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.