Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Submarine card game

I'm done working on my "eagerly awaited game" for the time being, so I've started in earnest on another idea I've had kicking around for a while.  It's a two-player card game based on submarine combat in the 1970s.  I haven't fully worked out the mechanics yet, but it will involve some kind of bidding interchange to determine the range at which the combatants shoot at each other.  Sonar performance will play into the game, with modifications for environment, depth, and the enemy's noise level.  I feel as though I also ought to account for active sonar somehow, but I haven't worked out how to do that. 

I've got a good idea what needs to be on the cards, though, so I've got one sheet of ten submarine cards done so far.  I think they look pretty good for a first prototype. 

I'm really bad at naming my own games, though, so if anybody has a clever idea that they don't mind sharing, I'd love to consider it.  My working title is "Submarine Combat."  See how bad I am at this?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Developer's turn

My developer says they have everything they need from me, for now at least.  They're working on a rules re-write based on some changes we discussed, so I look forward to seeing how they turn out.

So now it's time to work on another design in earnest.  I have two ideas on opposite ends of the complexity spectrum - a relatively simple card game based on submarine combat in the Cold War, and an idea for interplanetary commodities trading that gets more complex every time I think about it.  I'll probably knock out the card game first while I ruminate on the commodities game in the back of my mind.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Coming up - play balance

My game of Stonewall Jackson's Way with Paul R., and some responses I got on boardgamegeek about it, got me to thinking about play balance in games.  I'll follow up with a more detailed post over the weekend. 

For tonight, my focus is on finishing card updates for "PDO's Eagerly Awaited Game" that became necessary when my ambitious developer added nine cards to the deck.  More is better, right?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Stonewall Jackson's Way

This afternoon after work, I met my good friend Paul R. at our friendly neighborhood game store, Game Parlor Chantilly, to play an old favorite, Stonewall Jackson's Way (designed by Joseph M. Balkoski, published by The Avalon Hill Game Company, 1992).  We'd played various scenarios of this game before, and this time we went back to replay Scenario 1, "Cedar Mountain," which simulates Confederate General Stonewall Jackson's attempt to halt the U.S. Army of Virginia's movement toward Orange Court House, Gordonsville, and Charlottesville, Virginia.  Jackson's efforts would culminate in the Battle of Cedar Mountain, 9 August 1862.

I have always been fond of Avalon Hill games, and I have to say that SJW has become one of my very favorites.  The rules are meticulously written, to the point of utter detail and clarity (at the expense, perhaps, of brevity and succinctness).  They include some interesting methods for modeling troop fatigue and the effects of forced march and repeated combat on the organization and morale of units.  Leadership quality becomes important in attempts to coordinate attacks among multiple divisions.  Even in its small scenarios, it poses some great tactical dilemmas that feel true to history.  

Most of all, Paul and I found ourselves continually faced with operational challenges that we could easily imagine facing General Pope of the Army of Virginia, or General Stonewall Jackson of the Confederacy.  We each had to consider such problems as whether to pursue a retreating enemy at the risk of exposing flanks and exhausting troops, whether to force march a lagging division to reinforce defenses and risk losing unit cohesion, or whether to swing a lone cavalry brigade behind the enemy line for a flank attack at the risk of losing the initiative and seeing the cavalry isolated and wiped out.  Some wargames are better than others at posing these dilemmas in a believable way; I find SJW very strong in this regard.

So, of course, the bottom line is that Paul and I had a great time.  The game took almost four hours to play, and we enjoyed every minute of it.  I was fortunate to have gained the upper hand by the second day of the three-day battle, so on the last day I consolidated Jackson's corps in an uncharacteristically (for Jackson) defensive posture less than five miles from Culpeper.  Paul attempted to muster one final assault by I Corps under Sigel but could not unseat the Confederates from their close proximity to the objective.  We agreed that the third day's actions were somewhat unrealistic, in that Jackson would not have been so conservative and Pope would not have taken the risks that Paul was forced to take, artificialities introduced by our knowledge that the game would be over after the third day.  Nevertheless, it was a fun time, and a great reminder why I enjoy AH games so much.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Developers tweaking ...

I just heard from my developers, who are working on "PDO's Eagerly Awaited Game."  They really like the overall design.  There are a few changes they want to make to some rules to clean it up a little and simplify some things.  Sure enough, they'd pretty much zeroed in on the one or two weak areas that I wasn't altogether crazy about myself. 

I had invented a pretty convoluted rule for what to do when your piece lands on another player's piece, and writing it all out ended up taking up maybe a quarter or a third of the whole rulebook.  Well, that just doesn't make sense for a rule that's supposed to handle a contingency case.  So we're going to fix that.

I also have a few immunity cards in the original prototype that we think might just be too powerful.  I'd really hate to put out a game, only to have it end up that "whoever gets card x usually ends up winning."  Who would want to play that twice?  So we're kicking around some ideas to mitigate the power of those cards while keeping the intended effect of having them in the deck. 

I've been thinking a lot lately about what makes a game a success.  I have a few thoughts for tomorrow on what makes a game a failure.

Meanwhile, may your game closet be full of successes, and your game room full of friends to play them...

Farming with my spouse

Friday evening, home from work.  Time to settle down with a martini out on the deck for a game of Agricola with my wife. 

(c) Z-man Games
Used by permission
Agricola (designed by Uwe Rosenberg, published in the USA by Z-Man games) is one of the few games I bought without ever having played.  The acclaim surrounding this game has been so universal in the community that I figured I just had to have it, just to see what all the fuss was about.  At this point, I need to give proper credit to my friend Doug M., an annual pilgrim to Origins, who picked up a copy there for me at a very reasonable price.  (I have yet to attend Origins, notwithstanding Doug's perpetual campaign to get us there.) 

Although overwhelmed the first time we played with our friends Theresa and Brion, I have since come to appreciate Agricola (Latin for "farmer") as a work of genius.  It plays equally well for two, three, four, or five players, which in its own right is rather astounding.  So few multi-player games stand up well when played with just two players.  (It serves also as a solitaire game, which I haven't tried.)  Even more surprising is that the game's simpler version - the "family game," which is played without most of the cards - is in my mind every bit as fun and challenging as the normal, full deck version, though for different reasons.

Outside on the deck, we prefer the "family game," so that we take up a little less space on the table and don't have to manage hands of cards along with everything else.  There is remarkably little luck in the family game; the only random element is the order in which certain actions become available in each stage of the game.  One might reasonably expect that a worker-placement game with very little randomness would fall into a fixed pattern, but we continually surprise each other with tactical shifts and nuanced approaches to building our farms and trying to out-maneuver each other for critical resources. 

To me, the end-game really demonstrates the thought and rigor of development that must have gone into the refinement of Agricola.  It seems as though there are always several different, nearly equivalent paths toward maximizing the final score; there is seldom one single, obvious course of action to run out the end of the game.  I am almost always faced with a decision among three or four options, all valid, none self-evidently the "best" option, each with its own risk.  Some real analysis went into the elements of this game to be able to preserve that "exquisite choice" conundrum right down to the last stage.

As I mentioned in my previous post, it's important that our "cocktail hour" game be fun, challenging, and a good match between us.  Fortunately, we both enjoy playing Agricola, and we've each had our share of close victories and crushing defeats - er, that is, I mean to say, she wins some, I win some, but we always have fun together in the process.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Games with my spouse

My wife Kathy and I have adopted the practice of setting aside everything else at 5:00 p.m. or so to sit down before dinner and play a game like two civilized people.  We have a few favorites that seem to work out nicely as "lightly competitive diversions."  They serve us well, because really, on any given afternoon, either of us could win, but both of us will have fun.

It has been tricky, though, to identify the games that work in this role.  We'd never play chess, for example, because we would be somewhat mismatched, and it wouldn't necessarily be fun.  We don't necessarily want to play a game that brings out the worst of our competitiveness; we would like to have a pleasant dinner together after the game is over.  Also, many of our favorites work well when played among a group of friends but fail as two-player games.  When we sit outside on a nice day, too, we have only small tables in the back yard, so sometimes there is the additional structural consideration of a game that doesn't take a lot of table space and doesn't have a lot of small pieces to drop or papers to lose in the breeze.

In future entries, I'll discuss some of our favorite games that we've found work well for our afternoon session.  Today we played cribbage, of all things.  This was a big favorite aboard ship when I was in the Navy some years ago, and it has been fun to resurrect at home.  Although card luck plays its role, the skill comes (as in most card games) in making the most of the hand that is dealt.  Kathy has, to my chagrin, learned to do that rather handily.   

BoardGameGeek has a fascinating list of board games for this context, a "geeklist" entitled, "How Gaming Saved Our Marriage."  We are already familiar with a number of games on this list, and I'm eager to try others.  I'll be curious to know what two-player games others have found are "couple-friendly" rather than "relationship-straining."

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Map Time

Yesterday my publisher sent me the game board currently under development, and I have to say, I really like the artwork.  It's a great-looking map.  We had agreed on a vague mid-20th-century setting for the time period of the game, and the board captures that essence very nicely.  They made a few adjustments and added a few features that enhance but don't substantively modify the structure of the game, and I think the result is going to be fun to play. 

There is something exciting about the introduction of someone else's creativity into one's own original design.  I had originally some pre-conceived ideas on how things would look and feel, but once I'd turned over the prototype drawings to the developer, I really didn't know what to expect (and I was a little afraid to find out).  But when I looked at this new map, I found that this game had taken on a new character, a whole new dimension in its style and flavor - all the product of someone else's talent, someone who perhaps had never imagined the game I'd conceived until they'd seen my draft.  It's a lesson, I suppose, in collaborative creativity.

I can't wait to see the cards.   

I can't wait to show off this game.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Don't get me started...

My friends are good sports.  They're the kind of people who are willing to spend an afternoon playing a game that nobody else has ever played before, a game that may or may not be any fun.  A game made of marker-scrawled butcher paper, cheap pawns, and misaligned printed cards with obscure, tiny instructions on them.  A game where the rules change over the course of the afternoon depending on how well I remember the instructions I re-wrote several times the night before.

I have really good friends.  They're the kind of people who can spend a couple of hours stumbling around my hand-drawn map in a confused effort to make sense of how to win a game whose fundamental flaws became evident only thirty minutes after the first card draw.  The kind of people who don't say, "will this game ever end?"  Friends who can make constructive criticism sound excited, supportive, and ready to buy, while I'm ready to go back to the drawing board.

Although I've designed many games in the privacy of my own little world, only two have seen the light of day outside my own family.  One of those quietly sits on a shelf, politely declined by one publisher, a game that just doesn't seem ready for prime time yet, a game that I like to think is in hibernation.

My second game is my pleasant surprise.  Demonstrated to the owners of a game company during PrezCon in Charlottesville, Virginia earlier this year, it drew the perfect comment during a play-through:  "Hey, this game is fun!"  Before the afternoon was out, we had a handshake agreement to produce the game.  The last of the updates went out to them over Labor Day, and they expressed their intent to get it to the printers by October.  I'll pass along the details once the company formally announces the release.  For now, call it "Paul D. Owen's Eagerly Awaited Game."

My good friends await eagerly with me.