Thursday, September 29, 2011

What it takes to design a game

Even though I've moved Decisive Victory off on it's own, I'm doing double blog posts about the game and its ongoing development.  Just in case that d6 blog network doesn't go anywhere.

The first game I ever tried to design was back during high-school.  I was starting to build up a collection of Gundam models at the time, and wanted something to do with them.  I had been playing 3rd ed 40K for a year or so, but my other miniature gaming experience was limited to Ogre Miniatures. I came up with a dice mechanic(using d12s of all things) that I though was pretty nifty, and tried to incorporate all the cool concepts from the Anime.  I was lucky at the time to have a few friends that shared a similar enthusiasm for miniature gaming and Gundam models so I was able to get play testers.

I don't recall the details of the rules(lost a couple of hard drives ago), but I do remember how the game played in those first few play tests.  Basically the mechs would shoot their big guns and then run up to each other to melee.  In the anime the close combat between gundams was always epic, but in my game it just ended up as the models standing next to each other and the players rolling off dice for 8 turns.

I had managed to turn the most exiting element of the source material into the most boring element of my game.  It wasn't a good game, but what do you expect from a 16 year old's first try?  I did learn plenty from the experience.  Keep the math simple and the game goes faster.  Scale is important; models that can move and shoot 6 feet a turn don't make for interesting miniature games without a spare football field to play them on.  Most importantly, don't let the game degenerate into roll offs.  You might as well play Yahtzee at that point.

Over the next few years I tried going back to the game to improve the problems.  I cut down ranges and movement to fit the game onto a reasonable sized playing surface.  I added a close combat mechanic that had models pushing each other around and bouncing off each other.  I even revised the core mechanic around a concept where you could declare as many actions in a turn as you wanted your mech to do, but the more actions you tried the lower the chance of success on every action.  Unfortunately I had lost touch with the enthusiastic play testers I had had before.  Without anyone to play the game with I lost interest (and the rules in the aforementioned hard drive failures).

I was in college by this time and playing FoW regularly.  Occasionally the FoW players would break out some WWII naval miniatures.  There where two rules sets the group liked to us;e General Quarters and Task Force.  Both where very old school, with lots of charts and different sized dice. Alot like most WWII ground combat games pre-FoW.  I had fun playing them, but wished for a rules set that did for naval combat what FoW did for ground combat.  I did write up a spread sheet to calculate point values for Task Force so that we could attempt to play balanced pickup games.

After college, I moved to Muncie to work for a software company there.  There was a small war machine community there, but no historical gamers, so my WWII miniatures collected dust for a few years.  I did pick up Victory at Sea when it came out hoping for that concise WWII naval war-game I was hungry for.

Unfortunately, No.  I've read much about the history of naval warfare in WWII, and that game just didn't seem to fit with what I knew.  Ships in VaS where stronger or weaker than battlefield evidence would suggest.  A good example was the Hood which was a beast according to its stats.  I can understand exactly how that happened.  The VaS Hood had plenty of hit points.  Understandable, the Hood was a large ship, it had to be in order to get the right hull shape for it's high cruising speed, but the internal structure wasn't as well constructed as its slower true battleship cousins.  It's armor stat was impressiveness.  The hood did have good belt armor protection, but other than in its belt its armor protection was inadequate and haphazard.

There in lies some of the problems with coming up with a good WWII naval game.  Balancing historical accuracy with play-ability.  A warship is a big complex machine, and reducing it down to a few lines of stats requires some hard game design compromises.  And there's detail that you could overlook if you don't do the research.  Most ships of the period did not incorporate homogeneous armor schemes, and had vastly different capabilities in fire control and AA.  If you don't know the capabilities of the MK37 Fire Control Radar or the deficiencies of the MK14 torpedo, you would likely screw up the entire US fleet.  

Then there's the issues of scale.  How do you build a game that allows for Destroyer range gun battles, Battleship range gun battles, and Carrier warfare?  Don't even get me started on where submarines enter the mix.  There are very many things that can be incorporated into a WWII naval game, but its hard to get them all to mesh really well together.

I had been playing around with some ideas for a space combat game for a while, but I could never come up with a movement system I was happy with.  I decided to take some of the mechanics that I had developed for that game and use them as the basis for a more traditional naval combat game.  Thus Decisive Victory was born.

That's enough for now.  I'll post again in a day or two and talk about the logic behind the design decisions I made, as well as changes I plan on making in the future.

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