Cross-Platform Game Design, Part 2

The Story So Far

Luther and I were recently approached to design a boardgame to enhance an existing RPG product line.  This project got me started thinking about cross-platform game design.

To engage players in your crossover, it must give players new experiences while staying true to the parent game.

Today, we take on the main traits of conversions between board games and minis games. There will be exceptions to every case I present but we are going to focus on the broad trends.

Converting a Board Game Into a Minis Game

Board games tend to be more abstract than their pewter and plastic counterparts.  Thus, when you make this type of conversion, plan to make the play experience more concrete.


Sentinel Tactics-mainCombat in the Sentinels of the Multiverse card game contains no information of location, no concept of maneuver apart from hand management.  Location is the foremost way in which the the board game made these super-powered battles more concrete.  Information of location let us highlight the kinds of details we don’t fret over in the card game.  Line of Sight could now become important, as could range.

Minis games tend to have more variability than board games.  Consider adding subsystems where the parent board game had fixed outcomes.

ST_Battle_ChessMy high school gamer buddies loved adding subsystems to board games.  When we tried Battle Chess on our PCs, several of us were keen to bring that experience to the tabletop.  For those of you who may not be familiar with Battle Chess, its claim to fame was the animations it added.  Digital wizards and soldiers bashed one another across our 8×8 battlefield.  It preserved 100% of the rules of traditional chess, however.  In came our version.  We preserved all movement rules but also gave each unit its own combat ratings.  When a piece moved into an enemy space, a quick die roll determined who captured whom.  Because our delicate Kings could now defend themselves–however meekly–checkmate was removed in favor of a rule requiring capture.  A fixed outcome–piece entering the space captures the defending piece–was replaced with the variable outcome of a die roll.

Adding detail and variability comes with a price, of course.  They tend to add complexity and with complexity comes increased play time.  There are a couple of ways you can address this issue.  The first is to simply acknowledge that your game will take longer to play than the original, to tell your players that longer play time is part of the price of entry to a richer game experience.  Another way is to reduce the scope of your game.  Where the original board game might cover the globe, your minis game might focus on a single battle.

Converting a Minis Game Into a Board Game

So what about the inverse conversion?  Should play become more expansive, more abstract, and faster?  Yes.

Chaos in the Old WorldWarhammer is probably the best known miniatures battlefield game in the world.  Eric M. Lang’s  adaptation Warhammer: Chaos in the Old World abstracted individual battles, making Chaos closer to an area control game.  Play time remained close at two hours but the feel of the game is much more epic.  Lang also gives each player a checklist of objectives.  Satisfy these objectives to win the game; a nice way to round out this board game conversion.

Vlaada Chvátil’s sprawling Mage Knight Board Game takes the battle maps of the eponymous game out of the dungeon and into the wilderness.  Rather than controlling a team, each player controls a single hero who explores the map, defeats interesting monsters, and takes their stuff.  Combat is similarly condensed down; it has multiple phases but damage is streamlined and defeated enemies are immediately removed.
Mage Knight Board Game

A Bit of Both: Board/Minis Hybrids

Titan BoardsMy friends and I were conceiving our version of Battle Chess in the late 1980s.  We did not know it at the time, but Jason B. McAllister and David A. Trampier had already taken our idea the rest of the way in the Fantasy Monster Slug-a-thon Titan.  Titan plays very much like a board game and minis game in one package.  Armies recruit units by travelling across the main map.  This part echoes resource gathering in your favorite eurogame.  When two armies encounter one another, they jump over to a tactical battle map.  You maneuver and sling dice on the battle map as you might in any other minis game.  If you’re interested studying in the strengths of each design type, Titan is a good place to start.

This crossover approach is not uncommon in the historical minis community.  Two players might be using the main map and rule set from We the People or Axis & Allies to govern global actions but disregarding the enclosed combat system in favor of a richer battle with their favorite minis ruleset.

Star Wars: The Queen’s Gambit is another interesting hybrid.  The battle on the Naboo Plains and the battle inside the castle are both wargames but Anakin’s flight and the Jedi battle are much closer to timers in a boardgame.  Supporting the boardgame side are the game cards.  Each one can be played two different ways.  Supporting the wargame side are the dice, or rather that buckets of ‘em players get to roll in the battles.Star Wars Queen's Gambit


Closing Thoughts

Boardgames tend to have greater scope but less crunch than minis games.  Minis games tend to have heavier rulesets but smaller scope than board games.  Each can give a great gaming experience to our players.

In the next column, we will tackle minis game/roleplaying games conversions.  Until then, keep on designing!


What do you think of boardgame: minis game conversions?  Did I miss any features?  Have you written any yourself?  How did you approach it?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.



Writing Effective Adaptations, Part 2

Writing about writing adaptations prompted telling replies from Carl Klutzke and Jonathan King.  Klutzke related some of his adventures (and misadventures) with adaptations while King delineated his appreciation for Battlestar Galactica.  These posts prompted me to wonder how other adaptations in other media are received by their audiences.

Unsurprisingly, most web posts on the subject focus on cinematic adaptations.  Fortunately for us, many core concepts in that medium apply to ours as well.


Jimmy-Akin150Jimmy Akin considered these issues from the eyes of a film critic in his What is a good adaptation? Regarding whether films should be judged differently if they are adaptations “Fans of the work being adapted often have a simple answer: A good adaptation is faithful to the original…[but] what constitutes ‘fidelity?’ Does fidelity mean following the original exactly, or are departures allowed? What sort of departures?”  Akin goes on to assert “a good adaptation is one for which, the better you know the source material, the more you are capable of appreciating the film.”

Akin is on to something here.  Consider some of the themed games you’ve played which had no connection to the source material.  Even if the game were good, knowledge of the theme did nothing to enhance your experience as a player.  But we must acknowledge that the primary market for an adaptation is a fan of the source material.  That fan wants their familiarity with the original material to make a difference–to enhance her appreciation of the game.

michelle-kerns_largeMichelle Kerns extends this argument in her thoughtful 2009 essay What makes a good book to movie adaptation? Five great bookish movies….and five lousy ones that “This mystical combination is not the result of portraying the characters, plot, or setting with religious devotion. The key to a great book to movie adaptation lies in the film’s success at concentrating and magnifying the feelings readers have when they read the book.”  She then goes on to assert that a good adaptation should “boil the book down until the best parts are concentrated together in a way that multiplies what made the book great powerful and emotional enough to jump out from the screen and grab people who’ve never even thought of reading the book.”

Ashley RossAshley Ross’ Time Magazine article How to Turn a Great Book Into a Movie That Isn’t Terrible points to the importance of collaboration: “The difficulty of capturing that essence can be alleviated, though, when authors have a hand in the screenplay” and I couldn’t agree more.  We designers should urge our creators to be collaborators, to share their vision of characters and setting, of tone and pace.

Marshall_McLuhan_holding_a_mirrorThis is not to say that converting a property into a game doesn’t require concession from the creator as well; it certainly does.  As Marshall McLuhan asserted, the medium is the message–a game delivers story to its players not only by the content delivered in the game, but also by the characteristics of games themselves.

Consider some of the themed games you’ve played which had excellent connection to the source material but were terrible games.  Knowledge of the theme might have enhanced your experience but only enough to make that experience less bad, not enough to make it good.  We are creating game adaptations.  They must be good games.  They must take advantage of the features of our medium–player engagement through meaningful decision, active participation in the game’s story.

It is not enough for an adaptation to be a good game NOR is it sufficient for one to be loyal to the source material.  The adaptations we write must both be good games AND serve the source material.  These concepts will all need to be kept in mind as we begin discussing the process of creating an adaptation.

For further thoughts on this subject, steer your browser to James Hunt’s Top 25 underappreciated comic book movies does a solid job of looking beyond the surface of Hollywood’s torrid relationship with spandex at the films which were able to convey the core of the original text while still effectively serving their own medium.  The medium is the message indeed.  Besides, Hunt’s inclusion of some of the best non-action comic adaptations of all time–American Splendor, Persepolis and Ghost World earned him a special shout out.  Well done, Mr. Hunt.

What do you feel is most important quality for an adaptation? What’s your favorite adaptation? Have you written one? How did you go about it?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  You keep reading. I’ll keep writing.

Writing Effective Adaptations, Part 1

Comicpalooza was a few weekends ago here in Houston.  I seized the opportunity to approach several comic book creators, discussing with each an opportunity for game tie-ins to their comics.  The idea of having a new way to market their property excited several of these creators and we arranged to discuss these ideas further after the con.

Why seek these meetings?  Why write adaptations at all?  With a rewarding day job and no particular desire to abandon it for the life of a full-time designer, I am free to pursue any project that interests me.  Why specifically seek to attach my name to comic books, television shows or movies? Why not stick to proven game design ground–the politics of medieval Italy, trade in the Mediterranean sea, castle construction? Why should any designer take the risk of writing a game adaptation?

The answer lies in the summer of 2003. Kevin Horovitz and I were hanging out and generally shooting the breeze. Kevin noted that an excellent opportunity for game design to move forward was lying on the ground, waiting to be picked up.  He pointed out that many American games of the time were endowed with highly marketable themes but mediocre (or worse) game design.  German games by contrast had superior design but  mediocre (or worse) themes.  How wonderful would it be for someone to put modern designers together with marketable themes.  Such games might change the public image of games for the coming generation.  This idea has been floating around my head ever since.

Kevin’s dream has begun coming true.  Today we have designers like Brian Yu, and Rob Daviau who have actively promoted good tie-in design through works like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Batman: Gotham City Mystery.  Today we have solid tie-ins like Star Trek Catan and Game of Thrones.

But for each Star Wars: Epic Duels or Spartacus, we still have hundreds of thin paste-ups with no ambition greater than cashing in.  These are the muggers of the game market, assaulting the buying public with a famous theme and disappearing with their cash, leaving them disappointed and sour to our beloved hobby.

So how do we do it right?  How do we go about creating the Spy vs Spy Boardgame rather than the Full House Boardgame?

Having written a few of tie-in games and worked with a few different IP holders, here are some starting thoughts.  Like many other topics, it is one to which we will be returning.


What To Adapt?

There are a huge number of properties in the world. You could easily spend the rest of your design career writing them. How should you select the right one? Before approaching any creator, three major potentials should be considered: (1) Can the fan base win? (2) Can the creator win?(3) Can you win?

The Fan Base Wins

The ideal property has an enthusiastic fan base. Offer those fans a new experience with the characters they love. Give them a new way to engage with those characters. Let them feel the setting. Let them be the characters. Achieve this and they will eagerly support your product.  If so, the fan base wins.



The Creator Wins

Many creators now work for themselves rather than for any large publishing firm.  They believe in their artistic vision and are willing to take the risk and bring their vision to the world.  Can your design create a new way to reach their fans?  Might fans of your work come check out the creator’s work? Will the added revenue stream helps keep them in the black, able to continue doing the work they love. If so, the creator wins.


You Win

Just like the creators, most of us game designers work for ourselves.  Very few do it for the money.  We know the joy a fun game can bring. One of the greatest rewards for a game designer is seeing players that joy. Can this property bring new players to your vision? Does this property give you the opportunity to expand your catalogue? To write the type of game you’ve always wanted? To push your favorite type of game into new thematic territory?  If so, the you win.


Fan base wins. The creator wins.  You win.  These are the reasons to seek before pursuing an adaptation. Next time, we begin discussing the actual process of creating an adaptation.

What do you feel is most important quality for an adaptation? What’s your favorite adaptation? Have you written one? How did you go about it?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  You keep reading. I’ll keep writing.

Adaptation Case Study: Schlock Mercenary

A popular game design topic is adaptation.  What is the best way to create a game about an existing property.  The game design threads on BoardGameGeek and pretty much every major thread on the Board Game Designer’s Forum have posts on this topic.

I intend to write a full series covering adaptations soon.  Until then, here is one case study.  It follows the creation of the Schlock Mercenary board game from start to finish.


An Innocuous Question

Hotel rooms at gaming conventions are purely utilitarian.  They are storage units with beds.  A place to stash your latest purchases. A place for a shower. A place to catch a bit of sleep between games. Comfort and leisure simply don’t enter into it.  And since less money spent there equals more money for games, it’s common to share a room.

Walter Hunt and I were splitting the bills at a convention in April 2008 when he asked that innocent question, “Are you familiar with the web comic Schlock Mercenary?

I wasn’t.  Walter was introducing me to Howard Tayler’s rich universe, starring a broad cast of amusing sociopaths and villains only marginally more disagreeable.  Adventure! Humor! Epic space adventure told three panels at a time.  I was hooked and knew this would be a great setting for a game.

Howard was also open to the idea of a tie-in for his comic.  Two months of research into his comic along with extensive note-taking and Howard received a preliminary proposal for Schlock Mercenary: The Board Game.  The design was underway.


Work Begins

The next year was spent playtesting, developing and polishing that game.  It was a huge sweeping epic of a game.  Schlock Mercenary: The Board Game spanned all the events of the first book Schlock Mercenary: The Tub of Happiness. Future expansions would tie to each book in the series while the core game focused on Tagon’s Toughs at its beginning. Their first adventures.  The entire cast.  Missions on the ground, missions in space, diplomatic missions and science missions.  Players could team up or oppose one another.  They could interrupt one another’s turns with plot twists and events.

Schlock Player Mat

Sounds great, doesn’t it?  It wasn’t.

Every mechanism worked as it was intended.  And despite every effort, it was dull and mechanical.  The play time was too long.  Turns were anticlimactic.  I consulted with designers outside my regular group while my home playtest team helped me beat on it with a stick.  When Howard and I met at Gen Con 2010, he got the news.  This was not a game either of us wanted to attach our name to.


Get Knocked Down; Get Back Up

There is a lesson here for every aspiring designer. Sometimes, no matter how hard you work on a design, it simply will not come together.  It’s okay.  We all have those designs.  Believe in yourself and keep at it.

XDS at GoFMy wife Debra wisely asserts that any time you raise an issue you should also have a solution waiting to offer. It happened that there was a second prototype I’d been working on–TacDice–a skirmish-level minis game that was testing well.  TacDice was testing with superhero and Star Wars figurines while deliberately keeping the theme open-ended.  Schlock Mercenary needed a game.  TacDice needed a theme.  It was a match made in the proverbial.

Howard and I spent the next hour going over this game and discussing how it might be implemented as a Schlock Mercenary game.  Howard gave the okay and it was back to the workbench for Kevin…


The Second Try

One year later–Gen Con 2011–Howard and I met again, this time to play a game worthy of Schlock Mercenary.  Fast, intense play. Character-specific attributes and powers. Extra gadgets and weapons. Oodles and oodles of dice!  It was this play Howard relates in the KickStarter video.  He gave the go-ahead. Nich Vitek and Living Worlds Games became the publisher.  Since Howard was creating all-new original art for the game and Living Worlds Games was the publisher for 1955: The War of Espionage, there was no doubt this would be another great-looking game.

We continued playtesting the game extensively.  New scenarios were created and tested.  Existing scenarios streamlined. Characters rebalanced. Rules blind tested and polished.

Closing Thoughts

Three years of effort paid off.  Out of the ashes of a failed design came a great one.  Creating the game was hard but satisfying work. I hope that its story has given you insight into the process.
Would you like to know more about designing adaptations?  What’s your favorite adaptation? Why?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.