Oliver Kiley(Mezmorki)United States
I feel another zeitgeist moment coming on in the exciting world of boardgame terminology, taxonomy and criticism (par for the course around here!). Precipitating this sense was that I recently listened to the excellent interview The Thoughtful Gamer held with Dan Thurot (of Space-Biff), where the two discussed board game criticism and language (henceforth referred to as “the podcast”). The discussion tapped into many key aspects of my own journey through this hobby as a player, as a designer, and as a critic - and so it resonated quite strongly.
At one point in the interview, Dan Thurot, speaking on the subject of language and methods for criticism said (and I’m paraphrasing), “If someone has a better framework for criticism I’m all ears!”. <Raises Hand>. I think I have one (or at least the foundation for one)!. So to Dan and The Thoughtful Gamer, this post is dedicated to you, your keen insights, and your great contributions to the critical body!
First, a little background and context
I joined BGG in 2010 and started this blog in late 2011. The blog has been, were I to summarize its overall conceit, an endeavor to advance the language of games as it relates to both playing, critiquing, and designing games. Three legs of a stool.
While I’ve been a game player all my life (and I just turned 40 for the curious), the deluge of new games I would discover through BGG and the exploding hobby market bombarded me with a slew of terminology and ways of talking about games. What did we mean by depth? Or by interesting decisions? What was an engine building game compared to an Ameritrash game? Were these terms even speaking to the same level of classification or to something different? I wanted to understand the language and its taxonomies, as both a player and a consumer, so I could find out what I liked and how to refer to it and talk about it with others competently.
I’ve also been a game designer for nearly as long as I’ve played games, constantly tinkering and houseruling games or designing up new games from scratch. I found that having a handle on the language of game design and being able to articulate how a certain set of mechanics translates into a certain intended experience, is invaluable for being able to talk with fellow designers or even to independently critique my own designs. Answering basic questions like “Is this game achieving its design goals?” is hard to answer precisely, but fundamental to making games. You need clear language to do it. As my language grew, I found my ability to think creatively about design grew in turn.
The last leg of the stool is related to criticism. Through writing a handful of reviews, participating in the Voice of Experience contests (as a judge), and writing for Explorminate, I found myself increasingly engaged in the critical analysis of games. I’ve had a strong desire to go beyond “reviews” and really dig into the how and why of a game. Critique and criticism, as Dan Thurot points out in the podcast, is necessary for advancing a form of art or media. Through critical analysis, we can advocate for “better” designs and advance the industry (more on “better” later on).
Why Bother with Game Language?
I mentioned this being a zeitgeist moment (at least for me personally). In tandem to listening to this podcast (plus reflecting on Dan Thurot’s and The Thoughtful Gamer’s writings on theme) I’ve been engaged in a number of recent BGG discussions that cut to the heart of why language matters at a practical level to the players themselves.Quote:Case #1: A BGG Video on Top 10 Abstracts raised my hackles a bit when the vast majority of games listed as abstracts (and the purported top 10 that the video creators had played I might add) were not games I would even consider Abstract (with a capital-A) in the first place. How could our respective understandings of what makes an abstract game be so wildly different? And how does this in turn reinforce or erode the broader community understanding of what an Abstract game is?Quote:Case #2: A recent thread requested that use of the term Dudes on a Map be stopped and the term replaced with something more inclusive (i..e Troops on a Map or a Boots on a Map). What I found illuminating was the following (a) Many people weren’t familiar with the term’s history and what it intended to describe; (b) Alternatives were proposed that missed the mark due to not understanding the historic usage; and (c) Many people questioned why such a term for describing a distinct “style” of game was even warranted in the first place (e.g. why not just call it an Area Control game?). All of this underscored the need for more robust language.Quote:Case #3: A subplot in case #2 (and not a new one) was what people meant by the term Wargame or Wargaming - and this relates a bit to the risks inherent in not reinforcing our language and thus letting it erode. One commenter said their definition of a wargame is broad enough to compass everything from Chess to Case Blue - indeed any game with a hint of warfare could be a wargame. This varies considerably from what many others feel a “Wargame” is, with respect to a more narrow style of game with a history and set of conventions unique to that style. Ask someone who cut their teeth playing Avalon Hill games in the 70’s and you can be sure Chess isn’t a wargame.And throughout these many years of discussing game classification, taxonomies, and language, I routinely run into people posing the question: “why bother”. Their reasons are many: Definitions and terms can’t possibly be perfect (hint: they never are); no one will ever use these terms correctly (hint: they WILL be used incorrectly, but we can try to inform nonetheless); languages evolve and we shouldn’t try to constrain it (hint: that has been and will continue to be the case regardless); who made you an authority (hint: no one did, I speak only for myself).
I should clarify that my intent isn’t to be dictatorial with developing terms of art for board games. Languages ARE living things and they evolve and grow. But within a context of criticism, it is important to have some common basis of understanding in order to converse effectively.
I often think this: What is vitally important, and so often missing, is that someone reading criticism (whether a more casual review or an in-depth analysis) be able to ascertain how the critic is using a particular term so that the critics bias, opinion, and perspectives can be considered relative to your own.
You and I might have a different working definition of what an abstract game is, but so long as I understand what you mean by abstract, and that you understand what I mean, then we can have a fruitful discussion. In the absence of a respective understanding, discourse is more challenging! Writing down in a framework or a lexicon what we mean by different terms can help us gain mutual understanding.
Case in point: Dan and The Thoughtful Gamer were discussing situations where technical language wasn’t shared or commonly understood between fields of study, often at a foundational level, which led to gross misunderstanding about what the two fields of study were each talking about. They also imagined a future, as has occurred in other media (literature, film critique, etc.), where different schools or styles of criticism evolved and weren’t easily understood by each other. Who knows if that fate can be avoided (hint: probably not), but for those of us invested in game criticism, we can endeavor to build and document a shared language such that it is a resource available to anyone who wishes to use it, or a reference point for those consuming the criticism.
You Said Something about a Framework?
One of my earliest posts, Towards a Science of Boardgames (2012), established my blogging and criticism trajectory, laying initial groundwork that I’ve continued to explore, build upon, and refine. It created a roadmap of sorts that myself, and many other contributors, worked through as part of the Game Genome Project.
To cut to the case, this work culminated in a framework for understanding games and being able to navigate a line of thinking and rationalization from the mechanics and observable “facts” of a game up to how it creates a certain intended experience. This framework for understanding games, which I called the Genomic Framework for Game Analysis did not spring out of a vacuum, but was built on prior works, such as the MDA Framework, Jesse Schell’s Tetrad, and writings by Mark Major on Theme vs. Mechanics.
While I implore you to check out the full article on the framework, I can provide an abbreviated version below. My intention isn’t to dig too far into the specific language today, but rather to highlight the way in which this framework and associated terminology might be used as a design, critique, and discussion aid.
The framework describes four levels of systems at work in a game. I like to imagine it as a 4-layer pyramid as follows:Quote:Fundamentals (F): The bottom level is the foundation, or the fundamentals. These are the more objective and observable facts about the game: the rules, the components/systems, the context/setting, the players.
Intrinsic (I): The next level up are six intrinsic dimensions of games, which are formed by the intersection of each different fundamental level: representation (art), roles (associations), complexity (intricacy), interactions (goal trees), coherence (theme integration), and interface (ergonomics).
Dynamic (D): The dynamic level includes four dimensions that directly shape the total experience. These are: Narratives (player-created arcs and drama and thematic realizations); Challenge (depth, complexity, types of thinking, heuristics); Immersion (how players are drawn into the world); and lastly Simulation (“realism”, theme fidelity, modeling).
Aesthetics (A): The top most level is about aesthetic experience and meanings. What is the culmination of the experience, what does the game mean to its player, what emotions or types of “fun” are had by players?
While the initial post laying out the Genomic Framework (aka FIDA) depicts the overall structure, I acknowledge there is plenty of detail to fill in when it comes to what types of things exist within each of these buckets. When we talk about player created narratives (for example), to what extent are these narratives a vital part of the experience (or not). What is the range for how theme and narratives, conceptually, can connect with a game’s mechanics? What types of relationships can be coded? How does all of this translate into “fun”?
Rethinking “Fun” as Experiential Motives
A central topic in the Dan Thurot interview was about the “problematic” nature of the word “fun” - which is to say that on it’s own (and as it is so casually and commonly used) it says almost nothing about the experience. More to the point, what one person finds fun may not be fun to another, and so one type of game with a certain flavor of fun might work well for some and not others.
Ultimately, the aesthetic level in the framework is about describing “the kinds of fun” or the total experience that a game provides to players. Moreover, for this framework to be useful, we should be able to identify a particular “type of fun” that a given game provides and be able to trace it back through the framework to understand how that type of fun was created and/or identify the factors contributing to it.
The MDA Framework identifies a number of types of aesthetics, “fun”, or experiences a game can create, and I happen to think it’s a pretty good list. I also like to think of these as “motives” or reasons why someone would seek out a particular type of game. I’ve tweaked the list and language from the MDA Framework and added to it a bit. My working set is as follows:Quote:(1) Socialization - The game provides a context for social interactions. Provides ways of engaging with the psychologies and personalities of the players at the table. The game itself, like a pastime, may take a back seat to these player-centric interactions.It should go without saying that most games probably do a little bit of all of the above, but also emphasize a few in particular - depending on the style of game at hand.
(2) Challenge - Games provide fun by giving us interesting problems to solve. They tax our mental faculties along spatial, logistical, or psychological lines (i.e. different modes of thinking). Problem solving, puzzle solving, etc.
(3) Discovery - Fun is provided by learning and understanding things about the game world. Exploring mysteries, seeing what’s around the corner, etc. Can even extend to discovering how mechanical systems work and what’s possible within the rules (for example “finding combo” in different arrangements of cards).
(4) Drama - Fun comes through the provision of narratives that are engaging to the player. Can be player-driven/created or designer controlled narratives. Chaos and the unexpected can drive unique dramas and situations that unfold. The feeling of “what happens next?”
(5) Immersion - Fun provided through a sense being transported into the game world. The presentation, interface, artwork, narratives, audio/visual queues, help maintain our suspension of disbelief and draw us into the fictionalized world. That our agency as players acting in the world has plausible causes and effects.
(6) Fantasy - Games tap into our fantasies and give us a means of acting them out or role-playing (albeit in an artificial format). “Fun” comes from being in a role we wouldn’t otherwise occupy. Often framed as power fantasies, but there are others too.
(7) Sensation - “Fun” is tactical or sensory in nature - that our nerve endings are positively stimulated by the physicality of the game or other sensory inputs and repetitions that are pleasurable.
(8) Expression - The game provides opportunities for creative expression and outlets for creative energy, through building/creating things in unique or novel ways that allow us to project our sense of identity, self, or capabilities.
(9) Competition - The game’s fun comes through its ability to provide a controlled environment for fair competition and determining which player has superior skills / abilities. The motive is dominating the competition.
(10) Learning/Reflection - The game provides insights and realizations that extend beyond the scope of the game and import ideas/knowledge/ideas that have real-world relevance - such as history, natural phenomena, art, philosophy, etc.
(11) Achievement - The game provides a clear sense of progress and achievement (even in the form of tangible rewards seen outside the game). Taps into our reward-seeking motivations, desire to complete things.
(12) Comfort - Fun is manifested through the game providing a comfortable space for our mind to rest - that it can allow us to enter a zen-like state of singular but low stress comfort.
As a tool for critique, teasing out what sort of “fun” a game provides helps us put the game in the context of other games that provide that same sort of fun, or help associate the game with a certain audience or set of preferences. As an aside, this approach also resonates with me when it comes to “designer intent,” which is to say that most games broadcast through their box design, artwork, or marketing what type of fun the designer intended. We can then critique games, perhaps in a less biased way, based on whether they achieved the design intent or not, rather than whether or not the game’s particular ‘fun’ connected with the critic.
It’s also worth reflecting, as a critic or designer or player, on what specifically motivates an individual to engage with certain games and how those motives bias their reactions. If there is anything my amature critic-self has learned over the years, it’s the importance of knowing your own biases and preferences and the biases and preferences of your fellow players, designers, and the critics you follow. Without understanding what each person means by “fun” its very difficult to have a deep and detailed conversation (or critique, or design discussion).
Modes of thinking diagram, a tool for understanding the relative emphasis of different kinds of thought required by a game.
Connecting the Genomic Framework to Taxonomy
Parallel to my thinking about the Genomic Framework, I’ve continued to work through my taxonomy and classification system for games, an endeavor which forces my hand and requires getting specific about terminology. While the Genomic Framework identifies a lot of buckets, the question then is: what are the sorts of things that actually go into those buckets and how do we assess them (particularly regarding the intrinsic or dynamic levels which are a bit fuzzier).
The “Genomic” part of the framework dovetails with game taxonomies. The initial purpose of the Game Genome Project was to “map” as best we could all of the traits and characteristics for games. Like genetics, we wanted to identify the traits (e.g. eye color) but also identify the range of expression (e.g. brown, blue, hazel, green, etc.) for that trait. The foundational levels are relatively easy, because we can look at the game’s discrete mechanics by category (e.g. how do players take actions) and broadly identify different action mechanics (e.g. action points, action drafting, role selection, and so on). The rules lay out the game format and structure and the victory conditions. We know the components, how many players are supported, etc. We can look at the “theme” in terms of its setting, scope, and subject matter (e.g. Star Wars, galactic-scale space battles, fighting for control of planets).
Conversely, the intrinsic and dynamic levels are harder to pin down. How do we assess how narratives are built in-game, or the impact that rule complexity and use of randomness impact strategic or tactical depth? How can we measure immersion or the simulation fidelity of the game?
What we found helpful was to frame the assessment around different experiential dimensions of the game. Evaluating these dimensions can be done by posing a series of questions, which can be answered on a 1-5 continuum scale (see the link for some working rubrics) but also really benefit from qualitative descriptions as well. These dimensions relate to the following:Quote:Theming: How integrated are the theme and mechanics? Does the theme function as decoration or interface? Or do the game systems strive to model or simulate a “real” analogue? Include consideration of theme as micro vs. macro (per The Thoughtful Gamer).Certainly there can be more questions to ask. At a more comprehensive level, there could even be a question and answer rubric associated with each of the types of fun listed previously. But as a starting point, I’ve found the questions above to be effective at framing the broad parameters defining a game’s experience. An anecdote (suggesting we might be on the right track) is seeing how the above terms are often used as part of a game’s marketing or descriptive language to define the experience contained in the box, in an effort presumably to get it to the right audience.
Interaction: How much board-level interaction is there between players’ respective playing pieces and what is the nature of that interaction (direct, cutthroat, indirect, etc.)? Also, how much player-level interaction is there directly between players, at a psychological or communicative level?
Complexity: How complex are the game rules? A useful metric for this is how long does it take to teach someone how to play competently? How complex are the game’s underlying goal trees?
Depth: How deep is the gameplay and decision-making? What is the balance between strategic, versus tactical, versus optimization, versus mundane decisions? Are large skill discrepancies possible? What types of thinking are demanded? Are decisions “interesting”?
Randomness: How much system-level chaos, randomness, and uncertainty is present in the game? Sliding scale from zero (i.e. combinatorial games) to highly chaotic. Nature of randomness (input vs. output) can also be considered.
Before we move on to the next section, let’s take stock of how these pieces are coming together:
Fundamental Level: Lexicons of game mechanisms, theme as setting/scope/subject matter, and other objective facets of the game define its operation at a fine grained level.
Intrinsic + Dynamic Level: Experiential dimensions allow us to assess key parameters of the game relating to things like depth, complexity, theming, randomness, and interactivity.
Aesthetic Level: We can describe the different motives (types of fun) and their relative importance/balance that a game provides in creating an overall experience.
Revisiting Schools of Design and Game Style Conventions
Early in this article, a few cases where language was not mutually understood were shared (e.g. differing opinions on what was abstract or not, what was a wargame or not). These examples key into a much broader and longer running discussion about Schools of Design (e.g. Eurogame, Ameritrash, Abstract, Wargame, and so on) and whether or not these are even useful or relevant means of classification. Moreover, what does the Genomic Framework and everything discussed above have to do with it?
Here’s my thesis statement: A School of Design, as well as more narrowly defined game “styles,” are characterized based on typical conventions that connect foundational elements of the game to its overall experience.
That’s a bit of a mouthful. But the idea is that we can take “Eurogame” as design school and look at each of the levels in the framework and make some generalizations about how the “typical” eurogame operates. At the experiential level, the focus of most is around Challenge (problem solving, navigating complexity), Discovery (fetishization of learning the rulesets and their nuances) and Competition (fair playing, usually designer controlled-environment). This is different from an Ameritrash game, which will emphasize Drama (the unexpected creating excitement), Immersion (story-telling, artwork, fidelity to setting), and Fantasy (players as agents directly in the world).
When it comes to dynamics and the intrinsic level in the framework, we can identify the mix (think of a graphic equalizer) that a typical eurogame has that’s distinct from other design schools. The theming is usually pretty thin and functions mostly as decoration. The interactions tend to be heavily focused on board-level play (as opposed to player-to-player), and even there tend to be indirect or parallel running interactions (a race with blocking as opposed to all out attacking). The nature of limited-interactions usually forces the designs to be more complex in order to provide a desired level of depth. Randomness on the back-end is usually not desired, and whatever randomness there is wants to be highly mitigatable (which feeds back into increased complexity). The experiential desire for “competition” likewise feeds into the complexity, which is why so many games have entire card drafting mini-games, before the game even starts, just to minimize first-turn advantage and luck of the draw.
When you consider the type of experience that a eurogame desires, and the dynamics necessary to get you there, it steers the foundational elements of the game towards certain things. Mechanics feed into creating engine building games, which include a large swath of tableau builders, worker placement games, drafting and deck building games. Turn structures are carefully managed. The types of thinking required are usually focused around logistics (not spatial planning or psychology). The componentry is (or rather traditionally was) somewhat abstract to keep the functionality high and the board state easy to read (and the theme doesn’t really matter as much).
The power of all of this is that we can start to identify genres or styles of games (or even broader design schools) based on the conventions that they typically follow. Qwertymartin, some years ago, introduced me to Wittgenstein’s Family Resemblance idea, which is immensely helpful in these conversations. I’ve used the word “typically” throughout this, because the idea is that rather than trying to find the one perfect definition for a style of game or design school, we instead list the criteria that are commonly cited, and recognize that any given game need only express a majority of those criteria (not all of them) to be a likely member of the group.
At this point in the evolution of our hobby, I think the Schools of Design concept remains useful as a lens through which we can critique games and understand their historical context, genesis, or influences. But I also fully recognize that we’re increasingly in an era of hybridization of forms, and that the design schools specifically as a “classification” tool may be less relevant. Problems with practical usage is also compounded because certain design school terms (e.g. German Family Games) have fallen out of common usage and have been subsumed by others (e.g. Eurogame). But as critics trying to provide greater insight in our analysis, these distinctions remain useful I feel.
Lately, I’ve been drawn more towards a discussion and identification of subtler “styles” of games. Much like design schools, these can be described by listing typical characteristics at the different levels in the framework. In trying to keep up with commonly used terms, browsing the recommendation forum on BGG provides a lot of insight. A common request to ask for a certain mechanical genre of game (e.g. worker placement) coupled with a “weight” (e.g. lightweight). So someone might say, I’m looking for a lightweight worker placement game. But these style (and game requests) can intersect at other levels in the framework too. You might see requests for a “rich thematic narrative” game. During the classification work I spent a lot of time reading the recommendation forum and aligning that with an emerging understanding of styles of games. I ended up with the following that you can see HERE
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
This article has gone on much longer than intended! Thanks for bearing with me as I’ve rambled through all of this.
Long story short, the Genomic Framework and classification/taxonomy work I’ve engaged in is all about building language and some consistency in language. It’s also about building a greater understanding of how games work, and providing tools for how one can look at a game’s mechanics or its overall experience and delve into a discussion of dynamics. Put bluntly, to have more precise words to describe the how and why of a game.
And this is useful for everyone in the hobby. As a critic, language lets us advance our understanding of games and advocate for designs that create new types of experiences or that engage with novel ideas or dynamics. I also think many critics struggle to rectify (or communicate) their personal tastes and preferences relative to a game they are discussing. There is pressure from the audience at large to “be objective”, which in part results in so much content focused merely on rule and gameplay overviews. Embracing more nuanced language and being upfront with our preferences would, paradoxically perhaps, give more freedom to critics to discuss the things that really matter in playing games: the types of dynamics and experiences they create.
As designers and publishers, a common language enables us to talk about how a given design lives up to its intended experience, and answer basic questions like “is this game providing the right sort of fun?” And as players, we can better talk about our experiences and preferences, and more easily find games that align with our tastes or discuss games more broadly from an informed perspective.
If you’ve made it to the end and are cursing my name for writing something so long, feel free to blame to The Thoughtful Gamer and Dan Thurot!
Musings on games, design, and the theory of everything. www.big-game-theory.com
Archive for Oliver Kiley
11 Aug 2021
- [+] Dice rolls
Emissary of late - but it’s time to change that! For those who don’t know, Emissary was first conceived as a Decktet game that was an attempt to create a micro-4X game loosely modeled on concepts from Hegemonic. As a decktet game it was surprisingly clean and simple, and seemed to have gone over well among the folks that played it.
Since then, I’ve been wanting to build out the game more fully and make it its own distinct thing (separate from the Decktet). But the perennial challenge has been how to theme it - and more importantly how to use the game’s theme to reinforce the gameplay. Coming from the Decktet, an abstract card system, meant the original mechanics were broadly themeless. So “finding” a theme that fits with and reinforces the gameplay is the challenge (and before you ask, I don’t want to leave it as an abstract).
Over the years, the game has gone from the decktet with a loose theme of sending emissaries (hence the name) to nomadic tribes living in the decketet universe (all very vaguely defined mind you), to a clearly but still abstract “space” theme, to a theme representing different landscape patterns, and to theme based on colonizing mars. There have been other experiments along the way as well. All of these have struggled to bring the gameplay to life and provide a plausible and supportive language for interpreting the game’s mechanics.
During this time, multiple friends, geek buddies, and fellow designers urged me to look for a historical theme that the game could be coupled to, letting it leverage the historic specifics to enrich the design. Add to this that multiple people have said the gameplay falls into a crunchy Pax-like game territory: lots of points interaction, interplay between shared board and card play, the action economy, etc.
As I thought more on it, perhaps my theming endeavor shouldn’t be directed towards finding a clear and simple theme to attach to the game, but rather to let a more nuanced and complex theme direction push the game towards realizing that theme, even at the cost of increased complexity. While I admire the original design for having a fairly simple (so I thought!) yet abstract system, the reality is that this is a crunchy game. I needed to embrace it.
FINDING THE HISTORICAL FLAVOR
I’m going to see how far I can go in describing the theme to you all without naming it explicitly. Let’s see how this works!
Let’s talk in abstract terms first. The basic flow of the game is such that cards played to the map and controlled are leveraged for resources in a given suit, that in turn can be used to exert control over other cards sharing those same suits. It’s not a resource conversation game per se, but one of resource extortion. In some ways, this was there from the beginning with the Decktet theme. To get in with the blue/water people, you need some blue/water resources that are of value to them. Once you are in, you can leverage that relationship to get more blue/water resources. It’s a “favor” system really. And so one important realization in framing resources as “favors” - something garnered from one source that can be cashed in at another.
For reasons that will be revealed in a bit, I began researching the enlightenment period and beyond, up to about the French Revolution. It was a fascinating period where so many ideas and concepts that shape modern (and democratic) society came to light. Of course, as the French Revolution showed, putting these ideas into effect and actually reshaping society around them was at odds with the powers that be. The ruling nobility class and religious institutions took strong issue with enlightenment thought because it challenged their right to authority.
As time progressed, different places sought to act on enlightenment thinking and reshape society using different means. Some efforts were more overt and forceful (i.e. French Revolution). Others attempted more subtle methods of subverting the ruling powers. In the centuries preceding the French Revolution, the Holy Roman Empire (H.R.E.) - an amalgamation of nobility and church authority - reigned over much of what today is Germany, Austria, Northern Italy and adjacent regions from the late 900’s to the early 1800’s (where it eventually dissolved as a consequence of the French Revolution). But efforts to apply pressure on the rule of the H.R.E. were attempted prior to the French Revolution.
Of particular interest was the Electorate of Bavaria (H.R.E. territory in what is south eastern Germany today). In this region, the church held notable sway over educational institutions and writings (including from enlightenment thinkers). Strongly liberal or protestant notions were regularly discouraged and in some cases outright prohibited. Those who wished to discuss or distribute enlightenment thought (or heaven forbid act on it) felt it necessary to do so from the shadows and outside the percept of more scrutinizing observers.
Ultimately, this story lands us at the University of Ingolstadt in the 1770’s, where a certain professor was dissatisfied with the inability to openly discuss or promote enlightenment thinking and put the wheels in motion for change through subtler means. This scholar, a certain Adam Weishaupt (ringing bells yet?), found a course of action by establishing a secret society that would recruit influential people receptive to enlightenment ideals and that might be in a position to act on them (either now or sometime in the future). Initial efforts were aimed at pushing back against superstition, religious dominance of daily life, and perceived abuses of legal and state power (i.e. human rights violations - although not quite framed in those terms).
In short, this secret and slowly growing group was aimed at spreading the enlightenment, to bringing broader awareness of its ideals and principles to key people. During this time period, other secret (but not “really” secret) societies, such as Freemasonry, provided a template and roadmap for how to recruit members, control the flow of information and knowledge, and build trust and capacity among the membership. Any guesses what secret society we’re talking about?
In contrast to popularized conspiracy theories, the Illuminati was a relatively short lived entity, from 1776 to about 1790. Moreover, it’s tangible impacts are likely far less pervasive than the conspiracy theories would have us believe. A series of edicts directly from the Elector of Bavaria during the active years of the Illuminati eventually undermined much of its momentum. Of course, by the time it ceased its primary operations in Bavaria, membership had grown to well-outside the region and the H.R.E., with estimates ranging from about 650 - 2500 members across Europe.
The historical record contains primary source material recovered during a raid on Illuminati members’ residences following the Elector’s edicts. And through these records we have an idea of the methods employed, membership, and accomplishments of the society. While it is fun to speculate over what the Illuminati might have been (or might still be if conspiracy theorists are to be believed!), the record suggests the extent of impact was fairly limited and contained.
Nevertheless, the story is a fascinating one, and I was most intrigued to learn that the Illuminati’s objective, was not to take over the world in order to be it’s masters, but instead to change the world by ushering in the ideal state as envisioned by the enlightenment: To erode the stranglehold of the church and nobility, to give more people basic human rights, to support education and the sciences, and to advocate for a more democratic society. Not a bad ambition.
REALIZING A THEME FOR EMISSARY
In terms of Emissary, I’m in the process of redesigning the game around this theme - but I need to do so carefully and also present the game in a manner that doesn’t make people go “oh no, not the illuminati again!” Curiously, while the Illuminati features in a number of games (aside: Steve Jackson's Illuminati was one of my first "hobby" board games that got me back into gaming) and other popular media, most focus on what the illuminati “might” have been from a conspiracy theory perspective, rather than focus on what we know that it was. What it was, was far more limited - but nevertheless an interesting subject for a game!
As I started researching more, overwhelmingly aided by the book Perfectibilists, design issues found elegant resolutions in the historical record.
Chief among the challenges was what the cards and different suits, and indeed the entire purpose/objective of the game, represents. The illuminati theme let the secret agents structure of the game really take off. Cards in the game would represent people (aka, Luminaries) that were targets for recruitment. Players assume the role of one of Adam Weishaput’s innermost circle of confidants known as the areopagus. The goal cards reflect the specific recruitment challenges that you, as one of the areopagus, are tasked with accomplishing through your own network of agents and contacts. The six suits/factions in the game map to the sectors of society comprising Illuminati membership: nobles, clergy, magistrates, scholars, professionals, and artisans. The resources work perfectly as “favor”, as you will use favors leveraged from one person within a faction to make in-roads with another person.
A recent-ish version of Emissary added an event card system to the game, and being able to anchor these events to the historic context offers up a lot of inspiration. In particular, five of the event cards relate to the edicts that ended the real Illuminati and can likewise act as an end-game trigger here. The faction cards and other abilities can be keyed into some of power and capabilities of their associated sectors. Nobles have political sway and boost your ability to influence others, the clergy and use their religious clout to expel membership by drawing scrutiny, artisans can move more freely through society and can make connections easier, and so on.
One gameplay point of criticism was that there was a desire for a little more flexibility in how many actions you can take. Like a number of my favorite games, the basic action economy is for two-actions per turn - but in Emissary that can at times be too rigid. The event cards help loosen it up a little bit, more more was still needed. I reworked the “scheme” action, which was previously a slightly mandatory free action letting you discard a card for its favor value). Now, the scheme action lets you play down and “chain” a sequence of cards from your hand so long as they can all share a suit/faction sequentially. Many of the scheme actions provide bonus actions and/or buffed actions that let you stretch beyond the two-actions per turn limit, with a little bit of careful planning. It deepens the card play, and is a great thematic twist (IMHO), whereby you’re using non-Illuminati members (those are in the map) as pawns for your scheming efforts. It’s working really well in-playtesting.
That said, I’ve been playtesting this newer version quite a bit in recent months, working through the gameplay and card ability balance using a crude prototype. So far, the gameplay is better than it has been. While a few things have been added onto the design, I’ve also endeavored to simplify the mechanics throughout as much as possible. I’m trying to shave out any of the things that have given people pause or caused confusion, even if it means sacrificing a little bit of nuance. While this is a crunchy game, I want people’s thinking oriented around the board and strategy and lines of interaction, not oriented around trying to dissect mechanics.
I’mI simultaneously working on a new user interface and visual design for the game as well. Some of the work-in-progress card designs are below. Obviously, this is heavily inspired by recent Pax games (e.g. Pax Pamir 2nd Edition). Speaking of which, I’m still toying with possible titles, but I’m leaning towards something like Pax Lumine or Pax Luminous. The “Pax” verbiage existed prior to Sierra Madre’s Pax-series games, but I’m still a little worried about using it given the growing recognition of that series. Yet at the same time, the game operates in a similar design space as pax games, even more so now given the historic theme. So calling it Pax “something” gives it the right connotation to connect with the intended audience.
I’ve been on a design kick with the game again, and finally finding a theme that clicks with the mechanics has been great. I’m currently engaged in the somewhat thankless task of aligning a large list of 90 or so known/suspected Illuminati members with what factions/suits they most align with, and pulling the card assets together (picture, historical text, etc.). Once done, I’ll be able to show off a more robust prototype for how it’s all coming together.
As always, please let me know your thoughts and if you have any reactions, suggestions, or inspirations to share! Take care!
- [+] Dice rolls
It has been entirely too long since talking about board games! While the pandemic has affected us all in ways great and small, I’m fortunate that I have a family that enjoys games and that the small circle of households that we have been “podded up with” likewise delight in pushing cardboard around. So, the past many months have provided ample opportunities for playing games both old and new.
Here we go!
NEW and/or NOTABLE PLAYS
Let's do this!
9 - The Crew (100+ plays/hands) (2019)
So our family is "podded" with another family, with whom all of our kids collectively have been in the same educational arrangement for the past year. This has therefore meant that they’ve been one of our main social outlets for in-person gaming, and we all have taken to the Crew. A couple of weeks back we finally finished all 50 missions!
The Crew is an awesome game. I’ve had a life-long appreciation for Euchre (also a trick-taking game), and the combination of trick-taking, non-coordinating cooperation (i.e. no alpha player syndrome), and escalating challenges has been thrilling. We felt a tinge of guilt in that we stretched the rules of communication on occasion - but we’re resolved to atone for our wayward ways by going all the way through again. At least until the next crew game arrives!
9 - Wingspan (400+ plays) (2019)
Any game that I’ve played at least 300, or maybe even 400 times, has got to have some amount of staying power. Over the past two years, I’ve probably averaged a game a day with my wife.
2-player Wingspan is BY FAR my preferred way to play the game, to the point that playing with more than 2 doesn't really hold much appeal. With 2-players everything is far more cutthroat. If I don’t take a high value bird from the open row, my opponent likely will, prompting all sorts of risk/reward conundrums. Ditto for grabbing needed resources in the bird feeder. The goals are all zero-sum area-control battles and we’re watching each other’s moves like a hawk (pun obviously intended). With more players, all of this nuance dissolves into mush.
We play with both expansions (Oceania + European) with the following adjustments:
Use three “old” dice and three “new” dice - which creates less turn over in the bird feeder (since there are 6 dice instead of 5) and caps the flow of nectar to three per roll, which keeps the resource management aspect of the game tighter.
Nectar can never be taken as a “wild” resource for abilities that give any resource type.
Changed the Crow’s and similar birds abilities (convert eggs into food) to require taking dice from the bird feeder (instead of the supply) and further limiting it to taking no nectar.
Hundreds of plays later, I feel like Wingspan has settled into being a “lifestyle” game for me and my wife - something we can flap onto the table without even having to ask as a way to unwind at the end of the day. We’ve got playing this down to a science and can knock out a game in less than 25 minutes!
6 - Agricola (~10 plays) (2007)
I’ve had Agricola on my shelf for ages (it is on permanent loan to us by someone not really realizing the heft of what they bought and telling us to “figure it out.”), but only managed a couple of plays many, many years ago.I remember not liking it that much, and it has probably jaded my view of worker placement games. In anycase, our family found ourselves in a cabin in the woods last fall, and on a whim I brought it along.
We played it about a dozen times as a 2-player affair, which I realize probably isn’t the ideal arrangement for the game. But my wife and I both came to the realization that the game just isn’t that dramatic or interesting to us. It does feel like, at least for the 2-player game, that it could run another turn or two in length, as you often never quite get to see your farm reach its zenith of operation (hence disappointment). We played around with some 2-player variant boards and other house-rules, but something about the arc of the game just feels “off.” The gameplay is too anticlimactic and clinical for our tastes.
Why oh why did I buy $30 dollars of fancier tokens? It looks nice - but if I’m going to play a tableau-building engine game, I’d rather play wingspan by a wide margin.
8.5 - Irish Gauge (~5 plays) (2014)
I don’t think I spoke to this game previously, other than a mention of it during my descent into weird game land. I had always wanted to try more of a stock/investment/railroad type of game, and so I picked this one up (a cube rail game specifically). I’ve had a chance to play it a number of times now and I’m quite pleased with the purchase.
As far as train games go, I suspect this one is on the simpler end of things - after all the rules occupy only a single double-sided sheet of paper (how cool is that?). But there is quite a bit of depth and interaction laced throughout each element of the game. Players will buy shares of the different railroad companies, which pay out dividends (with a bit of unpredictability) when that action is triggered. So there’s a healthy dose of bidding for shares in the game. Then there is the spatial puzzle of laying track and figuring out how/where to make your own connections or limit an opponent’s connections.
It’s a lovely game I like the whole package quite a bit. Seems to have the core bones of what constitutes an economic train game, keeping the action focused on the interactive elements. Now of course I’m eyeing other games in the line, like the soon be released Iberian Gauge which will add individual budgets / money accounts for each of the train companies to be used in expanding their network. Next thing you know, I’ll be a full fledged 18xx gamer!
6 - Condottiere (~3 plays) (1995)
Finally managed to play this a few times with more than 2-players (it isn’t really meant to be a 2-player game), and it certainly works better. I’m not sure how much I really like the game though. There are some odd edges in the gameplay and lines of play that feel counter intuitive. I’m sure it’s a case where seemingly obvious moves have a viable counter-player that becomes apparent with more experience, but I don’t know if there is the enthusiasm to get it back to the table enough to make those realizations.
8 - Joraku (~5 plays) (2015)
As an alternative to Condottiere, I present to you Jokau. This a similar combination of area control and card play (specifically trick-taking), that I’ve enjoyed considerably more. The trick-taking takes a little bit of a backseat in terms of its depth, but the interplay between the cards played for trick purposes versus area-control purposes is where the real action is. It’s a fairly streamlined and clean game, but the decision space feels suitably crunchy and nuanced, such that players regularly pull out some unexpected lines of play, shifting the tempo in an enjoyable way.
8 - Claim 2 (~15 plays) (2018)
I bought Claim 2 on a whim, as I enjoy the artists work and, well, more trick-taking! Claim is in the elusive category of “interesting 2-player trick-taking games,” and it lives up to that claim (pun intended) rather well.
The basic gist is that there are two phases of play, with each phase playing through half the deck. Each trick there is a face-up card in the middle and the winner of the trick will claim that card, to be used in their hand in the second phase, and the loser of the tricks gets a random card. There is some juicy risk/reward decisions to make about whether you want the the card in the middle (hence trying to win the trick) or hedging your bets that the random card might be better (hence trying to lose the trick).
In the second phase, you’re trying to win a majority of the cards in each faction (there are five), and so the decisions and strategies of what cards you claim in phase 1 directly feed into how well you can score in phase 2. It’s pretty clever! Add in some special abilities tied to each of the suits, and it’s a delightful design.
7 - Morels (~10 plays) (2012)
This one has been floating on the radar for a long time. I figure this has a good chance of being a hit with my wife, as well, she likes hunting for morels? Plus it’s a two player card game. Reading through the rules it sounds interesting and promising so I picked it up.
Had a chance to play a bunch over the past week with both my wife and daughters. It’s a clever game and there is some genuine subtlety to the timing of how/when to play cards and managing your hand. That said, the game also feels a bit mechanistic and rote in its play - and I’m not sure (yet) how much depth there really is. I suspect it’s one of those games, like say Lost Cities, where it appears quite simple but the more you play it against the same partner, the more a localized “meta” for play emerges and slowly evolves/changes over time. Which is a good thing! Hoping to keep playing this more.
8? - Homeworlds (3 plays) (2001)
I’ve been extremely late to the Loony Pyramids / Icehouse Pyramids party. Mostly because I’ve never seen them for sale locally and never bothered to order them. But a series of small box pyramid games were released and I grabbed a copy of Homeworlds after hearing about it.
I’ve played a few solo games and one proper 2-player game (with my Chess-loving daughter). This is a really, really, really, interesting abstract, being highly player driven with some very clever layers of depth (which I’m only just beginning to get a handle on).
Essentially, you play on a board-less space, where upright pyramids are “star systems” with the curious rule that they are only connected to other star systems that are a different size. Pyramids laying flat and pointing away from you are your space ships. Allowable moves (actions) are tied to the color of the star and/or your controlled space ships. The goal is to eventually chart your way to the opposing player's homeworld and destroy it (in one of three subtle manners).
It’s a great example of an emergent and highly-player driven game. The typology of the star field is built dynamically by the players over the course of the game, and the latitude in what actions you can perform creates a ton of room for clever play, counter-maneuvers, and more. Really hoping to dig into this more!
7 - Calico (~30 plays) (2020)
So private pattern building games, or “fiefdom” games (as fellow blogger Martin calls ‘em) or tableau-tile-drafting games are all the rage it seems these days. I bought Calico for my wife (birthday!) who has quite a liking for the feline species and also puzzle building. I knew it would be a hit for her (surprise, it was!).
For my part, I’ll grant that it’s a gorgeou game (as these increasingly tend to be). The spatial puzzle dimension of the game is fun. The principal gameplay hook really seems to be a game of risk management, essentially how long are you willing to wait for optimum pieces to appear to make a more perfect arrangement, versus cutting your losess. There is some interesting balance between trying to complete more frequent “easy” patterns versus making fewer but “harder” patterns that are worth more. How long you can hold, how you can set yourself up for “delay” placements that keep options open is interesting.
The biggest downside is that it isn’t terribly interactive - and when interactions do happen they can be absolutely brutal. If you’re waiting most of the game for certain pieces, and it just so happens to be drawn and then the player going before you snatches it up on a whim (maybe they don’t even need it!) then it makes for bad feels. If the same had some more interesting tile management / tile drafting system bolted onto it, I think it could’ve been a stronger game. I enjoy it for what it is nonetheless.
7 - Azul: Summer Pavilion (~15 plays) (2019)
I played this once after it came out, and my wife took liking to it. Lo and behold, some other family members got her this game for her birthday (another birthday “fiefdom” game!), and we’ve had a chance to play a dozen or so times at this point.
Having only played the original Azul once (the inverse of Martin G’s experience) but this a number of times, I’ve come to a slightly different conclusion. I find the readability of each other’s board states to be really easy - as even at a glance I can tell if someone is trying to complete a star or not (awarding some of the bigger bonuses). Going for the all 1’s, 2’s, 3’s, 4’s, bonus aren’t too hard to tell either.
I also like that there are two levels of drafting going on in the two modes - the core drafting from the pile pools in the middle of course, but then the timing of drafting tiles from the scoreboard when earning bonus tiles. There are some interesting timing moments relative to opponent’s plays in the second phase (where you actually place tiles), and whether you need to pounce early on getting a much needed bonus tiles or you try to defer in the hopes that the tiles in the middle cycle to something you need more.
As with Calico, it’s not really the type of game that excites me - but it’s well done and is a rather pleasing game to just play and relax as a way to come down off the work day.
8 - Game of Thrones: The Iron Throne (5 plays) (2016)
So I missed the boat for Cosmic Encounter by a good 30-years I reckon. I’ve had countless people say “Oliver - thou shalt play the game Cosmic Encounter” - but alas it never quite happened.
Fast forward. One night, between hands of The Crew with our pod-family, we were discuss a mutual appreciation for Game of Thrones, and they asked about GoT themed games. It was all the excuse I needed to make a purchase of the Iron Throne (along with its expansion). I’ve played it 4 or 5 times now - and I gather there are some differences between it and Cosmic Encounter, but the basic structure is similar.
Long story short, as a game of negotiation and bluffing and backstabbing - it’s pretty great. We’ve been playing with 4-players and it’s worked well enough, although I suspect it gets considerably more interesting with 5 or 6 players, which we haven’t managed yet. But soon!
This game does, incidentally and unfortunately, highlight my anguish over product design. Setting aside the bulky (but cool) crown power tokens, I can fit the entire base game plus the expansion into the expansion box, which is about a quarter of the volume of the main game box. It’s frustrating. The expansion box is the size thing you could toss into a small bag or purse and lug to the bar or wherever. The box doesn’t need to be this big. Thinking of sourcing some other small tokens to use in place of the big crowns when I’m on the go.
8 - Catan (4 recent plays) (1995)
It has been forever since playing Catan - I admit. Our pod-family is a Catan fan (not a ravenous one, but they quite like the game), and so I’ve had chance to play it a number of times in the past couple of months. Playing it again is a nice reminder of what an excellent this is. I know it’s hip to rip on Catan - but I don’t think it’s justified. It remains an old school euro (ahem German Family game) through and through - which means lots of meaningful interaction and decision making delivered on a relatively simply structure. Catan manages to create a lot of great interactions, twists of fate, surprise moves, consternation and damnating, with relatively little mechanical overhead to gum up the gears. It’s a solid game and continues to stand out for reason.
7 - Circle the Wagons (5 plays) (2017)
Button shy Games have a pretty cool gig, selling their tiny wallet games. Some friends were putting in order for a few more, and having heard good things about Circle the Wagons I piggybacked on their order. Managed to play this half a dozen times too. I really like it! The game manages to create a ton of tough risk-reward decisions and some tricky decision spaces with a only a handful of components. There is a surprising amount of interaction too, as you’re constantly needing to consider what cards you might stick your opponent with (and vice versa). Snappy, cutthroat little game.
7 - Villainous (1 play) (2018)
Part of the Holiday Game Haul was Disney’s Villainous game. By younger daughter had been asking for it for years - but I suspect the interest was mostly driven by the theme rather than the gameplay (damn you Disney!). I’ve only managed to get to the table and perk their interest one time - and we had a good four player game. I think this is a solid and interesting game, with some decent lines of interaction. I really need more players to form much of an opinion of it though. Hopefully we’ll get it back to the table soon.
6 - 5-Minute Mystery (5 plays) (2020)
I’m a big fan of 5-Minute Dungeon, the real-time cooperative dungeon crawler. 5-Minute dungeon is fast, frantic, gets everyone involved in both playing cards and managing the ergonomics of the play in a way that keeps it fun.
5-Minute Mystery looked to provide a similar experience, albeit as a more deduction-oriented experience. Unfortunately, I feel like the setup here silo’s players into different roles instead of keeping everyone focused on the same thing. Fiddling with the clue tumbler is a full-time job for one player, leaving the others to search the scene cards for clues. Unfortunately, the need to look closely at the clue cards means you’ll be hard pressed to get more than 2 people hovering over the card and able to see it. Functionally, I feel like this cap the game about 3 players, otherwise you have players sort of floating around the margins of the experience. You can rotate the roles around after each clue board, but I feel like you shouldn’t have to. It’s okay - but I’d rather still just play 5-minute dungeon.
8 - Warhammer 40,000 (~15 recent plays)
The 40K saga continues. I’ve managed to clock in about 15 games over Tabletop Simulator during the past 6 months - which is more 40K than I’ve played in the past 15 years! We continue to use and refine the ProHammer rule set I developed, and it’s really been going super well. I continue to read general horror stories about the current state of live 40K (9th edition), and I continue to thank my stars that I’m able to play a classic version of the game.
I’ll spare you all from further details unless you ask
ACQUIRED - BUT NOT PLAYED
Here we get to the part where I talk about all the purchase that I’ve made of games that have yet to hit the table. These are all part of the magical shelf of opportunity! Here we go!
Pax Pamir (2nd Edition) (2019)
I’ve had a small stack of gift cards for my FLGS piling up and decided to jump on Pax Pamir after a recent re-stocking. I’ve enjoyed Pax Renaissance quite a bit in my few plays, but that game is an absolute bear rules wise - there is just a lot of subtly to wrap your head around. So I’m hoping (and all indications suggest accordingly) that Pax Pamir will be a bit more accessible and open up the interactive elements without having to wade through too much complexity first. Looking forward to getting my first play in soon.
I know nothing about this game. I saw it flash by on Amazon and I said… why not. Why indeed. I don’t know why I have this game.
Fox in Forest Duet (2020)
I really enjoyed the original Fox in Forest game, which is a rare 2-player trick-taking game. The newer version (Duet) is a cooperative version. Hoping to get it to the table soon.
Tussie Mussie (2019)
My wife played this and liked it - and so I tossed this into the Button Shy Game order. I haven’t had a chance to play yet. Looks cool upon reading the rules.
Quest for El Dorado (2017)
Last, bu certainly not least, is this Knizia design. I picked this up on whim before the holidays last year, and tucked it away for safe keeping until I wrapped it. Of course, I then forgot that I even had it come Christmas and so it didn’t make the present rounds. I still have it tucked away there, waiting for it’s moment in the spotlight. Not sure when that will be. Maybe I should just wrap it and gift it to myself and a surprise… for myself.
SPECIAL TOPIC: SMALL-BOX, BIG IMPACT GAMES
Before closing out today, I wanted to share another thought, which I’ve touch on before. But I want to reiterate my deep appreciation for smaller box games in general, and in particular those that pack a big meaty experience into a small package. I caught an On Board Games episode about “Big Gameplay, Little Space,” which of course set me off to thinking more about this topic. So a few aspects to share:
First - I wish all games, even bigger ones, took the approach of trying to minimize box size. I strongly dislike buying “air” in a box. And I dislike picking up a box and thinking “this just doesn’t weight enough.” Games need to be in a box sized such that the game has the right “density” if you will. This has nothing to do with the gameplay weight/depth/complexity mind you. This aspect is really just about making the product as a package as efficient as possible. This helps for storage, lugging stuff to game nights, and not scaring people off with the box size.
A few games, of various sizes, that seem to do this well are worth mentioning. Tiny Epic Games? So much packed into each of these. I like the games purely from a product design standpoint. Pax Renaissance - This game will give any big huge full blown game a run for its money (heck it IS a full blown game), and it fits in a box about the size of 6 decks of cards. Innovation? Why do you need a giant sprawling coffin-sized box for your civilization game when this tiny game will make your brain buuuurn? Raiders of the North Sea - I’ll cheat a bit here, but I can fit the base game and both expansions into the base game box with some creative packing. It’s smaller than the unusual 12”x12” square box (like 9x9?) - and it’s DENSE. Ironically, you can buy a special edition box, which is enormous, to fit all the stuff that fits in the normal box anyway. Bigger isn’t always better folks.
Second - I like having smaller box games purely from a portability and efficiency standpoint. I’ve limited my game collection, more or less, to a handful of shelves on our bookcase and other cabinets, and I’m not looking to expand. Smaller games take up less space on the shelf and when I’m contemplating a game purchase I find myself asking, is this “big box game” really worth the space of 2-4 smaller games? Often I don’t think it is. Also, I’m regularly lugging a small bag of games with me on family trips, outings, jaunts to an outdoor restaurant, etc., and small games mean I can easily carry half a dozen with me in a small unobtrusive bag and have some options of games to play with the kids while we wait for food and the like.
Last - I’m impressed with games that achieve efficiency in product design because it often indicates some level of efficiency in the design itself. As a designer, I know all too well how easy (and tempting) it is to “add more” to a game design, or “fixing” a game by throwing additional layers of mechanisms and componentry at it. But more often than not, I think that’s the wrong approach. This does bias my view of larger box games, as I’m almost immediately asking myself, “what’s in this box that doesn’t need to be in here”. This is probably a flawed way of approaching things, but it’s a filter I’ve come to rely on.
UNTIL NEXT TIME
Well, that does it for this round. Some upcoming topics articles I’ve been stewing over for future posts include the following:
(1) Underplayed Games / Wall of Shame
(2) Aspects and Approaches to Board Game Criticism
(3) Design Journal - Works in Progress
Hopefully I can manage a more regular pace to writing over the coming weeks and months. Looking forward to the conversation!
- [+] Dice rolls
25 Feb 2021
I have to apologize in advance, because this post is going to dig into the nuances of Warhammer 40,000 a bit. But I’m holding out hope that the conversation remains relevant to a broader (i.e. not just 40K) audience! You can let me know how I did at the end.
As I touched on in a prior article, I’ve been designing “ProHammer,” which is a custom ruleset for the “classic” versions of Warhammer 40k that unifies 3rd through 7th edition. I recently completed a big milestone in the project, the result of which is a completely rewritten rulebook from the ground up and nearly 70-pages of densely packed rule goodness.
Overall, this writing process (along with much playtesting over the past 6 months) afforded me a deep understanding of which types of rules led to what types of questions and situations arising during play that the player would be forced to grapple with. And ultimately, how deep or interesting these choices are says a lot about the level of strategy or tactics at hand in the game. But it also speaks to broader questions about how the intended experience of a game is shaped, and how the levers of design can be used in crafting it.
Horus, we have a problem
40K has long suffered from a problem where much of the “strategy” of the game has little to do with playing the game itself - which is to say the actual table level interactions - but rather in the creation of your army list. What units you field in your army, how they work together, how efficient they are at attacking the enemy or securing objectives has always played an outsized role in the game. But this facet has become even more dominant in the “modern” 40K editions (8th and 9th edition).
People often criticize modern 40K as starting to feel like a CCG (e.g Magic: The Gathering), where the equivalent to deck construction (i.e. army list building) is stealing the show. As a bit of evidence, go look up tactics articles for 40K or tactics discussion forums. The overwhelming majority of content relates directly to “what units do I put in my army” and very little to do with traditional tactics like position and maneuver.
I do recognize that for high level competitive play, deck construction becomes somewhat of a “floor” to your competitive success, and with all top level players having highly tuned and effective decks, the tactical choices of play becomes the deciding factor. But outside of that, a well-optimized deck is going to routinely lay waste to a poorly made one, regardless of player skill. For 40K it is much the same, and certain army lists are nearly auto-wins versus others.
A Challenge of Customization
Given the above situation, how does one devise the rules for a game, be it a tabletop miniature game, a CCG, or some other form of customizable game in a way that emphasizes in-game strategy and tactics, and player skill, as much as possible? This was the challenge I was initially looking to surmount in the design of ProHammer.
There are a number of areas in the rules to make interventions. At the broadest level, and getting directly at the dominance of list building, I considered the following thought experiment: What would 40K look like if it was modeled after chess? What if every battle was a mirror match, with a symmetrical table layout and deterministic combat results (in lieu of die rolling). If this were to happen, then the army building aspect of the game would be gutted and the game would be entirely down to player decision-making prowess on the table.
Obviously the game is never going to be played in a perfectly chess-like manner (nor would I want it to be), but might moving certain design needles in that direction help? If so, what needles needed to be nudged?
One element that stands out to me are the rules governing army list creation. Older versions of 40K were more restrictive and limited player choice. You had to take a certain number or percentage of your army’s points in basic “troop” units, you couldn’t have more than three of a certain type of specialist unit, and so on. Later editions of 40K did away with much of this, with formations and variable detachment types essentially letting people build whatever army they wanted.
In a certain respect, this is to be celebrated because players have “freedom” to play wherever combination of forces they want. But on the other, this “freedom” means that the opportunities for building especially powerful (ahem, overpowered) combinations are much greater - and the needle moves further away from chess.
Ultimately, the mere existence of more powerful lists drives the “meta” of the game towards more narrowly defined army lists that can compete in the meta. And this situation in turn feeds into undermining the table-level tactical play. This is a case where restrictions can breed invention. By forcibly narrowing the range of army lists, we might reign in power differentials and thus keep differences in lists focused at a finer, less impactful scale. By making everyone take a slightly more “chess-like” army we put more emphasis on the ensuring tactical gameplay choices.
The next rung down is another crucial aspect of the game play and it’s strategic potential: mission design. One of my great lamentations about the current 40K game (9th edition) is that essentially all of the official missions are actually the same mission, based around securing “control points” with minor flavors and variations in what specific points earn more or less VPs. The result of having effectively just one competitive mission is that players can continuously optimize and refine their army list to do that one exact mission as best as possible.
This poses two sticking points. The first is, when coupled with greater freeform for list building, players can just zero in on optimizing for one set of mission parameters, which further reinforces “skew” lists (moving away from chess). I must acknowledge though that, like the competitive Magic: the Gathering example, if everyone is bringing a highly optimized list, then it should push things towards player skill and tactical choice again. But this leads into the second issue!
The second issue is that given one single set of mission/victory parameters, certain factions and styles of army lists are simply better suited for those missions than others. In the current “meta,” armies with durable elite infantry that can both move very quickly onto objectives and can hold out on those objectives and fight well in close combat have a big advantage. Armies that can’t do this as well, are at a distinct disadvantage regardless of how much freedom the players might have to build their list.
How ironic is it then, that by giving greater flexibility for army list creation, but with a singular style of mission, that we end up in a situation where only a narrow range of those possible army lists are strong performers?
One partial solution to this conundrum is providing a more diverse range of missions, and specifically having these missions require a broader range of army capabilities (i.e. a more flexible list) in order to be successful. By restoring restrictions on army composition (to create a bit more homogeneity between armies) in conjunction with broadening the range of mission challenges, the focus of the gameplay tips towards “how” you are using your army rather than “what” is in your army. This is foundational for making a more strategic game.
Chaos and Control
At this point, we might toss up our hands and say, “well if there is a huge variety of amy lists, and a huge range of mission types, doesn’t the whole thing become a kind of crap-shoot then anyway (albeit one with more types of lists that might be able to randomly win)”? In a way it does (and I’ll get to why that might be a GOOD thing in a moment), but in a way it doesn’t.
It doesn’t because players are now rewarded for learning and gaining a broader set of decision-making heuristics. Being able to read the mission, and the table setup, and looking at your army and your opponent’s army and devising a “unique” plan of action for the situation at hand is perhaps the most important skill of all in the game - and is much preferred (by me) than the “skill” of making a highly tuned and optimized list (which you can just look up on the internet).
This greater level of “chaos” is, in my opinion, a good thing for the game as a whole for one very good reason: narrative. Having fundamentally different types of missions with lots of different viable types of army lists, creates more opportunities for novel and interesting situations to emerge, which is the hallmark of games that create a story through their play. And for all of this to be successful, the game’s mechanics as a whole need to find a careful balance between player control and chaos - to allow for enough chaos to let the unexpected happen and also to take the pressure off a competitive mindset, but to have enough control that player choices still matter and that players feel invested in the outcome of the game.
This tension - between chaos and control - strikes at the heart of trends in modern gaming. And this was my “ah-ha!” moment that prompted me to write this post. It was a realization that perhaps Warhammer 40k, starting in 8th edition (in 2017), wasn’t being designed so much as a narrative-making game (Ameritrash if you will) as it was being designed for the competitive and “challenge” oriented crowd. As I realized this, I started seeing the evidence all over the place.
For example, modern gaming “sensibilities” often take the view that “output randomness” is a bad thing, or something to be mitigated. And so we see one of the biggest changes in 8th edition: the introduction of the command phase. The command phase allows players to spend command point resources on “stratagem” actions - the overwhelming majority of which are strictly designed and intended to counteract randomness. Don’t like a die roll? Spend a CP to re-roll it. Moved a unit into a bad spot? Spend CPs to boost their armor save. Shooting didn’t go your way? Spend CPs to take another chance at shooting.
Another, more cynical, manifestation of this shift from chaos to control is to suggest that the modern “challenge” oriented player doesn’t actually like contending directly with their opponent. Designer-controlled games, like many modern Eurogames, are designed explicitly to challenge a player but also in a manner that doesn’t require them to really contend with the psychology or actions of their opponent. Players, it seems, often want to win or lose “on their own merits” rather than win or lose relative to the performance of their opponents.
There’s a bit of coddling involved. And the festishization of army list building plays right into the above notion. Perhaps, again cynically, the push towards list building and narrower mission design (as discussed earlier) becomes a way for players to absolve themselves of their own mistakes in a loss. It’s much easier to say “well I just didn’t bring the right army list to beat your army list” than it is to say “I got outplayed and made mistakes.”
Now, a confrontational game like Warhammer 40K is still vastly more directly interactive than many modern eurogames. Yet I can’t help but feel like Warhammer 40k “the tactics game of position and maneuver” is, bit by bit, giving way to Warhammer 40k “the resource management combo-building game.” It is becoming less a game of who can outsmart who on the battlefield, and more a contest of who can bring the better optimized force to the table.
Ironically though, there is a limit to how far down the “challenge” pathway modern sensibilities seem to want to go. We’re still quite a ways short of chess, which is a far more intense, direct meeting of the minds with no outside factors (list building, die rolling, etc.) obfuscating the competition. It’s direct and brutal - but despite the pretense for competitive mindsets, I don’t think 40k players really want to know who the better player is in quite such stark relief.
Priorities in Design
So what are the implications for the design of Warhammer 40K specifically, and the design of other games more generally?
My takeaway is that this exercise and process of building a “better” 40K is, like all game design efforts, a matter of balancing priorities. Are we designing a game to “really” test our mettle and see who the better player is? Are we designing a game to challenge our logistical minds and combo-hunting faculties? Are we designing a game to see who can better manage risk and chaos and adapt to uncertainty on the fly? Are we designing a game to, first and foremost, tell a story through the act of playing it? How do we balance these competing demands?
To some extent, my approach to designing ProHammer has been a gradual realization that designing to balance these different priorities results in an imperfect solution, one riddled with contradictions and elements working at cross purposes. In short a mess. But maybe a beautiful mess for the right participants.
On one hand, I’ve designed and intended many facets of the game to add more meaningful decision points where none existed before - in order to make the gameplay more interactive and support a back-and-forth dynamic. Yet on the other hand, the outcome of these choices continues to rely heavily on the luck of the dice, which I’ve kept “unmitigated” as much as possible. So more decisions are in the player's hands, but ever more outcomes are left to fate.
It’s a strange paradox and I think appreciation of games that are “messes like this” require a certain attitude and outlook towards what type of experience is desired. Clearly, this is neither a challenge oriented design like a Eurogame, nor a “hard” challenge game like an abstract. It is perhaps most of all a story-telling game, but one where the choices and efficacy of player action weigh heavily in shaping the overall narrative, but not necessarily its details. It’s a game that will challenge players, but is ultimately best enjoyed when the players don’t put too much stock in the outcome. Just like the good Dr. ordered.
- [+] Dice rolls
I’m sitting here trying to come to terms with what happened last night in our nation’s capital. To come to terms with something that, on one hand is horrific and shocking, but on the other hand was, unsurprisingly inevitable. Hindsight isn’t required - many people, myself included, assumed something was coming. And I am so disheartened that my fears came true.
I’m sitting here listening to my wife teach her highschool class over zoom - and having to kick off each of her classes with yet another political, “but don’t talk about politics,” crisis conversation. They have been far too many such conversations that I’ve heard over the past year. This shouldn’t be the state of affairs in our county - yet here we are.
The simple truth is that when the fabric of reality has been politicized, it makes everything political. It’s unreasonable, perhaps impossible, to expect teachers, or employees, or family members, or hobby enthusiasts to try and discuss current events without being political.
I don’t relish making political posts - now my third in this past year alone. But I do feel an obligation as a citizen of this county, as someone who believes in democracy and that we all have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to speak out in the communities I am a part of.
Perhaps this darkest chapter in our country’s history was, in a cruel way, a necessary part of coming to terms with the reality of America.
These past four years have exposed much of the true nature of this country. Put simply, we have problems, and big ones. And the sooner we can all own up to those and acknowledge the parts we play, tacitly or incidentally, the sooner we can begin the work of correcting them.
It’s mind-boggling to think what the last four years have brought.
The past four years have brought us the Women’s Movement and #MeToo. For far too long in our society women have suffered abuse and unequal treatment at home, in work places, and at schools. For far too long the reality of the extent and pervasiveness of misogyny and abuse was swept under the rug, reality distorted to keep people silent, and to keep so many other people in the dark. But no longer will it be tolerated.
The past four years have brought us multiple investigations into collusion with foreign powers at the highest levels of our government. A President campaigning on draining the swamp saw instead numerous of his closest affiliates charged with a range of crimes. Crimes that he then pardoned them for. Pardons that come, implicity, with admission of guilt. The fragility of our democracy and the norms that hold it together have been laid bare. We can no longer be blind to these weaknesses. We must hold those who would seek to undermine our democracy accountable if there is to be justice.
The past four years have brought us the Black Lives Matter movement, underscoring the deep seated racism that has been boiling under the lid for generations. Many people, in naivety, assumed we were past this chapter. But unequal treatment of people of color by our laws, by law enforcement agencies, by institutions of government, and by individual people is now sitting in the open for all to see. It must be addressed if we are to move forward as a country. We can no longer pretend it isn’t happening. The truth is that it has been happening since before this county even was a country. But no longer can it be tolerated by anyone claiming to be a patriot.
The past four years have been punctuated by a humanitarian crisis of incalculable cruelty, borne out on our soil. Our xenophobia has put thousands of people into internment camps. It has seen innocent children permanently separated from their parents - a policy of deliberate cruelty. How soon the architects of these cruel practices forget that they themselves, or their parents or their grandparents were once immigrants as well. We must treat others how we wish to be treated. To seek empathy and understanding.
The past four years have witnessed a sustained attack on the truth, on scientific knowledge, and on expertise. Whether it is handling COVID-19, addressing Global Climate Change, peeling back environmental protections, providing affordable healthcare, or supporting the long-term health of our economy - expertise and knowledge, and indeed the very truth, has been routinely dismissed and spun as political opinion. We can no longer tolerate attacks on the truth.
The past four years have resoundingly shattered the illusion that America is exceptional.
We are not exceptional.
Our wealth gap, between the rich and poor, continues to widen. Our life expectancy is declining. Our public infrastructure is literally crumbling. Our security is weakening. Our reputation in the world has collapsed. Our educational system is failing our children. Our moral standing has been exposed as a lie.
And so, in ways both cruel and uncomfortable, this ugliness coming to light in our country may be necessary. By coming to the light, we hold up a mirror to ourselves and bear witness to what we are. Admission is the first step to recovery.
We have much work to do in turning this ship around. This work must begin with a commitment to the truth and building a shared understanding of reality. Not everyone will be on board the boat, for that is clear enough now. But we must continue to pursue and confront the truth, and to not be afraid of engaging in political conversations. When the reality around us is open for debate, politics are impossible to ignore. And we will never move forward without first building a common truth and purpose.
What happened last night in our nation's capital is a consequence of reality being politicized and twisted. The unraveling of truth is both terrifying and dangerous - but we cannot let it rule us. We must all find ways in which we can advance our quest for the truth and to live up to the values we share as a Americans and as human beings on this planet.
- [+] Dice rolls
Being the giant game geek that I am, holidays inevitably end up with friends and family asking me for recommendations. Not that I mind, as I am always looking for an excuse to talk games! But, I’m often left a bit flat-footed when it comes to making recommendations. Perhaps I don’t step back and reflect on what the standouts have been over the years. Or perhaps too much time is spent thinking about games from the perspective of critique and analysis, as opposed to “what should I buy?”.
So this thread will perhaps be the start of a new yearly tradition of rounding up games that I’ve played, whether new-to-the-year or just older classics worth mentioning. This first endeavor is going to focus on video games, primarily because the Steam sale is ending on January 5th and if anyone needs guidance on where to spend their holiday bucks, this might be useful.
Without any further fanfare, let’s just jump into things!
2020 Big Game Theory Video Game Recommendations
Tactical & Rougelike Games
Invisible Inc (2015)
Steam/ PC ($5.60, 78% off, for bundle with DLC)
Games that successfully deliver multi-layered, intertwined gameplay are rare. Invisible Inc is one of those successes. I should say that my patience for games focused on turn-based tactical combat (which this game does) is “normally” pretty limited, largely because so many of them employ nearly the same mechanics which result in nearly the same dry, unit activation order, optimization exercises. Invisible Inc brilliantly avoids this trap by forcing players to carefully balance stealth vs. combat attacks and moves in the physical space vs. the virtual space, all while under the auspice of ticking security timer that applies pressure and forces you into sub-optimal situations. Plenty of tough choices throughout the game, making it one of the most deeply enjoyable tactical games I’ve ever played.
Into the Breach (2018)
A clever, vaguely “chess-like” tactical game where you deploy 3 units onto a gridded battlefield and attempt to accomplish various mission objectives while keeping the enemy forces in check. Clever unit abilities combine in all sorts of ways. Each mission becomes its own intoxicating puzzle. I’m not normally one for puzzle-solving, but here the variability and consequential decisions always keeps me on my toes. From the developers behind Faster Than Light (FTL).
Crying Suns (2019)
Steam/PC: ($14.99, 40% off), iOS/Android ($8.99)
Mechanically, Crying Suns, which is a bit of a FTL derivative, tasks you with guiding your customizable space-jumping battleship across multiple sectors of space in order to solve an inter-galactic mystery, all the while staying one step ahead of hostile pursuers. What drew me in was the narrative and atmosphere. I’m not easily grabbed by video game plot lines, especially in this genre, but this one struck a chord. The aesthetic of the game quite engrossing as well. Gameplay is appropriately challenging and diverse.
Strategy / 4X Games
Interstellar Space Genesis (2019)
Steam/PC ($14.99, 50% off)
Games attempting to capture the feeling of Master of Orion 1 & 2 come and go like leaves in the wind, and nearly all of them are forgotten in time. ISG is the rare exception, drawing inspiration from MoO1/MoO2 where it matters most (in the scale, pacing, and tough decision making laced throughout the game) and innovating where there is room for improvement (exploration, UI, leaders, strategic resources). All in all, ISG is an exceptionally well designed game and, despite a few rough edges in the graphics, is one of the best playing and strategic 4X games around.
Steam/PC ($11.99, 60% off)
A wonderful mashup of real-time strategy (RTS) and 4X/civilization, Northgard has you managing a nordic clan as you seek fame, glory, and the blessings of the gods. If you’re in the mood for a shorter 4X-like game, there is none better. Despite the clan management scale of the game, it nevertheless captures the strategic civilization-like decision making better than most full 4X games. The victory system is finely honed, the UI flawless, and the decisions routinely tense and interesting.
Age of Wonders 3 (2014)
Steam/PC ($24, 65% off for collection bundle with all DLC)
Age of Wonders 3 is my favorite 4X game of all-time. No other 4X game delivers on the promise of deep strategic positioning and maneuvering as well as well as AoW3. This strategic layer is married to the best tactical combat system found in any 4X game. The variability in the game, due to different combinations of fantasy races, hero classes, and magic specializations is exceptional. Couple this with an awesome victory system that avoids the usual 4X late-game fumble and you have a winner. Age of Wonders: Planetfall is the newer game in the series, using a science-fantasy theme. It is also a solid game - but I think AoW3 provides the better overall experience at the end of the day. Make sure to get the bundle with the two DLC's - it adds tremendously to the game.
Total War: Warhammer I & II (2016 & 2017)
Steam/PC ($14.99 for #1, $20.39 for #2, 75% and 66% off)
The Warhammer Fantasy themed Total War games out grand-strategy most other grand strategy games, without even necessarily trying to do so. The scale of the game is huge, and both games can be combined to create an absolutely enormous world to fight across. There are a staggering number of different factions and leaders to choose from, most of which have a unique way of playing and asymmetric victory conditions. While I’m not a huge fan of the tactical battles (although the are awesome to watch!), the strategic layer alone is surprisingly engrossing. Expensive to buy into everything - but awesome to behold.
Battle for Polytopia (2020 for PC)
Steam/PC ($9.75, 35% off), iOS/Android
Self-described micro 4X polytopia boils the 4X concept down to about the barest essentials. The result is a game that remains surprisingly deep and challenging, despite it’s pint-sized scale and quick playtime. If you’re looking for a game you can play in 15 minutes that scratches the 4X itch, look no further.
Steam/PC ($9.99, 50% off)
When it comes to digital platforms for playing board games, TTS provides by far the largest library of games on offer (seriously, there are 1000’s of games available). The controls and UI takes some getting used to, and the system does NOT enforce game rules like other platforms. It is quite literally the virtual parallel to playing a physical game, complete with physics and everything. Once you get used to it, it’s a nearly limitless platform. Playing with friends while simultaneously in a video call (e.g. Discord) is the closest way to replicate playing a physical game.
Race for the Galaxy (2015)
Steam/PC ($4.89, 30% off), iOS/Android ($6.99)
The Achilles heel of many a digital boardgame adaptation is that most AI’s just can’t put up much of a challenge. Enter Race for the Galaxy. The official game uses “Keldon’s AI”, which was developed in a standalone game application that predates the official app. Long story short, the RFTG app puts up a tremendous challenge and serves up a great UI on top it. It goes without saying that RFTG is also an amazing and classic boardgame, and having such a solid digital version does the game justice.
Steam/PC ($10.49, 50% off), iOS/Android ($9.99)
Root has been one of my favorite board games in recent years, and the recently launched digital version of the game is really quite delightful. The artwork is translated into the digital realm in a great way. I’m not sure how easy it would be to learn the game from just the digital version - there are built in tutorials but they don’t really explain the underlying game concepts that well - but that aside this is a solid entry. As with most digital boardgames (Race for the Galaxy, above, being a big exception) the AI is a bit of a pushover. It’s available on Steam and mobile platforms.
RPGs / Action RPGs
Star Traders: Frontiers (2018)
Steam/PC ($7.49, 50% off), iOS/Android ($3.99!!!!)
This is an unassuming but deeply engaging game. Essentially, it’s a starship captain simulator, where you assume the role of captain (surprise, surprise) as you manage your ship and crew. You’ll explore a galaxy littered with different star systems and inhabited by different factions - much like the imperial houses of Dune. There is some solid writing in the quests, an absolute avalanche of content, and plenty of tough and interesting challenges to overcome. Excellent sandbox universe to immerse yourself in.
Children of Morta (2019)
Steam/PC ($10.99, 50% off)
Wins the award for the most amazing pixel art ever in a game. But in terms of gameplay, Children of Morta is an action RPG (think Diabo-series) crossed with a roguelike. It’s a pretty twitch heavy game and get’s pretty challenging at times, but it’s a lovely experience. The narration and pixel art is worth the price of admission. This is a great game to play on the big screen with a couple of controllers. It supports shared-screen coop so it's a fun game to play cooperative in person.
All of the games below fall within a pretty similar gameplay space, which is essentially first person shooter games structured as a 4-player cooperative multiplayer affair. If you've played and liked Left 4 Dead, these games are in the same spirit.
My wife quite enjoys playing this style of game (as do I) and these all have stood the test of time IMHO. YMMV of course, but I’m regularly playing all of these on a rotation of sorts. It’s worth noting that all of these games are best played with friends and using voice chat. During the pandemic, these have been a lifeline for us to keep in touch with friends and have activities to share together.
Vermintide 2 (2018)
Steam/PC ($7.49, 75% off)
Set in the Warhammer fantasy universe right during the “End Times” (i.e. before the Old World gets destroyed by Chaos). This game has an incredible atmosphere, great characters with amazing voice acting, and without a doubt the best melee combat I’ve ever seen in an FPS game. When the tide of rats, chaos cultists, and beastmen roll into view, the combat is tense, frantic, and fully engrossing. It’s one of those games that is high skill and consequently sucks you into a zen or flow state of total concentration.
Deep Rock Galactic (2020)
Steam/PC ($20.99, 30% off)
Dwarves, space dwarves, space asteroid mining dwarves (obviously), beer-guzzling space asterius mining dwarves while fighting off hordes of bugs. And of course silly hats. That about sums it up. This is a really enjoyable game with a fun, jovia, tongue-in-cheek atmosphere. Missions take place inside completely destructible environments as you and your fellow dwarves dig for rare resources and then scramble to get back out of the mine before the drop leaves you all behind. Good family fun.
Dying Light (Enhanced Edition) (2015)
Steam/PC ($17.99, 70% off)
I recently stumbled on this one, and I’m pleasantly surprised. This is a 4-player FPS coop crossed with an open world-style game (which are typically only ever single-player). Of course, it’s a zombie apocalypse open world, so you and your best buddies can have a field day scavenging the ruined city for supplies and resources. The signature feature is the incredible parkour system, allowing you near limitless freedom to climb and scramble your way through the world. The combat is a bit silly at times, but overall it’s a well done game.
There you have it! I’m going to try and get the board-game version out as soon as I am able.
How about you? Any video games that have really stood out to you over the past year? Love you hear from you all. Best wishes in 2021.
- [+] Dice rolls
Warhammer 40,000, and Games Workshop by extension, has been a part of my gaming life for as long as I’ve had a gaming life, which is to say nearly all of my actual life. Whether it was stumbling upon Epic at a garage sale, being handed a copy of Rogue Trader (first edition of 40K) by a mysterious uncle in the shadows of darkness, or devising my own grandiose campaign rules, the game has made an impact on my gaming hobbies and interests. Sometimes it’s on the front burner, other times the pot is in the back of the cupboard, nearly forgotten. But it’s always lurking around like a bad habit.
For those that haven’t followed the evolution of 40k closely, this year saw the release of the 9th edition of the game. What’s important to note is that the various editions of the game break down into a few distinct eras or styles, roughly as follows:
1st Edition (Rogue Trader) - Primordial Era.
Almost equal parts role-playing game, complete with a 3rd party game master, as it was a tactical miniature game. Silly and convoluted comes to mind. But my gosh is the rulebook ever an entertaining thing to flip through.
David Bowie called - he said you forgot to bring your head.
Aesthetically the first and second editions were like punk sci-fi. Mad Max meets Dune. But the whole atmosphere was a bit cheeky and self-deprecating, a counter-culture statement to the stoic seriousness of other wargames. Grizzled warriors wore ridiculous brightly colored outfits and sported intimidating mohawks.
2nd Edition: HeroHammer Era.
Second edition featured a totally redone ruleset making it more of a proper strategy game. Still has a strong “skirmish” feel to the game, as armies tended to be smaller with more detailed and nuanced rules. Lots of die roll modifiers, crazy special powers, broken stuff all over the place. Most notable was that hero units could be tooled out to ridiculous levels, and often were able to take on entire armies on their own. Very true to the lore. Chaotic but good fun.
In the grim darkness of the far future there is only... awesome facial hair
3rd - 5th Edition: Classic Era.
Third edition rewrote the rules (again) from nearly the ground up. The result was a vastly streamlined game allowing for faster play and larger armies (gotta sell those miniatures!). 4th edition was a clear refinement of the 3rd edition rules, with subtle changes affecting the balance of shooting versus close combat effectiveness and the durability/effectiveness of vehicles. 5th edition built on 4th and added additional gameplay rules to be leveraged, like running and units diving for cover. It refined some aspects of the game with varying results. Overall, 5th edition is often regarded as a high water mark for the game.
In 3rd edition, the artwork and self-image changed. Punk gave way to the gothic. Grim dark was in. John Blanche, long-running Games Workshop artist, depicted the black heart and tortured soul of the 40K universe best. Nowhere was safe. Everything was not awesome. I have the most fondness for this era and the overall aesthetic of the game, which remained mostly unchanged through 6th edition.
6th - 7th Edition: Complicatedness Era
While 6th and 7th editions were built on the same base system of 3rd-5th, these editions really started to ramp up the level of detail as well as the chaos of the game. There were rules for heroes challenging units in hand-to-hand combat. A lot of elements that were predictable before (like charge distances) were made variable through the role of the dice. We started getting more convoluted rules for warlord traits and special objectives. Eventually we got a whole psychic phase mini-game. The final nail in the coffin (for me) was the use of special army list “formations” that made the game even more about power army list building than actual battlefield tactics. Ugh.
8th - 9th Edition: Reborn Era
With the introduction of 8th edition, the entire aesthetic started to shift. The raw grim dark imagery - you know the stuff where you look at it and don’t really know what the hell you’re even looking at but nonetheless feel a little dirty and uncomfortable - that aesthetic gave way. It gave way to something that just feels sanitized. Like it’s been retooled for the Disney audience instead of the Stanley Kubrick one. It’s fine - and perhaps makes the whole thing more palatable to a broader audience, but just isn’t something that excites me very much.
Peasant 2: Well... he hasn’t got shit all over him.
As far as the rules go, 8th edition threw everything in the dumpster and started over with a greatly simplified ruleset. While I applaud the willingness to start fresh and simplify the core rules (which fit on less than a dozen pages), the gameplay clearly shifted.
It seemed to me that the game was rebuilt in ways that made the gamplay less about “position and maneuver” and use of cover and terrain (you know, the reason to play a miniature wargame in the first place) and more about meta-level trickery. Forces are now organized into highly variable detachments, each granting different amounts of “command points” which could be spent in-game to trigger certain special powers or abilities. Thus, the focus appears to be about rewarding clever usage of these higher-level resources and “tactical power plays” (i.e. trickery) instead of outmaneuvering your opponents forces on the battlefield. I might be wrong, but in my limited plays (and in watching gameplay videos) it’s the impression I get.
More impactfully, the changes in 8th, in their quest for streamlining, threw out many of the rules that added character (and chaos!) to the game. Vehicles no longer had armor values on different vehicle facings (i.e. weaker armor in the rear creating opportunities for clever positioning), and instead treated vehicles like a standard “model”, albeit with more wounds. Boring. Terrain and cover worked totally differently and likewise reduced the importance of board positioning. It ditched the entire unit morale and regroup process, and instead failing morale tests just meant models were removed from the unit, instead of the unit actually falling back and trying to regroup. Sure, all of this streamlined the gameplay. But at what cost? This isn’t the Warhammer 40K I’m looking for.
Towards a more Perfect Warhammer 40,000
The beautiful thing about 40K, miniature games, and indeed all of analog gaming - is that if you really don’t like something, and so long as you can get others to go along with your ideas, there is nothing to stop you from changing the rules to fit your preferences. Indeed, earlier editions of 40K were explicit about encouraging people to house rule the game and make it their own. Whether it was designing custom missions or just making wholesale rule changes, nothing was really off the table if your opponent agreed to it ahead of time.
And so, in all my years of playing 40K, I was routinely tinkering with rule changes that my group of buddies and I would discuss, debate, and try out. We had made more detailed rules for smaller scale skirmishes. We added our own versions of throwback rules like overwatch and declared fire. We made the game our own. To heck with what everyone else thought!
Recently, our collective gaze returned to 40K, this time in concert with some members of the next generation (i.e. our kids!). And so we had a choice to make. Do we begrudgingly resign ourselves to playing the latest edition of 40K - replete with its distasteful streamlining, trickery-based strategic play, and sanitized aesthetic (not to mention having to buy a small mountain of rulebooks and codexes all over again)? Do we expose our youngsters to this sanitized and streamlined 40K? Or do we go back to an earlier edition where we already have everything we need to play and where the aesthetic is as we experienced it? And if we’re going back in time, to what point in history should we go? And if we’re going back, might this be the time to solidify our preferences around a revised ruleset?
The answers were as follows: Yes, let’s go back in time. Yes, let’s go to the 5th edition as it was the highwater mark for the “classic game” experience (i.e. before things got too convoluted). Yes let’s make some modifications to make the game better suit our tastes.
Thus it was that ProHammer was born.
ProHammer Direction Setting
I’ve often joked that actually playing 40K is 50% army list building, 25% deployment, 15% luck of the dice, and 10% actual strategy and tactics. Except this isn’t really a joke.
Different editions have pushed and pulled on these percentages, but army building remains central to determining your likeliness of success. Failure to bring the right stuff in order to “redundantly” cover all the tactical bases (anti-armor, anti-infantry, anti-elites, objective holding, speed/flexibility) can easily lead to defeat before the first model is placed on the table. From there, deployment is critical. 40K games are really quite short, typically a mere 5-7 turns, so placing a unit in a spot where it can’t do much can be fatal. From there, you can formulate plans all day long, but whether the dice go in your favor or not is where the rubber hits the road!
That said, there are plenty of opportunities to nuance the rules in various ways to bring out the qualities of the game that are most important. Here are some of the overarching “goals” for ProHammer:
Strategic foundation. Broadly speaking, understanding the mission objectives and orchestrating your deployment (including use of reserve forces) constitutes the backbone of your strategy. And consequently, the rules governing army lists, deployment and reserves are important for creating opportunities for strategic choices right at the onset. Putting some boundaries around list formation creates more predictability in what kind of force you are likely to face (i.e. a more balanced and less cheesy one). If army lists are more analogous, like a game of chess, success hinges less on building a list than it does on using it effectively. Obviously you still want to have big playstyle differences between the factions, but having some standard force organization expectations can keep things from going completely off the rails.
Tactical decisions. When it comes to tactics and finer grained decisions, the most important thing to emphasize in my mind is position and maneuver. Where you move your forces and how you utilize terrain relative to your opponent's forces is where the interesting meat of the game is. And so I want to ensure that terrain and movement matters, and that players have meaningful choices and tradeoffs when it comes down to what to do with each unit. The key is to focus on giving units flexibility to be used in more investive and nuanced ways.
Logical flow. There are also areas of the rules where we can improve the “logicalness” or intuitiveness of the game. I think there is beauty in not abstracting the game too much - especially for playing with younger players. I’ve found that the youth are often the first to ask, “why can’t I do X? It makes sense that I should be able to do X!?” Or they pose the question “Why does Y happen that way? That doesn’t make sense! Wouldn’t Z be better?” The more these sorts of questions can be pruned out, the better.
Chaos vs. predictability. Balancing randomness and chaos against predictability is another critical aspect of 40K and its rules. On one hand, chaos adds to the drama and unfolding narrative of the game. When unexpected things happen, it builds a memorable story as well as keeping players on their toes. On the other hand, too much chaos and uncertainty runs the risk of undermining the depth of the game and leads to frustration. If the outcomes of your actions can’t reasonably be predicted, then why bother strategizing at all? ProHammer seeks to find a better balance point.
Turn structure. Another key consideration is turn structure. Many folks have attempted more ambitious reworkings of 40K rule sets to implement things like “alternating activations” instead of the basic “I go, you go” turn structure of 40K. Tempting as these may be, the classic IGOUGO turn structure of 40K is part of the game’s DNA. Being able to plan and then execute a broad sweeping advance and orchestrated set of movement lends a certain “epic” and sweeping feeling to the game, and you lose much of that when implementing “better” rules for turn structure. I want ProHammer to be the best “classic” feeling 40K version, and changing the turn structure is a bridge too far in my view.
ProHammer Nuts & Bolters
If you’re still reading this, you must be really keen on where this is all going. Long story, short, I’m not going to rattle through all the nuances of what’s changed in ProHammer. Instead, I’ll pull out some of the highlights for your consideration, and expound a bit on why I think the changes work towards the ProHammer “goals.”
Shooting vs. Melee: A Tenuous Balancing Act
40K has routinely struggled to find the right balance between the effectiveness of shooting vs. melee.
In some editions (i.e. 3rd), melee oriented units could become nearly invincible due to how they could sweep from one close combat to another and never be exposed to gun fire. Some editions tried to correct this, but ended up overcompensated. The result was melee units having variable and hard to predict charge distances coupled with melee units suffering automatic overwatch fire, and even if they survived and won the combat, then become sitting ducks in the open for the inevitable return fire!
Many of the ProHammer changes are oriented around trying to find a better balance point. Let’s start with the shooting side of the spectrum.
One change, lifted from editions after 5th, is having movement work on a model-by-model basis, rather than unit-by-unit. This means, if a model is equipped with a heavy weapon and that one model doesn’t move, it can fire the heavy weapon, even if the rest of the squad moves a little bit. It’s logical, it’s more intuitive, gives choices, and rewards careful placement.
Later editions also made shooting work on a model-by-model basis, with each member of the unit being allowed, in theory, to shoot at different targets. This makes some logical sense, but it’s also a huge buff for shooting and can slow down the pace of the game. ProHammer uses a more restrained “split fire” rule. If your unit passes a leadership test, they can split fire between two targets. It gives you some flexibility, but still requires you to make some tough choices and tradeoffs.
When it comes to Overwatch I ditched the automatic overwatch fire from later editions, and instead implemented more of a throwback to 2nd edition. In ProHammer, you place a unit on overwatch during your turn. On your opponent’s turn, after an enemy unit completes a move, if they are within 24” you can interrupt their turn to fire at that unit - albeit with a penalty to your accuracy. Again, this gives more flexibility, and can be potentially more powerful, but it's limited in that you would forgo using your unit on the turn you place it into overwatch. It’s a nice way to get at slightly more nuanced turn structure while not bogging down the game too much.
When it comes to melee, I reinstated sweeping advances in new combats, where you can route an enemy unit and use a consolidation move to engage a second nearby enemy. This can be really strong of course, so I tossed in a few things to mitigate this. First, you can voluntarily fallback from close combat (something seen in 2nd edition that resurfaced again in 8th), but you run the risk of being totally wiped out and, assuming it escapes, it basically loses the rest of its turn. But hey, it exposes the enemy unit to return fire!
Secondly, I added a (long overdue) option to fire into a melee, with the risk that your shots have a chance to hit and wound your own engaged models! Folks (myself included) have been clamoring for this option forever. I mean this is 40K. It’s grim dark as heck. Half the factions in the game wouldn’t bat an eye about doing this if it would help win the war!
Given all of the above, it seems like quite a few buffs to shooting. But consider that terrain and cover is a bit more reliable and powerful compared to other editions. There’s also some nuance I added around line of sight and how wounds and casualties are allocated, that tip the balance a little in favor of the unit taking the hits. For example, wounds are allocated in a manner that allows models to take saves for cover even if the majority of the unit isn’t in cover.
But the big constraint on shooting that ProHammer adds is declared fire. Let me back up for a moment. One thing I don’t like in most tactical games is when players are free to choose the order of units to activate.In practice, this means that you can puzzle out an optimal shooting order based on assessing threats, resolve attacks one unit at a time, and then can freely adjust your shooting depending on the outcome of each shooting attempt. If heavy weapon A fails to destroy the big tank, no problem, heavy weapon B will now fire at it, instead of shooting at something else. I despise this and thinks it waters down the tactics.
So the idea behind declaring fire is that at the start of your shooting phase you have to declare what targets each of your units will fire at (including potential overwatch targets!) before resolving any attacks. This change makes shooting substantially more interesting, as you have to make some tough calls. Do you double up fire at the risk of “wasting shots” overkilling something, or do you play a risky strategy and try to hit as many targets as you can. People criticize declared fire rules (likely having not tried it) for being too slow. But in practice I’ve found it to be faster because you make the decisions all in one step and then resolve everything. This is much faster than choosing a unit, rolling to hit, and then reevaluating all the subsequent shooting based on the individual outcomes of each shooting unit. Declared fire adds a nice dose of risk management while tempering the lethality of shooting overall.
Vehicle Survivability vs. Lethality
Another aspect of 40K that’s received a ton of adjustment over the years is the handling of vehicles, in particular how many weapons they can shoot as a function of their movement speed, and secondly how difficult it is to kill vehicles. 40K has oscillated between vehicles being really difficult to kill, with them tending to dominate the battlefield, to being trivially easy to disable or destroy in a predictable manner. Vehicles add a ton of flavor and spice to the game, so getting these rules right is important!
ProHammer pulls rules together from multiple editions, but is mostly a blend of 4th and 5th edition. It separate damage tables for Glancing or Penetrating hits (like 4th) but the tables are adjusted to be a little less punishing on penetrating hits (33% chance for destruction instead of a 50% chance). While vehicles can be easily stunned or shaken, they are still permitted to shoot using the snap fire rules (meaning they will be much less accurate). The result of all of this is that dealing with enemy vehicles is a compelling risk-management game - deciding how much fire power to spend (especially with declared fire!) trying to kill a vehicle versus merely keeping it diabled or hindered is important.
Another goal of ProHammer is to allow players to basically choose any of the 3rd-7th codex books they want to use in ProHammer with minimal adjustment. This means identifying aspects of codex books - like handling of psykers, certain vehicle rules, rules for formations, warlord traits, tactical objectives, etc. - and either prohibiting them outright or providing clarity for how they are to be adapted for ProHammer. This gives players a lot of options for building army lists, but reigns in some of the crazier aspects of later (6th and 7th edition) codex’s that can throw the game’s balance and focus a little out of whack.
ProHammer in Action
I’ve had the good fortune to have some friends that are comfortable with Tabletop Simulator, which has some incredible community support for Warhammer 40k. I’ve knocked out a few games over the past couple of weeks and it’s been a chance to put ProHammer to the test. Each session prompts questions about the rules that become a chance to refine and clarify - which is great fun. I’m fortunate to have friends that are willing to put up with (and in some cases are quite enthusiastic about) my constant rule tweaks.
Below is a gallery from two of our games, one Dark Angels vs. Space Wolves, and the second is Lamenters (masquerading as Blood Angels) versus Craftworld Eldar. Good times!
I’m going to continue to tweak and refine ProHammer through my playtesting. It’s going to be a living ruleset, and hopefully ones that I’ll always be able to go back to when the desire to play 40K strikes again.
ProHammer: Living Rules (google doc)
Dark Angel vs. Space Wolves - Final Turns
Lamenters vs. Craftworld Eldar
- [+] Dice rolls
29 Sep 2020
Consider this blog post an acknowledgement that I’m eternally flitting between micro-obsessions when it comes to the gaming hobby. More specifically, my gaming habits follow a pattern where at any given moment I’m knee deep into one (or maybe two) distinct “niches” within the hobby. But a moment later, one leg (or both legs) hopscotch over to another niche undertaking.
And often, these efforts take the form of some type of “project” that I’ve undertaken. And even more so, these “projects” often connect me to other niche communities (on the web or otherwise) in which I immerse myself for a period of time until the “project” is done. Then I find myself in an aimless period before settling down into the next niche hobby project.
Sometimes, a project or undertaking might only last a few months, other times it’s a much longer undertaking. What surprises me is that when I circle back to these various communities, other people are still right there in the thick of the conversation, having seemingly not missed a beat. It makes me wonder, are other people juggling involvement in many different hobby niches like I do? Or are people just sticking with one (or very few) things for a longer period of time?
Thinking way back to my involvement with games, I’d lump things generally into a few different “eras.” The teenage gaming era (1990-1999 or so), which was generally when I was still in middle and high school, my “gaming dark age era” (up till about 2010 or so), and what I would call my “current gaming” era. Maybe it’s worth mentioning a bit about these each to understand my gaming patterns
EARLY YEARS ERA
The dates and timelines are all a bit of a jumble, but there are some distinct niche’s that I had dived into deeply during this time. What’s interesting thinking back on this is how time passed so differently when I was younger. Looking at the dates is shocking in some ways. In my mind, I spent a lifetime during some of these phases, but in reality it was little more than a year in many cases.
This early era was typified by “hobby-unto-themselves” tabletop games of the collectable and miniature game sort.
Magic the Gathering was one such game. I started playing around when The Dark expansion came out, alongside the “revised” edition of the game (1994). I played on and off, intensely, till about the Homelands expansion (1995). Seems crazy that it wasn’t much more than a couple of years at most. Time goes so slow when you’re younger. I remember playing fierce games on the bus ride home, using backpacks or instrument cases as makeshift table tops to play on. I was in deep, and yet it only lasted about two years.
Warhammer 40,000 was another game that I dabbled with as a collecting “project” in earlier years (1992-1995 or so), but it wasn’t until about 1996 that I met others that wanted to actually play (and who had their own miniatures to use). My dad helped me build some modular plywood boards, which we painted and flocked. A back room in the basement was converted to the warhammer lair. We built terrain, painted, and waged epic battles. We transitioned to 3rd edition (1998) and then started to slow down on warhammer’ing after 4th edition rolled out (2004). It was always a bit of a binge-like affair. We’d spend a few months intensely playing games, then break the routine, only to pick it back up half a year later.
I always considered myself a PC game player, despite having various consoles around the house. Consoles were nice, but never really drew me in. What’s interesting about this era of PC gaming, and specifically my involvement with early First Person Shooter games, was that it coincided with the rise of the internet itself, and, perhaps in a strange way, also put me on my eventual career path.
Doom 2 was my entry point into the FPS universe. This was 1994 (also right around when I was playing Magic). What fascinated me the most about Doom was not the game itself, but that it could be modded. People could take the game and make their own levels, or new weapons, or both! It was incredible. I was 13 when Doom 2 was released, and a few months later I downloaded an early level editor and started making my own single player levels. I also recall figuring out how to get multiplayer working through our dial-up modems. I spent a ton of time scouring the web for suitable custom deathmatch levels to frag each other in. Pretty wild.
Quake was the big one for me, and it’s a game that still cycles back into my gaming patterns. It was released in 1996 and prompted a number of things. First it pushed 15-year old me to teach myself HTML, the result of which was a deathmatch review website I ran on and off for a number of years (up through 2000 or so). Remember that thing about “projects”? This was a pretty long term project, and in fact it’s another one that I came back to recently (more on that in a bit!). I learned how to make levels and use complex level editing software. I learned how to use photoshop to make textures. Remarkably, all of this would feed into skills (CAD drafting, digital illustration, etc.) that are part of my current profession (urban design and landscape architecture!).
Half-Life & Counter-Strike. One small claim to fame is that I had a number of internet exchanges with Minh “Gooseman” Le about his Quake mod “Navy Seals.” Minh went on to develop Action Quake (for Quake 2), and subsequently (and most famously) Counter-Strike for Half-Life. I was there, right at the start, playing Counter-Strike “Beta 1” back in June 1999 when only a handful of people knew about it. I played the ever loving god out of this game through 2001 or so. But Looking back over old counter-strike changelogs, each of those version releases seemed like a small eternity had passed before the next set of cataclysmic changes were unleashed. Yet it was barely a year in time. Many of my friends continued to play, and even went on to play semi-professionally, but alas the college years were upon me and I drifted away from the game.
DARK AGE OF GAMING ERA
Due to a range of competing life demands during this time frame, I didn’t really play a ton of games - either tabletop of digital. Part of it was finishing undergraduate school, part of it working full time after graduating, part of it was getting married, part of it was going back to school for an intense graduate program. This was all good stuff - but it also meant there was limited time for gaming. And when there was time, I was often too exhausted to pursue many gaming projects.
However - there were a few spots of light shining through the blinds…
Elder Scrolls - Morrowind & Oblivion. I stumbled onto Elder Scrolls games towards the end of Morrowind’s run (probably around 2004 or so). Like with Doom and Quake before it, I was most interested in the amazing range of modifications that were available for the game. A notable “project” was finding my perfect assemblage of mods to make the gameplay function in a deeper and more challenging manner. I also couldn’t resist my inner designer urges, and built a number of different houses for myself using the build-in construction set. When Oblivion was released in 2006, I did the same thing all over again - this time interfacing more with the “Nexus” mod community. You can still download the Archfall Sanctuary house mod I made. Pretty proud of that one.
Fallout 3 was released in 2008,and the game was structured on the same underlying system as the Elder Scrolls Games. Naturally I took to tinkering and modding the game - but to an even greater degree than ever before. These efforts culminated in one of my biggest gaming projects ever, Fallout Wanderers Edition (FWE). This was a mod I developed that started off combining other realism and gameplay mods in order to resolve compatibility problems between them. I was most interested in making the Fallout world really feel like a harsh, menacing place where basic survival was a challenge. I integrated mods that added the need to rest, eat, and drink. It made combat more brutal. The further I went the more the mod was evolving into its own distinct overhaul. I was learning the basic of programming (well scripting) at the same time.
Ultimately, FWE ended up being one of THE major gameplay overhauls for the game, following in the footsteps of similar landmark mods created for earlier Elder Scroll games. I ended up leading a whole team (of much more skilled programmers than myself!) as we built something truly remarkable. To date, the mod has been downloaded by over 525,000 unique users with 3.4-million total downloads. It remains one of the top 10 most endorsed mods on the Nexus. I’m still proud of this work, and feel that FWE’s popularity helped demonstrate the desire for having more challenging survival-craft elements in games. Lo and behold, Fallout: New Vegas, which the developers had noted playing FWE and taking inspiration from, was released with a number of similar survival-craft elements.
CURRENT GAMING ERA
The current era started more or less with me simultaneously wrapping up work on FWE in late 2010 and re-discovering board games. The past 10 years have been the most diverse in terms of the type of hobby projects that I’ve cycled through. Mostly this has manifested as time spent late in the evening when the rest of the family has slunk off to bed. I’ve always been a bit of a night owl (it’s probably catching up with me), but it’s the time I have to spend by myself these days!
4X Games. Part of what prompted the design of Hegemonic was a resurgence in interest in 4X games. I spent a few months digging up all sorts of old 4X games out of the bowels of the internet. Plenty that people have heard of: Sword of Stars, Galactic Civilizations 2, Age of Wonders. But plenty that practically no one has heard of, like Lost Empire: Immortals. 4X games a nice dovetailing with board games (both being generally turn-based strategy games). Along the way I stumbled into a number of projects - including a number of closed beta-testing opportunities.
eXplorminate. My involvement with and outspokenness on 4X games eventually got me hooked up with eXplorminate, which was the dominant “project” for me for many years, starting in 2015 with a review of Age of Wonders III: Eternal Lords (still my favorite 4X game I might add). In addition to writing a number of key 4X game reviews during my tenure, I was also able to dig into a lot of other games in the strategy, tactics, and roguelike sphere (collectively “thinky” games). About a year ago the balance of effort with eXplorminate shifted from “fun passion project” to “work I’m not being paid for” and I, along with many others, scaled back our involvement with the site and its management. There was also burnout from just too many 4X games - too many of which are just poorly designed IMHO. That said, eXplorminate built a great community that I’m still connected with, as well as a number of personal relationships that continue on.
Cooperative FPS Games. A sub-genre all of its own, these games include Left 4 Dead, Vermintide 1 & 2, and most recently Deep Rock Galactic. All of these have phased into a heavy play rotation for 2-3 month stretches of time. The primary reason I dig into these is that my wife and I both enjoy playing these games together, doubly so when we rope a few of our IRL friends into the mix. They can be tremendously fun. Deep Rock Galactic in particular was a life saver earlier this year during the initial phase of the COVID-19 shutdowns. Drinking virtual beers with our beardy virtual avatras in Deep Rock Galactic's virtual mess hall while we drink our very much real beers while playing a game with our real friends in the real world was pretty fun. Project wise, I wrote a fairly in-depth steam guide for Vermintide 2, if so inclined to get your feet wet (it IS a sweet game).
Payday 2. This cooperative FPS deserves special mention, because I’ve played it a lot. Like nearly 700 hours at this point! The game came out in 2013, but I didn’t hop aboard the payday train until late 2015. The game is an incredible blend of skill and game knowledge, and is equal parts a game of stealth as it as a game of FPS action. I can recall at least four distinct phases of binging on this game - and in fact I’m in the middle of one right now. I have two current projects, equally ridiculous. One is getting the achievement for having 1,000 achievements on steam. I’m currently at 993 achievements. So close I can taste it! (I’m not usually an achievement hunter, but Payday 2 actually ties a bunch of in-game rewards, cosmetic and otherwise, to doing certain achievements. Plus, after 400 hours of doing the same thing, the achievements add an interesting wrinkle to the experience!).
The other Payday 2 project has been building my most complex spreadsheet EVAR!, which is this radically awesome skill, perk, and equipment building tool I call (wait for it…) the Payday 2 Build Tool. Clever name huh? What fascinates me about Payday 2 in the realm of cooperative FPS games is the diversity of different types of “builds” you can have for your character. Using different gear or skills leads to very different playstyles with differing strengths and weaknesses relative to the 70+ heists in the game (yes really, there is a crazy amount of content in the game - and it’s still being developed!). It is an endlessly intoxicating clockwork-ian rabbit hole of fine tuning your build. It’s a project for sure.
Quake. Yes, Quake again. Remember how I mentioned I used to run a website reviewing Quake maps? Well, I resuscitated the map archive this summer in a 2-month long binge effort of trailblazing through old FTP sites and harddrives. And I built an amazing level catalog (yes another spreadsheet!) of all of the deathmatch levels I collected over the years, complete with embedded screen shots and custom filters views! Be amazed! The other new development is that I learned QuakeC (painfully), which is Quake’s custom programming language used for the game’s gameplay logic. The result is that I made my own Multiplayer Server Mod called - Acres Server Mod! And the cherry on top is that I got a server running and many of my buddies came out of the woodwork for some good old fashioned quake deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, and a predator mode fragfest (of my own invention)! It was all so awesome I even made a YouTube channel out of it! Check it out if you want a peek behind the curtain.
Game Design & BGG. I stumbled upon BGG in 2010, and immediately dug into the game design forums. I had always trifled about with various game designs, even going back to much earlier times, but now it became a more focused and intentional effort. I wanted to make a game. I wanted to understand the various facets of the modern tabletop ecosystem.
Big Game Theory! Design investigations, critical analysis thinking, and self-discovery as a designer prompted the creation of this very blog in September 2011. Yes it’s been NINE years now! Interestingly, writing this blog has been one of the few constants in my gaming life. It’s a platform for me to clarify my thinking and it is diverse enough in scope that I can speak to all of my gaming interests. While I’ve taken long breaks from writing on occasion, I’d can’t imagine ever dropping this space as a place to recollect and converse.
Hegemonic. For the couple of years leading up to its publication, most of my hobby time was focused on designing and refining Hegemonic and shepherding it through the publication process. I’m still blown away that it was picked up and it was an honor to have it produced to such a high degree. Sure, the game isn’t for everyone, but it makes me happy each time I hear someone discovering it and appreciating what it tried to do.
Other Design Projects. It seems that at any given moment I have at least one design front and center in my mind. This is usually the game that I’ve got to the serious playtesting and iteration/refinement phase - which is really where the work begins. Most recently, this has been Emissary. But State of Crisis, Amber, and an unnamed adventure game (working title Overland) have also absorbed my thinking time and filled numerous notebooks and prototype boxes. State of Crisis is interesting. It was designed many years ago but is oddly, and almost horrifically more poignant, today. It deals with players competing semi-cooperatively to fulfill personal goals within the context of a global economic, social, health, environmental, and military crisis. It was meant to be a tongue in cheek social game - but in 2020 it sadly just isn’t funny at all! Maybe it would be better a educational-exercise type game.
Game Genome Project. In my mind, the “game genome project” is my umbrella term for writing, theorizing, and discussing relative to understanding how games work. This ties into my efforts at board game and genre classification, my writings on topics like game structure or modes of thinking, he FIDA framework for game analysis, and more. Every so often the zeitgeist takes a hold and I dive back into this topic. I’d love to find a way to formalize all of this somehow - but I don’t relish the idea of creating a book that is stuck in time. Whatever I do, I would want it to be a dynamic and living thing.
Keyforge. I quite like Keyforge, and I’ve managed to get a number of family and friends hooked on it too - at least to the extent that people are often up for playing some games of it. In many ways, this is like a return back to the “Magic the Gathering” era - unsurprising given that both games were designed by Richard Garfield! The signature “project” was the IMPACT: Deck Analyzer I made in google sheets (I LOVE dynamic spreadsheets). It was a pretty awesome tool I felt. But alas, more keyforge sets have been released than I could keep up with, and database links that the tool relies are have changed and thus it no longer works. I could get it running again no doubt, but for now its on the back burner.
I’ve had a chance to play some games in-person with the younger generation, and even started playing with a close friend over tabletop simulator. Its been fun both playing again and testing and refining the ProHammer rules. I started painting miniatures again too. Maybe after 20-years I’ll finally finish my Space Wolves army!
THE ROAD AHEAD
So what’s next? What obsessions are creeping over the horizon?
I suspect Payday 2 will spin down again soon once I finish getting 1,000 achievements. Or maybe I’ll continue to press on and get the “Death Sentence” mask, for completing every heist on the highest difficulty level. I’ve done about 2/3rs of the heists on that difficulty - but the remaining ones are insanely difficult to say the least. I may have hit my skill ceiling and going further would be an exercise in futility. We shall see.
Warhammer 40,000 will hopefully stay on the front burner for a while. As the winter draws closer, being able to paint figures with my kids and nephews might be a fun division during the overcast Michigan winter. I just finished clearing up my box of terrain and building some new modular game boards (like my Dad did for me!) so we all have something to play on. Between that and Tabletop Simulator, I think this can get some traction for awhile.
In terms of board games to play, there isn’t that much pressing right now. In person playing, outside of my family and the extended family we’re podded with, isn’t happening anytime soon. And as I survey my collection, I'm quite happy with where it is. Mostly, I just want to play more of everything I have on my shelf already, which is a good place to be.
The one real big project looming way out over the horizon, the one what’s always wiggling about in the back of my mind, is making a 4X video game of my own invention. I have it all visualized perfectly, and have worked up design documents for a good portion of it. I’ve been advised to never try to make a 4X video game because it’s destined to end in failure - as so many 4X games have (and I should know). I do think that my concept, which I’ve written about before (here and here) would be pretty different from a traditional 4X game. I designed it explicitly to avoid the pitfalls I spent years criticizing over and over and again at eXplorminate. But well, I don’t “really” know how to program. For now, all I can do is bide my time and ride the wave of obsession as it ferries me from one project to the next.
Till next time! Cheers!
- [+] Dice rolls
11 Sep 2020
Short little blog post inspired by this thread: 20 steps to becoming a GMT fan
(1) Grow up playing traditional board games (monopoly, clue, other main stream stuff)
(2) See advertisement for HeroQuest (and also New Dungeon and DarkWorld) on TV. Beg parents for it. Proceed to subject all family members and friends to these amazing games. Totally transfixed. Thinks role playing games are awesome. (circa 1989 - I am 8 years old)
(3) Buys "Space Marine" 2nd edition big box from a garage sale. Has no idea what it is but is strangely curious. It has these tiny tiny little figures. It's EPIC! (circa 1991)
(4) Uncle gives Oliver Rouge Trader book (Warhammer 40K 1st edition). Neither uncle or Oliver really knowing what this thing is. I learn about the god-emperor and grimdarkness. c. 1991
(5) I am now drawn to the local hobby shop (already familiar to my father who built gas powered remote control airplanes). Discovers an entire wall of metal figures. Mind blown. So this is Warhammer 40k. Oh - so this has something to do with Space Marines. Wait a minute. The fantasy ones look just like the chaos warriors from HeroQuest. What the heck is going on here!? Starts buying too much WH40k (second edition) stuff with parent's money. Circa 1993.
(6) I also stumble upon BattleTech technical read outs and AD&D rulebooks and other stuff. Accumulates a small pile of each, but doesn't really know what to do with them. They bide their time. For now. Start playing various PC video games in here - mostly text adventure games.
(7) Sometime in middle school. Friends start playing Magic the Gathering. Friends say I should play. I play. Oh what have I done. The Dark had just released, so this was 1994. Also start playing more FPS video games. Quake is a thing, and it was good too. 1996.
(8) Meet more friends. Have play dates (well, this was middle or high school, I guess it was called "hanging out"). Friend says: "Oliver, what is THIS?" as they gesture to warhammer stuff. "We should play this!" So after many years of collecting and buying a trove of stuff - we're finally playing. And it was glorious. Eldar and Orks, Chaos Deamons and Space Marines. We made terrain and painted miniatures. We waged battles and argued over rules. It was a fun time. 1994-1998 or so.
(9) It's 1999. Time for college! Still playing lots of video games - slowing down on Warhammer. Interest in Magic dries up. Discover beer. Discover beer and pretzels games. I buy Munchkin (circa 2001). This is amazing! I dig into the Steve Jackson back catalog and discover Illuminate (Deluxe edition, 2001 printing). Mind more blown. This is the greatest game ever, I'm pretty sure (P.S. - I still really like this game).
(10) Meet my wife. She and various family friends of her's played board games. Lots of Gamewright, faimly games, a few german-style ones here and there. Somewhere around here I play Settlers of Catan. It's alright. I also play a big team game of Axis & Allies - I like that more. I buy more games, mostly ameritrashy stuff: Drakon (Second Edition), Chrononauts, Fluxx.
(11) Go back to grad school in 2005. Program is intense. No time for games. Also living in a tiny 400 SF apartment for 4 years. Barely room for my computer, and not even playing many PC games. I do start dabbling with game design. My first game which kinda sorta worked was a supped up mythological themed version of Plague & Pestilence (which I picked up somewhere along the journey). Still want to remake this design concept.
(12) Buy a house and - my gosh - I have space! (don't kid myself, it's still a small house). Somewhere around here (2009 or so?)I discover BGG (which in join in 2010). So many games! What happened! This is amazing! Decide to make some purchases to see what I've been missing. I don't recall the exact titles, but I'm pretty sure early games included: Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers, Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age, Citadels, Small World, Carpe Astra
(13) Get further and further into the hobby gaming world. Have started designing Hegemonic during this early time. Start writing Big Game Theory in 2011. Start having kids (first born in 2011). Life is getting more complex, but games are a nice reprieve.
(14) From here, the collection ebs and flows. I have come to realize that I don't really enjoy typical heavy or midweight eurogames (i.e. those with heavy engine building and highly controlled environments). Those that have more intersection and/or higher levels of uncertainty can push through however (i.e. Race for the Galaxy and Tigris & Euphrates). Like dudes on a map and high conflict games (Cyclades). I don't like tableau-builders as much (not a fan of 7 Wonders for example).
(15) I started drifting more towards "weird" games over the past couple of years, mostly driven by discussions among my geekbuddies. My collection, circa 2018 or so so, was feeling fairly robust and complete (fankly a little too big) in terms of more ameritrash and german-style games. I knew I didn't like heavier Euro's, but I was still interested in finding meatier games that maintained a higher dose of interaction.
(16) One game that started me off on the weirder directions was A Study in Emerald. It's a story generator wrapped around a strategy game. It's a mess of deck-building and area control, with multiple victory triggers and hidden roles thrown in for good measure. Where can I find more of this? Root comes along and takes a hold of the family. It's asymmetric and strange, like a COIN game but less heavy.
(17) All this talk of Root and COIN games was pushing me to research more historical games. And I was also looking to play more 2-player games with a long-time friend (one of those warhammer buddies from back in the day!). We discussed and decided a block wargame would be fun. He said he's awesome at Stratego and I said I'm terrible at it. So we settled on Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan. Mind blown. Played a bunch and it was good. So we picked up Twilight Struggle, also awesome. And then The Expanse Board Game, since it's like a multiplayer card-driven wargame too. Then I stumbled upon Pax Renaissance, and proceeded be utterly confused until after a few plays it clicked, and suddenly I was just awestruck by the design. It's like Illuminati but turned up to 11.
(18) Most recently, all this talk of geopolitical simulation games has prompted investigation into train games and economic simulation. I don't have the group (or time) to devote to the like of 18xx games right now, but what about the more streamlined shared economy / cube rail games?
(19) Oh look - the game store has the next printing of Irish Gauge in stock. Well, someone just had their 39th birthday, so I don't mind if I do. I've played it three times over the last two weeks. It's a simple game mechanically, but quite rich strategically. I'm sold.
(20) And, where am I now? Well, I have no shame in saying that I'm almost back where I started. I just taught my oldest kid and my nephews how to play Warhammer 40k over the labor day weekend. I got out my old miniatures and books. Still have a box of terrain. Heck, some of my paints, that are over 20 years old, were perfectly good still! We did some painting, we chucked some dice, and we had a marvelous time.
30 years later, the next generation is succumbing to the games.
My work here is done.
- [+] Dice rolls
19 Aug 2020
So I started writing a reply to a geeklist the other day...
And well, the reply got so long that I figured I might as wells posts its here for your alls enjoysments. And so, pitter patter lets get at er.
On a whim I started to categorize my games in my collection (about 150 or so) by their primary genre, using the genre descriptors we were developing in the new classification taxonomy.
While many games were easy to assign, many games were really not. And while the genre field was originally structured around the notion of "how do you win" as a way of being specific about what "genre" represents, I'm not sure how useful it actually is in describing many games.
Also, I fully admit on further reflection that the genres descriptors was a bastardization of Selwyth's original approach (which was laser focused on genre being a shorthand for "how to win"). We've mingled many of his specific things with stuff like "Engine Building" or "Worker Placement" or "Deck Building." While it seems innocent, it does sort of confuse things. Is "Stone age" a worker place game or a set collection game or an engine building game? It's probably all of those. But what one is relevant if you had to talk about the kind of game experience you wanted that led you perhaps consider Stone Age?
It got me thinking that maybe genre isn't really what we were looking to define here. It also goes to the consternation we've faced in the discussions around school of design and how useful that is (or not) in practical terms for describing the overall feeling or style of a game, which are much more diverse than the half a dozen categories we've identified. I still think schools of design are interesting as a historical marker for understanding games and their design influences, but less so perhaps for classification or practical game selection.
What got me launched on this was, as I said, trying to organize my own games into some logical buckets and groups. Call them styles of games if you will. I started thinking about what's going on in my brain when I walk over the game shelf to pick something out. What am I asking myself? Typically, I'm asking about the overall feelings and mood I'm looking for. How interactive is it? How long does it take to play? How brain burning is it? Do I want to laugh and socialize while I play? Or contemplate in relative silence?
This overall sense of style or "gestalt" (i.e. an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts.) feeling for a game is what I'm sifting through in my mind. Lo and behold I talked about this exact thing 8-years ago, here and here.
What does this mean for this classification thing? Honestly, I have no idea at the moment. As interesting as all of this is, and as useful as this detailed classification approach might be for design and deeper game research questions, it might not be terribly relevant or useful from a practical standpoint. Genre is too fine-grained to be useful as an overall descriptor for many games, and yet schools of design are perhaps far to broad and less useful overall.
I mean, what is the genre for A Study in Emerald? It's deck-building game, but also objectives race and engine building (via the deck), but with a huge dose of area control. But none of that captures the psychological hidden role dimension of the game, which is part of the game's "structure" (not genre) yet it takes center stage in defining the overall experience. And it still fails to capture the off-the-wall narrative aspects and negotiation play. This game, and many others, sort of defies easy classification by genre. Calling it a "hybrid" sort of skirts the issue.
Lastly, in a more recent blog post, I ended up framing my collection along the following styles (with a few edits at present):
* Asymmetric wargames / COIN-like
* Block wargames (lighter + heavier versions)
* Empire builders / dudes on a map game
* Adventure games
* Beer & Pretzels / Take That!
* Light family games (various styles)
* Mid-wight family games (e.g. role selection games, tile-laying games)
* Spatial euros (heavier/deeper)
* Press Your Luck / Dice Rolling
* Cooperative + Solo games (of various weights)
* Social deduction / bluffing
* Special power card games (complex card games)
* Engine building / tableau building / clockwork games
* Auction games
* Rank & Suit / traditional card games
* Abstract strategy games
* Narrative games
* Party games
Within any of these categories, the other defining characteristic in my mind is weight. While some styles (e.g. beer & pretzels or party games) tend to align with a certain weight most of the time (e.g. light), other styles (like engine building or dudes on a map) can have a pretty big range of weights.
I'm sure there are many more categories than what I have above (i.e. Train games / 18xx are sort of a distinct thing), but I guess I feel like there is something that doesn't have as many finely sliced things as as the genre descriptors, but that certainly has more categories than what is captured in schools of design. But more importantly, whatever emerges is a pool of descriptors that better conveys the overall experience and feeling of a particular style of game in a shorthand, albiet inevitably imperfect, way.
What do you think? When you contemplate your collection or discuss the styles and types of games that you enjoy or play the game of "what game should we play" with others, what are the terms and words that jump out to you? Phones are open, as always!
- [+] Dice rolls