A point about game design

Monday’s post attracted a couple of interesting comments, and I’ve pulled out this one from EJ to reply as a post because I didn’t want it to get lost in the mix. It’s an interesting point, and worth discussing as it applies to every type of game.

His original comment went like this:

“I’ve heard it said that “looks pretty” is what sells games, and “plays well” is what creates retention and builds a community. I don’t know whether this is the case globally but it matches my experience.

As such, a pretty table with pretty models will draw people in and give them a flavourful first game, which is always worth doing because nobody ever plays a second game unles they enjoyed the first. However, as Thomas Cato says, one needs to examine the abstract game which lurks behind the prettiness. If you play any game for long enough you start to see the maths which lies behind it, and if this maths isn’t fun then the game isn’t fun – as you have memorably pointed out with Warhammer and mental geometry.

In this case, with small model counts and large open spaces, my intuition is that this abstract gameplay will be mostly about first-move advantage and firepower, rather than about morale or maneuver. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but needs to be deliberate on your part rather than an emergent property of the assumptions you made.

I’m interested in seeing what your thoughts are about system…”

There are a number of things I’d like to pick up on here.

Firstly, the idea that pretty sells, and gameplay retains. I think that’s largely true, and like I said above, true whether you’re talking about computer games or board games. Tabletop games could be thought of as a slightly different kettle of fish because the gamer determines a fair slice of whether they are pretty or not themselves with their painting and modelling skills. Still, cack models and duff art won’t impress anyone, so I’d argue that it broadly holds up here too.

One conversation I often have with clients is about how “sticky” a game is, or could be made to be, and what makes it more or less so. By sticky they mean retains gamers, and keeps pulling them back for more. That’s probably a whole post on its own, though good game play, and replayability without becoming repetitive is probably a good starting point.

Having played games for a very long time, and spent so much time taking them apart for work, I find it hard not to see the underlying structure. And, in many ways, that’s where I find the attraction of many games. Some designers create such elegant and beautiful structures that I can’t help but admire them, even if I don’t actually like the game itself (for example, if the theme fails to appeal). That said, games should be about making interesting (and difficult or challenging) choices, and if a game fails to offer these then it doesn’t matter how clever the mechanics are.

So I agree with EJ that these two broad threads run through each design (pretty and game play). However, I don’t think he’s right in implying that we have to pick one or the other. I think we can have both. I certainly hope we can because that’s what I always aim for in my own work and would hate to be so fundamentally misguided :)

Of course, there are plenty of examples of pretty games you’d not want to play twice, or unattractive games which you play till they fall apart. Fewer games make it to be both really nice to look at and great to play again and again. That’s a shame, but being hard to do is no reason to give up trying to make them both.

As far as Old Skool Skirmish is concerned, I’m trying to make an engaging game because I’m writing it for me to play. Of course I want to play it repeatedly (and I have to in order to playtest it), and I’m not going to do that if I find it dull. I’m a fairly harsh critic too, and quick to see problems in a system, so I have set a fairly high bar for OSS to reach. But I would say that🙂

As far as appearance goes, my comments about making it look really good are based on decades of looking at thousands of gaming tables, and 90% of the time being underwhelmed by what I saw. Again, I want to aim high for this new set of models and terrain I paint and build. I’ve not done any real painting or modelling for years, and so I’m coming at it all fresh. Sort of. I want to go for the ideal, and for me that is making something that looks like a great diorama – a diorama on which you can move the figures and play. I know this is an even higher bar, and I may not reach it. However, by trying for that ideal I may get somewhere close, and I can build on that.

EJ’s comment about “first move and firepower” is also interesting. I see where he’s coming from, and a low model count game could indeed end up not working, or having a single initiative roll which was overwhelmingly important. OSS doesn’t do things quite like that. It’s sequencing is done by a chit draw, and while there will obviously be someone that goes first, there is enough mud in the water for things to be quite tense as the turn unfolds. It’s a bit of a retro approach, and that’s deliberate. Perhaps it’s not as slick as some later mechanics I could think of, and again, that’s intentional. It does, however, allow for some gameplay which I haven’t worked out another way to replicate, and I really like that. I was going to explain a bit more, but this post’s already a bit long, so I’ll spare you the details for now. Suffice to say that yes, it’s a potential worry, but I think I’ve worked a way round it in OSS so the game can both look pretty and play nicely every time🙂

Posted in Game Design Theory, Nostalgia, Old Skool Skirmish | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Miniature Mondays: a battlefield to call your own

More on Old Skool Skirmish today.

Eru-kin 01

Diehard miniatures join the ranks I’ll be using for my personal games. Some great models in their growing range. I particularly like the Eru-kin (above), though there are plenty of other gems lurking in the mix. The Eru-kin will do nicely as models for my Toad Lords retinue. Speaking of the Toad Lords, I’ve been working on the background for the SF version of OSS, and it’s broadly done now. That means I can work out which models I can use in each retinue – always a help when sorting out what needs to go on eBay🙂

In fact, you can use whatever models you want in OSS. It’s not married to any specific manufacturer. Just pick whatever miniatures take your fancy, define some appropriate stats and equipment based on what the model looks like and is carrying, and off you go. At least, that’s the idea. And it almost works…

As I’m still sorting out some working space to actually do any practical modelling, I’ve been limited to planning what to make for OSS. Mostly I’ve been thinking about scenery.

For a while now, I’ve been pondering about the slightly unsatisfactory nature of most gaming battlefields. By “unsatisfactory”, I mean that they look like games rather than real environments. What I want, I think, is a battlefield that looks like people actually live and work there. It’s a place in a real/fictional world in which there happens to be a fight, rather than a battlefield that’s been set up for this battle. This fits the sort of scenario common in OSS, where fights break out between different retinues in an ad hoc fashion rather than along any sort of front line trench equivalent: dastardly assassinations, outrages at the marketplace, duels of honour, protection rackets gone wrong, interplanetary incidents, and so on. All sorts.

Add to this the fact that I’ve decided to start from scratch with OSS, and build everything afresh. That’s much more exciting than simply reusing the same stuff I’ve fought all sorts of games over. Let’s have a new environment for a new game.

Having scribbled a bunch of notes while I was travelling about, I realised that I needed to organise myself properly. I came up with way too many ideas I liked to fit into a single battlefield, and decided to break them down into themes. That worked out really well, and allowed me to find a thematically appropriate slot for each of my ideas. Some bits turn up more than once, and it may be that some bits of scenery can be used in a number of different themes. To start with though, I’m assuming each themed set of scenery will be discrete and separate.

What makes this a vaguely plausible project is that an OSS board is tiny – only 2 foot square. This suits the small retinues and the intimate (and decisive) nature of the fights. It also means you need to make fewer bits of scenery to fill the table. All good🙂

So what’s my first theme? Tricky choice. After some deliberation, I’ve decide to start with a Plaza. This should be a relatively simple build, though even here I can hide a lot of visual interest. Hopefully, being simple, I can get it done faster than some of the other options.

What do I mean by Plaza? Here, Im thinking of the sort of urban space between buildings, where town planners have created a sort of concrete park – a space for the megacorporation’s salarymen to sit and decompress for 10 minutes between meetings, while they eat their pre-packed sashimi, Soma, or Soylent Green. Somewhere that adds a bit of greenery to a concrete and glass environment, though in a very controlled way. In other words, a broadly flat area with interesting stuff in it to fight around – but with a reason for it to be like that.

These pics are a few of the best ones I’ve found online and should give you the general idea of what I’m after. None of them are exactly right, so I’ll be picking bits from here and there and stirring them in a pot to come up with something new.

Plaza 01

Plaza 10

Plaza 03

Plaza 06Plaza 05Plaza 08Plaza 07Plaza 11Plaza 04Plaza 02Plaza 09

Posted in Miniature Mondays, Old Skool Skirmish, SF skirmish, Skirmish games, Terrain | Tagged , , | 16 Comments

Played Nina & Pinta last night

I’ll be doing a full review of this once I’ve played a couple more games (I like my reviews to be based on at least 3 plays). However, I just thought I’d post my first impressions of this new game while they were fresh.

Nina & Pinta is a new game from Ragnar Brothers which I backed on Kickstarter. You may have seen them running demos at the UKGE. It’s set in the golden age of exploration and you basically sail back and forth to the New World setting up colonies and bringing back stuff. And attacking each other.

One unusual weirdness is that there are three New Worlds, named after Columbus’ ships: Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. It’s the first in the Ragnars’ “Quantum” series, and plays a little on the notion of multiverses. In the photo below you can see the three New Worlds radiating out from the centre. Each is based on the same map, but each land tile is randomly chosen, so you don’t know whether the Andes bit will actually be mountainous, or something else. There are also a scattering of gold mines, ancient civilisations (to plunder), and so on.

Being a bear of little brain., I forgot to take any pics, but Ben snapped one, so I can bring you a shot of the game just as it moves into the end stages.

Nina & Pinta 01On first play, it felt like there were three broad stages to the game. The first when you’re exploring the maps, when you’re more interested in grabbing stuff than fighting; the second when you’re filling up the land and starting to squeeze each other for resources; and the end game when there was quite a bit of carnage.

In the photo above you can see that all the land tiles have been explored, but there aren;’t lots of towns on the board. Lots of building and fighting is about to ensue.

As I said, I’ll come back with more detail another day. For now, let me just drop this game into your consciousness. I had a great time playing, and look forward to having another go. It also has a solo variant which I’m intrigued to have a go at as well.

A definite thumbs up so far🙂

Posted in Board Gaming, Nina & Pinta, Review | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Mantic UniCast Model

This is the last bit I’m going to be doing about UniCast for now. If you’ve been reading my other articles on the topic then you’ll know the drill by now. If not, then why go and have a quick read? I’ll wait.

This particular example is interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s a test piece for Mantic. If they’re happy then they may do more. I’m sure everyone that hates their restic family of materials will be happy about that.

In case you were wondering, this is a limited edition model for the German Dungeon Saga release. I think. Something like that.

The second intriguing thing is the reason I think this is the least technically impressive of all the UniCast models I’ve seen: this model was originally intended to be cast in metal. It shows. You can see this most obviously from the infills under the loincloth and sleeve which would be necessary to remove it from the mould in a single piece if it was cast in pewter. A testament to how much more flexible UniCast is. How the undercuts on the other side (under his beard) would work in metal, I don’t know. Perhaps he was going to be a 2 piece model in metal. He’s one piece in UniCast.

This is also interesting because it’s the first UniCast model I’ve seen with a bent bit. I assumed it happened, so this is just confirmation that it’s behaving as expected. I’ve not tried bending it back yet and I’d guess that the old hot water/hairdryer tricks would work.

Anyway, on to the photos🙂

German LE DS 01German LE DS 02

General front and back views.

German LE DS 04Bent sword.

German LE DS 03Backfills behind the loincloth and under the arm. Entirely normal for metal models, and presumably a thing of the past if you sculpt specifically for UniCast.

German LE DS 05

Fills behind the straps too. Again, with a sculpt that was designed for UniCast from the outset this could presumably be avoided. Odd that the model’s right side seems to show gaps and undercuts around pouches, beard and other bits which wouldn’t cast easily in metal.

Yes, I like UniCast. It seems able to create models that you simply can’t do in anything else (in a single piece), and I’m impressed. Yes, I also know that Prodos has some issues as a company, and that’s important too. I just hope that their obvious technical cleverness can help them out of those issues, because it would be a crying shame to lose this baby with that bath water.


Posted in Dungeon Sagas, Mantic, UniCast | Tagged , , | 25 Comments

Miniature Mondays: in the beginning

Miniature Mondays is a regular slot for me to talk about playing with toy soldiers. For the moment, this will be a sort of project log for the Old Skool Skirmish rules I’ve been working on, together with the models I’m using for it.

OSS started as an amusement for myself: the sort of design puzzle I invent periodically as an exercise in making interesting stuff. It wasn’t intended as a finished product, though it may now end up as something I stick on a POD site.

GrumpyIt was Colony 87 (left) and Macrocosm (below) that sparked my original idea. If you could make retro figures, why not retro rules? I liked the notion of writing things in a slightly different style to my usual one, just as an experiment. In any case, what constituted retro rules? That seemed like an interesting question. Was it a case of including X or leaving out Y? I think the answer is a bit of both.

Of course, nostalgia is a funny thing, and a very personal one. OSS feels like an 80s game to me, but it might not to you. It depends on your personal experience with them.


Since I decided to try my hand at this, I’ve been rummaging among the mountains of lead I have already, and surfing the web to find other interesting possibilities. There are loads of great figures out there, many seldom seen and deserving of a bit more love. I’ll come back to these companies when I’ve had a chance to ask them whether they mind me associating their models with my game. Some people are funny about that sort of thing.

DiggersMy aim is to avoid figures that remind me of other games I know well (because that’s distracting), so I probably won’t be using Necromunda figures, for example. That’s just me though, and the rules will allow you to include whatever you like.


Posted in Miniature Mondays | Tagged | 14 Comments

DZ2 FAQ up

deadzone-2nd-edThis has gone live on the Mantic download page.

Posted in Deadzone, FAQ | Tagged , | 27 Comments

Made Me Smile :)

Just found one of the most amusing Kickstarter videos I’ve seen. Thought I’d share it with you🙂

Posted in Random Thoughts | 4 Comments