Landmark Games Part 5

Buddy Walter Hunt proposed recently that some games are essential to every gamer’s education.  He takes the position a bit more strongly than I but does have something of a point.  Some games are so influential that they stand as landmarks.  What are the landmark games?  Which games created genres?  Or perfected them? Or changed the way we look at them?  Walter’s essay below adds We The People to our list.  And since We The People is a game I must confess to never having played, it’s clear that this author has some homework to do…
I have to take some of the credit and some of the blame for my friend Kevin Nunn’s recent series on this medium, discussing the landmark games – the ones everyone should have played as a part of gaming education.

We decided at the outset that we didn’t want to make a list of favorites, or a list of games that we thought were the best overall or the best in a category, but rather the ones – as Kevin said in the first installment – that “everyone should play in order to put modern design into context?” In homage to that particular mandate, I have chosen a game that I consider seminal, even though most gamers (and, indeed, its designer) have passed over in the years since its publication.


We The People

Published in 1994 by Avalon Hill when it was still an independent entity, We The People is the ur-example of a CDG: a Card Driven Game. It is a two-player simulation of the American Revolution, with one player representing the British (and Loyalist allies) and the other representing the Rebels (or Patriots, depending on your point of view). Each turn, players receive seven Operations cards, and take turns playing a card and either conducting “Operations” – moving armies, placing or replacing control markers on the board, or adding reinforcement troops – or executing events. The game progressed until one side or the other achieved a specific victory condition, or a variable ending turn was reached.

This all seems rather mundane today, but twenty years ago it was (if you’ll pardon the expression) quite revolutionary: consider that the most popular game published by Avalon Hill at that time was Advanced Squad Leader: rules-intensive, counter-focused, obsessively-detailed and time-consuming. By comparison, this game lasted six to eight turns of ten to fifteen minutes each, used a minimum of counters on each side with very few numbers, and even lacked a hex map: units moved along lines between locations, highly abstracting all of the cumbersome logistics so endemic to war games.

Leaving aside the evolution of the CDG after We The People came out, there are a number of remarkable innovations that Mark Herman brought to the game.


The Cards

In place of the rigorous move-fight-move sequence of play common to war games, Herman’s design gave each player an ever-diminishing range of choices for each campaign year.

Operations cards, valued 1, 2 or 3, let players do several things. They can move their generals, who in turn move combat units: the ‘3’ cards are the best, since even a bumbling general rated 3 for strategy can be moved; ‘2’s can move ‘1’ and ‘2’ generals, and a ‘1’ can only move a ‘1’ (and there aren’t many of those). They can place Political Control markers, which claim areas of the board. Finally, they can enter reinforcements; hard for the Americans, easy for the British.

Event cards are somewhat different; some are historical (“Baron von Steuben Continental Line Training”); some are merely structural (“Minor Campaign”). Since both players draw from the same deck, however, one side is sometimes stuck with a card that would be better for the other, but these can usually be discarded rather than played at the cost of an action. Some Event cards are required, which is particularly problematic if it’s an unwanted event.

Lord North cards, which set the end date of the game. These cards are required and set the game end, sometimes pushing it out, sometimes bringing it closer. This variable, uncontrolled ending is a unique factor, a real departure for a historical game published in that era. (Though it should be noted that Herman’s seminal Civil War, published by Victory Games a decade earlier, had a variable turn-ending mechanism that kept players unsure when a campaign season would be terminated.)

When all cards were played, the year was over, and some logistics took place before the next year began, unless the end date or victory condition was reached.

Combat was very different as well. Battle took place when units occupied the same space on the board, either because the current player moved to a location, or was intercepted on his way; it was resolved through the use of Battle Cards, which introduced tactics (again, in an elegant and abstracted fashion) that gave a really authentic feel to the conflict.


The Game as History

We The People was aimed at a somewhat different audience than most highly-detailed Avalon Hill “historical simulations.” While it emphasizes historical events, they tumble into play more or less at random; sometimes the bear eats you, sometimes you eat the bear – it depends on a variety of things.

Still, winning with the Americans is hard for all the right reasons (and it’s very satisfying when you do) and winning with the British is hard in a different way, even with logistics and superior numbers in your favor (and, again, it’s very satisfying when you do). The original game included a historical overview that was almost twice as long as the rules. If I was teaching the American Revolution I’d use this game to do it. There’s a huge amount of replayability in there, and two experienced players can set it up and play in an hour, then turn the tables and play opposite sides in another hour. Our game group years ago had two guys who set it up every week at the beginning of the night and played turns in between other games, usually managing two complete plays.


Design Problems

Just as Richard Borg’s original Battle Cry has flaws that were smoothed out and improved with later Commands & Colors games (Ancients, Napoleonics and Memoir ’44 are all far better designs), We The People has design problems, mostly with the Strategy Cards. Each turn, a player has seven cards to play or discard, and sometimes there isn’t much that a specific card can do. In Hannibal: Rome Vs. Carthage, the direct successor to We The People, each card that wasn’t a required event could always be used like an Operations card of minimal value. This method is also used in the classic Twilight Struggle, another direct descendant of this game; it is a definite tactic to deliberately use up a card in this way that the opponent would really prefer to have in his hand. Later CDGs evolved the Strategy Card sets, dividing them according to game period; both Twilight Struggle and 1960: Making of the President do this, as due innumerable others. Games like Here I Stand and Virgin Queen, multiplayer CDG extravaganzas, gave different decks to each player, further refining the experience.

Similarly, the Battle cards, though clever and thematic, often resulted in one-sided outcomes when a player received a particularly unfavorable draw. If anything, the luck factor made players a bit gun shy when it came to fighting big battles – the outcome could be devastating and game changing, turning on the absence of one particular type of card.

Herman himself took these criticisms and the general evolution of the CDG into account by developing a complete redesign, Washington’s War, published in 2010 by GMT. This version introduced many innovations in the basic CDG procedure, added depth and more historical flavor, and still kept the play time to 90 minutes or less.


Does It Hold Up?

We all face the problems of limited time, attention span and shelf space. This is a game that is hard to find these days. The 1995 Expansion Cards – 18 cards, of which 5 are to be randomly selected – add some additional historical flavor, and are even rarer. It’s not as meaty as the updated Washington’s War; it’s not as fluid or as balanced as Rome vs. Carthage; the Making of the President is more “accurate;” Twilight Struggle is more tense (nothing like nuclear Armageddon to make a player focus). But its virtue is simplicity and it is the game that made all of those and many more like it possible. It’s staying on my shelf – and when I play, I will often try something new just to see if it works. (If it doesn’t, I’ll know for next time – which might be an hour later).


What are the landmark games?  Which titles should every game enthusiast play at least once?  We the People is Walter Hunt’s suggestion.

Have you played We the People?  What do you think of it as a landmark game?  What other games do you see as notable ancestors to newer games?  Which ones changed the face of gaming? 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.


Landmark Games, Part 1

I am in Niagara Falls for a convention this week. Roomie Walter Hunt and I have taken to enjoying this weather with a morning walk every day.  The air is crisp. The sky is clear. The breeze is cool. The conversation is engaging and interesting.  We make no effort to discuss games or gaming–and usually don’t since Walter is a history buff and enjoys sharing his knowledge–but today we did.

We were approaching the Rainbow Bridge into Canada this morning when he made an interesting remark. He stated that many boardgame posts respond to the latest product by referencing an older seminal game.  When a follow-up post responds that he has not played it, Walter then asserted that “It’s funny; I do not hear anything he says after that.”

Wow.  that’s a bold statement.

We probed this opinion in great depth while the miles rolled by under our feet.  Walter’s view is that to form meaningful opinions about the latest game, fans should understand its ancestry.  This strongly echoes the position Austin Kleon took in one section of his book Steal Like an Artist (book report coming soon!); that we should all strive to learn from our artistic ancestors.

For me, this raises an essential question: What ARE the essential games?  What are the landmarks everyone should play in order to put modern design into context?

And since you’re reading this blog, you get to read my answers.

With absolutely no further ado, here is the first in my series on landmark games.


Advanced Civilization

Adv CivCivilization was originally released in 1980, designed by Frances Tresham and Mick Uhl. The expansion Advanced Civilization released in 1991.  Civilization is a solid game on its own but I suggest you find the time to try the expanded version offered by Advanced Civilization.  It is a solid example of the right way to create a game expansion.

There are a number of things a twenty-first century gamer such as yourself will learn from playing this 34 year-old game.

The game rules are quite deep.  Avalon Hill rulesets are written in legalese.  They are not an exciting read.  Look past that at the core of the rules.  Reduced to the essentials, they are not terribly long but offer remarkable depth.

Trading brings players into direct contact regularly.  Examining your resources, trying to find a player who has what you need, convincing that player she wants what you to offer, all keep the interaction in the game high.  This is particularly important when you understand that the game generally takes about eight hours to play.

Calamities force players to constantly struggle with the game in addition to the other players .  Advanced Civilization is a game that requires players be proactive and reactive.  Some calamities will strike.  The player who can best prepare for and respond to these calamities is the player who has mastered Advanced Civilization.

settler_of_catan-34-rightHow has Civilization influenced modern design?  International sensation The Settlers of Catan is a perfect example.  Notice how the trading phase and the robber can both be seen as direct descendants of Civilization.

What are the landmark games?  Which titles should every game enthusiast play at least once?  Advanced Civilization is my first suggestion.  Return Tuesday to see what you think of my second.

Have you played Advanced Civilization?  How do you feel about holding it up as a landmark game?  What other games do you see as notable ancestors to newer games?  Which ones were the (ha-ha) game changers? 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.

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.