I completely forgot to upload the script from last week's first episode looking more carefully at game design, which will now be alternate weeks. And I've deleted the script, now, so if you want to hear it, you'll have to listen to it, old school.
I had a bit of a burn-out last week, so I took a day off and feel a lot better for it. Here's the script for this week's episode, typos and all:
It’s Friday 6th November 2020. My name is Robey Jenkins.
My name is Bernard.
...and this is the news.
First, I want to say that you’ll be pleased to know that the news this week won’t mention Coronavirus, the US Election or Brexit, making it very different to 99.5% of all other news sources out there.
Because, obviously, the most exciting thing that happened in the last two weeks is that Precinct Omega Publishing released Zero Dark: Operation Nemesis and it is, inevitably, incredibly tempting to let our discussion this week focus entirely on that. But this podcast, for all that it is a publicity platform for Precinct Omega, is still supposed to be looking at the industry and tabletop wargames market in general, so let’s look a bit wider.
Knight Games has announced an imminently forthcoming Kickstarter campaign for Harry Potter: Catch the Snitch. Not, as you might reasonably conclude, a tale of betrayal and deduction behind the walls of Hogwarts, but a board game version of the magical game of Quidditch. Knight Games is, of course, the new games-focused arm of Knight Models established in just the last few weeks specifically, it seems, to pilot this project. It is fair to describe Knight Models as “embattled”, and their approach to customer relations remains peculiar and no clear explanation has emerged from them as to why they didn’t just call it “Quidditch the Board Game”. The core game will include four teams of seven minis each, a board and umpteen dozen cards, tokens, counters and (of course) custom dice.
Privateer Press’s latest Kickstarter campaign for a new Warcaster: Neo-Mechanika faction box has comfortably smashed its $70k target. Collision Course introduces the Empyreans, an alien force driven by a millennia-old grudge against humanity, who command untold power and yet who fight in pretty much exactly the same way as everyone else in the game - big stompy robots, medium-sized robot-like creatures and smaller, slightly-less robot-like creatures. The boxed set contains an impressively restrained six minis, plus, again, umpteen cards, tokens and (yes) custom dice.
I’ve mentioned them before, but it’s worth reporting that Firelock Games’s Blood & Plunder: Raise the Black Flag Kickstarter has now concluded. The base boxed game contains 24 customizable 28mm 17th Century sailor minis, plus a character leader for two different factions. Most impressive, though, is the inclusion of two plastic ship models. And, inevitably, a load of cards, counters, templates and dice - although, pleasingly, these ones are standard d10s. The backer level for this basic set was $119. Estimated delivery for the set is 12 months away. I, for one, will be very interested to see those ship models go to retail.
Finally, I need to mention one more Kickstarter. Blacklist Games has launched a campaign for Dire Alliance: Horror. Blacklist has a reasonable track record of delivering through Kickstarter and promise that there will be a range of games in the Dire Alliance property, with this being the first. But what makes the campaign, to my knowledge, unique is that they offer backers the option of just buying the game, just buying the miniatures, or buying both. For that reason alone, it is worth a look. The game alone is $50. The minis are $70. And both together are $109.
If you listened to last week’s podcast, you’ll have heard my first show in recent times that focused on discussing design and mechanics rather than industry news. I talked about, among other things, physical efficiencies: objects that are added to a game to make it play better. And I wanted to stick with this theme, this week, as we discuss the use of peripherals in miniatures wargames.
First, there are certain things that, as I design, I don’t consider to really be physical efficiencies even though they kind of are. I don’t think a rulebook, tabletop, miniatures, a small amount of generic terrain, a tape measure and six-sided dice count as physical efficiencies. My place in the market isn’t to be a gateway, drawing in people who’ve never played miniatures games before. I mean, if I do that, wonderful. And I gather that Horizon Wars has been very popular with people trying to introduce younger children of 8 to 10 to miniatures wargames, because it’s quite rules-sparse. But I tend to assume that my customers are going to already be familiar with the basics.
To an extent, I could also lump other common polyhedral dice into that category although, to be fair, although all of my games are based on the use of d12s, I do pretty much think that the d12 counts as a physical efficiency.
That said, let’s talk about my bete noire: custom dice.
I’m not talking about branded dice, here. I love branded dice. I’m an absolute sucker for a dice with a logo, whether it’s for an event, a game, a faction or whatever. I own a quite ludicrous number of dice, even discounting my shop stock of a few thousand d12s, and I love using dice with a story. My favourites are my cake dice: dice marked with the Portal game cake symbol. Not only because I love Portal, but because these dice were made and given to me by an old friend at a fantastic event in Nottingham. Plus, the cake is on the “1” face so, when I roll snake eyes - hey, at least there’s cake.
Yes, yes. I know the cake is a lie. But it’s a sweet, happy lie and I’m prepared to take it in the face of disappointment.
But custom dice… Custom dice are when you have a regular dice shape with custom symbols that you need to roll to generate effects in the game. So, for example, you might need to roll a number of “hit” symbols to shoot a target, with varying numbers of hit symbols needed to hit better armoured or more nimble or simply more distant targets. Likewise, your target might need to roll “block” symbols to cancel your “hit” symbols.
This kind of mechanic is, inarguably, a physical efficiency. And it was used interestingly in the Fantast Flight Games Star Wars RPG and, then, in their Warhammer Fantasy RPG and, then, in their generic system, Genesys. It was cleverly used because they used the normal range of polyhedral RPG dice but they were all custom, so different dice had different numbers of the various custom symbols on them. Clever, eh?
Custom dice sound clever. On paper, they look clever. And the maths behind them - the distribution of odds and probabilities - even proves that they’re clever. But the problem is that they interfere, profoundly, with our intuitive relationship with numbers and probability.
Savage Worlds uses a system in which, as you get better at something, so you roll dice with more faces. Higher results are better, so obviously you have better odds of getting a higher result the more faces you have on the dice you are rolling. This is intuitive. They also have an exploding dice mechanic - which means that, if you roll the highest possible result on the dice, you roll it again. And again. And again. Until you roll something that isn’t the highest possible result. And you add all the results up. Obviously, the odds of exploding a d4 are much better than the odds of exploding a d12, but a d4 still needs to roll several explosions to roll higher than a d12 can roll on a single attempt. This is intuitive. We don’t need to see the tables or work out the maths to understand this. We can just get playing.
But custom dice mess with this. We have to study the faces of the dice to work out the distribution of symbols to understand the distributions of probability. FFG did this particularly egregiously and I’m inclined to think that it’s no coincidence that their RPG arm was shut down earlier this year. Other companies have been smarter. The Aristeia! dice, that Corvus Belli re-used for their Defiance Kickstarter exclusive game, are quite clever in that they use three main symbols: shields, hits and specials. These are then on four colours of dice. Blue dice have more shields. Red dice have more hits and yellow dice have more specials. Orange dice are balanced between the three. Once you grok that simple fact, the rest becomes intuitive.
All the same. Custom dice annoy me, not only as a designer, but as a customer because, generally, you can only use custom dice in the game for which they are designed, and because they are pushed on us as something we should be excited about!
Which brings us to this week’s news.
Not, by the way, the thing about Blacklight Games. I just put that in because it’s cool to see someone selling miniatures and games as separate pledges. Good for them.
It was Knight Games who first drew my attention to this recently, although they are far from alone and I don’t want to give the impression that I have a beef against Knight for some reason. To be clear, I very much want them to succeed. I just want them to succeed by being better at what they do, not by using beloved licensed properties to drive sales against people’s better judgement. Anyway, Knight promoted their Quidditch game - I refuse to call it “Catch the Snitch” because that is stupid - by emphasizing how much you got in the box.
The minis are great, by the way. I mean, if you want student wizards on broomsticks, you’re going to be set for life with this release. I respect that they are going right in with four teams in the box rather than the two they could easily have got away with, adding the other two as supplementary purchases. And the field board is a given, even if I think it looks weirdly small.
But I’m not sure why a customer is supposed to be excited by the quantity of cards and tokens and dice in a game. What they are basically advertising is how long it will take to set up and clear away the game and how much attention you’re going to have to pay to administrative minutiae in order to win.
If I turn away from poor Knight Models for a second, because I feel like I’m bullying them a bit, we can see in Neo-Mechanika’s latest Kickstarter another physical efficiency that gets my goat, which certainly isn’t unique to Privateer Press: character cards.
Army lists in tabletop wargames are something of a necessary evil. I adore Corvus Belli’s commitment to the Infinity Army tool which, with a decent tablet, means army lists are digital and interactive, which isn’t just cool but also 100% meshes with their game’s theme. But the idea of building an army list out of physical unit cards that you lay on the the table also doesn’t seem a million miles away. Is it better than having to print multiple pages of A4 before each game or relying on scribbled notes? Yes, it definitely is. And you’ll see this in Zero Dark. I even sell character cards for Zero Dark on my website.
But my character cards have one design for every mini. You fill them in using the rules in the book. And if you want to make your own, there’s nothing stopping you. They aren’t even essential to the game - just helpful.
But character cards in Warmachine, Hordes, Neo-Mechanika and - outside Privateer Press - Malifaux and Bushido are absolutely essential. You literally can’t play the game without them. And if the game is updated, the cards have to change, requiring players to either re-buy the minis or download new cards.
To be completely fair, most of these companies offer these cards as free downloads from their sites - especially when there’s a change to the originals. But as physical efficiencies go, most character cards are the perfect illustration of what I called in last week’s show a “failure of design”. The cards are essential because the rules for each miniatures are so intricate, contrived or unique that, without an easy reference, players would never remember what they did or how they worked. They only count as an efficiency because the rest of the game is inefficient. Otherwise, they’d be strictly optional.
Now, there are players out there who love this. This kind of need for diligent study and deep understanding of a game’s complexity and synergies really appeals to them, partly because they are of the kind of mind that enjoys that kind of thing, but largely because it serves as a barrier to entry for people who don’t have that kind of mind. And I consider anything that serves as a barrier to entry to be a failure of design.
This is well illustrated by the case of Guild Ball, which had a similar system. And from the sound of it, a good number of Guild Ball fans have switched allegiance to Bushido.
At first glance, this would seem improbable. It has a very different theme and setting. And the resolution systems are quite distinct. But what is has in common are the same complexities of interactions between rules that reward diligent study. Now, I’m not up to speed with the current Bushido rules. I have a lot of time for GCT Studios and people I respect are big fans of the game, so all I would say to those folks is: beware. Bushido is on a pathway already well trodden by Warmachine, Malifaux and Guild Ball. And whilst Guild Ball is the only one of those that’s an actual dead game, the others have clearly experienced contracting interest in the last few years. And whilst some of that can be attributed to Games Workshop sorting themselves out somewhat, I think more can be placed upon companies not recognizing that their game was creating a culture of gatekeeping that prevented their market share increasing beyond a fixed point. And a game that stops growing is a game that starts dying.
With a bit of luck, GCT Studios are already planning their next reboot with this challenge firmly in mind.
Finally, let’s talk tokens.
Tokens have been a thing in tabletop wargames since before HG Wells - when it was a serious pass-time for Prussian junkers engaged in kriegspiel. There’s no getting away from the fact that the physical token to mark battlefield effects is going to be a permanent physical efficiency - at least until we have decent augmented reality and can mark things on the tabletop digitally.
The problem with this is that we begin to expect tokens and to think that games can’t work without them - especially custom tokens. It’s part of the strange draw of the human mind towards consistent branding. This is a phenomenon well known in high street marketing: people like having stuff that matches. We like it if all our furniture is from Ikea. We like having all our toiletries from Boots. It’s not compelling. Few of us go out of our way to ensure our whole lives are branded. But it is a factor in our decision-making.
This is part of why I see people playing Infinity with counter sets that all match, why people - me included! - buy pots of faction dice for a new army, despite having literally dozens of dice already. There are practical reasons, but the appeal of branding is still a part of that.
Anyone who’s played enough games for enough time has enough tokens to represent every conceivable battlefield state without needing more. And yet, people still want “official” tokens for their new game. It’s quite bizarre.
I guess what I’m driving towards isn’t to say that games should have less of these things, per se. But that I’d like to see customers exercising more critical decision making when evaluating a new game offering. Sure, that box is packed with components. But is that really a sign of value for money? Is it even a sign of good design? If a company is trying to promote its product to you on the basis of how many physical efficiencies they’ve managed to pack into their game, you should be asking yourself whether they are, in fact, a symptom of something less desirable - that the game can’t be marketed instead on the quality of the play experience or the elegance of the design.
Let’s talk about how that affects Precinct Omega and my approach to both design and marketing.
First up, some people have taken issue with me talking about “design failure” in last week’s episode, as if “failure” means something is automatically bad. I’d like to be clear that I'm a big believer in that modern cliche - failing upwards. I believe that failure is, generally, a good thing because it means (a) you tried, and (b) you know what you got wrong. And these are the first two steps towards improving anything in life.
Second, in this context, failure is anything that stops a design from being perfect. And as no design is perfect, all compromises on the path are failures. If you feel more comfortable talking about “design compromises”, then that’s fine. But understand that this is what I’m talking about when I say “failure”.
As a designer, I try to visualize the gameplay experience of what I’m doing. That means both imagining what the gameplay should feel like, but also what it should, in real life, look like. Let’s take, for example, Infinite Dark, because that’s the game I’m working on with the most focus, right now.
Infinite Dark is a spaceship game. I want the imaginative experience of the game to feel like the players are at the helm of the vessels they are fighting in, whether that’s being in the cramped cockpit of a space fighter, with just a thin skin between themselves and the empty void, or standing on the bridge of a grand cruiser directing the operations of a fleet of battleships. Imaginatively, that’s where I want the game to put the players.
In practice, of course, they will be standing or sitting at a table, with a black mat and a handful of miniatures.
Now, the use of some physical efficiencies in this environment can actually enhance the connection between the player and the imaginative experience. For example, I have a mechanic in which one vessel can get itself into an advantaged position over another - I referenced a similar idea in Blood Red Skies, last week. In BRS, this is done by using a proprietary flight stand. In Infinite Dark, it’s done with a pair of numbered counters. I don’t mind admitting that I’ve borrowed this from X-Wing’s “lock on” mechanic. But in Infinite Dark the idea is that this isn’t simply a tabletop aide memoir but something that should engage the imagination. Placing that counter is like having an image on your pilot’s heads-up display that tells them that a particular target is now more vulnerable to an attack.
The physical efficiency doesn’t just make the rule work, but taps into the imaginative theme of the game.
However, if I tried to create a similar interaction for every single condition and state in the game, it would be incredibly tedious.
I recently was in a discussion on the Game Design forum on DakkaDakka which, by the way, I recommend. We were discussing the use of damage tables for vehicles and mechs and similar in wargames, in which a dice roll could target a particular point on a vehicle and different weapon effects might affect multiple locations, or whole rows or columns.
It’s one of those ideas that sounds great - and that’s why it’s turned up in one form or another in dozens of games down the years including, most famously, Battletech. But in practice, it is complex enough that it usually achieves the opposite effect to the one intended, by reducing the game to an exercise in bureaucracy more than tactical decision-making.
And it’s the same with Infinite Dark. The game has a power mechanic in which players allocate the power resources of their vessel to various systems which dictates what they can do at any given moment. But if the allocation of power is too flexible, then players will spend three-quarters of any given turn pondering power allocation, instead of engaging with the tabletop. Or if the allocation of power is, at the other end of the spectrum, not influential enough on outcomes, players will simply gloss over the mechanic entirely.
The trick is to make both the mechanics and the physical efficiencies involved in managing the mechanics mesh with the tabletop experience enough to connect back to the imaginative state of the game without overshooting and popping them out the other side.
And, generally speaking, adding more physical components to a game pops them out of the other side.
I’m often highly complimentary of Corvus Belli’s Infinity, and there’s a lot to admire about the game. I’ve not yet played the fourth edition, but a major issue with third edition was that the proliferation of tokens for different states and interactions - many of them highly situational or temporary - was definitely pushing people out of the imaginative engagement with the game. I know that addressing this was an objective with the fourth edition and they tidied up a lot of the management of states and conditions. Whether it was enough, I’m yet to see.
Malifaux has a similar problem arising from its innovative use of a deck of cards.
I love the use of cards in Malifaux. It was absolutely an inspiration to me to see such clever use of what was, to me, a completely new randomizer when the game first released. And I remember wondering why more games hadn’t used playing cards.
Of course, since then I’ve learned that lots of indy games use playing cards for one thing or another. But Malifaux remains an outlier for the sheer variety of tactical and strategic use it gets from its deck. But, with time, that very innovation is what has made Malifaux stutter a bit, in my estimation. Because the deck has become so key to the game that players almost spend more time looking at and thinking about the deck than they do the miniatures.
Now, neither Malifaux nor Infinity is a “broken” game because of their over-use of physical efficiencies. The games still work. But that’s part of the problem. Because the game works, you don’t see the physical components as a problem. But the components are part of what obstructs new players from engaging with the imaginative aspect of the game and which therefore prevents them from becoming emotionally attached to the experience.
Established players are already emotionally attached, so they don’t notice and don’t see the components as a design failure. And the company knows the game works, so they don’t see the failure either. But it’s still there.
My role as the design is to feed the imaginative experience of playing a game into the players’ brains as efficiently as possible. That means trying to shave away anything that doesn’t contribute towards that experience.
It’s arguable that, in Horizon Wars, I may have overdone it. To some, the game is simply too generic and the distinction between elements insufficiently distinct partly because of my dedication to trimming away physical components, which meant there is very little difference between, for example, weapons, except range and damage.
I’ve tried to recapture some of what Horizon Wars may have lost in Zero Dark and, so far, I’m pretty pleased with how we did. If there’s a component that might have benefited from more physical efficiencies, I think it was the Red Force as their abstract nature has proved confusing to some new players.
Hopefully, Infinite Dark will strike the balance it needs to, while I iron out the mechanics over the next couple of months.
If you’d like to participate in the beta of Infinite Dark, keep your eyes on the Patreon campaign, because I hope my patrons will have the first draft to play with before the end of January 2021.
So, before we finish: last week I asked if anyone would be interested in joining me and I’ve had a couple of offers. So I’ll be reaching out to those folks to make time for a chat. I’m going to use the news episodes, like this one, as my opportunity to have conversations with folks and get their take on the latest releases and announcements. Those episodes will likely run to about 45 minutes.
If you’re up for joining me for a chat, please get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll set something up.
Until then, stay safe, stay well and I’ll speak to you again next week.