Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Dust Tactics

I've been involved in a discussion of this yet-to-be-released pre-painted tactical miniatures game. Since that discussion is buried in the comments to a post on another blog that really didn't have anything to do with Dust Tactics in the first place, I decided to go ahead and make a post here that collects both the information out there on the web, and my reactions to it.

Several of the miniatures were revealed at the recent GAMA trade show, and there are some pictures of both the mecha and a couple of the characters here and here.

The scale was reported to be 35mm by one of the sculptors on his blog, along with a few pictures of the model he's been working on.

The game system was reported by Tabletop Gaming News to be the same system that Rackham uses for AT-43. This is interesting considering that according to the information on the net about the development of AT-43, Dust is the game that AT-43 was originally meant to be.

What I mean by that is that the background for AT-43 was originally meant to be Alternate Timeline-43 where WWII took a turn for the weird. The Human and Karman factions are all holdovers from the early design work on that AT-43. Eventually, they switched gears and made it After Trauma-43 set in the far future rather than an alternate reality. Dust goes back to the original idea of an alternate history WWII.

The main concern I have about this is that the core rules for AT-43 are a bit bland. They're solid, but nothing spectacular. What really makes the whole thing shine are the the army-specific chrome rules. These differentiate the factions enough to keep things interesting, and to give each force a distinct flavor. Whether or not they are able to do the same thing with Dust Tactics is yet to be revealed.

I hope they do though, because the preview models really look sweet, especially the mecha. I'll be keeping an eye on this one.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Shadowpunk 2050

Reading about how well Shadowrun 4th edition has been doing since Catalyst Games has taken it over has gotten me to pull out my core rulebook to take another look at it. While doing so I've decided to put down how I'd change the setting if I was to run a game using the Shadowrun rules. First though, I'm going to indulge myself by describing my personal history with the game.

Shadowrun was exactly the right thing at the right time when it came out in 1989. Cyberpunk dominated the science fiction market, but swords & sorcery dominated the RPG market. Shadowrun mixed the two in a way that made both seem fresh and new, at least to my young eyes it did.

I convinced my college buddies to give it a try, and they soon came to love it, despite my tendency to put annoying techno music on repeat during the sessions in an attempt to create "atmosphere". In fact, they came to love it more than I did as I eventually began to dislike the rules system as a game master. Despite my problems with the rules, we continued to play it on and off until we all graduated. After that I boxed up my books and didn't really follow the game. I didn't even realize there was a 3rd edition until just before the 4th edition came out.

When I first heard about 4th edition, I was curious as to how they would update the game. The original timeline for Shadowrun has long since been invalidated by history, and many of the supposedly revolutionary technologies described in the first two editions look quaint and antiquated by the standards of the twenty-first century. I was curious whether or not they would retcon the background to take all of that into account. They chose not to, instead keeping Shadowrun in the realm of "alternate history" instead of shifting it back into the "improbable future" it was originally. What the did to was to update the tech to make it seem more futuristic, playing off our current wireless world and taking it to further extremes. They also advanced the game's timeline to 2070 (the original game was set in 2050).

This is a creative way of doing things that allows people to bring existing campaigns into the new edition if they so choose. It really isn't for me though, not anymore at least. I'm a much different person than I was in 1989 and the appearance of elves, dwarves, orcs and trolls into the modern world doesn't seem nearly as interesting to me as it once did. On the other hand, the appearance of magic still holds a certain interest, perhaps stimulated by my reading of the Dresden Files books.

While I'm in no danger of actually having a chance to run the game, I have some ideas as to how I would do so if I got the chance. Overall, coming up with these ideas was a fun little exercise, but it's kind of scary how easy it is to come up with a reasonable scenario for everything to go to hell even without the introduction of magic. Here's a brief history of my Shadowrun setting (which I'm calling Shadowpunk 2050 for now) broken up into major phases:

The Pacific Rim War: The US slides out of its first place position as a result of debt and inflation. The slide is accelerated when conflict erupts between China and the US, hurting the economies of both countries and preventing China from becoming the next superpower as many expected. One of the casualties of the conflict is the internet, which is all but destroyed as a world-wide network by warring Chinese and US hackers.

The Euro-Nippon Alliance: The EU and Japan collaborate on re-connecting their elements of the internet, improving it as they do so. The resulting system offers support for a virtual reality interface and as a result it becomes commonly known as the Matrix. Continued cooperation between Japan and the EU leads them to create a new monetary union. The orignal name for the resulting currency is to be the euren until the unfortunate English homophone is noticed. After much debate the currency is called the neuyen instead.

The Corporate Independence Movement: In the meantime, most multi-national corporations attempt to disassociate themselves from both belligerent countries. The only exceptions being those primarily concerned with selling weapons to one of the two sides. Several corporations attempt to assert rights formerly only held by nations. This works in many areas, but not everywhere. The end result is that throughout much of the world corporations have more power than ever before.

The Magical Awakening: Sporadic conflict between the US and China continues until the sudden re-emergence of magic into the world. The resulting chaos forces both nations to turn inward and leads to a cease-fire between them as they attempt to deal with their internal problems. The effects of magic are felt everywhere, but are particularly disruptive in the more religious areas of the world, which include portions of the EU due to immigration. Those areas where religious feeling was weaker, or where the predominant religion was more accepting of magic, suffered fewer disruptions. Japan was one of those areas.

Superpower Balkanization: Both the US and China are unable to keep things completely together in the face of multiple crises they are forced to deal with. Several areas on the borders of China declare independence, including Tibet, Mongolia and Hong Kong. In the US, failures by the Federal government to deal with problems in the western states leads to their succession. An attempt to use military force fails spectacularly in the face of mutinous soldiers who either join the forces defending the western states, or refuse to fight their former comrades. The result is a collapse of the Federal government and a new collection of regional alliances between individual states.

The Recovery: The Matrix begins a natural spread from where it began, helped by corporations looking to cash in on recovery efforts. Although the Matrix was intended to be more secure and "controllable" than the old internet, the need to also make it harder for hackers to destroy leads to an even more de-centralized system than the old internet. The result leaves plenty of opportunities for those with a motivation to avoid corporate and government control to do so.

2050: The Euro-Nippon Alliance (ENA) is now the most powerful governmental force in the world, but outside of their territory, and sometimes even in it, they are often rivaled by corporations. The world is filled with brushfire conflicts involving both corporations and the plethora of new nations and states that have popped up. Many of these conflicts happen covertly, with various parties hiring independent operatives to do their dirty work for them.

The goal of this little exercise was to come up with a setting that would hold some similarities to the classic Shadowrun and cyberpunk settings while losing the metahumans and taking account of the changes that have occurred since the late eighties. Making Japan a major power, and allowing for at least a partial balkanizing of the US are some of the elements I personally consider to be key to the feeling of the genre.

Another goal was to minimize any changes needed to be made to the core rules. For now, the only rules changes needed to play in this setting are to ignore anything that deals with metatypes, as there are none, at least not for PCs and the general population. There are intelligent non-humans out there, but I haven't decided how pervasive they are. I also haven't decided if they have been around, lurking, until the appearance of magic, if they were spontaneously created by that appearance, or if they came from elsewhere after the appearance, although I am leaning towards the latter.

I may look at further expanding this background in the future, or I may never come back to this setting, but I want to share what I have in case anyone can use it.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The D&D Poison Pill

First the disclaimer: the following rant is based on incomplete information released by reps of WotC, some of it passing through other people before reaching the public. I was waiting to comment on it until after WotC released the clarifications they said they were going to today, but it's now past 6pm PST and still nothing new, so I'm going with what is out there.

I'm a fan of open-source. There's the purely selfish reason that I can use it to get free software, but I also think that royalty-free use of IP is often simply good business. It allows people and businesses to improve upon things, and then share those improvements with others. The end result can be many players making money sharing a large pie, instead of one player making less money out of a much smaller pie.

In the gaming world, some of the best games in print are a result of open gaming, including True20 and Mutants & Masterminds. Also, my current favorite, Spirit of the Far Future, probably wouldn't exist if not for the fact that Spirit of the Century was released under the OGL.

Thus, while I am not a writer or publisher of RPG material, I do have a stake in the future of open gaming. It therefore bothered me when representatives of Wizards of the Coast indicated that not only are they not releasing 4th edition under an open license (something long suspected), but they are writing the license they are releasing it under in such a way that businesses cannot publish both under it and under the old OGL.

This forces businesses like Green Ronin to choose between continuing to support their successful OGL products or supporting 4th edition. Perhaps more importantly, it forces other 3rd party publishers (3pp) to choose whether or not they are going to support WotC products or other 3pp products. They won't be able to do both under the terms of the GSL.

Frankly, this is crap. It's crap for the companies who have to choose between the two. It's crap for the companies that choose the OGL who will lose potential support from those that choose the GSL. It's crap for the gamers who now lose out on potential products that can't be made due to WotC's decisions. It could even be crap for WotC in the long run.

Of course, all of this doesn't even touch on the fact that the GSL will be a revocable license, which means that WotC could pull it away at any time. So, let me rephrase some of what I've just said: the GSL effectively prohibits a company from publishing anything other than support for 4th edition, and at any time WotC could also revoke the right to publish anything for 4th edition.

I don't want to insult people who are planning to use the GSL, but anyone willing to take that offer is not anyone I'd be willing to invest money in. It's a pretty good case study for "Bad Business Decisions 101." Anyone who agrees to the GSL will be allowing their business to be held hostage to the whims of WotC.

Of course, as stated in the beginning, a lot of this is based on speculation. The text of the GSL has not yet been released, and I suspect it isn't even finalized within WotC. I believe that the situation I've outlined above is the how WotC currently intends to release the GSL based on statements made by their representatives; however, I also believe that given the fairly negative reactions received so far that they could decide to go back on this and treat it as if it were a trial balloon that failed.

I hope this is the case, because otherwise I think it would be better if they just made 4th edition completely closed to 3rd party development. Frankly, until now I really didn't care whether or not 4th edition was open, but I do care a great deal if their "open" licensing agreement ends up hurting the other truly open games that are out there, because I'm a lot more interested in those games than I have ever been in 4th Edition D&D.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Card Driven Games

I've found myself playing a lot of card driven games lately. These are games that combine more traditional wargame mechanics with the use of a deck of special cards. In order to perform an action you have to play a card from your hand. That card is generally either used to provide a number of action points you can use to do things with, or generate a special event listed on the card.

The result is that you always have far more options than you can take advantage of. The player that can maintain his or her focus will be the one most likely to succeed. In order to do this they need to be able to identify real opportunities while at the same time avoid wasting their efforts on distractions. It also creates a very nice tension between acting and reacting. You have to react to the cards you're dealt, while at the same time trying to maintain the initiative over your opponent.

Among the card driven games that I either own or have played are Twilight Struggle, 1960: The Making of a President, Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, Paths of Glory, and Shifting Sands. I've been paying particular attention to the two most complicated of those games: Paths of Glory and Shifting Sands.

These games can all trace their lineage back to We The People, which is generally acknowledged as the first card driven wargame. I divide card driven games into two major types that I'm tempted to call single deck games and dual deck games, but the real difference between the two types isn't in the number of decks there are. The real difference is where an event that is favorable to the inactive player can be triggered even if played by the active player. So far the only games like this that I've played have been single deck games, but Hannibal is not like that and also uses only a single shared event deck, so the single/dual deck description is not completely accurate.

The games that have the ability to trigger events favorable to the inactive player are Twilight Struggle and 1960. The advantage to this mechanic is that there's an extra layer of strategy and decision making involved as to whether and when to play certain cards that could benefit your opponent. The disadvantage is that it adds to the luck factor in that if you draw a hand full of cards that benefit your opponent, you can really be screwed. In theory, since you drew a lot of cards that benefit your opponent, there should be more cards in the deck that benefit you, and your opponent should have a greater chance of drawing them. In practice, this doesn't seem to always balance out over the course of a game.

I'll admit that I may change my mind as I play these games more, but for now I'm liking the other card driven games better, where getting a bad hand isn't as big of a deal. They have the additional advantage of giving you more options which forces you to make more difficult decisions. When half your cards have events that only benefit your opponent, it's really easy to decide not to play those events. When all your cards could be played as either events or action points, then you have some tough decisions as to what mix to play.

Unfortunately, two of the three games I have played that don't allow triggering of the inactive player's events are very difficult for new players to learn. These games are Paths of Glory and Shifting Sands. These are both very good games, and they share a common core system that is not that difficult to learn, but they also both have a large number of exceptions to the core rules that serve to add both balance and historical accuracy to the games. The drawback to this is that it's very easy to forget or overlook some of these exceptions, and when you do it can really shift the odds in favor of one player or another.

Fortunately, since the core system for both games seems about 90% the same, it's a lot easier to learn one after you've learned the other. Having tried both now, I'd recommend starting with Shifting Sands as it's a smaller game overall with slightly fewer special rules. In either case, be sure and check out some of the play aids available for the games on BoardGameGeek.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Stix & Pretz

I'm a fan of Japanese snacks. I was ordering Pocky direct from Japan back in the nineties before I moved to California. In California I discovered I could get them just by going down the road to my local Asian food store. Now that I'm back in Arkansas Pocky is a lot harder to find, but another of the snacks I like just got a whole lot easier to find.

That snack is Pretz. Basically a wheat cracker in the form of a stick with some mild flavoring. The standard Pretz is tomato Pretz with a vaguely pizza-like taste. It's even harder to get here than Pocky, so imagine my surprise when I was going through the snack section at Wal-Mart and saw Pingles Stix (yes, I hate Wal-Mart too, but they're very hard to stay completely away from when you live one county south of their home offices). The picture on the box told me that it was at the very least inspired by Pretz so I bought a box to try.

They aren't just inspired by Pretz, they are Pretz. They're marked as a product of Thailand on the packaging, which makes me suspect that they are even made in the same factory. The flavor selection is different, but the base cracker stick is identical down to the little marks from baking, as is the inner foil packaging.

I don't know if there is an agreement between Glico and Procter & Gamble or not, but I suspect there may be. If so, then maybe we'll soon see some Americanized Pocky as well. I can only hope. It's just too bad that no matter what happens, I'm sure P&G will never market anything in the US with green tea flavor.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Problem with Flames of War

I like Flames of War. I like it a lot. I have it listed as my #1 Top Game on Boardgamegeek. I have another blog that's all but dedicated to it. The problem is with the way that Battlefront, the company that makes it, chooses to deal with their customers.

This problem originates in the nature of the game itself. FoW is about WWII combat, but it's not very historically accurate. It was meant to be a fun, easy to learn, fast playing game that gave the feel of WWII combat. The result is more of a game of WWII as presented in movies than it is an accurate representation of tactical combat of the period.

This, in itself, is not a problem. The problem is that they refuse to admit it.

Leaving out the issues with the US National Tournament (and their customer service that took a turn for the worse a couple of years ago and has never fully recovered), almost all the controversy over FoW stems from arguments over the historical accuracy of either weapons, unit stats, or nationality rules. The fact is that very little in FoW is historically accurate in terms of detail, even those parts that they actually try to get right. For example, BF takes great pains to build in accurate TO&Es to their army lists. Yet, in reality, few forces ever went into battle with a by-the-book TO&E.

I'm not sure whether they have made a conscious decision to never discuss this, or whether they actually believe that FoW is historically accurate, but I suspect the former. There are obviously huge abstractions made in many areas of the game, and I have to assume that they haven't blinded themselves to that fact given that they created the game in the first place.

So, why is this a problem? Because the constant bickering and flame wars that develop over the inaccuracies hurts the community of gamers that has developed around the game. If they'd just state that "hey, we know there are a few things that aren't fully accurate, but we felt it was worth it to keep things simple and balanced and fun" they'd nip most of those arguments in the bud, and avoid dividing their customers.

These divisions are magnified by the refusal of the company to put out errata. There are known issues with the books that have been printed. This has been acknowledged in the company forums by company employees. This happens to all game companies. Yet, they refuse to put out official errata in between printings of the books! This leads to conflict between players when it comes to those issues, with some arguing that only the official rules count, and others wanting to play using what the rules as they should be rather than as they are.

This is doubly amazing given their focus on tournament play. What does a tournament organizer do when there is no official errata? Do they use the rules as printed, knowing that there are errors, or do they go with unofficial fan-compiled lists?

It's mind-boggling that they won't go to the simple effort of releasing a .pdf online that lists the mistakes and corrects them, and their excuse of "we want to make sure it's right" is just plain stupid. Maybe twenty years ago that would have been reasonable, but in today's age of instant internet access, if there's an error in the errata, then all they have to do is fix it in the .pdf and post a new version.

Why should they care though? As long as people still play their game, then they make their money, regardless of the problems. The thing is, people aren't playing. At least the people I used to play with aren't. Before I made the move to Arkansas I had played FoW maybe once over a four month period compared to playing at least once a month for the year or so before that. That's largely because the people I played with had become disenchanted with the game, not because of the game itself, but because of the actions of Battlefront.

Now I'm in a new area where no one plays FoW. A year or two ago I would have been evangelizing the heck out of it trying to drum up new players and retailer support. Instead, when I mentioned the game to the local miniatures store owner and he said he had looked at it but decided not to carry it I said "I can't blame you."

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Computer Games I've Been Playing

After a recent video card upgrade, I've been spending most of my recent gaming time on the computer, so I thought I'd go over the games that I've been playing.

First up is the most recent game I've been playing, Sins of a Solar Empire. This game is a combination 4X game and RTS (real-time strategy) game. In it you build an empire and fleets of spaceships to defend and expand that empire. It's a long game, but so far it has held my attention well. The game doesn't require as much micro-management as some other RTS games do, and when micro-management can help, it can be done in such a way that super-fast reflexes are not necessary. In fact, battles themselves often take quite some time to resolve, letting you focus on other things mid-battle without fear of your force suddenly being wiped out in a few moments because you weren't paying complete attention.

There's also a very basic diplomatic mechanism that allows you to forge treaties with some of your AI opponents. While the mechanism is very basic, it is also more logical than those found in many other 4X games, where the AI will make and break treaties for no apparent reason except to frustrate you. In Sins of a Solar Empire, it's made very clear what you need to do to maintain relations with your allies (usually giving them resources or attacking their enemies), and if they do cancel a full alliance, there's still a period of time that must pass before they can actually attack you.

I have run into a few minor frustrations, but I have a feeling that some of them at least are due to failures in my strategy rather than failures in the game. They mainly take the form of having problems crop up in my rear while I'm focusing my main attention elsewhere, especially when I'm forced by stellar geography to fight a two front campaign, but only have the military resources to focus on one front at a time. The resulting campaign can become a bit tedious as I'm forced to shift forces from one front to shore up the other repeatedly until I eventually build up strong enough forces to deal with both simultaneously. As I said, more likely a problem with my strategy than with the actual game design.

Before I upgraded my video card to play Sins of a Solar Empire, I was playing a game of Europa Universalis III. This is another combination 4X/RTS type game, although the RTS element is less of the traditional Warcraft style and more like a turn based game where the computer automatically starts a new turn every couple of seconds (it was originally developed as the computer version of a board game). For years now I've been fascinated with this game, its predecessors, and its sister series set in WWII called Hearts of Iron. Despite this fascination, I don't think I've ever completed a game from beginning to end before. There's always something that I do spectacularly wrong that puts me so far behind that it simply isn't worth continuing. In particular with EU3, I've had great difficulty in mastering the trade and technology systems.

I always found the trade system incredibly tedious, and so generally ignored it. Unfortunately, it's a necessary component in most good strategies. Fortunately, at some point they both simplified the trade system slightly, and added an automation tool. The combination makes it far easier to use effectively in the game.

As for technology, it turns out that the cost to raise your nation's technology is directly proportional to the number of provinces that you control. This was exactly opposite to the way I thought it worked, so I always found myself in control of huge nations that were rapidly falling behind in technology. Once I understood that you needed to expand intelligently, focusing on rich provinces, then the correct strategy fell into place and I was able to play an enjoyable game taking Portugal from the mid-15th century all the way through to 1820. They didn't end the game as the #1 ranked nation, but they were in the top 10 and I had an empire that spanned the globe, with provinces on every continent and in every ocean.

I should mention that the original EU3 only goes to around 1790, but one of the reasons that I came back to the game was that I discovered there was an expansion for it, called Napoleon's Ambition, that takes it through the period of the Napoleonic Wars and ends in 1820. It's only available as a download, but I recommend it to anyone who has EU3 not just for the expanded time period, but also for the improved game interface that it comes with. This download only expansion method seems to be a new pattern with games by Paradox Interactive (the makers of EUIII and Hearts of Iron). They have another expansion for EUIII planned for June called In Nomine that pushed back the start date of the game 50 years to cover the latter half of the Hundred Years War, and adding in several new systems. They also have an expansion out for Hearts of Iron II called Armageddon which I plan on getting when I decide to give that game another play.

If you want a fairly deep strategy game with a basis in history, this would be a pretty good one to give a try. My full game as Portugal was one of the more rewarding gaming experiences I've had on the computer in a while.

Finally, one other game I've been playing lately has been SimCity Societies. This game has been given pretty poor reviews, but I've been enjoying playing around with it for the past few days whenever I've felt like taking a break from the other two more involved computer games that I discussed above. Before I upgraded my video card I couldn't play it for more than twenty minutes without it crashing, despite exceeding the minimum specs. Now that I've upgraded it still crashes, but not until after at least an hour of play (gotta love that EA quality!).

Unlike the other two games I mentioned, this one is pretty much just a sandbox game, lacking any real strategy. I just build my city however I want to and try to either improve the lives of my sim citizens, or torment them depending on my mood. Now that it's working better I plan on spending more time messing around with it, and maybe see if the scenarios that they patched in actually add an element of strategy to it beyond just the sandbox fun it currently has.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Lost Battles

Ancient battles are not something that I know a lot about. One of the reasons that I got this book was to better educate myself on the subject as I have become more interested in games that draw inspiration from the era. Games like Commands & Colors Ancients, Hannibal, and Field of Glory. I first became aware of the book as a result of it being mentioned in some discussions on Field of Glory, and when it showed up as a "users who bought Field of Glory also bought this" item when I ordered Field of Glory on Amazon.

One thing that you quickly learn from reading this book is that we don't really know a lot about ancient battles. We know what role they played in shaping the history of the ancient world, but we don't know a lot of the details of the battles themselves. We know what sides participated, but not exactly how many of them there were on each side. In most cases we don't know exactly where the battles took place, only the general area. Primary sources for the battles are few and far between, often contradict each other when there is more than one, and are often written by those who had reason to alter some of the facts.

With this in mind, the goal of the book is to provide a new way to better understand some of these battles using what information we do have with a new tool. That tool being conflict simulation, or wargaming. In order to present this tool, the book consists of three parts. It's one part game, one part game design theory, and one part history.

The game part is fairly short and consists of less than twenty pages of rules that form an appendix at the back of the book. I have not yet tried to play them myself, but based on reading them, they seem to be playable.

The bulk of the book covers the other two parts. Since the game is supposed to help model historical reality, the author goes into great detail in his reasoning behind every element of the rules. This is where the book really shines for anyone interested in game design. This section has to be the most comprehensive set of designer's notes ever written.

The history portion of the book takes the form of a set of scenarios for the game. Each battle represented is discussed in terms of what we know about it and where the game might help to answer questions about what we don't know. Game stats for the sides involved and a diagram of the battlefield are also included. Often there are suggestions on how to alter either the stats or the battlefield to test alternate theories as to where or how the battle was fought.

Overall, I have to say that the book was a rather dry read. If you don't have at least a passing interest in both game design and ancient battles, with preferably a major interest in at least one of them, then this could be a very hard book to slog through. If you do have those interests, then you could find it a rewarding read. For myself, I enjoyed it, but I think I'll probably get more out of it after I've had the chance to do more reading on the period. Once I have, I plan to come back to this book and read it again.