Sunday, December 2, 2012

A drastic change of direction

I've been interested in the Italian renaissance for a long time (in fact, since about 1976 when I played in a large scale campaign set in the period).  From time to time I Have read quite widely in the period -- economic, banking, social and political history as well as well as military.

So where is this leading me?  Well, I want to digest the inchoate mass of data and re-express it as some form of entertainment.   There is too wide a range her, I suspect, for a campaign game; and I can't expect anyone to read  great mass of background just to play a role playing game "correctly."  Popular history can be fun, but I really don't have any sort of hook for non-fiction and I think that to do it right needs more scholaly training and experience than I will ever have.

Fiction, then.  Right now, I am thinking of an historical mystery set in Tuscany somewhere about 1470.  The period and place are well documented and academically popular so research is not a hardship.  I already have a good library on the subject, and the local university libraries are also well stocked.

I am starting by trying to get a grip on factors that shape people - birth, education, careers, death.  In order to move beyond the focused-but-casual reading I have done in the past I have used the old method from my student days: a tub of index cards and short, well-filed, and referenced notes.  I find the simple act of writing helps with my retention, and gives me something to order later when I am trying to filter out anachronism.  I want to write about quattrocento Italians,  not 21st century Canadians in fancy dress.

This will take a long time, so we will see how we do.  It is at least cheap.  And in a century where self-publication is so easy I can at least be certain that if I finish it will be available for people to buy and read.  If they will or no is another matter.

But how about a fun little song from just a little bit later than the period I am interested in?

Monday, October 15, 2012

What I've Been Up To

I've been focused on work and family for the past couple of months, but I have not been entirely without bloggable activities.
  • My dear wife an I discovered we both like Commissario  Montalbano.  Twenty-two almost-two-hour episodes in a row we are now in withdrawal.  The series has interesting mysteries, an exotic (for us Anglo Canucks) location and culture, and interesting and likeable regular characters.  Yes, there are English sub-titles.
  • We also like Commissario Brunettei.  This is a Bavarian TV production; they are (my wife assures me) faithful to the books but, after watching Montalbano, I find the German actors less convincing than I did at first.  Subtitles; you don't so much notice that they are speaking German while you are reading them but when you head to the Kitchen you suddenly notice how they are speaking.  
  • I've started taking intro Italian lessons.  Notice the common theme here.
  • I've also been reading intensively on the Italian Renaissance.
 So, little of direct gaming relevance but all good fun nonetheless.

At work, I have learned the basics of a scheduling product called Control-M that is definitely new-to-me.  I've also started programming in Perl, which in the role of a "next step up" scripting language is great fun and very easy to use.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Love, Hate and twenty-eight (mm that is)

As I posted on my renaissance blog I am working on my first 28mm figures in a very long time.  As a result they are hard work; which gets me wondering if they are worth the effort.  Slow to produce, had to transport, all sorts of downside.  But two things recently are making me think they are indeed what I want to start next.
  1. Most have my friends have at least one 28mm (or larger) unit in their display case, and they look greatQuite frankly, I want to be in the club.
  2. I am considering an (OK, two, can't have a game without two) Italian armies for about 1480 (the year the Turks held Otranto).  The very best 15mm figures for this period are Mirliton.  But once you factor in price including postage, for orders less than $100 they are running over $1 a figure; similar economics apply if you order from their UK dealer.  And that does not factor in HST which I will not be able to dodge for registered mail -- both vendors demand that for large orders, and I cannot say I blame them.  But at these prices, Perry Plastics start to look quite economical.  Because they have sane postage on orders around $40 I can bring in a few at a time.  I am not rushing, so I can paint them as I get them.
So, why not?  As long as I am not in a rush, I can collect Perry figures (and 28mm from other vendors) and slowly accumulate the army I want.  And, honestly, I wonder at seeing 28mm as large, since I regularly play 40mm games with Ross.

Anyone out there still play 28mm ancients?

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Fortune's Wheel

Well, my unpainted 18th century figures are carefully inventoried and packed away.  I have a few regiments painted and based but not magnetized and store; a project for this weekend.

They will be back.  I have stopped being frustrated by my cycles of interest and simply made it an element of self-awareness. 

In the meantime, I am focusing on the late Italian Renaissance - a process I will document my Italia Mia blog.

I am also trying to get my workspace into better order.  Among other things, that means packing away "second string" books on every subject.  I would love to have more bookshelves, but in the meantime I have to be realistic about what I actually need access too -- without cutting myself off from whatever subject Fortuna raises to the top next!


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

All-project satus update

This is the grand status of everything list for now.  I am working lately to manage costs, so projects where everything is in hand will get some measure of priority.

Status entries are:
  • Active-A: Everything in place (or as described), has my attention, and know what to do.
  • Active-B: Everything in place (or as described), I know what to do, and it is talking to me but I am not as excited as I am about Active-A projects.
  • Waiting:  Some clearly defined prerequisite not met.
  • Stalled: At the bottom of Fortuna's wheel at the moment, but this can change unpredictably.
  • / G-R: Game Ready - I could put on a game for these right now.
Topic Activity Status Plans  Cost 
Renaissance 28mm Active-A First test figure to complete in a couple of days.  Will order plastics in late august $60
Renaissance RPG Active-A Have GURPS for framework.  Must recast skills, etc to period and test.  
18th Century Armies Active-B / G-R  I have a large stock of primed miniatures ready to paint.  I do need more 30mm square bases.  On order are the two redoubts I need for one of the fixed defense scenarios.  I do need to think about rules; figure oriented hearts of tin is not working for me but as a framework most of the rules are fine $30
FPW Campaign Active-B A proof of concept campaign is an active project.  I am unsure of environment  
18th Century Naval Stalled 3 ships assembled and primed, but just not talking to me.  
ECW 28mm Stalled Should either paint for FoG:R or sell.  Or paint then sell.  
SF 15mm Stalled Nice figures, just not into the project.  I also have no "opposing" forces. $50
SF Campaign Stalled Processing of the star data not interesting me at the moment  
SF Ships Stalled May just do these as a modeling project.  Simpler without 3D considerations.  
WWII 10mm Stalled / G-R Several bits ready to go, red cavalry primed.  Will be re-basing mg, mortar, light AT to 30mm frontage - bases in hand except for 30mm square also needed for C18  
WWII Rules Stalled Have FFT3 in hand, looks good.  Just not talking to me..  
18th Century Campaign Waiting Will develop concepts with other situations.  
FPW MlT6x4 Waiting Bases for first lot should arrive next week.  Will probably go to Active-B.  Could organize unprimed figures, have many primed.  ~$200 
Renaissance 15mm Waiting Rebasing to FoG:R.  Rules and references ordered, money in PayPal for pendraken bases to order tomorrow.  Will go to Active-A when parts are in.  

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Italia Mia

In the interest of expanding my experience, I have just started a Renaissance gaming blog  on 6sided.  I understand it is the wordpress engine.  I will give it a while before I post a review since, like any software, it will take a bit of getting used to first.

It features my efforts at painting 28mm so good for a hoot anyway.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Who made these lads?

These are 28mm Renaissance figures - arquebussier in close barbutte, I believe nominally Italian.

What I do not remember is who made them.  I think I bought them in 2005 or 2006.  Codes on the bottom are (left to right) 142, 143, 144, 146, 148, and 149.

Any ideas?  Click for a close-up.

Update: Identified by some kind posters on TMP.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Toward a test game: Proof of concept platform

For me, I find that ideas evolve best when I can experiment with their implications immediately.  I am starting the production of a map against which I can experiment with low-level AI agents to which basic military operations can be delegated.

The map at right shows the key portion of the French frontier in 1870.  I will start by working up data from the red square and use it to test initial ideas; then work up to the green before extending the concept (if all works well) to include enough of France, Germany and their neighbors to make a political as well as a military game possible.

There are plenty of good data online,.  Google Earth and Google Maps (and others) are well known.  For raw GIS data, there are truly computer-readable alternatives.  Note also that while rail, canal, and metaled roads impact transportation routes, the backbone of the low-level grid should be constant enough to make most of the data re-usable from the 18th century to now.

The map will not be directly (at least initially) a cartographic product.  Instead, it will of course be a graph.  Graph theory is good fun (and one of the few bits of math I learned at school for fun and have never forgotten), and there are lots of algorithms and analysis tools available to work with them.

For initial visualization I will probably use a tool like GraphViz, which draws graphs based on textual descriptions.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Choices for an "alpha test" game

I think I will get far more done in the context of a trial game than I would thinking abstractly.  My first thought on a test game is the "Imperial Phase" of the Franco-Prussian war.  It is
  • geographically confined, 
  • fast paced, 
  • has many potential actors, 
  • can be expanded into a wider game
  • does not need a naval component
  • a topic I already have a grip on
  • involves areas that I am likely to use for future campaigns.
Indeed, I could start with the area around Metz and the  few days around the battles of Mars-la-Tour, then expand it.

Other choices would be specific campaigns from one of the Silesian wars; but they have widely dispersed but strongly interconnected factors in play.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Musing about the base entities

In my last post I had some notes on the challenges in the top levels of a campaign system.  The other end of the spectrum are the bottom level atomic entities; those things on which, ultimately, everthing else operates.

There are some interesting puzzles here.  For example does everything have a location?  People would seem obviously to be in a place, but how about military units?  Seem obvious but what about sub-components?  Where is an 1870 French infantry regiment when its soldiers are sent their call-up notices?

How about money?  One may speak of a wagon with the army pay-chest having a location, but if I am floating a bond issue in Paris where is the money then?  Odd problems, without a single answer, and varying by period.  But still important, if only in the decision to impose an unreal uniformity where in real life none existed (a process frequently confused with abstraction).

And how much do such things matter.  The process of silver coin arriving at the army and the national debt increasing is a level of detail that the player should not have to worry about; we have agents for the Minister of War and the Minister of Finance, it's their job to work it out.  But if we have no details of the model at all, how do we understand the effect of enemy action on the mechanisms?  How do we know the rate the bonds will sell at, for example?

Correct design of bottom level detail will be important; it must have an adequate basic model to cover key issues across multiple periods.  Interesting problem, probably best approached iteratively, starting with simple games that do leave big chunks out.

Doing without turns

Back in my post on the Tyranny of the Turn I complained that campaigns with tuns depend on regular player input, and that is something that cannot be relied upon.

I propose to get away from that kind of turn dependency by bringing together three concepts:
  • In most games, the player directly adjusts the model; instead, let the player set objectives and policies.  
  • Use Artificial Intelligence, which is far less grand than it sounds, to execute the policies.
  • Frequent feedback so that the player can adjust his policies when he needs to.
Each of these ideas brings with it problems along with possibilities.  However, I don't see "problems" as bad things -- more as opportunities to do something interesting.

Problem: If the player is to set policy to be implemented by an AI, and the player is encouraged to be open-ended and in-character in his direction, the referee takes on the role of input translator. 
  • The shear labor of this is mitigated by good design; I don't see it as any more obnoxious than having to read player orders anyway.
  • The possibility of misinterpreting the order is a real risk.  This is a possibility in any written-orders campaign; the risk can be mitigated by having the AI "explain" what it intends to d back to the player in "its own words".  The bits in quotation marks are the interesting part.
  • The player needs to feel connected to the environment. I think this is best achieved by implementing the AI interface using Agents.  This, too, is less grand than it sounds. If you have ever set up a table of actions a non-player commander can take and rolled a die to pick one, you have implemented an agent.  We will need one a bit more clever (or at least labor-intensive) but the principle is not fancy.  The agent lets us make the situation appear life-like to the player:  in the real world the King of France did not "move" his armies, whatever that means, he directed the minister of war to make appropriate arrangements.  The minister reported on his success.
Problem: Creating AI to execute policy.  This is an interesting intellectual exercise, but not as big a problem as it might be for a few reasons
  • I'm a computer programmer.  I also happen to find AI interesting; this is just a good chance to play with it.
  • This is not a video game, so hyper-fast optimized heuristic algorithms are not needed.  I can just be patient instead.
  • The end-user interface will be me, reading e-mail.  I can put together something that emphasizes accuracy and simple data entry without having to program something bulletproof.
  • I'll be there to hold its hand.  If the AI produces implausible results, or is faced with a new problem that drives it outside its sweet spot, I can directly adjust the model to bridge the problem until I can code a fix. 
Problem: Frequent feedback.  We want to be free of "turn tyranny" but at the same time people will not be on hand 7/24 to reply to game events.  My first thought on interaction frequency are:
  • I have to figure out my own cycle.  How much time will I give to this, and how will I reserve and allocate those hours?  The following points must live in that context.
  • When a player's orders are read and fed into the system, get an immediate report back from the minister explaining the result (Majesty, our forces will take 6 months to march to Moscow, and logistics are tenuous at best) to the player can rethink if needed. 
  • When the player gets feedback or results, there is a deadline and silence is consent.
  • There should be some sort of routine and fixed progress of time so players can plan their own lives.  In that respect, it is hard to do away with turns.  What we can achieve is a lowering of player stress by making it possible to skip a turn occasionally without disaster.
Time and space are interesting; maybe we can do something less turn-like.  It is something I will consider in the next post.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Assembled Ship

This is the assembled Tumbling Dice ASN-3 from yesterday's post.  I can probably do a bit better with the next one; I am very pleased with the casting.  That base is about 4.5cm long.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Fleet's In!!

I just received a trial order of 1:2400 Napoleonic ships from Tumbling Dice.  They look good so far.

This is ASN-3 (a 100 gun second rate) just out of the pack.  The cast in masts and ratlines were a surprise, but I do not mind being saved the assembly.

The first rules I will try is Fire as She Bears! which Ross tried at Historicon a while ago.

Like my 10mm Seven Years War these will be imaginations fleets for Bravant and Albion.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Super basing product.

I have been dealing with Pendraken for a good decade now.  Recently, they have extended their product line to include bases, paints , basing materials and other accessories though their main page and under the minibits flag.  So they were the first folks I thought of when I decided to solve an annoying little problem.

Notice the black dice trooping along behind the cavalry squadrons?  Those are casualty tracking dice.   Six hits and a stand come off.  Many systems (such as Blitzkrieg Commander) are often played using this hit tracking method.  And the problem?  Grabbing the casualty dice and rolling them, the dice rolling down a hill, all sort of organizational problems from dice on a tabletop.

So I contacted Leon at Pendraken to see if he could make me a standard-size base with a hole in it for a dice.  But Leon replied with one better -- a technology to add an integrated dice holder to any base.

 At left,  a frame (laser-cut mdf) just out of the pack.  The exterior dimensions are 1cm square.  At the right the frame nestles a 7mm die.

 These have been mounted to bases.  At left, a 15x20mm 2mm mdf base from Pendraken.  Please imagine a casualty figure; they will be in my next order.

At right, adding integrated status info to a Prussian brigade from 1870.
 You can organize the frames any way you want to meet your exact need.  At left, a status marker for  a game with multiple states to track, or where one might need to count hits up to 12.  I find the white a bit gaudy on a table -- but since it's a customization technology I can re-paint it any way I want, or attach the frame to some other material like a plastic bingo counter.

And will the dice roll away?  This one is tilted to about 40 degrees.  Leon is looking at ways to make the frame a bit snugger in the hopes of improving on that value.  I find that the current thickness of the frame is very good for my old fingers to pick up and rotate the die; I have tried stacking the frames two thick, but found that I had trouble picking the die up.  On the other hand, my arthritic fingers present special problems so YMMV on that one.

If you have any questions about these as a product, the Pendraken/Minibits forum is a helpful community with frequent visits from the Pendraken team.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Something like a plan

OK,. so one grand, megalomaniac, plan for creating a strategic wargames campaign. 

Fact is, to do something like this right takes time and testing.  I want to put together a campaign that is enjoyable for me to run, delightful for the participants, and something new in the world. 

So the plan is not just a plan to take existing rules and run a campaign with them, but to start small with new ideas and develop experience in designing and running games based on them,

The terminology at left - what a surprise - comes from software development. 

  • I have written about architecture in this blog already.
  • Core rules are derived from the architecture and are essentially invariant from scenario to scenario.
  • The scenario is not just map, situation and objectives but also those detailed rules (properly integrated as defined by core and architecture) that reflect a particular historical or fictional context.
  • Alpha-tests are solo tests designed to exercise parts of a model or a full, small, game situation.
  • Beta-tests are normal games with a small number of participants exercising a limited situation.  The Franco-Prussian War (or even ts first 6 months) would be a good candidate for such a test.  Because these are tests, rules might change through the game and between games more than in the "production release"
  • The final "Prime Game Scenario" would be something can could run for years - Europe and Her Colonies 1740-1760 for example.

When you set out what a polished, large scale campaign would take to develop one thing is clear: this could take years.  That drives two conclusions:
  • Since I am a gaming butterfly, the core here has to be flexible enough to adapt to multiple periods and genres.
  • I have to enjoy the process - not just the nattering on about it process I am indulging in here ( although I do enjoy that process) but also the design, testing and most important refereeing of the resulting games.
Which is something to think about in a future post: what's in it for me?.

Considering campaign rules

Simple can be harder than complex: you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But  it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.
Steve Jobs, founder of Apple (1955–2011), quoted in BusinessWeek, May 1998

Something to keep in mind.

Monday, June 18, 2012

An Imaginations battle by Skype

I have, for the first time, hosted a Skype game.  The troops are my Pendraken ~Seven-Years-War armies, the scenario is "Wagon Train" from CS Grant's Scenarios for Wargames. The rules are Ross's Hearts of Tin, the latest edition of which can be downloaded from his blog.

In a Skype game the host end up manipulating all the troops on the table, his and his guest's, while the guest must try to figure out what the troops are from the images he can see.  For the guest's eye view see Ross's post on the game.

My webcam setup invoked the shade of Heath Robinson, but it got the job done.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Model for Politics

I've just made a new post on my book review blog.  Why mention that here?  Because the books offers a paradigm for understanding politics -- and especially the assumption and maintenance of power -- that is widely if not universally applicable.  I am not sure that the "laws" it explains need to appear directly in a game engine, but any system that wants to deliver realistic political events has at least to be informed by it.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Gaming history or flavor?

OK, so lets assume I can make a large-scale campaign work - probably kicking off in a year or so.

Question 1 (in my mind anyway) is real history or imagination?

The advantages of using an imagination (and that project is not going away) I can see right now are:
  • I can align the situation to my resources, and focus on any detail level I want without abstraction.  To do history I have to look at how deeply I can research and abstract the layers below that.
  • I can generate detail without guilt.  With real history you can fake things up a bit (generic German village names for example) but the possibility of outright contradicting facts that other people in the game (or reading about it) do know does spring up.
  • I players come to the game with a different vision of the world than mine, that's OK.  Because reality is a construct, they don't have to be period experts to play the game "right."  In a history game a wildly variant view of the world -- Louis XV invests half the national budget into steam engines or some such -- can drive everyone else's suspension of disbelief off the deep end.
  • You can elephants charging Europeans -- oh, India, never mind.
The advantage of gaming reality is the challenge:
  • Getting a well-researched model of the real world across to players in such a way that the can game it realistically is intrinsically hard.  Really, why are we trying to do something easy?
  • Most gamers who would want to play a reality-based game want to get close to the history.  We are not talking classic epic fantasy here but a game about the "historically possible."  You can't get more possible than reality.
Of course, the instant you set the model going you depart from reality; three things make it historical:
  • A realistic start point
  • A model that rewards historical behaviors with historical results
  • And the hard one: players fitting comfortably within the period and not pressing the bounds of reality too far.  Of course, since reality includes the South Sea Bubble, Russian galleys in the Baltic, and the unlikely ending of the Seven Years War (Tzarina Elizabeth dies, replaced by deranged Prussophile successor) I don't know what I am worried about.

New toy, new toy!!

If you work, check this out on the BBC website.

Good news for software developers

It's not often that the words "judgment", "copyright" and "sensible" can live together in one sentence, but this economist blog explains one of them.

I'm sure it's not over until there's no money to pay the lawyers, but this does seem like a sensible ruling to me.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Models, Rules and Meta-Rules

Most of us are familiar with the idea of a "game model".

With conventional games the model is entirely exposed and directly manipulated by the players.  This can be tremendously simple, as in checkers where a piece has three states and position.  It can be as complicated as a hex-map board wargame where hundreds of distinct units in a complex class hierarchy can go through dozens of state transitions in a single turn.  Always, however, the state transitions are governed by the rules, and always playing the game is equivalent to directly manipulating the model states according to complex rules.

Miniatures games are not much different; the main difference (and even this is not universal) is that position is continuous rather than discrete.

Refereed games like Kriegspiel are very different.  The internal model is hidden from the players; state is managed and manipulated by the referee and exposed according to rules interpreted by the referee.  This adds considerable labor for the ref, but the reward is that the players are trying to operate in a mode closer to that experienced by officers in the historical period being gamed.

So far, so obvious.  Clearly the sort of game I have been talking about is closer to a Kriegspiel than to a face to face game.  What I want focus on right now is the capability of a hidden model to overcome "Turn Tyranny".  If the model includes "policy" and "mission" components, then the player is freed (to some extent) from time driven intervention.  As long as my policy is working for me, I can let it go on until I consider it invalid.  At some point, a player has to play, but there can be at least some looseness.  An aside: can we do away with turns entirely, and have a purely event-driven game where the "model" "runs"  until something happens that causes a player to get new information?

However, there is a caveat.  If we are going to allow the players free-form interaction with the model, we can't really have a "closed" model with everything defined -- all classes, all entities, all states, all transition rules -- in advance.  The player interface is the referee.  He has to be able to manipulate the model both by its interfaces and by augmenting and manipulating its internals.  He has to be able to override the results of the model as well; like a kind of free Kriegspiel, to achieve a truly free-form game human decisions must take precedence.  To make that work, however, the referee must either have such respect from the group that his decisions are trusted implicitly (and as ref you can't assume that) or the ref has to keep such careful record through the game of each decision and its reasoning that the players will understand after the game why all of the events happened.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The journey or the destination?

A couple of posts ago I wrote about the problem of what sort of game people want to play.  I want to have a game in which people can play in very different styles.  Well and good, but can how then do you compare their successes?

In an ordinary, symmetric,  uniform-interface game each player faces the same challenge.  Everything is probably zero-sum, and you can tally up units lots, provinces taken, and general nastiness suffered by some formula to arrive at victors and vanquished.  Perhaps winning will not really look like victory - in a game representing the campaigns in Europe in 1945, Berlin holding out until July can be considered a considerable success for example.  But it can still be measured, generally in some sort of point or victory conditions.

But if Aaron is playing the King of France and Bill is a minor Prussian General, how do you compare their relative performance?  This is not a question to which I have an answer, but it is one that has to be answered.

Or does it? 

Does a game need to have a defined form of victory in order to be played for fun?  Role Playing Games seem to rely on the personal objectives of the players.  The objectives do not have to be provided by the GM, or even shared with the GM by a player.  While play often proceeds within the context of a "mission" or a "quest" or the GM's latest splatbook, the whole thing (in my experience, at least) is intended to be as freeform and open as possible.

Can a large multi-player wargame be just as free-form?  It's been my experience that if you provide a large enough group of gamers with an environment where war is a possibility, and an eventual war is inevitable.  On the other hand, societies come with a concept of success that I think may have to be expressed to get players to approach the situation with the mindset you want as the referee.  This is especially important in an historical game.  While it may make sense in a fantasy game for the King of Erewhon to spend half the budget on trying to develop flying machines, suspension of disbelief may fray at the edges if the King of France does the same.  Or perhaps that just shows that fantasy games are, at some level, more fun than history.  After all, they can work even if some of the players have not done the research.

So, do we need victory conditions, or is the play the thing?

Friday, May 25, 2012

Travelling in the Past

I draw your attention to this interactive travel guide to the Roman Empire from the Orbis project at Stanford.  I will go through the paper on their approach; I expect that there is a lot that can be poached from it for imagined Geographies.

Friday, May 18, 2012

New Toys

I just received from Pendraken a nice set of Seven Years War figures, and as well a set of 20x15mm bases.

As you can see, the base fits nicely into the embrasures of the Vauban  bastions that Ross was kind enough to pass on to me some time ago; I will show off more of it over the next couple of weeks.

The fortress was designed for 15mm figures at a time when 15mm was the top of the head.  They work perfectly with modern 10mm.

With the wheels on, a layer of scribed plasticard for the planks of the platform, and sheet magnet underneath it should be roughly centered in the embrasure.  The crew will mount on the base shown behind the gun and at right angles.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

One Size Fits All

Another issue with most games: most games are set up with a single "player-profile".  All players are expected to want to interact with the others in a single way.  In Diplomacy, everyone plays the head of a European Great Power.  In Kingmaker, each player is an abstract alliance, the members of which change as part of game-play.  In Kriegspiel, each player is an officer in command of a body of troops.

It is only with the sophistication of Kriegspiel (which depends upon the presence of a referee) allows some diversity of play, and at that only a matter of levels of command within the historical military structure.

Fact is, though, not everyone wants to play the same game.  Some people want to conduct military operations, some to wheel and deal; some want to play abstract games where their viewpoint is abstracted from the historical participants, some would like to role-play a single character even if the character is operating in a strategic mode.

I'd like to have a game where there is only one imposition on all the players:  they must be willing to accept that other players will approach the game differently.  That does mean that there has to be some mechanism to bridge differing play modes and provide a seamless interface so that the differing approaches do not jar the expectations of the interacting players.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Tyranny of the Turn

Most games have turns.  Sometimes (like most of the boardgames we played as kids, chess, and many wargames) players "take turns"; one player participates actively, others are passive or may have intervention opportunities.  In some, such as Diplomacy or Young and Lawford's Charge, players record decisions and reveal them together, using the rules to resolve the results.  Most campaign games I have played are order based, but add a referee using the approach pioneered by Kriegspiel.

So what's wrong with turns?  In a turn-based game, progress is suspended until every player has participated appropriately.  If a key participant is unable to participate due to life event, either the game is suspended or the form of the game has to change to recover.  For example, in this Diplomacy game a player had to drop out, causing a disordered turn and a change of player.  Most games do not recover at all.

Is there a way around this?  We shall see, but first I want to examine some other issues in conventional games that form an obstacle to durable, flexible campaigning.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Game Architecture


I design and develop software for a living.  In my trade, the Software Architecture is the foundation on which a system is built.  Get it right and you can deliver what the customer needs now, and adjust the system on the run to deliver what you need in the future.  Get it wrong and you might as well go home; bad architecture kills software.

But this is not a post about software - not even game software.  This is a post (or, likely, a series of posts) about my experience with extended wargame campaigns -- good and bad -- and how those experiences over the last forty years can be applied to a 21st century internet gaming environment.  It is also about how the design patterns that served us well in the past are betraying us in the gaming environment we live in today.

What do you mean "we"?

 My best campaign gaming experiences came when I
  • Was free of significant responsibilities.  I had no family, the campaign was in summer so school was not a factor, and the summer job was industrial work I could leave behind at the gate.
  • Had a couple of dozen friends 
  • ...who were likewise unfettered.
  • ...who had a similar vision of how a game should work.
  • ...and who all lived in one city, so we could get together face to face every week.
  • Had more than one charismatic referee for the game who structured his own life priorities so he could put in all the time and effort required to make it work.
If you are in that situation, you must have some great games going on and I would like hear about them.

My situation now?
  • The boys are moving into adulthood, so the obligation factor is down, but it is not out.  I'm moving furniture this weekend because of it.  My wife has far more right to my time than my friends and hobbies.  Not that she is high maintenance, but my priorities have to put her first; and that is not a bad thing from my point of view either.  I also have a job that is fun and intensive, so I think more about it more than the eight hours a day I get paid for -- and can send me to another continent on a few days notice.
  •  It is not hard to find people who would be interested in a campaign.  We have a good gaming group here, and the internet gives me access to almost every English speaking gamer on the planet (and the language caveat is my problem, there are doubtless yet more folks out there).  But:
  • ...while some proportion of potential players might fit the "free as a breeze" profile (retired empty-nesters as well as young guys) most have the same sort of obligations I do.
  • ... my old group a developed a shared vision over years.  The extended group cannot be expected to approach the game experience in a common way.
  • ... The extended group is spread across the planet.  The social sessions that made the in-town games so much fun just won't be possible.
  • Finally, I can't expect to pull a smart, charismatic, duty-free referee to run this (any volunteers?).  I am not charismatic, and I am not rearranging my priorities.

So can a campaign work with all this going against it?

I think so.  I propose to start by asking what a game should deliver to its payers and referees; look at how existing game patterns deliver results, and why they do not work for my life now; and then consider alternative patterns that might work for me and people like me.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating; test games will be essential before committing to a large-scale project.

I guess this will all take a while.


Saturday, March 24, 2012

Book reviews blog started

I've started a blog to separate my non-wargames related book reviews from this blog.  The first posting is here.

Monday, March 5, 2012

God's Philosophers by James Hannam

I decided to take a break from the study of war, and picked up this at Chapters last week:

Actually, I picked up the slightly-differently-covered softcover, but the principle is the same.

Hannam does a very interesting inversion of the standard story of the poorly-named middle ages.  He begins with a history of the great medieval scholars.  If you already have your Abelard sorted out from your Adelard there are not a lot of new names, but the exposition is exceptionally clear and accessible.  It is a bit more than a refresher for me, and it has been more than 30 years since I tackled any of this in any detail.  Medieval science and philosophy, in case you are not familiar with it, was far in advance of where it is usually portrayed, and the efforts of the church were not always stifling.  Plus I came away with a far better understanding of the distinction between realism and nominalism, which is an issue I still run into in looking, for example, at evolutionary biology.

The next step was new to me: the Renaissance as an intellectual disaster.  To push the envelope of Hannam's thesis, it was triumph of the literature nerds, with medieval mathematics and logic texts pulled from the syllabus because they were hard to understand, and thousands of medieval Latin manuscripts recycled for binding printed books.  This by "scholars" with such a shallow knowledge of history that they confused classics copied in Carolingian Miniscule as original manuscripts of centuries before.

As far as I can tell thus far, Hannam does not view history as a tale of simple, directed progress.  After a lot of reading in biology in the last few years, I am coming to see the relegation of "progress" as a tool for organizing our mental map of the world as a step just as important in the 21st century as moving ourselves from the center of the universe was in the 16th.

I have to mull over his ideas and his sources a bit but the ideas are at least novel and something of a fresh take for me at least.

A great book for anyone interested in History and Philosophy of Science, and for that matter in historiography.  If you are in the SCA and want ammunition to defend the accomplishments of your period, this is definitely a book you want to read.

Cleanly written, I'd say accessible to a high school student but useful for an undergrad in an introductory or non-specialist program covering the material; or great, of course, for an interested amateur.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A fine on-line reference

The Economist style guide is available again.  I have always loved style guides.  Whether I am good at using them is another thing entirely.

Anyway, this one is well worth the time.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

See Margin Call!

OK, I confess, when I see a movie generally I watch things blow up.  I decided to see this film because I work with folks in an investment bank and I wanted to see how well it showed their loves.

I was blown away.  Margin Call is the best drama I have seen in a long time.  It depicts very real people in real situations; there is no over-the-top screaming and shouting but instead the beautifully depicted real behaviors of believable people in very tense situations.

The sets are utterly perfect -- I've done a small amount of IT work in an investment bank in NY; the way the set looks, the way the people look, the way they sound, the way they work, is utterly accurate.  The simple fact that in chimes in as right at so many levels gives it extra impact for anyone who has worked in a business office.

The depiction of how Over The Counter securities are traded is also dead-on-right; quiet people at computer monitors talk to counter-parties over the phone.  The screaming and waving of the old-style stock exchange is gone -- gone, I am told, from the stock market as well.

Great movie, great performances.  I've seen it three times -- cinema alone, at home with my wife, and with the producers' commentary.  Each time it just gets better.  My wife loved it -- felt the character's dilemma, saw the ways in which they were trapped, and really connected with the performances.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Hit then kill vs. One roll -- What about the drama?

Many WWII games (WRG, Command Decision, and to a certain extent BKC) resolve AT fire in a two-roll process - first you roll to hit the target (which may also neutralize or suppress it), then you roll to see it the hit "kills" the target.

Statistically, there is no reason why this can't be compressed into one roll - one might prefer to use a D10 or even a D20, but for one unit firing at another it's simple enough to picture a system where 1 through x is no effect. x+1 through y is neutralized, and y+1 through <max dice value> is a kill.

But is it dramatic enough?  Is there actual game benefit in building suspense with a penetration roll?  Or especially in having the defender roll his "armor save"?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The appeal of simplicity

I have been thinking a bit more about WWII games, and more specifically about the old WRG rules that I played for many years with many scales of figure.   Not sophisticated by today's standards, but good fun and representative enough to make an acceptably realistic game.

Points I like:

  • The fire/neutralize/kill model is intuitive;no explaining to players why all these accumulated and removed hits somehow represents the dynamics of a platoon
  • Simple command and control - write orders, stay in command distance.  All good.  More predictable than real life, but less frustrating.
  • Free; OK I do have a paper copy, but it can also be downloaded from the WRG website at the History of WRG tab.
Potential problems:

  • Calls for separate LMG and ATR stands.
  • Very small infantry stands compared to what I am currently using.
  • Uses 1:1 TOE; my lads all already organized into battalions.
All of these can be mitigated.

  • I can develop a new set of infantry fire tables based on my stand systems
  • which makes the size issue less important as well
  • I can "Bathtub" the game to use a stand=platoon or so TO while still having it "act" like a 1:1 rules set.
I am also inclined to produce something closer to a set of "Frankenrules" using:
  • some elements of the reasonably elegant D10 based Command Decision hit/kill roll system 
  • introducing experience-based to-hit modifiers
  • adding and explicit close-assault component
The backbone I will keep from WRG: fire-then-move and write orders.