Monday, March 14, 2011

Games and Expansions: A Tipping Point

James at Grognardia had a retrospective on Car Wars a while back and it prompted me to go dig my box-o-car-wars out of the garage (I was digging out some old D&D stuff too). Looking through it, and at my dusty piles from a few other games a thought occurred to me.

Where it started...a classic

The pocket box Car Wars (circa 1983) had a 24-page 4" X 8" rulebook. Within those pages there were the complete rules for the game including pedestrians and continuing characters (pages 1-19) and 5 pages of vehicle construction rules including 7 body types, 4 chassis strengths, 4 power plants,  suspensions, and 4 types of tires. On an additional play sheet were the tables and charts for the game - crash results, hazards, the 7 types of weapons, and some other accessories for the cars like targeting computers, turrets, and fire extinguishers. As you might imagine, this meant that there was a lot of customization possible to try new combinations of weapons vs. armor vs. speed and turreted vs. front-mounted vs. broadsides - it was a small but rich environment for tinkering and experimentation and it was pretty popular.

Very cool at the time but a harbinger of things to come

Over time the line grew with a quarterly magazine (Autoduel Quarterly), annual new equipment supplements (Uncale Albert's Auto Stop and Gunnery Shop Mail-Order Catalog), annual new car designs compilations (AADA Vehicle Guides) and some bigger supplements like Sunday Drivers (Characters and terrain), Truck Stop (the first serious escalation bringing in 18-wheelers, buses, and things like Tank Cannons) and Dueltrack that brought in gasoline engines to the previously simple all-electric car design. Pretty soon there were boxed supplements covering boats, planes, trikes, trailers, hover craft, racing vehicles, helicopters, hovercraft, and eventually tanks! By 1990 we had the "Car Wars Compendium" that was full sized, 112 pages long and included rules for all of those in one volume of which 49 pages were playing rules and the rest was mostly design rules. Even then, we clearly didn't have enough "stuff" so by 1992 we have "Uncle Albert's Catalog from Hell" which is 208 pages of equipment and design rules including new goodies such as airships, armored personnel carriers, armored cars, and self-propelled artillery!

I absolutely loved this book, as you might guess from the amount of wear on the cover

All of these supplements had taken the game so far from the original "couple-of-guys-strapping-a-machinegun-to-the-hood" concept that it was just fantastical now. X-Ray Lasers mounted in universal pop-up turrets with cyberlinked targeting systems supplemented by radar-guided missiles and fireproof laser-reflective armor turned it from a charming little game to play with friends into a competitive min-maxing environment with arguments over errata and minutia bogging down games and convention play mostly revolving around seeded tournaments with car designs optimized to four decimal places rather than open play arenas using published designs.

Where we ended up a few years down the road

Any of that sound familiar? I think it describes D&D 3rd edition fairly well. Battletech fits the pattern to a degree too. Oddly enough I don't think it really fits 4th edition D&D or Star Fleet Battles.

I think that in any game with a construction system or building element that the progression of supplements and rules updates that add options to that system will inevitably lead to a tipping point where many of the people involved in the game spend more time building and optimizing to find the "best" design than they spend time actually playing the game. 

A very cool supplement for playing the game solo - it was even better with a  referee

Car Wars is the first game where I saw this happen and I hated it. Battletech suffered from it later, Warhammer suffers from it now, and even Hero system games are affected by it to some degree.  Some of the warning signs include a point system for building units, multiple supplements devoted to adding new parts, and the insistence among serious players that a computer design tool is "essential".

Remember when game mags went for less than 5$? 

Battletech kept a much tighter lid on it even though mech design was one of the major attractions of the game. From 1985 up to about 1989 there was minimal equipment expansion (Citytech being the main one and even it mostly filled in gaps in between existing weapons) but once the Clan Invasion hit it alienated many of the players by introducing a whole separate set of different and clearly better technology. This caused a split between fans that for some has lasted until the present day. Try to jump in now and a new player is confronted with pages and pages of weapons and armor and equipment options. Find a copy of the old box or the newer starter box (a good move by the current publishers) and you're back to 10 or 12 different weapons systems, 10 or 12 different chassis sizes, and basic armor and engines and you're back to a small-scale fun game that can actually be played in an hour or less without agonizing over design for hours beforehand. You don't even need a computer program to design your own mech.

Still the coolest mech in the game

Star Feet Battles in contrast is another complex popular in the 80's boardgame that never really suffered this problem. No design rules were ever published. New ships and races and weapons were introduced to the game over time but the publisher kept the design rules in-house so that the focus of the game has always been on playing rather than designing the perfect ship. Mastering the rules and how different ships fight is a big part of playing the game (and the tournaments, not that I've ever been a big tournament guy for any game) and that can only be gained through actually playing the game, not through running iteration after iteration of your ship through a spreadsheet  until you have the perfect design.

Why Romulans need a cloaking device

I think some RPG's have experienced the same problem. Hero was probably the first as its system makes this kind of thing possible. GURPS has a little of this with figuring stats vs. skills vs. advantages and disadvantages. Prior to 3rd Edition you really didn't hear about "builds" in D&D. There wasn't really a system within the game that allowed for this. Sure, a lot of people aimed for the Gauntlets/Girdle/Hammer of Thunderbolts combo but magic items were about the only thing one could shoot for within the system to "optimize" a character. Now once 3E came along and applied more rigorous math to the game, added feats that had mechanical elements to  the game, and allowed unlimited per-level multi-classing, that's when the optimization started. As more and more of these elements were added, including prestige classes, the interactions multiplied with every book, creating even more fodder for the ruthless weeding-out of inefficiency and finding the "correct" path.

C'mon, it's only 800 pages of rules!

Interestingly 4th Edition is less susceptible to this in my opinion. Sure it has point allocation as the primary way to generate ability scores and it does have feats but it has very limited multiclassing and only allows one choice of Paragon Path and Epic Destiny. Also the math is tighter for the whole game which tends to level things out at each ... level. By limiting the number of "buildable" elements it helps control the focus on optimal builds and the number of interactions that must be checked.   Most other RPGs, especially non-point-build games seem to have a similar handle on it whether it's Runequest or Star Wars or Savage Worlds.

OK I've narrowed my army down to this...

It happens in miniatures games too. Warhammer and 40K tend to have fierce internet debates over the perfect elements to include in one's army, and the mix of those elements changes with each new edition of the game. The number of people discussing optimization is greater than the number of people actually playing the game, often by straight-up admission of those same posters! Compare this to DBA, an ancients game that's been around for roughly 20 years where each army consists of 12 elements chosen from a limited number of types. There is very little debate over composition, at least in the sense of "what's more efficient" while there is a lot of discussion of playing, base sizes, how to represent various forms of terrain - actual gaming elements rather than theoretical exercises in discovering the 'best". Even the more open system of Hordes of the Things, the fantasy version of the same system, tends to have more discussion over how to best represent certain things in the game rather than how to build the killer force.

I think the key is not even really rules bloat - it's the number of customizable or constructible elements in the game, especially those added after the game is created that tends to skew things over to the building rather than the playing as those later elements tend to be less tested than the originals. There's a point where a game achieves a nearly perfect balance among its elements to where there is no "best" solution for all problems. The problem is that companies rarely stop at that point. the temptation to keep adding new stuff to the game is too great, and inevitably things are introduced that are clearly better or worse than others and disrupt this balance in the system. Once it becomes clear that certain elements are just better than others, the race begins. Much of the focus around the game shifts from playing to setting up and the game starts to die. The internet has actually made this worse in some ways as thousands of players around the world quickly determine the optimum configuration for various situations and even casual players start to disdain certain units or elements or combinations as suboptimal.

What's the downside? Well, a vocal online player base that's more concerned with counting rivets than actually playing the game for one. Heated arguments that start to paint the game's "players" as hardcore or unwelcoming to newcomers. A push to add more to the game because analysis has narrowed the "real" options down to a mere handful of what was put in the game originally and players want more choices. Rules bloat, supplement overkill, multiple compilations of prior products being released as new products - these tend to alienate customers as well.

How to avoid it? Car Wars measured multiple factors for each element: Spaces (a car can only hold so many systems), Weight (weight slows down the car and there is a limit), and Money (effectively the point system in many ways) were factors in building a vehicle while to-hit numbers, damage dice, and number of shots were factors during combat. Now this gives a ton of design flexibility - some elements might be cheaper but heavier while others might be more accurate but do less damage - but I think it's too many to really track when designing a game intended to be expanded. Some of those factors mean nothing in certain conditions. There are systems that mitigate high to-hit numbers. Special ammo can boost damage. Some vehicles can carry so much weight that it ceases to be a real limiting factor.  Battletech handled it better in some ways by making weight an overriding factor and spaces consumed a less important factor while money was not even a consideration in the basic game (It's a huge concern in the RPG which adds an interesting element to the game without busting up the initial balance found in the boardgame rules). In combat range and damage are the main considerations which works well. DBA costs each unit the same but each one is better under certain conditions - the trick is arranging those conditions which is something that can only happen in play, again keeping the focus on the game and not the point costs found in the construction appendix at the back of the book!

Of course point systems simplify things

Some will tout the value of a point based construction system and sometimes it is a good idea but it is not the universal solution. 2nd edition Warhammer actually included a point system for constructing and  costing individual miniatures in the game (something removed from later editions) but it also included a warning that it will not be perfect. The example they gave was say you developed a creature that has Strength 10, Toughness 10, and Attack Skill of 10, but a Movement ability of 0 (10 was the highest rating in the game, 1 would be the lowest and 0 would indicate no capability in an area). How would one cost that? If it gets charged by an enemy, then it's going to absolutely vicious in combat. If it's opposed by a force of archers it's going to eventually die (or be avoided) without inflicting a single casualty n the enemy. You can come up with similar scenarios in nearly any point-based game. Champions 4th edition had some particularly good examples as well so I'm not just talking about board games here. Points can be useful but there are always extremes which can be exploited to break the system, meaning it's not an absolute fix.

An awesome supplement - we should have more books like this

The most effective solution I have found for a board game is to make it a role-playing game. Playing 3055 era Mechwarrior in a vacuum is a very different experience from playing it as part of a mercenary unit that has to pay for all of that equipment - suddenly all those Gauss Rifles and Pulse Lasers disappear in favor of less efficent but cheaper weapons. Same with Car Wars - building a teched out Division 100 laser sled is fun and all, but if you have to fix it up after the battle you better hope there's enough prize money to make it worth your while. Start down at Division 5 or 10 and you have a lot more options and smaller repair bills.

For RPG's the key is to make theoretical designs just that - theoretical. Want to multiclass from fighter into cleric then into rogue? Better find a temple that will have you and then a guild that will trust you too. Playing a dwarf and planning to take Deepwoods Sniper? That's kind of an Elf thing and you've been playing grumpy scottish tree-hugger-hating longbeard, so how exactly are you going to get in? Sure Frenzied Berserker is awesome but they're only found up amongst the Frost, Ice, and Snow Barbarians and we're adventuring down in the Amedio Jungle so how are you going to pick that up? We're playing in the Realms and you want to pull in a race from Eberron? No. Playing Fantasy Hero and you want your wizard to use a variable power pool for his magic? No, you're not Green Lantern.  Hardcore optimizers sneer at this kind of stuff but to me it's the difference between an RPG and a board game or card game  - the universe of all possibilities is a theoretical one, not one found in any particular campaign. In many ways RPG campaigns are defined by what subset of the game they embrace, not how many different books you can use to max out your damage bonus with the Impilturian Greatsword when fighting underground and wearing a holy symbol of Cyric..

It's surprising how much of an RPG it turned into near the end
As for Car Wars The militarization of the game was disappointing to me as originally this was a light, fast, interesting little tactical game with some roleplaying elements if you wanted them. I didn't need another game featuring tanks and SPA - I already had a ton of those! For me the game collapsed under its own weight about 1990 and I haven't played it in most of 20 years. However, the discussion and research on it has triggered some interest with me in going back to the basics. I really like the way everything is presented as an in-universe document, something we wouldn't see again until 1989 and Shadowrun. I think I'm going to get out the pocket box game with the apprentices and run a small arena fight and see what they think. All these years later I don't feel as compelled to use everything ever published for a game so we'll stick to the basics and spend an afternoon shooting holes in cars. Sounds like fun to me.

Cars from the State Fair of Texas 2037 


Higgipedia said...

Battletech and Car Wars were two intense RPG loves for me circa 1988-90. I still look back on them fondly, but more for the older versions. The Clans ruined Battletech for me, and Boat Wars was the beginning of the end for Car Wars.

Jayson said...

Nodding agreement here.