Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Elegant Game Design: Quasi-RPG Wargames and the German Invasion

One of the things that surprised me about post-ADQ Car Wars fandom was the attachment to the whole armed vehicle genre.  CWIN, for instance, covered news of post-apocalyptic armed autos in all of their manifestations: board games, computer games, card games, and probably even books and movies.  I guess the genre of the game was never that important to me– oh, Boy Scout Commandoes and dangerous pizza delivery runs fired my imagination as much as anyone.  It was highly accessible fantasy to be sure, but the endeavor of playing Car Wars was something much more than all of that. 

Other critics have labeled Car Wars as merely being a “design-a-thing” game, but I don’t think that’s the best category to describe what its all about either.  Car Wars has its feet firmly planted in two contradictory worlds: it’s is part of a family mini-games– inexpensive and relatively easy to learn games that utilize the trappings of older wargames– and at the same time Car Wars is part of a family of monster games… mini-games that raged out of control in a series of contradictory expansions and errata culminating into comprehensive “Compendiums” and “Doomsday” editions.  In other words, the true family of games that Car Wars belongs to includes Battletech and Star Fleet Battles– and genre and even the fact that it uses a design system is secondary to its categorization.

Comfirmation of my approach to “gaming cladistics” can be found in the excellent article, An Introduction to Elegance.  He classifies them as “quasi-RPG wargames” and uses them to epitomize the lack of elegant design in American games.  He then sets up the German games invasion as being infinitely superior in the gaming elegance department… and he uses an example from computer programming to support his argument.

But I don’t think it’s entirely fair to compare an abstract game to a simulation.  While “Quasi-RPG wargames” can of course benefit from techniques developed by the German designers, they are not inherently inelegant.  It’s more fitting to view Settlers of Catan as a more elegant version of the Monopoly and M.U.L.E. tradition of game.  In this discussion, it is important to understand the design differences forced upon a game by its choice of scope and granularity. 

The Car Wars design system is extremely elegant when judged from the correct vantage point.  The equipment list is finite and colorful… and the exact combination of speed, maneuverability, defense, and offense capability can be chosen at the whim and style the designer.  Complex equations are necessary only when calculating speed and range… simple addition tallies and percentage increases are sufficient everywhere else.  Most importantly, cost is an accurate balancing factor: Battletech and Star Fleet Battles both had to develop kludgy “Battle Value” and “Base Point Value” systems to accomplish the same thing.  Finally, the statistical values developed in the design process impact all of the various rules subsystems in clearly defined and significantly game-impacting ways.

Returning to the programming example… a nifty “elegant” abstraction is only relevant to a project if it can accomplish the same requirements as the “ugly” solution.  Sometimes it is the right decision to simplify things… but at some point the maxim “as simple as possible but no simpler” comes into play.  German games are fun… they are interesting toys… but they don’t even attempt to solve the same problems that we were trying to solve back in the eighties.  And I’m not sure that a “germanified” Car Wars game could come close to capturing the flavor of an effective dueling machine tossed into mortal combat at a funky arena.

Anyways, just a minor quibble with an otherwise solid post.  Check out the My Play blog for more interesting discussion and gaming analyis!

10 responses to “Elegant Game Design: Quasi-RPG Wargames and the German Invasion

  1. Linnaeus March 17, 2007 at 11:15 pm

    First of all, thank you for the kind words.

    Also, I have a great deal of love for Car Wars. I still have my pocket box edition (or at least most of it :) ) and everything else (including several issues of ADQ) that I bought for it. In junior high and high school I spent innumerable hours firing at various wagons of destruction. I would still play Car Wars so long as I didn’t have to teach it to anyone.

    Actually, the pocket box Car Wars was pretty elegant. If you set the vehicle design rules to one side, the rules weren’t much longer than that of a heavy Euro, and considerably shorter than your average Fantasy Flight plastic-fetish game.

    Unfortunately, the community that built up around ADQ started prioritizing “realism” (or, as I prefer to call it, verisimilitude). This led to increasing amounts of edge cases, rules exceptions, and replacing of elegant systems with things like the Variant Fire Control Rules.

    Add in complete variant systems for certain classes of vehicles like helicopters, over-sized vehicles and hovercraft, and you have Deluxe Car Wars and the Car Wars Compendium. Those are what I was referring to as inelegant quasi-RPG boardgames.

    Don’t get me started on internal combustion engines.

    SJG made a swing at returning Car Wars to simplicity with “5th edition,” but the packaging (and scale) pretty much left it stillborn.

    If I were in charge of reviving Car Wars, I would probably build it around a core of car-only, electric engine-only, arena-only play, using the more elegant pocket box editions as my starting place. I would probably pore over Uncle Al’s Catalog from Hell and pick out every item that fits this paradigm, rebalance those items (with the help of extensive playtesting), and include them. I’d put the vehicle design rules in a separate booklet (but in the core boxed set) from the system booklet with a “Don’t worry about this until you’ve played a few times” label slapped on the front of it.

    If the systems book was more than 12 8.5″x11″ pages, I’d know I still had work to do. In fact, I’d rather aim for 8 pages.


  2. Linnaeus March 17, 2007 at 11:17 pm

    Oh, and no pedestrians.

    At all.

    And no hand weapons either.

    What a tar baby that was.

  3. jeffro March 19, 2007 at 8:28 am

    I don’t know if I could be objective enough to contribute effectively to a relaunch of a streamlined Car Wars… there’s just so many things I’d have a hard time letting go of….

    Like Pedestrians: there was a not insignificant number of games that ended in the final cars both wrecking and the drivers getting out to finish it pistol to pistol. One of my drivers got out of his car and ran toward’s an opponent’s stopped vehicle dodging turret fire. He dove under the car and began firing his SMG at the weak underbody armor. Then the Drop Spike Plate fell on him….

    I do love the new fire rules that they came out with for 5th edition. That was an elegant solution– especially when compared to the variant fire rules. Collisions would be the hardest thing to get right, though I do admit to just winging it with “it probably would have gone like this, agreed?” and keep on playing as often as not.

    Your “no handweapons” rule seems to have been adopted by what’s left of the diehard fandom. The Spark vehicle design spreadsheet does not allow you to purchase them for duelling events!

    For the rules, I would definitely want to go with Traveller style “Little Black Books”: a rulebook, a vehicle guide, and a design system (or catalogue). That would be great….

  4. jeffro March 19, 2007 at 1:43 pm

    Oh… I still thought it was pretty cool when Mike Montgomery figured out that that cheapest 1-space weapon in the game was a passenger armed with rifle loaded with AV ammo. That was mean!

    But yeah, the pedestrian rules were pretty wacked, for the most part.

  5. Linnaeus March 19, 2007 at 2:18 pm

    I won’t say for a moment that a lot of cool didn’t come from all that stuff (well, except maybe the variant fire rules…), but the question, I would argue, is if enough cool comes from them. Considering how often pedestrians ended up being little more than metaphorical (or even literal :D ) speed bumps, and how much time and effort went into trying to change that, I doubt they were really worth it in the end.

    You’ll have to describe the 5th edition burn rules to me before I can judge. I just couldn’t get past the packaging and the giant counters.

    I like the little black books idea, but I think the full Fantasy Flight would be more likely to succeed in todays gaming market. SJG has a loyal fan base, but they get criticized a lot (when they’re discussed at all) on Boardgamegeek for their outdated production values. I also wonder how often their approch attracts the casual gamer, now, as well.

  6. jeffro March 19, 2007 at 2:32 pm

    Burn rules…

    Roll 3d6. If the amount is less the damage scored (double damage for flame throwers) then the car gets a fire marker.

    At the end of each turn, roll d6 with modifiers based on speed, maneuvers, and fire extinguishers. The fire markers can increase, decrease, or stay the same. I think the number of fire markers is how much damage is done to all of your armor facings… until it breaches, which puts you in big trouble.

    The elegance is that the new rule replaces the hideous variant fire mods chart… and also that movement now integrates with the fire rules: people swerve and speed to try to put out the flames. That gets rid of the boring “turtle” tactics and is much more cinematic.

    (They elimated charts with clever rules wherever they could in 5e. The movement chart’s gone: each of the three phases you simply move your speed in inches. 50 mph = 5 inches.)

    Oh… and Boardgame Geek has more than its share of complainers. Too often they haven’t even played what they’re criticizing. Grrr. I know its important for marketing purposes, but I care more about good design than I do about toys. (I can’t believe some of the stupid stuff the whiners over there have said about Ogre. Grrrr!)

  7. Linnaeus March 19, 2007 at 3:00 pm

    Thanks. They sound pretty decent, although I’ll reserve judgement on the “going fast helps put out the flames” thing.

    As for BGG, I’m a (semi-)active member, and my tastes don’t fall that far outside the mainstream there. I’m a Reiner Knizia fan and everything :) That said, you can find someone (usually many someones) that will talk trash about most any game there, including the top rated games. That said, it is mostly a German games first site (with modern wargames also doing pretty well), and very few games as old as Ogre do very well there, regardless of how highly thought of they have been in the past (or by its current community of fans).

    I will say that most BGGers care about good design, too, but

    1) Good design varies at least somewhat from gamer to gamer.

    2) Good physical design improves playability.

    3) I’m not a plastic junkie myself, and, frankly, only a portion of the BGG userbase is, too. Eye candy does sell to the casual gamer and to the most likely fanbase of a modern autoduelling game, though. It’s about marketing, and selling enough copies for a hypothetical game to get continuing support, not my personal definition of quality.

    That said, light cardstock counters that you have to cut out by hand are a bit passe, too.

  8. jeffro March 19, 2007 at 3:13 pm

    I’m definitely out of step with what passes for the mainstream in gaming….

    I have yet to successfully use a German game as a kind of “Gateway” thing. Regular people just don’t care to make the effort to play games… even if they are well designed and with nifty components…. In my neck of the woods, the people that will go so far as to spend time playing a “real game” are all grognards. So we end up playing our old 80’s favorites.

    Maybe when the kids are older…

  9. Pingback: Elegance, Emergence, and Role Playing Game Design « Jeffro’s Car Wars Blog

  10. Pingback: The Importance of Being Elegant — The Case For the Prosecution « My Play

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