestar Galactica continues to draw players because it delivers a good user experience, one part cooperation, one part "Who's the toaster?" paranoia — just what you'd expect from a game based on the TV show.

Although many of you might disagree, I don't think that Marvel Heroes was all that bad of a game. However, it didn't deliver the user experience players might have expected from a superhero game. (And it's hardly alone among games about that genre that don't feel like comic books. What's up with that?)

Soren Johnson, the designer of Civilization IV, identifies this potential disconnect in an excellent series of blog posts about the difference between theme (what the box says the game is about) and meaning (what playing the game is like). Meaning is a big part of user experience: Does Marvel Heroes feel like a comic book? Does Descent feel like a proper dungeon crawl? How well the game delivers this experience is just as important as other qualities of the game, such as whether it's any fun to play, or too long, or aesthetically repulsive.

User experience is at the heart of my continued skepticism about Mansions Of Madness. Since I can read, I know what the theme is. However, after playing the game, I don't know what the game is supposed to be about. Is the main point competition between the keeper and the players? The mechanics imply that's the case, since players have to focus on moving through the house and overcoming obstacles (locks, monsters, darkness etc.) fast enough to resolve the challenge successfully. Other people have argued that it's a storytelling game, in which the mechanics generate a Lovecraftian story. If so, Mansions Of Madness fails, if for no other reason than the win/lose mechanics that are not part of the Call Of Cthulhu role-playing game, which is designed to re-create the experience of the Mythos stories, even if the Keeper has to fudge die rolls or plot developments occasionally to make it work. (To borrow James Carse's terminology, Mansions Of Madness is a finite game, and Call Of Cthulhu is an infinite game.)

User experience should be the basic requirement of any game. As someone who is trying to design his first wargame, I'll say that, as a starting point, the intended user experience does help a lot with the process. Rather than succumbing to the temptation of throwing in mechanics because they might be significant, I'm pruning things that don't contribute to the user experience.

Some designers seem to be very good at user experience. The average Martin Wallace game, for example, has the right feel, whether it's competing in the early days of the automobile industry, competing as the overlords of war-torn Poland, or pulling every devious trick you can imagine in Renaissance Italy. Since not everyone has this knack, I'd make user experience an explicit requirement at the beginning of design, instead of releasing a game that succeeds on all the usual measures (balance, complexity, etc.), but matches the intended experience as much as Microsoft Word resembles the process of writing.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Spain, PC wargames, Barcelona, and other news

As you can tell from this week's podcast, we're back after a short break. I'm totally to blame for missing one of our regular recording windows, but I had very good reasons. First, I was in Barcelona for business, and then stayed for a few more days on vacation. (More on that later.) And, it was the regular end-of-the-quarter mayhem, during which myself and my peers at Forrester Research are pushing hard to finish research reports and consulting projects before the end of the month.

Since I download to my iPad practically everything that looks interesting, I tried out Stitcher, the multi-platform, hybrid Internet radio/podcast app that has been advertising a lot on NPR lately. I registered the I've Been Diced! podcast there, for anyone who switches to that as their preferred app. (I've also been experimenting with iCatcher, which gives you the option of downloading or streaming podcasts to which you subscribe.)

As I mentioned on the podcast this week, I've been learning The Operational Art Of War III. If that sentence sounds as though I'm learning a language instead of a PC-based wargame toolkit, you wouldn't be far from the truth. Once you get a handle on the game, it's a rewarding experience, particularly given the gazillion scenarios available for it. However, learning it is a lot like a night class covering Serbian for beginners.

Maybe I'll write something longer about TOAW, but for now, let me just say that it's harder than it should be to start. No game ever reveals itself completely on the first play, and the part that's often obscure is the step beyond the basic mechanics. You can read the rules and understand how to play Combat Commander, for example, but it will take a couple of games before you can assess how risky your planned attack will be.

That's where I am now, having played the Arracourt scenario several times, switching between the Americans and Germans. I've fought the computer to a draw, and even pulled out a minor victory once. But jumpin' Jehosephat, the interface and documentation did not help.

I hadn't been to Spain, and I feel that I still haven't, at least the part we normally consider to be Spain. Catalonia definitely has its own identity, starting with the Catalan language, which is different enough from Spanish that my high school Spanish lessons did me little good.

We stayed in the center of the old medieval city, the Barri Gòtic. It was very touristy, but heck, we were tourists. If you're a history buff, Barcelona is a fascinating place. Tons of interesting medieval details, and a surprising amount of the original Roman settlement still visible, from a section of the original wall (shown here) to the ruins of the downtown area that you can visit in the bottom level of the City Museum.

Taking a drive up the Costa Brava was a great idea, since we got to see a few other fascinating things. If you're ever in the area, take the time to see Empúries, an amazingly well-preserved ancient town, first settled by the Greeks, and then by the Romans. Both settlements are excavated, and both are chock full of fascinating things, from tiled floors to the water filtration system, from the Roman forum to the Greek jetty.

I strongly recommend taking the time to read about Barcelona, Catalonia, and Spain in general before going. Otherwise, you'll miss a lot. For example, at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the residents of Barcelona successfully resisted the Falangist seizure of power. Visiting the Place Sant Jaume, the square in front of the old city hall and police station, is a little different experience when you've heard that's where the local military commander, ordered by his Nationalist superiors to fire on any Republicans, had the field guns loaded with blanks.

There's an element of games in my day job, as a computer industry analyst. Game-like exercises, serious games, are seeing some adoption in software development teams as tools for understanding customers and making better decisions. You can see my slides here, if you're interested at all. (Serious games have applicability outside of software development, but that just happens to be my research coverage.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 18: Twilight Imperium

Ever wanted to play Twilight Imperium? We dedicate this episode to you. Tom, Paul, and Scott give an overview of the game for beginners, with a summary of the core mechanics, tips for beginners, and even a few strategy suggestions. We've finished sessions of Twilight Imperium on a weeknight (really!), so why not you? Plus, the games we've been playing, and a run-down of some notable "great sweep of galactic history" games like Twilight Imperium.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Civil War, day by day, and our perception of history

One of my favorite iPad apps is The Civil War Today, the History Channel's day-by-day accounting of what happened 150 years ago. It's not the typical "This day in history" app, which is usually forgettable. In fact, The Civil War Today is not only memorable, but in its own way, surprisingly profound.

Every day, there's a relatively small amount of information, but very well-selected. There's a top news story, a few photos, the current casualty numbers, a few contemporary maps, a feature story, and excerpts from the lives of the famous (for instance, selections from Lincoln's daily correspondence) and the unknown (for example, John Beauchamp Jones' diary of his life as a Confederate War Department clerk who saw Jefferson Davis on a regular basis).

Day by day, the details accumulate. John Beauchamp Jones marvels at how much paperwork is piling up, in an infant government that just bawled out its secession. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger Taney, declares that the president has no right to suspend habeas corpus. General Benjamin Butler declares slaves to be contraband, freeing him from any obligation to return escaped slaves to their former owners.

In other words, the app provides an experience of Civil War history that you don't get from even the best books, a medium in which you look backwards in toto. It's hard for historians to make it seem as though the conclusion is already decided, which is why there's always a brisk interest in any counterfactual history or historical fiction that seems credible.

The Civil War Today is a completely different medium that avoids this problem. Events don't seem terribly connected with each other. Was Butler's controversial "contraband" policy going to create trouble for other Union civilian and military leaders? Once the Union army moved south, would Taney's decision have any effect on Union generals?

At this point in the Civil War, casualties were 57 on the Northern side, and 45 on the Southern. Those numbers make it easier to understand why people on both sides were willing to believe that the war could be shorter and less bloody than it turned out to be. We can see how hard it was, from the minute and scattered details of news stories and casualty numbers and photographs of eager young men, the hungry machine of destruction that both sides were building.

The only other medium that shows the uncertainties of war is wargaming. At the start of the game, you have some idea of how the war might progress (more, certainly, than did the Northern and Southern leaders at the start of the war), but the outcome is anything but predictable. You have some control over events, but a bad die roll can be as damaging as a division that gets lost in the middle of a battle, and a poor hand of event cards can be as confining as the debate between abolitionists and those who wanted just the return of the Southern states to the Union. We need to understand history as viewed forward by the participants as much as viewed backward by the historians.

Monday, May 30, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 17: The enduring appeal of Cosmic Encounter

Cosmic Encounter has been around for decades, with a dedicated fan base. What's the secret behind this boardgame's lasting appeal? Is Scott suffering from a Virus, a Fungus, or an enlarged Macron? Why are there so few games like Cosmic Encounter? During the Games Off The Beaten Track segment, we'll mention a few of those Cosmic-esque, Encounter-ish games.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Barriers to wargame entry

It's the week for good posts about wargaming. Anyone with an interest in wargames -- interested in diving into them, still getting your sea legs, or an old salt -- should read this post on Boardgame Geek. The author has some very thoughtful observations about wargaming's "barriers to entry," written from the perspective of a relatively new player. Some of the points he makes are not what you'd expect, given the received wisdom on this topic. For example, I strongly agree with his point made near the end of the post about relying too much on "gateway games."

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Excellent series about War In The East

If you're a wargamer, you should read Bruce Geryk's blog posts about War In The East, the PC Monsterspiel about the Eastern Front in WWII. War In The East isn't cheap – at $80, it's about as expensive as the typical Fantasy Flight game – so you can use Geryk's posts to decide whether it's the game for you. He also uses the occasion to muse about wargaming in general. How important are the details? Do wargames build credible narratives? What should games help you visualize? What assumptions do we make that perhaps we shouldn't?

Monday, May 16, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 16: Electronic versions of boardgames

There's a bumper crop of electronic versions of our favorite board games. The desktop, laptop, mobile device, and browser provide electronic versions aplenty. But which are any good? What makes them good? Do they increase or decrease sales of the physical versions? Should boardgame publishers be cool with other people developing electronic versions of their titles? And will Paul ever get an AI opponent for Advanced Squad Leader? Plus, I recommend a few boardgame-like wargames for the PC. (c) 2011 Tom Grant

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The choice between production quality and innovation

During the latest I've Been Diced! podcast, we spent a fair amount of time talking about Victory Point Games, a very different kind of company in today's crowded boardgame market. VPG's business model centers around ease of first-time publication: lower the bar of entry for new designers and new designs by keeping costs as low as possible. As a result, VPG violates all the popular assumptions about what makes a good boardgame company, and still they have dedicated fans.

Here's a quick rundown of their heresies:

  • Deliver games in ziploc bags, not boxes.
  • Keep the component quality low, about what I might be able to do with my own laser printer. (In fact, VPG provides scans of many components for customers to print themselves. Click here for an example of why you might do that.)
  • Keep the number of components low. For example, the Napoleonic 20 titles have no more than 20 unit counters per game.
  • Don't sell through the normal retail channels. Forget Thoughthammer, Funagain, and all the online retailers, or the dwindling number of brick-and-mortar stores. VPG sells through their own web site, period.
  • Emphasize solitaire play. A large percentage of VPG titles are solitaire only, and many of the rest have solitaire variants.
  • Keep complexity low. In contrast with the clockwork games that have several interlocking game systems, VPG titles are far leaner.

The result? A lot of very affordable games on cool themes, at a higher than average level of critical success. Even when tough reviewers find flaws within a particular VPG title, they also find a lot to recommend them. (Click here for an example.)

VPG is filling a niche that Metagaming once occupied in the late 70s and early 80s, the micro game company. Astra Titanus, a VPG title, is a modern re-theming of OGRE, one of the first micro games that Metagaming, so the lineage between Metagaming and VPG is pretty direct. Not surprisingly, Metagaming also de-emphasized production quality, with similar results.

To illustrate, let's set the time machine controls back to 1977, the year that Metagaming published OGRE. The people at Metagaming don't know it yet, but OGRE and its sequel, GEV, will continue to be played for the next 25 years. OGRE is a creative leap that might easily fail, a game in which one player has only a single counter on the map. The game could be an exciting struggle between two very different combatants, or a game in which only one side has interesting choices to make.

Not all of Metagaming's first titles will be successes. Warp War, for example, will get some good early buzz, but it will disappear from gaming tables in a couple of years. Rivets looks like a cute game of battling robots, but it will wind up in the scrap heap rather quickly. However, Melee will turn into an enduring favorite that spawns another game, Wizards, that will evolve into a new RPG system, The Fantasy Trip, which will evolve again into GURPS.

Metagaming can afford to take risks with its game portfolio, because the games are relatively cheap to produce. Each microgame comes in a ziplock bag. The customer has to cut out the pieces from the single piece of cardboard that comprises the counter sheet. The graphics on the counters, or in the rulebook, or on the map, are lower than average quality for the hobby. Some of the games that go into these modest packages might turn out to be surprise hits; others that seemed promising may turn out to be flops. At $3 per game (about $10 today, adjusting for inflation), both the publisher and the customer can afford to take these risks.

During the same year, Avalon Hill is enjoying a fantastic run of successful innovation. In 1977, Avalon Hill published Squad Leader, Victory In The Pacific, and Rail Baron. Other titles in Avalon Hill's 1977 catalog won't reach the same status as classics, but the company's rigorous playtesting has led to a pretty good success rate. Avalon Hill may be investing more in components (mounted maps, high-quality box art, etc.), but the games that these components bring to life are, on average, pretty solid.

SPI, the other wargame giant of the hobby in 1977, seems to be doing just as well. (Warning: If you are an older grognard with fond memories of SPI, you may be offended by what I'm about to say.) However, that success is somewhat fleeting. The titles that SPI publishes in 1977 are not going to have the same enduring appeal of OGRE or Squad Leader. There will be noble failures, such as War Of The Ring and A Mighty Fortress. With a few more development cycles, these games might have been classics. Unfortunately, most of SPI's 1977 publications -- Canadian Civil War, Raid!, The Conquerors, StarSoldier -- will turn out to be immediately forgettable. In 25 years, very few will remember them, and no one will be playing them.

But everything in SPI's 1977 catalog looks good out of the box. The company takes on interesting themes. The graphic art elements of these games are top notch. (Tim Kirk's art for War Of The Ring is outstanding.) Every game comes with a counter tray, the 1977 equivalent of the 2011 box insert for easy component storage. If Boardgame Geek had existed in 1977, these games would have received rave "out of the wrapper" reviews. The reviews themselves would have received lots of thumbs up from people eager for first reports about these well-produced games.

The year 1977 in the history of boardgaming has an obvious moral: successful innovation doesn't come for free. The average SPI or Avalon Hill game takes more money to publish than a Metagaming microgame, which makes it more expensive for the individual gamer to buy. The customers of Avalon Hill and SPI come to expect a certain quality of presentation in their games, so these companies have to invest more in graphic design, printing, and distribution. With finite resources, each of these companies has to choose priorities: production quality over number of titles? Number of titles over time spent on design review and playtesting?

Avalon Hill managed to juggle these priorities more successfully than SPI, but both companies dropped the ball repeatedly. Metagaming did too, but their flops, such as Ice War, left customers far less angry than expensive failures like Princess Ryan's Star Marines. (And which does less damage as an introduction to the hobby?)

Let's return to 2011. The point of our trip isn't to say that every company today needs to be like Metagaming. As in any market, there's room for different types of companies, from the specialists (Multiman Publishing) to the generalists (Fantasy Flight Games), from low complexity (Z-Man) to high complexity (GMT), from non-existent production values (Cheapass) to high quality components (Rio Grande).

The entire boardgame hobby ecosystem benefits from having these lower-cost, lower-risk laboratories of innovation like Metagaming and Victory Point Games. Unfortunately, not everyone with a loud opinion on BGG, the main forum for discussion about boardgames, recognizes that fact. Many well-produced games that get high praise from BGGers disappear into obscurity as quickly as Canadian Civil War. Some people reflexively sneer at games that lack the rococo aesthetic of FFG titles. And others don't recognize the trade-off that companies have to make among competing priorities, such as quality of the game design and quality of the game components.

Here's a moment when this choice between production quality and game quality matters. Many people are unhappy that Games Workshop didn't publish more copies of Space Hulk third edition. Space Hulk is a great game, and it's a shame that it's now very expensive to get a copy of any edition. Meanwhile, Victory Point games has a Space Hulk-ish title, Forlorn Hope, that by some accounts is a better game. Rather than bemoan the short print run of Space Hulk, or spend close to $200 on a copy, why not take a chance with Forlorn Hope? Unless your only interest in Space Hulk is the miniatures, you may get a lot more enjoyment out of a much smaller outlay of cash. VPG will put that money into publishing other games you might want to play, many with novel mechanics and interesting themes. And you'll be able to buy several of them for the cost of one copy of Space Hulk.