Redmond Simonsen Passes Away

I never met the man, but he is probably one of the single greatest influences on my life. Greg Costikyan worked with him for several years, and it’s worth reading his blog entries on the subject. There’s also a NY Times obituary.

Update: Greg’s blog is — I hope temporarily — out of order. Here’s a link to my page on the history of wargame design on my Project Weasel site. This page cover a lot of related ground.

One afternoon in 1979

Autumn 1979. I’m in high school in Armidale, a small town in Northern NSW. A friend has suggested I might like to stay after school and check out the wargames … club. (There’s no formal club, just a bunch of people who meet to play games after school, supervised by a teacher who shares the interest.)

My friend is no veteran of the group, he’s heard about it somewhere. (Our school is only 500 or so students, so the fact that this group has escaped our attention for so long is actually pretty amazing.) We go there and are given a rather strange game to play, it’s called Napoleon at Waterloo and it has a small board, which simply and clearly shows the layout of a famous battlefield subdivided into hexagons, on which we place pieces which, somewhat less intuitively, represent formations of cavalry, infantry, and artillery.

An hour later the game is over, and I’m hooked for life.

Unfortunately, for SPI the end was already near. Board wargaming had peaked, and already role-playing games and computer games were eating their market. Within a few years, SPI would be gone. Within 10 years the best “refugee” companies formed from SPI’s designers would be gone.

(Now, I wasn’t entirely new to this kind of game. I’d seen some people playing similar — much less well-designed — games when I was younger. I hadn’t had time to learn the rules, so I had gone home and tried to design a similar game, inferring what the rules must be like from the game layout. The most ambitious game I worked on was an all-encompassing game of interstellar war and colonisation — and in trying to complete it I encountered every problem which SPI turned out to have solved: e.g. what constitutes a complete, usable set of rules?)

The game was from SPI, and Redmond Simonsen was credited with the graphic design of every one of the 400+ games SPI produced in about a decade. SPI didn’t invent board wargaming any more than Apple invented the home computer. SPI invented the process for designing and developing board wargames in a manner that made them consistent (where consistency made sense). SPI credited game designers (Costikyan credits Simonsen with coining the term “game designer”), put play testers and blind testers in its credits, developed standards by which game rules were organized and printed, and developed a process for taking a game from idea through design to testing and publication.

SPI created the games industry. And Redmond Simonsen — along with James F. Dunnigan — created SPI.

Farewell Redmond. RIP.

World of Warcraft. MMORPG* Suckage. And Other Stories

* Massive[ly] Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (i.e. games like EverQuest)

A while back I saw an interesting diatribe on brokentoys.org (Lum the Mad’s blog) about how it would be nice if there were a critical mass of gamers who wanted to play something other than mage / tank / healer games (pretty much every MMORPG out there, and any vaguely successful one, falls into this category) amd proposed some kind of amorphous global diplomacy thing which made no sense but had its heart in the right place.

I would actually settle for something far less ambitious — a mage / tank / healer game that didn’t suck.

(For those of you not accustomed to MMORPG jargon, a mage is someone who is fragile but does a lot of damage (usually from a distance); a tank is someone who can stand toe-to-toe with an enemy in a fight, not die, and be able to hold that enemy’s attention; a healer is someone who makes wounds go away… Every major MMORPG to date, including those featuring superheroes and “science fiction” settings, is essentially designed along these lines. If you think of these three archetypes as forming a triangular spectrum (like a color gamut) every character option more or less falls somewhere on the triangle).

WoW (World of Warcraft) is shiney and new and we haven’t started to comment on the suckage yet (aside from the obvious — lag, crashes, and downtime), but there’s still plenty of suckage to go around.

  1. As your level increases, content is doled out with a lot of hamburger’s helper, in the form of tedium. I.e. instead of “go kill 20 mobs, collect 15 items, and come back for a reward” it’s “go across the continent to fred, then go across to BFE, kill 200 mobs, collect 10 items, and then go to wilma (in BFE2) who sends you to barney (in BFE3) who gives you a not to take to betty (in BFE4) for your reward.”

    This isn’t clever. This isn’t fun (not the fifteenth time, anyway). This is just EQ with better graphics and dialog boxes instead of /hail.

  2. The reason for the hamburger’s helper is that if you gave people stuff at a decent rate, you’d run out of content. When you run out of content, people stop playing. When people stop playing, they eventually stop paying. Then you go broke.

Is there a solution to this dilemma?

I think there are several, and WoW intends to utilize one of them (by imitating DAoC) but not the others.

  • Make PvP a feature. Folks in my office still play Quake II because PvP never, in a sense, gets old. DAoC didn’t have an end game besides PvP, and WoW will probably be a solid implementation of ideas others have already demonstrated will work.

    But what about…

  • Making the world a little bit dynamic. Not a lot, but a little bit.

    E.g. if everyone is killing monsters of type X, maybe make them scarce. Have quests impact the world in non-trivial ways. Put a tiny bit of state in the world Not a lot, but a little bit. Just a tiny amount would make the world SO much more interesting. God forbid, one server might seem a little different from another.

  • Make quests a little bit dynamic. Not a lot, but a little bit.

    Imagine if all newbie quests weren’t identical. Suppose player A goes to NPC B and asks for a quest and then gets a “slaughter 10 pigs” quest. But player C comes up and gets a “collect 8 eggs” quest. OMG! This could even interact with the oh-so-slightly dynamic world. (When pigs get scarce, more hungry bears and wolves and bandits appear.)

  • Maybe design it as a multiplayer game.It’s amazing to think that after all this time and effort has gone into designing competing MMORPGs, that they’re still fundamentally single-player games.

    E.g. if you are assigned to go kill Fred Bloggs, so are fifty other people. Since there’s only one Fred Bloggs, he/she just “respawns” and can be killed over and over again. Why kill him? He just comes back? Why rescue the princess? She can just kill herself and respawn back safe in the castle? In any event, killing Fred Bloggs does not rid the world of him, so why bother?

    It’s about time someone actually designed one of these games so that this kind of idiocy didn’t exist. Random name generators aren’t that hard to write…

Marketing a non-D20 RPG

Well it looks like ForeSight Second Edition might just be published soon, and my thoughts are turning to the, perhaps unenviable, job of marketing a game firmly based on percentile dice (also known as D100): i.e. a pair of dice which when rolled give you a random number from 1 to 100.

The D20 juggernaut is basically a D&D thing. It’s not clear whether it’s an effort to keep third-party dice manufacturers happy, or a plot to convince people that the morasse of special cases, tables, and bizarre rules that constitute D&D is in fact a “system”. In any event, my reasons for eschewing D20s are technical, much as my reasons for eschewing 3D6 (as discussed earlier).

In any role-playing game there tend to die roll ranges for which exceptional outcomes are assigned. For D20-games these are rolls of 1 and 20. In other words, 10% of all resolution rolls (cases where a die is cast to determine what happens in a situation) result in something outlandish occurring (e.g. an automatic success or failure regardless of the odds).

Shit happens. But should it happen 10% of the time?

Now, in action movies and similar genres from which RPGs tend to take their cures, shit does indeed happen 10% of the time. But unfortunately, the 10% of the time we’re talking about is actually a gross understatement.

For example, a mid-level warrior in D&D will swing his/her sword three times in a single round of combat, which means he/she has three chances to have shit happen. If he/she is fighting a similarly capable opponent, that’s another three chances to have shit happen.

(For the statistically inclined, that’s a 1 – (0.9 ^ 6) probability of shit occurring in a single round — a few seconds — of combat, or roughly 47%. Most fights last several rounds. If this were a movie, this would be like half of fights having something ridiculous happen, such as someone trip over their feet or hit someone in the eye with a lucky shot, the moment a fight started.)

In RuneQuest 2nd Edition, a D100-based system, there were various tiny percentage chances of shit — things like a warrior slicing his own head off — happening every time someone did something. Of course when you did the math (and an article along these lines was posted to Murphy’s rules) you ended up with ridiculous results: in a battle of 1000 warriors lasting five minutes, some insane number would decapitate themselves, some far larger number would chop off their own limb, and so on. In each case the results were simply constructed by taking (1 – probability of ridiculous outcome) and raising it to the power of the number of times the dice would be rolled (50 for ten minutes of RuneQuest combat) — and that’s the probability that you will escape that ridiculous outcome.

When the probability of an extraordinary outcome is 10%, you know you’re in big trouble.

Of course, the extraordinary outcomes in D20 can’t be too ridiculous or the system would seem obviously broken. Instead they’re just low key enough to have lots of silly effects (e.g. because armor does not block damage but instead reduces hit probability, and because a roll of 20 is always a hit, a huge number of tiny attacks will automatically kill someone in plate armor) while not giving the feel of “critical hits” (the finest archer cannot kill a healthy 10th level paladin with a single ordinary shot) while neither implementing any concept of “degree of success” nor producing genuinely unexpected results to create drama.

Before I start rambling too far, I will mention one funny thing. D20 system is in fact D20 + D12 + D10 + D8 + D6 + D4 system. The D20 games rely on a ridiculous set of dice and use them to achieve an unnecessary level of granularity (a weapon either does D6 or D8 damage, nothing in-between).

Anyway, here are two possible slogans for D100 System games.

D100 System. Shit happens, but not 10% of the time.

D100 System. You already have the dice.

ForeSight Revisited and the Theory of Fun

It seems that after a long time in the wilderness, ForeSight is going to be published (or republished, depending on how you look at it) and so the history of this project has been turning over in my mind.

ForeSight was originally designed in 1984. It was first used outside my circle of friends for a small role-playing tournament in Armidale (a small town in northern New South Wales) in early 1985. One of its key design constraints from day one was that it be easy to pick up and play.

I designed ForeSight as a direct consequence of the “death” of SPI. I had just spent nearly six months writing a sourcebook for SPI’s UNIVERSE, which I considered to be the first Science Fiction role-playing game to be worth playing. I thought UNIVERSE suffered from not being generic (or as I would later put it, “transparent”), in that it tacitly assumed, within its rules, that the setting worked in a particular way (e.g. psionics existed and were required for interstellar travel). In effect, UNIVERSE was like a Science Fiction equivalent of RuneQuest, only without any explicit information on Glorantha.

I thought that UNIVERSE’s background setting needed to be explicitly documented to allow players and gamemasters to make sense of the rules, and so I designed a very detailed setting that was consistent with UNIVERSE’s implied setting (insofar as that was possible: in UNIVERSE an admiral’s annual retirement income was not enough to rent a “common” household robot) along with rules to fill yawning gaps in UNIVERSE’s existing rules (e.g. rules for building your own spaceships that didn’t have gaping loopholes).

Now, I was young so perhaps my naïve belief that the world’s (then) largest game company would even consider publishing a supplement to its science fiction RPG that defined its setting without having consulted the designers of that game (who presumably had their own setting) may be forgivable. (Certainly, Chaosium would have laughed at anyone attempting to write a complete description of Glorantha having read only RuneQuest 2nd Edition, but as I say, I was young and naïve.)

In any event, SPI was not long for this world, and before they had time to reject “The Gamemaster’s Guide to UNIVERSE”, TSR had taken them over via means described thoroughly elsewhere (look for Greg Costikyan’s blog using Google). The last thing TSR would be doing any time soon was reprinting SPI’s RPG rules or new supplements for them. (Eventually, Ballantine reprinted UNIVERSE, with a very useful skill summary table, and DragonQuest 2nd Edition, with a few errors corrected. Years later, TSR would publish an incompetently bowdlerized DragonQuest 3rd Edition for reasons that escape me.)

So I found myself with a pretty nice science fiction setting and no rule system to use it with. (Traveller, like UNIVERSE and RuneQuest, tacitly assumed a background setting, but in its case a background setting that made no sense. Furthermore, it was missing an experience system and pretty much missing a resolution system. It seemed to be inclined towards combat but its combat system was terrible.)

One day I had one of my usual arguments with a bunch of friends who played AD&D, my position – as usual – being that AD&D was so awful that it would be hard to deliberately design something worse, and was told – as usual – that if I were so smart I should design my own game system. Given my “need” for a good Science Fiction role-playing system, this time I decided to do so.

ForeSight was not the result of any kind of “not invented here” syndrome. I was perfectly happy to use DragonQuest or RuneQuest for fantasy gaming. My friends used Champions and other Hero System games for superhero and pulp games. I’d used UNIVERSE because it was the best system available, but it was in desperate need of reform, and between all twenty-odd of us we had three copies of the rules, and two belonged to me.

UNIVERSE had several key shortcomings that had to be addressed immediately:

  1. Its resolution system was entirely special-case driven. There was no general rule on how anything worked, instead you got a formula and modifiers to cope with each individual circumstance. (D&D 3rd Edition has just managed to attain this level of imperfection!)
  2. It was not “transparent” in that if you looked at your setting through the “window” of the game system, what you saw was grossly distorted. (No RPG is perfectly “transparent”, although GURPS at least tries. D&D is perhaps the most egregious example, in that it has all kinds of ridiculous assumptions in its rules that aren’t even intended to reflect the settings the designers had in mind when they designed it.) Setting-based assumptions were ingrained into every single game system, starting with character creation.
  3. Its character representation rules were ugly. Most characters had the maximum possible human strength, one attribute was on a different scale from all other attributes (for no good reason), while another attribute (Aggression) frequently dictated a character’s behavior and wasn’t something he/she chose during character creation.
  4. A lot of its systems were complex and inflexible. UNIVERSE was designed by war gamers and you could tell. The encounter system, for example, assumed characters (and the parties they encountered) were pretty much automatons.
  5. Key rules, e.g. starship design and robot design, were missing. Why would I want to design new rules for a “dead” game system?
  6. Playing the game required a lot of bookkeeping. E.g. you needed to track experience points separately for every skill.
  7. Playing the game required frequent references to the rules. Some common procedures (e.g. encounters and reactions) were simply to complex to remember. And the special-cases in the skill system always needed looking up. (Even the Ballantine edition’s two page summary of all the skill special cases was only a partial solution.)
  8. Some of the game design was just plain bad. E.g. the number of experience points needed to improve a skill’s level increased linearly with level. So far so good: rules that create laws of diminishing return are, in general, a good thing. But the benefit obtained from a skill level increased linearly with level, which in effect simply meant that skill improvement became choppier with level, and there were no diminishing returns. In summary, the skill system was complex with no end benefit.
  9. The combat system (even if you don’t use it, it’s nice to know it’s there) was both ugly and poorly designed. In part, this was because UNIVERSE tried to cope with vehicular, personal, melee, and fire combat with one set of rules. In part, this was because UNIVERSE owed a lot to tactical board wargame design ideas SPI presumably had “lying around” (it’s almost certainly no coincidence that SPI’s single-man tactical combat games, Patrol and Sniper, used the same scale). In part, I just don’t think the designers really thought it through. The single worst feature was simply this: combat was resolved on a 5 metre hex grid. A game that doesn’t differentiate between grappling with someone hand-to-hand and standing three metres away is, in essence, not a role-playing game. Or to look at it another way, the most popular kind of weapon in modern and science fiction is the handgun whose accuracy diminishes from very high to very low between zero and five metres. (I won’t even go into how bad Traveller’s combat system was, but let’s remember that I think UNIVERSE was the best set of rules then available.)

So, at the very minimum, my game would need to address these key shortcomings. Although I didn’t necessarily articulate all these ideas at the time, ForeSight’s design principles were clearly a direct reaction to my problems with UNIVERSE, and thus I wanted to be sure that:

  1. ForeSight should have one resolution system for all purposes.
  2. ForeSight should be transparent.
  3. ForeSight should be able to represent any realistic fictional or historical character.
  4. ForeSight’s rules should be as simple and intuitive as possible. It should be obvious how and when to ignore and adapt them.
  5. ForeSight should include all the key rules systems a player would reasonably need for a science fiction campaign. No expensive supplements required to build spaceships or play a mercenary.
  6. ForeSight should require little or no bookkeeping.
  7. ForeSight should be playable with all the rules you could remember.
  8. The intention of ForeSight’s rules should be clearly explained, and its rules should implement these intentions.
  9. ForeSight’s combat system needed to kick ass (and shoot ass and stab ass). It needed to cope with the key situations in action/adventure stories, such as hostage situations, ambushes, and negotiations turned sour. Most RPG combat systems (adapted, as they were, from wargames) tacitly assumed that you will almost always fight a meeting engagement (military units move into range of each other). Anything else is more or less ignored, or handled by “surprise” rules. Adventure stories almost never involve meeting engagements. So this is a big problem with almost all RPG rules, but it’s truly appalling when combatants have firearms (or magic spells), and the first shot often decides the outcome.
  10. ForeSight should be easy to learn.

This seems like a nice set of nearly mathematical axioms, but where does “fun” come into all this? Does fun, somewhat like humor, disappear when carefully examined? Fun is something that eludes theory but can be handled practically. Simply stated:

  1. One designs a game one imagines will be fun. (This is a creative process, and defies theory.)
  2. One plays the game.
  3. One enhances or leaves alone the things that were observed to be fun, and changes, removes, or streamlines the things that were observed not to be fun.
  4. Lather, rinse, repeat.

This iterative approach essentially paraphrases the approach taken by Valve in producing their highly successful and widely acclaimed computer game, “Half Life”. Another comment by a computer game designer (I forget his name, but he worked for Electronic Arts at the time) to the effect that a good [computer] game is, in essence, an enjoyable activity combined with an excuse for repeatedly engaging in it, effectively constitutes a usable theory of fun.

A lot of considerations that impact fun are implicit in the considerations above: looking up game rules in the middle of play is not fun and should be avoided. If it were fun, then things would be different. (Paranoia, for example, is far more fun to read than play, so this principle can be turned on its head.)

I owe a lot to the people who tested and criticised ForeSight in 1985 and 1986. I don’t have a list of them all anywhere: they included players in tournaments, friends of friends, and members of ASGARD (our role-playing club). This group was unusually diverse, intelligent, and (crucially) critical.

Unlike many role-playing games, ForeSight was designed from scratch and not essentially something that evolved as a “mod” to an existing game system. Some ideas, notably the resolution system (which is derived from that of Victory Games’ James Bond 007), were adapted from existing game systems, but this was done with a great deal of care (and usually after considering alternatives including entirely innovative systems).

Also, unlike many role-playing games, ForeSight was thoroughly play-tested and blind-tested. I won’t go into what I think of the standards of testing that go into most commercial RPGs.

When it was finished, I sent letters to the three game companies I admired most (given that SPI was gone). Victory Games sent me a horrifying waiver of rights that I had to sign before they would even read my letter. Chaosium said that they were designing their own Science Fiction RPG, “Known Space”, which would be an expanded version of their lamentable “Ringworld” – they didn’t want my game as a whole but they might like to cannibalise it. West End games wanted to see my game. I sent it to them and eventually it was rejected. Greg Costikyan (whom I spoke to) cited some aesthetic issues (it had too many skills – although it had far fewer than their own game Paranoia and covered vastly more ground, and they thought that giving atmosphere compositions in terms of their effect – e.g. “poisonous” – rather than chemical makeup – e.g. “chlorine” – seemed less scientific), but mainly they felt that Science Fiction games were unmarketable. As evidence, he cited disappointing sales of his game “Web War”. So it goes.

I eventually ended up publishing ForeSight myself in 1987. The total cost for printing 200 and binding 150 copies of the rules was $900 (Australian dollars). I sold every copy bar two (which I kept for myself) for $12-15 wholesale (RRP was $25). I also had a small number of copies hardbound. One of these copies has been stolen, and a game collector somewhere has been trying to buy it from the thief for some time. So it goes.

I eventually updated ForeSight. The result, ForeSight Enhanced, was a considerably less professional or satisfying product (it was staple- rather than perfect- bound for starters), which sold fairly well. ForeSight Enhanced’s improvements to ForeSight were largely successful, although most players prefer the treatment of Fields of Knowledge in the original rules, and prefer the way the combat rules in the original rules were presented, although they prefer the way the newer rules work. Probably the single most significant improvement to ForeSight in ForeSight Enhanced was replacing the superficially compelling idea that “older characters have more skills” with the far more useful idea that “characters with more interesting backgrounds have more skills”.

Some aspects of ForeSight have been found, over time, not to be fun, and these need to be changed, streamlined, or removed. The main example of this is spacecraft design and combat. My approach is simple: vehicle pursuit and combat has, over time, been found to be fun, so why not treat spacecraft as other vehicles? This is not realistic, but if I have learned one thing from designing and playing ForeSight, realism should always inform game design, but never dictate it. Another key component of the game has fallen out of synch with scientific thinking and observation (Star System Generation) and also contains tacit background information. This, too, needs revision.

Given the hundreds of players and nearly two decades that have passed since this game was originally designed, the new ForeSight should be a truly robust set of rules. If you’ve read some of my ramblings, you’ll know that I am very disappointed by the tack that game design – paper game design in particular – has taken over the last fifteen to twenty years, learning nothing from what has preceded it (except perhaps how to squeeze more money out of teenagers). I hope if nothing else, ForeSight can serve as a marker for where the State of the Art could and should be. Oh, and I hope that it’s even more fun than the original.

Top 10 Least Recognised Game Designs

Most of the games listed below either addressed or solved a game design conundrum (more-or-less successfully) and yet in many cases their solutions have been ignored by subsequent game designers. Some of these games were commercially successful but no-one seems to realize how influential they were (e.g. Ultima Underworld), while others were brilliant designs that have for some reason not been influential (e.g. DragonQuest).

In no particular order (and including both computer and paper games)…

10. Voyage of the BSM Pandora

This was a paper game designed by SPI and originally published as the “centrefold” of an issue of ARES magazine. There was probably a game like it beforehand (e.g. Source of the Nile, eventually but not originally published by Avalon Hill) or after it (e.g. Tales of the Arabian Nights, by West End Games) that can claim to be earlier or more refined, but this is one of the games that began the entire concept of a content-driven game design.

Like many such games, and many computer games, but unlike most boardgames of the time, Pandora was a solitaire game, where the content, dice, and game algorithms neutrally simulated the universe you explored. As well as tables, the events in the game were driven by numbered paragraphs; tables led to paragraphs which themselves could interconnect based on your decisions: a sort of “choose your own adventure” on steroids (but before the first “choose your own adventure” books were published).

Some computer games are essentially little more than obvious implementations of the concepts of Pandora, e.g. Starflight (itself a near legendary and underrated game), Space Control 2, Alien Legacy, etc. etc., while almost any game that tries to combine open-endedess with content designed for effect (e.g. Grand Theft Auto) owes something conceptually to this game and its brethren.

9. Faerie Tale

Maybe it’s because it was originally released for the Amiga that this game has not received its just recognition, but this was (as far as I know) the first game to try to implement an entire fantasy world in a single mode, and succeed. And, supposedly, it was created entirely by one guy in six months (he even did the music — I’m not sure if he composed it or stole it from some ancient folk music, but it was quite nice). In Faerie Tale you play three brothers (one at a time, it’s kind of like having extra lives in a video game) trying to figure out what’s happened to your father. In the process you defeat a witch, a dragon, ride a giant turtle and a golden swan, rescue a princess, and defeat the major villain in an alternate plane — all seamlessly.

8. Ultima Underworld, System Shock, Thief (a.k.a. The Dark Project)

This is probably my least controversial choice. Ultima Underworld (which has approximately nothing to do with the Ultima games) was a best selling game of its time, but today people forget that it predated Doom. It was the first seamless true 3D role-playing game (you couldn’t go outdoors — strike one against it — but you could talk to people in game and what you said *mattered*, which more than makes up for it).

It’s interesting to see how the enormously ambitious concept of Ultima Underworld (which allowed you to play a RuneQuest-style jack-of-all-trades-you-practice) was gradually honed into a much more immersive but focussed game in the shape of Thief (where they turned the first person shooter on its head and made you sneak and skulk and avoid combat at all cost; just to show how clear their vision was, when you turned up the difficulty level, you became easier to kill and had more constraints against killing). If only Looking Glass had lived on they might have been able to broaden their vision again and given every character concept the visionary implementation they give thieves in Thief (e.g. consider that Thief probably had the best implementation of fencing and archery any FPS has had to date, and it was hardly a focus of the game).

Why do role-playing games show up so much on this list? Well for one thing they’re often the most ambitious game designs, and for another most megahit games are, in essence, dumbed down role-playing games: e.g. Medal of Honor (you’re a soldier), Grand Theft Auto III (you’re a thug who drives cars), and Diablo (you’re a barbarian with RSI). Even strategy games these days, e.g. Warcraft, tend to (a) personify you, and (b) personify your subordinates, and (c) personify your enemies to give a greater feeling of immersion. RPGs are the original immersive game design, and these days pretty much everything is influenced by RPG design.

7. Cinemaware Games

Cinemaware never really produced a single great game, and their biggest hit (Defender of the Crown) was really a very lackluster piece of work (it was a great showcase for the Amiga’s graphics though, which made it a hit).

Many years ago, SPI used to put one paragraph game concepts in its feedback section and ask readers to rate them. One of my all-time favorite proposals was called “Tale of the Three Kingdoms”, which read like an April Fool’s Day joke or a role-players wet dream. The basic idea was something like, you wake up in the middle of a field in an imaginary central European country sometime in them middle ages, and from there you can become a vagabond, a minstrel, a knight, a duke, or all of the above, waging power politics or sneaking into mansions to steal cheese.

Cinemaware tried to make interactive movies where you could do pretty much anything that would make sense in the movie (always some kind of hackneyed 50’s movie full of cliches), so in Defender of the Crown you commanded an army, snuck into enemy castles, fenced, and tried to court a princess.

Cinemaware was (and remains) remarkable for having tried to implement games where you, the central character, could do almost anything that made sense in terms of the story. It’s not surprising that they, eventually, failed as a company. But it’s amazing that they tried and to some extent succeeded as a game company.

6. DragonQuest, 2nd Edition

DragonQuest achieved so many firsts in role-playing that it’s hard to know where to start. The fact that it was something of a “dog’s breakfast” design somehow managed to enhance rather than detract from it (essentially, the magic, skill, and combat systems were designed separately, and are distinct enough that magic “feels” different from skills and combat, while not feeling like part of a completely different game).

Probably the most important single feature of DragonQuest is that it appears to have been the first role-playing game to have been designed as a simulation. Earlier games essentially seem to have named dice spreads and hoped they behaved in a manner vaguely related to the thing their name was taken from.

Let me give you a simple example: when you put on a suit of armor, it weighs you down and constrains your limbs making you slower and less mobile. There’s no two ways about it — no-one puts on a suit of chainmail before entering a running race. Hitting a person in armor is thus easier than hitting someone dressed in light or no clothing. Hurting them is another matter. So putting on a suit of armor implies trading off between the ability to dodge and the ability to withstand blows. No game prior to DragonQuest made even a pretense of representing this simple fact, and most followed Dungeons & Dragon’s absurd lead in doing the complete reverse (armor makes you harder to hit).

DragonQuest also eschewed the concept of character classes but figured out a way of keeping character design a matter of making tradeoffs (so your character couldn’t just turn into an omnipotent killing machine given a bit of practice). RuneQuest got rid of character classes, but ended up with all characters looking pretty much identical. The Fantasy Trip made you choose between magician and warrior, which is artificial and didn’t work. Traveller had skills, but no experience system.

Speaking of experience systems, DragonQuest was the first role-playing game to give out experience for achieving objectives (rather than killing people or just using one’s skills).

Perhaps the most hilariously original feature of DragonQuest was that its weapons, magic, and item lists were based on actual research (some of it perhaps not so exhaustive as it should have been). The prices of goods were, if not totally accurate, at least plausible. Weapons were actually properly named, had the appropriate characteristics (including weight), and were as useful or useless as they should have been. The magic in the game was designed to resemble specific books (e.g. Naming Incantations was straight out of “A Wizard of Earthsea” by Ursula K. Le Guin) or mythology (e.g. Greater Summoners were based on the Lesser Key of Solomon). Incredible.

Oh yeah, and it was more fun to play and far less complex than D&D.

It’s amazing to consider that over twenty years after it was published, DragonQuest’s key design features are still ignored in favor of idiotic D&Disms. In most computer (and many paper) RPGs, armor still makes you harder to hit; characters are either RuneQuest-like Swiss Army Knives or members of bizarrely constrained classes (“Argh. My knowledge of magic has rendered me incapable of picking up this axe…”); and the only way to improve your knowledge of alchemy is by killing thousands of orcs.

5. Taskforce, Cityfight

SPI’s game designers had two obsessions which were reflected in many of their later game designs, and which would both turn out to be significant but underexploited benefits of implementing games on computers. TaskForce and Cityfight were both double-blind limited intelligence games that, uniquely among such games at the time, did not require a referee. In essence, both games were designed like highly complex variants of “Battleship” where (unlike in Battleship) your pieces can move, and what you look at in some sense gives away where you are (“If he’s looking at J5 then he must be in an adjacent square”). Both games used brilliant mechanisms to reduce the amount of information given away when you searched an area without making the games unplayable.

The fog of war effect produced by these designs was amazing, and a foretaste of what would be seen in computer games such as Harpoon. Implementing the fog of war is something far easier to do in computer games than in boardgames, and yet remains pretty much restricted to (a) you can’t see enemy units that aren’t in line of sight of your units, and (b) maybe don’t show the map of places you haven’t visited yet.

4. Gulf War

Another of SPI’s and later Victory Games’ obsessions was with removing “modes” from turn-based games. Squad Leader and Advanced Squad Leader are examples of perhaps the most egregious “sequence of play” ever seen in a boardgame.

For those of you blissfully unaware of this term, the original board war games went something like this: Player A moves any or all of his/her pieces. Player A resolves combat. Player B moves any or all of his/her pieces. Player B resolves combat. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Over time, games got more ambitious, and issues such as supply, artillery, air support, amphibious landings, production, etc., started appearing, and in almost every case they became distinct “phases” of the sequence of play. So a turn became: Players calculate production total. Players allocate production. Players move units in production one step towards completion. Completed units are deployed to staging areas. Players determine unit supply status… And we haven’t even gotten to actually moving or fighting anything yet.

In Gulf War, Mark Herman (formerly of SPI) finally went for the ultimate “in this phase everything happens” game. It was an immensely appealing design idea, and really foreshadows real-time strategy games.

3. The Longest Day

For some reason Avalon Hill thought licensing the name of an old war movie would help sell copies of this behemoth (I still have a copy somewhere, I think: I wonder how much I can get for it on eBay…). The Longest Day was Avalon Hill’s only real foray into the “Monster Game” category (war games with over 1000 units on board at once), but the truly brilliant feature of this game was the way it handled supply.

Supply is the dirty secret of war game design. In most war games it is an afterthought, simply used as an excuse to constrain players from deploying their units in ways that would seem very sensible at first but would be insane in real life. Unfortunately, the rules often break down when the supply rules actually come into play. Typical examples are: (a) when out of supply a unit is suddenly rendered dysfunctional, and (b) you may not voluntarily move a unit “out of supply”.

The idea is simple: in real life a military unit is pretty much useless without (a) fuel, (b) ammunition, and (c) victuals. These are generally furnished by a more-or-less continuous stream of vehicles, peasants, or whatever, between some supply stockpile and this unit. Keeping track of all this is generally seen as too boring and tedious to bother players with, and so it’s usually abstracted to “if you can trace a clear route to a friendly supply depot” you are “in supply”, otherwise you are “out of supply” and either thus drastically affected (e.g. your combat strength is halved, your movement rate is halved, you surrender in two turns, etc.) or destroyed outright.

The sad thing about such abstractions is that they essentially remove from a military simulation what, in many cases, were the kinds of decision that made the difference between good and bad commanders. (Consider that probably the most decisive move of the American Civil War, Grant’s Vicksburg campaign, involved deliberately moving an army “out of supply”, something that many war games simply won’t allow you to do!) It’s like having a marksmanship content where having a nice shiny weapon is more important than hitting the target.

The Longest Day treated supplies as units that could be moved around, stockpiled, and consumed. Supply was still very abstract (e.g. ammunition was not handled separately from fuel, and having a supply unit at your headquarters kept its units “in supply”, but if you did something unusually intense, like mount an attack, a supply unit was consumed). Even so, this introduced the concept of a military unit being able to function well without being “in supply” (in the abstract “trace a line of hexes free of enemy zones of control…” sense) if its stockpiles were sufficient or if, for example, it didn’t have to do much moving or fighting. Suddenly, a prospective Grant could, in this instance, gather up supplies, leave behind surplus units, and boldly strike for the rear to capture a strategically important objective.

Again, it’s sad to see a concept like this, which has been so nicely implemented in a board game, all but ignored by designers of computer games when it would be far less trouble incorporating it into their products. (On the other hand, some games like Close Combat, track every round of ammunition, which may be convenient computationally but is ridiculous in terms of game design — should a commander really have this information even if it is available?)

2. John Carter, Warlord of Mars

It seems to me that the fundamental failure of online RPGs to this point is in their failure to efficiently harness player creativity. This observation might seem out of place in a discussion of “John Carter”, a multiplayer board game, but I contend that John Carter tried (in a rather more rigorous way than Chivalry & Sorcery) to address this issue.

To begin with, John Carter was an early “characters and armies” game — something SPI tried to do, with varying success, with quite a few games (notably its rather good “War of the Ring”). For another it had a very neat fencing game, using cards to “pre plot” moves, making it both more fun and less annoying than GDW’s “En Garde”.

But the really neat trick in John Carter was that each player played a hero and a villain. In other words you were doing dastardly deeds for the player to your left to handle as you yourself handled the outrages perpetrated by the player to your right. And this actually worked! This kind of approach is a far cleverer solution to the lack of dynamic content in online games than, for example, allowing people to build and decorate houses, produce things by tradeskill, or simply fight one another.

1. Swords & Sorcery, Freedom in the Galaxy

These two games represented the pinnacle of the “character and army” game, where everything from diplomacy to commando raids to naval engagements happened in concert on the same board. This genre has since been taken over completely by computer games, but it’s remarkable that very few games even approach the scope of these old paper-based games. The closest attempts are probably Master of Orion, Master of Magic, and their sequels and imitators.

Perhaps the most hilarious thing about Freedom in the Galaxy is that it was published before “The Empire Strikes Back” came out, but — while being an obvious Star Wars parody — it easily allows for pretty much any of the events or story lines seen in the subsequent Star Wars films (including prequels) to occur, and much besides.

A good simulation game should, in my opinion, do a great job with typical situations and a good job with atypical situations; it should do as good a job of allowing what actually happened to occur as it does of allowing what might reasonably have happened instead to occur. (Most simulation games do none of these things!)