A Journey into Advanced Squad Leader – Part 1

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Some of you may–just maybe–have heard about Advanced Squad Leader (ASL for short) before. You might not have heard what it is about (World War 2 squad-level tactical combat on a hex grid). Most likely the thing you would have heard is how complicated the game is. For those not in the know, just how complicated is Advanced Squad Leader? In short, it’s an Everest.

There is a site that serves as a board game database called BoardGameGeek. On BGG you can rate the ‘weight’ of a game, a stat that is essentially the inherent complexity of a game. The stat ranges from 1 to 5. As of this writing, Advanced Squad Leader is one of only two games out of over 60,000 in BGG’s database with a weight rating of over 4.5 (the other being World in Flames) with at least 100 ratings, and of those two ASL is rated higher. There may be more obscure titles out there with more inherent complexity, but none quite so infamously complicated as ASL.

There is another thing one can learn from the stats of ASL. As of this writing, ASL is ranked 72nd out of over 60,000 games on BGG, meaning that many people consider this one of the best board games of all time.

This complicated masterpiece, ASL, is the latest step in my continual exploration of the world of board games. It took years, but it has finally gotten to the point where I crave the depth that I have heard that ASL provides (or at leas crave the chance to learn such an intricate game).

This will be a series of posts chronicling my experiences with ASL.

A week ago I acquired the Advanced Squad Leader Rulebook 2nd Edition and the Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit #3. The Rulebook is simply too much right now. It’s a monster, a three-ring binder with over a hundred pages of tiny font. I have been working my way through the Starter Kit with its only-28-page manual. I’m waiting for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend to end before I try to put this smaller game on the table.

There are a few things I have noticed with the little I’ve come to understand of the game. With the Starter Kit rules, things seem rather…old-school. That makes sense, considering ASL was first published in 1985 (and based off an even older game). What I mean by old-school is that there is very little in the way of flashy components, even by war game standards. I have been used to GMT-line games like Combat Commander and Fighting Formations, games with excellent production quality and elegant, clever rules. Most of the Starter Kit is just…standard. There’s no layer of mechanisms ruling over the core principles of the moving-and-shooting rules. Sure, there’s a lot of rules for moving-and-shooting, but the core game is based on…well…core game design. No cards, no gimmicks, just dice-counters, and simulation.

Don’t take this as a sign that the game isn’t complex. There’s a ton of intricacies in the basic designs that are there. And this is just the Starter Kit. The full game looks to be nothing short of simulation while still lying within the boundaries of board game.

The biggest gripe I have with the game so far is less with the game and more that the rules could have been written better. ASL is obsessed with acronyms. Combine the obtuse terminology with legalese writing (e.g. “section 1.3.2”) and you have a recipe for confusion. I’m somewhat disappointed that the best learning aid I have found on the game has been from the generous ASL fans who have decided to explain the game through tutorial videos.

All that being said, I think, just maybe, I have a hold on the rules to possibly push through a Starter Kit game (infantry only). I’ll write more as I go further into this ASL experience.

Wish me luck

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Random Rantings: Dota 2, Guild Wars 2, Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition…Board Games…

Wow, my last post was grumpy! I really don’t try to be so pissed about immaturity in gaming most of the time, but I think I reached critical levels of grumpy that day and just had to let my worst views of videogame culture loose on the world. Truthfully, I have problems with what I said. I’m still very much on the side of ‘games need to grow and mature more than they are right now and the current status quo is far from okay,’ but I’m disappointed with myself in how I presented my rant. It was far too confrontational and had too few bits of solid points that could be convincing to anyone on the fence. If anything, I probably alienated the few people who read this blog far more than I did get the reaction I was hoping for.

Anyways, while I don’t promise that I’ll never talk about my ‘games need art’ views again, I will try to keep a lid on the pot until I can properly elucidate my views.

With that said, I have plans for this blog other than to talk about art crap! I’ve been playing Dota 2, Guild Wars 2, Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition, and many board games and I have thoughts I on all of them! I want to make some extended blog posts (or maybe even video pieces) on all of these, but for now I’ll just write some short thoughts on these games.

Dota 2 is pretty damn fun, but its community is horrible. Honestly though? I can’t blame the community for being horrible, for Dota 2 does practically nothing to facility cordial play. Sometimes it can be an afterthought, but one of the most important things games should remember (especially multiplayer ones) is that their flow of play can engineer certain attitudes and behaviors of a community. Dota 2’s mechanics foster elitism and intolerance, and it’s a shame there’s little it does to try to counter this negativity.

Guild Wars 2, on the other hand, has some rather ingenious mechanisms to foster camaraderie and cooperation. If I could pin down what exactly this MMO does moreso than other games to encourage teamwork, it’s that you never have to do the dreaded ‘looking for group.’ Assembling a team in the game can happen, but it happens in a very organic manner. I think much of the reason I like Guild Wars 2 centers on this vein of natural player interaction. You will be playing with other people, but it will always be in a positive manner (i.e. no dicks stealing your kills).

Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition is interesting in that it embraces player dickery. It’s amazing what crap that game pulls. Players can invade other players games without any consent in the matter. Players can drop items that make other player’s games harder without any consent in the matter. Players can leave deceitful messages. To be fair, there’s also opportunities for players to cooperate, but it’s interesting to see a game explore the dark side of player interactions in an online environ. It’s neat too, for Dark Souls uses these mechanics to compliment the themes and story of the game rather than these multiplayer mechanics being a mutually exclusive element. Oh, and this PC version of Dark Souls is going to disappoint fans of the PC platform that expect quality ports. Dark Souls is a functional port, but I know it will not be desirable to a lot of people. Play with a gamepad.

Board games. Oh my. Where do I begin? I guess I will just not talk about any particular game in detail, but will instead say something about what I’ve learned from board games that carries over to video games. Board games impressed on me two things. One: games can engineer the social interaction going on between players (something Dota has forgotten). You can make a game that will ruin friendships (just look up some stories about Diplomacy), or games that will bring the whole table together in laughter and camaraderie. Two: play with other people is less about the game and more about the experience. Yes, you may want to play certain games, but ultimately you want to tailor the games you play to the group you’re playing with. If a game doesn’t mesh with a group then no one will have fun, and no matter how good the game is by objective values, it was a bad play for people involved, which is what really matters. I feel a lot of video games forget these two aspects, and the combined lesson that you can tailor games to encourage a certain social setting. A lot of board games are judged on how the fun they bring to all players participating, while I feel video games can get away with a lot of designs that don’t encourage enjoyment for everyone involved.

So yeah, those are my thoughts of the moment. I want to elaborate on each of these points–on Dota 2, on Guild Wars 2, on Dark Souls, on board games–but for now I will just leave this blurb here as a promise that I haven’t given up on blogging. Until then, enjoy your games everyone!

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Gaming, Grow Up

Heather Chaplin said something like this over three years ago at the 2009 Game Developer’s Conference at a rant panel. Nothing has changed for the better since then. Gaming, which may very well be beyond its infancy, is still infantile.

 

In case it didn’t seem obvious yet, this will be a rant, and it won’t be pretty. Really, I’m not holding anything back for this one. You have been warned.

 

Why am I doing this? Because I love games, and I nothing more than seeing the medium grow and reach new frontiers in ways we can create art. If I didn’t voice my disappointment, dissatisfaction, and overall discontent with the little games have grown, I would be accepting that games are not only infantile, but that that is okay. It’s not.

 

As gaming grows, there is less and less room for excuses for violent and absurd power fantasies being the dominant force in AAA games. Make no mistake, that’s what we have. Modern Warfare, Gears of War, God of War; say what you will about their polish in mechanics and play but these games are doing no favors in presenting a mature front for video games. Instead of showing that games can be meaningful and culturally significant, we’ve got the industry telling everyone that the best games can do is make the gaming equivalent of action flicks.

 

Worse is that, despite these high-production low-value games, there are games that do wonderful things with storytelling, characterization, and narrative. Games that do reach for that holy grail of ‘art.’ Shadow of the Colossus. Killer7. Braid. These are games that strive for something other than to continue the Oroboros-like self-feeding cycle of gaming culture and change the mediocre status quo. This would all be well and good, would we give more recognition to games that actually do push for growth.

 

No, instead we get a slew of naysayers mired in the power fantasies and B-grade plots who call titles of actual quality ‘pretentious.’ I’m okay with calling something pretentious when it’s justified. Instead we get children who stick to this blanket-term like an ostrich with its head in the ground calling something meaningful as only pretending to try to have meaning. It’s like seeing a grade-school intellect that glorifies Twilight calling The Sound and the Fury pretentious. It’s like valuing soap operas over Breaking Bad.

 

People, at least admit that you enjoy something that is trash, that is in the cultural ghetto. As much as I enjoy Mario, it is cut from everything but gameplay in the way that gonzo pornography is cut from everything but sex.

 

I’m tired of a medium that is so lacking in anything but B-grade fantasy. It’s like eating nothing but candy or watching nothing but children cartoons.

 

Don’t accuse me of wanting nothing but pompous art everywhere. I don’t want that, much like I wouldn’t want all movies to be depressing Oscar-grabbing dramas. But we need more Oscar-grabbers than not. The current ratio of Modern Warfare to Shadow of the Colossus is disproportionate to say the least. As a result we have so many people outside the gaming medium claiming games not only are not art but can never be art, and so many people who know that’s bullshit unable to defend what they love because so much of what we have is shit when it comes to being art.

 

Maybe you don’t care that games have so little in the way of ‘artsiness.’ Maybe that’s all too pretentious. Just know that you’re not enjoying a medium that is even close to the level of maturity or quality of film, theater, music, fine arts, literature, or anything before games. It’s not because games are new; it’s because no one wants anything new.

 

So please, be excited for something like The Witness coming out. Play Dear Esther and don’t whine that it’s not a game. It doesn’t have to fit the constraints of ‘game,’ whatever the fuck your definition is supposed to be. Our current games are not enough.

 

It is nothing short of tragedy that when I take a break from spieling this rant to enjoy title even a little refined, it can’t be a game that the masses appreciate. No, gaming’s mass medium is a child’s toy.

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Mechanical Meaning and Bioshock Blunders

Extra Credits touched on one of the most important, underdeveloped aspects of game design this week. They call it ‘mechanics as metaphor.’ Jonathan Blow in 2008 called it ‘dynamical meaning.’ I call it ‘making mechanics important to the narrative’ (my coin phrase needs a little work to be honest). I felt the need to discuss why it’s just so damn important to talk about mechanics relating to narrative/meaning/whatever.

The easiest way I can convey the importance of game mechanics to story is in through comparing game mechanics to cinematography in film. For a while in movie’s early stages it was commonly though that the medium was a gimmick; that nothing that film could do couldn’t be done on the much more tried and true stage. It took innovations in how to use a camera to achieve certain effects to prove people wrong.

There are many good things done in game design, but honestly I feel the medium of games has yet to figure out how to do the game equivalent of moving the camera. We are still in an era of experimenting and pushing graphics technology to the point where we ignore gameplay technology (loosely speaking). What do I mean by this? I mean that there is very little done in games to enhance the narrative behind the games being made.

My favorite controversial example of this lack of focus on using game to enhance story is Bioshock. Many consider this game to be a forward-thinking title that pushes what subject matter games can cover and advances the maturity of AAA titles one step farther to that of older media. While these things are true, I would contest that Bioshock also is lacking in the use of gameplay to add significance to its objectivist-dystopia narrative.

“How so?” you might ask. I can point to two main mechanics that serve no purpose in the game other than to be part of a game; these two mechanics are the morality system and the shooting action.

First look at the morality system in Bioshock. For those of you who do not know, in Bioshock there are these children called Little Sisters. If you kill their guardian you can make a gruesome choice of saving these Little Sisters, and get a small reward, or murder them and harvest a greater reward. This would present a meaningful moral dilemma, except that it becomes apparent soon enough that saving the Little Sisters nets a greater reward than the murder. What would otherwise be a perfect mechanism to enforce the ‘kill or be killed’ environment of Bioshock becomes a non-choice of ham-handed ‘be good’ lesson that clashes with narrative set up by other aspects of the game.

Second, a more debatable point, is that the action in Bioshock is simply too enjoyable and engaging. What could be wrong with a ‘fun’ mechanism? Simple, the action in Bioshock simply does not add to the story. Shooting people up in Bioshock is like seeing a gratuitous action or sex sequence in a serious film; jarring and unneeded. Ideally the shooting in this game should of felt unnerving, emotionally and physically exhausting, and unwanted. Worse there are these Vitapods that can infinitely respawn you in the game, making the penalty of death all the more meaningless (the developers later patched in an option to disable this mechanic, but the mistake still stands). Adding incentive to the mindless action in Bioshock conflicts with the oppressive atmosphere of the game, and frankly degrades the experience more than enhances it.

So what is the point of me berating Bioshock for not taking itself seriously, for adding fun in the game? It’s the same reason I would berate a film competing for an Oscar-worthy presentation trying to also be a summer blockbuster. Bioshock is presenting two clashing elements, the oppressive and dramatic atmosphere of its dystopia world and the action sequences that feel more in line with a Matrix flick than a Bladerunner film.

The lesson to be learned here is that mechanics can be more than just a fun pastime, but also a meaningful enhancement to story. Developers are waking up to this fact, but we’re not at the point where games are fully using these devices to create cohesive experiences. Hopefully it will become more and more prevalent as games mature that we see the implementation of mechanics towards meaning.

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A Small Blurp on My Annoyances with JRPGs

This is a post I made on Talking Time forums about my views on the Japanese Roleplaying Game, a certain style of video game that has had a certain falling out of fashion in the current gaming generation.

I’m with some of the people in this thread who have the love/hate relationship with JRPGs. I like some of things they do and hate others.

Here’s the kicker, what I really, really hate about JRPGs is how some of their mechanics are almost exclusive to the most conventional style of its type (80-hour grindfests), yet these mechanics are brilliant enough that they could merit their own game without the obligatory slog of play that seems to be a goddamned requirement if you’re touching these mechanics.

Turn-based/alternative character-driven battle-systems are practically JRPG territory alone. Commanding a small team of heroes to fight against monsters is solely tied to the format of fighting repetitively through up to dozens of hours interjected with story cinematics of questionable quality.

The weird progression systems of JRPGs seem to only be formatted for huge, epic playtimes. I would love to see weird leveling systems like, say, Final Fantasy X’s sphere system, in a different genre. NOPE. Play a 60+ hour game or bust.

The exclusivity of certain game mechanics in JRPGs infuriates me. I want to see people experiment with these game systems in a differently-paced genre. Hell, where are the multiplayer experiences with JRPG mechanics? We need those!

No, I’m not saying that an 80-hour JRPG is a bad thing. I love SMT: Nocturne, Etrian Odyssey III, Xenoblade, etc. (incidentally I think all of these fall under JRPG or close enough, just in different subcategories). But having JRPGs of this scope being the exclusive domain of these mechanics that I love, that sucks. That’s like seeing all FPS games being military team-based shooters.

So really? I think there’s plenty of experimentation that keeps JRPGs fresh (just look at this thread arguing about the boundaries of the genre), but there’s not experimentation with the scope of JRPGs.

Incidentally, I just want to take this opportunity to mention a table-top game, of all things, that feels inspired by JRPG mechanics but converts the experience of a full-fledged Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy into a few hours of a multiplayer card-driven board game. The name of this game is Mage Knight: Board Game (not to be confused with the collectible minis game), and does so many cool things with a JRPG-type formula that I’d feel stupid to not mention here. That I have to look outside computer games for this type of innovation is a little disheartening to be frank.

Here’s a picture of the game btw. See any similarities to a JRPG world map?
http://cf.geekdo-images.com/images/pic1283223_md.jpg

Lastly, I am trying to make a JRPG-inspired game that tries to address my annoyances with the genre while keeping what I like about JRPGs intact. Just to note, imho, RPGs are some of the most difficult games you can design, so props to people making them.

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A Difference of Thirty Years – Titan

I got to play a ‘classic’ board game not to long ago called Titan. It’s an epic fantasy war game where you move armies on a ‘master board’ and engage these armies in battles played off on smaller battle boards. You have a king piece, the titular Titan, and your goal is to eliminate other players’ Titans while keeping yours alive. Last player standing wins.

Titan was published in 1980, 32 years ago. Titan is old, and this age shows through the design of the game. Games have evolved over the years, mostly for the better. Even board games, as timeless as cardboard figures can be, have improved in design over the decades. So what features reveal Titan’s obsolescence?

  • Player Elimination: Titan employs a design that is rarely encountered in modern board games–or at least board games that take as long to play as Titan. When you lose your Titan, you are out of the game. Imagine getting killed off within the first thirty minutes and then waiting for the other players to finish the game over the next few hours. That can happen in Titan, and frankly this is a bad thing. Over the years designers learned the importance of keeping players engaged in their games, and player elimination is the definition of disengaging a player!
  • Roll and Move: Titan has what it calls a ‘Master Board.’ The Master Board is simply a set of spaces that the player moves their armies along a distance determined by a single die roll. The board is very much on-rails; you are given one or two choices each move as to where you will land, and sometimes you cannot change where you will move at all. Roll-and-move is as old as history, and there is not much decision-making in this process. This system feels forced, and it is. Games of today would never dare dream to limit a player’s movement in such a way that Titan limits the movement of its armies.
  • Downtime: The amount of time you will spend waiting for another player’s turn in Titan lasts for an absurd span. You could easily be waiting ten minutes for a player to finish moving his armies, battling other players, and recruiting more troops before the next player goes. Imagine this with a six-player game! Board games of today want players to stay engaged, so they try to break down turns in such a way that players are given decisions at a relatively fast rate. Not so in Titan. You will plan your entire turn in one big chunk and everyone will wait on you.

Titan shows off what has been learned and what has changed with board games in the past few decades. Designers have learned to keep players in the game, to give players open-ended decisions, and probably most of all to keep the time a player is doing nothing but twiddling their thumbs to a minimum. Titan exhibits what was lacking decades ago and what has been improved upon.

Still, there is something to be said in favor of Titan. It has a massive amount of pieces, and the scale of the game is far more than what has been imagined in all but a handful of board games of today. There really is nothing that has improved on the format of Titan’s game, and that is something I would hope someone tries to accomplish.

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