Monday, February 21, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 12: High Frontier

High Frontier is an ambitious game about the exploration and exploitation of the solar system. This episode, we outline the rules of the basic game for new players, and we give a few initial thoughts about the game. Plus, our game off the beaten track looks at space as a much less inviting place. (c) 2011 Tom Grant

Friday, February 18, 2011

Hating the haters of "hex and counter" wargames

Every once in a while, you'll see a forum post, blog entry, or other piece of content that takes disparages traditional "hex and counter" wargames. While I can forgive a little bit of adolescent arrogance ("These are a new generation of wargames, old man!"), at some point you have to call BS on exaggerations or falsehoods. Like, say, the false assumption that newer wargame formats can't co-exist with the older types.

Clearly, wargame design needed some shaking up. When I was a subscriber to Strategy & Tactics, I received in every issue yet another treatment of an historical event, always jammed into the same medium of hexes, combat result tables (CRTs), zones of control, and counters depicting combat and movement ratings. Innovation was pretty limited: for example, the "sticky" zones of control in Panzergruppe Guderian inspired far more conversation and controversy than they probably deserved.

Impatience with this very constricted approach started a very long time ago. Courtney Allen, for example, was responsible for two of the biggest divergences from traditional "hex and counter" designs. (It's probably more accurate to call them "hex and CRT" games, but the "hex and counter" moniker is already too well-established to dispute it.) Storm Over Arnhem (1981) shifted to an area movement model, introduced a combat system that did not rely on a CRT, and added a novel activation system that gave a better feel for the ebb and flow of combat. Up Front! (1983) did away with a map altogether, made a deck of cards the mechanism for giving orders, and replaced die rolls with the same deck of cards. Since Avalon Hill marketed Up Front! as "the Squad Leader card game," this radically new design outraged many Squad Leader fans who expected something closer to the boardgame experience.

Courtney Allen is hardly the only designer to have made the move away from the original "hex and counter" paradigm. However, he does show, with just one notable example, of how the shift away from the old paradigm started a lot earlier than some "hex and counter" critics realize.

None of these designers thought that they were abandoning maps with hexes, or combat resolution systems that depended on comparing a die roll to a chart, or counters that contained combat and movement ratings. We The People, for example, created the "card-driven game" mechanics that are now a pillar of modern wargame design. We The People also used a point-to-point map of the American colonies, instead of hex grid, and it replaced die rolling with a combat deck.

We The People was a breakthrough game, but I'm afraid that some observers misread what its innovations meant for the hobby. After We The People, Mark Herman designed games with hex-based maps (Empire Of The Rising Sun), CRTs (Washington's War), and turns that didn't depend on card plays (the continuing Great Battles Of History series, in ongoing collaboration with Richard Berg).

The wargame designers who invented card-driven turns, abandoned hex grids, replaced counters with blocks, or made other important innovations did not think that they were invalidating the old conventions of wargames. Quite the opposite: they felt that they were expanding the palette of design options, not switching to a new but equally limited range of options.

To make this point, I'm including two maps from recent games about the Spanish Civil War. Crusade & Revolution's map is point-based; The Spanish Civil War's map is a traditional hex grid. In no way is one map choice better than the other. The conclusion: Both are maps of Spain. The Spanish Civil War does a fine job of depicting the conflict with its "old school" mechanics. (See this video review for details.) There's no reason to turn up your nose at it, just because its map doesn't look like Paths Of Glory's.

In fact, the "hex and counter" paradigm may be making a bit of a comeback. In many cases, a hex-grid map is a better way to depict geography, or at least an equally good one. For instance, hexes can simplify the task of depicting the area of operations for air power at the operational and strategic level. A CRT can eliminate some of the weirder results that "buckets of dice" mechanics can generate. We're seeing the plus sides of hex grids and CRTs in games like The Spanish Civil War, Corp Command: TotenSonntag, the popular OCS and SCS series, and countless other titles.

So, Junior, before you slam the old order too hard, remember that you may grow up to become the very thing you're now disparaging. That's OK, since recognizing false dichotomies for what they are is a sure sign of maturity.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Why AARs and session reports are more valuable than reviews

[A recent post at Flash of Steel kicked off my thinking on this topic. Click here to read that post.]

When it was still in business, the granddaddy of wargame companies, Avalon Hill, published a magazine covering its games, The General. Every issue had a standard array of content, including previews of new games, strategy articles about existing ones, and "series replays," detailed after-action reports (AARs) that might cover old or new titles. You'll sometimes hear old guard wargamers use the term "house organ" to describe The General. I cringe at that phrase, because it sounds as though The General was just a PR outlet for Avalon Hill. In truth, The General was integral to Avalon Hill's business, not just an appendage.

In the last years of Avalon Hill, the company experimented briefly with articles in The General covering games from other publishers. The reader response was mixed, with a strong tilt towards rejecting this idea. Most readers wanted to read about Avalon Hill games in The General, even if they were interested in other companies' wargames.

At the root of this rejection was the relationship between Avalon Hill and its customers. Avalon Hill had a wide portfolio of high-quality games. Even if an individual wargamer didn't want to buy everything in the Avalon Hill catalog, these choices had more to do with personal preference than game quality. Napoleonics fans might have little interest in Squad Leader. Fans of tactical wargames like Squad Leader might have zero interest in grand strategic games like Third Reich. Die-hard monster gamers might be bored with a simple game like Diplomacy, and Diplomacy fans might shudder at the idea of playing a monster like Empires In Arms.

Avalon Hill made these decisions easy for its customers, and earned their loyalty, in two ways. First, they had a reliable track record of publishing, on average, high-quality games. Sure, there were duds like Amoeba Wars, but by and large, you got your money's worth with their games.

The second benefit of being an Avalon Hill customer, transparency, returns us to The General and the series replay articles. If The General published no other types of articles than series replays, this content alone would have increased sales and customer loyalty in the following ways:

  • See/try/buy. A series replay gave you insight into a game that no box cover, marketing blurb, or even a review could ever provide. You saw what it would be like to play the game before you made a purchase, critical information that unfortunately almost no game company provides today. In my day job, I've written a lot about the way in which software as a service (SaaS) has changed they way customers expect to evaluate, purchase, and adopt software, from free applications like Google Apps, to expensive systems like NetSuite's ERP financial applications. You should be able to get some idea of what it's like to use the product before buying it, a marketing tool that Avalon Hill used decades ago.
  • Greater odds of adoption. I'm using another term, adoption, that appears a lot in my research about the technology industry. It's actually a word that comes from research on innovation in general, not just iPads and financial software. Your willingness to buy something depends, to a great extent, on your expectations that you'll be able to use it. Technology buyers have learned to be wary before diving into a purchase, because they've seen expensive products sit on the shelf unused. In contrast, the person buying a new Avalon Hill wargame knew that, even if the rulebook proved to be dense, dry, and confusing (the infamous Greenwood syndrome), the series replay articles, among other types of supporting content in The General, increased the ease of learning, and therefore eventually playing (or adopting), the game.
  • Greater odds of realizing long-term value. Most people who buy a game want to be able to play it, if not expertly, at least moderately well. The series replay articles provided commentary on the game that not only taught the game mechanics, but basic strategies for first-time players. This information increased the long term value of the game in two ways: (1) shortening the time to begin playing the game at a deeper level, which not all wargamers are patient enough to discover on their own, and (2) illustrating how the game might have deeper levels worth learning.

I'm not sure why game companies today have not learned this lesson. There are exceptions, such as GMT, which recently started recording demos of their games. GMT is certainly an exception, however, in a market awash with orders of magnitude more games than Avalon Hill could ever have published.

A different kind of gaming hobby, computer gaming, has learned this lesson. The most obvious example of a game with useful AARs is Starcraft 2, supported by hundreds of recorded games. A complex game, Europa Universalis III, gets a major boost from the AARs in its fan forums. One of my favorite new blog discoveries, Blunt Force Gamer, has some very interesting AARs from computer wargames.

All of this content increases the odds of anyone playing Starcraft, or taking a chance on buying a little-known game like Time of Fury. This content is way, way more valuable than the "right out of the plastic" or "played it once, now I have an opinion" reviews on Boardgame Geek. If I were a game publisher, I'd be a lot happier if someone posted a good session report than any of these kinds of momentary boosterism that spike right after a game is published, then drop off quickly. (See the latest episode of the I've Been Diced! podcast for more on this topic.) AARs build a longer-term following for games -- and, as The General showed, game companies.

Monday, February 7, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 11: How many sessions before judgment?

Sure, there are games you love at first sight, or hate on arrival. But most games aren't like that, and often, these strong first impressions are wrong. How many sessions of a game should you play before rendering judgment? Plus, a tactical wargame by the designer of Squad Leader that deserves another look. (c) 2011 Tom Grant

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Historical movies should be about history

I have a pet peeve that extends to both boardgames and movies: If something attempts to depict history, then it should make every effort to be faithful to history. (It's the popular culture version of the maxim, "If you're going to take Vienna, take Vienna.") While some trimming of relevant facts is always necessary to cram the full story into a reasonable span of time for a film or boardgame, the author or designer should not insert deliberate distortions.

Does that sound unreasonable to you? History is intrinsically interesting, so you don't have to work to hard to hook your audience into the story. For instance, I just finished an excellent book about the German-Turkish effort to mess with the British in the Near East during WWI, Like Hidden Fire, which seemed to have the source material for at least a couple of really, really interesting screenplays. Espionage! War! Epic treks! Betrayal! Revolution!

However, for reasons I can't fathom, every time someone points out an inaccuracy in a movie allegedly about real events, some person feels obliged to point out that, "It's just a movie." You hear this rebuttal less among boardgamers, and even less among wargamers (a.k.a. historical conflict simulation gamers). Everyone knows that a game can't be a perfect model of historical events, nor should it be. The whole point is to create some kind of alternate history, within credible parameters. If you play For The People, and the Confederacy exhausts the political will of the Union, you're not dissatisfied with the result. If you play a strategic WWII game along the lines of Europe Engulfed, and Poland conquers Germany on turn one, there's something seriously wrong with that design.

Why should movies be any different? If you write the screenplay for a movie with the budget of, say, Saving Private Ryan or Pearl Harbor, chances are that you're being paid a fair amount of money for that privilege. Why is the studio OK with you chucking historical veracity out the window, because it's a wee bit harder to check the facts than make up stuff?

The usual argument, which I find wholly unconvincing, is that mangling history is necessary to make a story dramatically interesting. If you're one of those people, I urge you to read one of the following books: Company Commander, by Charles MacDonald; Blood And Thunder, by Hampton Sides; or The Book of Honor, by Ted Gup.

All three books are great reads, without the author mucking around with the facts to make a more interesting story. Why then should a screenplay be any different? From any of these three books, you can extract an intensely dramatic narrative that centers on a specific main character, which seems like the raw material for a great movie.

If you doubt that it's possible to make a movie that's faithful to history, go watch Glory. The minor inaccuracies (for example, Frederick Douglass looks much older in the movie than he was in 1863) are so few, and so inconsequential, that you're definitely nit-picking to complain about them. The rest of the movie gets all the important facts right. In contrast, Braveheart gets many of the important facts about William Wallace's revolt completely wrong, from the battle scenes to the main characters. Heck, the real William Wallace wasn't even a commoner, as depicted in the movie, but a minor noble. That's not exactly a minor detail in a film that depicts the revolt as the little guy taking on The Man.(It's interesting to hear how, in Scotland, many people loathe Braveheart for its inaccuracies, to the point of angrily defacing a Braveheart-inspired statue.)

Could you make an alternate movie about William Wallace that would still be interesting to a general movie audience? Most definitely. Gibson's distortions of history have more to do with his own hatred of the British (also visible in The Patriot) than the rules of good screenwriting.

There is nothing about movies as a medium that requires historical distortion. The problem isn't the amount of content, unless it's impossible for someone to condense an important historical event, such as the battle of Antietam, into a magazine article. The problem isn't the people who are interested in the film's depiction of history, because they're in the theater because of their interest in history. The problem isn't the need to pander to people who need a love interest or a chase scene to keep their attention focused on a movie, or else The King's Speech wouldn't be as popular among movie-goers as it is. Whatever details you choose to leave in or out, just tell the damn story.

So what does this have to do with games? In today's boardgame market, there's an attitude about entry-level games that I detest. Below a certain level of details, it's very difficult for any game to be a good simulation. I'm not bothered by Memoir '44 for this reason. When you crank up the complexity a notch or two, you have the opportunity to include the details that matter. If you decide not to take that opportunity, you're doing a disservice to the people who buy games because of their interest in history.

A prime offender is Tide Of Iron. The game has plenty of fans, many of whom have some interest in the particulars of WWII history. While you might say that it's historical enough for your tastes, it's a different matter to defend Tide of Iron on the grounds that it's really a game about WWII as seen on TV (as if it's OK for TV or movies to mangle history needlessly).

When I reviewed Tide of Iron on BGG, I tried to make a very simple point: given that Tide of Iron isn't a cheap game, the game focuses way too much on its components, at the expense of what it could have done to  include a few details that might have been interesting to WWII buffs. For the cost of all the plastic figures in the box, I might be able to buy an entire game that's a better low-complexity simulation of WWII, and just as enjoyable to play. The time that players must spend on stuffing plastic army men into bases might be spent on historical details that matter, such as the simple and clever ways in which games like Combat Commander and Squad Leader model the importance of leadership on the battlefield.

I'm still mystified why some of the people who commented on the review seemed to miss my point. Maybe I made it poorly, but at the same time, I definitely don't agree with the "WWII as seen on TV" defense. Plastic figures in Tide of Iron are a lot like the gratuitous love interest plots inserted into old movies like Crash Dive and Hellcats of the Pacific: largely irrelevant for someone who's interested in the topic. I came for WWII, not the smooching, thank you very much.