Tuesday, 26 October 2021

Historical Project 10

One more thing I like about One Hour Wargames is that, as a very casual enthusiast of History, I can put together a battle using the four units that Neil Thomas uses to define a particular era and get a feel for how things were different from Ancient to Dark Ages to Medieval and so on.

Please don't tell me that this ultra-simple game doesn't actually offer a robust simulation of the eras at hand. I'm talking in broad strokes here just as the game intends. 


So of course I dive back into tinkering away on Project 10. The game is designed to capture some of the big-battle feel of the Warhammer of my youth, but could it work for Napoleonics or the War of the Roses? Time to steal even more brazenly from One Hour Wargames and recreate its "Four Units per Era" in P10.

Self-Imposed Rules

  1. Four Units per Era, no more, no less
  2. No new Traits
  3. No new Rules for each era, we're just doing it with standard 2 Trait units
  4. The units for each Era are represented as per their place in that era, relative to the other three units
Okay let's do this after one big disclaimer. I've drawn on One Hour Wargames a lot for inspiration during Project 10, but this is significantly more direct, to the point that I feel obliged to direct you once again to the original book.

Era boundaries are always messy to define, so I've been deliberately vague. If you feel like you need to draw on two adjacent eras for a specific battle then who am I to stop you?

Ancient
A: Infantry (Heavy, Armour) 
B: Archers (Long, Focus)
C: Skirmishers (Short, Loose)
D: Cavalry (Cavalry, Loose)

An era dominated by somewhat unwieldy blocks of infantry. Archers and Skirmishers serve to soften them up through direct fire or harassment tactics respectively. Cavalry lack the raw power of later eras, being almost entirely defined by their mobility here. 

Using the army compositions from OHW always sees at least 50% of your force composed of Unit A, which in most cases is your standard Infantry. Here I thought the Cavalry flank charges would be key, and while they were a factor in my test battle I found Archers and Skirmishers surprisingly useful in cracking the tough shell of the infantry. Remember that units lose their secondary Trait when they are Shaken (halfway to being Broken), making it much easier to finish off one of these blocks once they'd taken some damage. 

My Verdict: Enjoyed this era more than I expected, but I long to break the four-unit rule to bring in some chariots or elephants. Still not entirely sure about the implementation of Cavalry here, maybe I'd drop Loose from them. 

Tribal
A: Infantry (Armour, Heavy)
B: Warband (Impact, Loose)
C: Skirmishers (Short, Loose)
D: Cavalry (Cavalry, Loose)

Based on the Dark Age section of OHW, but I think this era in particular feels like it has potential to bleed into its neighbours, especially with the presence of the Warband. 

I've read wargamers lamenting that early-medieval wargames can deteriorate into two shieldwalls just leaning into each other. OHW portrays the Infantry of this era as just as tough as their Ancient equivalent, but lesser in fighting power. Here we can use the two same traits but swap them to make for a more defensively focused unit. The other big change to this era is the Warband, which provides some actual punch and allows for some devastating flank charges. In my test game a Warband was key in breaking the enemy line, allowing the other units to be flanked and eventually broken down. 

My Verdict: This was still a bit of a drag out fight, especially for the side that was two-thirds infantry. Really walking the tightrope between representing the spirit of the era and making a fun game here. 

Feudal
A: Knights (Cavalry, Impact)
B: Archers (Long, Brutal)
C: Men-at-Arms (Heavy, Armour)
D: Levies (Heavy)

The only era to have a non-Infantry unit in slot A, making up the majority of armies. That alone lends this era a frantic feel of shock warfare. I can't vouch to the authenticity of this, but it's a lot of fun on the table. As with every era, I think you'd want to get creative with your army compositions if you were playing more than a battle or two here.

Archers get Brutal to represent the arrival of armour-piercing longbows and crossbows. Men-at-Arms are something of a return to Ancient Infantry in terms of their on-board role, but it's interesting how different they feel when you only have a unit or two, as opposed to them making up the majority of your army. In the test game they mostly served to protect the Archers. Levies are the only one-Trait unit in this whole experiment, being a strictly worse version of Men-at-Arms just as ruled in OHW. It feels bad to have them in your army, and I guess that's the point? As much as this might just be a fact of any era, I don't especially like having them here. Perhaps I'd replace them with a unit from an earlier/later era depending on the battle at hand. Or maybe split Foot Knights off from Men-at-Arms into their own distinct unit (maybe Heavy, Focus). 

My Verdict: A fun change from the chunky units of previous eras, and definitely one I'd like to play around with more. 

Renaissance
A: Infantry (Heavy, Long)
B: Swordsmen (Impact, Loose)
C: Pistoleers (Cavalry, Short)
D: Cavalry (Cavalry, Impact)

OHW's "Pike and Shot" era begins the transition to range-focused units in the core infantry slot. Here they lose their ranged attack when shaken, a nod to the limited ammo rule from the book.

Lots of manoeuvrability in the other units, with Swordsmen essentially being a return of the Tribal Warband. Feels strange that the Pistoleers here are the only "horse archer" type unit in this whole experiment, but they're a welcome arrival. Under my self-imposed rules I haven't quite captured the anti-cavalry effect of the Infantry's pikes, but in my test game it still felt more useful to use Cavalry to hit the Swordsmen or chase down Pistoleers. 

My Verdict: I enjoyed the missile focus a lot more than I expected, though not 100% happy with the implementation of infantry. 

Revolution
A: Infantry (Long, Heavy)
B: Skirmishers (Short, Loose)
C: Artillery (Artillery, Brutal)
D: Cavalry (Cavalry, Impact)

From the "Horse and Musket" section of OHW, which includes the Napoleonic era that seems to dominate historical wargames in a way that I hadn't quite appreciated. In the research I've done over the past few months, I think I get it now. Even within this single rules system it feels like a sweet spot where you have blocks of infantry and cavalry charges alongside on-board artillery and musket fire. 

Again we see a subtle change in Infantry, swapping the traits from the Renaissance to allow for a unit that will keep firing, but lose some of its effectiveness once shaken. From this point onwards, OHW prevents non-cavalry units from charging, but my rules forbid such bloat. We also get our first on-board artillery, though perhaps a little overpowered here if we're trying to follow the guidance in OHW. Could make an argument for treating them strictly as a one-trait unit in this era. 

My Verdict: I can see the appeal of this era, you've got all the ingredients you need for dramatic battles with lots of gunfire and decisive charges. The Skirmishers make sense as light infantry, but were the least interesting unit in the test battle. Perhaps I'd mix it up with some sort of Elite or Heavy Infantry instead (Maybe with Focus or even Armour to represent their improved morale). I should also confess that these test games were essentially pitched battles, so perhaps not the best situation for Light Infantry to shine. 

Industrial
A: Infantry (Long, Brutal)
B: Elites (Short, Focus)
C: Artillery (Artillery, Heavy)
D: Cavalry (Short, Cavalry)

Finally I lump OHW's Rifle & Sabre, American Civil War, and Machine Age into one era. I feel like the system struggles slightly with these later eras. I did draft a version of the WW2 era too, but decided to draw the line here instead. 

Rifles allow infantry to be a little less static. Elites represent smaller units that aren't quite skirmishers, but are a little more manoeuvrable and reliable. Cavalry are less effective in their shock role, but now have firearms of their own, even having a sort of dismount-mechanic when Shaken. The test game felt a lot like the Revolution era, but with even more focus on shooting. Felt a little like trench warfare at times, for better or worse. 

My Verdict: After the test I'm glad to draw the line here. I understand that every era has its fans, but on a purely gameplay perspective this doesn't do enough to stand out from the previous era. Perhaps I tried to fit too much into one era, but my gut tells me that this system is just better suited to the earlier periods. 


Conclusion
As you might expect, this "rank and flank" system struggles as warfare starts to move toward looser infantry formations and increased focus on ranged combat. If I had to pick a favourite I'm surprised to say that I'd be choosing between Renaissance and Revolution, though if I allowed myself the luxury of a few extra unit types I'd like to revisit Ancient and Feudal. 

Friday, 22 October 2021

Stickiness

This Bastionland Editorial was originally sent as a reward to all Patreon supporters, and is released freely on this site a week after its original publication.

If you want to support my blog, podcasts, and video content then head over to my Patreon.

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Have you ever had that one game book that just sticks with you?

Maybe you don't even play it. There might be significant parts that you don't like. But you just find yourself going back to it and getting inspired.

In 2021, for me, this has been One Hour Wargames by Neil Thomas. 
(also widely available from your typical big online places)


I wanted to highlight a few specific sections that speak to me especially. First, on the the false dichotomy of simplicity vs realism: 

"Readers should always bear in mind that simple rules are not necessarily unrealistic, which all too common misconception has resulted in some monstrously turgid and hideously complex rulebooks being produced in the name of realism."

On creating a simple solution to a complex action (here, manoeuvring a block of troops): 

"Turning is instead depicted in a simple manner, by pivoting units on their central point. This avoids the complexity of wheeling manoeuvres, where wargamers have to precisely measure the movement distance of a unit’s outer corner. The difficulties of turning are instead provided for by only allowing evolutions at the start and/or the end of a unit’s move, but not during it. This reproduces the historical effects, but makes the tabletop process much easier."

On "choosing your battles" when it comes to simulating specific elements of a unit's behaviour. Here we see a "rule breaking" ability used to represent loose formation, and the use of an existing system (weapon range) to represent a more complex manoeuvre common for the unit:

"Skirmishers were noted for moving quite rapidly, and may also take advantage of their dispersed formation in order to pass through other units of all types – this is not something that close order units could achieve, which is why such interpenetration is only possible for Skirmishers. What may appear surprising is that Skirmishers are not permitted to combine movement with shooting – especially since they specialized in approaching the enemy, discharging their javelins, and then retiring to their original position. I have covered this in a slightly different but simpler way, by preventing moving and shooting, but by increasing the firing range of the Skirmishers’ javelins to equal that of Archers’ bows: the process may appear odd; the effect is accurate."

On slaughtering a sacred cow of wargames without sacrificing realism:

"They retain their full fighting ability until destroyed; this reflects a model whereby real casualties are at a fairly low level, but that the sustained experience of combat will steadily degrade a unit’s morale, at which point it routs. This is both simple and historically accurate: most casualties in any ancient battle (and those of most other periods too) were inflicted when the enemy fled, rather than the initial clash of arms. Essentially, loss of morale is reflected in elimination, rather than having to make frequent checks on a unit’s status, which tends to be a feature of complex wargames rules."

Feel like there's a real parallel for those of us with too many RPG systems on our shelf here:

"There is a paradox at the heart of wargaming, in that many players are absolutely and rightly fascinated by finding the right set of rules, but pay far less attention to the type of battle (or scenario) which they play. All too many wargamers will acquire many different rulebooks, examine all facets of their contents, and have very definite opinions upon their veracity – and confine their scenario to the traditional pitched battle."

On randomly generated armies. Perhaps a tough sell to those slow painters among us, but I love the idea of it:

"[Army] variety is always provided by varying the composition of each. Generals invariably had to operate with the troops they were allocated, rather than those with which they would necessarily prefer to act. This doubtless regrettable if historically accurate fact is accounted for by the following mechanism: players must roll a die and consult the relevant table below to ascertain the composition of his or her army (if identical armies are generated, players should re-roll their dice until distinct forces are created)."

Obviously I've done a lot of solo play during the testing of The Doomed and Project 10, so perhaps that's why the next section speaks to me. I like the idea of approaching a solo game like gazing into the petri dish and seeing what emerges. You can "play to find out what happens" even if you're flying solo. 

"These singular contests are very easy to arrange, at least on the most basic level of playing both sides to the best of one’s ability. This style of solo play can produce satisfying and informative games – you can learn a great deal about military history by attempting to execute appropriately realistic tactics on the wargames table, and evaluating their strengths and weaknesses according to the results which occur."

Okay, maybe I've got all the gushing for One Hour Wargames out of my system. For full transparency I should admit that I've only tested the rules out a couple of times solo, and I found there are definitely rules implementations that I'd like to change (hence Project 10). 

Even with that said, it's small, cheap, fast, and if you have any interest in game design focused on simplicity then I still can't recommend it enough.

Tuesday, 19 October 2021

Starter Packages

I'm obliged to remind you that there are just a few days left to back Into the Odd Remastered on Kickstarter.

And I can get away with such rampant marketing, as today's post is actually connected to the work I've been doing on one of the stretch goals.

Starter packages are one of the features that people really enjoy about Into the Odd. The initial inspiration came from this post by Brendan, where he creates a selection of equipment packs for the big four OD&D classes based on the starting wealth roll. 

I loved the quickness of that method, and thought there was potential to evoke a world through these entries, much in the same way that people had recognised in equipment tables. Keen readers that spot garlic in the D&D equipment list will assume that this is a world with known vampires. I wanted to give every player a little nugget of world knowledge just with the gear they get handed for free.

So you end up with this.




And I've done a whole new table as one of the ITO Remastered stretch goals, which really forced me to evaluate what makes a good starter package. 

Really you want to look at each of the (generally) three pieces of equipment individually, and then consider the package as a whole. And guess what? You're looking to hit three different notes.
  • Useful
  • Exciting
  • Informative



Useful Equipment

It's easy to think of Into the Odd characters as down on their luck losers, scaping together whatever bits and pieces they can, and some of the starting equipment certainly points in that direction. In spite of this, we're still playing a game about exploration and problem solving, so no matter how humble the equipment, you're still presenting your players with tools that they can put to use. Some require more creativity than others, but that's just another thing we want to encourage.  

Exciting Equipment

Now maybe this is just me, but I get excited when I see my character starts the game with a pot of glue, or a pigeon, or a net. Of course the big flashy Arcana are exciting, but a lot of the gear in this table thrives on novelty, with Electric Bastionland going even harder in this direction. For those used to more typical D&D-style equipment, it's refreshing to get something weird or even just weirdly mundane. We want items that players will light up when they see, even if its laughing at the absurdity. Useful items are those that the players will find a use for; exciting items are those that the players will enjoy finding a use for. 

Informative Equipment

Good equipment tells you something about the world, and suggests things about your character. At the simplest level, weapons like muskets and bombs nudge you toward a certain set of assumptions, muddied by sitting alongside maces and shields. Weirder entries like "Glowing Eyes" and "Dreams show your undiscovered surroundings" set some of the tone for oddity existing everywhere. Some items imply something about your history, but I've avoided being too prescriptive here. Owning a set of manacles could imply wildly different things about your character's background, but the specific interpretation is up to you. 

The Complete Package

Now the real trick here is that not every part of the package needs to hit all three notes. Instead, you should aim for a package that hits them all when viewed as a whole. Sometimes it's all in the combinations. A dagger isn't that interesting alongside a spear, but it raises more questions next to a bag of sweets or syringe. 


Examples

So let's see how some of these new secret Starter Packages hold up under scrutiny. 






Useful: Your first weapon is always useful, so everybody generally gets one. Poison also fits, but the Bell is less obviously useful. 
Exciting: Poison is always exciting, and tying it to mushrooms gives it a twist on the classic vial with skull and crossbones. I guarantee the player that rolls this will try to get somebody to eat these within the first session. Again, the bell feels like a weak link, but it's all part of the plan. 
Informative: This one is really focused on asking questions about your character. The axe carries certain implications, but the bell is the real spark here. Despite being a super mundane item, it subtly nudges you toward a few different backgrounds. Town crier, of course, or perhaps some religious significance. It's wide open to anybody that would need to make a racket though, perhaps the classic "Bring Out Your Dead!" person. 








Useful: The weapon and Arcanum give this a solid 2/3, but I'll talk about the usefulness of the perfume in the next section. 
Exciting: Arcana are always exciting, so here we let it be the star of the show. Perfume might feel like a purely cosmetic item, but I think creative players will relish the challenge of finding a use for it down in some awful hellhole. 
Informative: In previous starter packages I've tried to avoid overly arcane words. If you're reading this blog then of course we know what a jezzail is, but never forget that we're not normal. For the Alternative Starter Packages I allowed myself a few words that might send players over to Wikipedia. With muskets appearing to be the standard, what does it mean that your character owns a more bespoke, uncommon type of gun? Combined with the perfume and Arcanum it implies a certain worldliness, or perhaps vanity. Lots of ways you could go with this one. 






Useful: Their weapon is bad, although does at least have some secondary function. The worms are certainly challenging and the odour is generally the opposite of useful. However, it's worth noting that this is a Starter Package for a character that has a stat of 18, so their usefulness is already innate in whatever natural talent they happen to possess. 
Exciting: Now maybe I'm strange, but I do enjoy getting this sort of entry. It's designed to prompt some laughter at the table, but again I think the jar of worms is simultaneously bad, but has just enough potential to be useful if you're clever about it
Informative: Not so much informative of the world, but there's no shortage of implication about your character here. Gardener? Fisher? Worm farmer? Just somebody that really likes worms?

To get your hands on the full game with the new Alternative Starter Packages, go and back Into the Odd Remastered on Kickstarter before the campaign closes this week!




Friday, 15 October 2021

Rotation

This Bastionland Editorial was originally sent as a reward to all Patreon supporters, and is released freely on this site a week after its original publication.

If you want to support my blog, podcasts, and video content then head over to my Patreon.

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This month I've picked up a few little two-player boardgames to add to our collection, and the experience is always bittersweet.

Sweet, because these three games are all pretty great in their own ways. Let's do a mini-review after a handful of plays.

Blitzkrieg by Paolo Mori - A great little distillation of fighting WW2 across six theatres. The kind of ultra-competitive back and forth clash that really suits this 15-20min play time, as you can grab a rematch straight away if you feel cheated. Just enough randomness to prevent things being taken too seriously. 

Air, Land, & Sea by Jon Perry - Believe it or not I'm not exactly a WW2 enthusiast, but this game also shares Blitzkrieg's theme, and it's fascinating to look at the two side. They're both quick, low footprint games that try to distil the the grand strategy of fighting a global war into a simple set of mechanics, but this one is really all about "pick your battles". It's a dead simple card game on the surface, but the twist is that you can withdraw from any round of play if you feel like you're going to lose. The earlier you withdraw, the fewer points your opponent gets for winning. So if you play cleverly you could lose twice as many battles as you win, but still win the war because you knew when to pull back and your opponent committed too hard to their losses.  It's that same sort of "agonising fun" that I get from Lost Cities.

The Fox in the Forest by Joshua Buergel - Along the same lines as Air, Land, & Sea, this is a simple card game that's made interesting by a single twist. You want to beat your opponent, but if you beat them by too much you'll be branded greedy and them humble, allowing them to take the majority of the points at stake for themselves. There's clear DNA from some traditional card games here (Oh Hell, which I know as Blob) but it's twisted just far enough and given a nice coat of paint. 

So that's the sweet, but it always comes with bitter. Making room on the shelves.

After a thorough audit I ended up with six games to sell onward, but the bitterness isn't all that strong this time. I feel like each of them has served a purpose and is just ready to move on to a new loving home. I thought I'd look at why that is.

Mysterium by Oleksandr Nevskiy - This is the perfect example of a game that I've thoroughly enjoyed playing, but I noticed it just wasn't ever coming out to the table. Then, at a local games night I played Mysterium Carnival, which is the same game made smaller, quicker to set up, faster to play, and easier to teach. If I had that version I'd probably keep it in my collection with the other small games, but I think it's highlighted that this one just doesn't justify the big box and somewhat involved setup.

Mr Jack Pocket by Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc - This was one of the first really small games that I picked up, and I've got lots of fun memories with it. It's a great little asymmetric, competitive puzzle, but there are just so many other small games that grab my attention more. 

Undo: Cherry Blossom Festival by Michael Palm, Lukas Zach - I was sceptical of this game. You can only play it once, it has a really short play time, and the reviews weren't good at all. Despite that, I enjoyed digging into this little time-travel mystery. As with any mystery game there's a fair amount of guesswork involved, especially in the first few rounds, but I genuinely felt like we managed to puzzle out the truth and reach a satisfying ending. Purely selling this one on because it's a one-and-done game. 

Sub Terra by Tim Pinder - Love the idea of this one, spelunking through horrifying caves with your team of specialists and trying to get to the surface alive. Good, simple rules, slightly fiddly setup but nothing major. Was hoping this would recapture some of the magic of when we first picked up Pandemic, our first venture into modern boardgames, with a similarly novel theme and streamlined rules. But where Pandemic's simple rules created interesting situations, our few plays of Sub Terra felt lukewarm by comparison. Of course you're at the mercy of the draw, but here we found it more annoying than exciting. It didn't help that we were playing with two players, which means taking two characters each. Perhaps this one would be better with a full team of six, but there are so many other games I'd rather bring out with a big group. 

The Crew: Search for Planet 9 by Thomas Sing - Trick Taking made into a coop game is a fantastic elevator pitch, and I was prepared to love this. In actuality it just didn't click with any of the groups I played it with. Similar to Hanabi, I think there's a slight disconnect between the presumed breeziness of a card game and the logic puzzle that emerges during play. Hanabi gets away with it because of the pure novelty of its backward-facing hands, leaving the Crew feeling a little dry by comparison. Some groups would love this, and I think I'd be right there with them, but I try to judge these games pragmatically based on the situations I'm likely to play in. 

Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion by Isaac Childres - Ohhhh this one's the Hot Take. I went through a rollercoaster with Gloomhaven. Weary dismissal when it was the new big-box hotness, intrigue when I saw that it actually had interesting mechanics, second wave of apathy when it became the all-conquering overlord of the hobby, and finally excitement when I heard that a streamlined version was in the pipeline. Then came a second ride on the big dipper! The thrill of setting up this luxurious game, concern as I realised the amount of bookkeeping that was actually required, anticipation as I started to see the potential for clever card play in each character, fatigue as I kept waiting for the scenarios to become interesting... And, well, that's sort of it. I love the card play, the monsters were just okay, and... to be honest I couldn't get excited all that much about anything outside of the characters. They're fantastic, but the missions never sparked our imagination. It's like the opposite of when I talk about "make a simple core and put it to work in interesting ways". It feels like the core is complex (mostly in a good way) and interesting but I never get to do anything exciting with it. Like buying a private jet and using it to visit the supermarket. Again, I see why some people love this and rank it as their number one game of all time, but my copy definitely deserves a new home. 

Tuesday, 12 October 2021

Running a Minimalist Game

After writing a bit about how I design games with minimalism in mind, my thoughts turned to whether this carries over to how I run games.

Standard disclaimer that this isn't the only way to run a game, this is just a look at how I tend to run games like Into the Odd and Electric Bastionland.

As with so many things, we're breaking this down into three parts.



Use Little

I must confess, I do occasionally break out an erasable battle mat but it's really just a whiteboard and I deliberately keep my maps super abstract. For the characters I use coloured pawns from Pandemic. 

But aside from physical tools, remember that you don't have to use every part of the rules buffalo. I still stand by this guidance and note that it doesn't include a section for "now begin using the combat rules". I can absolutely see somebody running a really fun game of ITO or EB just using this process and adjudicating combat through Dilemmas, Saves, and Consequences. 

So much of what makes for an enjoyable game for me exists outside of the rules, so the less I'm thinking about systems the more I can think about the world, the players, and their characters. 


Ask for Little

Perhaps it's because I often play with brand new players, or friends that only have a tangential interest in RPGs, but I always run my games in a way that asks for as little as possible from the players. 

"No, don't worry about reading any rules before we play. Yeah we'll do character creation right there on the night, nothing needed ahead of time. The setting? Aaah it's this big city called Bastion and it's weird but we'll discover that as we go". 

Now, just because I'm asking for little doesn't mean that I don't secretly expect a lot from them, but laying those expectations on them ahead of the game hasn't always been a fruitful approach for me. If I want players to get invested in their characters then I'll lay out opportunities to characterise them through play and ask them the occasional probing question. If I want them to care about the world then I'll do my best to make the world immediately interesting to both themselves and their character. 


Make it Matter

When running very simple systems there's always a risk that things start to feel arbitrary or inconsequential. The lightness of rules infects the fiction and you start to feel disconnected from the ground of your fictional world. 

Personally, I feel like simple rules let you make things matter more if you remember to keep it as a key focus of your game. 

The rules on the page won't give any distinction between wielding a Claymore (d8, bulky) and a Billhook (d8, bulky), but because nobody is worrying about a million small rules your mind is free to make that distinction significant. Description is a huge part of this, and should never be underestimated just because it doesn't carry mechanical weight, but in a rules-lite game of exploration and problem solving the difference of utility between a heavy blade and a spiky polearm often emerge gradually. 


Friday, 8 October 2021

Autopsy

This Bastionland Editorial was originally sent as a reward to all Patreon supporters, and is released freely on this site a week after its original publication.

If you want to support my blog, podcasts, and video content then head over to my Patreon.

-----------------------------

Last week I teased at my thoughts around why the Into the Odd Remastered Kickstarter has been so successful (so far). 

It's really something I should hold off on until I have more data, but with these things you never quite get a full picture, so why not just throw out unfounded theories instead?


As much as I might imagine that this is down to masterful game design and evocative writing, my gut feelings around Kickstarter point in five other directions. Take them all with a pinch of salt, but I'll at least try to think of lessons that we might take away for future crowdfunding projects. I can think of at least one exception to every one of these rules, so keep that in mind.

Warning, some of these words are made up to fit the timbre of the list. I also had to work quite hard to avoid the headings spelling out FART.

Allurity: This is really where it all started. Into the Odd had a beauty of its own in its first form, but it was a book-next-door appeal that doesn't grab eyeballs in the same way as this turquoise-magenta-tangerine cover, the psychedelic collages within, and even the ultra-crisp layout of the text itself. Learning what work to do myself and what to outsource is an ongoing process for me, but I'm extremely happy that I got Johan on board for the visuals of this book. Of course the text matters, but without that visual magnetism a lot of people won't get around to reading it. It doesn't need to be lush, full-colour, hardback decadence, but it should be something that can't be ignored.

Lesson 1: Whatever look you go for, make sure you have a look that won't be ignored.

Familiarity: This is the boring one, and the reason why we see so many films based on existing properties featuring recognisable actors. Even though Into the Odd is far from the most recognisable RPG, I suspect a good number of people have at least heard its name at some point in the past seven years. I could even dare to say that my name might have picked up a small amount of recognition at this point. This isn't the same as saying these things have a gold-standard reputation as marks of quality, but there's power in simply seeing a thing that you recognise by name. Add in Johan and Free League and you've got a much greater number of people that are looking at this project with at least some point of reference. Perhaps it adds just a small chance to grab their attention, but all these small factors add up.

Lesson 2: Keep making things and talking about them long enough that somebody might look at your new thing and think "oh, right, that thing".

Transparency: I try to live by this ideal in all of my work, but Kickstarters are often shrouded in a fog of mystery. Vague details and lofty promises have led to many a disappointed customer. I knew that I wanted to have a full readthrough video live before the KS launch, so I can show people exactly what they're getting, page by page. You get what you see, no mystery boxes here. 

Lesson 3: Give potential backers all the information you have to ensure their expectations will be met. 

Rapidity: Part of this comes from having the luxury of being able to almost finish this project before the Kickstarter was even announced, though bear in mind that most of the actual writing for this book was done like eight-to-ten years ago around full time work. That's all behind the scenes nonsense that backers don't care about, because all that really matters is I announced the Kickstarter three weeks before launch, you'll get your preview pdfs as soon as it finishes, and your physical books a few months later. I'd still like it to be quicker, but for a Kickstarter RPG at this scale that's a pretty rapid turn around. Anecdotal evidence, but I can't count the number of Kickstarters that I've almost backed only to see the reward is due a year later, then bailed out.

Lesson 4: Get as much done as you can before you even announce your project.

Rarity: This one is totally unfounded, and almost works against my Familiarity theory, but I think it helps that I'm not somebody that releases paid products every couple of months. I admire those writers that can make a dozen zines a year, but my style seems to have drifted towards "a load of free nonsense then a big proper book every few years". Anybody that enjoys my books probably knows that this is going to be the book for a good while, so they might be more inclined to jump aboard rather than skipping out. 

Lesson 5: Make your releases feel like a significant event. 

So there we go. I'll throw out one last round of pinches-of-salt and leave those theories with you. 

Wednesday, 6 October 2021

Designing for Minimalism

I spoke about this on last night's stream, but wanted to dwell on the subject a little.

I've made a bit of a point about wanting to make games that push up against the minimalist end of the spectrum, rather than drifting toward the middle. So what does this actually mean when it comes to the process of making a game?

I'll be referring to some parts of Project 10 as examples, but it's the same process I use when working on RPGs.


My thoughts on this can be summarised into a few main points. This isn't intended to be an exhaustive thesis on the matter, so much as the things that are currently at the forefront of my mind.


Minimalism is Compromise

Minimalism in games goes hand in had with abstraction. You're using a few simple rules to (typically) simulate something complex. In Project 10 terms you could break down every clash between units into its own game lasting hours. You'd consider the qualities, position, and condition of every individual soldier on the front line, and the wealth of specific manoeuvres and tactics that they could implement. 

Instead we roll the deliberately swingy Combat Dice and accept that all those factors are tied up in that roll. An attack came up with maximum damage? I guess the defender's front line got broken wide open. Roll a single point of damage, which got blocked by their Shield trait? Guess they pulled up the shield wall and held strong. 

The compromise is that the players don't get to have input on those little fictional details, but in return they get to focus on everything else. Which leads to...


What's the Point?

Making a quick, simple game is all well and good. You sit down and play it in less than an hour, pack it away, and declare it a good, elegant game. Then you forget it exists and start thinking about that monster-sized boardgame you've never managed to get to the table, or that RPG campaign you've been planning since you were twelve. 

In its current state, Project 10 runs nice and quickly, has a balance of strategic manoeuvring with chaotic drama. But what's the point of it all?

In all honesty, that's something I'm still working out, and it's all part of the process. I like that you can run battles so quickly that you can bash out a short campaign in an evening. I like that it's easy to make new army lists that feel different to each other. I like that the short, chaotic games lend themselves well to weird, asymmetric scenarios. But I need to put this all into practice on the page. The sample campaign and army lists are a start, but there's more room to grow here.

For a more complete example look at Electric Bastionland's single spread of rules being supported by hundreds of pages of flavour-filled characters, conducting procedures, and an oddendum of essays. Because the reader isn't spending hours learning the system I can bank on them actually exploring and absorbing that other stuff. 


Table Outranks Desk

It's so easy to sit at your computer and think about rules that this game should have.

I mean of course there should be a rule that lets skirmishers move after shooting. Of course these rocks should slow down units that move over them. Of course pikes should get a specific bonus against cavalry. People who read your game might even suggest these changes, whether they've played the game or not. Some people just want to help, after all. 

Don't go too far down the rabbit hole. Make the minimal viable game and get it to the table yourself, even if you're playing both sides. The stuff that happens on the table is the real test of whether a game needs to have more rules or not.

When you're getting feedback from others, ask for how the game felt at the table, not what they think they'd change or add if they were making this game. Ask them for their problems, you don't want their solutions. 


Cost Every Rule

At this point it's worth pointing out that I love rules! I think every game should have at least one.

And things get really interesting when you have two rules (see below) but for now let's look at the two sides of every rule.

Every rule has a cost. There's the cognitive load on the player of learning another rule, the literal space on the page, the indirect problems that could arise from its interaction with existing or future rules, and even an opportunity cost that comes from closing up an area of the design space. 

Sure, they sound bad, but remember the point here is to weigh them up against the benefits. I recently added a rule to P10 where units that are halfway to being destroyed are Shaken and no longer benefit from the second of their two traits. This rule definitely adds complexity, and it meant I had to reconsider each of the individual traits, but so far I feel like the benefit has been worth it. Now a unit with Shield and Brutal is significantly different to a unit with Brutal and Shield, and there's more incentive to pull your shaken units away from combat so that they can regroup, which is the sort of manoeuvring I want to encourage. 

But really the most interesting thing about that new rule is how it interacts with the traits and prebuilt units. It's almost like...


When there's less, each part matters more.

This can be both a good and bad thing. It's great when you have two simple mechanics that interact with each other in an interesting way, but finding those moments can be tough. It's a bit of a cliché to say that designing a simple thing is more difficult than designing a complex thing, and I don't necessarily think it's true, but it definitely carries a different sort of challenge. You've got to look out for those moments where things click together and jump on them before they escape.


Indulgent Epilogue

Last year I wrote about my early experiences with tabletop gaming, specifically how I spend the months before I actually owned any Warhammer rules or miniatures pouring over issues of White Dwarf, especially the battle reports with their armies arrayed and top-down maps of the battle as it played out.




I think Project 10 is all about trying to capture how those battles felt as I read them at ten years old.