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.


  1. Test comment from Perry A.
    Yes, I am logged into my gmail account.
    I also checked the Notify Me box.

  2. FYI, when I pressed the Publish button, the website asked me what name that I wanted to shows for my comments.

  3. 'Fail forward faster': most interesting. I've often wondered that structured processes are vain attempts to impose order on messy human ways of working: 'Are we in the requirements, design or coding phase...or all three at once,'

    Mind you failing forward might not be an option for some fledgling designers whose games just wouldn't see the light of day if it kept happening. That being said I keep stumbling over some labours of love that modern publishing methods are clearly helping into to see the light of day...such as The Lace War series by Red Sash Games (way to go Weir & Junkin!)... maybe the the slogan should be 'Dream forwards faster'. ;-)

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

    I've found the same thing in model building. It something doesn't look right, there's no sense in trying to fix it or make it better. Throw it away and do it again. It'll take less time and the final product will look better than it would have had you fixed up the original.


  5. Re: "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've learned this in new product development too. Start with a prototype with wires sticking out of it and lots of things held together with tie wraps and duct tape. See what it does. That'll at least demonstrate some proof-of-concept or give "civilians" an idea of what could be done and why it should be done.

    Then throw almost everything away and start again. Stuff getting grandfathered in can be an obstacle to getting anything out in a timely manner and sometimes what you learned with the prototype is lost when you have to stick to what you started with.

    This can go to extremes, of course. I worked for a guy who was very clear that he was Chaos Incarnate. We would build something, test it, gain agreement on what the next step was, take that next step and then he would deny any of the prior discussions had ever taken place. "We should really have discussed this before going down this path." But we did! "No we didn't."

    He got great products out fast, but OMG was it mind-bending to have to have to use that Men In Black flashy thing to blank your mind out after every field evaluation!


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  9. I highly recommend Rachel Simmons' design blog on the Simmons site. STAVKA is absolutely bonkers looked at through the "conventional" wargaming lens, but I'm confident that it will capture critical factors of the war in the East that designs with far more detail miss.

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