Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Wisdom comes from examining and reflecting on one’s experiences with an eye toward learning from them. The turn of the New Year offers a milestone at which many people stop to reflect on where they’ve been the past year and where they’d like to go in the coming one. Some set their expectations high with those pesky annual and often-forgotten “resolutions.” Others examine where they’ve gone right or wrong in the past year and resolve to be more mindful of such opportunities to improve themselves in the coming months.

The New Year’s holiday offers a chance for me to reflect on my professional game activities over the past 12 months with an eye toward evaluating my strengths and weaknesses, finding my inspiration, and re-focusing my efforts

Achievements in 2013

Looking back over the past year I see my accomplishments range across a number of activities, few of which one measures in quantitative terms: publishing and promoting gaming product, communicating with the vast gamer community, and connecting with key individuals for both playtesting and networking. Some endeavors have had particular significance for me:

Blogging: Over the course of 2013 I wrote 52 blog entries on adventure gaming and game design. Yes, everyone seems to blog these days and many argue it’s going out of vogue; but blogging fulfills two goals for me. It enables me to communicate with gamers on both general subjects in the hobby gaming field at Hobby Games Recce and on specific issues of game design here at the Game Design Journal. Blogging also requires me to maintain discipline, both to produce relevant, polished editorial content in more than 750 words each week, and to do so on a schedule (every Tuesday morning at alternating blogs). I’m not always successful in the “relevant” and “polished” categories, but the exercise keeps my writing skills active.

Online Playtesting: I sent several projects through various stages of playtesting using online contacts and access through Google Docs (or whatever they’re calling it these days). I viewed this as an offshoot of my activities to increase my online interaction with the gaming community. Early in the year I sent various iterations of my fantasy roleplaying game engine using some innovative dice mechanics (the Oracle System, about which I’ve written before). When inspiration hit me to create a customizable random dungeon generation system, my playtesters rose to the challenge and helped me refine my vision for the product. As with any playtesting effort, some participants offered vague suggestions and impressions (if any at all), but more than I expected provided constructive criticism, fresh ideas, and positive encouragement. I am fortunate to have cultivated a small group of intelligent and loyal playtesters during 2013, an asset I intend to continue using throughout the new year.

Pay What You Want: In 2013 DriveThruRPG.com and its affiliated websites offered publishers the option of pricing products as “pay-what-you-want,” giving customers the option of downloading product for whatever price they wanted, even “free.” The trend quickly gained popularity among publishers for a variety of reasons. I chose to convert all my previously free downloads -- mostly short scenarios supporting my Pulp Egypt and Heroes of Rura-Tonga supplements -- to “free/pay what you want” in an effort to raise some extra revenue from generous donors. (I examined the pay-what-you-want issue and my views of it as a “tip jar” in an earlier journal entry.) The change provided some additional revenue each month; subsequently released free product has fallen under the pay-what-you-want price rationale.

Themed Dungeon Generator: An unexpected project evolved from playtesting the fantasy roleplaying game rules under development. In seeking to self-test the character and combat systems I turned to the venerable random dungeon generation tables of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide (with my own modified monster encounter table keyed to my own game). After finding that experience haphazard and thematically meaningless, I set about creating my own one-page, fillable PDF form to customize my own randomized-yet-themed solo dungeon experience. It suited my needs; with some polishing and quick online playtesting it released to the public through my DriveThruRPG.com e-storefront. It was one of several small game design diversions in which I indulged and the only one to yield saleable product. I generally don’t like releasing small supplements with low price points, but this one sold rather well and made what seemed like sidetracked efforts pay off. (You can read about my solo dungeon delves and the rationale behind Schweig’sThemed Dungeon Generator in past blog posts.)

Goals for 2014

I think I set a positive course for 2013, so many of those trends I intend to continue in the new year; however, many new directions and challenges remain:

Project Completion: I’d like to complete and bring to publication two projects that underwent significant development and playtesting last year: my introductory tank wargaming rules for a younger audience called Panzer Kids; and a fantasy roleplaying game using the Oracle System’s innovative dice mechanic for a basic gaming experience similar to old school renaissance retro-clones, tentatively titled Basic Fantasy Heroes. (I’m also allowing myself to go off on a few other diversion to develop a small abstract board game inspired by some interesting game elements and a quick battle game using 54mm plastic soldier miniatures, which I’ve mentioned before on this blog; I intend both for eventual publication in PDF form, quite possibly for free.) I fully subscribe to the philosophy that “We will sell no wine game before its time.,” which, regrettably, means projects take their time to reach publication, but they meet my personal quality standards on several levels.

Convention Scene: I’m hoping to return to the regional convention scene this year, partly to playtest, demonstrate, and promote my game projects, but also to enjoy myself, mingle with gamers, try new games, and enjoy old ones with new friends. Unlike my previous convention experiences years ago where I attended as a gaming guest running games, speaking on panels, and hosting a dealers table, I’m taking a more relaxed approach, especially in these times of fewer and smaller conventions, tighter finances, and fewer invitations to gaming guests. I have plans to visit a few conventions I’ve attended before, as well as leads on a few others, both well-established and relatively new, I’d like to try.

Continued Blogging: I sometimes debate whether it’s worth my time to continue writing two blogs, one each week, especially when I’m light on relevant topics, have little time and focus to write, or simply don’t feel as enthusiastic about my subject as I should. Part of my blogging satisfaction comes from a need to create meaningful content, but another comes from the interaction I enjoy in sharing these views on the adventure gaming hobby and game design issues. On occasion these missives and discussions inspire me in new directions. I’m looking forward to generating more discussions through blog topics that interest me and the gaming community at large.

E-Publishing: I need to re-focus some efforts to promote my e-publishing endeavors more effectively, beyond actually producing and releasing product (a challenge given my limited time, focus, and energy). I learned during 2013 to use social networking, blogs, word of mouth, and the Griffon Publishing Studio website to promote my activities and publications and intend to continue those practices. But I need to spend time to more effectively market my materials using the publisher tools offered by DriveThruRPG.com and its affiliated sites -- particularly the “featured product” messages -- to boost sales. I also need to start seriously looking to make several of my PDF products available through that website's print-on-demand program.

My reflections on where I’ve been and where I’m going with my game-design endeavors serves as both a kind of “annual report” of the past year and an outline of some tasks that lay ahead. In reviewing last year’s “New Year’s” post I’m relatively satisfied that I’ve at least confronted the challenges I set for myself in 2013; I’m looking forward to moving into 2014 with renewed purpose and some solid goals to achieve.

As always, I encourage constructive feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Admiring Interesting Game Elements

I occasionally like to highlight and discuss interesting game elements I notice, whether they can actually influence or inspire my own game design work. Collins Epic Wargames’ Spearpoint 1943 by Byron Collins impressed me with its multi-faceted damage cards and overall smooth interpretation of World War II tactical skirmishes in a card game format. Tasty Minstrel Games’ Coin Age by Adam McIver incorporates an innovative mechanic in which the random elements determining what actions one can take also serve as the pieces one places, all on a “micro” map that can fit in your pocket. By sheer coincidence both games are running Kickstarter funding campaigns, though Coin Age’s ends in the next few days.

I first noticed this game while attending a small miniatures wargaming convention in Williamsburg, VA, where the creator was running demos. A friend who manages a comics and gaming store showed me a demo copy and was particularly impressed with the damage card mechanic, which, on first glance, offered a different damage complication on each of its four edges corresponding to one of the four unit types (infantry, tanks, aircraft, and artillery). I’ve had my eye on the game ever since -- in a casual sort of way -- but always hesitated at the $29.99 price tag. This past Thanksgiving Collins Epic Wargames had a Black Friday sale that, even with shipping, brought the game into my acceptable price range…so I ordered a copy that was promptly delivered two days later.

The game comes with 50 cards each detailing German and American forces, 25 command cards with advantages and special actions to play as the skirmish develops, and 25 damage cards. Players customize a force based on card points, deploy several units, then engage in combat. The skirmish game concept reminds me somewhat of what I’ve read about Up Front, the card game version of Avalon Hill’s venerable Squad Leader, though I imagine Spearpoint 1943 is a bit more streamlined than that hard-core wargame.

During the course of combat units can sustain damage in the form of points deducted from their endurance (a numerical value indicative of overall strength). Spearpoint 1943 employs an elegant little mechanic in which a card keeps taking damage throughout the turn, but at the turn’s end it defaults back to either full endurance or, if damaged below half endurance but not yet destroyed, then back to half endurance. Any unit taking more than half its endurance in damage also draws a damage card. Each edge of the card contains text for specific damage effects to one of the four unit types. Tucking the card beneath the damaged unit -- with the specific damage effect edge text showing -- also reminds players the unit’s now at half endurance.

Spearpoint 1943 also uses a few other innovative mechanics I like. The game requires players to commit crew cards when putting vehicles and artillery into play. This might seem like an unnecessary detail in a basic skirmish game, but functions as game balance for more powerful units. Players initially deploy only four cards, so a vehicle card and crew card to make that vehicle operational take up two card spaces that might otherwise go to two infantry units. In playing additional forces from one’s hand one must wait until both a vehicle and the associated crew appear when drawing from the reserve deck.

While the cards at first seem overly complicated with many different stats and the rules might seem a little overwhelming as players try to put together all the numbers and procedures, the mechanics work intuitively when everything’s put together on the game table. (I wouldn’t mind finding rules for solitaire play….) Although the interesting elements I admire don’t seem to fit into any games I’m developing right now, they’re certainly approaches I’ll keep in mind for the future.

Collins Epic Wargames is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to fund a version of the game set on the Russian front (the original Spearpoint 1943 covers tactical engagements during the campaign in Italy in 1943). While I’m not planning on backing this particular version of the game -- I’m not really a huge fan of action on the Eastern Front -- I’d love to see a version covering German and British skirmishes in North Africa in 1942-43.

Billed as an “area control microgame,” Coin Age consists of a credit-card sized map with four similarly sized pages of rules; players provide the “pieces” using pocket change (one quarter, two nickels, three pennies, and four dimes for each player), though the Kickstarter campaign has already funded the stretch goal of a set of punchboard coins.

The game’s innovative mechanic involves using the coins not only as randomizers to determine player actions but as available pieces to place on the map to control territories. One player is “heads” and the other “tails,” enabling all coins to serve as double-sided counters on the board. Players “roll” (or more accurately “slap!” as demonstrated by the Kickstarter video) the two-sided randomizers (“coins”), with the combination of heads or tails to match the player’s side determining what actions the player can take: placing one, two, or three coins matching the player’s side, moving an already placed piece to an open territory, or even capturing an already placed piece and adding it to their “bank” of available coins to “roll.”

Players aren’t limited to placing pieces on empty territories; they can put a piece on an opponent’s piece on the board as long as the coin is physically smaller than the one upon which they’re stacking. For instance, a player might put a nickel on top of their opponent’s quarter, taking that territory as their own; but their opponent can re-take the area with a penny or dime on a later turn.

The game ends -- and the scoring begins -- after someone claims the last open territory or uses up all their coins. Scoring not only depends on who holds the most territories, but who has majority control of several “regions” consisting of one, two, three, or four spaces. Smaller coins score fewer points than the larger coins, which are already scarce within each players’ bank of available pieces.

Both the “randomizers as pieces” concept and the “stacking territory capture” elements appeal to me, though not for any game I currently have in mind. I could easily see rolling dice and using them with the values they roll as pieces of different strengths (and I’m sure someone’s already done it somewhere). Stacking pieces to capture areas from lesser-value pieces also adds a good bit of strategy to the game: if you make a grab for someone else’s territory you do so at a lower-scoring point value. (Hmmm, the stacking capture mechanic might work for a Gordon Relief Expedition game I’ve causally had in the back of my mind….)

I’m impressed and encouraged by several strategies in Coin Age’s Kickstarter that appeal to me as a potential backer:

Free PDF: Regardless of whether you back it, you can still preview and play the game for free with the PDF download rules and board available at the Kickstarter website. Try before you buy, so to speak.

Low Price Point: The minimum backer level (including shipping anywhere in the world) is a minimum $3, with a suggested “donation” of $5. When was the last time you paid $5 for a well-nuanced strategy game?

Stretch Goals for Everyone: The Coin Age Kickstarter campaign offers a veritable horde of stretch goals that apply to everyone backing the game. As of this writing people who back the game at any level get an additional map on durable “credit card-like” material, cardboard coin tokens (so you can save your change), stickers with the cardboard coin token design to apply to real coins, and -- yet to be unlocked at this time -- one or two additional maps! All this in addition to the originally promised main microgame board and rules. No add-ons or exclusive stretch goals for those backing at extremely expensive levels…just basic rewards for everyone to celebrate the game’s Kickstarter successes.

Support Our Troops: Midway through the campaign Tasty Minstrel Games added an extra backer level in which supporters could not only get copies of the game for themselves, but could also pay to have copies sent to troops overseas through the Operation Gratitude organization. [Edit: Kickstarter administration has since rescinded this pledge level as it supposedly violates their terms in not donating funds to charities...the exact wording and intent of which backers have debated -- and expressed their displeasure with -- at the Coin Age crowdfunding page.]

Ultimately I backed this project for multiple copies, one for myself and a few as gifts for friends.

As always, I encourage constructive feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Appropriate Games at the FLGS

Upon hearing that a new Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS) opened in my town a mere 10 minutes’ drive from my house -- unlike the other good FLGS in the area, at almost an hour’s drive -- several people commented that I now had a place to a) run a classic D6 Star Wars Roleplaying Game session or b) run playtests of my game projects in development. While I’m flattered by the suggestions, the FLGS is no place for such blatant displays of fond nostalgia or self promotion; however, game conventions remain one of the best places to indulge in unsupported “dead” games and test new projects with some willing gamer guinea pigs.

It’s one of those common sense rules one might think goes without saying; but younger people are coming into the hobby, and some folks don’t generally maintain an awareness of such game-etiquette nuances. A call recently went out from my other, farther FLGS seeking people to run roleplaying games…with the understandable caveat that the games use rules currently offered in the store. It’s a gentle reminder to help avoid misunderstandings and bruised feelings when we interact, especially with such a face-to-face social activity as games in the FLGS.

The FLGS is a business and relies on sales. While some accommodate loyal customers running games not sold by the store, most expect players to run games currently available on the shelves. Even then, I believe if I drop in to use the FLGS’s open gaming space -- and the store doesn’t charge a fee to do so (some do) -- I feel obliged to either make a game purchase, however small, and if I can’t find something relevant to my gaming interests, I buy a soda or two.

I’ve enjoyed my two forays into gaming at the new FLGS in town. One Friday night -- the night the store designated for both Magic: The Gathering and the Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game -- I brought along my ships and starfield felt to play with a friend from our occasional board game group; he’d previously only played with the extremely basic but engaging quick-start rules with several other friends and our Star Wars-obsessed toddler, the Little Guy. (I’ve discussed games acceptable for toddlers with adult supervision before.) So this evening provided an opportunity to try the full game with its numerous complexities that enriched gameplay. We had a great time and met a few other players trying out the game. My friend bought a graphic novel and I bought a soda, so we felt we’d duly discharged our minimum loyal customer obligations.

Then last Saturday afternoon the Little Guy and I needed to get out of the house. He’d spent most of the day watching somewhat-kid-acceptable kaiju DVDs and Return of the Jedi and had done little else; my wife needed a break, and I just needed to get out. So the Little Guy and I packed up King of Tokyo and my box of Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures and headed out to the new game store. After looking around at games we checked with management and found a spot to pull out King of Tokyo. After finally winning a game we took a break, checked out some of the other games running in the store, looked at some merchandise, and then returned for a quick X-Wing Miniatures Game. The store staff was very friendly and had a great time talking with the Little Guy, who can be extremely gregarious with adults. We felt very welcome and the Little Guy felt at ease. As a reward for his good behavior and to take advantage of the store’s Thanksgiving Weekend “Buy One Get One Half Price” sale (and some credit I had from old comics I’d traded in) we bought another A-wing fighter and the HWK-290 (a ship I’d been lukewarm about, but can be ideal for either a Rebel-allied smuggler ship or a bounty hunter ship) to round out our available forces.

Much as I’d like, I wouldn’t consider running any kind of game at either FLGS that those stores did not actively carry, especially games I’m developing that aren’t yet for sale or might only see release as a PDF available online. Granted, that limits me in what I can play there in the fields of roleplaying, board, and war games; but I respect the FLGS as a brick-and-mortar retail establishment. Some stores don’t mind what customers run, and that’s fine; others charge a small fee to use open gaming areas, and one might see that negates any obligation to run games available in the store. But overall it’s just good manners to make sure the games one runs at the FLGS are acceptable to management…and to respect the store’s decision.

Game conventions offer a good environment in which to run old games or try new designs still under development. A good con offers a wide range of gaming to cater to a diverse crowd, from “dead,” unsupported or out-of-print games, obscure games, or those yet-to-see-publication that creators wish to playtest. Although many conventions offer dealers halls, no obligation to exclusively run particular games exists. While conventions still reserve the right to approve and schedule games according to their own considerations, they’re generally more receptive to offering games one might not find in the FLGS.

I have several games in development I’m looking forward to testing at upcoming conventions. I’m hoping to playtest my beginner-friendly set of tank wargame rules with progressive, add-on complexity (tentatively titled Panzer Kids) at a few small wargaming conventions this spring. I may try playtesting my fantasy roleplaying game rules -- something with a retro-clone feel but some innovative yet basic dice mechanics (an engine we’re calling the Oracle System) -- though I’ve yet to find a suitable regional convention for that. And I always look forward to running a good old D6 System Star Wars Roleplaying Game scenario at game conventions.

As always, I encourage constructive feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Season of Thankfulness

 “We count our miseries carefully and accept our blessings without much thought.”
-- Chinese Proverb

As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches I find myself reflecting on the numerous things in my life for which I’m thankful…and many of those revolve around gaming, both as a player and a creator. Some come thanks to the communication wonders of our Internet Age, but many still rely on good old face-to-face interaction.

Like so many positive messages holidays promote, we really should remain thankful throughout the year. It’s easy to succumb to the overwhelming negative issues in our lives, even as gamers and creators: a general uncertainty and lack of self esteem; producing work in a hobby with such a vast scope and seemingly innumerable others promoting (to various and often more successful degrees) their own product; the challenges of channeling creativity into workable products, through the stages of design, text, layout, playtesting, and publication; and above all (for some of us, anyway) the urge to compare ourselves and our accomplishments to those in our field who seem more popular and successful.

So for at least this month -- and with a mindfulness to reflect on these boons more often throughout the year -- I consider the many game-related aspects of my life for which I’m thankful:

Positive Community of Gamers: The internet has enabled me as a gamer and creator to reach out to gamers across the world: the many customers who’ve purchased Griffon Publishing Studio game titles from my e-storefront at DriveThruRPG.com; intelligent playtesters who provide constructive criticism, new ideas, and some encouragement for my efforts; gaming friends and colleagues, many new, some lifelong, who continue our engaging correspondence; clients like the folks at Wicked North Games who gave me the opportunity to contribute creatures and adventure ideas to their sci-fi steampunk Westward roleplaying game and to D6 Magazine; friends and fans who offer positive comments on my blog and social networking posts. I try very hard (and don’t always succeed) at keeping these interactions positive, but overall my involvement with an encouraging gamer community online has lifted my spirits this past year.

Internet Opportunities: The internet has also exposed me to some opportunities beyond the ability to publish my games in PDF and reach out to gamers, fans, and customers. Kickstarter has brought to my attention several fantastic game-related projects I’ve backed, games that inspire me and encourage me to pursue my own game design work. I’ve also learned of fellow gamers and friends in need and -- through crowdfunding websites -- donated to their charitable causes to do my very small part in helping others.

Family Gaming: I’m thankful to game regularly with my family. As my toddler son -- the almost four year-old “Little Guy” -- learns more about his parents’ geeky obsessions, he’s wanted to take part in such games as the X-Wing Miniatures Game and King of Tokyo (albeit modified for simpler play). It’s only a matter of time before we expand to more involved games, including some basic roleplaying game experiences. (I recently discussed my family gaming experiences over at Hobby Games Recce.) Our weekly game nights offer us a chance to turn off the television and computers and spend some quality time face-to-face enjoying games and learning some lessons along the way. I’m also very thankful that my family allows me the time, focus, and energy to pursue my game design projects.

Local Gaming: This past year I’ve had the opportunity for some local, face-to-face gaming, both with a group trying out new, primarily indie roleplaying games and with some friends who gather occasionally for good food and board games (including the Little Guy when we can). Both have occurred sporadically, but hold the promise of more gaming in the coming months.

FLGS: A new gaming store (with comics) recently opened within a 10-minute drive of my house…it’s already posted a schedule with some interesting events (notably X-Wing Miniatures Friday nights and board games all day Saturdays). It holds some promise for more face-to-face gaming and the chance to expand my gaming horizons. I’m also thankful for the FLGS I’ve frequented over the past few years at a slightly inconvenient 45-minute drive from home; it offers a different selection of gaming product and events as well as staff that remains friendly to a stay-at-home dad who often brings his inquisitive and talkative toddler son into the store.

In reflecting on all these factors that have enriched my life I’m reminded to remember and appreciate them throughout the year. I’m inspired to help others discover gaming as a worthwhile and enjoyable pastime in their lives; indeed to use games as a platform for positive interactions among us all.

“In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.”
--  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

As always, I encourage constructive feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

To Attend or Not To Attend

I enjoy attending gaming conventions; but the past few years I’ve altered my con-going habits thanks to changes in my own life and the ever-fluid convention scene itself. A great deal has to do with transferring my promotional activities from live conventions to online venues, leaving me free to enjoy conventions as an adventure gaming enthusiast without the additional obligations required of a gaming guest.

The Way It Was

Years ago, even after West End Games’ bankruptcy pushed me out into the world of non-corporate-affiliated freelancing, I maintained a regular convention attendance schedule at local conventions -- with occasional appearances at a few not-so-local cons -- as a gaming guest. I ran roleplaying game sessions to showcase my own materials (as well as the obligatory nostalgia D6 Star Wars game) and promoted my activities on panel discussions and at a dealers room table when possible. Granted, this was in the early days of the Internet Age (the late 1990s and the early 2000s), with such social networking sites like Facebook and Google+  yet to come into their prime.

As a freelance game designer and publisher of my own material, attending conventions had their benefits and drawbacks. Creators derive a great deal of satisfaction and encouragement from positive interaction from fans, particularly face-to-face. Conventions offered an opportunity to run games first-hand, giving games an in-person taste of my own gamemastering style featuring my original material. Panel discussions challenged me as a guest to speak meaningfully on a relevant gaming-related topic, often one not directly related to my own work but one that pushed me beyond my comfort zone. Downtime allowed me to simply hang out with fans talking about topics ranging from upcoming releases, stories from behind-the-scenes at West End Games, and the inevitable talk of how to break into publishing or produce their own game. Not every interaction generated a sale, but the face-to-face contact helped make the convention memorable for many con-goers who subsequently became longtime fans of my work.

Attending a convention as a gaming guest takes a lot of time, effort, and money which sometimes interferes with other priorities (family, day job, household, and freelance work). My typical outlay of effort for a convention included printing out scenarios, tent cards, pre-generated characters, and promotional signs for games (sometimes even creating a new adventure wholesale instead of pulling material from my gaming repertoire). Travel, hotel, and food expenses require a significant outlay, especially for someone “working” the convention instead of a con-goer with the freedom to enjoy the entire con. Only a few conventions cover their gaming guest of honor’s hotel expenses (a practice rapidly becoming extinct in the struggling economy); even well-known gamemasters with publishing credits simply get a free convention admission badge as compensation for running games. Game designers can sometimes offset expenses with revenue from a dealers room table, but many conventions have limited such venues to “author alley” tables shared with others over reduced hours.

I still post my criteria for attending a convention as a gaming guest on the Griffon Publishing Studio website -- a complimentary hotel room being the main requirement (since it’s the greatest expense) -- along with the various benefits my attendance could bring to a con. Nobody’s taken me up on it in a number of years; I don’t worry much about it, as attending conventions as a guest has passed beyond an essential strategy in promoting my game design activities and become more of a tertiary luxury.

Interacting with the Gaming Community

For years I’d occasionally debate a longtime gamer friend who questioned why I placed so much emphasis on attending conventions to meet fans and showcase my roleplaying game materials six players per game session; he argued my time was better spent using the internet to reach out and cultivate new customers. Interaction with the gaming community has transformed so much since the mid-1990s and even the early 2000s, when I was still regularly attending conventions. Thanks to the glorious advances of the Internet Age game designers can still remain involved with the gaming community and assertively market their products without attending a single physical convention. Press releases go out to numerous adventure gaming news sites. Many of those offer forums for announcements and other dialogue with interested gamers. Podcasts and other interviews offer opportunities to promote one’s work. Electronic storefronts like DriveThruRPG.com provide publishers with tools to directly market materials to past customers, those with related items in their “wish lists,” and those following favored publishers. Blogs and websites allow creators to directly speak to their audience, offering behind-the-scenes insights, word of new developments right from the source, and free promotional materials. Playtesters review and comment on material online. Designers can even run playtest sessions of their own, or just run games for fun, via online tools like Google+ Hangouts. They can even run events at an increasing number of online virtual conventions.

I’m not saying face-to-face interaction at actual events has no value. I still believe it’s worthwhile in building an audience and promoting new product; but the internet has made the daily accomplishment of this objective much easier and more effective than promoting one’s games among a handful of gamers from one con to the next. Certainly game designers should attend conventions when possible; but it’s no longer an essential strategy in marketing one’s creations.

Changes in My Life

Certainly changes in my life have limited my involvement with gaming conventions. Juggling a family, household responsibilities, and some spare time for game writing and development doesn’t leave a lot of time or energy to do conventions properly. Schedules and finances remain subject to other, more important forces, with conventions rating rather low among numerous priorities. As a full-time stay at home dad, I’m also charged with raising our three year-old; as he shows some interest in his parents’ geeky pursuits we’re gradually introducing him to our activities, including gaming.

Most of my interactions with gamers takes place on the internet, posting about my game design activities on Google+ and Facebook, writing weekly about adventure gaming developments on two blogs (Hobby Games Recce and Schweig’s Game Design Journal), posting press releases about product on various websites and forums, discussing new ideas and game materials with trusted playtesters, maintaining the Griffon Publishing electronic storefront and offering occasional deals at DriveThruRPG.com, and occasionally holding conversations through Google+ Hangouts or in forum exchanges. Conventions as the means of interacting with gamers and potential customers have become less a necessity and more a luxury, a marketing opportunity above and beyond what I’m able to accomplish over the internet.

Enjoying the Hobby

After a short respite from attending my regional gaming conventions, I’m returning to look at the con scene with as a means of celebrating the adventure gaming hobby. Conventions offer an opportunity for me to attend as a game enthusiast without the scheduling and time obligations required of a gaming guest. I certainly enjoy running games occasionally, but I’m not beholden to them as a guest who feels a duty to entertain con-goers constantly. I can attend panels and play in games, hang out with gamer fans and friends, and enjoy a far more relaxed experience.

The past two years I’ve attended Historicon, the flagship miniature wargaming convention, in nearby Fredericksburg, VA. This past year I took our three year-old for one day; he enjoyed taking in the vast visual displays, particularly for the Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game and a Flames of War Vietnam scenario with helicopters (as I reported earlier). Historicon has enabled me to indulge my enthusiasms for miniature wargaming despite my limited professional publishing involvement in that field.

I’m looking forward to attending some local conventions with roleplaying game programming, in part to run a session promoting some of my own game work, but primarily to play in other games I enjoy. And if I happen to run into old friends and fans, all the better; I’m always happy to talk about my game-industry past, promote my current projects, or just reconnect with old friends.

As always, I encourage constructive feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Revisiting the Random Dungeon with Themes

Several weeks ago I explored issues in random dungeons based on my own experience with the original Gygaxian method from the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide and John Yorio’s No Budget No Frills Pencil and Paper Dungeon Generator, Ver. 3.0 over at the Tabletop Diversions blog. After my admittedly limited initial experiences I set off to devise a slightly more focused “random” dungeon experience incorporating an overarching theme for the delve and table results skewed to allow for some escalation from basic encounters to more challenging ones.

I wanted to structure a blank form outline with tables for determining corridors and chambers, traps, treasures, and encounters, with most of the die types and ranges left blank for users to fill in with their own preferences. For instance, choosing a 1D6 roll for determining corridors or chambers might allow one on a roll of 1-2 and the other on 3-6, skewing the results to favor a preferred structure. They could populate a trap table with theme-appropriate devices. Treasures could reflect the theme as well. But the most integral of all is the encounters table, where users “seed” the delve with themed encounters rather than relying on random monster tables by dungeon level. An escalation mechanic -- in the form of a bonus to the table roll equal to the number of previous encounters -- skews results to the higher and more challenging encounters, culminating in a showdown with an appropriately powerful “boss” monster.

The result is a PDF document with forms to fill out and then “save as” or print to create a one-page set of tables for a “themed dungeon” with randomized elements skewed toward a particular experience.

Here’s a look at the rationale I followed:

Intent: Since this serves as a side-project for me -- a quick jaunt exploring an interesting idea and game-design exercise -- I imposed a few restrictions on development. I wanted to keep the tables to one page with adequate room for users to customize the material with their own ideas. My urge to keep things relatively straightforward influenced me to leave out several traditional elements and interesting concepts; in some cases I’ve marginalized them from their more prominent places in previous random dungeon generators.

Secret Doors: Most random dungeon generators include some means of noting secret doors in passages and chambers. I overlooked this element in the interest of simplicity, though also partly to make sure the tables had more space for encounters, special treasures, and traps. I’m considering (and may have already implemented) a section on the “Chamber” table to account for the possibility of secret doors.

No Exits: A keen playtester noted the current “1D4-1” roll to determine the number of exits from a chamber could result in a complete dead-end in the very first chamber. I’ll alter the wording to eliminate that “-1” modifier until after explorers have visited four or six rooms.

Special Corridors & Chambers: I’d originally hoped to include results and additional tables for creating special corridor elements (stairs up and down, exits and entrances) and chambers (pillared halls, chasms with bridges) users could customize to the theme. At this point I’m considering including a “special” result on the corridor table with parenthetical suggestions for such remarkable features beyond the basic passageways.

Empty Room Table: The gamer community occasionally vents on the subject of empty rooms in dungeons, a result of random tables I personally found frustrating in my own solitaire delves. Unfortunately space considerations forced me to omit a table on which users could roll to generate some themed setting descriptions for trappings within empty rooms: abandoned shrines, barracks, common areas, or even caves with partially collapsed ceilings.

Take a look at Schweig’s Themed Dungeon Generator and see how the system flows. I’ve included the blank, fillable form on one page and a sample dungeon on the second page to demonstrate how it might work. The document is still in flux, though I intend to revise it with an eye toward publishing it through my e-storefront at DriveThruRPG.com as a free/pay what you want product. For now it remains accessible from this blog post, though in the future the link will migrate to the e-storefront.

As always, I encourage constructive feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Charging Off on Another Diversion

I have the small luxury of setting aside projects in development to pursue game ideas that suddenly grab my inspiration and charge off with it across the battlefield, so to speak. One such idea bit me last week and demanded my attention when I wasn’t working on blog entries, website updates, and other more practical matters.

I have a few boxes of wonderful 54mm plastic soldier figures from Armies in Plastic. My collection includes soldiers from historical periods within my numerous spheres of interest -- Zulus, British colonial infantry, dervishes (including Beja warriors), Egyptian infantry -- acquired over the years from hobby stores, toy soldier shows, conventions, and, of course, Historicon. While they’re fun to dump out of the box and set up on the basement wargaming table to look at, I’ve long wanted some kind of gaming diversion in which they could play a  more active and structured role. No doubt a search of the internet could turn up some playable games created particularly for 54mm plastic soldiers; the many free options for miniature wargames I’ve investigated not only assume a solid familiarity with the intricacies of such rules but indulge in those rules’ frequent reliance on complex set-up and execution (and often do so with an uninspiring single-column, all text-and-tables, no illustrations layout regrettably typical of such free rule sets).

I accepted this self-made challenge: to create an interesting yet basic wargame using the 54mm miniatures at hand. I devised a concept based on the fact that I wanted to fight overwhelming battles from history where a small force stood against relentless onslaught from numerous attackers -- such as the British stand against Zulus at Rorke’s Drift or the many instances of British soldiers during the campaign to rescue Gordon at Khartoum standing their ground in a square against hordes of fanatical dervishes -- but with a limited number of figures. Armies in Plastic offers solid-color plastic soldiers in historically accurate sets of 18 or 20 at reasonable prices; artillery pieces with crews and sets of five horses and men offer some variation in forces. In most historical confrontations against colonial troops the “native” forces have vast numerical superiority; but I’m not about to purchase multiple boxes of dervishes to fight my one box of Her Majesty’s highlanders in the ratio suggested by the venerable The Sword and the Flame rules.

So I devised a “hordes”  mechanic by which a force that, in terms of available figures, equals those of the static line of defenders, but which forms new waves from casualty figures removed from the table after ranged and close combat. It basically “recycles” casualties from the larger force in subsequent waves of attackers, while the defenders must hold out for a certain number of turns as their casualties are removed entirely from play, thus dwindling their defensive force. This method isn’t really practical for a vast battle in which crowds of enemy troops maneuver around the table to outflank the smaller force and take advantage of terrain features; but it seemed ideal for playing out a portion of those battles where the side with numerical superiority often charged forward to engage the defenders, hoping to wear them down with each subsequent wave.

Starting Criteria

I focused (and possibly limited) my efforts on this game by determining to work under several criteria I felt essential for this particular game. Some even reflected my general game beliefs in terms of accessibility to newcomers:

Small Play Surface: While I enjoy the spectacle of vast battlefields covering numerous tables, I wanted this game to fit on one’s average tabletop, ideally on a 3x3-foot space. Many craft stores stock appropriately colored felt in those dimensions (such as tan for desert and green for fields). With each side fielding 18 or 20 figures, the smaller play space meant they wouldn’t seem as sparse as on a larger battlefield. As I began designing the basics of movement and range for the game, 3x3 feet seemed to work well.

Plastic Toy Soldiers: My main goal in this diversion was to put my collection of Armies in Plastic soldiers to practical wargaming use. Some craft, toy, and hobby stores also stock army men in periods beyond the modern -- medieval, Civil War, and American War of Independence are themes I frequently see on shelves -- so I wanted to provide a structured play platform for those, too.

Simple Rules, D6 Mechanics: I like basic rules as both a player and an advocate for attracting newcomers to the adventure gaming hobby (this would provide some challenges in practical execution). Although I also love polyhedral dice and the larger ranges of probabilities they offer; most folks have a few six-sided dice around the house from mundane board games.

Overall I wanted to offer an extremely basic miniature wargaming experience players could adjust across the various historical periods (and beyond if possible) given the “toys” at hand. As I started jotting down notes, pulling together rules, constructing turn sequences, and actually playing out a skirmish on the wargaming table downstairs, several design issues emerged to challenge both my starting criteria and overall gameplay.

Name Issues

At first I thought of calling the rules Hordes! since gameplay centers on a small force of defenders holding off hordes of dervishes, Zulus, or other factions with overwhelming numbers. But my attention wandered and I considered how players might use the rules in different battles: Confederate infantry charging Union troops behind a stone wall (or vice versa); British troops assaulting a Patriot barricade in the American Revolution (a favorite concept of mine in replaying the Battle of Ridgefield, from the town where I grew up); bug-aliens against well-armed space marines; even turning the tables and making those British colonial troops assault the defensive earthworks of Egyptian infantry during Arabi Pasha’s uprising of 1881. Besides, I’m conscious that some might find designation of native forces as “hordes” offensive.

So I looked at the gameplay I was trying to encourage in these rules and realized it focused on one vast force charging against a small group of defenders. I have an old album of military music -- including bugle calls -- appropriate called Charge! which I loved as a kid; what better name for a game which, essentially, consists of one vast charge? Now the tentative and more politically correct name for the project in question is Charge!

Player Decisions

One of the challenges I encountered, however, was devising basic rules that included meaningful player choices, which bucked the criteria mentioned earlier to keep the rules simple.

In the initial design, play passed through several traditional phases: attackers move forward, defenders fire (simultaneously with attackers if suitably armed), attackers throw weapons if so armed and within range, and both sides resolve close combat at the defensive line. Much of the gameplay focused on rolling handfuls of dice (one for each participant in ranged combat) and then a 2D6 roll plus the number of combatants on a side to resolve close combat. Attacker casualties go back to the starting line to move forward next turn while defender casualties leave the field permanently. Repeat. This amounted to little more than moving and rolling hits for forces, with few player choices to determine tactics.

Running scenarios on the wargaming table helped put things in perspective and forced me to more closely examine gameplay. I noted several key points where players made decisions to affect the game, though they were not as numerous or influential as I’d have liked, nor numerous enough for wargamers with any degree of experience. Attackers choose when to launch subsequent waves; obviously waiting until a wave has a good number of soldiers helps, but with a turn limit on the overall battle this sometimes becomes an issue. For attackers with spears the player had to choose whether they should throw them at troops still engaged in close combat, possibly hitting their own forces (a double-edged sword, since casualties lowered the overall chance of success in close combat, but instantly “recycled” to the charge’s starting line). I realized defenders had a choice, too; if attackers moved into close combat, or any close combatants remained at the end of the turn, the defender had to determine which soldiers remained engaged and which could fire on a new wave of charging attackers, possibly lowering the strength of his force in direct combat.

Balancing Advantages

I also realized I faced a challenge in creating and balancing advantages to both reflect possibilities for various historical periods and provide meaningful choices in gameplay. How should I integrate the possibility of artillery for defenders, and do I offer that option for attackers in terms of covering artillery fire for charging infantry? How do cavalry forces integrate within the established rules and existing infantry forces? What advantages within established game mechanics of movement and combat do I provide for attackers to reflect the historical “realities” (or “myths” as some might argue) such as Dervishes’ religious fervor or Zulus’ warrior prowess?

I’m developing different solutions to these problems as I quickly move forward dabbling with this game concept. This missive lacks the framework of actual game rules, something I’m developing to send out for playtesting when ready. At some point, however, I feel I’m just going to have to compromise on some issues, particularly those of developing an overly simple wargame and offering more options for player choice.

As always, I encourage constructive feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Thoughts on the Random Dungeon

I’m returning to my Oracle System-driven roleplaying game design for Basic Fantasy Heroes as an occasional break from work on the miniature wargame rules for Panzer Kids. The rules went through several rounds of playtesting earlier this year, with solid input and good insights on fine-tuning the system and improving the presentation. But aside from running a few test encounters myself to see how combat worked out within the overall Oracle System, I’d not have a chance to run a small band of heroes through a scenario. So I turned to a solitaire alternative using a random dungeon system to generate an adventure in which I, as player, truly could not anticipate what the characters would face from one room to the next. Beyond offering a taste of the Basic Fantasy Heroes game system mechanics in an actual play setting (albeit solitaire), the experience helped me come to some conclusions about what I expect in random dungeon solo play.


I wanted to adhere to certain conditions in undertaking this foray into solitaire random dungeon adventuring, primarily to provide a realistic experience using the character and combat rules I’d developed in a fully unexpected setting. To this end I created three beginning characters using my Basic Fantasy Heroes rules: a priest, elf, and dwarf, each with their own specialties that would affect gameplay (primarily combat).

My main concern was generating a dungeon layout with interesting results for solo gameplay. I’m no expert on the various options available today for solitaire dungeon generation. Giving in to my nostalgia, I initially turned to the original material created on this subject, the Gygaxian system in “Appendix A. Random Dungeon Generation” of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide.

To vary my approach I also polled some folks on Google+. Several offered good suggestions on alternate, more recently developed random dungeon generation systems available. Thanks to John Fiore, host extraordinaire of the Solo Nexus blog, I picked up the No Budget No Frills Pencil and Paper Dungeon Generator, Ver. 3.0 by John Yorio over at the Tabletop Diversions blog. (Though I’m also interested in eventually picking up the geomorph Dungeon Dice Clayton Rider suggested.) The discussion also covered TSR’s Cardmaster Adventure Design Deck, which I own but declined to use in this particular exercise.

In both cases I decided to create my own first-level dungeon monster encounter table based on the low-level creatures I’d devised for Basic Fantasy Heroes -- not all the creatures I’ve developed have corollaries in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide monster tables, and I didn’t want to outright translate that game directly to mine -- but they still ran the range from bandits and goblins to giant centipedes and slime. The presence of traps in both dungeon generation rules revealed to me that I’d not considered rules for traps in Basic Fantasy Heroes; so I quickly drafted some functional notes on how certain iconic traps worked within the Oracle System framework with an eye to developing them more fully later.

I intended to try two strategies in recording my solo dungeon-delving experience: creating an annotated map (somewhat of a necessity in these exercises) and writing an in-character chronicle describing events, encounters, and reactions (an idea John Fiore has featured over at Solo Nexus, though he recommends not writing in a player character’s voice). Experience with both random dungeon generating systems showed the map an obvious requirement and the primary focus of the game. In the course of rolling, mapping, and handling combat encounters, however, I regret the adventure diary chronicle fell by the wayside; I liked the character narrator, but it seemed a strain to catalog encounters in an engaging style, even in the most general sense (though I was quite happy with my introduction).

The Gygaxian Labyrinth

At first glance the byzantine tables in the Dungeon Masters Guide appendix seemed to lead one down the path to revealing a dungeon with all the complexities one expects: traps, monsters, treasure, secret doors. Slightly weighted tables favored some results over others, but not by much. The system seemed more attuned to taking into account every possibility within the dungeon layout and offering an unbiased result, giving almost every option the same chance of occurrence.

Amid all the twisting corridors and intersections my intrepid heroes came upon seven rooms, four empty ones and three containing monsters. For the solitaire play -- and in chronicling the adventure writing as one of the heroes -- empty rooms proved extremely boring. I found myself wishing I had some means of determining any descriptive features about the chambers just to liven things up and give some clue about their past use and the dungeon’s origins. Despite the tables for traps and treasure, the heroes didn’t encounter any. The random monsters they confronted had no theme to them other than “Level 1” and, typical for this kind of exercise, there seemed no rationale for them being there other than excuses I created for the adventure diary chronicle: obviously bandits were probably looting the dungeon like the heroes and the cave mantids made a nest in one of the chambers, but why kobolds were hiding behind an illusionary wall in one room is beyond me.

What also occurred to me as I tired of this exercise was the lack of any meaningful conclusion. My heroes simply reached a point where they’d had enough and back-tracked their way to the dungeon entrance. Assuming they returned to the nearest town to tend their wounds and cash in their treasure, they had little compelling reason to return to their subterranean explorations other than the promise of haphazard carnage and loot.

No-Frills Simplicity

The no-frills dungeon generator promised a far more simplified method than the Gygaxian model: roll 1d12 and consult the table. The 12 possible results included an even distribution for various corridor types and three kinds of rooms, those with monsters, traps, and the infamous ones with nothing at all. Asterisked notes included intuitive methods for determining corridor length, chamber size, and the number of doors in a room (though I modified these from 1d10 rolls to 1d6 rolls). .

My heroes began their delve and started exploring the catacombs with far more ease than navigating the numerous Gygaxian dungeon-generation tables. The results seemed more interesting, too; of four rooms they discovered, two held monsters and two traps…no empty rooms in this dungeon. That’s as far as they got because the presence of more traps wore down the party. Traps appear in locations (rooms or corridors) one time in six, with monsters appearing one time in twelve. The dungeon also remained void of any kind of thematic rationale aside from the fact that the bandits were probably looting the place, too, and the giant centipedes had nested in another chamber.

Between the two random dungeon generation systems, though, I liked the no-frills one over the more complex and time-consuming Gygaxian method. The no-frills system benefitted from both brevity and a better presentation, with each result illustrated by a mini-map geomorph depicting the dungeon feature. But it highlighted the need for separate tables for corridors and rooms as well as the variability of having even slightly weighted tables. Both systems -- one possibly the first in the adventure gaming hobby, the other a recent refinement -- left me feeling somewhat unsatisfied. Yes, they both certainly challenged me as a player to use character resources and specialties to overcome adversaries and survive traps, but they lacked even the most basic contextual story elements.

Themed & Skewed

Although I actually achieved my original mission of playtesting the rules and characters in the context of a solitaire random dungeon crawl, I can’t help but consider how to craft a more fulfilling solitaire play experience in a relatively random dungeon. I think adding both a basic theme and some skewed (or escalating) results might help add more intriguing narrative elements to elevate the experience beyond a completely random hack-and-slash delve. I’m envisioning a quick setting paragraph to put the dungeon entrance and its theme in context, followed by tables to generate corridors and chambers (favoring some results over others). I’d include a monster encounter table customized to the theme (vermin, goblins, magical creatures, etc.) incorporating an escalating mechanic to push future rolls up the spectrum toward a “boss” monster. It’s something I’ll think about as a possible solitaire random dungeon generation system when I next feel the need to explore some new game design territory.

My ultimate lesson learned concerns the nature of random dungeon generation as discovered by the necessity of gradually revealed solo play. Dungeon delves -- while the primal form of adventuring in the hobby -- remain a limited form, more so in the random dungeon generation style used for solitaire play. More involved campaign play, balancing wilderness, town, and dungeon encounters, offers more possibilities for a richer solitaire experience and hence more interesting narrative possibilities for chronicles recording adventures.

Next time I need a break and feel the need to test my Basic Fantasy Heroes rules in a more varied narrative setting, I’ll grab my sets of Rory’s Story Cubes (regular and Voyages) and send my characters through the paces of John Fiore’s The 9Qs Solo RPG Engine.

As always, I encourage constructive feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Cutting Down to the Essentials

In adapting Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game for play with a three-and-a-half year-old preschooler I’ve learned some lessons about cutting down a game system to the essential rules, a task applicable to the kid-friendly tank skirmish game I’m developing.

Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game

My preschooler son has reached a point where he’s voraciously absorbing everything Star Wars we allow (i.e., only original trilogy material), primarily inspired by the numerous Star Wars toys, games, and other images in my office. Over the past few months we’ve read him the pop-up book, listened to the soundtrack in the car ad nauseum, got out some old Playskool figures (and the Millennium Falcon) he plays with, and finally watched Star Wars: A New Hope together (the pre-special edition version).

We spent a day at Historicon this past July where he inevitably noticed and intently watched the last half of a Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game playing out, including such ships as Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon and Darth Vader’s advanced TIE fighter. Between that and actually watching Star Wars he was hooked. Luckily I found a nicely discounted copy of the X-Wing Miniatures Game in the Historicon dealers hall; after adding a few more starfighters acquired in numerous quests to gaming stores near and far we were ready to play.

The game itself offers several levels of play, from the extremely basic quick-start rules to the main game and several more involved “additional rules.” The system includes some innovations on a style of miniature wargame “lite” popularized several years ago by the World War I aviation-themed Wings of War (an Italian game Fantasy Flight Games distributed in America). They’ve added several layers of complexity beyond the basic move-and-shoot system, including pilot actions (barrel rolls, focusing, evasion), pilot cards for each spacecraft to vary the pilot skill and actions, upgrade cards to enhance individual ships, and special eight-sided dice for attack and defense rolls.

Stripping this all down to the level of a three year-old seemed daunting at first, until I focused only on the quick-start rules, designed to get people playing right out of the box. These rules use the main ship stats, maneuver dial, movement templates, and dice in a very bare-bones game even young players can comprehend with a little adult gamer guidance. Gameplay focuses on the essential basics of movement and attack; no fancy actions, no dealing with pilot skill, no starship upgrades or special weapons. Granted, we play with lots of parental assistance using these extremely basic yet functional rules. From a parent’s perspective, it offers a chance to teach numbers using the movement and turn templates (“How far do you want your ship to move?”), counting dice to roll and their results, and direction (straight, left, or right; gradual turn or sharp turn). We also let the preschooler fly the Millennium Falcon, which, thanks to guns mounted on turrets, has a full 360-degree field of fire, so he doesn’t have to worry about lining up his target in a limited forward-facing fire arc. (It also gives him plenty of shields and hull strength so his ship has only rarely been eliminated during a game.)

We’ve played it several times, usually with Mommy flying Luke Skywalker’s X-wing fighter and Daddy fielding a pair of TIE fighters or the newly acquired TIE interceptors. With our help the preschooler has quickly mastered the basic game concepts (though his moves on the starfield don’t always make sense); so he’s recently asked for (and his parents desperately sought) some new additions to enhance his game experience. Although I thought he might appreciate the range rules -- allowing an extra attack die when firing on close targets or giving an extra defense die for those at long range -- my son saw the cardboard punch-out asteroid pieces used in some of the game’s missions and wanted to use those. Of course, they made the game harder for Daddy’s TIE fighters….

Panzer Kids Basic

My approach to a kid-friendly tank skirmish game takes a similar strategy as the X-Wing Miniatures Game’s incrementally more involved rules. I intend to release Panzer Kids in two stages, the free/pay-what-you-want PDF basic edition containing the barebones rules, several tank stat cards, rulers, and print-and-play top-down tank pieces (in lieu of miniatures kids can find or purchase from other sources). The for-pay Deluxe Edition would include all the basic rules plus tons of optional rules players can learn piecemeal and include in their game when they feel ready to add greater depth of play.

I’m in the process of drafting the core rules based on pages of notes and disparate paragraphs hastily written as inspiration came in the design process. As I write I’m finding a number of things to toss out of the basic edition. I knew I’d relegate many rules essential to complex miniature wargames to the more advanced deluxe edition -- hull down vehicle cover, static anti-tank guns, shots at close range, traversing difficult terrain, mine fields, and mission objectives -- but I’m still finding concepts I thought might work in the basic edition to move to the deluxe edition or even eliminate altogether. Here are a few I’d thought to include in the basic game that, in the course of developing a rules set for a younger audience, I ultimately decided to cut to stick more closely to the absolute essentials:

Variable Scale: I’d originally intended to include information (primarily speed and range, both measured in inches) for both 15mm and 6mm “micro-scale” tanks. I personally like wargaming with both, and have a small collection of tanks from the North African theater in both scales. But in considering what kids might have available to them, or what they might find in hobby, toy, and game stores, I decided to cut references to the 6mm scale. I’ll include some top-down pieces kids can print and play with in lieu of actual miniatures, but will relegate the 6mm information as an optional appendix in the deluxe version of the game.

Deployment Options: In determining how players set up games, I’d devised a few alternatives to the basic “put your tanks along your edge of the battlefield” strategy reflecting the terrain set-up and any slight disparity in the total unit point costs between Axis and Allied player forces. For instance, with cover terrain set up along the middle of the play area, the side with the slightly lower total point cost might deploy tanks up to 12 inches from their edge of the board. In writing these conditions out, however, I realized it might be too much for kids to comprehend amidst all the other nuances of miniature wargame rule. These options might go into a sidebar in the deluxe rules’ movement section, but they don’t belong in the basic game.

Unit Point Cost: The gamer in me insisted on rating each tank type with a “cost” to field it, a value reflecting its firepower, armor, and speed. Theoretically this helps each side build a force of relatively equal strength to make sure each has a fair chance of winning. But when I took a closer look comparing Axis and Allied tanks, I realized they had fairly close values. Rather than spend an entire section explaining the concept of unit point costs and balancing forces, I cut it and instead offered some suggestions for Axis and Allied tank face-offs (mostly from the North African theater). Most represent equivalent numbers of tanks (3 German Pkw IIIs against 3 British Crusader IIs), though the one exception proved the Pkw VI Tiger tank, which I paired against two M3 Stuart tanks.

Two miniature wargaming concepts remain essential to playing the game beyond simply moving and shooting in the open: line of sight and cover. Both might seem too complex to include in the basic edition, but through playtesting I realized they really form the core of tactical decisions for a small skirmish. Players need to maneuver their tanks around the available cover (mostly hills and oases in my desert games) to hide from enemy tanks and gain some small advantage from cover.

I also realize these rules remain bound to other constraints I’ve placed on myself, notably some foundation in the tanks’ historical performance (demonstrated in the tank stats themselves) and a desire to introduce young gamers to wargaming concepts one degree beyond simply moving and shooting. I have also, rather foolishly I might argue, taken on the challenge of trying to draft a set of miniature wargame rules intended for kids 10 and older to pick up on their own, learn, and play without adult supervision. Old Dominion GameWorksMein Panzer Junior offers a set of basic move-and-shoot tank rules with some slightly more complex stages; but it presumes involvement and supervision from a miniature wargames-informed adult. (Downloading these free rules requires registration at the ODGW website.)
We’ll see how my continued development and writing for the Panzer Kids rules challenges my ability to hone rules down to their bare minimum while still clearly and concisely explaining game concepts to a younger audience.

As always, I encourage construction feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.