Return of the Hex Wargame?

Some months ago I wrote about the death of the hex-wargame hobby and the subsequent evolution of the Eurogame. In that posting, I expressed the hope that the popularity of Commands and Colors: Ancients and Memoir ’44 might herald a revival of the hex wargame.

There have been some encouraging signs since.One, local to where I live, is that CC:A has become quite popular at my local Friday night gaming group. I bring in my tacklebox full of the base game and all three expansions every week and can generally count on a game with at least one of four people I’ve turned on to it. This is in a group that had been pretty strongly focused on non-combat Eurogames.

Another is that GMT Games, the publishers of CC:A, shows every sign of prospering. While they produce some games at the low-complexity, “family” end of the market, the bulk of their line is crunchy, historically rich games like CC:A. The fact that they have a viable business selling these at $40 and up a pop seems an indication of a lot of pent-up demand for high-quality wargames.

I was introduced to another of their games last week: Maneuver, themed on the set-piece battles of the Napoleonic wars. Like CC:A it’s a clever, minimalist design that uses simple card-driven mechanics, leadership rules, and variable maps to capture the feel of its era rather effectively. Stratego for grown-ups, one might say.

But one healthy company does not an industry make, so it’s good to know that they’ve got competition from the likes of Decision Games. If anything, DG seems even more focused on hex-gamer grognards than GMT is. It even appears they’ve resurrected Strategy & Tactics, the wargames magazine with a game in every issue whose rise and fall was almost synonymous with the health of the entire genre in the 1970s and 1980s.

Some readers may be wondering…in a world full of computer games that can simulate in greater detail, and MMORPGs that can offer a richer social experience, why games like these still have a place. In truth, nothing quite matches the contest of minds you get in face-to-face play with single opponent. Old-school hex wargames peserve some of the virtues of playing chess. And, like chess, they can have a depth and richness that more elaborate simulations don’t, necessarily. There is virtue in the fact that you and the opponent are running the simulation yourselves, and can see all the way down to the bottom of the game’s simulation model.

The remarkable thing about 21st-century wargames, compared to the old-school ones I cut my teeth on 30 years ago, is how much simpler they manage to be to play while preserving a sense of period verismilitude. Part of this has been enabled by huge decreases in the cost of producing custom components. Whereas back in the old days it was all black-and-white printing and cascades of result tables for 6-sided dice, modern designers can express a similar degree of simulation complexity with a much wider range of playing aids that package it in a simpler user interface – polyhedral dice for differing normal distribution curves, custom dice like CC:A’s with the results right on the faces, big decks of tactics cards as in CC:A and Maneuver.

At the extreme of this is games like my friend Ken Burnside’s Attack Vector: Tactical, a space-combat game that manages to package 3D Newtonian kinematics in such a way that players can simulate physically realistic spaceship movement without mathematics! But most of the new-school games owe more to the mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons than to Newton; in Maneuver, for example, the combat power of a group is represented by a number of polyhedral dice to roll – more dice for more power, larger dice for an increase in variation between best possible and worst possible results.

The most prevalent theme in the new games, however, may be card-driven mechanics. Where old-school wargames resolved actions by comparing dice rolls, new-school ones are likely to supplement or replace this with mechanics involving action cards – attack cards, defense cards, instant modifiers that can be played after a combat has been declared to change the odds, etc. This style of course owes much to Magic: The Gathering and other collectible card games, but games like CC:A and Maneuver show that wargame designers have naturalized the idea.

One significant effect of the new-school mechanics is that today’s wargames tend to play significantly faster than their ancestors. Typical playing time for an SPI game from days of yore was in the 2-3 hour range; modern equivalents often speed by in 90 minutes. And it’s not that they involve fewer turns per game, either, but that the turns take on average about half the time they would have in older games. Since humans haven’t changed their thinking speed, what this means is that setup and combat resolution have become much faster.

It’s an interesting question whether the new-school wargames will ever achieve the kind of mass-market traction some of the old ones did. At the height of the first wave around 1977, Squad Leader could sell 200K copies. It is doubtful any of the new-school wargames have yet sold at even a tenth of that volume, and there are many more forms of entertainment competing for discretionary dollars today. Still, it makes me glad that outfits like GMT Games and Decision Games are trying.

58 thoughts on “Return of the Hex Wargame?

  1. Cards? Ugh.Well, as long as it’s not collectible cards but a fixed stack, it’s probably a good idea, a stack of say 50 is just a D50 with the explanation written right on top of the “dice”.
    But Magic: The Gathering and other collectibles have quickly degenerated into the “who buys more cards” kind of very silly type of competition.
    (OTOH the trading aspect of it is nice.)

  2. I spent about a week hooked on M:TG until Shenpen’s point became glaringly obvious, at which point I grew disgusted and haven’t played it since.

  3. >Well, as long as it’s not collectible cards but a fixed stack

    It’s all fixed-stack in the wargames,

    BTW, I was an MT:G player in the mid-1990s, good enough to start doing local tournaments. I had to decide whether I wanted to (a) be effective at tournaments by obsessing about the game, or (b) keep doing it casually for fun. I chose the latter. I later dropped out of playing when they scrapped most of the timing rules and made most of my knowledge obsolete.

    I liked the trading part, too.

  4. Hey, Eric, I don’t know if I ever thanked you for introducing me to Eurogames through your blog. Limited funds and time have meant that I haven’t been able to try too many out, but I’ve greatly enjoyed the ones I’ve played. So, thanks!

    M:TG, on the other hand, always struck me as a highly efficient money-extraction scheme, so I’ve avoided it entirely :-)

  5. Regarding card games, I get a kick out of Munchkin. Good fun, good humor, and you don’t have to buy a million cards but you can if you want to.

  6. Eric, the hex-and-counter wargames market has always been there; Greg Costikyan’s essay notwithstanding. GDW was publishing them through the ’80s and into the ’90s, before Magic sunk them. CGM, Decision, Multi-Man and Task Force Games/Amarillo Design Bureau, and Agents of Gaming and others were doing it in the ’90s and onwards. Some date back to the ’80s.

    Nobody’s getting rich off of them, and we’re all adapting to the three tier game publishing model going through dinosaur killer events. (Games publishing might be the only entertainment industry that’s materially gaining from the current economic horror show….)

    What’s happened with it is that the art of game design has grown considerably since SPI, where they relabeled one of about four different CRT tables for each game and produced a new map. SPI started out with a good business model and negligible competition; they ended with a model where they were losing money off of every sale and trying to make it up on volume. (I kid you not…).

    Within SPI, there was a common belief that the fate of MOST of their titles was that the purchaser bought them, read them, set them up once and did a solo play, then put them on the shelf. About 15% of them were played twice. Most of the ‘classic’ SPI games tended to break after a half a dozen plays, and the development schedule inside the company was so frenetic that fixing the games so they wouldn’t isolate down to perfect solution sets wasn’t a productive use of the developer’s time.

    Or, in short, a lot of the classic SPI games were boxed military history essays with maps and counters, produced along the lines of the pulp market.

    It should be noted that when SPI tried to go to fantasy and SF, they FLAILED because it didn’t fit their mode of operation.

    Eurogames moved the Engine Building Game genre from computer games to board games (and card games, like Race for the Galaxy), and their focus on very tight game designs centered on mechanics and replayability rather than sim value helps as well.

  7. re: MtG

    I was most fond of the sealed-deck tournaments; the players each started with a new, sealed deck and then had some time (1/2 hour to an hour?) to trade among themselves to develop decks for the tournament. That was a nice balance of analysis, trading, strategy, and tactics without turning into a bidding war or giving you the time to descend into endless micro-optimization.

    I hadn’t heard of CC:A, though – perhaps the Catan-heavy gaming I attend occasionaly will give it a try…

  8. Ogre! O-gre! O-gre!

    ESR says: Oops. Edited Saltations comment accidentally while trying to reply. Shall leave in the following as it would be out of sequence otherwise.

    Steve still has a soft spot in his heart for that game. The last but one time we talked he was muttering about plans to reissue it.

    (Yes, in fact, I do seem to know about half the top wargame designers in the world personally. Blame it on SF fandom.)

  9. >Within SPI, there was a common belief that the fate of MOST of their titles was that the purchaser bought them, read them, set them up once and did a solo play, then put them on the shelf.

    I’ve read this elsewhere. I guess my experience was exceptional, then – I never played one of these solo. But then, I was in pretty continuous contact with groups of wargamers from early high-school onwards, which is a luxury perhaps not available in areas where the population density and/or education level are lower.

    >the development schedule inside the company was so frenetic that fixing the games so they wouldn’t isolate down to perfect solution sets wasn’t a productive use of the developer’s time.

    It did seem like a miracle that they were managing to crank out games so quickly. But their strategy was well adapted to the tempo at which their customers were exploring the space; I can’t think of any individual game I played more than three or four times.

  10. >I was most fond of the sealed-deck tournaments; the players each started with a new, sealed deck and then had some time (1/2 hour to an hour?) to trade among themselves to develop decks for the tournament.

    Yeah, I liked that format too. I was better than most at trading and deck-building on the fly, so it played to my strengths.

  11. A lot of the hex wargaming community these days is at Consimworld.com

    Tony Zbaraschuk, designing a hex-based wargame on the 1944 Italian campaign

  12. whoops! eric, did you accidentally reply to my OgreOgreOgre! post IN my post?
    :)

    and you know Steve Jackson personally?? *insane jealousy* tell him he’s a god. and thank him hugely on behalf of all this old silent fanbase. Car Wars was a standout me and my mates still rhapsodise about today, and Ogre/GEV is for my money the best of all simple fast yet not-wildlyunrealistic wargames I’ve ever played.

    next you’ll be telling me you know Greg Stafford and contributed to TrollPak

  13. Back in the ’80’s I bought one of these Hex Wargames. It was called Panzergroup Guderian, and concerned the battle for Smolensk in July 1941. I think it was by a company called either SDI or possible SGI.

    That flippin’ game was so complicated I don’t think I ever did play it. Just reading through the rules seemed a daunting task.

    Then we discovered Axis and Allies and played the hell out of that. It was fun to play and not too hard to figure out. Plus the gameboard and counters were fun to look at and play with.

    Also played some Ogre. That was a good game.

    God remember the old Avalon Hill games? They put a lot of thought into them, but they were mind bendingly hard to figure out. You really needed someone who already knew how to play to show you the ropes. It was the same with Dungeons and Dragons.

  14. >Simpler makes a difference. It made the game faster to learn and play; and, because I wasn’t spending as much mental effort on the mechanics, I could think about tactics more (and that’s the fun part).

    bit like Python, then…

  15. >you know Greg Costikyan TOO?!?!?!

    Yup. Used to game with him occasionally in college. Haven’t had much contact with him since, but our few FTF meetings have been pleasant.

    >next you’ll be telling me you know Greg Stafford and contributed to TrollPak

    Alas, no. He’d be one of the other 50%, I guess. :-) However, I do know Sandy Peterson, his co-author on that game, through theater LARPs (historical and SFnal live-action role-playing) back in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

    Come to think of it, I may have met Greg Stafford once. Still wouldn’t say I know him, though.

  16. Going back and rereading the previous posts, I think that game I referenced was an SPI game.

    And speaking of Greg Costyikan, I still have my original Star Wars Roleplaying game, both the rulebook and the sourcebook by West End Games. Those were some the best written and fun to read rulebooks I ever bought. He ranks up there close to Gygax.

  17. >Those were some the best written and fun to read rulebooks I ever bought.

    Literate, funny, engaging rules are nearly a Costikyan trademark. The man is an able writer even by my exacting standards.

  18. Costikyan absolutely kicks arse. ditto Sandy Peterson. christ– flashback-city. these guys were the Wizards Dealing Lightning of the gaming world.

  19. Glorantha still exists; check out Issaries Press’ Hero Wars RPG. It’s not Runequest as produced by Chaosium, but a new, more narrative focused RPG designed by Robin Laws and Greg Stafford.

    D&D 4th edition was not a surprise to anyone who knew the 7 year rule, and knew how to read a sales graph. The teenagers who were playing D&D 3rd were now twentysomethings and not buying any more. The sales had started to decline. It was time fir a new edition.

    However, D&D is very much geared at being a “tactical combat engine with some roleplaying’ on top. Much the same way that GURPS and HERO are considered “physics engine” RPGs – books that try to have a rule for everything under the sun.

    I’ve grown to prefer much lighter weight, more character focused RPGs. If I want to play a tactical combat sim, I’ll play Attack Vector: Tactical.

    Insofar as what modern RPG design can look like, I’ll point you to Minimus.

    http://www.adastragames.com/downloads/RPGs/Minimus.pdf

    It’s a complete multi-setting RPG in 4 pages, including a lot of GMing advice that comes outside of the box. It’s a game that, if you liked old school traditional RPGs with stats for every kind of sword under the sun, and different armor modifiers for sclae, linked plates, banded mail and chain…will make you scratch your head and go “What the hell?”

    I’ve submitted it for consideration for an Origins Award, up against Dungeons & Dragons 4th ed. I don’t expect it to win – I hope it gets noticed.

    It is donation-ware. If you find it enjoyable as a read, or something you want to play, send me $3 by paypal (instructions are on the PDF). I won’t object if you feel it’s worth more than $3. :)

  20. hello, all. the action-cards mechanic (if i’m understanding it correctly) dates back farther than that — avalon hill’s “statis pro” series of sports games, which began in the 1970s, relied on a deck of cards as its randomness generator. the cards were imprinted with results such as a bell-curve 2-12 distribution (like a 2d6 roll) or 11-88 octal (like 2d8 rolled as percentile), as well as situation-specific results (e.g., if a prior sequence of cards produced a defensive error result, assign the error to the player at this defensive position.)

    tabletop sports games, as far as i can tell, are just as specialized a subset of adult games as wargames. i’ve read several baseball writers describe how they grew up playing them and learning how the probabilities of various events affect game strategy and planning. bill james wrote a passage in one of his seminal 1980s “baseball abstract” annuals suggesting the use of such games to instruct clueless managers in the basics of the percentage game.

    as for computers and hex-based games, i recall a company called SSI — strategic simulations inc.; some may recall them as having held the D&D license for several years — publishing a series of games for C64 (and probably also apple II, if not others) that were fairly faithful reproductions of counter-and-hex-map wargames. my sole experience was with “germany 1985,” part of a series of games depicting US-USSR combat in central europe. i struggled with and never overcame what struck me as an opaque, nonintuitive game mechanic, but i’ve never been able to discern whether that was due to my lack of experience with such games IRL (i was in my early adolescence) or a failing of the software design.

    i have, however, thought for many years that hex-based games could be done better in software — with modern CPUs and graphics systems, i would think that it would be fairly easy to create such a game with information stacked in an intuitive way and a well-thought-out interface. i’ve played the macintosh version of “harpoon,” a translation of a highly detailed set of naval miniatures rules (written by larry bond and used by bond and tom clancy to game out many of the scenarios in “red storm rising” and “the hunt for red october”) — while still clunky, it puts the vast majority of the accounting details behind the scenes and lets users worry about commanding their forces.

    and on the RPG front, i still love classic traveller with all my heart.

  21. >SSI

    yeah, they were the groundbreakers for the transition from tabletop to computer. unfortunately, they typically just replicated games on computer, rather than taking full advantage of the new environment.

    >i have, however, thought for many years that hex-based games could be done better in software

    well, a LOT of computer games essentially ARE hex(atom)-based 2D games. eg Civilisation, Escape Velocity, World of Warcraft (nonMMORPG original). but often they now allow near-realtime rather than being turn-based, adding (to my mind) a powerful new dimension of gameplay.

    >traveller

    yeah. also: Call of Cthulhu. “are you quite MAD??” “*checks SAN points* yup”
    Bushido was outstanding, too. the explicit inclusion of On (honour) subtly but profoundly altered gameplay and behaviour.
    Champions was a ton of fun also, come to think of it.

  22. Ken: >Glorantha still exists; check out Issaries Press’ Hero Wars RPG
    oh, that did finally see the light of day, did it?

    trouble is, based on its early reportings, it was not only less RPG and more collaborative storytelling, but really demanded that ALL participants have a deep and near-equal knowledge of Glorantha minutiae and a love for its paradigm. kinda destroys its market uptake — limited essentially to those who grew up with RQ and had all the supplements and had read all the magazine stories.

    >Minimus

    ok, i’m impressed. for the first time since god knows when, re a game. shades of Steve Jackson. that’s the FIRST minimal rpg that i think has serious gameplay Win, meaning it’s not just playable by diehards, but that the interaction of human-behaviour and its mechanics actively encourages even not-fully-involved players.
    seriously: well done, mate.
    even though i don’t have a gaming gang nowadays, the only reason i’m not lobbing you $10 right now is i don’t have a fully anonymised paypal a/c set up and i’m not willing to expose this e-id unnecessarily (only done it 3 times in 5yrs; all from technical hiccups, embarrassingly 1quite recently).

    minor market downside: it is, as you say, more collaborative narrative than pure RPG. trouble is, collaborative narrative games tend not to gain wide traction, since they really require all players to be really in the mood for a mutual story, all at the same point in time, rather than a game. just by human nature, that’s not very common. and it only takes one to be disengaged for the whole experience to fall very flat (speaking from disappointed experience).

    having said that, your mechanics specifically work to address that, and allow even game-mode players to engage. so i think you’re really on to something. well done, again.

    and kudos for “spending a bennie” — that raised a laugh.

  23. I play this game now: zatikon.com (use the windows client under wine, with windows vista settings. the linux client is a bit slow)
    This a chess like game with lots of different units.

  24. Oh man this is good. I love people mentioning these old games, brings back a lot of nostalgia and fond memories. I remember playing Bushido, a very well done game and yeah the concept of honor points was interesting and did subtly alter your behaviour. I thing TSR later ripped this concept off for their Oriental Adventures ruleset.

    I also played Call of Cthulu, an interesting concept, but ultimately I was a little disappointed with it. It seemed that no matter what you did, your character wound up losing their marbles and going to an asylum. Maybe that was the point.

    Anyone here play Paranoia? Stay alert, keep your laser handy!

    Also, Toon, the game where you were a cartoon character. Nutty idea.

    I loved the way Gary Gygax wrote the original D&D books, especially the Dungeon Master’s Guide. That book never talked down to you, it read like a college textbook. They just naturally assumed that if you were going to play this game, you were pretty smart. It had explanations of things like the normal or bell curve, and I loved the attention to detail.

    Gygax was almost maniacal about this. I remember the table in the appendix for pole arm nomenclature. No, it was not enough to just say, “This is a pole arm”, but he had pictures and terms so that not only would you know what a pole arm was, you could tell the difference between a bill hook and a bec de corbin.

    Sometimes this was unintentionally hilarious: I’m sure everyone remembers the prostitutes table? He actually put together a table so that if your intrepid adventurers ran into a whore, you could roll to see if it was a brazen doxie or a rich panderer. Awesome.

    When I heard that he had passed on a few months back, I was surprised at the emotional upwelling that I felt. May he rest in peace, he was a true pioneer and maybe the greatest game designer ever.

  25. “I loved the way Gary Gygax wrote the original D&D books (…), they just naturally assumed that if you were going to play this game, you were pretty smart. ”

    Then why did he write so blatantly unrealistic game rules that don’t make any sense? That a Level 1 figher, who on the average has 5-6 HP, cannot be possibly killed by one thrust of a dagger (1-4 damage) by a Level 20 fighter, unless he has strength or specialization boni – why didn’t damage at least increase with the level, or why isn’t damage modified by a very successful attack i.e. an attack good enough to hit AC 0 when the opponent has AC 5? Why doesn’t AC increase with level? Why doesn’t fighting yourself up to Level 20 increase your Strength or Dexterity? Why doesn’t armor reduce damage? Why cannot a mage be proficient in wielding a sword if he really wants to? How can you be proficient with a long sword and a dagger and yet have the same improficiency with a short sword as someone who isn’t proficient with any kinds of blades – why doesn’t proficiency spill a bit over into the similar instruments? What about that insane stuff about memorizing and forgetting spells every day, often memorizing multiple “instances” of the same spell? Why does someone damaged down to 1HP fight as well as someone at full HP, why doesn’t damage reduce fighting ability? I could go on forever… Playing D&D was like “WTF? This just doesn’t make any sense!” about every five minutes.

    If you want to see a realistic, clever RPG, take a look at Shadowrun. For example, no spell memorization and no “magic points”: instead you roll Willpower against the strength of a spell upon casting it, failure means Fatigue damage (tiredness), in the extreme case, unconsciousness, otherwise, negative modifiers to everything, including casting. Makes perfect sense. And so on. The world of Shadowrun is ridiculous (I mean originally it’s OK but the novels are horrible), but the rules are first-class, very smart.

  26. “World of Warcraft (nonMMORPG original)”

    Was Warcraft a tabletop game originally, or a universe for novels? Just because Warcraft 3 (the nonMMORPG PC game) has about the best fleshed out race of orcs I’ve ever seen: they aren’t stupid brutes but fierce and honourable tribal warriors, with some both martial and wise kind of shamanism, almost like bushido translated to shamanistic terms. Walking the path of the wolf-spirit, stuff like that. Very cool, like a combination of Vikings and Native Americans. And the visuals, like the clothes of the orcs and the shape of their dwellings fit very well to it. I don’t think was just written for the sake of one game where you don’t even play the orcs all the time, I think it must have came from a longer evolution: either novels or tabletop games. Any ideas?

  27. Shenpen, The 3 in ‘Warcraft 3′ might suggest that there were 2 more games before it. I’ve played them, and the original game was much more crude in its portrayal of the orcs. So was the second (Although the wikipedia entry gives fleshed details, most of those are a retcon from the Warcraft 3 universe). The game’s story and universe have been refined over a longer period of time than you think. Especially the ‘Thrall plotline’, with the orc Thrall being the main character of the nixed Warcraft Adventures game.

    But AFAIK, Warcraft has never been a tabletop game. It’s just that Blizzard employs good storywriters.

  28. @Shenpen: I’m sorry if my previous reply starts condescending. It’s just that I’m very familiar with the games (at least, the non MMORPG) and wikipedia has copious info about them. Still, rereading the wiki articles, I see that they’ve been retconned, so it would look to anyone else as if the original game had a story depth much greater than what it really had. So you were actually right in asking.

  29. Oh, cool. Warcraft tabletop games do exist, but they are derived from the videogames.

  30. I’m fairly familiar with them too, this is why I was asking it: if these orcs were invented by the game designers, they must have been invented between 2 an 3, which I find a bit unlikely, they are too well fleshed-out, their culture is too good in the suspension of disbelief to be invented in such a short period of time for but one of the many playable races in WC3. Compare them to the undead who are perhaps a more important playable race in WC3 yet as cliché, simplistic, one-dimensional and generally stupidly designed as it can get.Therefore I’m thinking that these orcs might have been borrowed from somewhere else, or at least certain elements were borrowed. Perhaps EarthDawn…

  31. Well, between 1995 and 2002 there was plenty of time to flesh out a story, especially when sitting on the comfy pile of cash Warcraft 2 made Blizzard.

  32. Shenpen wrote:

    The world of Shadowrun is ridiculous (I mean originally it’s OK but the novels are horrible), but the rules are first-class, very smart.

    Um. No.

    They weren’t. Shadowrun rules (like most of FASA’s stuff) weren’t bound checked or recursively analyzed until after publication. I don’t remember the exact exploits any longer, but…Shadowrun’s mechanics were amazingly easy to break, and also had a lot of nonsensical decisions in them. (I seem to recall being able to make a better street samurai by being a physical adept mage with a crowbar than the best cyberneticized goon with boosted reflexes and a monomolecular edged katana of uber coolness)

    Their die pool mechanic wasn’t checked for statistical hot spots.

    Earthdawn was even worse.

    FASA is a beautiful example of “just good enough to survive playtesting” combined with excellent world creation and marketing potential for this industry. With WizKids (which was FASA re-born), a lot of their designs got stat-checked more regularly.

  33. Saltation wrote:

    ok, i’m impressed. for the first time since god knows when, re a game. shades of Steve Jackson. that’s the FIRST minimal rpg that i think has serious gameplay Win, meaning it’s not just playable by diehards, but that the interaction of human-behaviour and its mechanics actively encourages even not-fully-involved players.
    seriously: well done, mate.

    Thank you. I put a lot of thought into Minimus, including a lot of thought about why I had negative experiences with strongly Narrativist games; you touched on one of the reasons.

    even though i don’t have a gaming gang nowadays, the only reason i’m not lobbing you $10 right now is i don’t have a fully anonymised paypal a/c set up and i’m not willing to expose this e-id unnecessarily (only done it 3 times in 5yrs; all from technical hiccups, embarrassingly 1quite recently).

    If you have a way to get funds to Eric without compromising this, I trust Eric to relay them on to me. Otherwise, glad you enjoyed it and gave feedback.

    minor market downside: it is, as you say, more collaborative narrative than pure RPG. trouble is, collaborative narrative games tend not to gain wide traction, since they really require all players to be really in the mood for a mutual story, all at the same point in time, rather than a game. just by human nature, that’s not very common. and it only takes one to be disengaged for the whole experience to fall very flat (speaking from disappointed experience).

    having said that, your mechanics specifically work to address that, and allow even game-mode players to engage. so i think you’re really on to something. well done, again.

    A larger market downside is this: At 4 pages and a requested donation of $3, our well trained RPG consumer market considers it “too small to be worth paying for”.

    I’ve tracked how much money I’ve made from Minimus versus how much time I put into it that I track as ‘work'; it’s made me about $11/hour all told, though MOST of that that stems from two outliers: One person sent me $35 , wishing she’d seen it before she bought D&D 4th ed, another sent me $20 for it, because he printed off several copies, put them in plastic baggies with golf pencils, d20s and sheets of notebook paper, labeled them “Emergency RPG!” and put them with the flashlights in their car and home.

    and kudos for “spending a bennie” — that raised a laugh.

    Cool. I’m also amused by the card trade mechanism for coordinated actions. Far too many RPG combats run like Special Forces chron jobs. A mutual friend of mine and Eric’s (Giles) was the inspiration for the card trade instantiation here. Every time I read the rules, I pictured Giles’ facial expression on reading them. The more pained he looked, the closer I was to the Platonic ideal of what that particular set of mechanisms needed to do.

    Of all the bits in Minimus that I think are profound and worth stealing, the relationship map and the GMing advice are high on the list – and likeliest to be ignored.

  34. >> “I loved the way Gary Gygax wrote the original D&D books (…), they just naturally assumed that if you were going to play this game, you were pretty smart. ”

    Then why did he write so blatantly unrealistic game rules that don’t make any sense?

    Well Shenpen I know what you mean. In particular, the rules for bare handed fighting were particularly hard to figure out much less use. And why shouldn’t a Magic User be able to use a sword? Or wear armor? And why don’t edged weapons work on skeletons?

    But remember this book came out in 1979, and D+D was the first game of it’s type. If other games that came along later made more sense, well, they were building on a foundation that Gygax had laid down.

    This was a new type of game, and certainly playtesting and experience would show errors and problems that would be addressed.

    But I still stick by what I said. The later editions of the books, to me, feel dumbed down in the way they are written, even if a lot of the game mechanics are better.

  35. “But I still stick by what I said. The later editions of the books, to me, feel dumbed down in the way they are written, even if a lot of the game mechanics are better.”

    I think I’ve only read the later editions, around 1992 and it was already called AD&D. The rules were changed a bit – assassins out etc. – but not very much: however, you might be right that the style of writing and the enjoyment experienced during reading might have changed. It was a bit dull.

    The 1979 book is 30 years old now – do you still have a copy? Perhaps an antiquarian site, i.e. a site where some selected scannings of the 1979 book are uploaded, would that be a good idea? I think it would.

  36. “They weren’t. Shadowrun rules (like most of FASA’s stuff) weren’t bound checked or recursively analyzed until after publication. ”

    I see what you mean there. Interesting. So there are, apparently, not one but two measures for game rule quality: realism and game balance. D&D was good in game balance but bad in realism, Shadowrun was excellent in realism but bad in game balance.

    I have to admit I just mostly read the gamebooks and rarely played them, except AD&D, but I can accept that in practice game balance is just as important as realism.

  37. Shenpen, you can still find most of the 1st ed D&D books for sale on eBay or used book stores.

    And I disagree about the prose stylings of Gary Gygax.

    When writing rules, you are serving two masters. You’re effectively writing a procedures manual that someone else is reading. For fun.

    Gygax never really understood that. I found his prose to be leaden and full of legalese and meandering thoughts. He had a pathological aversion to writing to an outline.

  38. Yes I still have my original copies of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, Legends and Lore, Monster Manual II, Fiend Folio, and Unearthed Arcana. Jeez how much money did I spend on that stuff?!! I also bought screens, dice, modules, character record sheets, and G-d knows what else. At a certain age that stuff was like crack to me.

    I could never sell or get rid of those musty old tomes, they just have two darn much sentimental value. And they should never have gotten rid of the prostitution table. :)

  39. >If you have a way to get funds to Eric without compromising this, I trust Eric to relay them on to me.

    well, it was with eric that i blew my anonymity most recently.. so this is feasible, on the basis that the damage is done. except yesterday i took an unexpected hit and i don’t get paid again till end March. so i’m nervous about voluntarily digging further into fat at this point. i’ll resurrect my nonanonymous paypal at that point and squirt it through. remind me, if you haven’t got it by midApril. it’ll be a failure of memory not intent.

    >Of all the bits in Minimus that I think are profound and worth stealing, the relationship map and the GMing advice are high on the list – and likeliest to be ignored.

    *cough* *embarrassment* – must admit, i thought from the intro these were pure collaborative-narrative helps so blurred thru the expatiation at the end.
    now on my list of things to come back to properly. if they’re as subtly valuable as your earlier stuff, they’ll be well worth it.

    >A larger market downside is this: At 4 pages and a requested donation of $3, our well trained RPG consumer market considers it “too small to be worth paying for”.
    :\ yeah. shades of the discovery in the aussie wine market that discounting REDUCED sales volumes. because people were using price as a signal of quality.
    thought/suggestion: consider relabelling your 4pp as a “jackrabbit” rules overview, then creating another, for book form, that’s a large fat detail-centric expansion of all your large points.

  40. >Oh man this is good. I love people mentioning these old games, brings back a lot of nostalgia and fond memories.

    http://catandgirl.com/archive/cg0324icons.gif

    >I also played Call of Cthulu, an interesting concept, but ultimately I was a little disappointed with it. It seemed that no matter what you did, your character wound up losing their marbles and going to an asylum. Maybe that was the point.

    yeah, pretty much. :D
    but seriously, we had your same experience, until we started playing it paranoid. which is like you’d be in real life. and it started to affect us similarly emotionally. we were actually being super-cautious about “investigating” “weird” events. and guns became game-enders rather than weapons. at which point we realised the difference between games and role-playing games.

    >Anyone here play Paranoia? Stay alert, keep your laser handy!

    that’s the one. god i’d forgotten that.
    and THAT’s the name of the game that Portal reminded me so strongly of. thank you!

    >>“I loved the way Gary Gygax wrote the original D&D books (…), they just naturally assumed that if you were going to play this game, you were pretty smart. ”
    >Then why did he write so blatantly unrealistic game rules that don’t make any sense? That a Level 1 figher, who on the average has 5-6 HP, cannot be possibly killed by one thrust of a dagger (1-4 damage) by a Level 20 fighter, unless he has strength or specialization boni

    actually, the later games (eg AD&D) expressly allowed for non-combat weapons use, which was essentially lethal for any edged weapon.

    trouble is, those rules were away from the combat tables, and most people never saw them.

    in-combat, HP were intended as a reflection of how a skilled fighter would swerve the actual full impact, rather than a reflection of increased hardiness/resistance to weapons.

    >if these orcs were invented by the game designers, they must have been invented between 2 an 3

    never played 3, and only played the demo version of 2. the orcs were only “another race” in 2-demo. and iirc that seemed fully in line with 1.

    >And why shouldn’t a Magic User be able to use a sword? Or wear armor? And why don’t edged weapons work on skeletons?

    could never justify the Sword aspect, but the idea was that armour distracted non-natural magic users. and note that Ed.1 Elves were essentially a cross b/w fighters, elves, and magic users, with the best of each. by AD&D they’d been toned way down to merely a racial choice rather than a character class, for game balance reasons.

    also: edged weapons DID work on skellingtons, but only as clubs. on the basis that edged weapons got their edge (heh) from their cutting effect on flesh.

    >but I can accept that in practice game balance is just as important as realism.

    absolutely critical, for a game. eg, when we were playing (we realised belatedly) if you weren’t a Barbarian, you were being a fool to yourself and a burden to others. 5th level barbo could toast a 20th level magic user with serious support, without breaking a sweat.

    >When writing rules, you are serving two masters. You’re effectively writing a procedures manual that someone else is reading. For fun.
    Gygax never really understood that. I found his prose to be leaden and full of legalese and meandering thoughts. He had a pathological aversion to writing to an outline.

    hear hear. RuneQuest remains for me the acme of rulebook writing. people wholly uninterested in the game would read it interestedly.

  41. >Ed.1 Elves were essentially a cross b/w fighters, elves, and magic users

    shd have read:
    Ed.1 Elves were essentially a cross b/w fighters, thieves, and magic users

  42. >>but I can accept that in practice game balance is just as important as realism.

    key USP of Steve Jackson Games: they (he) would EXTENSIVELY AND EXHAUSTIVELY test for game balance, before releasing.

    a major reason for the enthusiasm of those games’ players for repeated play (and repeated, and repeated, and repeated, and…)

  43. Ian B:
    >Mongoose Publishing ( http://www.mongoosepublishing.com/ )

    http://www.mongoosepublishing.com/home/detail.php?qsID=1558&qsSeries=&PHPSESSID=478b1435c7492d56fd5b5b8728946c5e#

    !!

    Fronela:
    In the outlying western lands of Genertela, the Middle Sea Empire and the Empire of Wyrms’ Friends vie for control of an area that has already been subjugated by its own dreamy idealism of an egalitarian utopia. …
    Fronela is a sourcebook and campaign setting for Glorantha: the Second Age. Alongside details of the nations of Fronela, a series of interlinked adventures, forming a greater campaign arc, takes the characters into the heart of the struggle for the west. The righteous waves crash and the dragon wind howls:

    dude! fronela!

  44. Saltation wrote:

    remind me, if you haven’t got it by mid April. it’ll be a failure of memory not intent.

    Shall do.

    i thought from the intro these were pure collaborative-narrative helps so blurred thru the expatiation at the end.
    now on my list of things to come back to properly. if they’re as subtly valuable as your earlier stuff, they’ll be well worth it.

    I’ve had similar experience to yours when playing narrative driven games, and there’s one or two players at the table who’d really rather be playing WoW and slaughtering things, rooting through their gizzards for the Magic Watchfob of Stat-boostage. Or don’t know HOW to come up with a character. (You can identify these players and give them extra help by looking at how they build their five life changing events.)

    The GMing section is advice on how I avoid those problems in this type of game. It makes explicit several subtle things about how the mechanics and their respective reward mechanisms interrelate, then reminds GMs that carrots work better than sticks.

    The character sheets of your players, as sparse as they are, are nothing more than a list of “I think this would be cool to play/to see someone else play”. Build your plots and your stories around them and you’ll find that the players will do most of the heavy plot lifting for you. (Every GM I’ve ever met has run into problems with setting up these big, elaborate plots that the players run orthogonally to.)

    Because the players get rewarded for describing failures (for character advancement), the NPC relationship map circling around the main antagonist gives you plenty of opportunities for them to do so, while also building up their goal bennies for the big final conflict scene. But until the GM realizes that the relationship map is more useful than the dungeon map…it’s easy to sit there and go “Well. Now what?”.

    Unfortunately, most gamers will read reams of mechanics before they read a ‘strategy guide’ for GMs. because they’ve never really assimilated that GMing is a skill.

    Thought/suggestion: consider relabelling your 4pp as a “jackrabbit” rules overview, then creating another, for book form, that’s a large fat detail-centric expansion of all your large points.

    I’ve considered this – the problem is “How do you get Minimus up to the 96 page book level” (minimum size where a spine is viable) without eliminating most of what makes it work? Just looking at my GURPS 4th edition books here, there’s over 180 pages of Skills, Advantages & Disadvantages that I presume players can come up with on their own.

    While I can expand the GMing advice fairly easily, the problem with those expansions is that they become pedantic very quickly – and nobody reads the 2 page GMing section as it is. :)

    I’ve got it submitted for an Origins Award, up against D&D 4th edition. I don’t expect to win. I do hope that if I make the shortlist, enough people will go “What the…” at the audacity of a free downloadable RPG that’s shorter than the D&D 4th edition rules index to look at it, have the same reaction you do, and go “OK, that’s worth some money.”

  45. Minimus: wow, it puts the R back into RPG. Congrats. Requires very mature players, I figure. Which is a good thing, except that they are hard to find. Anyone has any experience with RPGing over the Internet, like IRC? Good idea, bad idea?

  46. Shenpen – I don’t categorize it as needing mature players. I categorize it as needing players who want a specific thing. The problem is, well, a lot of current RPG designs (and further exemplified by WoW) are the equivalent of locking someone in to a particular programming language without discussing programming concepts or syntax. They know how to do what they want with their RPG of choice, and can move from variations on the same RPG with some effort….but they don’t know what else is out there.

    And, I’ll admit, it leaves some people cold. Cathy Raymond, for instance, had a difficult time coming up with five life changing events for a character at WBC. Eric had an easier time. Craig Trader just sort of looked perplexed.

    Try following the advice in the GMing section on “Finding Players” – anyone who’s played d20 or D&D 4th edition will find the basic mechanic of Minimus easy: “Roll die, add modifier, beat target number.” My suggestion is to drop the first two pages of Minimus on your group with a pad of paper and have them make characters; this should take about 2 hours.

    I’ve run RPGs over the internet; simpler mechanics are critical. There are some tools (VASSAL) that can handle a card draw. Indeed, an IRC poker client with a d20 roller would do Minimus quite nicely. The real issue is that the games run at a third of the pace. Native English speakers speak about about 120 wpm, and that ignores data transmitted through vocal inflection and body language. Even fast touch typists typing an online RPG go at about 40 wpm because they have to consider what it is they’re saying.

  47. >Even fast touch typists typing an online RPG go at about 40 wpm because they have to consider what it is they’re saying.

    *tchoh*
    people on the internet don’t consider what they’re saying.
    yew fewl!

  48. No one mentioned them, but some folks in the UK are doing online versions of some of the SPI titles here: http://www.hexwar.com. They charge a monthly subscription rate, but you can try Napoleon at Waterloo for free. :-)

    I guess I was a freak too. I subscribed to SPI for a number of years and played many of the games solo. I have to say that many of them did take an inordinate amount of time to master. My favorites tended to be the ones that you could actually get around to playing. I remember one that was a simulation of the entire Pacific theater in WWII which was beyond incomprehensible. I always wondered if anyone had actually played it or whether it was just game performance art.

  49. Hi Saltation – you said to remind you around April about buying Minimus.

    Still in a situation where you can do so? If so, please contact Eric in whatever way you feel is appropriate so as to preserve your privacy.

  50. ken! i emailed eric about this just a couple of hours ago! (sent then hit the web for the first time in too long. ask him to check email timestamps vs website if you’re doubtful. only latterly thought to dig this deep.) you’re a week early; i said “mid April” ;)

    long story short: no, i’m not, but i haven’t forgotten nor am i attempting to nor wanting to wriggle out of, my promise.

    and trust me, my other economic incentives to rectify the problem, which would “incidentally” also allow me to make good this promise, are more than real-world powerful enough not to let the problem slide. “should” have been sorted mid-March. caught short (big time) by two idiots’ overlapping at the moment…

  51. actually, looking back over the comments, i’m reminded of something i wanted to say earlier but lacked energy to follow-through on properly at the time. (please bear in mind i’m running solely on false energy now and really should be in bed)

    >I’ve considered this – the problem is “How do you get Minimus up to the 96 page book level” (minimum size where a spine is viable) without eliminating most of what makes it work? Just looking at my GURPS 4th edition books here, there’s over 180 pages of Skills, Advantages & Disadvantages that I presume players can come up with on their own.

    don’t consider (further) the keen, involved, person. add a 2 page frontispiece labelled “all you really need” or somesuch, and they’re DONE. “you got them with hello”
    the keen committed types are NOT the problem here. the people with the time and flexibility to fully take on board your rules and their logical implications, from scratch, are rare. they are not your market-uptake problem.
    the ordinary gamer is.

    so then expand in simply ringing the changes, instantiating the “rule”s. sure you could “come up with them on their own”. but remember that 99% of ANY audience/market for ANY product is not in that territory. if you go out to buy a wine, will you prefer a wine with a clear signal re quality or “if you’re into wine, you will KNOW”? from the (relatively) little i know now, i can buy you a french wine (lend me the money?) that blows the doors off what you consider normal. true specialists will scoff at the silliness that the larger market is not leaping on a particular winery as clearly different and better from every winery around it. (and this is a key problem with french wines — you will waste a LOT of money and time finding the good ones — what i’ve found i’ve found through (non-parisian) french mates saying “eurg. try THIS one.”) but wineries willing to put a little effort into making it easy to find the right product without making a life commitment to it, tend to do a lot better. put it this way: in only a few words i can describe to you australian wine genera that will blow the doors off any french wine within 100% of their price (ultra top-end excepted).

    <insert AD&D about here.>

    people wanting to jump in quickly and play a game, will prefer a lookup to a thinkup.
    tax-tables exist for a reason. if you know how to calculate tides, “only a fool” would want a tide table. logs are simple math — why would ANYONE want a log-table? (pre-calculator example :)

    even where people are committed, think about the GM with a lot to do. how much easier is it to look up an agreed standard instantiation of a general principle than it is to extrapolate your own, then have to argue it with dissenters?

    don’t underestimate the value of “simple” extrapolations and instantiations of your wonderful general principles.

    have another think about “simply” padding out your core rules with pre-done examples of standard examples.
    and i think you’ll be surprised about how quickly that 96 pages comes up, and how quickly you (YOU) can do it. every time *i’ve* expanded “obvious” stuff, i’ve been startled by the difference in reception and the enthusiasm with which my “irrelevant” instantions of “already stated (in principle)” have been received (and with the ease and speed with which i created the “trivial” stuff which suddenly and sharply expanded its actual audience — lunaticly wrong-headed bang-for-buck, i’ve thought each time).

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