Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Rewards and Perils of Consistent Campaigns

When I had a lot more time for gaming, I played in a number of what I call consistent RPG campaigns (although it's likely that there could be a better term), by which I mean campaigns where we played regularly (at least once a week) for a solid block of time (at least 6 months). This is my preferred way of gaming because you really get to know the characters (your own and the others) and the setting, and you get to really care about the game.

In many ways, this is the best way to roleplay--you can really build up great relationships with other characters and the setting, and it gets very easy to slip into playing your character. The best RPG campaign I ever played did exactly this. I played Vampire: the Masquerade for the first time in Chicago staring in '94, and we played that game at least once a week for nearly a year. I've never gotten so into a character, understood him so well. I've never had such great in-character relationships--hostile and friendly. No matter what its flaws, I'll always love Vampire in part because of this campaign.

This type of campaign can have a downside, though. A few years after the Vampire game, we started a Fading Suns game. All the ingredients for a repeat of the Vampire game was there--same group (for the most part), same GM, and even a game created by former White Wolf guys. After a good start, though, the game degenerated--it turned out that, despite being told by the GM to make a group of characters who would want to work together, two characters from the outset hated my character and/or lied to him (one decided during character creation that his character blamed mine for his father's death; the other decided to cheat me and several other PCs from the start). The hostility bubbled over fairly early and eventually the game became a grind--it was a weekly session of my character constantly arguing with everyone else, and eventually several PCs were actively plotting the deaths of others. The game ended ignominiously when half the party died on a lost world.

In case it's not obvious, this campaign still pisses me off after many years. I'm annoyed as hell that the GM let the others make these characters, given that he told us to make compatible characters. And I'm pissed at the other players for making such characters. It's incredibly petty for me to hold on to this, but I'm a petty man.

I suppose I can't blame the failings of the FS game on the consistent nature of the campaign--but the consistent nature of the campaign exacerbated the problems in the game. I guess the real point is that a consistent campaign makes a good game better, but a bad game worse.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Musical Association

Probably lots of people associate songs or musicians with certain games and memories of gaming. Even though I haven't played much Over the Edge, I always associate the King Crimson song "Neurotica" with it--it just reminds me of Al Amarja and the tone of the game. I was listening to "Beat" on the way to work this morning, and "Neurotica" came on. And I found myself thinking of Al Amarja.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Classic Empire and Its Wargaming Legacy

Recently I rediscovered Classic Empire, a computer wargame from the '70s (apparently the earliest version was finished in 1971). Dubbed "the wargame of the century," Empire uses ridiculously simple graphics (letters designate terrain and units) in a game of world conquest. In the earliest versions, one player waged unrelenting war against the computer until one side was annihilated. The game included armies, fighters, and variety of naval units. The game was in many ways simple, but surprisingly sophisticated (especially given when it was programmed). For example, it includes a simple yet compelling economic engine at its core.

I first played Empire in roughly 1988, and immediately fell in love with it. It's an incredibly fun and addictive game. I go through phases where I play it extensively for a few weeks, then don't play it again for a year or two. Thankfully it is freely and readily available. If you haven't played it, you should.

If you play it, don't expect sophisticated graphics. Even the current version has very simple graphics. And the original didn't even have real graphics. But it's *fun* and addictive.

So how does this connect to wargaming? Well, the obvious answer is that it is a wargame, and one with staying power--it's been around for closing in on 40 years. But it also has a connection to board wargaming. It starts with a game that Empire exerted a huge influence on--Sid Meier's Civilization. In the early days of its publication, before the lawsuits started flying, Meier freely admitted that the two major influences on his game were Avalon Hill's Civilization and Empire. You can see this clearly in Meier's game--the economy is based on cities, each of which can produce something different. In fact, if you approach Empire after playing Civ, it would seem to be Civ focused solely on conquest, and with no technological advancement.

Unless you've been living in a cave, you know that Civ has been massively successful (the 5th edition recently came out, so it is still popular). Avalon Hill, trying to capitalize on computer gaming in general (and probably on the success of Civ in particular) created a computer version of Advanced Civilization in 1995. This led to lawsuits. In 1997, AH sued MicroProse, the makers of Civ, claiming that the computer game was a derivative of the board game. Then things got ugly. It turns out that AH didn't own the Civilization board game--instead, they had licensed it from Hartland Trefoil back in 1981. So MicroProse bought Hartland Trefoil, revoked AH's license, and promptly counter sued AH and its computer company partner. AH was forced to relinquish the computer version entirely and pay several hundred thousand dollars to MicroProse. Shortly after the settlement, AH was acquired by Hasbro, ending Avalon Hill as it had existed for decades. The largest wargame maker basically no longer made wargames.

So the battle between Civilization and Civ contributed to AH's downfall, a huge blow to the wargaming community. The lawsuit certainly wasn't the only factor in AH's demise, but it contributed to it significantly, and may have been the final straw. And Empire influenced Civ.

So what we clearly see, with impeccable logic, is that if Empire had never been written, AH would still be around today making wargames. QED.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Convoluted Lineage of Third Reich

One of the most famous wargames ever produced is Third Reich. The game was originally put out by Avalon Hill back in the '70s, and has gone through a series of permutations and expansions. I am not that familiar with any of the versions except the fourth edition, so I would love to know how the different variations compare.

Anyway, here is the basic lineage:
  • Original game: Avalon Hill published four editions of the original game. I believe that there are substantial differences between first and second editions, but after that the changes are fairly minor in new editions; I could be wrong, though.
  • Advanced Third Reich: As if the original weren't complex enough, AH published advanced rules in 1992.
  • Empire of the Rising Sun: The rules were ported to the Pacific Theater in 1995. I've heard that this one has major problems, but I haven't played it myself, so that could be incorrect.

This is the end of the AH run of the game; AH went out of business a few years after Rising Sun came out. But the development of Third Reich kept going:

  • John Prados' Third Reich: Originally published in 2001 by Avalanche Press, then updated a few years later, this one bears the name of the original designer, but I don't think John Prados actually had anything to do with this one. I believe that this one significantly changed the game, especially combat (from CRT to bucket-o-dice combat). The original version had some rather harsh reviews, and I don't know if the later updates fixed those.
  • The Great Pacific War: In 2003, Avalanche ported the JP3R system to the Pacific Theater. I've read some pretty good reviews of this one, but I don't know how representative those reviews are.
  • A World at War: GMT has published this monster, which combines the ETO and PTO. Its rule book clocks in at nearly 200 pages. My impression is that this version adheres much more closely to the Advanced Third Reich than the Avalanche Press branch of the family tree. Adam Starkweather wrote a rather scathing review of this one in Paper Wars #59, but it has a devoted following.
  • Global War: According to Starkweather's review, the hardcore 3R gamers play their own, constantly evolving version of the game that they call Global War. It is based on A World at War, but with many rules tweaks since that game was published.

I'd love to hear from someone who knows these games about how the Avalanche Press and GMT branches of the Third Reich family compare. At the very least, I doubt we've heard the last of this line of games.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Podcast Mystery

I like looking over the statistics for the podcast, relishing in what seems to me to be high numbers of downloads. I have no idea how our numbers compare to other podcasts, but I like to think we have a good number of listeners.

One thing that puzzles me to no end, though, is why some episodes get far more downloads than others. In particular, Episode #2 on Here I Stand is by far our most popular episode--substantially more than twice as many downloads as any other episode (even the other popular ones). So I put it to you--any ideas why that episode is the most popular by such a large margin? I'd love to hear some ideas. Is Here I Stand just that popular?

Few Games, Huge Quality and Influence

There are a few designers out there who only have a few games to their credit, but the quality and/or innovativeness of their games is huge. There are two that I want to point out who I think sometimes get overlooked when talking about the great wargame designers.

First is Courtney Allen. If you don't count expansions, Allen has only 5 games published under his name that I know of--but they are insanely good and ground-breaking games. First is Storm Over Arnhem, a game which shook up wargame design by getting rid of hexes and replacing them with areas of different sizes. It also broke up the turn sequence: rather than an IGO-UGO system, in Storm Over Arnhem players alternate moving some units in impulses. The resulting system is thus called the area-impulse system. This system hasn't taken off the way card driven games has, but it's had a major impact. One of the highest rated wargames out there, for example, is Breakout: Normandy, which uses this system. Also, MMP has a whole series of area-impulse games (some published, some in pre-publication still).

Even more innovative, though, is Allen's design Up Front. Up Front gets rid of hexes and counters entirely, shifting the game to cards for units, terrain, attacks, and other facets of infantry combat. To this day, Up Front is often worshipped as a great game--and I fully admit that I'm one of the worshippers. It's an insanely great game. Unfortunately, it's been out of print for a long time, and it's very expensive to acquire. I bought it in college, so I don't need to worry but I'd love to see it come it back. MMP has the rights to reprint it, but it's been lingering (literally a decade); I don't really understand why it's so slow. And oddly, despite the high praise, Up Front hasn't really spawned a lot of imitators. Some other games use parts of its design, but the only game that has really built on it in a big way is Allen's own Attack Sub, which ported the system to Cold War naval struggles.

The second designer I want to highlight is Craig Besinque. Besinque's games have all been block games, and although he didn't invent the genre he pushed in ambitious new directions, yielding some of the most highly praised wargames today. In particular, Besinque is best known for two brilliant games: Rommel in the Desert, and East Front (both from Columbia Games). Both are deep and rich games without being overly complicated; both have very clever and playable ways of simulating limitations on command and control. Besinque's latest design (this time for GMT Games) is Hellenes, a simulation of the Peloponnesian War, and it looks to be an outstanding refinement and expansion on the Hammer of the Scots-style block game.

So let's take a moment to appreciate brilliance of these two designers. I think they may have the highest batting averages of all wargame designers--only a few games under their names, but the quality of their games is staggering.

PS: Does anyone know what became of Courtney Allen? I've seen no evidence that he's designed a game in twenty years. I assume he moved on to fields that actually pay a living wage, but gaming is poorer for his absence.

Monday, November 15, 2010

What I Don't Like About 4E

Fourth edition Dungeons and Dragons has generated a lot of controversy. Some people love, some hate it, and some go so far as to claim it's not really D&D. I have no real opinion about the game for the most part. From what I can tell, it's a good game for what it does, but that's not the kind of thing that I like. However, I haven't played it that much, so my opinions on it are not strong.

One thing, however, bothers the shit out of me about D&D 4E: Wizards seems to have done little (or bad) playtesting. Quite a few things about the original game didn't work very well, and had to be corrected. The most extreme example I can think of is skill challenges. Literally within a month or so of the first 4E books coming out, Wizards issued a set of errata that quite dramatically changed skill challenges. Given that Wizards is by far the biggest RPG company, and they had ample time to playtest it, this is inexcusable. They should've known that skill challenges as written in the original Dungeon Master's Guide didn't work. It seems like they just decided that they would have the players who paid for the game playtest it.

There are other examples as well. I've heard from a number of gaming podcasts and blogs that several classes have been rather significantly rejiggered because they didn't really work that well when they came out. And other people have said that basically the design team didn't seem to really understand class design until at least Players' Handbook II, almost a year after the original release of the game.

These problems all could have been discovered with adequate playtesting. I wonder, though, if Wizards did some of this on purpose. The big money maker for 4E isn't the books, it's the subscription the the online service Dungeons & Dragons Insider (DDI). One of the key benefits of a DDI subscription is that it has all the game rules available online--and they're updated regularly. This makes me wonder if the whole business plan is to sell people something that wasn't carefully playtested on purpose so they could make more money on the subscription with the correct rules. If that's true, then that's just scummy. And it shows that the design goals of 4E weren't about making a good game, but about making money.

I don't know if Wizards is that sinister; in general, I think you shouldn't attribute something to malevolence that could be the result of incompetence. At the very least, though, the original publication of D&D is flawed, by Wizards' own admission, and you have to keep paying them to get the corrected version. That's not something I want to be a part of.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Wargames I Want To Play (IGS Edition)

Over the last several years, MMP's International Game Series has produced some remarkable (and remarkably successful) games. There are many, many games that I'd really like to play, and three of them come from this game line.

  • A Victory Lost: I've played this one maybe 4 times, and quite like it, but I haven't played it enough to get past the "holy crap, I suck at this game" stage. I think I am slower than many other gamers in figuring out strategies and tactics that work with games, and this one is no exception. But it's a fun game, and I'd love to play more.
  • Red Star Rising: I'm a sucker for eastern front games, and this one looks to be a very good one. I've heard it's unbalanced towards the Germans, but I still want to try it.
  • Fire in the Sky: A game that looks like it'd be tricky for me to figure out, but one that also seems incredibly cool. I have played very few PTO games; I'd like to change that.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Indie RPG Ur-games?

The Indie RPG movement of the last few years has been interesting, at times maddening, and certainly colorful. I haven't gotten into very many of these games, but I have a fair amount of experience with what I think are three earlier games that exercised huge influence on the Indie RPG movement:

  • Amber Diceless Roleplaying: A game that shattered many of the rules of older style RPGs--no dice, character auctions, incredibly freeform rules. This was the first RPG I encountered that strongly emphasized doing what was dramatically appropriate, not what was realistic or advantageous to your character (it may not have been the first to do so, but it was the first that I saw). With the right group, this is a great game.
  • FUDGE: Steffan O'Sullivan's game did a number of things that I think shaped the future Indie movement. First, he relied very heavily on the internet to get feedback and promote the game. Second, he built a game to emphasize telling stories, not crunchy combat. And Fudge incorporates a lot of verbal elements; things aren't just about numbers. At the very least, Fudge exercised a huge influence over Fate which is a detailed variation of Fudge, as is The Shadow of Yesterday in some ways.
  • Over the Edge: A brilliant and very weird game. This was the first game I ever saw that had no defined stats or skills; you created your own for your character. This alone had a huge influence on games like RISUS, the PDQ system, and arguably Fate's Aspects (although I'm speculating on that last one). It also featured a simple and elegant dice mechanic, character design that gave you tons of hooks to roleplay with, and a very cool and bizarre setting.

I could be wrong about the influence these three games had, but it seems to me that many of the key features of Indie games appeared here.

It's all about firsts

So what's my gaming background?

I got into gaming way back in the late 1970s. My first real move beyond normal games like Risk was the Dungeons & Dragons basic set (now referred to as the Holmes edition), sometime in either '78 or '79. I quickly moved on to AD&D 1st edition, and played the hell out of that for years. My gaming tapered off a number of times, but I was always able to get back into the hobby.

My first real move away from D&D-style games was in grad school. Through some great friends in Chicago, I got into games like the original World of Darkness games, Over the Edge, Amber Diceless, and a number of others. We continued to play D&D, but I moved away from Chicago shortly before D&D 3.X came out. In fact, I have little experience with D&D 3.X or 4.0; I've played *much* more 1st and 2nd edition AD&D.

In the last few years, I've gotten into Savage Worlds (which I am very sick of) and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, as well as some Call of Cthulhu and Traveller.

As to wargaming, I got started a bit later. Sometime in the early '80s, a friend and I became all but addicted to a computer wargame called "Eastern Front." We played that thing for hours. My friend's dad had played some of the classic Avalon Hill games, so we went out and found Afrika Korps. That was my first board wargame, and I've continued to play such games since then.

My favorite wargame is probably The Russian Campaign. I also quite like some of the card driven games, especially Hannibal and Paths of Glory. And I love Up Front. I've actually written a few reviews for Paper Wars, although that publication's erratic schedule means that several I've written have yet to see the light of day.

While playing wargames, I also got into a variety of non-war non-family type boardgames. I'm not sure which was the first; I remember playing several games like Kremlin and Junta in college, but I may have played some others before that. Of the Eurogame type, I got a bit of a late start--I played Settlers of Catan for the first time several years after it came out. I'm by no means a hardcore Eurogamer, but I quite like some of them, especially Settlers and Age of Steam. I also quite like the 18XX games (although I've only played a few of them) and some of the crayon rail games.


Welcome to my gaming blog. I don't get to play games anywhere near as much as I'd like, so this blog will (to some extent) serve as my gaming fix--a way to get some of the fun of gaming.

So what do I mean by gaming? First, not video games. I have no problems with video games, but I don't play any at the moment. I do, however, play (when I have time) a variety of non-digital games, including boardgames, cardgames, roleplaying games, and wargames. So that's what I'll be talking about.

I suspect that this will mostly be about roleplaying games 'cause that's why I find easiest to write and talk about, in some ways. But I will discuss other types of games as well.

Speaking of other types of games, I also do a podcast that focuses on wargames; you can find it here.