Thursday 17 December 2020

The Great Game-Book Dig

I love scouring old game books, or even books only loosely related to RPGs, and finding nuggets of thought that are useful in running and designing games.

Sometimes a passage just makes me laugh, which I'm holding in equal value for this post.

Let's pick out some assorted thoughts from recent reads.

Pan Book of Party Games (1958) and The Second Pan Book of Party Games (1963) - Joseph Edmundson

The name and dates of publication give you a pretty good idea what to expect here. There's not much I've found that can be mined for current tastes, except for some truly brutal rules for a series of beach-based wrestling games that would be a great fit for Electric Bastionland.

This was my favourite, especially when I thought the "clasping hands around the neck" was a choking motion, rather than something more like slow-dancing. 

Also I'll present this without further comment.

Maelstrom (1984) - Alexander Scott 

I find this whole book fascinating. It predates Advanced Fighting Fantasy but shares some of its presentation, even including a FF-style solo adventure in the book. It's almost a straight-up historical game, but has a punishing magic system. It's relatively light on rules but has that classic minutiae of the era with distinctions between musician, minstrel, and actor training times, and descriptions of five different types of fraudulent beggars. And, of course, critical wound tables. 

But there's one bit of weird-detail that got me thinking. There aren't stats for a sword, there are stats for seven different swords.

BUT it's not the usual D&D thing of having falchions and sabres and rapiers all function slightly differently. Instead, you can just buy better quality swords that are significantly better (and more expensive) than the inferior options.

D&D has its Masterwork swords, but I like the solid, grounding feel of being able to kit yourself out with just a really good sword, and knowing that an opponent with an even more finely crafted weapon is a real threat.  

Playing Politics (1997) - Michael Laver

This book contains a number of games, I guess varying from "party games" to "strategy games", that aim to reveal something about the political process. 

I stumbled onto this while I was reading about Nomic games, which is a rabbit-hole I'd be interested to spend proper time diving into. 

The part I find interesting here is that each game is presented in three sections.

Section 1: The Rules. Just the hard essentials.
Section 2: Playing the Game. Tips for how to play the game, some of the tough decisions that come up, peeking into some of the depths.
Section 3: Real Games. Insight from the designer based on the actual games that they've played and parallels to real political scenarios (from national government to selling a car).

I feel like there's merit in the idea of an RPG with an extensive "play report" section that breaks down some of the designers own experiences playing the game. We're so used to stilted examples of play, but why not draw on the reality of your game as it hits the table?

One Hour Wargames (2014) - Neil Thomas 

This book is a solid example of a phrase I keep parroting: Put the Core to Work. Basically, I like the approach of giving a game a solid core that needs little explanation, then exploring that core both in breadth of possibilities and ensuring that the player gets the best use out of that compact nucleus. N++ is a great example that I've spoken about at length.

The rules are simple and fast, as the name suggests, fitting on three A5 pages with spacious layout. I reckon you could easily get them down to a single reference sheet.

Then the game repeats these same rules across 9 different eras from Classical to WW2, each like a small, self-contained hack of the original. Each era has just four types of unit. Most eras tweak a rule here or there, so pivoting a unit is more difficult in the tight formations of the Medieval Era than the looser squads of the Machine Age. Some luxuriate in adding in a special rule, like Indirect Fire for Mortars in WW2, but every decision is outlined in a small article prefacing the rules, explaining why the changes were made in order to reflect the warfare of that period. It feels like additions were only made when the designer felt it justified even the smallest increase in rules complexity. 

Then it gives you 30 Scenarios that can be used for each eras, describing some historical battles that influenced it. 

I haven't even tried the game out, and I'm not entirely sold on the specific mechanics and scenarios, but there's something about the approach here that inspires me.

Top Ten Games You Can Play In Your Head By Yourself (2019) - Sam Gorski and D.F. Lovett

So this game is pitched in a sort of "found footage" way that might be the most exciting thing about it. 

The story goes that this book contains 6 volumes from an out-of-print series of games from the 80s/90s. Like Choose your own Adventure but replace all rules with IMAGINE IT and most content with IMAGININE HARDER.

There's a bit of structure to get you started but... I'm not actually going to try and explain how these games are meant to work. There are better write-ups elsewhere and I'm actually more interested in the presentation than the content.

Reading it for the first time is one of those "is this real?" moments that creates quite a unique experience. It's like those lucky few that saw the Blair Witch Project believing it to be genuine footage.

If this was presented as a new book written by the actual authors it would feel awkward and incomplete. If it was presented as an open pastiche it would feel toothless and trivial. But instead, if you allow yourself to embrace the fiction of this being a lost treasure from the past... it has a life of its own.

Some RPGs touch on this idea, but I've never seen it taken to this depth. I'm not even sure it could be done to this extent in an area that has been so rigorously documented over the years, but there's some power here. I just don't know how you'd tap into it yet.

The Complete Book of Card Games (2001) - Peter Arnold

I wanted to read about some card games to see a set of mechanics that are all based on the same limited set of components. It's that old Put the Core to Work thing again, right?

Well, I enjoy a card game, but I think I've learned more about what I dislike in games from reading their rules. 

I'm calling this section "Arbitrary Bullshit" and card games love this sort of thing.

There are dozens of examples, but just one:

"A short pack of 32 cards is used. Removed form the standard pack are the 8s, 5s, 4s, 3s, and 2s. The cards rank in the order 7, 6, A, K, Q, J, 10, 9"

Now I'm sure these little fiddly rules exist for a reason, and removing them makes the game worse, or maybe just not work at all. There must be a reason why 6 outranks 9, but not 7. Well maybe that's a sign something else could be changed in this game? 

Stay tuned for my Kickstarter campaign for a book of ultra-streamlined card games coming 2029.

The Matrix Games Handbook (2018) - John Curry

Matrix Games are big, multiplayer, somewhat free-form wargames that rely a lot on adjudication over hard rules. I find this whole area of games fascinating. I'd like to write in more detail at a later date, but for now there's one thing I like from here.

Their approach to objectives got me thinking. One of the example games is based on Iraq in 2014 and has players taking on roles of the US, ISIS, The Iraqi Government, The Iraqi Opposition, Kurdish Regional Government, Iran. Obviously they've all got vastly different resources they can deploy.

(sidenote: I have no idea how accurately or appropriately any of these are represented, but just using it for an example here)

Each faction also has one or two situational advantages/disadvantages intended to abstract another aspect of the larger political situation. Some factions are just outright better or worse than others if you judge them on these alone.

But at the end of the game, the only thing that matters is your set of three or four unique Objectives.  These are often down to self-assessment at the end of the game. You have to just look at them and discuss with the other player "Have I discouraged Kurdish separatism?" or "Have I avoided US Ground Troops being deployed?".

Asymmetry is nothing new, but I like the looseness of their objectives. I've seen similar systems in place for XP systems in RPGs, but again I feel like there's more that can be taken from this idea.

Zach-Like: A Game Design History (2019) - Zach Barth

The Zachtronics games are a series of problem-solving games that often draw on principles of programming and optimisation.

Note that I say problem-solving, not puzzle games. They present you with a task and the games are usually about solving it in various ways that might optimise speed, simplicity, or efficiency. 

This four-hundred page book is snippets from the design documents of various Zachtronics games going all the way back to the designer's school days. There are hex-based wargames scrawled in pencil and half-baked RPG systems, all the way up to prototype level sketches for their most recent games.

I've hidden from some of my old game designs in shame, telling myself that they're just relics from before I knew better. But Zach appears to revel in his old ideas, often revisiting them as inspiration for the next big, polished release. It's inspired me to rethink how I treat my poor, abandoned old creations. 


  1. I actually owned *and played* Maelstrom.

    It was quirky and the detailed historical realism was sort of refreshing (most of my circle of friends were more into murderhobo AD&D at the time).

    1. i still have my copy! As soon as i read it i never played D&D again, it just made it feel silly after the awesomeness of Maelstrom. I used the system to play other games like Flashing Blades and Bushido.

  2. Where do you go for these books? Just browsing Used Book Stores, I'd guess? If that's the case, what sections do you find them in?

    1. I found the party games books in a used book shop, but the rest were either gifts or things that I heard about somewhere and picked up online.