Monday, May 12, 2008

Game Spotting 106 - Board Warp

Check out this GeekList. How many game boards can you recognize once they've been passed through a crazy Photoshop filter? Some you might be able to guess by color, by shape, or by patterns. Some are easier to see at high resolution, and some at low. I had fun with this. A few I had to stare at a while trying to twist my brain into different thinking modes. I might have gotten 20. One I figured out after submitting my answers.

How many can you get?

Sunday, May 04, 2008

From My Radar to Yours?

I've been watching the following lesser-known games with great interest. I'll pass them along to my readers in case you might have missed any of them.

Ascendancy: I'm not a huge fan of 4X games, but this one has grabbed my attention. It claims to be playable in an hour. It has a variable phase order, asymmetric races, and secret "focuses". Some of the playtest images look very striking. Are those glass beads filled with colored sand?

Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear! - Russia 1941-1942: The first of the Conflict of Heroes series, this may be the most accessible and gorgeous hex-and-counter wargame ever made. In a mere 12 pages (including cover, index, and unit/card description page), the stunning rulebook includes infantry, machine guns, mortars, artillery, trucks, tanks, hidden units, close combat, spotters, mines, smoke, fortifications, barbed wire, arcs of fire and unit/vehicle facing, elevation, opportunity fire, and unit/vehicle hit counters (eg suppressed, pinned, stunned, immobilized). Almost everything you need to know is printed on the ¾" counters. This is the game that might bring all the wargame-curious folks into meatier wargaming in a way that even ASLSK #1 could not. The designer has solved the IGOUGO problem without over-simplifying the system (Memoir '44) or abstracting opportunity fire into something unrealistic (Tide of Iron).

Ideology: The War of Ideas: This is far from new, but its upcoming reprint prompted me to check out the rules. Each player controls a nation with a different ideology (Capitalism, Imperialism, Fascism, Communism, and Fundamentalism) and appropriately different advantages and disadvantages. Each home nation competes to control other independent nations through cultural, economic, and military means. The amount of conflict in a nation determines its value. Players can attack and/or withdraw from nations, which might result in loss of control and subsequent changes in value. Players can also develop advances including WMD (worth a VP, unless you use them against another player).

Municipium: If it was only the terrible Valley Games rules and the suspiciously poor Mike Doyle board, I would have no interest in this game. The fact that it's a Reiner Knizia design and that there has been some interesting feedback are the only things keeping me on the hook. I'll probably end up re-writing the rules from scratch.

Neuland: I'm not a fan of Roads and Boats, but this one sounds fun. I did re-write the rules for this one already. The original rules were confusing and described the game's systems incredibly poorly. I feel bad for the average person who might buy this game and have to learn it from the rules in the box.

Senji: 6-player Diplomacy in 90 minutes? I have a feeling that most people who play this game will choose not to use the 4-minute sand timer to limit the negotiation phase, particularly since you might want to talk to several opponents and that you can do it in secret. The interesting twist of this game is that each player has cards for family, military support, and trade. You can offer cards--even those you have acquired from other players--as collateral for your deals. You can hire various samurai each of which has a special ability. A lot of potential here.

The Traders of Carthage: A light card game (with a board) with some planning and a little bit of screwage. Could be a good filler for our group.

Wealth of Nations: Another gorgeous game and rulebook. This is a raw no-luck commodity game. Players build industries to produce commodities, which are used to build other industries and to produce other commodities. Players can buy and sell commodities from the markets, or buy, sell, and trade with each other. Buying from the markets increases the price (a la Power Grid). Selling to the markets decreases the price. Competition for industries is spatial.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Hit Points

While the concept of hit points is typically associated with role-playing games, they are very common in other game genres, particularly adventure/dungeon-crawl games and collectible card games. Hit points are supposed to represent the amount of damage you can take before you die, but the abstraction is a poor one.

Let's look at D&D. There are 3 different standard game elements that affect hit points: class, level, and constitution.

Your class (or profession) determines the type of die used to roll for hit points. For example, wizards use a 4-sided die, thieves use a 6-sided die, and fighters use a 10-sided die. This represents how good each class is at fighting.

Your level (or experience) determines how many of those dice you roll, one additional die at each level. This represents your character getting better at fighting.

Your constitution is a measure of your physical endurance, giving you extra hit points per level. This represents how innately tough your body is.

Putting these into practice makes for some pretty comical results. A 10th-level wizard is as good at "taking damage" as a 4th-level fighter. A character with a high constitution (+4 hit points per level) gains enough additional hit points at 10th level (40) to equal a maxed-out 4th level fighter. An average 10th-level fighter (55 hit points, no constitution bonus) can stand still and take 16 successful average hits from a short sword before dying, while a 1st-level wizard would drop after a single blow. It requires more healing to bring a fighter to full hit points than it does a wizard. And why is it that class and level determine how good a character is at "taking damage", but have no effect at all on how easy they are to hit in the first place?

For 30 years, I've accepted all this knowing it was fundamentally silly.

In reality--or as close to reality as a fantasy world can get--any 2 humans, for example, are roughly equal in the amount of actual physical damage they can take. Having a more rugged body (constitution) would improve this, but would have minimal or no effect as you gain more experience. Being better at fighting should result in taking less damage in similar circumstances as long as you are able to use your abilities.

This last point is very important. A devastating blow against a wizard might be fatal, while only scratching a fighter. However, if both were just standing there, the same blow should have similar effects. In the case of most magic, your class should be negligible. Why should a fighter be hurt less than a thief by a fireball or a magic missile?

We've come to accept the classical hit point system, but would it really be that much harder to adopt something that makes a little more sense? I'm not proposing that the D&D system be revamped; TSR does that often enough as it is. I am suggesting that [board] game designers should consider new paradigms.

For example, the current system involves rolling a d20 to attack, adding any class, level, weapon, and feat modifiers. If you match or exceed the target's armor class, you hit. Then you roll the weapon's damage--which might be a d6 in the case of a short sword--and add any strength and weapon modifiers.

I think that the better the target is at fighting, the lower the chances of doing high damage. The current system relies on the lower probability of a hit, but uses the same damage system. If we build the damage into the roll, it almost comes out naturally. For example, if you exceed the target's armor class by 0/1/2/3/4/5/6/7/8, the base damage might be 1/1/1/2/2/3/4/5/6. This has the effect of decreasing the damage amount as well as the chance to hit as armor class increases. Of course, such a system would require each weapon to have its own table, but with modern role-playing, character sheets are already computerized and auto-filled-in. Such tables would also allow various weapons to have non-linear damages, such as my short sword table above.

Should a wizard in chain mail take damage identical to a fighter in chain mail? Of course not. Your class and level should affect your armor class. The abilities of a fighter to not be hit and to turn potentially nasty hits into minor ones is a skill that comes with the profession and experience. A 5th-level wizard in chain mail might have an AC of 15, while an equivalent 5th-level fighter might have an AC of, say, 20! Using the above short sword example, an attack roll of 21 would do 4 HP to the wizard and 1 HP to the fighter.

What if they are both just standing there? In this case their combat skill is not factored into their AC. They would both have an AC of 15, and would take equal damage from equal attacks. Other things could also affect AC: what weapon(s) you are using, the directions various enemies are attacking from (eg flanking), being slowed or stuck in something (eg mud, web, entanglement), using the environment for cover (eg doors, pillars).

And what about spell damage? In the current system, a character with more hit points is less affected. But if fire, for example, should affect all humans equally, then class and level should not be a factor, although some characters may have special protection and/or special abilities to avoid/resist it. A group of characters with different classes and levels that fails a saving throw against a fireball should all be equally hurt by it.

In summary, what I am suggesting in this D&D example is that all characters have approximately the same number of hit points, and that they do not go up in large increments with experience. Some people are frail and others are tough, but not enough to justify 4 HP versus 80 HP. I would perhaps start each character with 20 HP, and allow them to assign "slots" to make themselves tougher, both at creation time and as they gain experience. This should be a difficult choice, equivalent to increasing an ability score or gaining a feat, and should be 1 or 2 HP maximum (ie dedicating a large amount of time to working out or whatever). I would cap hit points at about 30. Of course, this would require changing the entire weapon and spell systems.

Think about how silly the current hit point system is, and dare to challenge it in your designs.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Pandemic Marathon

On Tuesday night, we played five 2-player games of Pandemic in 3½ hours. The only meta-rule we allow is that no player is required to play the same role twice in a row. This just helps mix things up a bit.

Each game was played with 5 epidemics. We won four of the five games. I'm not sure if this means that we should be playing with 6 epidemics or not. Our previous two games using all 6 epidemics were crazy.

I absolutely love the distribution of the special powers in the various roles. Every time I think that a given role--or combination of roles--is best, another gets its chance to shine. The Researcher/Scientist combo is an obvious one: pass cards easily, cure diseases easily. However, this combo is weak on navigation, so you have to work fast to beat the explosion. The Medic/Dispatcher combo is just pure fun: keep the diseases under control, get to cities where cards can be passed.

Our one loss was using the Dispatcher/Operations Expert combo. These guys have super navigation skills, and little else. They have to use their flexibility both to pass cards, and to keep things under control. In most games I play, it seems there's a point where you think you are close to winning, and you simply decide to stop putting out fires and go for the final cure. This decision is particularly tough to make with this combo.

After 34 games of Pandemic, it's still not getting old.

Some say the decisions are obvious. So far, we have found lots of different creative ideas come up in our discussions of plans. I've rarely felt that there was only one best move.

Some say the game is too random. The setup is random, all the infection cards drawn up until the first epidemic are random (but known not to be any of the already infected cities), and every epidemic city is random. However, the fact that the discard pile is shuffled and placed on top of the draw pile is the brilliant stroke that gives semi-predictability. The one thing I dislike about Arkham Horror is that everything in the game (gates, monsters, encounters, items, events) is random.

If you haven't seen it yet, check out this excellent GoogleTalk given by Matt Leacock, Pandemic's designer.