Overheard on Amtrak: A Gaming Story

February 4, 2014– If you’re a boardgamer who looks askance at the first-person-shooter variety of videogames, here’s some grist for your mill. Of course lots of folks love videogames, and the first-person-shooter variety is a strong category in that field, so if that’s your passion please excuse this. My take is that of a longtime boardgame designer who was there when computer games first got started, solicited our help, then left us in the dust.

Anyway the story is this: a few years ago I was on my way to take care of chores in New York. I prefer Amtrak for these periodic business trips. The train is more comfortable, you can walk around, and it leaves you in the heart of The City, ready to go wherever you need to. So I’m on a Northeast Regional bound for a city I love, where I lived a long time. I read a book as the train barreled along. Sitting there I became conscious of the conversation from the twin-seat ahead of me. Two men were engaged in avid debate. I heard the words “axe” and “sword.” That got my attention pretty well.

Some nefarious plot? I worried briefly but it quickly became clear the two men were game designers, and their purpose was to figure out what weapons to put into the first-person-shooter they were crafting. The conversation was quite interesting. Heft of the axe and sword, length and edge-type of the latter, single- or double-bit for the axe, type of metal, weight–all were things they considered. What struck me in particular was their focus on the visual impact of the various weapons configurations. They were clearly concentrating on a game design issue.

The purloined conversation got me to thinking. Plenty of gamers have asked me over the years why I did not move into computer games. Actually a few of my designs–Third Reich and Kanev are two–have appeared in computerized versions, though the games (and even the computer platforms which ran them) no longer exist. But I never made the crossover myself. At first I thought I would, but that I needed to wait–the early platforms were very restricted in terms of core memory. For a long time the memory requirements for representing a mapboard effectively consumed the machine’s capacity leaving little for the game itself. As a designer my preference has always been to innovate systems that mimic large-scale processes in the real world, requiring pretty sophisticated code. But I anticipated that CPU memory capacities would someday reach the level required for both board and design, plus, of course, pieces. In any case, focusing my design efforts on image (as my Amtrak friends were doing) rather than content, as in the modeling of processes, was not something I wanted to do.

That evolution of computers happened–but so did something else. The early electronic games were very much like the boardgames. But as computers improved, the action game, granddaddy of the first-person-shooter, eclipsed the old-style game. The charm of putting the person into the game–as character (in role-playing), as ball player, as shooter, as action figure–was irresistible. The personal element made computer games the behemoth they are today. Even large-scale games today, as in the massive online game, are permutations of single person action. My two friends on Amtrak were onto something.

But I did–and still do–prefer to model processes, not individual action, whether cumulative or not. I’ve been pleased that old-style electronic games have survived, even as a niche in the computerized milieu, and also that computers have come around far enough to develop game-assist programs (like VASSAL) that improve the practicality of boardgames. And developing trends may be moving in the direction of  a more central role for boardgame-like computer games. Sales of first-person-shooter designs peaked in 2011 and have diminished since. Though these games still account for nearly a fourth of all electronic game sales, their dollar volume has decreased by more than a third. This suggests there is space developing for electronic wargames of the traditional kind, now in an environment when the platforms are fully capable of handling a sophisticated boardgame. Some of my old designer colleagues–Eric Lee Smith is an example–have chosen to go straight to electronics with new game companies. And games are being formatted to work on I-pads and I-phones. We may be witnessing the dawn of a new age. Let a hundred flowers bloom!

Boardgaming in the News

January 11, 2014–There’s a lot on my plate today, so just a short note.  Very occasionally the mainstream media features coverage of boardgames. This weekend is one such instance. Just so you’re aware, tomorrow’s Washington Post Magazine contains the article “War in A Box” by Jason Albert. The piece is a nice profile of Volko Ruhnke, an analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency by trade, but a budding game designer with five titles under his belt. Ruhnke’s work puts a sophisticated simulation model around such subjects as the war in Afghanistan. He’s currently working on a Vietnam war game with co-designer Mark Herman, who some years ago brought us the very intricate Vietnam 1965-1975. The article also contains a bit on the World Boardgame Championships show. If you’re a gamer you’ll be interested to see this essay. 


January 4, 2014–It’s always great to see an old friend. Today it’s Panzerkrieg, a game I designed back in the mid-70s, known by its present name since 1978, when Operational Studies Group put out my full edition. Last year the Japanese publisher Six Angles approached me with the suggestion that we collaborate on a fresh version of this classic boardgame. I agreed. The result arrived with yesterday’s mail so that I can now affirm that the new Panzerkrieg is out, and available. It’s listed that way on the “Games” section of the website, with a link to Six Angles.

Those of you familiar with the game will want to know what we have so here goes. The new edition features a re-drawn four-color mapboard that is quite attractive. The terrain feel is better because of the move from three- to four-color, the substitution of symbols for the colored river-crossing hexes in the old edition, and the replacement of the old yellow scenario start-lines with updated symbols.  Panzerkrieg’s former study folder has been replaced by scenario cards. All eight original scenarios are included, and there is a new introductory scenario, “The Manstein Alternative.”

The counter art is spectacular. Masahiro Yamazaki of Six Angles has reworked the pieces (500 on two-and-a-half sheets). Leaders have portraits. There are new color distinctions between mobile units (armor and mechanized) and infantry on both sides, nicely done air units, Minor Allies with their own flavor, and more.

Rules will be familiar, though here, too, we have adapted some elements of more recent editions of the game. These include the ability to group mobile units into panzer corps or tank armies, setting of “Objectives,” specialized anti-tank units, and more. The classic elements of the design, with its Stalemates and Breakthroughs, the Bridgeheads across major rivers, the use of Reserves and of Leaders, plus airpower, remain the same. Six Angles published the game in Japanese translation but an English version of the rules, tables, and charts will become available in the next few weeks.

I will be posting Designer’s Notes for the game as an item on the “Downloadable” section of the site. I’m also considering working up a new scenario as additional value added. Masahiro did a fine job. Panzerkrieg is back. Welcome old friend!

What’s a Jigsaw Puzzle? The BEYOND LEIPZIG Mapboard

December 26, 2013– A fellow game designer commented in one of the online chat rooms on gaming that the mapboard for by Beyond Leipzig looked like a project for a jigsaw puzzle. Seems a bit snarky to me, but his bleat opens up something worth comment, and that is representation on a mapboard. Let me put in my two bits on that.

To start with a general description, Beyond Leipzig features an area map representation of Central Europe from the French border of 1813 to the Oder River. That map includes terrain, for purposes of representing movement and combat; plus delineates certain political boundaries of that era, because this game has a diplomatic aspect and players may dicker over the control of minor states. There are at least eleven different kinds of terrain (clear, highlands, swamps, forests, major and minor rivers, river crossings, cities, fortresses, mountains and passes). The territory of roughly fourteen states (three Major Powers and a host of minor kingdoms, principalities and so on) lies within its scope. Their boundaries have to be specified. Lots of information needs to be on that map.

Several avenues to this are possible. For a long time the standard technique was to take terrain and overlay a grid of hexagons upon it. Another method was to craft a map which divides the space into areas. The third is to produce a network map, dividing the space into “stops” connected by a route-path of movement lines, much like the map of a transit system.

For Beyond Leipzig the choice was an area map. I wanted to get away from the hex grid because that impedes a naturalistic view of the land. But the hex grid does offer one important advantage: it facilitates the representation of terrain. So I made it a goal to make “areas” behave more like “hexes.” Thus, rather than have vanilla, undifferentiated areas on the map, here we get areas which have terrain intrinsic to them, as well as terrain features along the boundaries. This conforms precisely to design practices using hexagons. Areas in Beyond Leipzig terminate at significant boundary features (like rivers or mountains).

Some of the gamer’s impression of a jigsaw can be attributed to another attribute of the area map–areas were drawn so as to inhibit “gamey” actions such as jumping across corners so as to avoid transiting boundary terrain features. No legitimate objection can be made to this approach.

As for a network map approach I rejected that for two reasons. First, a network map would be even more artificial than a hexagon one. Appreciation of land and space becomes so vague that verisimilitude virtually disappears. Second–and equally important– route-path networks are inherently limited by the route connections permitted on the board. In real terrain a force could head in any direction to reach its goal. Within a network, however, directions of movement are restricted. The device of correcting this by connecting all stopping points to all adjacent ones robs the network of its purpose of constricting play. It also produces a more complex visual presentation in which the landscape becomes less visible.

Beyond Leipzig offers a sophisticated terrain analysis in a very simple fashion while opening up all possibilities to the players and affording them the opportunity to see the land as it was, and conduct their campaigns within that framework. This is not a jigsaw puzzle, it is a considered mapboard representation.




December 20, 2013– The game Beyond Leipzig has come to the end of its design testing phase. It went off to Last Stand Games to begin its development process earlier this week, and I learned yesterday it had arrived safely. I’m kind of sorry to see it go. Beyond Leipzig was a sweet game from start to finish. It looks great–and will look even better in a published format with a hard-backed mapboard. It plays nicely. One of my testers, writing on the net, called Beyond Leipzig’s combat system ” ‘da bomb.” From the standpoint of the kinds of things you can make happen in battle, I think that’s right.

This is an historical game of a key Napoleonic campaign. “Leipzig” in the title refers to the climactic Battle of Leipzig, which marked the virtual end of the Campaign of 1813 in Germany, one that the Germans call “the War of Liberation.” The game can be played solitaire with reasonable ease, used by two, or assumes its ultimate form as a multi-player encounter that encompasses both diplomacy and warfare. For gamers who are interested in specifications, Beyond Leipzig is an operational/strategic game. It features three-week turns, an area/terrain mapboard, and the combat system which I innovated for Beyond Waterloo. Unit representation is at the brigade/division level. There will be a single mapboard, three Army Organization Displays, a rules booklet and a study folder, 960 counters (four sheets), plus card decks for Battle Tactics, Diplomacy, and National Policies. Counting the scenarios that can be played both dual- and multi-player separately, Beyond Leipzig will have nine scenarios. It will also have the appurtenances of what we used to call a “monster game.” Altogether Beyond Leipzig presents a comprehensive and sophisticated vision of the Campaign of 1813.

Beyond Leipzig

Fans will be pleased to learn that initial testing of this “mini-monster” design on the 1813 campaign in Germany is nearing its end. After final prototyping Beyond Leipzig will be turned over to Last Stand Games for the actual development work. Once I have sent off the completed prototype I’ll post something with additional detail on what this game will encompass. (October 2013)

The Death of Vo Nguyen Giap

While news of the passage of Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap attracted wide interest throughout the world in October 2013, we were struck by the extraordinary coincidence that at least two boardgamers, both heavily involved with the same game company, have had significant interactions with him. That company produces Against the Odds magazine. Paul Rohrbaugh, a game designer, consulted Giap on Dien Bien Phu for a game he was creating. Paul discovered that the general is familiar with wargames. Paul had wanted to visit and actually play a Dien Bien Phu game with General Giap but it proved impossible for him to do so. Earlier, in June 1997, I had been one of the historian members of a U.S. delegation led by Robert S. McNamara, which went to Hanoi to review the history of the war with Vietnamese counterparts, including Giap. What an odd coincidence! (October 2013)