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.