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Subject: Design Notes rss

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Andrew Gross
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For a lot of miniatures gamers, including myself, a really good campaign is sort of the Holy Grail of gaming. In addition to the obvious attraction of allowing the players to participate in a grand, epic-scale narrative, there are some other, less obvious benefits: it motivates players to fight uneven or asymmetrical battles, it constrains the availability of troops so that a player isn't always fielding the same, optimized army, and it gives the players something to plan for and think about in between battles. Unfortunately, many campaigns never get finished, and usually for the same reasons: either diplomacy becomes so important that it overshadows the battles, and the players that make the most powerful coalition dominate; or else the players that win early battles get a "snowball effect", as they use acquired resources to build ever more powerful armies, leading to a runaway leader, until the players that aren't doing so well quit out of frustration.

Being a big fan of Your Move Games' Battleground: Fantasy Warfare, I naturally wanted to plan a campaign game for it. I looked at Games Workshop's Mighty Empires: Warhammer Expansion, and while I found a lot to like in it, it wasn't quite what I wanted: in particular, it seemed to rely a bit on a "gang up on the leader" mechanism for preventing the runaway leader problem, which, while effective, always leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Also, while I think the terrain tiles are very neat, and I want to find a use for them, it's not clear that they are really necessary or even important for play: you don't fight over a particular hex, you just claim a hex near your existing kingdom if you win a battle. At that level of abstraction, I thought, why even bother with the map?

Being a programmer by trade, I thought it would be fun to write a computer moderated campaign system. This would allow for hidden movement and army composition, arbitrarily complex building rules and technology progression, automatic generation of status reports and turn results, and so on. I pitched the idea vie e-mail to Chad of Your Move Games, and he was incredibly supportive. He would not only give the effort his blessing, but was willing to devote company resources to help out-- Kaile's fabulous graphic design skills, brainstorming with he and Darwin and Rob, anything within reason was on the table.

To make it a bit more fun, and at least marginally "useful" to me, I decided I would teach myself Java, and try to make the program run on any platform. Not knowing much about Java, I wasn't sure what its limitations were, and I also wasn't sure I would like it enough to want to spend many months working with it, so I thought I had better write a trial application first. I bought a couple of books, asked my friends at Your Move Games to send me the .jpg files of the cards from their excellent The Battle for Hill 218, and a few weekends later I had the first version of the computer game done. As an unexpected bonus, I will always treasure the stunned silence from the other end of the phone the first time Chad started playing a game against the AI-- I'm not sure what he expected, maybe ASCII graphics or something? (You can download a copy at http://www.honte.org/Hill_218/Hill.html).

While I found writing the UI for Hill 218 to be frustrating, I was not deterred from moving forward with the campaign system. Now all I needed were some rules.

While thinking about the things that I liked and didn't like about various campaigns I had played in or heard about, I bought a copy of Campaign Cartographer, and wrote the code that would scan a multi-layer map and identify the terrain in each hex, and move graphic symbols like flags and characters around the map. It was fun to look at, but I was still missing the rules. I took a version with me to Gencon last year (though I mistakenly took an earlier and less functional version), and spent some time talking to the YMG guys about the problems I was encountering with the rules.

What kept tripping me up was how to set the campaign up so that player A could attack player B no matter where they were located on the map. I was discovering why Mighty Empires used the abstract system it did: for any realistic movement rules and map configuration, your "campaign" would probably boil down to the same players fighting each other every week over the same hexes. Even though I couldn't make it past this roadblock, I was still generating notes with lots of ideas that I liked for every other aspect of the campaign: how the computer would generate the terrain layout for the battle, how the computer would choose from preselected scenarios but use a formula to determine exact numbers, how the players would use gold to build their kingdoms and get access to new types of troops, etc. I was still excited, but I was stuck.

So one night while I was out walking Nuxhall the Wonder Beagle, I had a flash of inspiration. Well, it felt like inspiration to me, anyway. All the mixing and matching of terrain and scenarios and available troops... what's more natural for mixing and matching than playing cards? And Battleground: Fantasy Warfare is, itself, played with cards. It was maybe 2 seconds from first thought to mumbling to myself "campaign in a deck". I spent a couple of days working out some details, and sent Chad an e-mail outlining the idea. His response was "by George, I think you've got it."

The core system is quite simple. There are 2 basic types of cards: scenarios and maps. A scenario paired with a map is a battle. The units you can bring to the battle is determined by the resources you have available in your Kingdom, which you purchase as the campaign progresses.

Everything that followed was a refinement of that basic idea. And there was a lot of refinement. Early on, Your Move Games generously flew me out to Boston for a long weekend, where I showed them mockups of a couple of different versions. When I left for home that Sunday night, it was with the understanding that unless something unexpected happened, it was a game that they wanted to develop and publish-- an outcome that hadn't even been a possibility in my mind when the process started!

Although the basic idea of map cards and scenario cards never changed, and meant that the game was playable from the very first version, nearly everything else underwent transformations. There were versions where you earned gold instead of victory points from battles, which led to a runaway leader problem. There were versions where the units you had available were determined randomly, rather than by a technology tree progression. I incremented the rules to a new integer version every time I changed something basic about the way the game played, and was at version 13 before we went to the printers. Many of those major versions had 7 or 8 minor version numbers in between, each one containing non-trivial changes.

We had two offical playtest groups-- one in Seattle, one in Boston-- playing an ever-changing set of rules. We got valuable feedback from a beta campaign conducted by the Schenectady Wargamers Association. In between actual campaign games, we playtested campaign scenarios, tweaking the numbers, throwing out beloved ideas because they could be too easily broken by particular army builds, gradually converging on a final version.

The final product has one significant selling point that I had not planned for or anticipated: it is ideally suited for generating individual battles, not just for playing campaigns. There is a "muster card" included, so that you can randomly determine the unit types that are available to you, to take the place of the resources that you would have acquired if you were playing in the context of a campaign. Other than that, just deal the cards and play the battle.

As far as my design goals for the campaign system itself, I believe that I've met them, or else I wouldn't be willing to release the game. A standard campaign lasts 10 turns, and even a player that loses his first couple or three games still has a chance to come back and win. What's more, a player's available resources are not tied to how he does in battle, so there is no "snowball effect" or runaway leader problem. Combined with the ever-present carrot of being able to upgrade your Kingdom and get access to new units and monsters and characters and so on, and even players that are losing have a reason to keep playing. The rules do not allow or reward alliances, so there is no ganging up on other players; if you want to play a team game, rules and special resources are included to support that, but there is no way for a player to lose just because some other players agreed to band together and take him out. The winner is determined on the battlefield, not in the pizza parlor.

While Battleground: Kingdoms could be easily modified to work with most miniatures games, I believe it highlights one of the unique advantages of Battleground: Fantasy Warfare-- because cards are so much less expensive and so much more portable than miniatures, you can radically change your army composition from game to game. In Battleground: Kingdoms, you know your opponent, scenario, and the terrain you will be fighting in before you build your army. The resources in your kingdom will constrain your choices, but you need to find a way to fit your army to the task at hand. For example, if you wanted to play an entire campaign over the course of a weekend convention, you might well field ten completely different armies, even though all you brought with you was a couple of decks of cards. You'll find yourself using units that you would never dream of putting in a tournament army-- and every time that happens, an Angel gets its Wings.

It's difficult to know how to sum up the experience. I am incredibly fond of Chad and Rob and Darwin, so being able to work with them was a treat. And along the way we all met Niko, who wound up becoming a friend as well as a valuable resource. It's hard for me to disentangle how much of the process was enjoyable in and of itself, and how much of it was enjoyable because I could send off an e-mail before bed, and know that when I woke up in the morning I would have some "oohs" and "ahhs" mixed in with some more... pointed... feedback, waiting to be read. (Well, in truth, this is being overly generous. The YMG crew is the salt of the earth, each one a noble spirit, literally princes among men, but their ability to respond in a timely manner to e-mail and phone messages is severely limited. But still.)

The playtesting process was both energizing and excruciating. I would spend hours carefully balancing an asymmetrical scenario, and inevitably, one of two things would happen: either someone would create a crazy army I hadn't thought of that broke it (usually with the Undead-- their ability to regenerate leads to some degenerate end-game situations), or, perhaps even more frustrating, they wouldn't see the method that I had envisioned that would allow the supposedly weaker side to have a good shot of winning. Getting feedback from playtesters that a scenario was broken, when they had tried only the most straighforward army build and tactics could be very deflating. But overall, I have to say that getting an e-mail that starts out with "we had a great time last night" made up for any amount of "but we noticed..." that might follow. And when the Boston playtest group requested that they be allowed to launch into a second ten-week campaign immediately following the conclusion of the first, even though we hadn't intended to run one... that was a really good feeling.

The process was a lot more work than I would have anticipated, and could have been even more; while I am proud of the product as it is being released, we could certainly have continued playtesting and tinkering and refining indefinitely. We made the decision (which I believe is correct) that it was quite fun in its current form, and the benefits of getting it into players hands outweighed the benefits of continued development. I am not sure how to calculate the total amount of time I devoted to the project, but I think 500 hours would be a conservative estimate. At the moment, it sure feels like it was worth it; but I suppose I'll reserve final judgment until I have the printed product in my hands, and begin seeing feedback from people that weren't involved in the playtesting.
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Niko White
United States
Massachusetts
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Great write up, Andrew, thanks for taking the time.

It was an honor and also a great deal of fun to be involved in the Boston playtest group for this -- and just as a side note, we've now finished our second campaign and moved on to the third. We're just waiting for the final cards to retire our tired old proxies.
 
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steve cole
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Reynoldsburg
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Congrats on coming up with a system that sounds unique and very functional. I'm very much looking forward to the fruits of your labor and trying out some of the battles using BGFW.

I'm grateful for designers like you that have the passion and drive to make the very hobby we love, better for everyone.
Kudos to everyone involved.
 
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Chad Ellis
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Brookline
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It was really great fun working with Andrew on Kingdoms. He's already contributed a lot to Battleground, both to its development and to the community, so when he explained his goal of creating a campaign system I was really excited. The original online Campaign Cartographer-based version might have been very cool, but I think it would probably either have been just OK or else become the focal point rather than being a reason to play cool games of Battleground.

I'll probably write a bit more later, but for now I've got to get some sleep before heading off to GenCon!
 
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marcus giegerich
United States
New Jersey
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Great insights on the development of what I anticipate to be a flat-out great product!
 
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Panagiotis Zinoviadis
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Nice reading Andrew!

Can't stop drooling waiting for the final product.

At last, an official way to use the terrain pack of YMG without whining from the loser side afterwards.

Keep up the good work.

Campaign...... check
Pink war flamingos........ to do.

 
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Matt Rider
United Kingdom
Bury St Edmunds
Suffolk
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WOW! All I can say is that on the strength of this I am thinking of buying BG:FW and Kingdoms when they come out. Back in the early 90's I tried running a Warhammer Fantasy Battle campaign and hit every one of the issues you seem to have taken into consideration and beaten... well done and thank you in advance for the vision and perseverance.
 
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Kurt Weihs
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Tacoma
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Great job! Looking forward to hearing more about this!
 
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