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Faction Design vs The Red Baron

July 6th, 2013 by Troy Goodfellow · Design, Firaxis, WW1

Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol (Firaxis) is a fun, light air tactics game for the iPad. You have a crew of WWI pilots that gather experience and skill as they shoot down enemy planes, escort bombers or protect/destroy important installations. It is turn based, it has nice art and interface and it manages to evoke WWI air combat better than I thought it would given the limitations of the platform. But then again, WWI air combat was a slow, plodding clash between rivals trying to get the perfect position – just like many great turn-based strategy games.

So I mostly like Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol. I liked the British campaign enough to shell out more money for the rest of the plane sets – French, German and American. Amusingly, the American campaign also start in 1916, and I suspect that Meier knows better than that. And, even though I do not hold to an anal attachment to historical timelines for a game like this, it does point to one of the great failings of selling different campaign packs for each nation.

All of the campaigns are, fundamentally, the same and there is nothing to really distinguish the British experience from the German experience. Why should we care that the Americans start the war a year early?

I am not just talking about the missions, even though their lockstep similarity is disappointing. In that case, at least, I can point to the fact that there really weren’t many things that fighter airplanes could do in WWI that would have been interesting. You would always be limited to dogfights, interceptions, escort missions and balloon busting. These aren’t the great air campaigns of WW2 where at least you have a hornet’s nest of planes around you.

Selling the campaigns as unique content requires a little more, of course. So an early June update to the game added special traits for each of the nations. The British get an extra high G maneuver, French pilots can crash land and avoid capture, Americans heal faster and Germans gain their first special pilot ability faster.

Turning history into a game is hard at the best of times. There is now a general expectation from gamers that each historical nation or faction has something to distinguish it, thereby ensuring greater replayability and variety of experiences. In ahistorical history games like Age of Empires or Civilization, faction design can easily default to general historical stereotypes or characteristics drawn from certain moments. (I did a whole essay series on this sort of thing.)

But when you are dealing with this player expectation in a small scale game on a small platform, you are sort of limited in what you can do. The various traits assigned to the four powers in Ace Patrol are modest, at best, with the French avoidance of POW camps easily the best one (though dependent on you crash landing and not just getting shot down.) The German power is one you’ll never notice after the first battles in the campaign, the British one assumes that a second high G maneuver is going to be a good thing for you and the American one, well, you get your aces back faster but you need them now. Given it was added in an update, the faction differentiation was possibly an afterthought and it, in any case, does little to transform the identical campaigns into anything more varied.

Of course, if you’re an old Red Baron hand, like I am, then you know that the real differentiation in the air war of WWI was in the planes themselves. I fondly remember the challenges of flying often inferior British planes against high powered Fokkers, counting on my plane’s agility or second machine gun to keep me out of harm’s way. Then the Sopwiths came along and I had more climbing speed, etc. The whole history of the air war and the differences in priorities for the Allied and German air engineers was played out in my career. I really should play a flight sim again.

Anyway, Ace Patrol does have different planes appear for each nation along the campaign histories, four for each country. You are given their stats and their hit points, etc but the only real sense of differentiation between the planes is which one of you is flying a piece of crap. Once you identify the poor sap in his Eindecker, you take him out and then gang up on the Fokker. All the numbers that Ace Patrol gives you about flight ceiling and horsepower become completely abstract in a game that asks you to move your plane a number of hexes in certain directions, maybe climbing, maybe diving, maybe turning. Flight ceiling is never so much an issue that you can just climb your way out of danger, and the game rewards aggressive play (or at the very least sucking your enemy into flak fire).

So while I have greatly enjoyed the hours I have put into Ace Patrol and don’t regret the purchase one bit, I do wonder if distinct historical faction design is possible on a game of this scale that is still true to history. In a Civil War game, you just boost experience or morale levels until the Union/Confederate balance “feels” right. You can’t quite do that when you are dealing with knight of the air going mano-a-mano. (Game designers should feel free to pitch into the comments).

I do hope there is more to come in Ace Patrol. It’s a great pleasure to see Meier make something new and of high-quality.

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Sins of the Father: 7 Grand Steps and Generational Games

July 5th, 2013 by Troy Goodfellow · Design

If pressed to describe Mousechief’s 7 Grand Steps, Step 1: What Ancients Begat, it would not be an easy task. I mean, look at this thing:

7Grandsteps

A lot of games you can sort of figure out by just staring at the screens, but 7 Grand Steps defies that. Steam categorizes it as a strategy game, and so does the developer, and it sort of is. You start with a single figure that you maneuver along a rotating ‘mechanical’ board, collecting beads that will count towards major actions (social development, research, heroic adventures). You get a spouse, who also collects beads in a similar way. You move along the track by spending scarce tokens to advance to slots along the track. So, you spend a pottery token to move to the next pottery slot and collect what, if anything, is there. You can also spend your turn making more tokens – you can’t move forward along the path to do this, and you sometimes retreat many slots. I’ve written about components in games. This is one component rich game.

The goal, if you can call it a goal, is to lead your family through the ages. You start with copper age technology and adventures and then slowly move your way through history. You will sometimes be called upon to make choices in a choose-your-own-adventure style story thing that can have great glory or ruinous consequences for your family. Through the centuries you will raise children – training them with tokens – to take your character’s place when they die.

That’s what the game is. But I am not sure what the game is necessarily about. It is a game with a large element of luck (what tokens will be created? what is the personality of your child? have you made any enemies by choosing the wrong spouse?) but also one that rewards careful counting and the occasional personal sacrifice.

It’s de rigeur for gamers to expect that their characters can and will succeed so long as the rules are clear and the dice are fair, few and far between. Yes, you can have setbacks for turns or hours in a game, but a well-built strategy experience should either make it clear that you are hosed or make it clear that there is a chance of a comeback. But throw in too many random elements or, at the very least, random elements that cannot be bridged against and players can feel cheated.

This is especially a risk in a game like 7 Grand Steps. Even if you can figure out why you are getting the sorts of adventure-text quizzes you are, and can then figure out why your choices leave you to be either a coward or a thief, then you are left with the problem that your own failures as a father in this generation (not entirely of your own making, since, remember, token generation and bead placement are random) will put your child in a terrible place once he comes of age. That is, assuming he hasn’t already learned bad lessons and cheats his way through his Rite of Passage first.

The cascade of random bad things, or simply cascading lack of chances to do amazing things, means that true greatness will be very hard to find for most people that play 7 Grand Steps. They will need to play it many, many times before they find out how to get their family through confrontations with priests, lions and jealous lovers. The pressure with each generation and each Age of Man to do more interesting things than make pots for the granary will lead some people to take risks without understanding or trying to understand how all of the weird systems of the game come together.

Take the nickname. Once your child passes the Rite of Passage and assumes his/her place as the main character of the story, you choose a nickname for them. Rob the Mighty. Bruce the Eloquent. Troy the Acceptable. Julian the Bald. This nickname, in effect, becomes who the person is. Choosing counter to this personality might seem like the great movie way to act (nerd stands up to bully, arachnophobe hunts giant spider) but it is discouraged by the rule set. Sometimes. Maybe. I do know that a cowardly potter has no business leading a mob against the king’s soldiers.

There is a tendency for many people that play games to assume that their character is them, and this is actually an important thing that games can do that few other media can. It’s also one reason I’m not a huge fan of most cinematic story-telling action games, but that’s another rant. This tendency can mean that players cast themselves in a Horatio Alger story where pluck, luck and clean living will lead to success. Gamers pull themselves up by their fictional bootstraps daily.

The real world, of course, doesn’t work like that, and social mobility was never easy. And it’s getting harder in even the most fluid of the great democracies. I am not suggesting that 7 Grand Steps is about the limits of social mobility, but it does say if you take the epic quest to become a hero, one of your neighbors may discover preservation or iron smelting in the mean time. And if you fail at the quest, you get nothing.

Aspire to greatness. But study mediocrity first.

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Some Quick Notes

June 2nd, 2013 by Troy Goodfellow · Me

Not a lot to add in way of a long thought out post, but I thought I would update people on what I’ve been playing and doing.

1) God Games and Repetition: Even leaving aside the ludicrous Peter Molyneux Godus prize that was lurking inside Curiosity (which appears to have been an ARG all along), this has been quite a month for God Games. Both Reus (Abbey Games) and Skyward Collapse (Arcen) are a new type of God Game in that they both, to some extent, prioritize stability of the system over any real competition. Skyward Collapse is often explicitly about accepting that the mortals want to kill each other while you try to keep their production and military strengths in an equilibrium.

God Games, like City Builders, are more openly about systems management than most other strategy subtypes, so there is necessarily going to be some repetition in how things are set up. The system can’t be too complex, since you need to have predictable outcomes in, say, Populous or SimAnt so that you aren’t wasting time fighting against yourself. Maps may change and a few of the preconditions or objectives, but systems mastery and comprehension is entirely the point.

So when I am told that a god game or city builder is repetitive, I need to really dig deep and long to see if that is the case. Is it repetitive like Pawn to E4 or repetitive like an episode of Scooby Doo? What are the parameters for variation? When does the change occur? Populous set up a competition between gods, so you always had the difficulty spike (as well as varied map rules) to keep the game interesting.

Reus, at this point, I can see getting a little weary after many hours, but, like Skyward Collapse, it is trying to build a deep system of interlocking parts that require a bit of study. The tutorial levels in Reus move too slowly with too much handholding and the tutorial in Skyward Collapse moves to quickly with too little explanation of why I am doing things. (Telling me to build a myth unit first and then warning that this is a bad idea outside of the tutorial is kind of silly.) Further comments will be forthcoming.

2) Three Moves Ahead: I haven’t been on in a while, and this is Paradox month so I can’t be on. But right after E3, I will return. The Paradox heavy month is due to the release of Crusader Kings 2: The Old Gods and the fact Rob Zacny was in Stockholm last month for a press tour and had a chance to grab everyone he wanted to talk to. The occasion was a massive Europa Universalis IV preview event, and you can read Rob’s thoughts at PCGN, in two parts.

You can see me in the first photo in Part 2, third from the bottom on the right. I was playing Poland. It was going very well until it suddenly didn’t. Note to self – never forget to turn that army maintenance back up.

3) Memory Insufficient: The internet is so big that it is sometimes easy to miss stuff. For example, I didn’t know there was a free webzine about critical analysis of history in games called Memory Insufficient until the editor, Zoya Street, emailed me to ask if he could republish the Indian essay from my National Character series for their themed issue about portrayals of Asia in games. He had just discovered me, too, and the deadline was too close for him to ask me to contribute something original. I happily agreed, and there are some nice pieces in the final version.

The next issue is about the history of sexual diversity in games, and you can read the pitch here. Deadline for submissions is the 15th of June, and if I had time, I’d write something about God of War‘s approach to ancient Greek sexuality or maybe something about The Sims. I don’t have time, and I can do most of my free writing. cough.

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Glue-sticking It To The Man

May 25th, 2013 by Bruce G · Board Games, Wargames

This guest post from Bruce Geryk goes into solitaire wargaming, making things that don’t suck and some of his own preferences and tricks. I’m always happy to post his thoughts.

Technology has a way of fixing problems. In gaming, it created distribution models that freed many designers from the restrictive grasp of publishers (direct download), produced handheld devices that gave simple mechanics a chance to shine (iPad), and connected consumers with creators in a way that removed restrictions on capital flow (Kickstarter). But in boardgaming, it left one decidedly low-tech yet-unsolved problem: how do you make games out of various pieces of cardboard without having to farm it out to an overseas printer?

That’s a problem the desktop publishing hobby (movement? cause?) has tried to fix. Troy and I spoke at length with Paul Rohrbaugh of High Flying Dice Games, who has done a great job bringing little-known historical subjects to gaming with little more than Photoshop and his local printer. Paul and others have shown that design skills are out there. The modding efforts of Ed “Volcano” Williams to redo the Panzer Campaign series graphics, or Jison’s MapMod project for the same series or his astonishing efforts in re-imagining the War in the East map, are plenty of evidence that graphics design talent exists as well. But there’s still this seemingly insurmountable problem of taking that design, and the beautiful map, mounting it, and providing good die-cut counters so you feel like you’re playing a real boardgame.

Keep reading to find out how I solved this problem… [Read more →]

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Giving History to Historical Settings

May 4th, 2013 by Troy Goodfellow · Design

It’s a weird thing, but the feature I am most excited about in the upcoming Civilization V: Brave New World is a relatively minor mechanic designed to plug in to the much larger changes.

It’s Archaelogy. Yes, always excited about new civilizations, since I love writing about that sort of thing, and really, the archaeology system seems to be another culture growth tool – it can allow you to find Great Works you can stick in your museums to increase the new Tourism resource.

But the developers have also said that archaeology will be, in some way and some cases, connected to things that had happened previously in the game. Maybe there was a battle there. Maybe it was an ancient ruin that a scout discovered centuries earlier, or the base of a barbarian tribe. In short, archaeology will connect the actions of the early game and late game in a novel way. The history within the game can be recognized.

A lot of us play in historical sandboxes because we are interested in the great events of the past. A good strategy game can give you the feeling that you are replaying or rewriting history. But it’s very rare to find a game that tracks this history and reminds you of it in game. You win a major battle against your enemies and once it is over, there is no record or remembrance of it. A great king rules for half a century and the only thing he leaves behind is a name and accumulated prestige points. Over time, experienced strategy gamers become subconsciously sensitive to this sort of thing and remember the great moments that stand out, but the map and the world are often devoid of any recognition that there is a past.

Like the Civ expansion’s archaeology, one of my favorite things about Rome: Total War is very small – in fact, it’s meaningless from a gameplay perspective: major battle sites are marked on the map. They aren’t prominent, and you could miss them, but if two large armies fight, then crossed swords mark that place for the rest of the game as the location where Scipii beat Carthage in 267 BC. It doesn’t change how you play the game or win the game, but it is a constant reminder that your experience is building a new history.

The mostly average colonization game Conquest of the New World tried to build this sort of historical sensibility by letting your explorers name the major geographical features they discovered. This was a novel feature at the time, and, of course, I tried to give grand and sensible names the first few times before using the default selection or naming waterfalls after my friends. I am sure that if teenagers played this game, there were many Mount Ballz out there, as well. Ultimately it didn’t build a lot of history, but in a game where there was a lot of waiting around, each new discovery by itself led to a “Hurrah, you found it, you can name it” moment that reminded you that your settlement was doing things no one in that world had done before.

And you could always tell which things you named, so there was a proprietary feeling to acquiring them. Why shouldn’t you have dibs on the Ed River? The history of the game could shape how you viewed the division of the map as much as the strategic situation did. We are not rational creatures.

I think about this on the day that I will be traveling to Sweden to assist Paradox with a Europa Universalis IV event – few developers are as immersed in history as Paradox is, and every EU game now concludes with a computer generated account of what each ruler accomplished in their reign over the centuries – I do love these simple summaries. But in game…great generals or advisors come and go at the whim of the player. Great victories only matter for the war, and there are no monuments. Victorian explorers do not become prestige generating celebrities.

Civ always had its Wonders, but I sometimes wish that every time I beat Montezuma or if a caravel discovered another continent the game would give me a chance to mark it. I wish that Dominions III would mark sites of major battles with skulls or something (probably dependent on the race). As we play through strategy games, writing our own histories, it would be nice to see that history we write recognized, even if in only minor cosmetic ways.

So kudos to Firaxis for this archaeology thing. It is an active search for the history of the game (which is usually better than passive) and can remind the player of accomplishments centuries ago, whether your own or your rivals. In a long term strategy game, we do a lot of great things we can hardly ever remember.

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So Where Do You Start?

April 26th, 2013 by Troy Goodfellow · Design, Me

I get a lot of email from people that want to play strategy games – that are attracted to particular strategy games because they like the subject matter or because they listen to our podcast and everything sounds so amazing that they have to get into this system cracking nutbar hobby of ours.

It’s one reason I recorded myself playing a teaching game of Crusader Kings 2 that ended up getting deleted because I had the settings wrong somehow. (I promise I’ll do another one later.) And, though I am hesitant to keep giving the same advice to people that want to know how to become games journalists or podcasters or PR people (like I knew a damn thing when I started any of those), I will never tire of giving people advice on how to get into strategy games.

An acquaintance recently asked me if he should just jump into Victoria 2 or start with a simpler Paradox game. Since he was really interested in the Victorian Age and the Paradox grand strategy titles are all quite distinct from each other despite any similarity in appearance, the answer was easy: If you want to play these games, you just play them. Start with Victoria and come back to me with any questions.

Yes, sometimes I think we make too much about difficult any of this really is. A grown up that is patient can figure out pretty much any reflex=independent game that has transparent inputs and a decent UI.

The harder thing to find is time. Time to learn new things. This is one of my great barriers in learning new strategy games. I used to be able to just sample anything for five to ten hours at a time before deciding whether I would make the commitment (Knights of Honor no, World in Conflict yes), and time is the great enemy of adults. Let’s face it, Netflix makes it very easy for me to pretend I am being productive by catching up on Parks & Rec.

And don’t get me started on board games.

For a strategy game designer, this must pose a serious problem. You need to hook players early enough for them to commit to seeing more of the game, but all the best strategy games BUILD towards something. Yes, Civilization is great because it starts asking you to make important choices immediately. But Imperialism is great in spite of the fact you can really do nothing but look for resources for the first dozen or so turns. Master of Orion is the Civ model of exploration and building from the start, Starflight is a brilliant but slow moving trading sim gussied up like an adventure game. If old X-Com came out today would we have even noticed its genius? The new XCom has a tutorial with tension and casualties.

That opening hook…

So many of the best games out there are slow burns, including some of my comfort games like Europa Universalis; yeah you can do a lot immediately if you play France, but what if you are Denmark? And I played many more slow-burning games when I was a) paid to do so, and b) my work and play schedule were more flexible than they are now.

This is my challenge in getting more people into strategy games. I play fewer than I have in the past, and the ones I do play I can only say a few things about because, if they are not clients, I don’t have the base of experience of other recent titles for a good comparison. I am not as great a guide as I used to be. So I can’t justify the slow burns or “Just wait” since the base of comparison is fading.

Now a part of me would rather stick to Netflix and start a Tumblr about historical movies and go into why they are almost all terrible, and maybe I will do that someday. I also need to get this video thing straightened out, go back to my collaborative work that’s been put aside and if I had enough money to do nothing for a year, I’d stop and write a book while catching up on all that I’ve missed lately.

But I have a platform and people will keep asking me about where to begin in learning strategy games in general or whether they should dip a toe into a certain title in particular. And I will keep giving advice. I am the evangelist that never knocks on your door. Have to spread the word.

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