Tuesday, November 30, 2010

New blogroll added

If you look to the right, you'll see a new listing of boardgame-related blogs. You'll also see my preference for wargames reflected in the list, but not to the exclusion of boardgames generally.

On top of needing a blogroll for I've Been Diced!, I've also been looking at the boardgame community as a side project at work. Wow, there are a lot more gaming blogs than I knew. They also cluster neatly around boardgames, with few "crossover blogs" that throw in related forms of entertainment, such as computer games, console games, and role-playing games. In fact, the wargame blogs seem to have stronger connections to history sites than general boardgame blogs have to other types of games.

Maybe you expected that result, but I didn't. Back in high school, my family owned a bookstore, which was my first education in the extent of crossover buying. The store started with comics, then branched out into science fiction and fantasy books. Eventually, we added a gaming section. Many customers purchased from more than one part of the store, and occasionally, all three.

However, in social media today, there isn't the same crossover. I'm not sure why people with eclectic shopping habits get very precise in online discussions of these products, but that's what seems to be the case.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Randomness in boardgames: determining or managing?

[In the first post, I talked about how randomness can define the feel of a game. Now, I'm going to talk a bit about the type of player skills that randomness puts to the test.]

A recent episode of the podcast Flash of Steel talked about build orders in real-time strategy games, including Starcraft 2. The new Starcraft was, on release, a finely-tuned game. Since then, Blizzard just keeps tuning it. If someone figures out a build order that gives a significant advantage, in the same fashion as the infamous Zerg rush of the original Starcraft, lots of players adopt it. If it's imbalancing, Blizzard patches the game to re-balance it. And then online play continues until someone finds a new imbalancing strategy.

Does that sound like fun to you? Obviously, for millions of Starcraft online players, it must be. However, it's also a big turn-off for more casual players. Starcraft has turned into a very chess-like game, in which turn orders dictate the relative capabilities of the players. Turn orders (build a barracks, build four marines, etc.) are very deterministic, and they're arguably more important than battle tacti
cs. The marginal advantage you get from knowing where to position your siege tanks is much smaller than being able to manufacture siege tanks at a faster rate.

There's randomness in Starcraft 2, but it's not in the places where it can provide some breathing space for a new player. (Except, of course, if he's playing against an equally new player, which is one reason why Blizzard put a great deal of effort into matchmaking features.) Randomness is almost invisible in the game, so players don't give it much thought.

Boardgames sometimes follow this design approach. While I have little experience playing Age of Steam, I know that a more experienced player will make much better decisions governing what to do each turn, and where to do it. I'll be at a severe disadvantage against very experienced players, who eliminate bad choices with the same efficiency as good chess players.

If you were to make these games more random in the places where they're deterministic, a veteran player will still have a significant advantage over an inexperienced one. However, the game experience will be much different. Rather than feeling as though you're cracking
the puzzle of What's the optimal move this turn? you feel as though you're making choices among competing strategies. In the first case, you're trying to calculate what will work. In the second case, you're playing with options for what might work.

During one Advanced Squad Leader session, my friend and regular opponent Paul was having a very bad game. It looked as though, by the middle of the game, I was cruising to an easy victory. I urged him to hang in there, since (a) Paul is an excellent player, and (b) his luck could easily turn.

Paul won the game, after making some excellent tactical decisions. Luck mattered, both early in the game when it slapped him around, and later when Dame Fortune seemed a bit more even-tempered. However, Paul's skill as an ASL player really determined his victory. To win at ASL, you need to plan a couple of moves ahead, while still adapting to unexpected twists of fate. That is almost the definition of "the management of violence," the essence of military strategy in the 3-D, non-cardboard world.

I prefer games that challenge me in that fashion over the more deterministic games like Starcraft 2. Not everyone shares that preference. Managing risk and opportunity defines my kind of game, from ASL to Cosmic Encounter. Determining risk and opportunity in a game like Tammany Hall (a very deterministic design) just isn't as fun for me. I'm also not a big puzzle solver, other than crossword puzzles. The two preferences are definitely connected.

Monday, November 22, 2010

So what about the podcast?

Aside from adding blog posts, I'm working to make the I've Been Diced! podcast appear on a more regular basis. More details to come.

Meanwhile, thanks to everyone for their encouraging comments and helpful criticisms. You've helped push me to keep the podcast on track.

Randomness in boardgames: dramatic effect

[First in a series of posts about random elements in boardgames.]

One of the virtues of Boardgame Geek as a site stuffed with "user-generated content" is the insight it provides into those users. From reading that BGG content, it's clear that boardgamers have widely diverging attitudes about randomness in games. To some extent, these attitudes are a question of taste. But beyond the cursory de gustibus disclaimer ("This game is just not for me..."), people hold strong opinions on this subject.

For some boardgamers, it's an anathema, so that the enjoyment of a game is in inverse proportion to the influence of random elements. For others, randomness adds to the gaming experience.Unlike the other faction of gamers, this cohort doesn't have quite as simple a formula for calculating the effect of randomness on games. Enjoyment may not be directly proportional to randomness, but below a particular threshold of randomness, the game loses its attraction.

Take, for example, the fans of the games Automobile and Dungeonquest. Automobile has no random elements, other than the decisions other players make. While other players can and do mess with you, the game rewards some level of planning, particular within a single turn. If I build distributors, you may interpret that move as a threat, and respond accordingly. Taking these measures and countermeasures into account, I plan my turn accordingly, timing actions (building distributors, opening factories, building cars, etc.) based on both what I want to do, and how you're likely to interfere with me.

Dungeonquest provides the opposite gaming experience. There's little interaction among players, other than an implicit race for the exits when it looks possible to score points before the game ends. Randomness is not only greater than in Automobile, but it's almost the defining characteristic of the game. Random tile and card draws provide tension (Am I pushing it to try to steal one more treasure from the dragon?) and black humor (Not another piiiiiiiiiit!!!), the major reasons why people play the game. The game might not have as many interesting choices as, say, Paths of Glory or Twilight Imperium, but there is a strategy that rewards a player's ability to balance potential reward against definite risk.

Greg Costikyan's excellent and frequently-cited article about randomness in games does a great job of explaining why, in games like Axis and Allies that are chock full of random el
ements, strategy is just as important as in games with no randomness, such as chess or checkers. Some elements of those strategies, such as anticipating counter-measures, are the same. Others, such as pushing your luck, don't exist unless luck is a factor.

Costikyan uses the word aesthetics to describe the experience of playing the game. In the PC and console gaming worlds, first person shooters like Call of Duty have a different aesthetic than role-playing games like Dragon Age. Different aesthetics appeal to different kinds of gamers, or the same gamers when their momentary tastes steer them towards a particular kind of gaming experience.

Let's take that word aesthetics a bit farther than Costikyan did to understand the role of randomness in creating that aesthetic. Randomness is not only a tool for enhancing the generic qualities of a particular class of game, making it more forgiving to beginners, increasing the replay value, and better simulating the randomness in real world situations like warfare. Randomness is also essential for creating dramatic elements that are otherwise impossible to achieve.

The recently-published card game Space Hulk: Death Angel is a prime example. The original Space Hulk boardgame attracted legions of fans, in large part because of its aesthetic. Much like its popular culture progenitor, the movie Aliens, Space Hulk depicts a nail-biting conflict between well-armed space marines and a seemingly endless swarm of deadly aliens. The most dedicated fans have dissected the three editions of the game, weighing the qualities of Space Hulk as both a game and a dramatic narrative. On t
he first dimension of comparison, Space Hulk as a game, many players disliked the second edition for dropping the human player's option of saving command points to use during the opponent's turn. On the second dimension, Space Hulk as an experience, fans applauded the high production values of the third edition, such as the map tiles, to the extent that they enhanced the Space Hulk aesthetic of extreme peril in confined spaces.

Space Hulk succeeds because of its ability to balance skill, the product of your actions, and suspense, which depends on elements you cannot control. Creating a formation of terminator marines, carefully positioned to cover every possible axis of genestealer attacks, depends on the player's skill. Creating moments of suspense depends on guns jamming, blips turning out to be dummies, critical fusillades of small arms fire missing their targets, and other moments when your best-laid plans gang aft agley.

Suspense can't exist without the unexpected and the unplanned. When you're watching North By Northwest for the first time, your pleasure depends to a large extent on not knowing what's up with that airplane dusting dead crops. The ending of Casablanca is diminished if you know what Louis is going to say. Similarly, the great moments of Space Hulk depend on not knowing when events will go south, or what will happen when they do.

The card game version of Space Hulk, Death Angel, re-opened many of these discussions of what makes Space Hulk a great game. (At least, for some.) This review on BGG is typical of the person for whom Space Hulk, in any form, is the wrong game. Anyone who says, "The game has a mechanic where you can spend tokens to reroll attacks and defends, but it is not something to be relied upon," is largely missing the point of Space Hulk.

Imagine yourself back when you saw Aliens for the first time. Now, picture someone sitting next to you, loudly proclaiming how disappointing the movie was. "You call that small unit tactics?" he yells at the screen. "Where are your reserves? Why don't you recon a position before sending in the entire squad? And what idiot would leave the heavy weapons team that exposed?"

Of course, this person is missing the point of Aliens. Further realism in small units tactics wouldn't make Aliens a better suspense movie. In fact, too much attention to small units tactics would distract from the suspense. Knowing the outcome ruins suspense. Keeping the outcome a mystery, despite the protagonist's best preparations, is the essence of suspense, in movies or in boardgames.

It's new! It's now! It's the IBD blog!

Since we started the I've Been Diced! podcast, I've been using this blog purely as a way to distribute the podcast. However, I'm brimming with strong opinions (some even justified) about boardgames, wargames, serious games (gaming in a business context), and related topics.

So, welcome to the first official I've Been Diced! blog post. More to come.