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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Boardgame Revolution

Every time I hear the name of the local game store I discovered recently, I get a flashback to high school, when a friend of mine made up a little ditty about the popular videogame Dance Dance Revolution.

"Dance. Dance. Re-vo-LU-shun!"

"Board. Game. Re-vo-LU-shun!"

There are several reasons I've come to like Boardgame Revolution over some of the game stores closer to my apartment:

1. Atmosphere

Boardgame Revolution is CLEAN.  It's quite the novelty compared to the poorly-lit stores that smell vaguely of sweat, cigarettes, and loneliness which I have had to suffer for the last few years.

The bathroom is one of the better public restrooms I have been in, quite the step up from another store that... well, let's just say that I'm always worried that I would get both herpes AND pregnant from that "restroom."

I have yet to enter BR without being greeted by a store employee and asked if I need help finding anything.

The staff seems quite knowledgable about the selection of games, which I appreciate in a game store staff.

The gamers with whom I have associated there did not smell bad, nor were they... overly enthusiastic about winning.

In general, it's just very pleasant there, with a nice, relaxed atmosphere inviting everyone to have fun.

2. Variety

Boardgame Revolution has been striving hard to get a tournament scene going for multiple enjoyable games: BattleCON, Call of Cthulhu, Game of Thrones, and even the recently-released Android: Netrunner.  I can stop by every Saturday afternoon (which is a GREAT time for me) and play a bunch of the games that I love.

Yesterday, not only did I get in several games of BattleCON, one of my all-time favorite games, but I was introduced to Sentinels of the Multiverse.  It was a delightful cooperative game where the players take on the roles of themed superheroes trying to stop a super villain controlled by the game's AI.  I'll probably write up a review soon.

3. Focus

Boardgame Revolution sells boardgames.  That's it.  It doesn't sell boardgames AND comics, or boardgames AND videogames, or boardgames AND miniatures AND painting/hobby supplies.  It's just boardgames.

I really like that.  It's just... so pure.  Now, I understand why other game stores can't be as focus; there isn't actually a ton of money to be had as a brick-and-mortar game vendor these days.  The boardgame INDUSTRY may be doing well, but a lot of that money is going to online distributors.  So supplementing a store's income with other products makes plenty of sense.

Boardgame Revolution doesn't have to do that.  They get away with this by renting boardgames.  It's genius!  You pay a portion of the game's price tag and can take home the rental copy.  You can try out the game with your friends, see if you like it, see if they like it, and if everyone's down, you can buy the game at a discount.  I mean, it's usually discounted anyway, because BR is awesome like that, but it will be further discounted by the rental price.  Why aren't more stores doing this?

BASICALLY, I really like this store and hope to be able to play there on at least a semi-weekly basis.  If you're in the area, I'd recommend checking it out.  It's at 411 E 1400 S in Orem, UT.  They're theoretically open from noon to 7pm M-F and 10am-7pm Saturday, but they hold regular card tournaments on Wednesdays starting at 7pm, so who knows how late they tend to actually stay open?  I myself was there until about 7:20pm yesterday.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Wings of Lightning Update, and My Next Project

If you frequent the boardgamegeek.com design forums, this is probably old news, but my gamebook, Wings of Lightning, did quite well in the 2012 Solitaire Print and Play Contest.  Out of the 48 completed entries, Wings of Lightning placed 8th overall.  Not too shabby.

In addition, it won first prize in the Best Paragraph Game and Best Large Game categories, and second place in the Best Sci Fi/Fantasy Game category.  Pretty good for my first completed gamebook.

The prize isn't spectacular--just a pile of "GeekGold" that can be used on the boardgamegeek website to purchase certain perks, like new microbadges to place under my avatar.  Still, it's a nice confidence-boost in my writing and design abilities.

Subsequently, I'm working on another gamebook, Traitors' Path.  This one is heavily influenced by space opera like Star Trek and David Weber's Honor Harrington series.  I think it will be a much better game than WoL in terms of balance and replayability.  It's much lighter on combat, which I think actually makes it faster-paced than WoL; the combat systems in both games is fun and unique from other gamebooks, but it can get repetitive.

Traitors' Path is about Seventh Fleet patrolling the edge of human expansion for fear of the return of an alien threat.  It turns out that the real threat to humanity, however, is itself, as the Interplanetary Socialist Initiative brutally and illegally takes power.  The ISI takes control of the military and seizes most human-occupied systems within a matter of days.

As a young commander in Seventh Fleet, you vow your loyalty to Admiral Vonn and swear to help her and Seventh Fleet free humanity from the tyrannical Izzies.  Check it out!  The first three missions are playable right now.  When the gamebook is complete, it will probably be the longest work I have ever completed.

And if you're interested in gamebooks, please check out this year's Windhammer contest.  There are some really intriguing entries, and I'm a little disappointed that I didn't find time to complete a submission of my own.  Next year, I suppose.  Anyway, the winner and two other "merit award" entries will get the chance to be published as an app by Tin Man Games, so be sure to vote!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Wings of Lightning: A New Kind of Solo Gamebook

Old School

With the astounding rise of popularity in role-playing games in the late 70s and early 80s came a demand for role-playing adventures that could be played solitaire.  After all, not every gamer could round up several friends and devote 4+ hours to a gaming session on a regular basis.  But the craving for role-playing-style games was nigh insatiable. 

Several major titles rose to meet this demand, notably the Fighting Fantasy series by Ian Livingstone and at least two different Steve Jacksons, and Lone Wolf by Joe Dever.

These gamebooks were designed to provide a single player with an RPG experience mimicking the popular mechanics of the time.  There were stats to track, inventory lists, and most importantly, dice!  The games played a bit like Choose Your Own Adventure books with dice-rolling.  The player would make decisions, turn to paragraphs as instructed, and roll dice to see if they fail or succeed at various endeavors.  The gamebooks essentially acted as GMs for the player.

I have attempted to write gamebooks on multiple occasions.  They combine two of my favorite hobbies: game design and creative writing.  None of these projects ever came to much, though.  I would get really excited by the story of the game, but the mechanics always felt... flat.  I didn't feel I was adding anything new to the genre.

I had to do some research.  I played a wide variety of both professional and amateur gamebooks, trying to figure out what worked, what did not, what I enjoyed, and what I felt could be improved.  The Fighting Fantasy Project was a particularly useful site, as was Project Aon, the attempt to make all the Lone Wolf books available for free online.

New Project

When I began to work on my newest design, Wings of Lightning, I tried to write a gamebook that drew upon the lessons that I had learned.

One of the key differences between Wings of Lightning and traditional gamebooks is the lack of dice.  I had attempted to write WoL several times, always with various attempts at dice-based combat, and none of them worked.  The problem was the Wings of Lightning was originally conceived of as an action-adventure video game, in the style of Legends of Zelda, God of War, and Shadow of the Colossus.  Combat in such games revolves around patience, combos, and pushing one's luck to get in the last few hits.  Dice just couldn't seem to emulate this.

Combat Evolved

I cast about for a mechanic that would mimic the fast-paced, brutal combat of God of War and Dante's Inferno.  Dice were not working.  What else could I use?

Many of my ideas seem to come during that blissful half-awake period when I am lying in bed waiting for my alarm to go off.  During one such time, it occurred to me to use playing cards rather than dice.  Playing cards have "memory," which in game terms means that the chances of achieving a certain outcome change over time as cards are depleted from the deck.  Dice lack memory; previous rolls have no effect on future rolls.

I initially thought about having the player guess the color or suit of the top card of the deck, then revealing that card.  A correct guess would mean a hit; an incorrect guess would therefore be a miss.  Too many misses, and the player would receive a damage penalty.  More hits would lead to better combos, thus encouraging the player to push his or her luck.

I liked this idea, because it would allow astute players to improve their accuracy over time.  The more cards they revealed, the more information they would have about what cards remained, giving them a higher chance of guessing accurately.

It occurred to me, though, that a deck of cards has too many cards.  Drawing four or five cards does not significantly alter the chances of drawing one suit or another.  I had to limit the number of cards so that drawing even one card would significantly alter the chances of revealing one color or another.  "Face cards!" I thought.

I tested the idea, and it seemed to work.  Using only the 16 face cards (Jack, Queen, King, Ace), I could guess with a decent amount of accuracy the color of the top card.

What, then, to do with the remaining cards?  "Enemy AI!" I thought.

For enemy attacks, I decided to use the numbers of the cards, rather than the colors.  For each enemy, the player would simply reveal the top card of the deck.  If the number on the revealed card was equal to or less than that enemy's Aim stat, the player would take a hit.  It was fast, simple, and easy to understand.

After releasing an initial draft for viewing on boardgamegeek.com, some early testers helped me iron out some kinks on the system.  (Shout out to Tony, Jessey, and Michael!)

First, the player wasn't interacting with the enemies enough.  The enemies would either hit the player, or not, and the player could do nothing about it.  I decided, then to utilize the "miss" cards that the player was accumulating anyway.  The "miss" cards became "maneuver" cards.  They would work the same way, in that too many maneuver cards would lead to a damage penalty, but they could also be used to cancel enemy damage.  If an enemy hit the player, the player could cancel the damage by matching the revealed card with a maneuver card of the same suit.  This added a nice extra layer of strategy, as players could deliberately miss in order to gain the suits they wanted to use to dodge enemy attacks.

Second, the idea of using guessing either colors or suits was too much.  Colors were much easier; suits were just too difficult to guess consistently.  So I ditched suits and went with colors only.  The player only had to guess the correct color to get a hit.

Linear Story

Wings of Lightning was originally intended to be a video game.  I had a very detailed plot laid out in my head, with several key characters playing important roles.  The game was originally a sort of on-rails adventure, a la God of War or Dante's Inferno; there would be no wandering around looking for extra items or performing menial tasks for NPCs.

This meant that when I sat down to write WoL, I had to make a crucial decision.  Instead of giving the player a lot of free reign over the story, with many branching paths and decision points, I decided to tell the story that I had already plotted.  Wings of Lightning has a chapter structure traditionally found in novels, but not really seen in gamebooks.  The player reads through and completes each chapter consecutively.  He or she still makes choices, but ultimately the story will be the same each time.

There are pros and cons to this approach.  On the one hand, the story will always be cohesive, and the characters consistent.  I get to tell exactly the story I want to tell.  On the other hand, once the player has completed the game once or twice, there is little incentive to replay.  But WoL is intended as a free print-and-play game, and I don't think replay value is as important in a game that cost nothing.

Looking Ahead

Wings of Lightning is being designed for the 2012 Solitaire Print and Play Contest.  Submissions must be complete by the end of July, which gives me about two weeks to wrap up the gamebook.  I've been writing steadily, but some upheaval at work has been very draining, making it difficult to complete more than about a page a day.

Still, I am hopeful that I can complete a solid draft in time.  I have outlined 10 chapters.  The rules and chapters 1 and 2 are complete.  Chapter 3 should be done by tomorrow evening.  The biggest hurdle will be chapter 9 (assuming I stick to my outline), because it involves a very tricky plot twist.  I think I can do it, with encouragement and dedication.  Even if I don't manage to complete the game in time to submit to the contest, I definitely plan to finish the game before the end of the summer.

Then I'll get to work on the sequel: Horns of Thunder!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Thousand Years of Blood

I have released another print-and-play game titled A Thousand Years of Blood.  It was designed for the June 24-Hour Game Design Contest, which was very intense.  It looks like the 24-hour design contest might become a monthly contest, with each month presenting different restrictions or challenges.  This month, the trial month of the contest, was open-ended.  Participants could design whatever they wanted!

To start the clock, the participant posts on the contest thread, announcing that they are beginning their game.  They then have 24 hours to create a game entirely from scratch.  No revisiting half-finished prototypes, no starting the graphic design or mechanical testing prior to the start, nothing.  Of course, this is all on the honor code, but we experienced designers have a good idea of what can and cannot be done in 24 hours.

My submission was designed, tested, tweaked, and released in a whirlwind weekend.  The game is about an alternate reality wherein a superhuman named Heinrich Kirchner took over Nazi Germany after Hitler's assassination.  Heinrich has lead the Nazis to victory over the human race.  You, as a fellow superhuman, must escape capture and bring down Heinrich's regime.

The game fits onto a single PocketMod, a sheet of paper that can be folded origami-style into a little booklet.  The player starts the game by selecting two super powers, then proceeds through each of the three levels to reach and defeat Heinrich.

It was definitely a fun and intense challenge.  I learned a lot about my design methods and sensibilities. I definitely work better starting with a theme and then matching mechanics to it.  The original concept for the game was to make a board game version of a side-scrolling adventure, but I quickly realized that there was no way to create that sort of game in 24 hours.  A side-scroller really needs artwork to distinguish the various obstacles and enemies, and there was no way I would be able to pull that off in a day.

It occurred to me, though, that I could have the players draw their own enemies and obstacles.  It was a stupid idea, and there was no way I could actually get players to do it.  But it did lead me to the idea of having players generate the maps, themselves.  Once I latched onto that idea, I decided to try and squeeze the game onto a PocketMod.  The small space would restrict the design possibilities--which is a good thing when you only have a day.  Additionally, I know from experience how to craft PocketMods, and I was confident that I could craft one quickly and get to testing.

The fact that the game was solitaire was extremely useful.  I could get in a lot of testing in a short amount of time, and tweak the game quickly and easily.

There haven't been very many participants in the June contest, yet, but we're only halfway through the month.  I'm hopeful that we'll be able to drum up more interest.  The prize isn't hugely compelling, but the challenge is very fun and quite instructive.

Anyway, feel free to check out the game!  The rules can be downloaded here, and the PocketMod is available here.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The First Planet

It's been a while since I posted on this blog, which is a little sad, since I've actually been very active in the board game community.

Here's a preview of a game that I've recently started working on:

The First Planet

            Life did not start on Earth.
            Uncounted millennia ago, the Earth was seeded with genetic coding.  Life slowly evolved, changing form as the Earth developed.  The land solidified, and creatures began to walk, slither, and fly across it as the oceans teemed with life.
            One species, a weak, slow, hairless species, learned to survive by traveling in packs and outsmarting their predators.  Their wits let them survive, and eventually, thrive.  They tamed the wilds to their liking, spread across the planet, and became the dominant species of the planet.  And when the Earth grew too small for them, they looked up to the sky. 
            The Moon was colonized, then Mars, then the ring of asteroids spinning around the sun.  That’s when they discovered the Structure.
            Nestled into a hunk of rock in the asteroid belt, the Structure had been built before humans learned to sharpen rocks into weapons.  It was designed to survive the cold, harsh destruction of space.  Half of it was exposed, a perfect half-sphere, while the other half was buried in the rock.
            While the half-sphere portion of the structure was surprising when discovered, it was the inner part of the structure that caused shock and awe through the human society.  Some described it as like a beehive; others said it was more akin to a nautilus shell.  It was clearly designed by something with great skill and craftsmanship, and it was not of human origin.
            Other clues were found later, but the Structure was the first, and in many ways the most important.  Life had existed elsewhere in the universe long before it developed on Earth.
            So humanity set out to find that life.  They set out in search of the First Planet.

This doesn't actually reflect my views on creation or anything, but the concept is interesting and should make for some fun gameplay.