Oliver Kiley(Mezmorki)United States
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
Musings on games, design, and the theory of everything. www.big-game-theory.com
Archive for Oliver Kiley
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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
09 Jul 2020
I need to get this off my chest. Last month Michigan announced it’s approach for re-opening public schools amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The plan, which I’ll get into in a moment, doesn’t even pass the sniff test as an effective approach to either instruction or safety. And it’s all going to fall apart the second an outbreak occurs anyway, putting the school building or district into a paralyzing rhythm of successive opening and closing. The plan does little to actually minimize the potential vectors and points of contact.
In short, the plan is tantamount to burying our heads in the sand and hoping the storm will blow over. My spouse is a high school teacher and I have two kids in elementary school. I’m terrified.
Moreover, the plan fails to seize the moment and opportunity to at least try something different. To at least try to build an approach that addresses equity while maximizing protections for people. To at least try alternate curriculums and different modes of instruction in concert with a different structure to schooling, when it’s apparent the old model will likely be inoperable anyway. The plan doesn’t try anything inventive.
So, this article will lay out three thing. #1 - What Michigan’s “plan” currently is. #2 - Why Michigan’s plan, and others like it being adopted across the country is horrendously flawed, and #3 - What we should do instead. I’m not an expert on these matters, but I’m trying to think through this all in a practical and pragmatic way based on public knowledge of how the virus spreads and what we can do to stay safe.
#1 - Michigan’s "Plan"
Here’s an article from the Detroit Free Press that provides an overview of the school reopening plan.Quote:(1) Staff and teachers would have to wear face masks at all times.
(2) All students would have to wear face masks in hallways and common areas and on buses.
(3) Every student would have to use hand sanitizer before getting on the bus.
(4) Students in grade 6 through 12 would have to wear face masks at all times; younger students wouldn't have to wear face masks in classrooms.
(5) It would be recommended that desks be placed 6 feet apart and students and teachers social distance, even in the classroom.
(6) Schools would have to work with local health departments on screening protocols.
(7) No indoor assemblies with students from more than one classroom would be allowed.
(8) It would be recommended that most meals be served in the classroom or outdoors. It would be recommended that meal times would be staggered to allow social distancing in the cafeteria if it was being used.
(9) Athletics would have to follow the MHSAA guidance and rules. Spectators would be allowed if they are wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing.
Pretty incredible plan really. I’m glad that it’s taken FOUR MONTHS to come with this. Sarcasm intended.
Individual school districts are tasked with developing their own specifics within the above guidelines. My school district hasn’t put forth anything to date, with school starting in less than two months its pretty worrying. How can families, let alone teachers, prepare for anything with such a void in what lies ahead? But those concerns aside, the above plan... it’s a terrible plan in my opinion.
#2 - Here is why the plan is flawed and what it fails to acknowledge
It fails to acknowledge that schools - most notably 6-12, would presumably still have conventional class schedules with hall changes and teachers instructing multiple classes per day. My wife, as most other middle or high school teachers do, sees 150+ students a day. Nothing in this plan is geared to minimize the number of contact points. It’s basically business as usual with face masks, and maybe not even that. It’s ridiculous.
It fails to acknowledge that face masks are most effective when EVERYONE is wearing one at all times indoors or in crowded public spaces. If the past months have shown anything, it’s that an awful lot of people refuse to wear masks. If only having some people wearing masks is all we get, it’s a pointless gesture as the health of teachers and students is not really protected at all.. It also fails to acknowledge that wearing masks and trying to talk to a large audience is a challenge. It also fails to acknowledge that most school buildings in this state are OLD and have terrible ventilation and HVAC systems, which diminishes the effectiveness of both masks and physical distancing while indoors anyways.
It fails to acknowledge that “large groups of students” is most routinely experienced in schools not during assemblies (which are easy to avoid) but during passing times. My old high school, which is mere blocks away from me, had 12-foot wide hallways that were a CRUSH of students squeezing through shoulder-to-shoulder each class change. It’s a nice gesture to not have assemblies or large gatherings, but it’s a moot point if your entire school population is crammed into a hallway 6-7 times a day. Circulation plans are only going to go so far. You’re still going to have hundreds of students brushing past each other, sharing different rooms, and getting exposed.
It fails to acknowledge that classrooms are routinely over capacity. My wife has 30-36 kids in her science classroom. She planned out how to accommodate 6-foot physical distancing and her room could accommodate eight kids. EIGHT! Let’s be realistic here: this plan can’t accommodate physical distancing in any way. It is in direct contrast to CDC and global guidance.
It fails to acknowledge that sports are an unnecessary luxury during a global pandemic. Yes, staying active and healthy is important for everyone. And alternative sport programs could be deployed based on personal fitness approaches that don’t bring athletes and spectators into close contact. That sports are even being entertained is laughable.
It fails to acknowledge that, given all of the above, school closings are an inevitability. And the oscillation between in-person versus on-line learning runs counter to establishing any sort of consistency in instruction method and places tremendous burden on teachers to cobble together meaningful instruction in the 11th hour. No one benefits from this. And it still doesn’t address the lingering concerns about access to necessary technology in the first place for less privileged people.
It fails to acknowledge social inequities in our society and in finding ways to be more thoughtful, nuanced, and deliberate about an approach that leverages the means of those with privilege to make space and a safer environment for those without. Particularly for the most vulnerable people or those with high-risk family members. As with so much of our policy at large, disadvantaged communities will be hit harder by this “plan” than more fortunate ones.
All of the above underscores the incredible crumbling failure of our system. Of our physical school buildings and administrative and funding systems. Of our leadership. It underscores that our education system, especially under national calls for “getting the country back to work” is viewed as a child care service for a lot of people. The approach above isn’t about effective instruction. And it isn’t even about keeping kids and teachers safe.
This plan is about pushing kids back into school buildings so people can “get back to work.” Except of course, that it doesn’t even do that well, because in all likelihood schools will be shut down periodically anyway putting everyone back to where we were in March 2020 when this all started. It’s a farce. It’s total chaos. And we’re deluding ourselves if we think otherwise.
#3 A different way forward: A equity-based reopening strategy
I’ve done a modest amount of unqualified brainstorming about how school reopening and instruction could be addressed. A lot of it comes down to logistics. I’ll get into the specifics of my ideas in a moment, but it is first important to establish clear goals for the program:
(A) Minimize exposure and points of contact for students and teachers to keep as many people healthy and safe as possible;
(B) Be proactive about deploying curriculum and instruction that will actually be effective across a broad range of learning conditions;
(C) Integrate equity considerations head-on, recognizing that different people have different needs, means, risks, and privileges.
Let’s talk about the specific components that I envision, and which can be used in tandem to meet these goals.
COMPONENT #1: Re-Tool Instruction Methods and Pedagogy
First of all, let’s just acknowledge that the traditional delivery of instruction, especially for grades 6-12, is just not going to work in a consistent and reliable way in the face of successive closures and reopenings.
Rather than trying to do multiple half-measures, we should go all in on virtual instruction paired with more project based and/or self-directed study plans. Building instruction consistently around one set of methods will provide a backbone to delivering instruction that works regardless of whether students and teachers are meeting in person or remotely. It’s one set of instructions, it’s predictable for people, it can be relied on as circumstances change.
Along with this, there needs to be a retooling and adjustment to the curriculum itself for next year. Given that students, staff, and teachers can be knocked out of commission should they get sick with COVID-19, curriculum should be simplified and streamlined with a focus on team-teaching so that multiple teachers can pool their energies and co-teach a smaller selection of courses. This builds in redundancy among the teachers and makes the instructional delivery more resilient.
Furthermore, there is a lot of pedagogical evidence that more project-based and self-directed learning can be more effective for building good critical thinking skills anyway - so why not tap best practice at the same time? The co-teaching aspect is also important in order to free up teacher time for teachers to reach out to students individually who need more support one-on-one. Something that is also in traditional approaches.
COMPONENT #2: Enable remote learning for all students
This moment is an opportunity to address massive social inequality around access to the internet and technology. The reality is that while many people have a home computer and internet access, a large number of people do not. Federal, state, and local resources need to be directed towards equipping all students WHO NEED IT with IT technology to learn remotely.
I say “WHO NEED IT” above because the reality is that many students have access to their own computers or laptops and a good internet connection. This is time to recognize as a community and as a nation that many people are privileged to have access to such systems, but others do not have that access. Given limited public resources, these funds must be directed first towards providing capability for the least advantaged people. This strategy is really a no brainer.
COMPONENT #3: Individualized Participation Plan
There are a number of facets of this strategy, but this is the crux of my entire strategy. Basically it boils down to this: Recognize that different families have different levels of risk and concern with sending their kids back to school AND that different families have different means and capabilities for keeping their kids home versus needing to send them to school. We need to come to grips with this reality and take advantage of the flexibility it affords.
Moreover, we can’t lose sight of the fact that some students have high-risk family members that could easily die from COVID-19 if they are exposed. A good plan needs to provide flexibility for accommodating these families. Doing otherwise is grossly irresponsible at best.
The intent of this strategy is thus: to maximize the number of students who are able learn and participate remotely at all times, and thus minimize the number of students that actually need to be in a school building on a regular basis.
If the prior strategies are implemented (virtual / remote learning and internet enabling all students), then it doesn’t matter if you are learning from home or learning from the school building. Students will be attending all of their classes virtually anyway (more on that in moment) and receiving the same instruction. The difference is giving flexibility for where students are learning from to keep people safe.
How does this work in practical terms? The objective would be to get at least 50% (ideally more and as much as possible) of school students set up to learn from home full time.
Step 1. Identify all the students that can learn from home. This might be older high school students that can stay home on their own (sorry helicopter parents - but it’s time to entrust responsibility on your kids), families where another family member, parent, or guardian can stay at home or work from home in order to keep an eye on their kids, or where families can arrange for a in-home care person/sitters/au pair/grandparents, etc.. The last point can be an opportunity to hire people struggling with under- or unemployment, and would make a great federal stimulus program if paired with child care and educational-related degrees.
To maximize this, we need a national (or at least State and local) call to implore families to do what they can to keep their kids safe at home and able to learn. It will take some arm twisting on some people, but again state or federal stimulus programs can help. Free internet and a computer could be a good enticement.
Step 2. Restructure the school environment for safety for the students that must be in the building. The focus is minimizing points of exposure and contact. As such, all students attending in-person would be organized and housed within a single “home room.” More specifically, home rooms would be organized and structured not based on class or grade, but based on bussing. Kids that must attend in-person and must-ride the bus, would all be grouped into a cohort and share the same bus and room, and thus minimize exposure.
This could potentially mean that middle school and high school students are co-mingled. But you know what? There is good pedagogical evidence and benefit for mixed-age interaction as well. More best practice opportunity.
Inside the home room, students would be individually attending their classes virtually - and thus getting the same instruction as kids that are staying home. Ideally, rooms would be at less than 50% capacity. Other spaces in school buildings should be converted to “home rooms” (gyms, cafeterias, etc.) as well to diffuse the number of students per room. Some modicum of physical distancing could be achieved, which coupled with mask wearing for everyone can minimize risk.
Each home room would then be assigned a single teacher and/or home room monitor (again another employment opportunity) for the year that would monitor the room and provide some IT support for students. In-building teachers at the middle and high-school level would have the added challenge of needing to juggle their own virtual instruction during portions of the day.
For elementary schools, the situation is a bit simpler since the primary teacher would be the full-time instructor for their class, and could provide instruction simultaneously to in-school students and those "remoting" in from home. Elementary classes should again be re-structured around busing to the extent possible to minimize degrees of contact.
Potentially, home rooms could have a secondary person assigned (with a greater level of PPE) that could watch the room when the primary home room teacher has to step out or leave the room. These secondaries would ideally be pulled from teaching staff that teach non-core curriculum (art teachers, music teachers, etc.). This would maintain employment and also be an opportunity to share that “special” with the home room kids in order to break up what will be a difficult time confined to a single room.
Students that need lunches would have room delivery. There would be no passing time in the buildings since students attend all classes virtually from their home room anyway Bathrooms would require routine clearing throughout the day with strict mask wearing and sanitizing. Full-time cleaners / monitors could be another short-term employment opportunity. Kids arriving by bus would get in line with kids walking or being dropped off that they share a home room with, and would enter/exit the building in an organized manner. Everyone in the room would (all ages!) would have 1-2 recess breaks to get outside for relaxing, exercise, etc. Physical Ed could be accommodated a few times a week in this manner.
Putting it all together
The above strategies, working in tandem, make sense to me and follow the general guidance from CDC. Minimizing points of contact is the #1 thing. The above approach would mean teachers aren’t seeing 100’s of students a day, which not only puts the teacher at risk but also all of those students. Instead, they’d maybe only see 10-15 and that would be it.
If a home room gets a confirmed case of COVID-19, potentially only that one home room would shift to being at home (instead of the entire school building). But even sending just the home room back may not even be necessary if home rooms are sufficiently isolated from each other. If so, this would be a great benefit in terms of predictability and supporting people going back to work and maintaining continuity of learning at the same time.
While the above plan is onerous and challenging - it is also an opportunity to test out and experiment with different pedagogies and best practices, while keeping everyone as healthy and safe as possible.
But as with most of the grim reality we all struggle to wade through right now - the barriers to implementing a better plan are political. It’s hard to get people on board with something like I’ve proposed when large swaths of the nation refuse to wear a mask, let alone acknowledge the severity and impact of the virus. It’s hard to get people to come together and work on a common cause, and perhaps even give up a little of their privilege, when our leadership is hell bent on pitching those with more privilege against those with less.
I don’t know what’s going to ultimately happen with my local school district. But I worry about the safety of my wife and my kids. To be frank, going back to school with the current “plan” is quite literally the least safe and highest risk environment I can imagine. In what other sectors of society do you have 1000’s of people packed into crowded rooms, many of which are kids without the proper equipment or discipline to wear masks, sitting in buildings with outdated HVAC, and all talking to each other? It’s a perfect storm.
The pain and the frustration I feel is that there are clearly better ways of handling this. And I’m sure people far more informed and knowledgeable than me have even better ideas. But a better solution is going to take leadership and a willingness to pull the many strings of society together and towards a common goal. And that’s one thing that is sorely lacking right now.
- [+] Dice rolls
I don’t often write political pieces. And despite what some may think, this post is also not political. Some people reading this may insist that it is. But racism and discrimination, and the never ending quest for equal protection, equal rights, equal opportunity and equal justice for all people in this country is also not political. It is instead a fundamentally “human” issue. These pursuits are the foundation of this American society. And the pursuit of justice and equality for all people encompasses all of us, whatever your politics may be.
And so Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter because if they don’t, then none of us are fully realizing the values and the ideals that we claim to support. Black Lives Matter because our country, from its founding moments, has used systemic racism and discrimination to oppress people and communities of color, and black communities most of all. So it is to them that we must apply our efforts. Black Lives Matter because all of us have an obligation to value and support the people in our society - those that are oppressed most of all.
I work as an urban planner and have had the privilege to work with communities of color across the country. I cannot claim to know how less-privileged people feel, or how differently they must conduct themselves to stay safe in their own communities and even in their own homes. It would be rude of me to assume that I do. But I can try to understand. I can listen and be empathetic. And I can challenge myself to take action and to do more to help. And I can take action within my communities, both personal and professional, to advance this movement.
Our country has a history of racism and discrimination. From slavery, to Jim Crow, to redlining, to racial profiling, to the criminal justice system. These laws and practices are not accidents. Those with power and privilege created these laws and practices “intentionally.” And the resulting oppression is not accidental either. We must own up to this. Black communities are oppressed economically, they are oppressed through unequal access to opportunity, they are oppressed by the legal system, they are oppressed by police action, and they are oppressed by the inaction of those with privilege. We all can act. We all can, in fact, “intentionally” change the laws of this country to better realize our values and start healing the damage to those we have harmed.
Change will require sacrifice. Black communities have sacrificed much throughout history, merely to exist - with their culture, beauty, and strength under constant siege. As changes to our laws, and institutions - and the very structure of our society - are demanded, further sacrifice must be made. And this sacrifice must fall on the shoulders of those in positions of privilege - such as me typing this and most likely you reading this - to make the personal sacrifices demanding this change. We must all demand that Black Lives Matter and insist that action be taken to ensure that they do.
Like many with privilege, I struggle to know what I can do. What sacrifice can I make to help? Fortunately, the options are myriad. The hardest part is taking the first step, in deciding to take an action and go from a state of inaction, one that is tacitly supporting the status quo of a racist society, to a state of action. We all have actions we can take, however large or small, to affect those around us and the communities we inhabit.
I am taking this action, among others, of writing this blog post, with whatever size audience it may have, to assert that Black Lives Matter. To assert that I stand with you in demanding change and action to reverse the forces that have oppressed black communities. I hope to encourage and inspire others to search in their hearts for what fundamental values they hold self-evident and to take action to live up those values.
All of us can reach out to people we know who are hurting and offer our support. All of us can engage with our communities and circles to implore a commitment to action. All of us can reach out to our local leaders and elected officials, demanding that they enact laws and programs to ensure that Black Lives Matter. All of us can vote in political elections for leadership that recognizes that Black Lives Matter is a basic human rights and American values issue that must be addressed.
Obama said (and I’m paraphrasing) that his life was better knowing that someone who never had access to health care now finally did. It is the outcome of empathetic behavior. Of listening to people different from you to understand what they need to thrive. And of making sacrifices and taking actions to help. Our strength as a nation is through our unity of purpose, through our shared values and through securing liberty and justice for all people. This pursuit belongs to all of us, and we all have a responsibility for action. Black Lives Matter, and because they matter, all of us have a role to play in ensuring that they do. Find a way in your life to make it matter.
- [+] Dice rolls
01 Jun 2020
This post is going to be a bit of an outpouring of thoughts, stream of consciousness style.
This fall will mark 10-years that I’ve been part of the BGG community. But of course my gaming life - both video and tabletop - has gone on much longer than that (since the mid 80’s when I was a young lad). More significantly, this fall will mark 9 years since I started this blog. It’s remarkable because this has been one of the few constants in my “hobby” life. Games come and go, gaming groups come and go, … but this blog is always here. Even if I take long lapses in posting, I know that it’s quickly available when inspiration strikes!
My time on BGG has marked an era of sorts for me and my gaming however. Both the depth of conversation here with many of you all, the collectively hemming and hawing we all do over the games and ratings … and all of it … adds a certain formality to engaging in the hobby. The conversations have helped crystalize my own thinking more, and much of the critical analysis that I’ve seen has in turn inspired my own writings, my gaming preferences, and - more tangibly - my game design work.
Golden Geeks and Wingspans
I’ve been thinking more about my gaming preferences recently - in no small part due to the golden geek winners and the fury of conversation about the award process and how the awards do (or perhaps don’t) intersect with the trove of other data and information generated by BGG each and every day. While I don’t put much personal stock in the value of the Golden Geeks (they are a popularity contest which is decidedly anti-geek, right?), they and other awards nonetheless hold a mirror up to the community and let us reflect.
So reflect I shall! First of all, let’s talk about Wingspan. Wingspan is NOT my usual style of game. It’s a tableau engine-builder, with pretty minimal and indirect interaction. I like games in shared-spaces focused on spatial intersections with a high degree of contentious interaction and table-talking. But… my wife had a chance to play Wingspan with a co-worker and was super enthused about the game. What choice did I have? With xmas around the corner it seemed to be my destiny.
I’ve played probably 200 games of Wingspan since December 2019, almost all of it 2-player with my wife. While not my type of game, I’ve come to greatly appreciate the design and gameplay. Obviously it’s wonderful from an aesthetic standpoint - and I love that the theme is about something tangible and real world related (and not related to wars or political conflicts). One could use the game as a means of building their bird knowledge based on image recognition along. It’s great in that respect.
I don’t have a chance to play many games 100+ times, let alone 200+. What’s remarkable is that with a competent opponent almost any game can display a surprising amount of depth - especially when played in 2-player, head-to-head games. Wingpan has become more interesting as time goes on and our experience.grows. And perhaps most significantly, playing it in 2-player mode means that what minimal level of interaction there is, on the surface, becomes significantly magnified when playing hard to win.
There ARE mind games to play and calculated risks to make based on reading your opponent. Seeing a valuable set of resources in the bird feeder or cards in the display, and weighing whether to take them now versus first optimizing your board actions - at the risk of your opponent taking the goods instead! - is frequently a tough call that requires reading into your opponent. Likewise, with only 2-players, the fight over the end of round bonuses can be exacting, pitting players against each other in a tense race. Weave in card powers that leech off your opponent’s actions and well...it’s not really so different from Race for the Galaxy now is it? Which is, of course, another engine and tableau building game with indirect interaction whose depth profoundly opens up the more you play.
Wingspan’s weakest link lies in playing with more than 2-players. Each additional player either multiplies the game length or erodes the value of interaction and paying attention to your opponent by a comparable amount. This is a game that shines when played in 30-40 minutes. This is easy to achieve with 2-players but nearly impossible with more.
All this is to say that it’s no surprise to me that Wingspan is as successful as it has been. It fires on a number of cylinders. It has a unique aesthetic hook, an approachable theme (especially for people tired of the usual thematic tropes), and the gameplay deepens the more you play it.
Now, when it comes to the BGG Golden Geek awards, the debacle of Wingspan winning half of the categories - even seemingly contradictory ones - highlights two things: #1: The Golden Geeks are fundamentally a popularity contents, and #2: as far as organizing a popularity contest goes BGG fairled to uphold its namesake and inject some much needed geekiness into the process. It underscores how little care and value BGG admins seem to place on the trove of data and information in their very own database and in turn their resistance to using (and over time improving) the quality of that data for the community’s benefit.
This recent post looked back at 2017 game releases and used the BGG database to automatically determine the best games across a number of categories that can easily be drilled down using the data. Good or bad, the old sub-domain categories still exist and BGG users can vote on them - and there is an objective number of votes that determine what categories a game falls in. If a game is listed for multiple domains, looking at the numbers usually shows a clear lean towards one of the categories. Combine the domains with the weight ranges and other descriptors and we could auto generate a great set of nominees to then vote on.
But like the fading effort to rework the BGG database that was generating buzz last year, BGG admin seems thoroughly disinterested in making substantive improvements to the database and/or utilizing it in more inventive ways. For us data geeks, there are so many potential ways to use the data - and why not use the data generated itself to tell the story of BGG’s rising stars over the course of the year. Maybe, just maybe, we don’t even “need” an awards process - because we’ve all been involved in the “voting process” all year long through logging plays and rating games. This would be not only a more effective approach, but also a more genuine one that respects the contributions everyone makes to this site every day.
Preferences & The Pinwheel of Joy
All this talk of gaming preferences has me returning back frequently to something I’ve grown fond of using as a lens for evaluating games, understanding my preferences, and even as a design aid. Below (and BEHOLD!) is the Pinwheel of Joy. The basic idea of this was derived from the vastly more complicated looking Genomic Framework for game analysis, which was a magnum ops of sorts in my theorizing over games. The Pinwheel of Joy is a simplification of that framework, but captures the same basic idea. Players, rules, theme, and components come together to determine narrative, challenge, simulation, and immersion - which are the cornerstones of the total experience.
When I find myself asking the most basic of gaming questions - is game X fun? - the pinwheel of joy becomes a reference point. I can zero in to try and understand whether the pleasure I’m getting (or not getting) is based on whether the game delivers a deep challenge, or a compelling narrative, or gripping immersion, or provides a coherent simulation. This approach works in both directions if you will. I can use the pinwheel to understand what I hope to feel and experience from a given game, and then use it to evaluate the game and determine whether my expectations are satisfied or not. Thus, it lets me be more honest and effective in my critique.
The topic of preferences came to light in the follow up to my article about boardgames being better strategy games. While BGG showed general agreement with the gist of the article, on the other side of the fence (i.e. from the 4X video game perspective) the reactions were more varied with many in hearty disagreement. A few particular insightful replies remarked that for most 4X game players - as is likely the case for most videogame players overall - the importance of “challenge” in my pinwheel is likely lower than it is for most boardgamers.
People play video games oftentimes to “be entertained” in a more passive sense, even when playing heavier strategy games (like 4X games). In this case, the immersion and aesthetic experience, feeling like you are part of a narrative, etc, are more important than providing a hard challenge with tough consequential choices. Some games do the latter well, but most don’t place that as the first priority. Hence, this may explain why we see lackluster AI’s despite their being the capability for much stronger ones. The added challenge stronger AI’s would add to the game isn’t really demanded - and in fact may undermine the chill, relaxing tone the game is aiming for in the first place!
All of this resulted in an interesting set of observations about the differences between boardgamer attitudes and 4X gamer attitudes - and in turn might explain why developers are designing 4X videogames they way they are. Unfortunately for me, as someone who places challenge as the number one priority in what I desire from a 4X game, my experiences with most 4X games are lackluster - they just don’t end in a satisfying way like other proper “strategy games” do. But I’ve lamented and argued about this enough before so will spare you all from another rehashing.
It's BGG "Charts" ... not a best game list
On the continued topic of preferences, I wanted to share a thought I had about the BGG ratings. I’ve found it far better to view them not as a listing of the “best” games (with respect to BGG users), but rather as a slow-moving version of music charts (e.g. billboard top 40 and others). As such, they are a reflection of what is popular, liked, and/or highly rated “right now.”
The above point is something I’ve been trying to share and push, especially when talking to new players. It’s easy, I imagine, when starting out on the hobby to look at the rankings and think “these are the best to worst games” and not stop to ask the question about what your actual preferences are. The BGG ratings trend towards heavier and/or bigger games, and BGG overall tends more towards euro-y games, which may or may not align well with the average budding gamer wandering into the BGG ecosystem.
In winding down, I want to go back to where this post started. Despite my grievances about BGG (and most of these are in the form of missed opportunities rather than acute “problems”), at the end of the day this is a pretty amazing community filled with wonderful and insightful people. The relationships I’ve built here have lasted, and if there is one place on the internet that feels like “home” - it’s here. Thank you all for listening. More to come!
- [+] Dice rolls
First of all, if you are reading this, I hope that you and your loved ones are safe and healthy. These are crazy times for a number of reasons, and many people are struggling mightily to thrive under the current global situation. It’s hard to talk about gaming and other non-essential items during such times.
But then again, talk of gaming or pleasurable pursuits is a spark of positivity and a shared passion that many of us can connect around and find joy within. So perhaps it’s okay. For my own part, I’m fortunate that both my wife and I are able to continue our employment in relative security - staying home and staying safe. Staying sane is another matter!
Nevertheless, I wanted to share that professionally I work in the design and planning field, specifically around street design, transportation infrastructure, and mobility planning. We continue to work (remotely!) with municipalities across the country, and it’s been insightful to see the range of challenges that people, communities, leaders, businesses, and others are grappling with right now, as well as the creative inventive ideas they have in mind to respond.
Regardless of your personal experience, the pandemic is a massive disruptor, and behavior patterns have already changed significantly across the country. There won’t be a “return to normal” for a very long time, and the new normal that emerges may very well look significantly different from what it looked like prior to the pandemic.
Through all of this, I try to find silver linings in these changing behaviors.
My family always embarked on evening walks through the neighborhood, and we’d at most pass one or two other people. Now, my neighborhood is abuzz with activity. There are more people walking with their kids, biking, and hanging out in front yards than I have ever seen. I went to a large nature preserve the other weekend. In prior visits we’d maybe see four or five other cars. Last weekend there were about 90 cars in the parking lot with tons of people out enjoying nature (and for the most part maintaining a respectable physical distance).
The frantic pace of life has slowed down, with the torrent of afterschool activities and obligations that once kept us busy screeching to a halt. We, like so many others I observe, are finding more time to spend outdoors and reconnecting with nature and immediate families. People are rediscovering creative pursuits in the interest of keeping themselves busy. These are silver linings and shifts in behavior that I hope becomes a part of whatever “normal” comes next.
Another silver lining that hits closer to this blog relates, of course, to gaming. At the heart of it is the realization that I can (and have) connected to my long-time friends (who are also my main gaming buddies) more frequently now than I have in many years. Granted, we aren’t meeting in person, but we’ve embraced technologies as a way to connect. And we’re seeing each other’s faces, even if through a screen, more frequently and casually than ever. Whether it’s having a virtual happy hour after the work day, or opening up Discord to have an open video connection to each other while playing a video game, we are, in a strange way, connecting even more.
When it comes to boardgames, the past few years have posed a challenge for my circle of friends. As more life responsibilities pile up, finding the time to meet up and play games gets harder and harder. But in seeking out the need for connection, and in using technology more nimbly, we’ve realized that we are all closer and more easily connected than we thought.
This week we all got our copies of Tabletop Simulator dusted off and tried it out for the first time, despite having it tucked away in our Steam libraries for years. Why weren’t we using this earlier?! We’ve played about 15 games of The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine (which I also bought in meat-space), knocked out a game of Blue Lagoon, and dabbled around with a handful of other games we’ve been wanting to play more of: Root, The Expanse, Study in Emerald. All in just a week. Heck, we even launched the Cosmic Frog mod and marveled at that game as the evening wound down.
Granted, Tabletop Simulator (TTS) is a little clunky and rough looking (the UI is pretty ugly I have to admit), but it does work surprisingly well provided the specific virtual game mod is put together throughtfully. For those on the fence or curious, TTS is definitely worth a try as a way to get your boardgaming fix - but perhaps more importantly as a venue for connecting to other people in your life through games. You’ll want to make sure that you use Steam’s built-in voice-communication (or another platform of your choice to share voice and video) while playing. Overall, it’s been a blast and we’re looking to use TTS much more.
At home, we’ve been carving out more time for gaming as a whole family or one-on-one. I dragged HeroQuest off the shelf and started up a campaign with my two daughters (ages six and nine). They are having a good time with it. I’ve played probably 30 games of Wingspan over the last month with my wife (she’s an ornithology fan and teaches ecology and other sciences). We have quite a healthy rivalry going on. Plenty of other games have been put through the ringer as well.
PnP and Game Design
I’ve also found myself with more time to devote to game design projects once again. In a fortuitous twist, needing to work (and teach our kids) from home prompted us to finally buy a printer. Of course I found an affordable color laser printer right as the pandemic was striking. It’s been awesome for working on game prototypes and also printing out PnP materials (I mean, printing out school assignments and work reports!). I continue to work on Emissary, and now that I’m familiar with Tabletop Simulator, I plan to make an Emissary mod to facilitate more player-to-player testing with my group.
I’ve also reccussicated a number of other game design projects. I had been working on a cooperative story-telling adventure game that I’m quite excited about, but was struggling to find time to work on. I’ve made good progress over the past month and have even solicited my children’s help in idea generation and artwork! It’s quite charming. Nothing is quite playable yet but I do want to write up a post talking about it more soon. I think it’s has some legs.
I also dug out my prototype stuff for a Chronicles of Amber-themed card game I was working on, which is in a playable state. It’s a fairly simple game using an expanded deck of traditional rank and suit cards, but has some fun and clever ideas. I’m excited to try and whip that into better shape, and it’s also a candidate for a TTS mod so I can move into the testing phase more easily. Right now, the prototype is playable using the Badger Deck, which is an awesome designer resource unto itself.
On the print-and-play front, I've put the new printer through its paces and build a rather nice (if I do say so myself) prototype copy of Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile. I've played two games solo so far, and am also looking to dive into on TTS with my buddies. It's a rather fascinating (if still heavily evolving) design. I'll have to talk more extensively on that in the future too.
That’s it for now! I have a growing pile of articles to write-up - reflections on games, recommendation lists, game designs, and more. Hopefully I can work in a schedule of more frequent posting. Writing is therapeutic for me. Hopefully reading this drivel is therapeutic for you! If nothing else, it’s way to stay connected to a community of fellow human beings.
We’re all in it together.
- [+] Dice rolls
The title of this essay is a declarative statement. It’s of course open to debate and I’m not suggesting this is an unequivocal rule. But at least in my experience, when I think about the “crux” moments that are the pinnacle of strategic intrigue - where the fate of everything is hanging on the line or where you wait breathlessly to see if your gambit pays off - board games provide both a greater “density” and a greater “diversity” of such moments in comparison to strategy video games.
There are, I believe, a number of factors that contribute to this situation. There are things unique to the design needs and expectations of board games that enable “deep and interesting decisions” to come to the forefront. There are also things, on the video game side of the table, that frequently distract, diminish, or are otherwise at odds with their capacity for deep strategic gameplay. I want to explore both of these dimensions in an effort to tease out, if possible, some poignant ways that strategic video games - especially 4X games - might better capture the strategic depth they aspire to.
Before we get too deep, let’s consider for this article what I mean when I talk about deep, or interesting, or compelling strategic decision points (or the “crux” moments). Principally, I feel these moments exist when: (1) having read and understood the “game state” you are faced with having to decide between mutually exclusive courses of action; (2) these decisions are consequential and have a traceable link to your eventual victory or defeat; and (3) predicting the outcomes of your decisions are laced with enough uncertainty that player skill, experience and heuristics matter for good play (i.e. you can’t just look up an optimal build order and call it a day).
This definition is a lot to unpack. But let’s explore two facets of it.
The foundation of every board game is how you, as a player, take your turn. “What actions you can do on your turn” defines the entire structure of the game. It’s so fundamental and intrinsic to boardgames that we frequently take its importance for granted and move on to discussing the nuances of its execution (worker placement, drafting, action points, etc.). Suffice to say, most games limit how much you can do within the confines of a particular turn, and the mere presence of these limits creates a landscape of tradeoffs. Maybe you have three workers that you assign to actions each round. Maybe you have a menu of ten different actions you can do, but can only perform two of them on your turn. Perhaps you have a hand of six cards but can only play one each round. What do you do in this moment?
These kinds of intrinsic limits shape the structure of a board game. They are also, in a convoluted sort of way, a tacit acknowledgement to the fact that we can only affect so much change over a period of time. We can’t do everything at once, we have to prioritize. And at a more pragmatic level, limiting actions are a way of constraining how long an individual player’s turn might be. And so it affects the pacing and length of the game.
Strategic video games, especially 4X games, typically take the approach that you are omnisciently powerful. They assume that within the confines of a turn or paused gameplay moment, that you have infinite time and capacity to plan and execute your designs. You can queue up dozens of buildings or units in each of your cities, reengineer the design of every military force, adjust policies and politics, engage every foreign faction in diplomacy. And on and on. And you can do this EVERY turn, without limit (barring some occasional checks and balances tossed in by a developer to mitigate totally exploitive play).
This state of affairs has a number of ripple effects on a game’s potential depth. If you can freely do as much or as little “retooling” as you want each turn, your decisions are far less consequential to the outcome of the game. There is little depth in a system where you can queue up every building on every planet, and without cost reprioritize all of it a turn later when the game state changes just a little bit and something unexpected comes along. There is no requirement for “efficiency of action” in such games, no sense of momentum to your play that would be costly to redirect. A 4X game might last 100’s of turns and so playing around the margins of actions taking a few turns more or a few turns less to execute ends up being a study in routine optimization instead of long-term planning. Most it is just a wash.
Going back to boardgames, this idea of “efficiency of action” is central to how player turns are structured. Every turn, picking one course of action necessarily limits other courses of action. There are built in opportunity costs, sometimes known and sometimes uncertain, that affect your evaluation of the risks and rewards of your choices. By having limited actions, you are forced to navigate a layer of strategic prioritization, which intersects nicely with the overall structure and length of a game. If a game only lasts 10 turns then each of your decisions weighs mightily on the outcome. In a game lasting 100’s of turns with dozens of actions each round, any given action provides only an incremental effect on the outcome. Each action matters thus less, despite taking just as much time.
Nevertheless, some video games manage to tackle this. One video game that captures this notion of limited actions is King of Dragon Pass (and its successor Six Ages). In these games, each round is a season, and in each season you can only perform two actions. There is a huge menu of actions you can each turn: improving your settlement, engaging in diplomacy, organizing expeditions, performing rituals, go on a raid - and so on. This intersects with the event system, which triggers an event after each action you take - adding a layer of uncertainty to your actions and forcing you to carefully prioritize and strategize.
A Transparent Game State & Discernable Mechanics
Another major difference is that boardgames require players to manage the game state and execute changes in accordance with the rules. A consequence of this is that the rules have to be discernible by human minds. While there are certainly differences in the complexity of board games, most of them are built on rather simple procedures and basic arithmetic-level math.
Video games, on the other hand, rely on - wait for it - “the computer” to process the game state. As a result, the door is wide open to use whatever mathematical constructions and algorithms the designer can devise to process the game. This enables complex calculations where tons of variables and favors can be tossed into the design of mechanics and integrated with complex formulas and functions. While this creates an opportunity for modeling dynamic relationships or other complex phenomena, the result is that the mechanical underpinning of the game is rarely ever fully explained or known to the player. The game becomes a “black box”.
While 4X video games have made major advancements in using tooltips and in-game manuals/wikis to explain how systems work - this is usually kept at a conceptual level, as opposed to explaining each and every step in how things are calculated or resolved. In the other games, random events or outcomes might be based on hidden mechanisms whose operations are entirely unknown, intentionally, to the player. While this can play into creating emergent narratives or complex simulations - it does so at the expense of transparency.
When a game lacks transparency, I feel that results in a de facto reduction of the game’s potential depth. If you can’t tell how the game operates, and can’t discern how the current game state was arrived at, your moves - as “inputs” into the system - run the risk of being rendered arbitrary.
Of course, in practice video games work hard to provide feedback to the player so they move towards understanding the impact of their decisions. But by definition, feedback is retroactive. You’re giving the results “after” you’ve performed the action. By comparison, board games with their more discernible mechanics allow players to be more predictive and anticipatory “before” they perform an action. This in turn creates a clearer line of connection to player agency, and players are able to build better heuristics (experiential knowledge) faster, because the loop between decision factors to choices to results/impact is tighter and understandable.
At the broadest scale, that of the entire length or arc of the game transparency of mechanics and ability to read the game state has a high bearing on the strategic depth of the game. The more complex and obtuse, the harder it is to formulate a long-range plan with any reliability. The game may end up feeling like a series of isolated tactical puzzles that get solved in isolation, with no clear linkage or connection to an overall gameplay arc. This ends up with many 4X video games feeling very samey from game to game. You aren’t experiencing wildly different long-term strategies because the game just takes too long and individual choices are too disconnected from the big picture.
What to do about it?
I think 4X video game designers would benefit from going back to the genres roots, where one could easily explain and perceive how all of the mechanics work - much like one would for a board game. This may result in seemingly simpler games mechanically - but if the systems are transparent and well designed, may nevertheless result in an actually deeper game. As I’ve been tinkering around with the design for a 4X video game, one of my internal checks for a given system is always this: could I implement this system in boardgame and have it be discernible to players? If not - it needs more refinement and clarity.
On the topic of limiting actions - I think this is one area where 4X video games need to really push the design into new directions. But this will be challenge - as much of the 4X player base has grown accustomed to “being able to do anything, anywhere, at any time - with little to no consequence or tradeoff.” Despite wanting to play a seemingly heavy and challenging game - I think most 4X players don’t actually want to be challenged and forced to make tradeoffs.
My evidence for this resistance to tough tradeoffs is the frequent criticism of when a game, in part or in totality, appears too much “like a board game.” People see a thematic or practical oversimplification of a mechanic as being less valued - because in their minds they can imagine a more complex, nuanced, simulation-like way it could’ve been implemented that would make for more “realistic logic.” The irony is that going down the complexity pathway may in fact undercut the very depth and challenge one is hoping to achieve, for all the reasons outlined above.
For me, when a video game is described as “board game-like” my interest is increased. It’s a signal to me that the decisions and mechanics in the game are built around understandability and harder choices - whether it’s around limited actions or other constraints. And I am seeing, overall, a growing interest in these types of video games across a number of genres. Tactical RPGs, roguelikes, XCOM-likes, wargames, card-driven video games all seem to be embracing the “board game like” mantle as a positive. Yet such trends are lacking in the 4X video game space, and I’d love to see that changed.
As usual, let me know if you have thoughts, reactions, or experiences to share!
- [+] Dice rolls
20 Jan 2020
I've long been a fan of the 4X genre, while also being frequently critical of it and its many floundering conventions. Despite the renaissance and watershed of renewed interest in the genre, there is a worrying lack of design advancement in my estimation. A recent reddit post and ensuing discussion on r/4xgaming encapsulated nearly all my frustrations with the 4X videogame genre in a single question: Quote:Do you know of any [4X] games that will let you fight back after being beaten down, or have the AI be able to come back after you start to gain an advantage over them?This seems like such an obvious question to ask, and yet it’s one that apparently few, if any, 4X developers have seriously raised, let alone crafted gameplay mechanisms to answer. What’s fascinating about this question is that, while seemingly simple, it nevertheless strikes at two critical points: (#1) the core of what 4X games are; and (#2) the perennial frustrations players have with unsatisfying late game gameplay.
(#1) 4X games are efficiency engine games
What struck me in reading the comments relative to point #1 is that I think my waning interest in traditional 4X games is tied to the realization that these are largely in the same gameplay genre as efficiency engine styled euro games (of which I’m not usually a fan), despite the overt combat-heavy nature of the genre. This quote, in response to the question above, hits it perfectly:Quote:I don't think it is generally possible in 4X [games]. The genre is about ramping up production. Once you have a production advantage over someone, they're gonna die.A production advantage. The early stages of 4X games are always about exploring, and that exploration is always about finding the best opportunities to grow your short and long-term production. Production itself fuels everything else in your empire: development of cities/planets, construction of military units, building research facilities. Heck, most 4X games provide tools or technologies that let you convert production directly into other outputs (research, culture, political influence, etc.). It a fairly standard feature.
Like many euro-style board games that fall into the “efficiency engine” style of game (i.e. most worker placement, resource conversion, tableau-building style games), 4X games are about building a production engine in the most efficient way possible. Once you have a stronger and more efficient engine than your competitors, it’s easy to “snowball” your way to victory. Or more aptly, to “steamroll” your way to victory, as once you conquer one enemy, with their assets under your control you are even more powerful with an even greater production advantage over the remaining players.
To compound the problem, victory conditions are almost always a function of production outputs. Whether it’s an economic victory threshold, or research target, or outright conquest, in all of these cases having more production ties directly into making more progress towards victory. 4X games handle these even worse than euro board games, the latter of which usually provides some decision inflection point where you go from building the engine to instead generating victory points. 4X games usually don’t even provide that.
(#2) The late-game problem
All of this ties into point #2, which is that by the mid-game you usually know if you have a significant production advantage over your competitors, and if so, victory is inevitable.
The reddit post’s question drew a comparison to Magic the Gathering as a brilliant counter example. In Magic the goal is to drain your opponent's life total from 20 to 0. However, being lower in life isn’t a clear indication that you are in a worse position, and players with much lower life than their opponent can routinely stitch together a combination of clever strategic or tactical plays to defeat their opponent. In fact, many decks and playstyles hinge on this exact reversal or “back and forth.”
Sadly, I’m pressed to think of any 4X games where the above “reversals” or clever strategic strategic gambits are a core and frequently experienced part of the gameplay. If it were, I think it would dramatically reshape the late game experience. No longer would having a production engine advantage mean your position was secure and victory inevitable. If you’re opponent was positioning themselves to unleash the civilization equivalent to a Drain Life spell on your empire, turning your strength to their advantage, imagine the surprise and excitement that would result? Is such a thing possible?
What's even worse, is that the one layer of interaction in 4X games, military combat, is often poorly executed with minimal depth or interest at the strategic scale. Tactical level combat, if included at all, is most often determined before the fight based on what each side brings to the table. 4X video games struggle mightily compared to many area control or dudes on a map style board games, where aspects of strategic position and maneuver frequently offer up opportunities for tactical rebounds, reversals, or other strategic gambits.
The Solution lies with a different formula
Building a 4X game that encourages such reversals and back and forth gameplay would require a totally different approach to the victory structure of 4X games (i.e. decoupling victory from the production engine mechanics). Perhaps, it requires restructuring the very nature of 4X games in their entirety. That said, a few avenues of design innovation come to mind.
First, 4X games are usually designed as if they are competitive Player vs. Player (PvP) games, with empires starting out on roughly equal footing and progressing competitively from there. Of course, in practice, most 4X games are played in a single-player manner and the AI usually just can’t keep up or provide a challenge for experienced players. Imagine designing a “competitive” first person shooter game (i.e. deathmatch or team-style game), except you could only ever play against AI Bots that played by the same rules as the human. It would be a miserable failure.
Perhaps, 4X games should try focusing instead on Player vs. Enemy/Environment (PvE) with victory conditions and goals related to overcoming PvE obstacles (like in AI War or Thea: The Awakening). You can still have other players/empires you are competing against (or cooperating with), but the pressure for having a top-notch AI that competes directly with the player is off. Instead, design energy can put into creating global hostility/opposition/enemies that function asymmetrically and can be stacked with whatever bonuses or gameplay advantages to make overcoming it an interesting challenge for players.
Second, and related to the above, is that victory conditions should be decoupled as much as possible from the production engine. The most straightforward way of doing this is by requiring production to be diverted away from things that also benefit the engine itself and instead towards victory steps/goals exclusively. Investment in the victory goals should confer no advantages back to the production engine. It should be decoupled from it. There is ample room for quests or event chains, with no reward other than progress towards victory, to provide a vehicle for this. An ancillary benefit is that such an approach would allow the game’s lore and narrative to be tied to novel victory conditions, instead of relying on the same old victory tropes.
Third, there needs to be more avenues for significant interaction in 4X games. 4X games are primarily one-dimensional games, which is the relationship between board/map position and production. Better map position confers greater production advantages, whether through controlling juicier locations or amassing a larger territory. While 4X games often have systems for foreign trade, or diplomatic exchange, or espionage - these are, almost without exception, playing around the margin of or in direct service to the production gameplay dimension.
As an example of the second and third point using an unorthodox approach, consider King of Dragon Pass, a narrative-heavy strategy game. The brilliance of this game is that there are tons of interactions with rival clans. Often these interactions aren’t about getting production related benefits, but instead learning bits of lore or gaining political support that feeds into the rituals your clan needs to perform in order to become the titular King of Dragon Pass. It’s brilliant, and unites the lore and victory conditions expertly. I’ve yet to see a proper 4X game tackle anything remotely close to this.
More broadly, I think 4X games could make non-combat related interactions far more transformative in their possible impacts and rely on different foundations than the production engine economy. For example, plenty of 4X games have espionage and/or espionage focused empires, and yet rarely is it more than an annoyance to deal with (and is often uninspiring and repetitive to utilize yourself). But what if, like in the Magic the Gathering example, while lagging in your board position (i.e. “low health”) you were secretly building up a clandestine operation that would snatch away a huge chunk of your opponent’s empire or turn their own citizens against them in a highly impactful way. There is tremendous opportunity here, but it’s rarely realized.
Lately, I’ve really scaled back by my interest in 4X games, to the point that any traditional 4X game is a non-starter for me right now. In the same way that I maintain a general distancing from efficiency engine euro games, I think 4X games have slid into the same category. When I try out a new game and am met with the with the same exploration imperative coupled with the same production-derived victory conditions, I’m just not particularly interested. The game might have amazing lore and visuals (ala Endless Space 2), but if it’s not connected to victory in a novel way that fundamentally changes the structure of the game, it’s still the same old snowball/steamroller experience leading to an anti-climactic ending.
I’m at a loss for why more developers aren’t challenging the 4X formula and trying to do something different. So many other genres of strategy games, whether physical board games, tactical RPGs, tactical roguelikes, wargames, and more are fertile grounds for innovation with plenty of creative and inspiring designs. Yet 4X seems stuck in the same rut it has been since the dawn of Civilization (pun fully intended). Cheers.
- [+] Dice rolls