Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Gaming Notes: May 26, 2013… with guest Ken Burnside

This is Gaming Notes, the weekly news-magazine about all kinds of games and the home of Space Gaming News, Designer Spotlightand Blog Watch. This week’s special guest is Ken Burnside, the designer of Attack Vector: Tactical.

Space Gaming News:

Space Empires 4X (The Long Dark Action Phase Of The Soul) — “And what sticks out to me is that the whole thing is just terribly, awesomely old-school. It’s hex-and-counter gaming, the kind we used to complain about being ‘inaccessible’ and ‘boring to look at’. The kind largely forgotten in the wake of ever-better-produced games by all but the regulars in the Wargames forums…. But it’s also got a very modern approach to streamlining the actual gameplay. Yes, it’s got charts, and resource allocation, and technology levels, and attack and defense and hit points and maintenance costs, but they’re clean and sensible, and by the end of the first game I’m surprised to see I have time for another.”

BattleTech (Board Game Geek Image) — The very first editions of this game included model kits for the Griffin and the Shadow Hawk. That’s… just… crazy. But it’s also evidence that the concept for the game came more from the Robotech models than it did from any sort of anime series– which would explain the vast differences in tone between the game and the animated Robotech series.

Road/Kill (Kickstarter Beta-Site) — “You don’t want a game with cardboard counters; it’s 2013 and we’ve all been there, done that. What we all want is a game that brings car combat to life.”

Valkenburg Castle (e23) — This “Pocket Game” is now available in PDF format. Check out The Maverick’s Classic Microgame Museum here to see the rest of the line.

Designer Spotlight:

Jeffro: For the readers that are completely new to your games, could you give the “too long; didn’t read” gloss on Attack Vector:Tactical?

Ken Burnside: AV:T is as close as I can make to the definitive game of hard science fiction space combat that’s still playable by human beings without a computer. You can argue with some of the baseline assumptions in the game, but within the constraints set by them, I’ve tried to keep the physics as realistic and as consistent as possible. The game has served as a direct inspiration for John Lumpkin’s SF novels  and there was practically an homage to AV:T in the New Battlestar Galactica series episode “The Captain’s Hand.”

Jeffro: I just watched the video on kinetic weapon combat. That is just mind blowing stuff there… I’m in shock, really. [Note: more videos are available here.]

Ken Burnside: What was mind-blowing about it? From my perspective they’re… old news. I solved that problem in 2003, and wrote more examples in 2010.

Jeffro: You basically accomplish ten times the realism that Brilliant Lances was trying for… but with maybe a tithe of the headache. And what’s more… you do it in the context of a gaming culture that no longer even bothers with any kind of realism or simulationism for the most part. I’ve heard about your games for a long time, but getting walked through the procedure for the first time there, it was all new to me. There was a pretty big gap between what I thought you had accomplished and how far you really went.

Ken Burnside: The gaming culture has changed since I wrote AV:T. One of the things that’s happening in games is “simplicity uber alles” – it’s possible to get very cool emergent effects from very simple games, but there’s been a backlash against Big Complex Games since the mid 1990s. Of course, the state of game design and play aid design has also advanced since then, but I think that there’s an upswing on people asking for a little more meat and thinky-thinky in their games, provided each decision being made is obviously relevant.

In terms of space simulation, the general knowledge of how space combat (and detection in space) works has improved considerably since I started AV:T; with this comes the realization that a lot of the conventional tropes of space combat don’t actually work…and making a game that hews to actual physics will make a game that doesn’t appeal to Star Wars fans or Star Trek fans.

As to your experience, I call that the Traveller Revelation Moment, because I find it in Traveller fans, a lot. They’re used to being regarded as the “waaay past the edge” SF RPG fans, and there’s a clique of Traveller players who remember Brilliant Lancers as the most realistic space combat game they never got to play, because all their friends tried setting it up with them twice and gave up before the third game got started.

When I talk to people in that section of the Traveller community about what AV:T does, I get met with…extreme skepticism. Then I show them this. Each of the circles or squares is enough fuel to impart a 1 hex/turn velocity change on the ship. Fuel, as the note says, is burned from left-to-right. A fuel tank hit marks out the leftmost column of fuel. If you look closely, you’ll see that columns to the right have more units of fuel. This is because I did the wet mass to dry mass integral as a series and added the notation for units of fuel based on total delta v and declining mass fraction.

You may also notice that about 45% of the way through the fuel, the units change shape from circles to squares. That’s because the ship, having burned enough fuel, has reduced its mass by enough to get a higher thrust rating in game scale terms. On some ships, the fuel units change from circles to squares, back to circles, and back to squares AGAIN as the mass fraction changes enough. (For some ships, you can trigger this change in thrust by firing off enough ammunition from your missiles.)

Jeffro: Did you just say, “integrals?”

Ken Burnside: Well, better me doing calculus when making the SSD than players doing that at the table.

Jeffro: It sounds like you have the math, science, and physics pretty well nailed down there. Getting actual play out of that is an entirely different kind of problem, however. What do you see as being the most challenging aspect of the game design process?

Ken Burnside’s game design workshop exists… mostly on his computer.

Ken Burnside: For me, game design starts with “Let’s put yourself in the decision making chair. What are the decisions the player has to make? How many of them are there, and how many choices are there to be made at each decision loop?” A lot of other designers get to that stage by asking “What would happen if you did X with Y?” For example, “What would happen if you did space combat with actual physics regulating it?” (This is how Attack Vector: Tactical came to be, as I explored that process on the SFCONSIM-L mailing list in 2000 through 2003.)

My next procedural step, after identifying key decisions, is “How do I clarify those decisions down to four or fewer options?” This, by the way, is one of the unheralded design wins of D&D 4.0 – at every step of your character’s design process, you’re channeled to a decision with four options. More than four options slows down decision making into analysis paralysis. This also goes on in Staff College and Naval War College exercises, and is part of the principle of command-span: Most people can accept data inputs from no more than four to five sources at once before they start losing track and having to ask for repeats on information.

Once I get it down to four or fewer decision points, I focus heavily on user interface for that part of the game. All of my titles require skills that, unless the player is a pilot, submariner or astronomer, are completely outside of their normal experiences. You don’t need to understand reciprocal bearings to drive a car, but it’s critical if you’re a pilot or conning a boat – or flying a spaceship with full 3-D orientation and movement. To get people over the hump of learning new skills, I put a lot of thought into user interface design, even down to the order that certain tools appear on a play aid card, so that the flow of what you use at each phase of a turn matches the left-to-right, top-to-bottom reading pattern for a native English reader. Sometimes, this isn’t possible – see the back of the AV:T 2nd Edition Ship Control Cards and how they handle generating rate of closure for missiles under thrust for a good example of “doing it backwards” – but it’s the right way for that problem to give you data that you can put into the shellstar card.

Jeffro: Okay…. So you’ve captured realistic space combat to a degree that no other game has attempted. Then you’ve gone and made it both accessible and playable with state of the art game aids. What I want to know is… once all the problem solving, design, and refinement is done… why is the game fun?

Ken Burnside: AV:T is fun for the same reason that a flight simulator is fun, and the description of play is that you make a bunch of decisions that trigger what I call “long process” decisions – you’re expending resources, you’re triggering delays for weapons to cool down, and you’re constantly making small adjustments.

For example, if you want to turn your ship by a certain number of degrees, it’s going to take a certain amount of time…and you’re going to know where your intermediate facings are, so rather than “I move five hexes, and turn one hex side”, in AV:T it’s “I want to turn by three hex sides, I’ll start that pivot now, and it will take half a turn to complete. While I’m pivoting, I’m going to be facing each of the intermediate positions at different time points, while driving along my vector like a Starfury gymballing in Babylon 5.”

When using thrust, you turn on the engine, and accumulate thrust over time. You can turn off the engine at any point in time, so you’ve got two “long process” actions going on as background processes while you’re lining up your shot, managing energy in batteries, regenerating energy from your reactors (which is a third “long process” action) and husbanding how much fuel you’re spending.

It’s closer to Star Fleet Battles than Full Thrust, but even then, there are significant differences. Star Fleet Battles makes use of timing delays (The infamous quarter turn gap between phaser firings), but AV:T has institutionalized them as the primary way of regulating actions. Nearly everything you do in AV:T means that there will be a delay before you can do it again…is this this best time to do it? What other things are ticking down on you as you go about it? As a result, trying to make a whole-turn-move variant of AV:T causes it to bleed all over the place…

Another arrow in AV:T’s quiver is that I try to use simultaneous decisionmaking as much as possible. There’s no “I go, then watch you dither, then you go, then I dither, and I go.” You’re constantly adjusting the things on your ship and lining up things – again, more flight simulator than grunts and tanks ground combat game.

Blog Watch:

B/X D&D (Sword & Shield) Holmes compares his Basic D&D boxed set to the Moldvay Basic D&D boxed set — “The second edition, as sold in the boxed set with dice and D&D Module B2, The Keep on the Borderlands by Gary Gygax, is the best possible introduction to the D&D game.” [Even Dr. Holmes had to acknowledge the inherent greatness of Molvay Basic!]

Labyrinth Lord (Digital Orc) Pathfinder is King & Labyrinth Lord Disappears: The Good & The Bad — “The other big winners in terms of growth include Savage Worlds, Sixcess, and Legend of the Five Rings. The big losers were Hero, Momentum, and Labyrinth Lord. This last bit of news was especially bitter. As an RPG blogger who publishes his games under the Labyrinth Lord banner, I couldn’t help but wonder if this wasn’t another sign that the OSR was fading. Sure, some of the games listed under Dungeons & Dragons are first edition and similar to Labyrinth Lord. But to see the title go away was a little disturbing. Especially when I place it in the context of declining OSR leader blogs (Grognardia, Jeff’s Gameblog, etc) and the rise of Google+ which may be dirupting the OSR blogger community.”

Star Frontiers (The Mule Abides) half-life of gaming lust  — “Part of the problem with Star Frontiers, maybe, is that it is deliberately non-political science-fiction: that is, science-fiction that’s designed to be bland.  Star Trek‘s original series is infused with mid-1950′s techno-utopian thinking, Cold War tension, and late-60′s cultural concerns; the later iterations of the show tended to veer toward the police procedural genre, albeit ones where the police get trapped in caves a lot or date women who are actually disguised space-monsters.  Star Wars (the watchable movies, at least) is an admixture of Zen platitudes, anti-fascism, and perhaps a qualified rejection of the Industrial Revolution.  But those two are only the big sci-fi franchises in hindsight.  In the early 1980′s, there was also Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica and many other things besides, and it feels like Star Frontiers was just trying to fit in with the crowd rather than stake out new territory.”

Science Fiction (Dungeon of Signs) Why you should read old novels… — “This isn’t to say On Basilisk Station, Mother of Demons or the first couple World War novels aren’t a nice read, but frankly Piper is a better writer – not technically, but because he knew when to let a story die.”

Comics (Blood of Prokopius) Meditating on Golems and Superheroes — “As is often acknowledged, the mutant story lines serve as a commentary on whatever shade of bigotry one wants to explore; however, other than the Us vs. Them bigotry, the concept of Homo sapiens superior is rarely, if ever, compared to what it means to be human. As a result, the debate is often stuck at: Should we make war against humanity or Should we be magnanimous and protect humanity?It always bothered me that both cases infer the inherent inferiority of humanity. The question of what it meant to be human never became a foundational principle like it did for the Superman character. “

Apropos of Nothing:

This female X-wing pilot was cut from Return of the Jedi.

The Business Rusch: Shifting Sands — “Booksellers no longer order ten copies of a book that they think might sell. They order one, and put it face-out on the shelf. When that book sells, they order another which arrives from the distributor within one or two days.” (Via Sarah Hoyt.)

The Future: Some Assembly Required — “Look for things people might pay you for.  Then do them.  Get good at doing them.  In the future there might be no jobs, no ’employment’ as we have grown to think of it.  But there will be work.  And people will still pay for work that benefits them or makes their life easier.  Now, you might end up working four contract jobs in ten hour increments and taking the income from those multiple streams to make a full living.  I’m here to tell you it’s doable.”

This Kid Just Died. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular — “You can either sit in your basement and wait… or you can get out there and do some crazy stuff.”

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2 responses to “Gaming Notes: May 26, 2013… with guest Ken Burnside

  1. RogerBW May 26, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    Fang of the Sun Dougram was definitely a conceptual influence on Battletech as well as providing several of the more memorable visual designs (Shadow Hawk, Griffin, Scorpion, Goliath, Wolverine). During several of the combat sequences one can see exactly how Weisman and the crew were inspired in writing the game.

    • jeffro May 26, 2013 at 4:56 pm

      Interesting. I have to say that much of the Robotech series was downright execrable… no matter how iconic some of those mecha were. It looks like they favored the Shadow Hawk, the Wolverine, the Griffin, and the Thunder Bolt early on to some extent, too.

      I gotta see that show…!

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