Archive for April, 2008

Game Tunnel Review

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

Mark Featherstone has written a great review on Game Tunnel going over everything that Armageddon Empires has to offer. He sizes up the marketing difficulty pretty well here along with a nice endorsement.

“I’m not sure how many people will be willing to put in the time needed to get to grips with the basic game, never mind deck building. Please, make the effort. It’s worth it!”

Three Things

Saturday, April 26th, 2008

Life is all about making plans and looking forward to things…or maybe it’s what happens in between doing those things. Anyway, besides my kids’ next soccer games and the next episode of Top Chef, I’ve been looking forward to these three things.

1. The Mutant Chronicles collectible miniatures game by Fantasy Flight Games. Yes, I know it has the dreaded collectible word in it. I’m not going to be coveting a complete set. Just not going to do it. I am going to probably buy a starter box and some boosters and play around with it. It’s designed by one of my favorite designers Eric Lang and the mechanics look very interesting. I do have a bad feeling about this venture’s prospects. Both FFG’s card games went to their new “Living Game Format” and I think this game could either wind up there or canceled. Not that it won’t be an excellent game but the market environment doesn’t look good for a new successful collectibles game at this point in time if it isn’t centered around some iconic property.

Bauhouse Destruction Citadel

2. Age of Conan Board Game also being published by Fantasy Flight Games (and Nexus) but the design team is Marco Maggi, Francesco Nepitello and Roberto Di Meglio… the wonder team that brought us War of the Ring. I long to wear a crown upon a troubled brow…. this one can’t get here quickly enough.

Let me tell you of the days of high adventure....

5. B.P.R.D #8 and HellBoy Movie 2
If you are not familiar with the B.P.R.D. comics you should check them out. They are set in the present but they have a Adventure Noir flavor to them and the art is fantastic. HellBoy is a big favorite of mine as well so I’m cautiously looking forward to the upcoming movie. I went into the first one with an open mind. I’m easy to please so I generally enjoyed it and I expect I will enjoy HellBoy 2 as well but I thought Transformers was a decent Summer popcorn flick so be warned about my tastes in movies 🙂

Frogs, Plagues, Cults and more

Great Moments in Deception

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008

One of the cleverest and most successful operational deception plans of all time has got to be operation “Mincemeat” carried out by British Intelligence during WW II. It was performed in preparation for Operation “Huskey” the Allied invasion of Sicily. This link here has the a complete description of the operation and you really do need to read the whole thing if you aren’t familiar with it. There will be a quiz.

If this theatre of WW II interests you then I’d also recommend you check out this book “The Day of Battle” by Rick Atkinson… and you better pick up the prequel “An Army at Dawn” and read it first. These two books are some of the finest military history that I have ever read.

Assertion: Turn based strategy games need to have mechanisms to pull off operations like “Mincemeat.” How can this be done? I’m exploring that right now with Brimstone. The key I think like many other aspects of game design is to formalize it so that it exits within the “state” of the game and not just the opponents’ heads. What I mean by that is the signaling of false information is channeled/instantiated by some concrete mechanism in the game. Opponents will always try and infer things from the state of the game or by analyzing your demeanor, play style and verbal/written communications. But what about letting players set up “operations’ which were really merely Potemkin villages or elaborate ruses designed to distract opponents. In Brimstone at the beginning of every new turn you are presented with a turn log of all the events that happened during the last processed turn that affect you. The temptation is to view everything as completely factual since the authority of the computer presents these events as “facts.” But what if false information could be seeded into the turn log by opponents willing to spend resources to do that? It’s something that I think is worth trying to pursue. It’s also something that needs to be handled carefully. More later……..

Quiz Question: Where was the man who never existed buried?

Poker Face

Saturday, April 19th, 2008

“Neo, sooner or later you’re going to realize just as I did that there’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”

— Morpheus, The Matrix (1999)

So for the last couple of months I have been watching the World Poker Tour on first the Travel Channel and then The Game Show Network…funny places for a poker show but whatever. They play Texas No Limit Hold’Em and it’s really a fascinating show to watch. You get to see the players’ down cards (in the hole) via a camera either at table top or through glass under the table. You watch some of the best players in the world and soon you start to believe that it’s really pretty easy because you forget that only you can see everybody’s cards. It’s like being god… or a permanent Monday morning quarterback.

Then you get the opportunity to play in a friendly boys’ night poker game. The buy in is just $20 and the cost of your own beer. You haven’t really played poker in many years…for money at least… games against your 10 year old son do not count. The boys all sit down and you can’t be bothered with figuring the big blind/small blind routine so you just decide on $0.25 ante for everybody and take it from there. That’s when it all goes horribly wrong. Sure you win some hands but slowly your stack gets whittled down and you are wondering how you can suck so badly. You have one crazy guy at the table who seems to play like a drunk cowboy on meth with visions from masters on other worlds but when you go to call his obvious bluff he shows you four Jacks that trounce your full house. Soon you end up all in at 11:00 pm with an hour still to go. Next you write IOU’s for $4.00 so you can stay in for the next hour and manage to turn that into $4.20 when the clock strikes midnight…enough to pay off the IOU’s and keep Rocko from breaking your legs.

You thought the big winner was the wild man but it turns out after talking to the wild man he only walked away with $4 in winnings. The quiet guy who always had such a modest stack of coins in front of him ends up the big winner. The whole time he was putting excess coins in a money bag he kept under his chair. He played tight and then finished up the last 2 hours aggressive and over the top of everybody and even the wild man took a beating. You wake up the next morning realizing you not only didn’t walk the path but your not even sure where the hell it is now.

Lot’s of work to do until next month’s path walking.

Love That Joker

Building a Better World

Saturday, April 12th, 2008

I’ve been tweaking the design for Brimstone lately in between chasing down some obscure non crash AE bugs for the next update and continuing the trudge through interface hell for Brimstone. Actually, I’ve been thinking about tweaking the design. Like I’ve said before designing is the best part of being an indie game developer. If some giant of the games industry wants to hire me to work at home and design games for implementation by their vast teams of programmers, artists and producers, I’d seriously consider the idea. Of course having an idea is also the easy part so becoming the Reiner Knizia of computer strategy games isn’t likely to happen. I’m going to have to build all my game ideas one brick at a time.

The thing that has been bugging me is the “turtle/builder” strategy option for the game. I think I have plenty of mechanisms for brute force and deception but I’d like to offer some more options for the navel gazer who wants to have some fun doing things besides making war and stabbing people in the back. I’d like to even offer a path to victory but realistically it’s got to involve some porcupine war stance and some “I’m not a threat to winning” deception…. so a hybrid of brute force and deception with some building thrown in. But what to build? I have implemented public objectives and secret objectives to enable this. Many of the objectives are “accomplish this feat” in nature. They are objectives of action much like you would get in a game of Nexus Ops. But “building” something like a wonder equivalent is a possible objective.

So I’ve been thinking about this aspect of strategy games. Here are some design patterns for building that I have haphazardly (and incompletely) catalogued.

1. The Wonder on the tech tree
The player advances up some type of tech tree unlocking structures/secret projects/accomplishments that usually become instantiated on the game board and provide some type of game play bonus. Picking which “wonders” to shoot for and connecting that to your overall strategy is part of the fun and intellectual challenge offered by the game. Of course, I can’t be alone in that notching these wonders can become compulsively addictive….. to the point of being a end of a means rather than a means to an end. Who among has has not reloaded when some AI built the Sistine Chapel a turn before you were scheduled to. I especially remember doing such things in Alpha Centauri where you had means to instantly convert resources into secret project progress. Letting Zakharov get that gem secret project just was not going to happen.

2. Improving the terrain/map
Alpha Centauri (SMAC) immediately comes to mind. I often played the game just to remove all the pink fungus and terraform the map to my liking.

3. Constructing the Uber Object
Again Civilization comes to mind. The Spaceship to AC is basically the uber object. The basic mechanic of this though is that you divert game resources to pile up in some account/vault that you might have otherwise used to build an army with which you would have used to bludgeon your opponents.

4 The Alchemist
Not sure of a good example for this. I think Dominions comes closest with its forge item strategy component. Basically you combine magical gems to create items that attach to agents you move on the game board. There is an entire sub game that exists in figuring out what magic items you want to craft and what you need to do to go about it.

5. Connecting Things
Given some type of game board you can have a bunch of fun “connecting” things on it. Ticket to Ride comes mind as does any game like Civ where you build roads to facilitate agent movement or increase income from some type of resource system. This could be a subset of improving the map probably.

That’s what immediately springs to mind. What is interesting is that these building activities often have some type of strategy sub game involved that tasks the mind while at the same time they fit into a strategy archetype for satisfying the overall game victory conditions. And as much as I like blowing things up, building things is rewarding in its own right…even if it is just to blow it up. Hegelian thesis and antithesis doomed to sythesize along an infinite loop. Whoa! Time to cut back on the coffee.

Is Real Time An Option?

Monday, April 7th, 2008

This is going to be another one of those stream of consciousness posts so be warned. It all starts with a series of features that Troy Goodfellow is running over at Flash of Steel. The features are mini time machines that go back and examine the pioneers of computer games portraying “Ancients” politics, diplomacy and warfare. Whenever he can, Troy has contacted the original designers and gotten commentary about the design process that is simply fascinating…at least to a would be game designer like me. I don’t know a lot about the period to be honest. I could give you a very brief overview of the historical timeline and a summation of how they fought but I wouldn’t wager much money on its accuracy. I’ve had my eye on this game system for some time but not pulled the trigger. I had a fascination with the Peloponnesian War many years ago and read Thucydides account… but didn’t really understand it until I read Victor Davis Hanson’s excellent book (no relation to me of course) “A War Like No Other.”

As Hanson recounts there were really only two major land battles during the course of the 30+ years war. One at Delium and one at Mantinea. Because of the asymmetrical strategies being used by Sparta (decisive hoplite land battle) and Athens (long walls and maritime empire and projection of power from the sea) neither battle was decisive since Sparta won both. The odd thing about asymmetrical strategies is that stalemate often results until one side musters the ability to beat the other on its own turf…. Sparta would eventually float a Navy and beat Athens at Aegospotami. What I always found fascinating about the hoplite battles though and probably the majority of battles in the ancients time period is how much they were like wind up toys. Even as command and control was improved it still never approached anything resembling the dispersed computerized battle field we have today. From my studies of Civil War battles I can tell you that large infantry battles even then were things that slipped quickly from the general’s hands and events flowed imperfectly from some high level plan.

What I’m trying to say is that two generals often maneuvered their armies until they made contact with a general plan as to how they would proceed but once the fighting started things took on a life of their own. Sounding a general retreat or pursuit order was about the most control they could hope to have. Hoplite warfare during the Peloponnesian War was almost ritualistic. A strong left wing nearly always faced a weak right wing and vice versa. The victor was the army that could crush the opposing wing of weak allies first and turn on the elites. This was soon to change but you can understand how such an arrangement came to be. It was an attempt to eliminate some of the uncertainty of the battlefield even if it meant a dangerous predictability.

This facet of ancient warfare….of the trainer unleashing the dogs and only being able to sit and watch the outcome for the most part got me to thinking about how computer strategy games handle this. The Dominions series of games created by Illwinter and published by Shrapnel does this the best. You position your troops, plot your movement, set your battle stances and watch the results. Combat Mission does this as well but breaks the action up into 1 minute turns. Why haven’t we seen more designers take this approach? It’s real time in that you can watch the fireworks and enjoy the latest visual effects. You get a visceral thrill from observing all the action. All the big components of strategy are there and even accentuated…. risk versus reward, tough choices, engineering tradeoffs (conservation laws), psychology and game theory. I’ve often thought that the Total War series would be much better if you had to position the troops, draw out lines of approach, give some contingency orders and then let the dice roll and see who is right and who is dead.

So this is my type of real time. It’s the type of real time I’d like to see used in more games. Space fleet battles in David Weber’s Honorverse… hell yes. The Sid Meier’s Gettysburg engine adapted to this paradigm… you draw on the map and place the marching routes for your corps and then watch what happens. A tactical AI handles the rest. You can zoom in and see the Sins of a Land Empire. Road to Moscow but in bite sized chunks.

Post Addendum: I should mention Panther Games fine series of WW II simulation/war games. Several readers have emailed me about their high quality and commented on how they match up pretty well with what I am looking for. It did occur to me shortly after I made the post but at the time I was thinking more of set piece battles in the ancients/medieval vein. I would love to see them take their engine and head east 🙂

April Fools

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008

Well the movie and video game deal fell through. 🙂 I’m back to making these turn based games for the real time challenged like myself. I could have been a contender. I’ll just have to move forward in despair.

Huge Announcement!

Tuesday, April 1st, 2008

Well I just signed the contract via FAX so I am free to discuss this openly. You are going to be seeing this across all the major gaming news websites today. Armageddon Empires is going to be a movie! The budget is modest…. only $20 million to start but that might grow if some more venture capitalists or government sources can be convinced to come aboard. It’s the chance of a life time and I have to take it. I wanted to do an anime version but this will be “live action” with extensive CGI. WETA has signed on to do the special effects so it will be amazing. I’m going to be taking a supervisory role as an advisor and co-producer to make sure that the Armageddon Empires universe is faithfully translated to the big screen. The film is going to be directed by a very well known German director who is coming out of retirement to do this because he just loves playing the game and is a big fan. That’s actually how this whole thing started via the internet. It’s a real sign of the times. He is a rabid fan of AE and despite saying that he never wanted to direct another movie adapted from a video game again, well AE was just too enticing to let go unrealized.

It gets even better though. Because AE is going to be a full length feature film, the U Meister (code name because I can’t announce his real name yet) and I have been in secret talks with a major console company to create a real time strategy version of AE built from the ground up for consoles. It’s really exciting but I can’t say anything more until the big guns make the official announcement.

Anyway, not in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine this could happen to me. I could win an Oscar and a Spike Video Game Award in the same year. It’s good to be the King! Hail to the King Baby!

The Fourth Funnel

Tuesday, April 1st, 2008

During the opening months of World War I, a lone German light cruiser, the SMS Emden pulled off one of the most daring and successful raiding sprees of all time. The story of the Emden’s amazing feats, captain and crew is a great read. Operating in the India Ocean, the Emden used Fear and Surprise to great effect. Because no one expects… Anyway, surprise was a key element in the Emden’s success in raiding British commerce. I’ve been thinking about the Emden because of my ongoing work on Brimstone. The Emden used a very old operational deception trick of changing its appearance to gain a temporary but often decisive advantage when stalking its prey, namely British Commonwealth merchant ships. It did so by adding a fake fourth funnel to make itself look like a British warship. It also sometimes flew the British Colors. Remember that wireless was an infant technology at the time of the war. Visual identification played an important role in discerning friend from foe in an age before reliable radio communications, radar, tactical data nets and prop signatures. It was the classic ploy of Captain Blood and 16th Century pirates but it worked brilliantly.

This false signaling is something that I’m going to try and include in Brimstone. Since the game is a high level strategy/diplomacy game it calls more for the Maskirovka approach. Maskirovka is a Russian term broadly meaning military deception but operating on a variety of levels from changing road signs around to fabricating Potemkin armies. My goal in Brimstone is to set up a house of mirrors where every action taken by players can have multiple strategic/tactical interpretations. What I want to do is foster paranoia. I’m building mechanisms to do this throughout the entire framework of the game. I’ll be writing about many of these mechanics in the future but one of the most basic is to allow players to mess with the known information on the board.

In stark contrast to Armageddon Empires, the board in Brimstone is completely revealed and any agents deployed by a player to the board are visible for all to see and inspect in detail. Well, almost all information is available. I’ll explain in detail later but a player can modify an agent on the board to have some information obscured or withheld or even faked. But the presence of the agent is clear cut…mostly. There are no observation rules. It’s like playing a game of Diplomacy and noting that a region has an army. Or does it? A player in Brimstone plays through an Avatar that he or she develops as the game progresses. Improve that Avatar’s attributes and you gain additional powers. Some of these powers are designed to allow a player to mess with board. Perhaps you can create phantom duplicate agents. Perhaps an agent appears in one location but isn’t really there. The idea is to allow the players to manipulate the information gained by observing or not observing the agents on the board to their own advantage.

There is a course a limit to how much deceptive signaling you can do on a fixed map divided into hexagons with finite numbers of agents. The idea of players making good use of deception, false signaling and bluffing is built into many other aspects of the game as well. I’ll address those in future entries.

SMS Emden