Sunday, August 31, 2014

Boardgame Design

Notes from a panel by Bill Fawcett at LibertyCon 2014

Number one question is to ask, "why will someone want to play the game I am designing?"
One day of market research will save you six months of anguish. Go to a hobby shop and ask the people there what they want to play. And recruit them as playtesters.

Create a game which is accessable. You need to be able to pick up the basics on ten minutes, and get all the minutiate by playing it a few times.
"Simple level planning" so you can plan your next move while someone else is acting.

Learn the value of constant positive reinforcement. Give a goal which is achievable within minutes, and opens another goal. You may want to have several goal tracks operating at once--for instance, in Steampunk Paladins, you might complete a quest which gives you one more step towards Airship Cruiser, then the next quest might be a step toward increasing your Fame, or maxing out your Valor, or creating Professor Gould's Patent Photonic Death Ray.

The game should reward your players often. Rewards are things like the ability to take an extra or special type of move; make an extra attack;  find valuable information; taunt another player (but not screw him too badly); or gather items. Contrariwise, penalizing players for success will kill your game.

The ideal game does not knock players out of the game early. They should be able to affect the game, even if they're behind. Example: in Carnage con Queso, even if your squad was demolished or you hadn't collected any cheese, you still had cards that you could use to harass the leader (or whoever else you felt deserved a random mortar barrage). A player who is behind should be able to surge, although a strong player should still be able to win. Anything harassing plays should set back the leader, not knock them out.

Start with an existing game that you like, and fix it.

Steampunk Paladins

Game Concept based on a LibertyCon 2014 workshop with Bill Fawcett

Players represent paladins who must gain reputation by defeating the Looming Menace. Players can strengthen themselves by completing quests, which will allow them to gain equipment, learn powers, and recruit retainers; the Menace will be strengthened when the paladin declines or fails a quest--or sometimes when he succeeds!  

Paladins have a few chatacteristics, such as Valor, Honor, Charm and Wit. Quests may be a test of one or more qualities. Deal three cards face down for each Quest (one Test, one Twist, and one Treasure)  and four Quests per year.
Once the Quests are dealt, a player may Investigate the quests to gather intelligence. The number of Investigation successes is the number of cards he may examine, but there will never be enough investigation to uncover all the details of the quests.  Once you've gathered information, commit your resources to each quest and see if you succeed.
Twists cards may be Villain Reinforcements, Volcano Base Explodes (which will reduce retainers for hero and villain), Victorian Super Science (which the hero may not have enough Wit to use), Traps, and so forth. A Friendly Villain might give you a bonus to this quest but act as negative to future quests--for instance, Femme Fatale might give you +3 Wit for this quest but count as a -1 Honor for as long as you keep her.

You may be able to poach other players' retainers. But the more powerful you personally are, or the more retainers you have, the harder it will be for you to recruit more retainers. (Doc Savage has several men working for him; Superman does not).

Villains always have a Five Year Plan, so after five Quest Years (20 quests), you must face the Looming Menace in a climactic battle, and not only defeat him, but win honor and glory in the process.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

D&D 5e: First test

I played a solo episode of D&D 5th Edition, using the Lost Mine of Phandelver module included with the Basic set and creating four characters instead of using the premades.
The characters were all dwarves:
  • Thorgrim Dark: fighter with noble background and defensive fighter style
  • Audhild Chanter: bard with acolyte background
  • Fargrim Veiled: rogue with soldier background
  • Ulfgar Bog-iron: barbarian with outlander background
Each character took about half an hour to make, including selecting the background, powers, and equipment, and typing it into the (downloadable, form fillable) PDF character sheet. I'd spent a fair amount of time reading through the Player's Handbook before making the character's, so if you're just picking up the book for the first time, it'll probably take longer to make a first character, but you get someone with some personality rather than just a cookie cutter Fighter Mk 1. 
For instance, I wanted Audhild to be a "Cleric", but I don't see dwarves as having a priesthood and church; I thought Bard (and particularly Valorous Bard) would be a better fit. So I picked the Bard class, but for her background I picked Acolyte instead of Entertainer. She has a personality quirk "sees omens everywhere"; her ideal is "uphold our traditions"; her bond is to her clan hold and its ways; and her flaw is "inflexible". Her skills are Religion, History, Medicine, Persuasion, and Insight, and she speaks the Giant and Primordial languages (which both use the Dwarven runes) in addition to Dwarven and Common. She's got scale mail and warhammer instead of the usual bardic leather and rapier. And this is at level 1, just following the book, with no unusual creativity required. She did take longer to make than the others, but that was due to picking out her list of known spells and cantrips. She has two pages, the others just a page each--a great improvement as compared to my 4th Edition characters who are all five or six pages, although as the 5th Edition characters level up I expect they'll need more paper.

The first encounter in Lost Mine is with four goblins who ambush the party. I set it up on a gridded map;  that's not necessary according to the rules, but I find it preferable to be able to see where everything is.

Turn 1 is a surprise round; two goblins charge downslope and attack Ulfgar, who is carrying a shield but unarmored; however, his fast reflexes mean the goblins miss. The other two stay back and shoot arrows at Fargrim, who is seriously wounded. 
Turn 2: Thorgrim rushes forward and hammers one of the melee goblins. The surviving one cuts Ulfgar, but not seriously; one goblin archer nicks Thurgrim, the other fires on Fargrim but misses due to Thorgrim's shield block. Ulfgar's battleaxe chops his goblin in half. Audhild runs up to Fargrim, gives him an encouraging punch on the shoulder and a Cure Wounds spell, and continues up the slope toward the goblin archers. Fargrim draws his bow and kills a goblin.
Turn 3: Thorgrim charges into contact with the goblin but misses. The goblin disengages and runs, but not far enough to escape. Audhild pursues and casts Dissonant Whispers, which finishes the fourth goblin.

Granted, it's a simple combat, and I did have to look up a couple of things, but running it was quick and easy. We'll see how the next encounter goes.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Close Action: De Ternay vs Graves

Second game at Guns of August was Close Action, the De Ternay vs Graves scenario. I was admiral of the French side.

In this scenario, the French start in line ahead, close hauled, with the wind on their port; the English are also in line ahead, broad reaching with the wind to their starboard, and with their first ship about 30 hexes windward of the first French ship. My plan was to go ahead for one game turn, then turn right in succession and let the English come to us (That's not the ideal plan for this situation; however, the game started late, I wasn't familiar with the other players' experience and expertise, and I didn't have much time for the briefing. I figured it was better to go for "simple and get people into a fight" rather than "theoretical optimum, complex, and bored players").

The English almost immediately took the "fireworks" formation, with six ships going in three directions and no discernable plan to it. And my lead ship never turned to starboard; he just kept going straight ahead, and we kept following, beautifully in line. Unfortunately that meant our two lead ships got doubled; this was exacerbated when the leader tried to tack while he was too close to the enemy, and made himself a stationary target. Meanwhile, a rogue Englishman sailed down my line and cut in front of me. I had to turn into the wind to avoid a collision, but managed to grapple him, and my greater weight of metal (plus rakes from my cohorts as they sailed past) was more than he could deal with; he was 3 crew boxes from striking when the game ended. When time was called, we had 49 points (and would certainly take one of their ships); they had 64 (and would take one of ours, and quite possibly a second). Not the best game I've ever had, from an admiral's perspective, but given the starting position and our scratch team of captains, we did pretty well.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

IHMN: The Good, the Bad, the Weird

My first event at the Guns of August game con was IHMN: the Good, the Bad, the Weird, which was based off the movie plus a few twists. The time is the mid 1930's; the setting, Japanese-controlled Manchuria.

The table had a square walled courtyard in the middle and a scattering of buildings and hillocks around it. The courtyard had gateways opening east and west; inside the courtyard was a coterie of cultists, surrounding the McGuffin.

Four forces started at the table corners and set out to capture the McGuffin. In the southwest, my Red Sash Gang of bandits, plus Park Chang-yi (the Bad). To the northwest, a squad of the Japanese Army, plus Yoon Tae-goo (the Weird). Northeast, Faction A of a Chinese warlord's army, plus the bounty hunter Park Do-won (the Good). And southeast, Faction B of the warlord's army, assault troops with submachineguns. The three heroes could have been used separately from the forces they started with, but none of the players took that route. Each of the players had about a dozen figures.

In early turns, the Japanese and Faction A advanced towards their corners of the courtyard, my forces moved onto a rise to get a line on the Japanese, and Faction B advanced towards me. I pointed out to the Faction B commander that my rifles outranged his SMGs, and mentioned that he could speed up his promotion by arranging a vacancy in the captaincy of Faction A. Prodded by a sprinkling of rifle fire that he couldn't effectively return, he took the message to heart and withdrew to the east.

I advanced carefully, getting into position where I could cover the western courtyard entrance. Meanwhile Faction A deployed half its men against the Japanese and sent the other half, led by the fearless Park Do-won, into the cultists' lair. On the west, the Japanese mirrored their deployment, although they were marginally distracted by bandit bullets. Only "marginally", though, as my bandits evidently went to the Stormtrooper School of Marksmanship. I rolled 3s so often that we concluded that my forces must be a Triad gang.

The game master announced that, now that outsiders had violated the sanctuary, on every cultist turn he would roll d%; on a 01 result, Something Bad would happen. ("Something Bad" could have been a Yeti, or Cthulhu, or a dozen giant spiders, but the GM never rolled a 01). The Japanese and Faction A forces assaulted the cultists. Faction B dithered for a couple of turns, but eventually started taking potshots at the backs of Faction A. And I continued shooting the air, the ground, the walls, passing birds, everything except the Japanese troops I was aiming at.

The Japanese finished their melee opponents first. While Faction A was still entangled with the cultists on their side, the Japanese formed a line and fired indiscriminately into the melee. In the ensuing havoc, they took possession of the McGuffin, and victory.

Due to taking careful cover and not being much of a threat, I only lost one bandit. For all my shooting, firing in volleys with military rifles, my tally was one soldier killed (literally, my last shot in the game) and one knocked down. The latter lay helpless in the open for a couple of turns, exposed to my massed rifle fire--and therefore absolutely safe--before getting up and rejoining his unit in the assault on the cultists.

Game Prep Lessons: put all the unit info (weapon and armor characteristics, effects of Talents) on the unit cards so people don't have to flip back and forth through the books during play. Distill the Quick Reference Sheet down to one page (or less) of what's relevant to that session--no need for Vehicle and Beast stats if they're not going to be in the game. Make copies of the QRS for everyone. Twelve figures is too many for new players with a three hour time slot; start with six or eight and keep reserves at the table edge to replace casualties.

Tactical Lessions: roll better dice.

Friday, August 22, 2014

DnD 5th Edition

I preordered the DnD 5th Edition Player's Handbook and it arrived this week. The general consensus is "less complicated than 3.5"--which is seen as a great improvement--"and less Video-Game-On-A-Tabletop than 4th", which is also an improvement, with more emphasis on roleplaying and less on "combat, then another combat, then another combat, and we're done."
I've also gotten the Starter Set and will be running a party of four dwarves through the module, as a solo game, to get familiar with it.

Monday, August 18, 2014

In Her Majesty's Name: Scramble for a Wreck

As a refresher before Guns of August, I put another solo scenario on the table. A Martian sky sailer has crashed at a village in the Khingan Mountains in northern China. Who knows what secrets it might hold? Goovernment forces are on their way to secure the site--but so is a force from the Black Dragon Tong!

The map is 22 x 36 with a dozen huts scattered around a central firepit, with conifers along the southern edge. Smaller firepits trail smoke, north-to-south; firing into smoke is -1, firing through smoke is -2. The wreck of the Martian vessel is in the northeast corner. There are five markers scattered among the huts, plus two more are on the Martian vessel, each covering a d6 with a random score; carrying off that marker earns that score. In addition, each enemy Leader is worth 5 VP, as is a captured Walker; other combatants are worth 1VP each.

The Black Dragon Tong (246 points):

  • Wu Jen (Clouding Men's Minds, Levitate, Venom)
  • Tong Lieutenant
  • 2 x Dragon Warrior
  • 3 x Tong Member
  • 6 x Boxer (3 muzzle loader, 3 club)
The Chinese Army (adapted from the USMC list) (248 points):
  • Captain (Leader +2, Tough, Duellist)
  • Sergeant
  • 6 x Soldier (Bayonet Drill)
  • Scout Walker (operator one of the 6 soldiers)
The Army enters from the eastern half of the south edge, the Tong from the northern half of the west edge.

On turn 1 the Tong warriors rush in--several of them have extra speed, and most of them don't have firearms so they have no reason not to Run. The soldiers, moving more sedately, march up the east side, except for Private Shen (who rushes for the southwestern hut) and Sergeant Wang (who yells "I'll cover you!" and settles in with his rifle). The soldiers fire a few shots, and miss; their adversaries, all having moved and only a few having firearms, don't bother to reply. The Tong make contact with two markers--both 3's.

Turn 2: Private Shen steps into the southwestern hut with three Boxers hot on his heals. Privates Chu and Lu go into two eastern huts, while the Captain and the Walker stay outside to defend them; Wu Jen charges Captain Lee, and a Dragon heads for the Sergeant. Two more soldiers run to the crashed Martian vessel.
Privates Lu and Chu appear to have been issued blanks instead of live ammo, and  Wu Jen dodges the Captain's revolver bullet. The Scout Walker fires on one of the Tong warriors, but the man is devoted to the Dragon Lady and the bullet merely causes him to stumble.
Two Boxers and Private Shen trade blows, to no effect. Captain Lee slashes Wu Jen, but the Black Dragon master ignores the wound. He leaps into a Thousand Crane Strike and smashes the Captain to the mud. Things are looking grim for the Army, although they do have possession--at the moment--of four VP tokens worth 14 VP.

Turn 3: Private Shen is still stuck in a hut, facing two Boxers. The other privates grab their loot and withdraw; the Walker and the Sergeant stay in place to cover them. Wu Jen intercepts one of he Army men; the Tong Leader and two of his henchmen attack the Walker, while one of the Dragon Warriors attacks the Sergeant. Two Boxers carry their loot off the table; the score now stands at Tong 11, Army 0.
No shooting, as everyone who has Line of Fire is already in melee. The Tong in contact with the Walker could shoot, but between its high armor and their "Moved" penalty, they couldn't hit.
As the Dragon Warrior runs up to him, the grizzled Sergeant takes two quick steps and lunges with the bayonet, skewering his target--but the power of the Dragon is stong in this one, and he staggers but does not fall. His counterstroke lays the Sergeant low. Private Shen puts down one of his assailants. Wu Jen, perhaps a little overconfident after his easy triumph over Captain Lee, swings at Private Quan but misses. The Walker and three Tong members trade blows to no effect.

Turn 4: The Army wins the initiative yet again. Two soldiers race to safety, and the Walker withdraws with Tong members trailing behind. One of them catches up to the fighting machine, and narrowly dodges its Steam Fist. Private Shen disposes of his remaining foe in the southwest hut. Just south of the Martian wreck, Wu Jen smiles evilly at Private Quan, gathering his chi...and then the ghost of Captain Lee possesses the soldier, and the Black Dragon Master suddenly finds himself on his knees, run through by the bayonet! He looks down in shocked disbelief, clutches the blade, climbs heavily to his feet...and then falls dead!

Turn 5:  Private Shen grabs his Martian artifact, races out of the hut and away to safety. Private Quan runs to the Walker, which is still at bay facing two Tong fighters. And the wily Sergeant rises to his feet again!
The Sergeant's "Rifle butt to the knee, barrel to the chin" puts down the wounded Dragon; however, the second Dragon brings his halbard down hard, and this time the Sergeant won't be getting up again. A few yards east, the Walker's steam fist smashes one of the Tong.

Turn 6: Private Quan leaves the field, leaving the Walker to face two Tong members and the remaining Dragon Warrior, while the Tong Lieutenant and two Boxers mill around on the west side. The Dragon Warrior takes a might swing at the iron man, and watches his halbard head snap in two. The Steam Fist punches back, but the Warriuor is still under the effects of opium and the blow does not phase him.

At this point the Army has all five Privates off the board, with 19 points of Martian loot; Wu Jen, a Dragon Warrior, a Tong Fighter, and two Boxers have fallen, for 9, bringing the Army total to 28. The Black Dragon Tong has 6 points of loot, plus the Captain and the Sergeant for another 6, bringing the total to 12. Even if they manage to down the Walker, that will only bring them to 17. A glorious victory for the Army!

For any of the Victory Point dice, if the score showing had been a 6, I'd have rolled another die: 1-3, nothing unusual; 4-5, it's Explosive; on a 6, it's a Thark survivor of the sky sailer...armed and irritable. But they were all 5 and below.

Lessons learned:
Melee ability is important. Martial artists are fast, and even if they don't make it into contact, a -3 for Running Target and another -2 or -3 for their Speed makes it hard to hit them in the Shooting phase.

Armored Walkers are tough.

And if the dice have it in for you, there's nothing you can do. Private Quan rolled an Attack roll 10, Wu Jen got a Pluck roll of 1, and then his Fanatic's reroll was also 1 Clearly Private Quan had supernatural aid....

Thursday, August 14, 2014


Victory Point Games' Moundbuilders is a solo States of Siege game in which you play a Moundbuilder civilization in the Mississippi Valley through three eras. The first (Hopewell) is purely explore-and-expand, with no conflct; the second (Mississippian) is where you push and are pushed by five neighboring nations such as Shawnee and Natchez; and the final era is when you face the invading Spanish conquistadors. It's rated a 4 of 9 on Complexity, 9 of 9 for Solo Suitability (since that's what it was designed for--there's no 2 player option), and supposed to take 40 minutes to play.

What you get: a paper map; a mounted map which is lasercut into five jigsaw pieces so they stay together; a single counter sheet with six enemy army markers, 25 chiefdom markers, and a few special markers; a Quick Refence sheet; a card deck; a d6; and the rule book. I had a bit of trouble getting the army stand pieces into their bases--they may have swelled a bit due to the humidity--but once I squeezed the tabs a bit with needlenose pliers, they slid right into place. The rule book could have used a bit better design; it's a bit too colorful (with gray boxes, blue text, red text, etc) with the overall effect being that it's not as easy to read as if it werre just black on white. It also takes an extra moment to tell what section you're in--when you open the book it's not "ah, I'm in 9.0", it's more like "I'm in...where is it...oh, 9.0". Not a major issue; if I were motivated, I could just write in the section numbers at the bottom of each page. An index could gave gone on th back of the Quick Refence page. All the other components look good, and the cards are especially nice, with historical fluff text as well as the game mechanics text. This is a low-unit-count game, and should take only a few minutes--mostly separating the cards--to set up and get playing.

For my first game, during the Hopewell era I ended up with Peace Pipes in Dickson, Serpent Mound, Etowah and Poverty Point--the first chiefdom on the Natchez warpath was a 4 and my dice didn't want me expanding down that line or toward the Ho-Chunks. I built mounds at Toltec on the Caddo line, Pinson on the Cherokee line, and Angel, Fort Ancient and Portsmouth on the Shawnee line; resources in my empire include obsidian, chalcedony, mica, copper and pipestone.

During the Mississipian era, I was going to write up a turn-by-turn report, but "moving to the computer and typing up what I did" took longer than each turn did, so I stopped.writing and just played. By judicious use of the Great Sun and attacking where I had advantage, I managed to keep the hostile tribes at bay pretty well.

And then the Spanish arrived, and things went downhill in a hurry. Under Coronado's leadership, they marched up the Mississippi, brushing past the Natchez and only being halted two spaces away from Cahokia. The Cherokee advanced, the Shawnee advanced, the Natchez advanced, eventually even the Ho-Chunks advanced. The Natchez battered the palisades, the Ho-Chunks breached the walls, and the Spanish poured through the breach and wiped out the Moundbuilders. I ended with a score of -3, which is a "Minor Defeat".

Quick play, fairly simple, and tough decisions. Will play again.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Command and Colors: Ancients

Ryan, Joe C, Dan and I got in several rounds of C&C Ancients today, switching off sides and opponents.

Key differences between Ancients and Napoleonics: in Ancients, a unit fights just as effectively whether it's at full strength or reduced down to one block, and leaders modify results in adjacent spaces as well as the one they're in.

The first scenario was the Battle of Akragas, pitting Syracusan Greeks vs Carthaginians. On the Carthaginian side, Mago has a mixed force of six units on the right, Himilco has auxilia in the center, and two horse units (one light cavalry, one chariot) hold the left flank. The Greeks have Daphnareus with heavy infantry in the center, Dionysius with auxilia and medium cavalry on their right, and a mixed force on the left. Five victory points needed to win.

In the first game, Joe brought his medium cavalry up on my left flank; I attacked it with light cavalry and heavy chariots, and lost both units. He then pushed back my right, and brought up two heavy infantry to press the attack in the center; however, with a combination of a First Strike card and excellent dice, my one heavy unit destroyed both of his. My left advanced, pushing his forces back to the edge of the map, but his left did equally well; he finished my fifth unit and a general and won. I would have destroyed his fifth on the next turn, so it was a very close game. Score 6:4, Greeks. On the other board, Ryan and Dan also fought to a 5:4 Greek victory.

Second game had me facing Ryan. In a mirror image of the first game, the Syracusan left was pushed back. Meanwhile, their right swept their opponents from the field, then turned and took the Carthaginian center in the flank for a 5:3 Greek win. On the other board, Joe and Dan saw a 5:4 Carthaginian win.

After lunch we set up the Battle of Bagradas, featuring Carthaginian elephants.The Romans under Regulus only get 4 maneuver cards, while the Carthaginians under Xanthippus get 6--a significant advantage. As the Romans, I tried to put together a screen of light infantry to protect my main battle line, but Dan ran his pachyderms right in and did a fair amount of damage before my javelins finished them off. After that, we both were conservative about pulling back damaged units; Ryan and Joe had come to a 7:4 Carthaginian win well before our battle was halfway finished. My left and his right pushed back and forth, while my center stood around waiting for a Center Sector card to come up. The score stood at 5:2 (with 7 needed for a win, in this scenario) when I had to leave, and handed it over to Ryan to finish.

Joe said, and I agreed, that the C&C system works better for Ancients than for Napoleonics; due to the importance of firepower and the effects of firing ranges not being to scale, Napoleonics feels more abstracted, and you're not sure whether your unit is supposed to be a battalion, a regiment, a brigade, or what. Since teh ranges are a lot shorter in Ancients, the abreaction works better. I'm still not entirely happy with it--if you don't have an order card, you have no way to react to anything, and there are no zones of control to keep an enemy unit from waltzing between two of yours and on through--but it's easy to learn,  plays quickly, and definitely gives the feel of having more going on than you can control, and having to decide where to focus your efforts.