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 News December, 2017

Designer’s Blog: December, 2017

3 December, 2017

So, in the previous entry I mentioned that I was including play aids as one of the things I’m doing to try to help people learn the game more easily. But it isn’t the only thing. One player comment about the first edition of Bonaparte at Marengo that stuck with me through the years was by someone who had bought the game, read the rules, set it up, and then, utterly baffled, thought, “Now what?”

As much as I think figuring things out should be part of the fun of a new game (and I do think that), I didn’t mean for players to be quite as perplexed as that. And so, in this edition, I decided to hit that particular nail right on the head, and include a two page analysis of the first Austrian turn in the printed rule book. And here it is.*

(Click on the image to open it in its own window.)

* Quite a while ago, I showed an earlier draft of this, but rules changes invalidated it. So, I thought I would post this new, updated edition.

2 December, 2017

You know, I don’t actually want people to feel frustrated trying to learn my games, which I think would be news to many of the people who’ve tried to do so down through the years. And so, I’m trying to make that process a little easier. One of the ways is by providing play aids. I did get this idea that perhaps the form factor of putting it on the back of the rule book, though, wasn’t ideal. Maybe, I thought, it would work better if it was something that could be laid flat so that it was always there and always readable, rather than something players would have to reach for in order to read.

Which is what led me to this: play aids that were long, thin strips, which could be laid in front of each player between them and the board. If they wanted to check something, they could just look down and do it, without having to use their hands to pick it up.

And here is what it looks like:

(By the way, you can’t zoom in and read the play aids in this illustration. This blog entry was just about form factor. I am saving a content discussion for another day.)

1 December, 2017

So, in the last entry I talked about the slow process of grinding through alternatives to create the assault rules for the new edition of Bonaparte at Marengo. In that, I mentioned that a lot of my process isn’t about big flashes of inspiration. And so a lot of it isn’t.

But some of it is.

What I want to talk about this entry is the “forward retreat problem”. This is the problem of pieces taking advantage of a requirement to retreat to instead advance. Now, in situations with a high piece density, this doesn’t happen because the retreating piece is prevented from retreating forward by the presence of enemy pieces blocking the way. However, sometimes in BaM the piece density gets very low; particularly in the afternoon, when the French are often withdrawing and the Austrians pursuing. In such cases, French attacks to push back the Austrian pursuit are, if the French player isn’t very careful about it, prone to producing Austrian forward retreats.

You can see the problem in the illustration below:

This sort of thing has been known to make playtesters (and no doubt players who are not playtesters) berserk. I’ve had testers rage quit over it. Not every tester every time it happens gets quite so incensed as that, but I think it is fair to say that nobody likes it, and it has been an acknowledged design flaw for a very long time.

But knowing something is a flaw, and knowing what to do about are not the same thing.

One problem is that in an area map, it is very tricky to define what “forward” means. The area polygons have all sorts of shapes and the faces of those polygons come at all sorts of angles. It just isn’t visually clear whether which compass direction a given face represents. If we say that for the Austrians, “forward” means “east“, it is frequently unclear for two given polygons whether one is “east” of the other or not.

Similar issues occur if we ignore compass direction and instead focus on saying that the retreating piece has to retreat “away” from the attacking piece, it isn’t clear what “away” means. Again, the problem is that the polygons aren’t regular, and that our intuition of “away” doesn’t necessarily map clearly onto the locale polygons. In the above example, just by polygon geometry, an Austrian retreat to the east is just as much “away” as a retreat to the west, yet our intuition says that the retreat to the west is fine while the retreat to the east is not.

In The Guns of Gettysburg, I had serious retreat problem, because of the need to define retreats in terms of fields of fire, and ended up with quite a complex set of rules governing retreats, yet in spite of that complexity, GoG can still produce odd retreats from time to time. For BaM, I wasn’t remotely interested in dumping a lot of complexity into the game to fix this very intermittent problem. Especially since I was concerned that I could easily end up with a system that was a lot more complex and still not solve the problem.

And so, for a very long time, I did nothing about this problem, except tell players to not attack in situations where they could get a retreat result that they wouldn’t like. It might surprise you to learn that this advice did not endear me to them. (“Doctor, it hurts when I do this!” “Well, don’t do that!”)

Then, one day, out of nowhere, I suddenly thought I knew the answer. I thought I could see how to achieve a 95% reduction in “forward” retreats at almost no complexity and with almost no negative side effects. And you know what? That is exactly what it did. It worked exactly as I hoped from its very first playtest. And here it is:

See that little arrow in the middle of the red circle? It shows when an approach is an east-west approach and which direction is east. The only rule required is this: Unless they have no legal alternative, the French can’t retreat west and the Austrians can’t retreat east. All of the complex judgment about direction is baked into the map itself; the players never need to figure it out at all; they just look at the map and there it is.

Now, what makes it interesting is that although I call it east-west, it doesn’t always literally align east-west. It actually just points in the direction that the Austrian army generally has to advance, which is mostly to the east, but in some cases is northeast or southeast. The arrows aren’t really stupidly reflecting the compass, what they are really doing is intelligently pointing in the way the Austrian army would need to advance to get closer to their objective. And it is that exercise of design judgment, as opposed to literal compass directions, that makes it work in situations where literal east-west would break down and give odd results. For example, right here:

In this area, any Austrian advance is going to be forced by terrain to swing northeast, and the arrows follow that direction. The reason the arrows do that is because that’s what the game needs them to do. Having them do that makes retreats intuitive and easy to understand even where the actual terrain gets a little weird. And that is always what game design, for me, is ultimately about. Trying to answer one question, over and over again:

What does the game need to make it work?

And whatever I think the answer to that is, that’s what I try to do.

Anyway, that’s it for this blog entry! Not entirely sure what the next entry will be about. Lots of candidates: I’ll get to them all eventually, but right now I couldn’t say which one is next.