Fiddler’s Green

I will come clean here. I am a fiddler and I need to stop. And so should you, my fellow fiddlers.

What I mean by “fiddling” is the designer’s compulsion to make minor adjustments to a game when it is nearly ready – or much worse – already submitted for playtesting.

To be sure, “fiddling” does not refer to fixing up obvious and glaring mistakes and rooting around for major errors. I’m a firm believer that if you find an existing rule that just doesn’t make sense as it is written, you should rewrite it until it’s clear. Also, you really should fix typos because you want to be nice to your playtesters, who are not being paid and therefore should not have to deal with your crap.

Image

No – fiddling is far worse and more insidious. It means making seemingly minor changes to rules for the sake of (insert reason here – fidelity, replayability, marketability, balance, whatever). Even with such noble justifications in mind, I have found that the fiddling compulsion really comes not from a desire to improve a game, but more often because of my own insecurities as a designer.

For example, when I finished up “That Others May Live” and declared it ready for playtesting, I sat down and read another book about my game’s topic (big mistake) and decided that, “Hey – wouldn’t it be neat and more realistic if the player had to go through the process of pinpointing the downed pilot’s exact location before a rescue can begin?”

I had the new rule already written out in my mind.

“Before ordnance can be used or attacks made on enemy positions, the Player must pinpoint the exact location of the downed pilot. To do so, an A-1 Skyraider unit must spend at least three consecutive turns in the survivor’s zone.”

Douglas A-1E Skyraider > National Museum of the United States Air ...

Before I could fire up my PC and start making changes, I forced myself to reconsider the net result of this seemingly “small” change. What finally pulled me back from the brink was this realization:

Yes, it would add a degree of realism to the game. However, it also would hobble the player in the early stages of play. Players like to “do” stuff with the counters in front of them. Wargames are essentially about movement. Having a crucial playing piece just sit there for three turns would probably not excite too many people. Can we just assume that this process of pinpointing the downed pilot has already occurred before the game begins? What would be lost by that?

And the answer was:

Nothing.

As I thought more about the other minor changes I had considered earlier, it seemed to me that it was all just an attempt to push back against what I had created. I would hesitate to call it an impulse toward destruction, but it wasn’t too far off from that. In essence, by fiddling around with the design, I was chipping away at my own creation and killing it with a thousand tiny paper cuts.

Part of it is also the reluctance to let go of something. The design phase of “That Others May Live” took up a considerable chunk of my life and now that I’ve passed it on to someone else, its sudden absence brings uncomfortable questions about my life goals bubbling to the surface once again.

But you need to resist the urge and see it for what it is. Because fiddling is how we get games with 37 die roll modifiers and a stack of charts and player’s aids that need to be consulted each and every time the player wants to do something.

Don’t get me wrong – there are always going to be people who crave that sort of stuff. But I’ve always aimed for accessibility in my design without watering down the essence of whatever I’m trying to model.

I knew going into TOML that I did not want a complex game. I did not want players to calculate the airspeed and maximum turn radius of an F-4 Phantom at 2,000 feet AGL. That game has already been made – it’s called “The Speed of Heat” – and it is excellent.

Somewhere deep inside of myself is the meanest critic ever who is telling me that my game actually sucks and would suck a bit less if only X, Y, and Z were fixed. I think this is why negative reviews have never really bothered me very much. Whatever criticism you can dream up to say about my game, there’s a good chance I have already said the same to myself and in much more brutal language.

Any new designer needs to recognize the fiddling impulse for what it is and cut it short before it spoils your original intent. Trust your publisher. Trust your playtesters. Most of all, trust yourself.

Risky Business

If there’s anything that recent world events have shown, there is always the chance that some random element is going to come and ruin your day. Life, as they say, is a dangerous business. Some days you wake up and go to work. Other days, the warehouse down at the port goes boom and wipes out all you’ve ever built and worked for. And it’s these inherent risks that I’ve been thinking about when it comes to wargame design.

My latest game, “That Others May Live”, is about Combat Search and Rescue in Vietnam. Certainly this was a perilous affair for all involved. CSAR Navy operations in North Vietnam amounted to a loss of one SAR aircraft for every 1.4 rescues. One SAR personnel was lost for every 1.8 rescues. The Air Force fared only slightly better with 1 lost aircraft for every 4.6 rescues and 1 lost SAR personnel for every 6.9 rescues. (Every, Martin G., “Navy Combat Search and Rescue, Office of Naval Research“, 1979. page 21, Tables 5 and 6)

This Douglas A-1E was severely damaged in combat in South Vietnam. It is the aircraft that was flown by Maj. Bernard Fisher on March 10, 1966, when he rescued a fellow pilot shot down over South Vietnam, a deed for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor. The aircraft was restored and is currently on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

During the design process, I kept coming up against the issue of risk mitigation. As the commander of a CSAR operation, the player faces two immediate dangers:

  1. Anti-aircraft fire that can shoot down the player’s aircraft
  2. Enemy search parties that are attempting to capture the Survivor

In order to deal with this deadly anti-aircraft fire, the player will need to use his A-1 Skyraiders and FAC to sniff out the enemy gun positions and determine the best route to and from the rescue site for his helicopters. Occasionally, it will be possible to do this in a way that minimizes exposure to enemy fire.

Sometimes, however, you will fail to find these hidden guns and they will open up on your fragile helicopters as they swoop in for a rescue and get blown to bits. There was a special term for this tactic in Vietnam – it was called the “flak trap“, and it was designed to draw in more and more US aircraft and shoot them down in order to create a kind of “Black Hawk Down” quagmire situation.

Image
Playtest version “That Others May Live” ©2020. On license to Hollandspiele Games.

The enemy search track represents the enemy’s skill and wherewithal to capture your downed airman. Each turn, the marker moves up and the enemy gets closer to capturing him. Sometimes this can happen when the thump of your helicopters are in earshot of the downed pilot and it looks like you’re within a finger’s flick of a win. “Four D” my dad used to call it – “Done in by the Dirty Dink of Destiny”.

The player can mitigate the risk of capture and aircraft destruction in two ways – by adopting sound tactics and by “burning” (discarding) cards. But that chance can never be minimized to zero. The enemy always gets at least one card pull to try and shoot you down or snatch your man. And so you might, through no fault of your own, face a situation where your downed pilot gets captured early in the game or your aircraft get swatted out of the sky.

Risk can be mitigated – but never eliminated.

It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a ...

I wrestled mightily with this rule and wondered if this was maybe a little too harsh on players. During my playtesting, I ran into situations where the game ended in failure even though I had done everything right. I could see some players getting turned off by this – after all, shouldn’t good play be rewarded?

As I turned the question over in my mind, I felt increasingly certain that this was the right design choice. If my aim was to capture the essence of what happened and why during these operations, then I had an obligation to show that things could go sideways even though everything had been done according to the book. By giving the player such absolute control over these outcomes, I was shifting the player’s role from commander to deity.

And so I kept the rule in, knowing that some players would probably get angry and accuse the game of being unbalanced or too luck-dependent. I am okay with that. It’s just another risk I’m going to have to take. I will leave you with this sobering report from August 7, 1967.

References

Correl, John T., Flak Trap, Air Force Magazine, Air Force Association: Arlington: 2006 (October).

Every, Martin G., Navy Combat Search and Rescue, Office of Naval Research: Falls Church, 1979.

Parks, Rodney G. Mission Narrative Report 1-31-121 7 August 1967, Department of the Air Force: San Francisco, 1967.

At a Glance: Agricola

Agricola from Hollandspiele Games is a solitaire design from Tom Russell released in 2016 from the fledgling company run by Tom and Mary. I’ve never played a Hollandspiele Game before so I was really excited to get my hands on this one. Agricola lets the player take on the role …

Happy New Year!

  Late last month, I made all the books from 2017 available in a single volume. At first, I was honestly tempted to stop writing the series at this point and just put the offering there for anyone who wanted to read and enjoy the series. Looking back over the …