Link: Eric Lang on Design & Development

One of the hardest things to figure out, when I was just starting to design games, was the workflow. What was the to-do list? How would I know when I had done a good job at any given step?

This series of tweets by famed tabletop designer Eric Lang offers one possible answer. He explains what design-and-development system made famous by Wizards of the Coast looks like when done properly. It’s a valuable set of guideposts for those looking for a way to structure their design experience.

Wargames Study: Little Wars

I suspect that many people have developed the essentials of H.G. Wells’ Little Wars on their own. At its core, one tries to knock over the other player’s toy soldiers with a projectile before they do the same to yours; I played a similar game with my father as a child, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Committing simple rules to print, though, helps emphasize Wells’ central idea: “[t]hings should happen, and not be decided.”

We take it for granted that things are decided in games, usually by a system constructed for the purpose. Yet, there’s something remarkable about resting on “what happens” instead of “what the rules tell us happened.” It feels natural and immediate; the toy soldier is out of play because he was knocked over. How could it be otherwise?

It couldn’t. There’s no intermediate step to Little Wars combat, no opportunity for the excitement to dribble out of the resolution process. Our intuition tells us the soldier is lost, and instantly he is.

There are lots of other things to say about Little Wars. Charles Pratt accurately pointed out that its playful, toylike quality defuses the concern for precision that can make miniatures games fiddly; whether that trooper got knocked 1/16″ or 1/8″ to the left when he was tapped accidentally is irrelevant, because it’s the same challenge to hit him with a projectile either way. Little Wars is also a melding of dexterity and tactical play in a way that disappears from the strategy genre thereafter. It’s got as much in common with modern basketball and American football as it does with Warhammer.

Yet, I can’t get away from the sense of immediacy as the truly gripping element of Little Wars. “Things should happen, and not be decided.” How many games could follow that advice? How often could the system be refined, or cut away, to enable things to happen?

Link: GameMaker Humble Bundle

It’s that time again!

For another 14 hours, you can pick up a whole lot of GameMaker content on Humble Bundle. Everything I said the last time this happened is still true: GameMaker is powerful, yet still great for beginners, and the source code included with the bundle’s upper tiers is great as a learning resource. If you’re interested in getting started with digital design, the $15 bundle on offer here is an excellent way to go.

Prototyping: Online Resources

I use the same sites over and over in my prototypes, and while I credit individual contributors there’s rarely a chance to mention the sites as a whole. Let’s rectify that here.

Freesound.org is a great resource for sound effects. It’ll rarely have exactly what you want, but it probably has something close enough to be worth editing into the right form.

If you’re looking for music rather than effects, the Free Music Archive is just the ticket. Aesthetic preferences make it harder, in my experience, to find “just right” music than SFX–and of course, editing music is more difficult as well. Nevertheless, it’s a valuable resource.

Art isn’t trivial to come by, but I get a lot of use out of Game-icons.net. Easy-to-parse and attractive is what I want for prototypes.

When it’s time to use colors (e.g., for layouts), Adobe has a database of attractive color swatches. Their tool for automatically applying color theory is remarkable, too.

Font Squirrel has become my go-to site for typographical assistance. It gets bonus points for making it easy to tell up front how the different fonts are licensed.

All of these sites have been very helpful to me. I highly recommend giving them a look; I expect you’ll find them the same.

Wargames Study: The Kriegsspiel

Yesterday I had the opportunity to act as the umpire in a round of the original, 1824 Kriegsspiel. It was an eye-opening experience. Without a doubt, the Kriegsspiel–originally built as a training exercise for Prussian military officers, and later adopted as a hobby pastime–is the most disturbing wargame I’ve ever played.

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The Kriegsspiel in progress.

Many wargames are, and feel like, a chess variant. Pieces move in abstract units: hexes, inches, or centimeters. Health, too, is handled abstractly, often through hit points. One feels oneself engaged with a harmless intellectual exercise.

By contrast, the Kriegsspiel measures everything in human terms. Movement and firing ranges are expressed in paces. Losses are tallied using an abstract system which immediately relates to the actual number of soldiers harmed. Everything about the game emphasizes that it is a simulation, not of fantastical battles, but of human conflict.

This careful effort to translate game functions to human scales lends the kreigsspiel a grim air. Chess variants were its immediate ancestors, but the kriegsspiel lacks their sense of remove. After totaling up the precise number of cavalrymen undone by an infantry volley, one feels an urge to shudder and walk away from the table.

The kriegsspiel has a number of design lessons to teach. Perhaps the greatest of them, though, is the power of choosing the terms in which one expresses the scales used to measure game effects. Abstract scales create an abstract feel. Scales based firmly on lived experience produce a very different sense.

Initiative-Based Battle Test

When I played Final Fantasy X years ago, I was taken with its focus on manipulating the turn order during battles. Jockeying to get more turns, and delay the opponent’s, was a great mini-game. Every little victory felt enormous, and was rewarded with the coolest thing possible–more play. Setbacks were punished with similar vigor. The system wasn’t subtle, but the enormous stakes certainly made it engaging!

I’ve long thought that there’s an entire game in that system, just waiting for its time to shine. This prototype (Mac build) is a quick-and-dirty exploration of the concept. There’s a broken strategy right now; can you find it?