Friday, June 28, 2013

Fantastic Frontiers: Mesoamerican Map

Here's a sample of my Postclassical Mesoamerican map for the "Conquest of the Aztec Empire" scenario, in 80's-era Gazetteer style. The full map looks to be about 4' by 6' long, and also covers most of Tlaxcala, Puebla, Morelos, and substantial parts of Veracruz and Hidalgo - so this is only about a tenth of it! I love the idea of a big map full of jungles and mountains, with a shining city of gold to admire plunder at the end of it! Many of the terrain decisions and city locations are a matter of conjecture, so I just eyeballed a dozen different maps I found on the internet and averaged out any disagreements. Here you can see the environs of the Basin of Mexico, including the western edge of the inhospitable Plateau of Anahuac.

Tlaxcala: The thorn in Moctezuma's side
The intent for this scenario is to pit Cortes' small, plucky force (and its native allies) against the larger and more professional forces of Panfilo de Narvaez, in a race to Tenochtitlan. Historically, Narvaez had already lost that race by the time he landed, and was outmaneuvered by Cortes and his numerous native allies into a rapid checkmate at the Battle of Cempoala. To make the situation more interesting, I've envisioned an alternate history in which Cortes delays the offensive until the following spring, eliminating his head start. I'm also going to write the victory conditions in such a way as to encourage neither expedition to attack the other until a certain amount of success against the Aztecs has been attained (although I do want to allow a certain amount of proxy-war that involves surreptitiously arming the Aztecs and other natives!)

It should also be easy enough to play the campaign in a solitaire or cooperative mode for educational purposes, by eliminating the rival expedition.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Fantastic Frontiers: The Expedition

I've decided to call my hexcrawl boardgame "Fantastic Frontiers", in imitation flattery of Avalon Hill's Magic Realm. It's also a slight tip of the hat to Fantastic, the pulp zine counterpart to Amazing Stories which exerted a substantial influence on early fantasy tropes in the 70s. It seems like a broad enough title to cover straight-ahead historical explorations in Africa and the Americas, as well as Lost World Victorian romances and straight sword and sorcery fantasy.

Anyway, my first decision was how to set the scale of the game. As previously indicated, most historical expeditions ranged from 20 to 1000+ members, depending on their objectives. Smaller expeditions were more scientific or cultural, and larger ones more military, but the transition between these two extremes was fairly fluid. The flexibility in size was almost entirely due to the addition of mercenaries and hirelings, with the core functions of leadership being provided by a consistently small band of loyal companions. This suggests the following structure:
  • Leadership Party: Roughly 12 members or fewer, in search of glory
    • An expedition commander
    • A trusted lieutenant (Clark, to the commander's Lewis)
    • Various steadfast companions-in-arms
  • Mercenaries: Dozens to hundreds of soldiers to provide security, or act as a private army
  • Followers: Non-combat personnel like porters and animal handlers, and a few skilled specialists
Here's an interesting run-down of the logistics of a 19th century hunting expedition from John Stater's Land of Nod blog, for reference. You can see the remarkable triangularity of this kind of enterprise. A few explorers at the top of the pyramid need the support of many more guards, servants, and attendants.

Of course, there were plenty of explorers who worked on a much smaller scale, and I want to include that possibility as well. But it's important to be able to scale up to the size of Cortes, when necessary, and it's easier to build game systems around that assumption and then work down from full size.

This places certain restrictions on the combat system. In particular, it needs to be a cumulative wargame-like system, as opposed to one that scales linearly (or heaven forbid, quadratically) with size. That implies something more like a system that compares total combat factors on each side, and then calculates who wins (and the resulting casualties) with a single dice roll.

There's typically a trade-off between the level of detail and the level of realism in adventure games. The more detailed characters become, the less willing a player is to see them killed off by the vagaries of battle and disaster. It's frustrating to develop a unique character who gets offed by a single dice roll -- one reason why, as modern RPGs have shifted toward extensive character customization, they've also endowed characters with massive amounts of "system armor" and "plot armor" that render them nigh immortal. I want to ensure that kind of customization doesn't come at the cost of realistic lethality.

To create a realistic game where death is commonplace, it's probably best to have dissimilar levels of detail for the leaders and the followers. That allows an expedition to be nearly wiped out, reinforcing the notion of a dangerous world, while still letting the leaders survive from one adventure to the next. So I'm designing the leadership party to be represented by characters with a full set of variable RPG-like statistics, while generic soldiers are interchangeable with differentiation only by type. Currently the statistics are
  • Endurance: Represents physical capabilities and general toughness
  • Intelligence: Represents capacity for academic learning
  • Discipline: Represents training in technological weapons (guns, crossbows, artillery, etc)
  • Charisma: Represents leadership and diplomatic potential
I intend to use d20-based mechanics, with statistics generated by the classic 3d6 bell curve. In fact, I rather like the idea of making the game system almost interchangeable with miniature and man-to-man combat from other d20 systems, so that very important battles could be fought out in full detail.

I also like the idea of advancement by level from experience, a totally artificial convention that still communicates that idea that your leaders are getting tougher and shrewder as they adapt to the challenges of an unfamiliar land. I definitely want to tie advancement to discovery rather than combat, though, to support the play of scenarios with mostly peaceful objectives.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

MEK OP Game Night: Rainy Season

Last night's turn was fairly uneventful due to the weather. On all but two impulse sets, the weather in the north monsoon was stormy, and so a lot of carriers ferried their planes out into the center of the ocean and then sailed home again.

The US did successfully push forward another sea zone, grabbing Kwajalein and then using it to hit the Marianas on route to Guam. Historically, the Japanese were pushed out of Saipan in the summer of 1944, a week after the D-day Normandy invasion in Europe. I'll happily take a two-year improvement on schedule, even though I'm not exactly in a position to push forward toward either the Philippines or Iwo Jima.

I only wish I had some land-based air to hit Truk with...
The Japanese exacted a price, as the invasion fleet was forced to fight past a submarine blockade. The submarines caught the carrier fleet by surprise, and sank the Enterprise -- which was carrying a brand new flight of SDB Dauntless bombers of the sort that should have been off winning the Battle of Midway, instead. I checked to see if the pilots should survive, but apparently they don't, despite the proximity of dozens of escorts. I guess those Long-Lances hit an ammo pile.

With the US threatening a strike against Truk, the IJN retaliated with a force of... seaplanes? So, yes, a huge number of H8K2's (a typically Japanese example of overengineering) arrived in the area to drive away the American carriers. These planes, the Japanese answer to a Flying Fortress, were originally intended as unescorted long-range bombers to take out Honolulu, a role for which they were used exactly once before they were sent back to ordinary search duty. A doughty Wildcat group from the USS Hornet managed to get the drop on them (I rolled a 19!), avenging the Enterprise.

But that was pretty much all the naval excitement. The British were driving out of the South China sea after a raid, losing another cruiser squadron. American subs couldn't reproduce their feat of clearing the sea box of convoys, and the Japanese suffered no further merchant marine losses.

The other small Allied victory was a British toe across the Burma border to snag a dangling resource.

That stack is a territorial(!) and an artillery piece(!!). Loincloths and 28 pounders!
In terms of losses, Allied casualties were worth 14 build points, and Japanese casualties were worth 9. That's probably a strategic edge to the Allies, who can trade losses in the long run. Adding this to the losses in the previous turn produces overall losses of 21 for Japan, and 33 for the Allies. Still, this is vastly better than the historical situation in this turn, where the Japanese lost virtually their entire carrier fleet in one crazy afternoon of crapshoots and miracles.

In the official tally, the Japanese scored 4 points for sinking the Enterprise. The US added another 5 by grabbing Kwajalein, and the British scored 1 with their land actions. Total score: Allies 11, Japan 4.

This map looks so empty compared to the European front.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

I was sleeping in my bed last night -- a place in which I expect to find myself, my wife, occasionally my daughter, and absolutely zero beetles. So was disappointed to wake up with something creepy and crawly on my back. Something really big. Something that was almost certainly trying to drag me back to its lair to feed alive to its squirming larvae.

It was this:

Here, you can see a boring beetle crawling on the finger of a 30-foot tall giant, based on my own estimate of its size. After bludgeoning it into submission in a ferocious melee, I locked it in the bathroom to await identification in the morning.

After some research using the infallible authority of the internet, I was further alarmed to discover that giant boring beetles grow up to 9 feet long, and operate with a gestalt hive mind in order to subdue adventurers and use their corpses to grow mold colonies. So I'm a little wary of going up into the attic to investigate.

Seriously, a lair of these suckers can only be eradicated by paying thousands of dollars for the local mage guild to fumigate them with Stinking Clouds. I don't want them. Someone please take them off my hands.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Famous Expeditions And Their Size

For the last week, I've been looking over Expeditions: Conquistador, a computer game simulation of an alternate-history version of the conquest of Mesoamerica and the Aztec Empire. It's a pretty good game, with a lot of depth and flavor, and I can recommend it as a quality turn-based strategy title.

Henry Morgan Stanley: Traveling in style
At the same time, it still doesn't quite capture for me the scale of this kind of endeavor. I haven't seen the end of the game, but the basic structure seems to involve a company of maybe two dozen adventurers. Of these, you only really need to develop six of them as soldiers, and the rest just function as utility members who provide support functions (hunting, scouting, and so forth). It's nothing like the actual Cortes expedition, which involved hundreds of cavaliers and soldiers, and thousands of indigenous porters and scouts. Even the scouting groups sent out from Cortes' force numbered over 100, and the native armies that Cortes opposed numbered into the tens of thousands. At some point, the game's premise strains credibility by proposing that a force this small could exert much of an impact on Aztec dominance -- although maybe the plot is going to resolve this incongruity in a clever way.

One of my objectives in designing my own game was to insure that size itself was reasonably represented as a scalable aspect of expedition design. That is, it should be possible to send a small, peaceful force of diplomats or a huge army of mercenaries, and both approaches should have advantages or disadvantages. But the route of conquest should definitely involve trending toward the larger end of that sliding scale, and trying to squeeze a real-world military expedition into the confines of the tradition six-person RPG party just doesn't feel consistent to me.

For sake of reference, I looked up a number of famous expeditions and their approximate number of members. In some cases, the data for support personnel like porters were omitted, and would have swelled the ranks even further. It's interesting to see how the function of an expedition (conquest, trade, or survey/discovery) influences the personnel required. For sake of comparison, I've also included a couple fantasy questing expeditions from Tolkien's novels and from mythology.
  • Hernando Cortes, Mexico (conquest): 550 Spaniards, 3000+ natives
  • Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, New Mexico (conquest): 400 Europeans, 2000+ natives
  • Hernando de Soto, Mississippi River Basin (conquest): 700
  • Burton and Speke, Nile Basin (survey/discovery): ~200
  • Francisco Pizzaro, Peru (conquest): 178
  • John Fremont and Kit Carson, Oregon Trail (survey/discovery): 55
  • Jason and the Argonauts, Search for the Golden Fleece (quest): 50
  • Lewis and Clark (Corps of Discovery), American West (survey/discovery): 33
  • La Salle Expeditions, American Midwest (trade): ~20
  • Burke and Wills, Australian Outback (survey/discovery): 19
  • Thorin and Company, Erebor (quest): 14
  • Fellowship of the Ring, Mordor (quest): 10 (including Gollum!)
As an overall pattern, I think it would be fair to say that military expeditions that focused on conquest were in the range of 100-1000 members, while more peaceful explorations were conducted with a smaller team in the range of 20-50. The principle exceptions were British explorations of Africa, like Burton and Speke's expedition, which required enormous numbers of native porters to allow their aristocratic organizers to enjoy the adventuring life in relative comfort. Often those porters fled, and the expeditions suffered accordingly.

Fantasy quests are something of a different situation, since at least in the original narrative template designed by Tolkien, they are oriented toward infiltration and secrecy. Thorin wants to avoid detection by Smaug, or the elves of Mirkwood. Elrond and Gandalf want to slip the Ring into Morder without attracting attention. But it's decidedly odd (and probably a reflection of Tolkien's long shadow) that this style of expedition is now the default for virtually any game that involves heroic exploration. In effect, computer games like E:C are imitating RPGs, and RPGs are imitating Tolkien, without much contact with history along the way.

Early RPG players evolved out of the wargaming community, which originally respected much larger groups. The initial release of D&D in the 70s, for example, suggests as a guideline for size: "Number of Players: At least one referee and from four to fifty players can be handled in any single campaign, but the referee to player ratio should be about 1:20 or thereabouts." (Men and Magic, Vol I.) Bear in mind that this was at a time where each player might control not just a single character, but a small squad of henchmen and mercenaries; many early game mechanics (like the charisma tables) were explicitly designed to represent the player character as a commander of troops and a diplomatic spokesperson, not a solo hero.

I think it's fair to say that a realistic simulation of the age of exploration and discovery (roughly, the 16th through the 19th centuries) would need to be able to scale comfortably up to an expedition size of 1000. Of course, there's a satisfaction in being able to start small, with a few scouts, and only later grow into the end-game of a small conquering army steamrolling across a map of natives. But the combat system, in particular, needs to be workable on a grand scale in order to reproduce anything like the fall of Tenochtitlan.

The Literal Atlas

Every time you see someone rolling eyes over fantasy names that feel a bit too literal, it's fair to point out that we already live in that world. Centuries of etymology have obscured the origin of most place-names, but this project by Kalimedia tracks down the original root meaning of every city, country, continent, ocean, and planet and puts them back on the map. It's somehow reassuring to learn that all along we've been living on the fold-out map from a young adult author's debut fantasy novel.

We must bear the Orb of Power across Moon Navel Gulf to Mt Noblebright!

Monday, June 10, 2013

MEK OP Game Night: Guadalcanal

This week we started on the second 5-turn scenario, using the Asia/Pacific map. One of the perks of working at an engineering college is that mechanical aptitude is in no short supply, so I was only moderately surprised when a giant wood frame was deposited in the study. It's larger than any single table I own, but it should work well with a pair of small identical card tables at each end.

Back view

Front view
This amounts to a modest compromise between the vertical and the horizontal board configurations. The footprint is about 2/3rds the size of a horizontal table, and stacking is still fairly stable versus bumping and jarring. Thanks to Walley for putting this project together based on a few random comments I made a week ago.

We played the first turn of the scenario, as a demonstration of the game system. I'm hoping that after another weekend of experience, we might be able to play a full four-map campaign, and give everyone a separate country to run. For now, the teams were essentially "everyone vs. Walley", to continue his baptism by fire.

Losses were pretty even on both sides. The allies lost three cruisers and three planes, with only one pilot surviving. The Japanese lost two cruisers and a nice Zero that went down escorting a port strike against the British in India. A single American submarine group also tore apart the Japanese convoys in the South China Sea, the only actual source of victory points for the turn. (Scenario objectives focus on carriers, hex objectives, and Japanese convoys.)

The Japanese scored a single good surprise assault on the entire US carrier fleet, but only with a small detachment containing a single carrier of their own. The only Japanese plane flew in fighter mode, and applied the multiple odds shifts to destroy an American carrier plane at effective odds of +6 / -6. I think I would have been inclined to use four of the points to force a surface battle, and then the other four to force a kill result on a carrier. That would also have involved the Japanese taking far heavier losses in return, probably amounting two or three cruisers, but would have put the Americans on a disadvantaged footing in future carrier engagements.

As the Americans, I launched a successful late-turn invasion of Eniwetok using some reorganized transports and fleet carriers. Aside from threatening an immediate assault on Kwajalein, this is also a port close enough to place pressure on a number of islands adjacent to Japan itself, from Formosa up to the Kuriles.

Everyone still has a complete set of fleet carriers available, so a decisive Battle of Midway is still off somewhere in the future.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Craft Project: Magnetizing Your Wargame Counters

So you want to take your game vertical, so you can play it on the wall of your secret underground bunker? Or maybe you just want to create neat, orderly stacks of dozens of counters that won't blow over in a gust of wind? Magnetize that game! Here's how.
    (1) Scan the counters into digital format, using a high dpi resolution. Make sure they lie flat on the surface of the scanner and remain stationary during scanning, or they'll come out blurry. If you need to scan the back of the counters as well, make sure to keep the files together. Then print them out to get something like this:

    World in Flames Deluxe has 24 (!!) of these countersheets.
    (2) Now cut each row of counters into strips and match up the appropriate fronts and backs. Remember that the strips will be reflected along the top/bottom sides when they are matched.

    Mix up the fronts and backs, and you can build elite jet fighters in 1939! If nobody notices...
    (3) Cut an adhesive magnetic strip to match the paper strips, and mount them on each side, using a glue-stick for the non-adhesive side if you need a double-sided counter.

    Getting these to straighten out nicely is a real pain...
    (4) Wait for the glue to dry, then use a sharp pair of kitchen shears to clip off each counter. This takes some care and practice, and is probably the hardest step in the process if you want a professional looking product. (I tend to get curved surfaces instead of straight cuts when trying to cut through a material this thick.

    Some of my first attempts were barely identifiable as squares.
    (5) Now you have magnetic counters. But annoyingly enough, the polarity of the magnets is parallel to the surface of the strip, in tiny alternating mini-strips. This means that when you start to stack them on top of one another, they won't line up very well if they are cut from different magnetic sheets. For example, they might look like this:

    This also means that they tend to cancel out with one another, reducing the combined magnetic strength of the stack and making it less likely to stick to a steel surface. Instead, you want to repolarize each one to be a set of two perpendicular dipoles.

    The middle one is what we're after!
    So you want to remagnetize the counters using a stronger magnet. Buy a few rare-earth magnets (the ultra-powerful neodymium ones that come with safety warnings!) and stack them up to make a powerful paired dipole field. Make sure that you have two dipoles of opposite polarity, side by side, a little wider than your counter. The result should look like these:

    N.B.: Thanks to J. Walley for donating the magnets here.
    (6) Now place your magnets on top of the dipole stack, and they'll instantly remagnetize to the new polarity configuration (in a matter of seconds, with a strong field). Pull them directly off the stack vertically, not sideways through the field, or you'll overwrite the dipole moment during the brief period that the perpendicular alignment is lost.

    Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek: One of the worst HQs in the game.

    Best of all, this polarization is compatible with any of the old Shield Laminating counter clips that you might have lying around. So you integrate your new counters with any non-magnetic counters you need. Alas, these things seem to have gone out of production, so if you don't have one already you'll need to watch eBay and hope someone wants to part with a collection. They usually go for a substantial premium over the original price, and will easily set you out over $300 for a set large enough to play a monster game like World in Flames! By contrast, making your own magnetic counters for the same size game would cost under $50. (Granted, it's a lot of work!)

    (7) OK, now you're done! Just repeat this for the full set. You'll end up with a nice, neat stack of magnets. They can even be flipped over (along a lateral side, not the top/bottom) and will still stick, due to the double-dipole configuration!

    (8) Organize your stacks however you like! They'll stay in neat stacks that are easy to search through, rather than being a jumbled mess that you'll need to sort through every time you want to fish a particular one out.


    They'll stack on a vertical surface up to about 16 high, using the magnetic strips I found. If you need to stack them higher or you want a high stack to be more stable during transportation, you can slip a couple of those rare-earths under the bottom of the stack, to intensify the field strength. Here's a stack of 20:

    Now rip the door off your refrigerator, tape a map to it, and you're all set! Or build your own game board by backing (magnetizable) steel sheets to a wooden panel.