Archive for February, 2008

Imperial Intelligence Reports Available

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

Attention Mutants, Imperial Governors, Machine Overlords, Hive Minds and other denizens of the Wastelands!

I’ve added a new section to the Armageddon Empires web pages that gives you a more information about the upcoming free mini-expansion pack (Due 20 MAR 08) Cults of the Wastelands. Be sure to check out the Imperial Intelligence Reports to get a feel for the challenges in store for you.

That is All.

Imperial Intel Report - Cult Activity At Frontier Outposts

Real Audacity

Sunday, February 24th, 2008

I’m not sure if you have come across these two images circulating around the web. I don’t think they are photoshopped. Just a salute to US service members out there demonstrating real audacity every day…calculated risk vs. reward and outside the box thinking.

Mountain Resolve

Rooftop Landing

Just a small personal aside. I flew in one of these things during my Marine Week training when I was a midshipman way back in the Summer of 85. I never felt so sick. The whole thing vibrates. I just sat there in my seat staring at the floor hoping I wouldn’t be the first one to throw up. I made it through the whole flight but it was close.

The Wages of Appeasement

Thursday, February 21st, 2008

Appeasement – A dictionary definition might be: to yield or concede to the belligerent demands of (a nation, group, person, etc.) in a conciliatory effort, sometimes at the expense of justice or other principles.

Appeasement as a strategy is often a bad choice. It can be a catastrophic choice under certain conditions. Perhaps the most famous from the last century is the sad spectacle of the Munich Conference in 1938 and Neville Chamberlain’s worthless paper waved in the air with the declaration of “Peace in Our Time.”

Churchill’s Draft Notice

It’s understandable how this happens. Humans have a tendency to project their own emotions, values and world view onto other humans. It’s sometimes referred to as “Mirror Imaging.” The assumption that the party demanding the Danegeld is just like me can be dangerous if not fatal. There are two major problems with a strategy of appeasement. First it often gives the demanding party something which makes him stronger i.e. territory, wealth, prestige or human sacrifices for his gods. Second it sends a signal of weakness. This second part can be even more damaging than the first. Rather than mollify the demands of the aggressor it emboldens and amplifies them. If the game is zero sum or even if one side is playing it that way then each act of appeasement changes the balance of some key variable whether it is power, will or initiative.

So the structure of the system determines the efficacy of an appeasement strategy. In the anarchic system of nation states, warlords or post-apocalyptic powers, the game is played for keeps and often approaches zero sum. The nation state example is especially applicable when polar ideologies, religions or world views are in conflict. In a system built around a free market of international trade two rivals might tussle back and forth over protectionism, subsidies, and issues of national character and culture but occasional appeasement here or there as a policy prescription isn’t likely to be catastrophic. You can call it accommodation and pick your battles. Don’t be fooled though that you aren’t sending a signal by your actions. You are simply fighting in a padded arena with more room to maneuver.

The efficacy and consequences of appeasement as a strategy also depend on the interests at stake. If you remember back to the analytical framework that I discussed, the existence of a hierarchy of core values and interests makes for a great gauge. Appeasing an opponent on issues pertaining to vital national interests is perilous. But refusing to appease the Dane carries consequences and costs as well. The analytical framework helps identify those costs. Often one cost is that the sword must be bloodied. If the system within which you operate includes the use of force as an arbitrator of disputes then to ignore it as an option is to handicap yourself tremendously. I’ll leave out any exploration of the moral aspects of this topic. Moral grounds can be used for both appeasing the demands and using force to resist them. I think though that if you abjure the use of force, then given a game system within which it operates you often elect to lose the game, whatever that means.

For the human mind it is often a counter-intuitive concept. When playing the strategy game Rome: Total War you often see the following dictum during the load screen: “If you desire peace, prepare for war.” Whether or not it is truly of Roman origin, it does seem to speak a counter-intuitive truth. The costs then of not appeasing the aggressor may be high in blood and treasure. Perhaps it’s better to appease once or twice to buy time for creating a better situation to confront the aggressor? This may well be the case. Often however the aggressor is the one in the position of weakness. The aggressor depends on the lack of will to fight to advance his agenda until he is in position where demands no longer need to be made. Ultimately the aggressor will simply be able to take what he wants.

In Cults of the Wastelands you will have the opportunity to assess the value of appeasement as a strategy tool or pitfall. A messenger will arrive from the Wastelands and make a demand along with a threat. Perhaps there is no truth to the threat. Perhaps you are not in a position to risk it. Perhaps you too will refuse to send a token of earth and water to Xerxes no matter what the cost. The demands will be onerous but perhaps once met there will be no more? Perhaps you can buy some time to create an army to defend yourself. Perhaps you can refuse now. What will you decide?

Gaming Shogun Interview

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

Gaming Shogun has revamped their website and are giving indies some nice support and publicity. I recently sat down with them via email and hammered out this indie developer interview.

Tales Told Around The Campfire

Monday, February 18th, 2008

There has been a lot of design talk about game narrative lately. For me it’s very interesting stuff. I have a real treat for anybody who has the time to enjoy it. A player and professional business strategist named Chris took a liking to the game and he created a really amazing AAR following his adventures as the guiding force behind the Xenopods Hive Mind. He said he took up the gauntlet after reading my RPS Interview where I callously said that the “Xenopods are just hard to love.” I stand corrected!

It’s a PDF and comes in at 741KBytes but it is a really fun read. Get it Here!

Indie Axioms

Saturday, February 16th, 2008

This is an indie life entry about focus, tenacity and the Will to Power. I’m a big lurker and occasional poster over at the indie gamer boards. Here are my personal observations on some kernels of wisdom that I have gleaned from the knowledge warehouse there and other places as well:

1. Start with something simple
Ok, I’ll admit I broke this one right off of the bat. In my defense I did know how to program a bit before I dove in. I’d also worked on some complex projects that while not actually games, were kissing cousins. I’d still probably do it the same way if I had to do it over because part of what was motivating me was the desire to make “my game.” If I had just made the tactical card battle module and called it “Armageddon Cards” it probably would have been a failure. Once again it’s all about risk versus reward. Who Dares Wins. I had some secret weapons though, which were a modest income from other consulting sources, a talented highly employable spouse and the ability to work from home and pick up the some of the child care. I’ve been called a Mr. Mom at more than one university faculty party that my wife has dragged me to.

2. Always focus on one project and work hard to finish it before you move on to the next shiny thing
If you are going to break the first axiom then you had better stick to this one. Grappling with this issue is actually what prompted this entry. I’ve been having heretical thoughts lately. The problem is that designing a game is the most stimulating and fun part of the entire process. Game design is hard. That’s an assertion you see a lot. I agree good game design is exceptionally difficult. However if you put me in a room and gave me a choice between designing something and implementing something, I’d choose the design. Of course in the real world a market often arbitrates this and finds an efficient solution. An architect earns the big bucks and the construction worker does the back breaking dangerous work up on the beams usually for much less pay. But the supply of good construction workers exceeds that of good architects. As somebody outside the mainstream industry it’s interesting to see a sort of inversion. The supply of aspiring game designers seems to be high and the demand is relatively modest. A large game project needs lots of programmers and acquiring the skill set for coding a 3D engine is not something you do overnight. For every 1 John Carmack there are 10 Jon Blows (no disparagement of Mr. Blow’s tremendous talent intended). So pay is generally less for the designer than the programmer. It depends of course on the specific type of job. But I digress.

Lately I’ve been in the situation where the “design” phase is pretty much over. The mold has been cast and what remains is the more mundane ditch digging phase (How’s that for a mixed metaphor!). For an indie this can be a problem. Motivating yourself to do the ditch digging can be tough. Other game design ideas echo in your head like a Siren’s song. Soon you start entertaining thoughts of just doing some “exploratory” work on the new idea. That my friends is the path to the dark side. If ever a slippery slope existed there it is. Go ahead and register the domain name. Go ahead and jot down some notes and diagrams in a special design book. But do not think that you can start working part time on it while you do your main project. I’m speaking of course as a one man indie team. If you have a clone or a small company then your resources might allow for more ambition. And in my mind ambition is one of the key things what makes life worth while.

3. You can have a false start and terminate a project but don’t let that become a habit
It’s called knowing when to fold and it can save you from catastrophe. If you have opted for the ambitious then cutting your losses at the appropriate point can be a good strategy. It happened to me. One big thing to keep in mind is a short word of caution: Don’t scrap it because you are the limiting factor. Scrap it because the project is the limiting factor. What I mean by that is don’t let emotions, laziness or fatigue force you to pull the ejection strap. If the concept is flawed or unworkable then punch out. If you are the problem….well as a famous rock star neuro-surgeon once said “No matter where you go, there your are.”

4. Never despair, but if you do despair, move forward in despair
Words to live by from the great Irish philosopher Edmund Burke. I chant it quietly like a mantra right alongside, “It is by will alone I set my mind in motion…” and “Never bring a knife to a gunfight.” Cliff Harris recently had a post up on his blog “Cliffski’s Mumblings” about NLP … Neuro Linguistic Programming. I’m not a true believer but “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Even if it works on a placebo type effect basis, it’s still a very appealing type of idea. If you are a part time or full time indie you will despair, unless of course you have had a frontal lobotomy. This could be an entire blog entry of it’s own actually. If you work at home it’s especially important to develop strategies for being productive. Otherwise you’ll spend your entire day writing entries just like this. 🙂

Fear and Surprise, Surprise and Fear…..

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

Because no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

Fear and Surprise!

Fear and Surprise are two key elements in the upcoming Cults of the Wastelands mini expansion pack. I’ve been knee deep in the guts of the game rewiring things to implement the new rules. If you are a programmer then you probably are familiar with that odd feeling you get when looking at some old code and wondering what in the hell you were thinking at the time. Sometimes you are pleasantly surprised at how much foresight you had in allowing for modifications and sometimes you groan when you see the hard wired shortcuts that you took. But I digress. This is not the type of fear and surprise that I am talking about.

What I really mean is that this new content to the game is going to be most enjoyable because of fear and surprise. Experiencing the Cults of the Wastelands pack will be sweetest the first time through. It’s almost like playing a campaign with scripted elements that once known become less enjoyable. Almost. The only thing that is really scripted is the cults’ behaviors. However, even then there is enough randomization of the parameters according to which you will interact with them that each playing session will be unique. You may know you are facing a certain cult out there and what they are up to but the game isn’t always going to play out the same way even with this information.

And that brings us to another design point of the expansion pack. Like a good horror movie enjoyment is delivered by the uncertainty of what you are facing. But you have to provide some narrative structure to give the player some idea of the vastness of the universe which would drive you insane if viewed entirely. Because so much is hidden in Armageddon Empires, it’s possible you could be knee deep in the game and never have a clue that out there in the Wastelands an evil Cult was hatching monstrous schemes. So I have created a message system that provides the player with a glimpse of what is going on out there beyond the observed areas of the map. The messages are tailored to each faction and attempt to keep in character according to the faction’s “culture.”

The biggest worry was the initial message. Your first time through you will have little experience with the cults. The message will convey some information but not unlock your stored experience of what you need to do to solve the puzzle. But if you have played the pack already once through then as soon as you see the message the fear and surprise will be no where near as intense. That’s really unavoidable unless I could programmatically generate a new cult each game. Will Wright and the Spore team might be able to do that but not me. Not yet 🙂 In order to mitigate this a bit I have delayed the initial message from appearing on the first turn. Once the cult fully activates after a random number of turns you will get a message. This means you will still have to start some type of opening strategy and be in the middle of it before you know the nature of the threat.

Also, to increase the challenge and surprise factor the cult you are facing is chosen randomly except for the first play through. On the first play through you face each cult in a specific order designed to mess with your mind a bit. As any good cult leader would I will toy with your preconceptions and try and manipulate your thoughts. If I could have consulted with Derren Brown on this I would have. After your first play through then it’s random. Like I mentioned before, if you just want to go back and play a vanilla game then a toggle switch in the options menu will let you do that at any point.

Also at this point there are 4 cults in the mini expansion pack and a total of 14 new cards. I came up with an idea for a new cult that was just too good to pass up. I’m going to have to lock this in though and say no to any more mission creep or the Vernal Equinox will come and no offering will be ready…….famous last words.

The Strategy of Audacity IV

Monday, February 11th, 2008

In the last entry in this series I offered Grant’s 1863 Vicksburg Campaign as a military history textbook classic (ah the irony) of “Thinking Outside the Box.” Here I would like to examine a brief game design example that illustrates how designers set up a system of conventions and then offer players the ability to bend and twist the rules and pull off the unexpected. Magic The Gathering is considered to be the Granddaddy of modern collectible card games. The system is relatively simple but the game play variations are exceptionally complex. I have to embarrassingly confess that I’m really not very talented at them. I’ve only ever played Magic Online and usually just the “leagues” that they offered for a modest buy in. I never won a single prize. I don’t know how it is today but since I broke the habit several years ago it used to be that you could win something just by placing in the top half.

For me the joy of playing Magic was the mental exercise of putting all the system pieces together into different combinations. Magic for me is a little puzzle box. I’m going to assume that you are familiar at least with the basics. If not please DO NOT go and try the game out without getting some addiction counseling before you break the seals on your first boosters. Magic as a system has different components that operate on a geographical identity principle much like areas on a board game. You have your deck, your resources area, your playing field area where you deploy your agents (summoned monsters to do your bidding), and your graveyard. I’m going to focus on the graveyard. Just by naming this a graveyard, the designer (presumably Mr. Garfield chose this) implies that this is a place where dead, used up cards go. It’s often also called a discard deck in some games. The assumption is that spent cards do not rise from the grave. Well, not exactly because this is a card game about powerful wizards hurling spells at each other so Necromancy seems like a natural. And sure enough some “black” cards let you reanimate cards by moving them from the grave yard back to your hand or even the playing field.

This is some light out of the box thinking. The conventions of the name would have you typically think of something in your graveyard as gone especially if you are playing a non black deck. The blue color’s theme ability to send cards back to a player’s hand is sort of similar. The obvious thing to do is destroy cards not give the player a second chance to deploy them. But just by sending a key card or two back to your opponent’s hand you can really take control of the tempo of the game. Besides being annoying it can be deadly.

This is all well and good. But game designers often invent ways to really push the envelope on thinking outside the box. Now remember, I don’t mean the game is designed so that only a Ulysses S. Grant is going to notice the designers’ hint and use the tools to cut a hole in the box. That only happens in real life. In a game system, the designer wants to make the door outside the box relatively easy to find. Finding it and enjoying it is the whole point. One of the doors I found that really tickled me was a card called the Ichorid from the Torment Block.

Ichorid The Rampager

The clever twist on this card is that it dies every turn but reanimates back onto the playing field by consuming other cards already in your graveyard. Yes, it’s just a variation of some type of reanimation technique. But it’s very clever in my non expert opinion. Your first instinct is to shy away from it because it’s so destructive. It permanently removes other cards from your graveyard to fuel its vengeance…gone for ever and not to be of use again. That’s scary to most people. It seems like a card that let’s you make a death ride. And in my experience it was a very powerful death ride that not only won games but frustrated the hell out of your opponent (Why won’t you just die!).

Of course the card can’t go on the death run by itself and the designers made sure there were helper cards to build some momentum. Here is one that I liked to use:

In Dreams

This card let’s you deal out some damage and clear a path for old Icky. The two cards were made for each other because Icky is coming back and if he took some of his own friends with him he’ll get a snack or two and some return appearances.

Love That Joker

This guy is also a nice combo. Need to feed Icky and get some card advantage? There you go. Of course you need to do the modestly unconventional thing and play it on yourself.

These types of card “combos” are nothing new in the CCG world but the mental stimulation of putting them together in unique ways that let players pretend to be thinking a bit outside the box, is one of the reason the genre is so fun and stimulating.

Now With Extra Mutant Power

Friday, February 8th, 2008

Just a quick entry to note that Gaming Shogun has a nice reivew of Armageddon Empires noting its table top wargame flavor.

And Gaming Trend picked AE as its Strategy Game of the Year

Games For Windows Editors’ Choice

Wednesday, February 6th, 2008

I love it when a plan comes together! First Tycho at Penny Arcade hits them in the solar plexus and now Bruce Geryk delivers the knee to the groin. Armageddon Empires is an Editors’ Choice in the Games For Windows March edition that just showed up in my mail box. And it’s not just any old review either. If there is a secret cabal of strategy game illuminati then Bruce Geryk is a charter member. If anything should happen to me after revealing this, there are key documents in my safe deposit box that will explain everything. How’s that for a strategy!

Anyway, Armageddon Empires is on a roll right now and I’m enjoying the ride. I’ve switched into full gear for work on the free mini expansion pack. I’m going to shoot for a release on March 20 which is the Vernal Equinox….it’s a cult thing. I’ve got all the cults up and running as far as the card creation goes. Now I’m taking it one cult at a time and building the new mechanics into the game. As it stands right now I think I am going to require the destruction of the Cult to be a prerequisite for ending the game. You can let the AI’s take it on if you want but that could lead to disaster in some cases. But if you want to win the game you will have to not only eliminate the enemy AI’s but also destroy the cult. I’ll be testing this a lot so it’s not set in stone yet.

Brooski Brings Out The Gimp