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.