Gamers’ Corner: Return to Kanev

May 15, 2015–Just a quick note to give you a head’s up. New product on “Downloadable!” It’s about my game Kanev: Parachutes Across the Dnepr. A few days ago I was looking at that game again–I’d gotten a box and thought I would transfer my proof copy of the game from the ziplock bag, where it had lain for years, to the box. While doing that I thought I’d drop by the game’s page on ConSimWorld. There I was surprised to find folks currently playing Kanev and discussing rules questions. I quickly decided to help. So I have written a reflection on the origin and evolution of that game and added to it a set of Q & A-style rules errata.

If you’re interested in downloading this piece, go to that section of the website and follow the instructions there.

Who Needs Those Pesky CRTs Anyway?

February 5, 2015–I commend to your attention my new game just out from Turning Point Simulations and titled The Victory of Arminius. At the time I didn’t have much of a chance for extended comments or designer’s notes on that project, so let me take this opportunity to say something about what I think is the most intriguing feature of the game–its use of dice and elimination of any Combat Results Table.

In The Victory of Arminius battle action is resolved by a simple adding up of dice plus addition of the raw strength of units. This is quite deliberate. In many board strategy games, including some of my own, the use of tables and charts becomes quite overwhelming. In particular the long-honored “Combat Results Table” (CRT) is central to game play. So much so that as designers attempted to model more and more complex combat processes, the CRTs in and of themselves became too intricate.

For some time I’d also been concerned with the hobby’s demographic. Age does not just affect the size of type gamers can read (and, hence, size of counters or game pieces preferred), but also attention spans and the ability to calculate. The standard CRT requires players to derive a ratio (usually of attacker vs defender combat strength), therefore to perform mathematical calculations. Some game titles even have fractionated odds ratios (such as 3 : 2, or put differently, 1.5 : 1). With high amounts of combat strength and tired old brains those calculations start to get onerous, especially when you might have a dozen or more battles to resolve every turn.

I began to do something about this long ago. In the early 1980s, beginning with Warsaw Rising and Monty’s D-Day, I introduced a “differential” CRT. Using that mechanic required only subtracting the strength of the stronger side from that of the weaker, deriving a difference (hence differential). That was good but it still required comparisons between the sides. I strove to devise an arrangement under which each side in the game generated an outcome from its own possibilities, with a comparison of the two only coming in at the end to establish a victor in the battle. This created mechanics which became familiar in games of mine beginning with Campaigns of Robert E. Lee.

But I had also gone another route altogether. In 1983, in a game I have never published that dealt with the battle of Dien Bien Phu, I reasoned that battle outcomes are the result of two things–the essential strength of the participating forces (within such constraints as may result from their deployment mode, supply status, command, and so forth) plus the conditions which prevail in a given combat situation. In that game system I used dice to reflect combat conditions. The dice used by each player in each combat resolution would take into account the specific elements which applied to that side at that moment.

When Steve Rawling asked me to take on the Teutoburgerwald project it not only pleased me to be able to craft a Roman Empire-era game, I realized that the battle situation was perfect for the application of the “Action Dice” mechanics for combat resolution. The Victory of Arminius not only does away with the CRT it dispenses with that portion of the Terrain Effects Chart that is usually occupied by specifying combat impact. I am pleased to bring this to you. Enjoy!

What is NAL/Caliber?

January 23, 2015–For those of you looking for the latest commentary, sorry. I’ve been out of circulation on a deadline, and now I need to reorganize to take up the next project. In the meantime I noticed a reference on the web to a question someone had actually asked me just the other day. So I’m just putting up a quick note to answer that question.

“NAL/Caliber” is a publisher. It’s more complicated than that, of course, but that’s the gist of it. In the way of agglomeration in the publishing industry the back story is this: New American Library (NAL) is an old line publishing house. If I remember correctly they used to have two lines–or “imprints” as they are called in publishing. One published useful editions of classic books and was called the Modern Library. The other did popular paperbacks and was called Signet. NAL also did some books under their own imprint.

At some point before I worked with them, NAL was acquired by Penguin Books–my theory is it was for their classics line. Penguin continued to run NAL as an imprint. NAL/Caliber is a further subset–an imprint that specializes in popular military history. I’ve published two books with NAL/Caiber–Islands of Destiny  (2013 paperback, 2012 hardcover) and Normandy Crucible.  There is a sequel to Islands of Destiny in progress.

Naturally this may all change. Penguin has been acquired in its turn by the publisher Random House. What the final disposition may be I cannot say.

 

Gamer’s Corner: “John Hill” Game Designer Story Contest

January 14, 2015–John Hill’s sudden demise should give pause to all of us gamers. There is so much of the story of gaming that is out there but is just an oral tradition because no one’s written it down. Some of you will be aware–but many will not–that I’d already had the idea of starting to do something about this. I’m going to start putting a series of occasional profiles of favorite game designers in my column in the magazine Against the Odds– the first of these is in progress now and will be in their next issue to go to press, #44.

So that these columns wouldn’t just reflect my own memories of various gaming figures, before Christmas I hosted a contest whereby folks sent in their favorite memories of personal encounters with game designers. The winner received a copy of one of my ATO-published games of her/his choice (for the record, that person was Brian Train, who chose to receive a copy of Beyond Waterloo). The stories will go in future columns.

Now for Round 2: Though we gathered some good stories I know you all have lots more. In John Hill’s memory–and in his honor–I hereby open a second round of the “Game Designer Story Contest.” Here are the rules–

This time there will be three winners. Each winner will receive, as before, a copy of one of my ATO-published games of her/his choice, subject only to what I have available. If your choice is the forthcoming Victory of Arminius, that must wait on the actual publication of the game. But there are many other possible choices.

To enter the contest, go to the “Comments” section of this website and tell your story. Be sure to leave your name and email address, since otherwise there will be no way to inform you if you’re a winner or to get you your prize.

The Story must pertain to a published game designer (mention one or a few titles, along with the name of the publisher). Stories may relate a personal encounter, tell an inside story of a game, of playtesting, of casual gaming, a seminar, or the activities of the person.

Your “Favorite Game Designer” can be anyone–do not neglect John Hill. I promise that the second column in this series will profile John (it cannot be the first one since that is already being written).

Stories will be used in these ATO “Simulation Corner” columns and in other writings. Some will appear here, on my website, in features under the “Gaming” blog category, to give readers an idea of some of the great stuff that’s accumulating. We’ll all end up knowing more about our hobby.

Your entry of a story will constitute your permission to publish it (to meet copyright law requirements). You warrant the story is not proprietary information and that it is not libelous. You will be identified in telling your story of the game designer, so you’ll have bragging rights on that whether or not you end up as a contest winner.

Please, only one entry per message.

But there is no limit to the number of entries you may submit. All entries must be in by 11:59 PM of February 15, 2015.

I will be the sole judge of the contest. Winners will be determined and announced before the end of February 2015. I’ll inform the winners directly and they and I will determine what prize they carry away. The winners will also be announced in this space.

Enter early and often!

Gamer’s Corner: Goodbye to John Hill

January 13, 2015–During the late 1970s and early 80s, when we were all pushing the envelope for simulation authenticity, designer John Hill had a theory he called “design for effect.” That didn’t sit very well with me after I saw a Korean War game of his, with Chinese communist forces portrayed at the “army” and “group army” level, and then those armies being able to infiltrate across United Nations lines–because, after all, any Korea game had to have an infiltration capability on the communist side.

At one of the game shows I ran into John and we had it out. Amicably enough, John made it clear he was sticking to his guns. Then we went off to get a burger and a soda. Hill’s most famous game–justifiably so–Squad Leader had its “Berserk” units (because in “most” tactical situations somebody goes crazy). And so on.

I loved Squad Leader. And therein lay the charm–John Hill was a firm believer in playability. Whether it was Johnny Reb Civil War miniatures (John’s Civil War rebel cap became a fixture for quite a while), October War games, or his first sally that I knew about, a Vietnam game called Battle for Hue, you got a John Hill game and you knew you’d have fun.

I think it was the initial Origins where I first met John. He was riding a wave from his Hue game and I also had a Vietnam design out there, my SPI wargame Year of the Rat. We joked about the two Johns at Johns Hopkins University. Quite a few other times we spent time over a table, broke bread, or walked together down the aisle at a game show, oohing and aah-ing the new titles and speculating why this or that feature had been done a certain way. Other times I’d be cruising the general gaming area–I love watching the miniatures players go at it–and John would be there wailing away.

Gaming has lost a good man, and I, a good friend.

Gamer’s Corner: Congratulations Contest Winner!

December 20, 2014–Thank you to all those who entered stories in the Favorite Game Designer Stories contests. There were some very amusing ones, ranging from the cat who loved pizza–and jumped four-paw-flat into the middle of a pie to the invention and improvement of the “pantzooka.”

Designers featured in the stories–and some of the storytellers too–will become the subjects of “Simulation Corner” columns in Against the Odds magazine. These will appear irregularly and mix with the varied other subjects that column covers. We have probably got a list now good for several years of these occasional columns.

The context winner is Brian Train, involved in the pantzooka invention, who tells of the time he and designer Joe Miranda attended the Burning Man gathering together. Both Brian and Joe are designers worthy of inclusion in this series, so you can look forward to seeing them in the pages of ATO.

Designer Story 2: Why No Pacific Third Reich?

December 6, 2014: With Pearl Harbor Day coming up tomorrow I thought I’d offer another designer story to whet your appetite for the Favorite Game Designers Story Contest. This one is about why I never directly took the Third Reich game system to the Pacific War. Instead I did a game called Pearl Harbor.

Remember contest details are in another post here. The days are counting down. All entries must be received by midnight of December 15, 2014. There’ve been some good ones. Keep them coming!

So anyway, Third Reich had been a tremendous success. The idea of extending the game to the Pacific was a natural. More than that, I had cut my teeth on Pacific wargames. As a kid learning to do this stuff I had designed probably five or so versions of a strategic campaign game. In its most ambitious form this game was a hybrid that had a strategic map and then broke out various subroutines for different actions. There was a surface naval game modeled on Jutland, an air war module, rules for scientific and industrial development, and ground war provisions that broke out the level of the engagement (battalion, regiment, division or above) with both specific maps (for Pacific islands and certain large areas, such as Malaya or Burma) and generic ones. All of it had weekly turns. A group of friends played that game almost every day through one summer, and in those several months we did not get the game past early 1944. The problem was too much.

Third Reich was too different. That is, the continental warfare in Europe, with mass armies, in which naval and air forces played a subsidiary role, offered a version of war that in my view was distinct from that in the Pacific, where the air and naval forces put on the big show, and land armies played in sotto voce. Moreover, with the game Third Reich already out you couldn’t easily adapt rules for naval and air warfare which had deliberately been kept very simple.

So I did Pearl Harbor, which Avalon Hill was not interested in and which I took to Game Designers’ Workshop. I know lots of gamers disliked that one in comparison to the other, but I still think that design to have been less artificial than the Pacific TR that Avalon Hill finally tried. They had to go to Victory in the Pacific to get something successful. And I was sad the Pacific title had not clicked.

 

Gamers’ Corner: The Magic Bus: A Story to Whet Your Apetite

December 2, 2014–For all you Gamers out there! You’ll have seen I am hosting a contest encouraging you to give us stories about your favorite game designers. Keep those entries rolling in! Just to give you the flavor of the endeavor, let me tell this one . . .

It was the summer of 1978, coming up on Origins, which that year would be held on the campus of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Game designer Kevin Zucker had started Operational Studies Group (OSG) and was out with his first game, Napoleon At Bay. Naturally he wanted to make the convention with a load of them, where gamers would be anxious to scoop them up. He priced air freight. Too much. Post Office–too slow. Uncertain to boot.

Kevin had the idea of driving a van. He had a friend–another former SPI-er named Terry Hardy–now an official with Avis.  Terry had run office operations for SPI, that was his kind of thing. He was good at it. Same with Avis. Terry used his employee discounts and contacts to get Kevin a sweetheart deal on a van.

Van in hand, Zucker enlisted his OSG sidekick Jay Nelson to go along, but figured he needed one more person to share the driving. That’s where I came in. Naturally I myself was looking for passage to Ann Arbor. In those days you could go to the airport, sit standby, then pay for instant cheap tickets on half-filled planes to your destination. Better than that you could do it in the moment–no advance bookings, no impedimenta, just like that. My plan was to head for LaGuardia, fly into Detroit, and find some shuttle bus to Ann Arbor. Then the phone rang and it was Kevin.

Today (full disclosure) Kevin Zucker and I are good friends. In those days we were friendly but nothing like now. I suppose The Magic Bus triggered the change. I’d known Kevin from SPI, where he worked as an editor, assistant to Redmond Simonsen, and game designer too–a jack of all trades. I was past his door frequently since I was close to Redmond, who had the corner office in the Art Department and Kevin the next one over. I always made sure to stop and hang out a bit with Red whenever I was at SPI. So when Kevin left SPI we were on good terms–and indeed I subsequently published a game of my own with Kevin’s OSG. Anyway, when Kevin called and wanted another driver for the van that was fine with me. Kevin and Jay drove by my apartment and picked me up and off we went. It was less than a day until Origins was scheduled to kick off and time was of the essence.

Zucker was right that he needed another driver. With getting the van, loading the OSG games and booth materials, and picking up Jay and me, he was exhausted. We left New York down I-95 to the Jersey Turnpike and somewhere around the Delaware Water Gap Kevin started falling asleep. Jay was already out. We had started out before sunrise. I took over the driving.

There’s something about long-distance driving. I don’t know if it’s the Spell of the Interstate or Romance Behind the Wheel, but every time I get out on the road like that I always think of America on the go. Anyway we were driving along and it seemed only a minute later when Kevin woke up.

“Where are we?” he asked.

“Half past Ohio,” I replied (indeed we were somewhere between Cleveland and Toledo).

Kevin and I talked it over and agreed only a minute had passed since the Delaware Gap. That’s when we decided we had a Magic Bus. Jay took over for the last lap into Ann Arbor, where we arrived in time for the OSG guys to set up and still have dinner before dark. And the rest of that Origins trip was splendid . . .

Gamers’ Corner: Favorite Designer Stories Contest

November 12, 2014– Here’s a bit of a tease, just in time for Christmas. I’m planning an occasional series of profiles of favorite game designers for my “Simulation Corner” column in Against the Odds magazine. To supplement my own recollections of the various characters in our hobby I ask for your help, but do it in the form of a contest.

The prize will be a copy of one of my ATO-published games, delivered via postal service. Which exact game will be decided by consultation between the winner and myself, subject to which titles I retain copies of. If your interest is the new Arminius, that will have to be subject to when the game actually emerges from production.

To enter, simply go to the “Contact” section of this website and post a message giving your story. Only one story per message, please. The deadline for entry will be 11:59 PM, Monday, December 15, 2014. Be sure to include sufficient detail and color. Made-up stories are not acceptable.

You may enter as often as you like.

Entry in the contest will constitute your permission to publish parts or all of the stories you submit. Stories may be used in “Simulation Corner,” on this website, or in other writing that I do. There may be  posts during the contest that update status and that feature designer stories you send.

I shall be the sole judge of the winning entry or entries. I expect to choose the winning entry around the first week of December. The winner will be notified directly by email and also by means of a summary posting on this website.

Your story may relate to any game designer of a published boardgame title, active or past. Stories may relate a personal encounter, a gaming experience, a play or playtest experience, a simulation matter, or any other item of interest. The primary concern is that your story be dramatic, or colorful, or interesting or important.

Enter early and often. Gook Luck!

Gamers’ Corner : Set Europe Ablaze Bibliography

November 6, 2014–Just a head’s up! We have now posted a product which lists the various histories consulted in the course of designing the game Set Europe Ablaze and compiling the historical articles that appear with it. Not everyone will be interested in the bibliography, but for anyone who wants to look into Resistance to the German occupation of Western Europe in World War II, the history of the Special Operations Executive, and the French and American (OSS) special services that matched it, this listing furnishes a useful compilation of the sources. This product can be found in the “Downloadable” section of the website. It is a premium content item.