Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Showing posts with label Stonewall Jackson's Way. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Stonewall Jackson's Way. Show all posts

Friday, December 12, 2014

The game time conundrum revisited

A couple of years ago, I looked over my game collection and sighed at the number of games that hadn't seen the attention they deserved.  I wrote a post listing games that I wanted to spend more time on, even as I realized that as long as leisure time is limited and the game collection is big, there will always be neglected games on my shelves.  It's a topic worth revisiting from time to time - both because it's interesting to see how the list has changed (and how it hasn't) and because it's helpful to look at the collection with fresh eyes and think about resurrecting a few titles that might bear dusting off and playing again.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Gameplay vs. simulation

A favorite debate among my friends and me is the question of realism vs. playability.  Last spring I touched on this topic briefly in a post following a game of Rail Baron in which I reflected on changes in game design practices since the 1970s.  My friend Paul R. is a strong advocate for realism in strategy games.  He approaches a game as a model of real-world decision-making.  If you look at the Avalon Hill marketing from its heyday, much of the appeal came from the concept of putting yourself in the place of Napoleon, Lee, or Eisenhower to see whether you would be able to match or exceed the achievements of the great leaders of the past.

Paul R. and I have played several games of Stonewall Jackson's Way, and more than any other game I've played, I think this game best accomplishes what AH set out to do.  Generals - I mean, players - must balance urgency of the battlefield against the fatigue of the troops.  Coordinated attacks are not as easy when your corps commanders are lacking in quality leadership.  And the more I think about SJW, the more clearly I understand what makes it a realistic game.  The unpredictable elements of the game correspond to the unpredictable elements of battle.  The conditions that are under a general's control in battle are under the player's control in the game.  So the bottom line in SJW, and perhaps the defining characteristic of a realistic game, is that a player can make decisions in the game based on how he would make decisions in battle.  "I'd better not march in column along this road so close to the enemy."  To the extent that this correlation works, the game models real-world decision-making and can even be considered a simulation of the battlefield decision-space.

The problem I have seen in efforts to simulate real-world problems in games is that the methods often sacrifice playability.  In my Rail Baron post, I mentioned that frequent table-lookups interrupted the game flow.  I mentioned how Tobruk was notorious for requiring continual dice-rolls and table references every time a tank fired a round.  Whereas the effects of armor-piercing rounds on various tank types were arguably well modeled in that game, the tactical flow completely broke down as tank-by-tank, turn-by-turn fire and movement bore no resemblance to an actual World War II tank skirmish in Libya.  The realism trees got in the way of the simulation forest, so to speak.

Age of Renaissance:  commodities cards
Paul R.'s principle objection to unrealistic games, though, is that their design makes little attempt to simulate real-world mechanics but instead imposes artificial behavior for the sake of constructing a game system.  The commodities cards in Age of Renaissance are played at the discretion of the people holding them, so that a player can have cornered the market in wine, for example, but it will never pay off if an opponent controls the timing of the play of the wine card.  To Paul, people buy wine every year, so it ought to pay every turn; and if I have a monopoly on wine production, they ought to pay through the nose (so to speak).  Rather, the designers of AoR introduced this "market timing" mechanism to force a different kind of market confrontation to the game, an element (in my mind) that adds a new tension to the gameplay but which frustrates Paul's sense of real-world market mechanics.

Paul R.'s specific issue with Eurogames is that they don't necessarily gain playability when they sacrifice realism.  Here is an excerpt from an email response to my post last October on approachability:

For any new rule introduced, the designer should ensure the new rule adds either realism, or playability, and be aware of the impact on the other. 
As I see it, the objective is to simulate the processes (mechanics) of the real world, as well as historical or at least realistic boundary conditions, to the extent possible without making the game unplayable. There is a balance, which will vary from game to game, as it should. Players can then seek the balance between playability and realism that best suits them, on that occasion. 
However, ... I find with some recent games -- more often with the Eurogames focusing on optimization of unrealistic mechanics dealing with construction or economics -- the designers introduce mechanics (rules) which add neither realism nor playability, but seem to subtract from both. As a result, the game is difficult to learn, and not realistic. The game ends up being a struggle between players to be the first to understand the artificial mechanics, to "solve the puzzle."  In follow-up games, victory goes to the first to optimize the unrealistic mechanics. The better examples of these games allow multiple ways "to solve the optimization puzzle." 
Why would the designer add artificial mechanics which don't increase the playability? I think it's based on a different perception of what a "game" is supposed to be. Some players see it as a puzzle to solve. Others, including myself as a wargamer -- see a game as a simulation of the mechanics of the real world.
Image courtesy of
Rio Grande Games
I think I see where he is coming from here.  In a game like Race for the Galaxy, there's a set of strategies that work well for winning the game.  Those strategies, however, do not necessarily emerge to the newcomer as obvious logical steps.  They bear no relevance to the theme of the game - space colonization - nor are they a straightforward logical deduction from the mechanics of the game - hand management and simultaneous role selection.  Rather, the strategies depend on familiarity with the deck and the inter-relationships among the cards.  I think Paul R. feels that he ought to be able to learn the rules of a game and then apply a certain degree of logic to fare well in playing it, without having to "know the tricks" of what cards to keep, which cards to play when, and what to look for to come up in the deck.    

I don't necessarily object to games as puzzles, but I certainly see Paul R.'s point.  Moreover, familiarity with the deck can certainly skew the "historical simulation" of a game.  In History of the World, if you know the Romans are coming, you might play the Macedonians differently from what you would do if you really were Alexander the Great with no foreknowledge of the Roman empire.   

For my part, I like a good game.  SJW is a good game, and part of what makes it good is the degree to which it seems to simulate the real-world battlefield decisions that faced generals like J.E.B. Stuart and John Pope.  At the same time, Agricola is a good game because its mechanics require planning and forethought as well as taking one's opponents into account - even if it doesn't model in any realistic sense the challenges of farming at the dawn of the Renaissance.  In an email interchange among my gaming friends, I concluded that "a game is enjoyable if it's a shared mental challenge where you can look back and see which decisions led to your result."  Whether that comes in the form of a real-world modeled decision-space or an abstract game with a pasted-on theme doesn't affect my enjoyment of the game.  

Monday, July 25, 2011

The mystery of play balance

[I'm on vacation someplace where I don't have internet access, so today's is a re-post from September 2010 when I explored the topic of play balance in game design.]

I mentioned when recounting my game of Stonewall Jackson's Way with Paul R. that we started to wonder whether there was a bias in the game toward the Confederates.  Sure enough, we weren't the first people to think so.  A user on boardgamegeek directed me to Multi-man Publishing's Great Campaigns of the American Civil War "New Scenarios" page, which includes modifications to scenarios from the original Avalon Hill edition.  That page includes a link to proposed modifications to the victory conditions to the Cedar Mountain scenario that Paul and I played.  If those victory conditions had been in effect, I would have played much more aggressively on the third day of the battle, and perhaps much more realistically from the standpoint of how we might have expected Stonewall Jackson to behave in that historical situation.

Play balance is always a tricky thing in games.  As a player, and as a buyer, it's important to invest time and money in a game in which everyone has a reasonable opportunity to win, inasmuch as the opportunity to win by virtue of one's own skill constitutes the essence of the fun of gameplaying.  Some games are transparently balanced by the nature of their design.  Chess and checkers are obvious examples.  The 1965 Avalon Hill game Blitzkrieg was specifically designed as an even match between hypothetical armies of fictional countries "Great Blue" and "Big Red."  That's fine, but it's also artificial.  Wargames that depict historical battles invariably put players in situations that may or may not be "fair" contests.  Incumbent on the designer, then, is to set victory conditions and other factors in such a way as to give each player a reasonable expectation of victory by superior play.

I read a fascinating article in The General that described the play balance of Stalingrad as being a function of the skill levels of the two players.  Between novices, a German player tended to defeat a Russian who had not learned the process of a fighting withdrawal river defense.  Between typically experienced players, a Soviet player tended to have the advantage by working the terrain of Russia to his advantage against the advancing German army, and the game carried a general reputation for being biased in favor of the Russian.  But at the very highest levels of experience, flawless German play could turn the propensity for victory back to the side of the Third Reich. 

Conversely, a game that betrays an irrecoverable imbalance toward one side becomes dissatisfying and almost unplayable.  We have a Milton Bradley yard sale find called The Lost World: Jurassic Park that seems almost ridiculously biased toward the dinosaurs.  Okay, so it works as a parent-child game, with parent as humans and child as dinosaurs.  Otherwise, it becomes necessary to reduce the number of dinosaurs or the number of humans that need to escape (or both) to make the game interesting.  But at least the game is adjustable.

What is interesting about the General article on Stalingrad is the notion that play balance is sometimes in the eye of the beholder.  My gaming group currently believes that Axis and Allies: Pacific is irreparably imbalanced in favor of the Japanese.  My good friend Grant G. is brilliant at getting to the heart of a game, and in two or three plays, he seemed to have ripped the heart right out of A&A:P by developing what seems to be a near-guaranteed strategy as the Japanese player.  Our group pretty much stopped playing that game altogether as a result.  But in doing a little research for this post, I found that this perception is common among people new to the game.  On boardgamegeek, Moshe C. has posted a detailed review that makes a fascinating case for the balance of A&A:P, so much so that I'm curious to go back and re-examine the Allied position for a way to beat Grant and restore order to the historical universe.

So where does all this leave me as a game designer?  I think I'm even more sensitive to the importance of play-testing a game based on a historical setting that wasn't balanced to begin with, in the interest of making sure that no player can gain a guaranteed upper hand by following a certain path.  It becomes important to ensure that there is no "saddle point" in the game conditions that causes every play of game to resolve to the same end-state. 

Tricky, indeed.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

SJW: Stuart's Raid (or, "I don't need you. I can lose all by myself.")

Monday my friend Paul R. and I got together for another session of Stonewall Jackson's Way at Game Parlor, Chantilly, VA.  We decided to try the micro-sized Scenario 3, "Stuart's Raid," dicing for side in the first game then switching sides and playing again.

General J.E.B. Stuart
Source:  www.sonofthesouth.net
From the game notes:  "This scenario simulates J.E.B. Stuart's 22 August cavalry raid against Pope's lifeline, the Orange and Alexandria Railroad.  This is a very simple scenario and should take only a few minutes to play.  Again, this is something of a hypothetical scenario as Stuart's raid actually encountered little opposition."  The three-day episode runs 22 - 24 August 1862 and occurs primarily in Fauquier County and northern Culpeper County, Virginia.  The Rappahannock River forms the boundary between the two counties.

In the first game, I had the Confederates, which consisted of F. Lee's cavalry brigade and J.E.B. Stuart, normally a corps commander but in this case simply an augmenting headquarters unit.  My Union opposition consisted of two cavalry regiments, 1st Maryland and 4th New York.  My objectives were to damage railroad stations at Catlett's Station and Warrenton Junction and to occupy Waterloo or White Sulphur Springs at the end of the three days.  Inflicting Union casualties also counted toward Confederate victory, whereas suffering Confederate casualties counted toward a Union victory.

The Confederate cavalry start the scenario on the north side of Wellford Ford on the Hazel River, about three miles west of its mouth on the Rappahannock.  Union cavalry start in White Sulphur Springs and Foxville, north along the Rappahannock on the far (east) shore.  Scenario restrictions prevent the Confederates from crossing the Rappahannock downstream of the Union position (unless it is at Kelly's Ford, a good seven miles south of the Hazel River, rather the long way around to the objective rail stations).  On the first day of the raid, scenario restrictions also prevent the Confederates from conducting an extended march and prevent the Union from moving at all.

My initial thought on reviewing the scenario was that if I had good dice rolls (for movement points) on the first day, I could swing north of the Union forces, cross the Rappahannock at Waterloo three miles north of White Sulphur Springs, then head for the Warrenton Branch Railroad and follow it east toward my two objective stations.  As it happened, my first roll was quite poor, and I feared that I would make insufficient progress on the first day.  Rather than leave the Union forces unmolested, I figured that F. Lee's brigade, which outnumbered the 4th New York three to one, could force its way through at White Sulphur Springs, bloody half the Union cavalry, and shorten the route to Warrenton Junction.

My thinking was seriously flawed.  My advantages of leadership and manpower were largely nullified by having to attack across the ford, and although I forced the enemy's retreat and occupied White Sulphur Springs, I ended up disorganizing my cavalry and exhausting my troops for the day.
On the second day, I gained the initiative but had to conducted an extended march by virtue of my troop's fatigue from the previous day's fighting.  As it happened, my die luck was poor, and I lost a third of my manpower from extended marching with a disorganized force.  Retaining the initiative, I elected to conduct a second extended march, seeking to regain lost ground toward my railroad objectives.  Again, poor die luck led to loss of another third of my original manpower on the extended march while disorganized, leaving me with but a third of my original manpower, and that completely exhausted.

And hereupon we realized the fatal error I had made.  In order to damage a rail station, I needed at least two combat factors (i.e. at least two-thirds of my original force size).  So here I was, having conducted a day of battle and a day of extended march, only to leave myself with a force too small to damage either of my objectives.  A quick analysis of the victory conditions led us to conclude that even if I wiped out the Union forces and occupied Waterloo or White Sulphur Springs at the end of the third day, the Union would win for having protected both railroad stations.

Thus I managed to lose the game without my opponent having to move a single piece.  If that's not an indictment of my cavalry operational skills, I don't know what is.

Next post:  We switch sides.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Coming up - play balance

My game of Stonewall Jackson's Way with Paul R., and some responses I got on boardgamegeek about it, got me to thinking about play balance in games.  I'll follow up with a more detailed post over the weekend. 

For tonight, my focus is on finishing card updates for "PDO's Eagerly Awaited Game" that became necessary when my ambitious developer added nine cards to the deck.  More is better, right?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Stonewall Jackson's Way

This afternoon after work, I met my good friend Paul R. at our friendly neighborhood game store, Game Parlor Chantilly, to play an old favorite, Stonewall Jackson's Way (designed by Joseph M. Balkoski, published by The Avalon Hill Game Company, 1992).  We'd played various scenarios of this game before, and this time we went back to replay Scenario 1, "Cedar Mountain," which simulates Confederate General Stonewall Jackson's attempt to halt the U.S. Army of Virginia's movement toward Orange Court House, Gordonsville, and Charlottesville, Virginia.  Jackson's efforts would culminate in the Battle of Cedar Mountain, 9 August 1862.

I have always been fond of Avalon Hill games, and I have to say that SJW has become one of my very favorites.  The rules are meticulously written, to the point of utter detail and clarity (at the expense, perhaps, of brevity and succinctness).  They include some interesting methods for modeling troop fatigue and the effects of forced march and repeated combat on the organization and morale of units.  Leadership quality becomes important in attempts to coordinate attacks among multiple divisions.  Even in its small scenarios, it poses some great tactical dilemmas that feel true to history.  

Most of all, Paul and I found ourselves continually faced with operational challenges that we could easily imagine facing General Pope of the Army of Virginia, or General Stonewall Jackson of the Confederacy.  We each had to consider such problems as whether to pursue a retreating enemy at the risk of exposing flanks and exhausting troops, whether to force march a lagging division to reinforce defenses and risk losing unit cohesion, or whether to swing a lone cavalry brigade behind the enemy line for a flank attack at the risk of losing the initiative and seeing the cavalry isolated and wiped out.  Some wargames are better than others at posing these dilemmas in a believable way; I find SJW very strong in this regard.

So, of course, the bottom line is that Paul and I had a great time.  The game took almost four hours to play, and we enjoyed every minute of it.  I was fortunate to have gained the upper hand by the second day of the three-day battle, so on the last day I consolidated Jackson's corps in an uncharacteristically (for Jackson) defensive posture less than five miles from Culpeper.  Paul attempted to muster one final assault by I Corps under Sigel but could not unseat the Confederates from their close proximity to the objective.  We agreed that the third day's actions were somewhat unrealistic, in that Jackson would not have been so conservative and Pope would not have taken the risks that Paul was forced to take, artificialities introduced by our knowledge that the game would be over after the third day.  Nevertheless, it was a fun time, and a great reminder why I enjoy AH games so much.