Gamer’s Corner: Volunteer(s) for Demo

June 17, 2017–Want a Prados ATO game (that I have copies of) for free? Come help me demonstrate Steve Rawlings’s next release, which is basically complete except for the printed rules (and they may even be available by the time of this event!). This will be a demo and appearance at a game shop on Capitol Hill. The games are the four entries in the collection Four Roads to Paris. At a minimum you’ll get an early peek at the new designs and, as I said, a free game of mine.

The maps, counters and other components for Four Roads to Paris are at the printer right now. They’ll be ready in time for this event, which takes place on Saturday, July 29. We’ll be able to use near-final version of the typescript rules, which Steve will supply and I’ll forward to you. Hopefully we can show fans one or more of these games actually in play.

The demo will take place at Labyrinth Games and Puzzles, which is at 645 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE (Washington, DC 20003). That’s just about half a block from the Eastern Market Metro stop. You can get other info from the shop, at (202) 544 – 1059. The show will start at 12 noon and last until 3 P.M. I’ll demonstrate the games in the collection and, depending on how many volunteers we get, play one of them with you. I’ll also be responding to questions from fans on gaming.

If you’re interested let’s start by you leaving a note for me at my website with your email address. I will respond and we’ll take it from there.

Gamer’s Corner: Pacific-Go

January 14, 2017–I learned from a friend this week that an interview with my colleague Lenny Glynn has appeared in the GMT Games magazine known as C3i. In his interview he comments on our design Pacific-Go. This game has yet to be covered on the drop-down “Games” menu on my website because it has yet to be published. But since Lenny has brought the game into the light, I’m sure interested fans would like to hear something about it.

This is one of several designs from the Prados-Glynn team. For the old Victory Games, later absorbed into Avalon Hill, we did the power politics game CIA. For SPI we teamed up to produce Spies. In each case Lenny ruminated and proposed, and I then turned the idea into a real game. For Pacific-Go, it was a time when Lenny was enamored with the classic game Go, which he played incessantly (only a few times with me). The rumination was, why couldn’t there be a game that retuned Go to an historical subject. That reasonable idea triggered the thought that the classic game, being of Oriental origin, ought to be coupled to a theme from that history. The game originated in China, but there are no subjects in Chinese history that resonate to an American audience–and we needed the latter to make a commercial success. Go arrived in Japan before 1,000 C.E., however, and the Pacific War from 1941 to 1945 immediately leapt out as a potential theme. That is the game I designed.

Three essential elements characterize the Go game. One is its square spaces where the play occurs on the intersections of the lines rather than within the enclosed area. A second is the “liberties,” the idea that game pieces (“stones”) can exist so long as open interstices exist around them (the core concept being that they can thus draw supply). The opponent captures stones when they become surrounded and have no liberties. The third element is the measurement of victory by the number of stones captured. I felt those elements could easily be incorporated in a board game.

I’m not going to give away all the fine mechanics of Pacific-Go. But a few things are suitable. This is designed as a strategic game of the Pacific Theater. Players have both a level of resources set by the scenario plus an increase based on control of objectives. The full number of stones that can be in play is the Force Pool, which players procure given their resources. Stones compose chains which must have liberties to survive. Captured stones leave the game. We have replaced the sequential turns of the classic game with simultaneous movement. There is a scenario that actually creates an historical situation for 1941. The vanilla nature of stones in the original has been modified. The game ends after a number of quarterly turns equivalent to the length of the war or the accomplishment of certain goals, whichever comes first. Victory is measured in the value of stones captured and objectives controlled.

This is a fast-playing, dynamic game, that can be played twice, or even three times, in an afternoon. That’s very cool for a strategic game. I hope someday you’ll be able to play it.

 

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.

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 : 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.

D-Day in Wargames

June 6, 2014–It’s the seventieth anniversary of what my parents knew as one of the decisive moments of World War II, what my generation saw as “The Longest Day,” and what now seems to have become endowed with a certain historical magic. News clips of Prince Charles, with an entourage, walking across Pegasus Bridge at the village of Benouville in Normandy were striking. They headed toward the flatland where British paratroops landed from gliders to grab that same bridge from the hands of German occupiers. Interviews with British paras who had participated in the lightning strike on the nearby Merville coastal battery were equally impressive. As I pen this no doubt the commemorative festivities in Normandy are coming to their climax, with delegations from five countries plus thousands of spectators.

The big shows happen only at intervals–70th anniversary seems to be one–but in between there is much less attention devoted to these historical events, climactic as they may be. Boardgamers, I am proud to say, have figured among the most observant of the public. Whether because the Normandy invasion is so dramatic, because the history is so important, or simply because gamers enjoy a good fight, D-Day boardgames have long been a staple of the wargame genre. Having designed a couple of them myself–including one that featured Pegasus Bridge and the Merville Battery, I can attest to that.

So far as wargames are concerned it started a little more than a decade after the real events, when The Avalon Hill Game Company put out its title D-Day. That was a picture of the “invasion” writ large–the whole Western European coast with the Allies to choose where to stage their invasion and the Germans to fight for France and the Low Countries. Since then boardgames on the subject have taken one of three paths. Games like D-Day– Fortress Europa and others–give you a bird’s eye picture of the entire military theater of operations. Titles like Axis & Allies: D-Day or Atlantic Wall, or The Longest Day offer a view more ample than that of D-Day itself–they go on for weeks of equivalent real time and give you the full Normandy campaign, invasion through breakout. There are not so many games which present the hours of D-Day itself as the main event. In the 1980s I published Monty’s D-Day, a simulation of invasion day on the British-Canadian beaches, long out of print today though I hope to bring it back. In 2012 Against the Odds brought out the companion game to that one, Bradley’s D-Day, which includes the American side of the invasion and the beaches known as Omaha and Utah.

It’s difficult to generalize on the basis of these few titles and their approaches. Over the long arc of boardgaming history there have been many more titles on the subject, these are just some of the games with which I am familiar. On the basis of game experience, though, I’d say the Normandy invasion was a done deal. In the theater-wide games there is some capacity to defeat the invasion, though usually on the basis of unrealistic historical elements (such as freeing the player from Hitler’s constraints on using the German mobile forces). In the Normandy campaign games and the D-Day beach games, outcomes tend to be Allied victories barring a run of extraordinarily bad luck. The Allied advantage at the tip of the spear was just that big. When modeled in a simulation the real capability disparities give Allied players the advantage in the game.

No matter. None of the advantage issues are likely to dissuade gamers from returning to Normandy’s beaches for another “go” at Operation Overlord. D-Day is just that big, the questions that hang in the balance just that important. I daresay that this weekend there will be D-Day games going up for another spin on tables all across the land.

The End at Dien Bien Phu

May 7, 2014–At 10:20 AM on May 7, 1954 (10:20 PM of May 6 on the U.S. east coast), the Frenchman leading all forces in Laos asked the general commanding the north of Indochina to give him immediate notice if there were a “grave event” concerning Dien Bien Phu. The Laotian commander, Colonel Boucher de Crevecoeur, was clearly thinking that he should warn the troops sent to effect an overland rescue of the entrenched camp that they should get out of the way. Tonkin theater commander Major General Rene Cogny advised De Crevecoeur a few hours later that if the threatened event occurred he would have French radios broadcast the phrase “The fruit are ripe.”

In gaming there are only a few boardgames which deal with the Franco-Vietnamese war, and even fewer that concern Dien Bien Phu itself. The ones that do uniformly confirm the French did not have a chance at that battle, indicating the dubious strategy of selecting that high mountain valley for the scene of a major encounter.

That was true of my game as well. Around the time I first wrote my book on Dien Bien Phu, Operation Vulture , I also designed a boardgame on the battle. For those familiar with the gaming of that era, it was a “mini-monster” design with a main board depicting the valley center and French strongpoints, plus a strategic board of the region surrounding Dien Bien Phu. The strategic/tactical split followed the concept of the Avalon Hill Roman era siege game Alesia. Using the strategic board forces could maneuver to the battle, the French in Laos could try and rescue the camp, and the French air force could attempt to reduce the scale of Viet Minh supply. French forces were modeled in companies, with breakdowns to platoons; the Viet Minh were at the battalion-level, with breakdowns to companies. It was a highly detailed boardgame and showed very well the dynamics of the strongpoint battle. Viet Minh forces sustained tremendous losses, but the French could not win.

What the generals learn–or do not learn– from history could fill books. Politicians too. Let’s just hope we’re not seeing this lesson repeated today.

House Rules Rule

March 27, 2014– News that Hasbro, the game company, has asked players of its classic Monopoly to write in with their favorite “House Rules” in hopes some of them may be formally included in new editions of the boardgame opens up a vein for discussion. (Personally, my favorites are “Free Parking” gets $500 plus all the fee and fine money; and the one where, if you land directly on “Go,” you double your income.) Media attention has centered on the supposition that Hasbro is updating the game, as they did last year by pulling the Shoe token, holding a poll, and then substituting a Cat. But I think there’s a more interesting question regarding House Rules.

People acquire all kinds of products–including games– which they adapt to their personal preferences. Zero in on boardgames specifically and you’ll find that one of the most frequent adaptations is the adoption of House Rules. For those who’ve never delved into this juicy subject, House Rules are changes you make in the specific rules of a game when you play it at your place (your friend may have different ones at his). Like when you play Poker (five-card draw) and declare that Aces, Deuces, and One-Eyed Jacks will be wild cards, or when a National League team plays at an American League ballpark (and vice versa).

The recent coverage of Monopoly has included some discussion of specific House Rules that seem to be common, like the ones mentioned earlier. What struck me is that so many of the House Rules I saw cited are ones I’m familiar with, either having used myself or played with someone else who utilized them. Coincidence? I think not.

Game rules are littered with ambiguities and questions that may require interpretation. The popular “family”-style games, which skimp on rules to the maximum extent possible in order to bring in the players, are especially prone to this. The more complex games and simulations, as the wargames strive to be, also have ambiguities, plus more perplexing contradictions where the designer or developer changed one aspect of the game without accounting for all the ways that rule interacts with some other. The bottom line is that ambiguities and contradictions can be minimized but never completely eliminated.

My advice has always been to go for it. The game won’t be perfect but it can be what you want it to be. If a House Rule makes the boardgame work better, play faster, or make better sense, by all means use it.

Meanwhile the Monopoly example shows something else very interesting about House Rules–that different players, from a wide variety of backgrounds, in different places, have all come up with the same or similar solutions to game issues. There were only one or two of the House Rules mentioned for that game which I’d not heard of. That was amazing. And amusing. Great minds and all that. So go for it–and keep on gaming!