Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Puzzle Palace and Design Circus

First a Little Bookkeeping

Try as I might, I haven't cracked the system for easily entering comments with your own name. Heck, I can't seem to post as anonymous either. This morning I tried to say thank you for a kind comment...not too much to ask... and (for the first time) it actually asked me to log in via my gmail account (exactly what others have said you need to do). Logged in, said my thank you and "posted".

Except it never posted to the Blog.

Any helpful hints out there beyond the "log in using your gmail account"? All the settings for the Blog are wide open (and a training sand box for the inefficient and not-up-to speed NKPA hackers...who, unlike me, could probably comment here without much difficulty).

Interesting How the Mind Thinks...

I had a wonderful time at MMP's Winter Offensive in January. One game I brought to playtest was a new SCS title I'm developing for its Designer, Carl Fung, called "Iron Curtain". It is a hypothetical "cold war turns hot" game covering from 1945 to 1989 with scenarios highlighting the military equipment, TO&E, doctrinal thinking, and lethality changes that occurred over that period. 

I was lucky to have the assistance of Guy Wilde who dedicated his entire available con time to playing it with me We ran the 1989 scenario from start to finish (it ended in a last die roll of the game NATO Collapse after a dramatic and very much fun series of turns). Guy had never seen the game before and played it very well and fluently on the first try.

One thing that caught my ear was some passer-by comments. Some of which suggested the game was a remake of "NATO" (Victory Games, 1983) or more explicitly that "it has the same map as NATO."

Never having owned or played a copy of the game, I didn't know what to make of the comments, but was a bit offended by the "same map" comments... yes, it's Post-Ice Age Europe with the needed portion fitting on one map (creating a similar ground scale)... but I created the thing starting with a blank sheet of paper (well, computer file, but you catch my meaning) and loaded it from a whole assortment of non-game source map materials.

No there is no connection between the VG game and Iron Curtain, though as you can see the information presented on the IC map (right) is a dead-ringer with NATO (left). 😂 <sarcasm>

But, experienced gamers who probably own and have played NATO got them confused. 

The Puzzle Palace or Design Circus: 

My Method of Game Design

First off, this is separate from the "civilian" out there ("You mean like Setters of Catan?" types... or your curious, well-meaning, but completely uninformed, Aunt Mildred) who typically have two questions that make my spine shiver:

"Where can I get your games?"


"Where do you get the ideas for your games?"

At least I formed a suitable and seemingly effective answer that such civilians seem to accept for their third possible question: 

"What are your games like?" 

That one can usually be defused by simply saying "They are like Risk" and avoiding sweating the details. A real wargamer would never be satisfied with that answer; but Aunt Mildred seems content with it.

But for those first two questions, trying to pull a real brick-and mortar Game Store name and address out of my head for Mildred in South Pauxley, Ohio is impossible and fruitless never-the-less... she wants to hear "Walmart" or something else she can understand, not another riddle that makes no sense to her. 

"Look on-line" is unlikely to work for her, either. 

I've had limited luck with "At specialty game stores" as it invites follow-up questions that defy easy response. 

I suppose I could jot down the MMP website URL for them. Might have to try that, maybe Mildred will go spend some cat food money on something other than "Mr. Hitchens"(who could stand to lose a few pounds, anyway.)

But the second question gets us to the crux of the matter: "Where do you get the ideas?"

There are two possible meanings for that question. 

The civilian asking usually means "how do you select topics to do?" which isn't the subject of this post. 

Meanwhile, the wargamer would ask about the design process and how ideas for mechanics and internal game systems are selected, refined, and created in complimentary ways (they "play well" with the other systems in the game) to make a fun, informative, and interesting wargame. 

And that is where the Puzzle Palace comes in...

Where to began...

Now, I won't waste your time talking about some 15 point program to follow for design (you'll have to endure a 30 minute long video with 29 minutes of tease and an offer to tell you the 15 points if you subscribe or have you buy some book. 

FWIW, the old SPI "Game Design" book (which it seems every wargamer has read) is at best a mix of rules of thumb (with a handful of useful thoughts) which at the same time is ham-strung _by_ those very rules of thumb which worked for them, at that time, but cannot be looked at as something handed down on a tablet as sacred rules of how to do things. 

There was also a recent Game Design book (by an academic looking at video game design) recommended to me. I read that one and almost finished it before running in horror. True to form, it spent its time dividing things into categories and naming them... without much in the way of understanding the animal it was trying to describe. 

In true modern education form, it provides people with the multiple classes and subclasses the student might be able to regurgitate (and maybe even categorize some made up example into fitting this or that cell)...but who has no sense of the "thing" or how it works. Ritualizing phases or steps in a design is a sure fire way to lose track of what you are doing. (I should say"for me", so if following a flow-chart works for you, YMMV.)

No, it developed for me over a very many years in just as haphazard a way as it seems from appearances today. 

Most of it involves comparing what I see (and feel) happening to my gut appreciation of how "good" or "bad" that is. 

What you see pop out the other side is the result of a process that pairs evolution (punctuated equilibrium, if I have my terms straight) with a very rapid OODA cycle following a set of basic principles. I cannot imagine the count on how many cycles this actually goes through... even a short period of exposure to it by newly (and sometimes old hand) testers is enough to convince them that I have no idea what I'm doing. Who am I to argue?

Over the years, this short set of principles and systems has been refined, made more efficient, my tolerance for BS has gone down, and the depth of the image (the "basic principles") I follow for a given system (the version in my head of how warfare works and it what ways plus how they interact with each other) has increased quite a bit.

But within it, "trusting my gut" to decide if something feels right or is preforming correctly has been consistently dependable for me. 

Evolution and Punctuated Equilibrium 

Long before the business gurus got on the "Fail Forward Faster" bus, I was doing just that. 

I'm no stranger to experiment, evaluate, revise, and repeat. Nor to the idea that an 80% plan NOW is better than a 100% plan later. 

Whereas others might feel the need to run dozens of tests to determine if the +2 you put in there should really be +1, my gut check of what I'm seeing came to that conclusion very early on and I already made the change. It might show up again as testing continues, but in general I trust my gut and it works well. That is a simple evolutionary path for smaller items, and affects a lot of things in terms of polishing (and sometimes removing or replacing ideas and systems "under the hood" to get the same or "similar enough" results with less effort, etc.)

These small changes develop into a mildly differently behaving model... which in turn is rapidly evaluated again and may require additional small changes.

But sometimes, it isn't so simple... or small.

Every so often, we end up with a system that the testers are seemingly comfortable with... yet I see as a clunky monster that barely nods (or doesn't nod at all) at the image I'm trying to create in my "basic principals". 

At such times, I'll invoke the one true principle of design: 

It is easier to redesign with a blank sheet of paper 
than it is by trying to
tweak the current design.

This will, of course, bring forward a chorus invoking images of babies and bathwater as well as comments of "it wasn't that bad" to down-right defenses by those who were quite happy with it. I've even seen old hands toss up their hands and disappear to await "Dean coming to his senses."

It isn't easy and it isn't done out of boredom or to shake things up for no reason. It's done because the system (or large chunks of it) were not functioning in a way befitting the image I was trying to show.

The key to the process is to avoid letting some rule "grandfather" its way into the new rules set. Everything must earn its place.

Recently, for example, a new series I've been working on for several years now (but is still hush-hush) underwent just such a change. What we had worked as a game, but was clunky and experienced testers found themselves always in need of rules refreshers to make sure they had them right. For the longest time, I had been tweaking the CRT to attempt to show the differences between attritional combat (to take ground away from the enemy) and maneuver (to try to dislocate him). 

Instead, it always seemed that the maneuver units were better off "killing the enemy to death" rather than letting the non-mobile forces do the dirty work of clearing the way so the maneuver forces could do their thing. Players were content letting their mobile forces play a safe Pac-man role in the frontlines. 

Bringing out not only the differences in effect, but the simple fact that sometimes you must use attrition styles to gain ground... but don't want your mobile units involved in that merely because they are good at killing things. 

So, you have a clunky system that doesn't portray things according to the design's basic image principles. 

What followed was a major system review (what to strike out, what to add, what's doing its job, what isn't and why) and a complete rulebook reorganization and rewrite, plus the updating or downright change of multiple play aids, charts & tables, and counters. 

Functions were simplified and re-aligned with the image intent. Rather than trying to cure the whole attrition vs. maneuver thing in one move, I opted for making attrition work as intended and then to see where the chips fall in getting maneuver to do its thing. If it's designed right the cost of entering a prolonged attrition contest will be such that the player won't be thinking that dedicating his mobile units to the job will be a great bargain. 

The effect on the testers was as you'd expect. To them, it _was_ working correctly... but I think they could all see that it was not the smooth system it should be. But, even in this major evolutionary jump, the lessons learned in the earlier small steps were not forgotten. Internal systems that worked well were ported over with only minor changes. Anything moving to the new version of the rules had to pull its weight and be completely integrated into the "basic principles" driven whole. 

The small step process will now continue from this new starting point, but with an eye already on what the chassis is supposed to feel like and what things need to be worked added when the time (and rest of the system) is right.

Rapid OODA

As mentioned earlier, I use my gut feeling to evaluate a change so that it can be changed again if needed. This comes in broad, mass lists (more-so than individual items)...which aim at tweaking large sections of feel (and not if one DRM should change from a 52% to a 48% value or some such). 

In many cases, a tester could look at it and suggest that "well, you don't know what will happen if you change 15 variables" to which my response is "No, technically, I don't, but they are all in the "direction of goodness" and will have any excesses or failings evolved out of them later." 

Sure, maybe some of the 15 variables are just "too much of a good thing"... so we can adjust them as needed later. No need to have the "perfect" fix lined up in advance. If anything, the system denies that there is _anything_ that is actually "perfect", merely a series of competing answers some more worthy than others... in a host of different ways.

Back to trying things and "failing forward faster". 

In the End

While terrifying at times to the testers (god love 'em), the system works well for me (the products speak for themselves), and it generates good results quite rapidly. BUT it comes with a cost in chaos and is not for the faint of heart.

I do try to explain that to them.

I find it diametrically opposed to the "traditional" view of game design which effectively lists off the desired systems to be used and testing (after filling in some details and special cases) is merely there to make sure the Victory Conditions were about right. This method (seems) to have fit Jim Dunnigan's system perfectly... where he'd jot down the scale and subject matter and a few key rules or systems he wanted to see in it... then hand it off to the developer to turn his napkin musings into a game. 

Or "they" could be right and I have no idea what the hell I'm doing... just some crazy old coot yelling YEEE-HAWWW and out of control... getting ready to harelip everybody on Bear Creek.

Monday, May 6, 2019

The First Gamers Collator Reunion

The Old House. 502 S. East Street, Homer. We lived there from 1985 until 1995. 

The Collates and Collators

In the history of The Gamers, there were three collates done at our old house... yes, kneeling on the living room floor (thankfully covered in some 'quality' 1970's carpet) and another 48 done at the combination office and warehouse (affectionately known world-wide as "The Hut") on the other end of town.

[Edit: Original posted that there were four done at the house, it was only three. The 4th game, August Fury, was the first one collated at The Hut.]

As far as I can recall, the only Old Guard Veterans who attended the four "living room" collates were Sara, Dave Powell, Dave "Sticky" Combs (RIP), (possibly) Sam Simon, and myself. It is possible Rick Knaak was there as well, but I am fuzzy on that point. Nobody else knew we existed back then (almost not an exaggeration) and we didn't know them, either. No knees were destroyed in the process (not from lack of trying), but we were 30 years younger and a few pounds lighter then, too.

As a small aside to the aside... it was in the back of that house where the die cutting of the first 100-200 or so copies of ITQF were done. We couldn't afford having them done at a real die cutting company, so we (never underestimate the power of youth to ignore the obvious) invested in a cutting die (a real one, made by a retired tool & die maker in Gifford Illinois, some 20 miles north of we found him, I have no clue... IIRC, the price tag was around $300) and bought a 10 ton hydraulic press plus a stainless steel strike plate (a foot square of 1/4 inch thick from a steel company in Danville, IL who (apparently) never priced steel to sell under 5,000 tons... they were quite bemused by the whole process).

The homemade press worked fairly well, considering the untrained ape running it (me), but it was very slow (hand cranked hydraulics), only semi-accurate, and consumed a king's ransom in spray adhesive... all purchased from the Homer Ace Hardware store (now long gone, though the owner is a good friend).

One day, though, the press committed suicide from the load it was dealing with. The 1.5-2 inch steel bars holding up the impact plate and its shelf literally exploded with a great puff of smoke and bits of welds flying this way and that. You know those submarine movie scenes where the bolts start popping off and shooting around the interior—it was eerily like that. When the dust settled, the bars were bent into a lovely U-shaped curve and the press was out of business permanently.

Aside level 3: The test runs for a press of that type were done in the (then) home garage auto repair business of Don "Donnie" Happ. He still runs the auto repair business in Homer (though no longer out of his personal garage) and is the town's Fire Chief.

Dave Powell and I did several sheets there to see if it could work (anybody keeping score should now realize we had the counters printed BEFORE realizing we had a little issue with having them glued front to back the then cut since we had the real things available for this test run). The sheets turned out fine. Dave, I know, has one. I'm not sure of the whereabouts of the other 2 or so... wanna talk about collectors items? Those sheets are as rare as they get!

The Hut early in its heyday... the 1995 Homercon photo.

By the summer of 1990, while I was laying in a hospital bed in Rochester MN getting my hands rebuilt, we knew we couldn't fit in the old house anymore (kinda a wonder we made it that far... it was (and is) a tiny house with no "warehouse" space at all...and by that point two of three kids).

There was an old Plumbing contractor company on the north side of town that had gone out of business (Able Mechanical, for the sake of completeness). They had a cute wooden quonset hut with a small office in front. The Hut was originally built in the 1940's to shuck corn. In the summer of 1990, it went up for sale via a real estate auction (yes, live auctioneer and everything). Sara guided by the able hand of our neighbor (Jim Wakefield (RIP), then the town's plumber, no association with the defunct company) won the bidding with a bid of $8,500 and the famous (or infamous) Gamers Hut was born.

As I have taken to saying, the Collates were the very top thing about running the company here that I miss. The group was fantastic, cheerful, willing to do everything needed and then some, and developed its own little traditions. We typically collated the entire run (and anything else that was needed) on a Saturday before adjourning to have Burritos as Big as Your Head at the La Bamba Mexican Restaurant in Champaign (collators pulled in the big bucks, for the price of working their butts off, they got a free game _and_ a burrito)...there were a couple of two day collates, stuff of legend, but those were rare).

But, what's that you say? What about the Homercons, don't I miss them more than the collates??

Well, no actually.

By the day of the collate, everything was ready to roll. Everyone knew what they were about, the office staff (the immortal and truly amazing, "Three Headed-S" of Sara, Shirley, and Sandi) had everything primed to get all the pre-orders on their way via the broken back of the poor UPS truck driver in the first few days of the next week. All that was left was the relatively pleasant manual labor of the collate itself and catching up with good friends. It was more celebration than work, but all the work got done and rapidly.

Homercons meanwhile required somewhat extensive preparation, dealing with lots of small things that came up, 4 days straight of trying to remember what I was doing in my game while getting pulled aside every few minutes to answer a random rules question about a game I hadn't thought about in years, doing on-the-spot design work to deal with issues we found in our game (which was usually a test of something)...followed by a week or two of clean up, taking care of issues that had to wait until it was over, and generally figuring out where the heck I was in all the current projects. Not to mention recovering from the near zombie-like state I was in by that point.

So, collate = relaxing with good friends and having a few yucks. Homercon = complete mental exhaustion and an inability to enjoy the friends there because of the tension level.

In the collates we had several standouts who made them run so well.

Owen Fuller stepped directly into the role of Line Boss. Organizing how the thing was done, paying attention to the supplies and time frame, and dealing with manpower arrangements, etc. The crew was willing, so nobody ever needed to spend a "night in the box." Owen also had a small truck which he used at the end of the day to load up all the empty and unneeded boxes to run over for recycling. He also was the company's volunteer warehouse manager, making sure everything was squared away and properly organized in _his_ warehouse.

The only known photo of Dan and Boss Hog.
Dan Cicero, coming from his US Navy experience as the chief engineer of (I kid you not) the USS Barney (since sold to the Turkish Navy and then sunk, IIRC) took it upon himself to keep the unpredictable machinery of the shrink wrap machine (Boss Hog) working. Every once in a while he'd stick his head out where we could see him...usually unloading a string of expletives and sarcasm...looking like the U-Boat engineer in Das Boot. When the machine was packed up to send off to MMP in Baltimore, we found the small space dedicated to holding the plastic punched out in the shrink wrapping process (we were supposed to empty it, but didn't know it existed). The small plastic disks punched out were all there from some 10 years of operation: something like 400,000 of the little guys. Only Dan could have coaxed that machine to hold on that long. What he actually had to do and how he did it is best not said (due to criminal evidence law).

Everyone had their preferences... I recall Jerry Axel taking over the folding of boxes when we had those to do. Whether this had anything to do with the ability to make boxes while sitting was a subject for conjecture. Even my kids got into the act...once tall enough to see over the collate a few games before it got too boring and they'd go find something else to do.

I'll leave the story about the ghost-driven melting of counter trays (which we did, eventually, figure out... ) for another time. And we would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn't for those meddling kids.

The First Collator's Reunion, 4 May 2019.
L-R: Jerry Axel, Mike Duffy, Dave Demko, Tom DeFranco, Bill Quoss, Dean, Sara, Max Workman,
Tim Gritten, Joe Linder, Dan Cicero, and Dan's son Francesco.

The Reunion

Earlier this spring, I got the urge to call together the collators of yore for a day of old fart reminiscences and a bit of a picnic. The interest was there based on those I could get ahold of and the day of days arrived, damp and chilly, this past Saturday (May 4th)... during the day, the clouds started to part, it warmed up, and was absolutely pleasant. 

The stories and camaraderie was just as it was. In spite of the last collate here being almost 18 years earlier. There were some extra grey hairs (ok, a bunch more). But a grand time was had. We worked up plans to try to add to our distribution list people I had managed to not have on it or at least had no functional email. (PS: That's what happened to Len Ludtke... his was the email that had a system error...every time.) Also included are numerous "friends of The Gamers" who might have never been to a collate, but everyone knew anyway. 

I'd like to thank Bill Quoss who showed up with the Dawn Patrol to help get things for the BBQ and then proceeded to do the cooking far better than your inept yours truly ever could. 

Jerry Axel who also showed up first thing and literally insisted on paying for the meat we ate.

Brian Youse of MMP who picked up the tab for the other food items, ice, and a small burrito run afterwards.

Dave Demko who drove from Atlanta to take part and ended up staying the longest.

Tim Gritten who drove from San Antonio and almost beat out Okmed for staying the longest. 

Max Workman who was able to make it out and be "typical Max" in spite of the stroke(s?) he has suffered. Reminding us, yet again, why that sign coming into Homer suggests you keep your wives close and your farm animals closer...

And so very happy to see her get out to come visit, Shirley Cromwell plus her son and granddaughter (not pictured). Everyone was so happy to see her as she has not been well...and back in the day, she was the surrogate mother for all these hapless guys.

As I said to them at the time: "Thank you all...what you did created a wargaming legend."

In this world full of hyperbole, that statement is simply true, and I am humbled to have been a part of it.

Group pic with Shirley Cromwell (center front),
also including John Best (not in the pic above) right rear, wearing the blue cap.
Bill Quoss is not in this pic as he is cooking like a fiend at this point.