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Category Archives: Designer Spotlight

Designer Spotlight: A Conversation with Ken Burnside about Squadron Strike! Traveller

Jeffro: I admit, I’ve had a hard time up until now choosing between your products. Given that I’m a Car Wars fan, you’d think I’d be all over Squadron Strike due to its having the most flexible design system of any space game on the market. But that by itself wasn’t enough to make me pull the trigger. And I know one of the things that kept me from Attack Vector was that I just wasn’t in the mood for wrapping my head around another space game setting.

As soon as I heard you were adapting Squadron Strike to the official Traveller universe, then I knew. I could finally have one of your 3D space combat games… but with the Squadron Strike design system and the tabletop space game setting that I’ve already been playing in for more than a decade.

You really brought me down off the fence with that move!

Ken Burnside: I’m in total agreement: Setting buy-in is critical. It helps if you’ve got a setting people have heard of, because working from tropes everyone knows means the potential customer has fewer barriers before they care. This project has been germinating for long enough that we managed to build a number of Traveller-esque options deep into the foundations. It’s also been something of a “cursed project.” If it hadn’t been for an unexpected backup, it might have died to a Taliban rocket attack in Afghanistan. And that says nothing about the parade of people who’ve worked on it who suffered strokes, heart attacks and bypass surgeries….

Jeffro: From what I’ve seen you’re bringing us the iconic Azhanti High Lightening right out of the box. In addition a range of Imperial ships, you’ve got a healthy selection of Zhodani ships and a smattering of Aslan. It looks like you’ve chosen to emphasize the Spinward Marches region right around the time of the 5th Frontier War. That is seriously classic– and easily the most played milieu of the franchise.

Ken Burnside: All of our scenarios for this product are from the opening of the Fifth Frontier War. We’re supporting the two Traveller fleet boxes we put out years ago. We’ve also added more ships to fill out the product. There are 15 ships in the product, each with a 2D version and a fully statted out variant, so effectively 30 ships total. Our first few scenarios are a combined mini campaign/tutorial to teach you Squadron Strike’s rules in bite sized chunks – while having a fun time going through them.

Jeffro: I have to say… the most distinctive feature of the Traveller space combat games is the lack of a sense of maneuver. In Mayday, there is no facing for instance. And once you’ve committed to a particular vector, changing it seems to take more time than the game can take– if anybody is in range for a shot, anyway. And in situations where there are just two ships… you don’t really need the map at all. In fact, Starter Traveller used range bands for space combat for maybe just that reason! High Guard also eliminated the map in favor of just two ranges– short and long.

So you’re adapting these games that essentially have no maneuver in them… into your system which is basically all about maneuver, position, and facing. How does that even work…?

Ken Burnside: It works pretty well, all told. Traveller inherits a lot from late ’70s vintage surface naval combat (with a bit borrowed from the sensor cat-and-mouse game of submarine combat.) In current epoch surface naval combat, the role of maneuver is largely non-existent when you’re in weapons range or aircraft engagement range.

We reduced the rates of fire, and used the inherent Squadron Strike default game scale of 1,265 km hexes, and the “Ad Astra G” of 9.765625 m/sec/sec, while keeping the range of thrusts available in Traveller with mode 2 movement. Weapons have two range bands for the most part, though there is some subtle variation between powers in Squadron Strike Traveller. Not quite as extreme as the differences in Star Fleet Battles, but you’ll be able to tell an Aslan energy beam from a Zhodani one, and a Zhodani Particle Beam is different from an Imperial one.

Maneuver and facing matter in Squadron Strike Traveller more than they have in any prior Traveller space combat game; Brilliant Lances was a heartbreaker of a game – so many cool ideas that never got explained properly, but it had the germinating idea of facing being important. Traveller spinal mounts require a fair bit of skill and planning to line up on the target – especially in a couple of iconic ships, like the Azhanti High Lighning, which has a horrible High Guard “Agility” rating and a low thrust rate, making it somewhat immobile. Even other weapons have restricted arcs, and, of course, there are six facings for defense. Sometimes, you’ll have hard choices to make: Keeping the spinal mount on a target may mean opening up your softer Aft or Bottom armor to another ship.

In playtests, it’s proven to be fun on the table, and that’s my ultimate goal: Traveller needs a space combat game that people will take out and play regularly, rather than put on the shelf to gather dust.

Jeffro: How did you pin down your selection of ship designs? For the Aslan and the Zhodani, I’m not even sure where you could get the canon for their ships that are outside the scope of the usual “Book 2” size range….

Ken Burnside: First, we wanted to match minis we already had in production, so the Azhanti High Lightning had to go in. There weren’t a lot of Zhodani designs, but we started with the ones we had. There was surprisingly little defined about the Aslan designs, so in some ways, once we got a look that Marc Miller liked, we started designing ships and iterating through them.

Our second priority was to provide a variety of ship types and respect the different doctrines used by the Imperium and the Zhodani and make a doctrine for the Aslan – all while keeping the game fun. The Aslan are very good at “close and fight” and are typically more heavily armored than their rating would suggest, with a lot of close-in firepower. The Zhodani particle beam is arguably better than the Imperial one by a smidge, and the Zhodani love carriers like nobody’s business.

We’ve even got rules for Zhodani psi in the set – SS’s turn structure makes some of the Psi rules really fun to do – for example, making a Crew Rate check to plot your movement after you see everyone else’s, due to precogs on the command staff.

Here’s the list of ships in the product:

Atlantic CA
Fer de Lance DE
PF Sloan FE
Gionetti CL
Skimkish CVL
Plankwell BB

Kefchenzh CA
Zhdiak DE
Zhdavldlits CL
Vlezhdatl CS
Driafria CVS
Viepchakl BB

Elsyel DL
Hroilri’ea CA
Afteasea CS

Some of these will require new minis, all have water-tight meshes to make those minis from.

Jeffro: Now I have to tell you, Ken, no set of games has driven me crazy quite like the Traveller games. I love Traveller; really I do. But I have agonized over the difference between pulse lasers and regular lasers. (Was there a rule missing in Book 2 maybe?) I have fretted over the limitation of the number of turrets. I have tried to figure out exactly what sandcasters do and why they work. I have tried to wrap my head around the turret rules in High Guard and wondered why the triple turret with laser, missile, and sandcaster would be a standard option in the Third Imperium. The differences fuel tank requirements across editions just plain blow my mind. But most of all, I have been disappointed by the picture of naval combat that seems to devolve into gigantic battleships lining up and then slowly grinding each other down with Brillo pads over the course of days of game time. Given the way that Traveller fans over the past decades have shown themselves to be unyieldingly passionate about their “official” universe, I’m amazed that you would be willing to take a stab at something that has been the subject of countless flame wars. I want to believe you, but I’ve been burned so many times now. Do you really think that you have plumbed the depths of this mess and pulled a real game out of it?

Ken Burnside: We looked hard at canon – actually, at about 6 different versions of canon. We standardized terminology – the plasma gun/energy gun/fusion beam/fusion cannon now has one name.

We made sandcasters work right in the context of Squadron Strike, because ultimately, this is Squadron Strike. The same thing with Black Globes and other decisions. What this isn’t is a “OK, here’s how you design the ship in {Insert one of seven design systems} and make an SS ship automagically.” This is “We’ve rebuilt the Traveller weapons in SS, and re-scaled Traveller defenses to SS values.” It’s not a port, it’s a reinterpretation…because all a port would have done is recreate the “yeah, immobile fleets grind each other down with Brillo pads” dynamic that’s already there. And if that’s what you want, your perfect game already exists. It’s called High Guard.

One of the projects we’re working on in a slow development process is getting a parallel product going for Adventurer Class ships. Right now, ships like the Fer de Lance are just barely playable in Squadron Strike Traveller. It’s geared towards things like cruiser duels or battleship-led fleets. On that scale, a Beowulf or an S-class scout-courier is a round-off error. So we’ll be doing a setup where a 15,000 dton ship is a HUGE ship (stat-wise) and a 200-ton Beowulf is a fragile little mayfly that really hopes that the pursor’s Bluff check worked. For that project, I want to hear from Traveller players about what they actually want in a spaceship game for tying to an RPG.

Jeffro: Okay… one last question here. You mentioned that the scenarios double up as sort of a tutorial. My biggest problem with games like Striker and Brilliant Lances is that the games simply did not come ready to play. While Brilliant Lances came with some decent scenarios and even a selection of starship designs, you had to fill out record sheets before you could start. The game was confusing enough and the details were scattered to enough places that I just couldn’t figure it out. Striker didn’t really even come with any tank designs or scenarios– you really had to come up with everything yourself. And in both games… all I wanted to do was set up two units on a map and have them shoot each other. But with the rules and charts broken up like they were and with errata never quite getting folded in over the course of several editions, I could never quite get to the place where I was confident that I could really run the game.

So… realistically speaking and for someone with average intelligence: how long does it take from the point of opening the box to get to the point where something gets blown up?

Ken Burnside: Let’s see.

Open the box, and go “Oooooh!” at the new game smell: 1-3 minutes.

Pull out the plastic bits and play with the tilt blocks and stacking tiles: 1-3 minutes (everybody does this; they’re very tactile and fun)

Punch out countersheets and glue together box miniatures for the P.F. Sloan and the Zhdiak: 10-15 minutes depending on how good you are with a glue stick. Can go faster if you find that kind of thing easy.

Photocopy the two SSDs for 2D play: 1 minute.

Set up maps, set up box minis, read and play through the first four programmed turns: About 30 minutes, tops – with lots of kaboomage starting on turn 2. The two ships are an even match and you can continue past turn 4 to see who wins from an interesting position at the end of the first scenario.

All of the ships in the set come in 3D and 2D versions; there’s also a “common variant” in 3D for each class. All the SSDs have the weapon tables on them.

At no point do you have to rummage through the book to fill out a blank sheet to stat up your ship.

Jeffro: Well, Ken… thanks for taking the time to fill me in on this new game. I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on this one. Good luck! Hopefully there’ll be no more strokes or rocket attacks as you head into the home stretch here!

Ken Burnside: I hope so as well. We’re on the final stretch – one of the three books is laid out, the other is getting edited before layout, and I’m doing counter-sheet futzing after that. Always a pleasure talking to you, Jeff.

Ken is the designer of Attack Vector: Tactical and Squadron Strike. He runs Ad Astra Games and has been nominated for a Hugo Award in the Best Related Work category for his non-fiction article “The Hot Equations: Thermodynamics and Military SF.” He and Jeffro are both columnists at Castalia House.

Designer Spotlight: Jay Meyer of Great Northern Games

Poison!: “When a 5 of a kind is rolled [in Noble Treachery], it is called, ‘Poison.’ When a player rolls Poison, he or she can poison another player and take all of his or her alliance tokens. Each time it happens, everyone yells.”

Jeffro: Your 17 Game Design Principles are superb. #7 “Don’t Play Against the Board” is brings to mind the “Multiplayer Solitaire Games” from the past decade that go out of their way to eliminate direct conflict. Indirect conflict emerges when the players become consumed with accusing each other of kingmaking (#4!) Table talk then becomes the true playing field of the game as players strive to keep a low profile while telling everyone else what the “right” thing to do with their turn is. Have you observed similar dynamics at the game table or did some other experiences drive you towards clarity on these two items of your design principles list?

Jay Meyer: I think kingmaking is one of the most difficult issues to overcome in game design. There are no “game theory” systems in nature that optimize if one participant does not care for his or her well being. The math just doesn’t work. I find it particularly difficult to eliminate in multi-player games where players can specifically target another player. A few years ago, I developed a “card draft” game where player’s bid at the start to acquire lands, legions, lords, and magic…  then the battle royale would begin. After two months of playing and ten rule revisions, I was not able to stamp out kingmaking completely.

The “don’t play against the board” principle is actually in reference to those games where a player can win without ever really interacting with other players. Especially if players spend three hours building a character/kingdom to get to the final 20 minute battle/challenge. It certainly is not as important as eliminating kingmaking. Case in point, I LOVE deck building games. The concept is brilliant. Deck building games for me are a classic exception to this rule. The one thing I don’t like about the base deck building format is when I watch a large group play, there is one person drawing, buying, taking another turn, and shuffling while the rest of the players are just looking at their hands. For the most part other players are not engaged in the active player’s turn. That weakness is overcome by several design factors:

  1. The turns are fast.
  2. You draw a new hand at the end of your turn so you are occupied for awhile deciding your next move.
  3. The game plays differently each time and each time you draw, it’s lottery time.
  4. There is typically enough hidden information about who is winning the game.
  5. You don’t spend 2 hours building, building, building.
  6. There is some competition for available cards.
  7. The games are fast.

We just don’t allow table talk in our gaming group. “Table talk” as we define it is pointing out weaknesses of one player to other players who did not see or know about the weakness, talking about what cards have already been played or who has what cards in their hand or deck. Pointing out who is public enemy #1 and smack talking is acceptable and just plain fun. In my gaming group, if someone starts talking smack about how we should all “attack” a certain player, the smack talker gets a bulls eye painted on his forehead. It’s so hard when I play with other groups and all through the game, players are openly talking to other players about “game secret” information but from what I can tell it’s more the rule than the exception.

Jeffro: I’m not a game designer myself, so I’m honestly a bit mystified by people like you.  I mean, I can see how one might take mechanics from this game and that game and glom them together, but beyond that…? Can you give me any practical details on how you work your way to a prototype that is worth developing? (I can’t seem to do it without either a major flash of inspiration or else penciling in a “and then a miracle occurs” step into my to-do list.)

Jay’s makeshift game design lair.

Jay Meyer: The physical medium for most games already exists: boards, cards, figures, spinners, dice etc. So almost everything you design has some roots in a previous game. If you watched the old PBS science series called “connections”, you find that every great invention in the history of history was a result of assembling things that had already been invented previously in a different way. So, given both of these, creating a game that is void of some elements of a previous game is probably impossible.

In some cases, I’ll play a game and think about the five things I love and five things I don’t like about the game and start from there by trying to amplify the good and eliminating the bad. Then I’ll merge that with my genre passion. For example: if I was to make a deck building game, I would try and force more player interaction. I could add a board with pieces and allow the pieces to interact with opponent’s pieces. Is the board a Monopoly type board, a Risk type map, a Stratego type board or a Candyland map? Let’s pick a candyland map for argument sake. That rules out the pieces being armies in a Risk type mechanic. Since I love fantasy, I’ll make the Candyland trail into a quest in a dungeon and each player’s piece is a different character, thereby bringing in my love of RPG character play.

Now: “What is the point?” A race to the end of the quest while everyone is playing leap frog and fighting each other to…..defeat the pit boss. [You can try to] go fast [and] attack the pit boss first, but you may get booted back. [Your other strategy is to] go slow [and] pick up more stuff to beef up your character, [so] when you finally get there you have a better chance of defeating the pit boss.

This was just an example– make a prototype. Play it yourself ten times. Test it against the seventeen principles and adjust. Bring your friends in for the alpha test. It plays and looks different from any game you’ve played, however, the whole thing just came from different combinations of: Candyland, Dominion, Ascension, Dungeons & Dragons, Cribbage, and Magic!

Jeffro: Now… once you’ve designed, I dunno… 30 games or so… and your friends are all telling you that you should really try to get published… what is the next step? Some people toss their designs into a PDF and give it away as a print-and-play game. Other people put it up on Lulu for a modest fee. Philip duBarry hand crafted his prototypes and demoed his game until he was discovered by Steve Jackson Games. But where he kept his costs as low as humanly possible– he even made his own game boxes– you’ve already hired artists to give your game a truly top notch look. How did you come to the conclusion that Kickstarter was the best way for you to get your game into print? Did you consider any of these other options for very long…?

Jay Meyer: The next step… sit and talk about it for years and do nothing. Then a little over 3 years ago, my dad died of cancer. I found out that he had always wanted to be a teacher. (??)  I had never heard that before. About the same time I saw a quote in the top banner of my gmail. I followed the link and found it was made by W. Clement Stone who wrote a book in 1960 called, “Success through a Positive Mental Attitude”. In their research from the 1920s through 1950s they discovered that most very successful people exhibited two traits: aPositive Mental Attitude and a Definitive Purpose.

I thought about it for a few days trying to figure out “what is my definitive purpose?”. Then it became clear– I have dedicated most of my spare time and personal focus in my life to making games and watching my friends enjoy them. Eureka! I found my definitive purpose. That combined with the fact that my Dad never became a teacher made me come to the conclusion, “In the end, I don’t want to regret that I never tried.” So I went off to publish a game.

Jay’s first game publishing project is currently on Kickstarter.

I had never heard of Kickstarter three years ago. I didn’t know anything about publishing a game. It took me 3 years to learn how to buy artwork, hire a graphic designer, learn about distribution, get a website going, a business etc. It was a twisty journey with more than a few pauses along the way, but I finally ended up with 10 prototypes and several thousand dollars sunk into the project.

I had a design; I had quotes on how much it would cost to print; I had been told by some in the industry that most new games only sell a few hundred copies and I didn’t know how to market/sell a game. All that combined caused me to step back for a few months and think about my path. Should I step back, keep making games for my friends and enjoy myself or sink several more thousand dollars into a life dream that may go nowhere?

I went to Gencon this past summer with a friend just to have fun and luckily I got into a conversation about my prototype with Eric Salyers from Break From Reality Games. He asked to see it and was blown away by the prototype. He asked if we could play it later after gencon closed. I came back, we played it and he loved it. He said, “you have to do a Kickstarter on this!” And that small accidental meeting gave me the spark again to keep going.

Jay Meyer’s “Noble Treachery” is currently on Kickstarter. See here for complete details.

For more information on how the game plays and how it was developed, please see this post over at the Margin of Victory blog.

[Designer Spotlight] An Interview with Winchell Chung

\“Saying you ‘just illustrate’ is an understatement. I may design a game, but I literally don’t try to visualize the components. I think of the games as a system of factors that interact through spatial movement and number values. Your illustrations are a pleasure to me because they make a barren game entity into a beautiful visual concept.” — Howard Thompson in a letter to Winchell Chung

Jeffro: Your web page says you were contacted by Howard Thompson to do the artwork for Ogre. How did your number end up in his Rolodex…? And how did he know you were up for the job? How did you two negotiate the contract…?

Winchell Chung: This was back in the young and innocent days, around 1975, when I was in high school and Metagaming Concepts was a new company. In the current issue of ANALOG magazine, I saw an ad for a space combat game called Stellar Conquest by Metagaming Concepts. This was relevant to my interests so I immediately purchased a copy by mail. A couple of months later, Metagaming Concepts launched a pamphlet newsletter called The Space Gamer, and sent a sample issue to everybody who purchased Stellar Conquest, along with a subscription form. I immediately subscribed. And since I had always been something of an artist, I scribbled some artist conceptions of the ships from Stellar Conquest in the margins of the subscription letter.

As it turns out, Metagaming Concepts was so hard up for material for their newsletter, they actually printed the scribbles in the next issue. And sent me a letter asking for more artwork. I made the cover of the newsletter by about the third issue¹. This is how they figured I was up to the job, I had a track record with them. Months later Mr. Thompson wrote me. He mentioned that they were in the process of designing a new game, and would I be interested in illustrating the rulebook? Indeed I was. And after signing non-disclosure agreements, I received the typewritten rules to the game Ogre², along with a roughly scrawled image by Steve Jackson with an idea for the game cover.

Since I was just a kid in high school, I knew nothing about negotiating nor standard rates for artists. Mr. Thompson offered to pay me an amount that seemed like a lot to a teenager, and I accepted.

Jeffro: Wait… did they seriously print your subscription-letter doodles in Space Gamer without nailing down your permission first…?

Winchell Chung: Yes they did. This was back in days of yore when Metagaming Concepts was less a company and more an expensive hobby. The entire industry was like that. The first issue of Space Gamer looked like it was run off a photocopy machine. And since I was something like 17 years old at the time, I didn’t know any better. I was just flattered that they saw fit to use my art work.

Jeffro: Incredible. Now, you’d bought Stellar Conquest sight unseen just on the basis of a magazine ad. How did that work out…? Did you scrounge up some buddies and wring some game sessions out of it…? Or was it more the sort of thing you read, tinkered with, daydreamed about, and so on…?

Winchell Chung: I managed to force a few gameplay sessions out of my little brother, but yes, finding opponents was a problem. I played many a solitaire game, playing left hand against the right. I tinkered with the rules, adding refinements and experimenting with variants. I even tried making a 3D star map to play on. The most successful variant was from somebody else, writing in The Space Gamer. They merged the games Stellar Conquest with GDW’s game Triplanetary. Lots of fun to play, but a full game could take a month to finish. I was quite enamored of the entire space combat genre. I had most of the early games: SPI’s StarForce, Outreach, Vector Three, and StarGate, GDW’s Triplanetary, Nova Game Designs Timelag, Metagaming’s WarpWar, Godsfire, and Holy war.

Jeffro: Which of those games got the most play at your table back in the day? And which one would you recommend as being most worth tracking down and playing today…?

Winchell Chung: Number One is GDW’s Triplanetary. It is a classic. An absolute blast to play, and educational as well (teaches vector addition and Newtonian mechanics). I think I played it the most, and recommend tracking it down the most. Much later, Steve Jackson Games made a game that sort of merged Triplanetary with Ogre, called Star Fist. It is also worth trying to find. Number Two is SPI’s StarForce. The playing board is a reasonably accurate 3d star map of the stars within a 20 light year radius of Sol. This is not a bang-bang-shoot-em-up game, it is more like two Karate masters circling each other, until one makes a mistake. Or appears to make a mistake.

Jeffro: After setting the appearance of the Ogre for all time, you evidently had a pretty good experience working with MetaGaming– you went and did the artwork for WarpWar! Now, if that had been me… I’d have felt like a true rock star of gaming at that point. How did you deal with it…? Did anyone at school or in your neighborhood quite grasp the awesomeness of these accomplishments?

Winchell Chung: Oh, it was very much like the current situation on the internet. There are some people who on certain forums are internet gods. But outside of that circle everybody thinks that you are just some dork who lives in your parent’s basement. Yes, it was indeed a very heady experience to be “the guy who drew the Ogre”, and to be occasionally recognized at science fiction conventions. Plus seeing that one particular drawing of the Ogre used and re-used zillions of times by Metagaming. But then you go to art college and the students look down their noses at you because you are not an artist, you are a low-life “illustrator”.

Jeffro: Wait a second. You’re pretty much on the short list of old school gaming illustrators– a list which includes Erol Otus, Denis Loubet, “Speed” Webber, and Liz Danforth. Several artists were more prolific than you during those early days of hobby gaming… but I can’t think of anyone that came up with anything as iconic as the Ogre and the conventional forces that fought with it. To this day, that image is synonymous with one of the greatest game designers our hobby produced. The cover of the original microgame is explosive, dynamic, powerful, kinetic…. I have this image in my mind of you taking out your portfolio… and then a hush falling over the room as they gaze in wonder and awe at that quintessential image. But you’re telling me they looked their noses down at you…?!

Winchell Chung: Well, the art students were art students, not gamers. They were much more interested in talking about ivory-tower nebulous things like expressing your inner being and the meaning of art. Impractical like, y’know? They would absolutely love paint-drip works by Jackson Pollock, and sneer at something like a NASA vision by Robert McCall. For them, actually being paid to draw something that was not your own idea was one step away from prostitution. The iconic Ogre, with its massive sloping invulnerable front and death-dealing eyeball cannons left them cold. But I knew that I had created something significant, and that I had given the players an image to make the game come alive for them. Have you ever thought about the debt owed to Ralph McQuarrie when he created the look of Darth Vader’s mask? And I knew that the art student’s attitudes would get a swift wake-up call when they graduated into the real world and found themselves flipping burgers for a living.

Jeffro: J. D. Casten was the best type-in program game designer of the mid eighties. He says that when he went to college, his “Computer and Information Science adviser was unimpressed with [his] claims to computer knowledge.” On the other hand, I saw yesterday that for someone looking to get an internship at Slate, doing something like a personal blog was far more relevant than your GPA and which classes you took. Given your experiences, do you have any advice for people that aspire to do creative work even on a freelance basis? In art, writing, or game design… what do you feel is the most important thing to focus on?

Winchell Chung: I think that Joseph Campbell said it best: “Follow your bliss”. It is not particularly new advice, naturally there is a better chance that one’s work will show passion if one’s work is in a genre or topic that one is passionate about. The other guiding principle I follow was given to me by my maternal grandfather. He said “Grandson, if you have not learned something new today, the day is lost.” When I am planning some artwork I tend to do research on any details that I am unclear on (such as when I Google to get a better idea what a spacecraft airlock hatch looks like). But the research will often mention some other item that is also interesting, so I’ll do followup research on that. In the process I will be applying my grandfather’s advice. The practical outcome is that my work will have a richness and verisimilitude that makes it stronger.

Jeffro: Your Google+ feed certainly seems to indicate that you you’re learning new things every day. You link to more space science facts in a day than I can keep up with… and you’ve made me realize that everything I thought I knew about the universe is at least thirty years out of date! Do you have any thoughts on how all of this information can be synthesized and condensed down into playable games…?

Winchell Chung: The only way I know to synthesize and condense the info-flood is to do it the hard way: collect stuff that seems relevant, and distill it manually. About 20 years ago I started to do that. After a few years it occurred to me that others would be interested in that sort of thing. So I made a single solitary web page with the distillation of the most important stuff. As I gathered more information, I added further pages. I created a monster. At last count, I have 78 webpages in my infamous Atomic Rocket website. I really wish that an actual rocket scientist would make something like my website. But until they do, I’ll have to do the best I can. For my crimes, my website has become The Word where people in science fiction forums go to settle their arguments. I also use it to keep alive knowledge of vintage science fiction. These young whipper-snappers these days have never heard of Heinlein or Asimov. And if I read something in a science fiction novel that raises a question, I can ask my scientist friends for the inside scoop, then put it in my website. Such as what is the minimum population of a space colony to ensure enough genetic diversity. My other ulterior motive is that I want to read more hard-science SF novels, and play more hard-science SF games. So I figure if I want this, the least I can do is help out the authors and game designers.

Jeffro: Do you have any more anecdotes about Metagaming you can share– anything about its origins, growth, sudden demise– or about working with Howard Thompson and Steve Jackson in the early days of gaming?

Winchell Chung: Howard Thompson was always enthusiastic about my artwork submissions, as he put it he loved such art but he himself could not draw a straight line. I believe the first actual game art I did for him was for The Ythri, based on Poul Anderson’s novel The People of the Wind. I had not read the novel, so Mr. Thompson sent me his copy, the one with all the game notes scrawled in the margins (I still have that safely packed away).

Working with Steve Jackson on Ogre was very stimulating. He would receive my rough drafts, then send back a letter prefaced with “the artwork is fantastic!” … followed by items that needed changes. Like the original heavy tank image had the turret overhang the body to such a degree that it would tend to channel enemy weapons fire toward the joint. I only met Steve Jackson physically once, at a gaming convention. My father had made me a silk-screened T-shirt with an original Ogre drawing I made for the occasion. I walked up to Steve and smiled. He saw the shirt and said “Hey, that’s pretty good, Mr…” { looks at my name badge } “…Oh! No wonder!”

Jeffro: Wow… The Ythri is a really obscure game! Most serious gamers would know Ogre, Microgame fans would of course know of WarpWar, and Traveller junkies would be really familiar with the Annic Nova. Are there any other games that you worked on that you wish more people were aware of…?

Winchell Chung: Well, I did have some interesting art in The Ythri, but the actual game was pretty lackluster. It did have an interesting two-tiered map, with a space map with the planet hex, and the planet hex expanded into a planet map. But otherwise it was forgettable. I did some artwork for Avalon Hill’s Powers and Perils, which was their attempt at making a Dungeons and Dragons RPG. Again, I liked my art, but the game was almost unplayable. Otherwise you’ve mentioned my other main illustration works.

Jeffro: What is the story on that galaxy image that’s in your work area? Is that something you’re currently working on?

Winchell Chung: It is from the galactic star map I made– It is one of my star map posters. I compiled stellar data, wrote Python programs to do the grunt work, angled the galaxy image with Blender 3D, and composited it all together with Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. I’ve done lots of recent work using Blender 3D. My latest project was a mod for the computer game Kerbal Space Program, implementing an Orion nuclear bomb propelled rocket.

Jeffro: Thanks so much for taking time out to share all of this with me. This has really been fascinating.

¹ The cover image of “The Space Gamer #3”  here on Board Game Geek.

² You can see images of Ken Schultz’s Ogre playtest counters and the cover of the playtest rules here.

Designer Spotlight: Jim Krohn on his new Fleet Combat Space Game

Jim Krohn’s Space Empires: 4X is one of the top games to come out in 2011. It takes the “explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate” scenario of many computerized space games and brings it to the table top in a playable manner. Jim’s design captures a maximum amount of depth and texture with a minimal amount of rules and bookkeeping. Now he’s looking to give the fleet scale space the combat genre the same sort of treatment, and GMT Games is backing him up with a new P500 to get it off the ground. The new game is called Talon, and Jim has graciously agreed to give us the inside scoop on this innovative new game.

Jeffro: Star Fleet Battles separated maneuverability from raw engine power. The Klingon ships, for example, were capable of roughly the same speeds as the Federation, but they had smaller turn modes. This allowed them to execute the famous “Klingon Hook” maneuver after a battle pass. The Federation ship could end up vulnerable for a few impulses because it would take longer for it to come back around. Some of the more recent squadron level space combat games have moved away from this sort of design feature. Full Thrust, Colonial Battlefleet, and Starmada all have maneuverability tied directly to engine power.

The P500 page for your new game mentions how you’ll pick a speed and then the Power Curve will tell you what your turn radius is and how much power you have left for other stuff. It’s not quite clear if your game will have nimble ships and battle tubs, though. Will maneuverability be a separate trait from raw engine power in Talon?

Jim Krohn: Oh, that brings back memories…yes, in Talon some ships are more maneuverable that others. Fighters will handle differently than Light Cruisers, which will handle different than Battleships, etc. There will be differences between the empires also as the Talons are more maneuverable than the Terrans.

Personally, I couldn’t see designing a game without that distinction. From a “realism” standpoint (defining realism here as our cultural concept of the science fiction genre) the game would be lacking without it. From a game play standpoint, it adds quite a bit to the distinction between the empires. My goal was to have each of the empires in the game play differently, with different strengths and weaknesses, and maneuverability is part of it.

There is a power tie in also. Power becomes available throughout the turn for the ships to spend – depending on the ship, its speed, and damage. One of the things that you can spend power on is making your turns tighter. Of course, there is never enough power to do all that you want to do which leads to some tough decisions during the turn. The best part is, though the decisions are tough, the game play isn’t.

Jeffro: Okay, it sounds like you’ll have something along the lines of a “turn mode” for the ships… but instead of the radical (and dangerous) High Energy Turns of SFB, you’ll instead be able to invest some of your all-too-precious power to shave down the time it takes to execute a turn. Cool!

You’ve mentioned how the various ship classes will “handle” differently. This implies that you’ve rejected the drab Newtonian style high-gee vector movement of games like GDW’s Mayday and instead opted for something more along the lines of “Motorboats in Space.” Was that a difficult decision to make…? Or was vector movement never really on the table for consideration?

Jim Krohn: The vacuum of space means that objects will tend to stay at their same speed even when thrust is removed (using conventional means). I assume that this is what you mean when you say vector movement. Plus, with vacuum, there is no air to turn against. To go in the opposite direction, all of that thrust needs to be applied in the opposite direction in order to begin to move it the other way. You can’t just turn. You might begin to apply thrust to the side, but you retain all of your speed in the original direction as well. Even games that go with vector movement, usually get this wrong.

For example, if you apply thrust for 5 turns in one direction, your speed will increase in that direction each one of those 5 turns. That ship will then have to apply thrust in the opposite direction for 5 turns just to stop its movement in that direction (slowing each turn) to say nothing of any thrust applied to the side to change direction. If you are in a plane going 500 mph you can turn that plane, keep most of your momentum, and go 500 mph in the other direction. You can’t do that in a space ship because there are no aerodynamic/frictional forces at play – there is nothing to turn it against.

Space also means that a ship could easily change its facing. It might still be hurtling forward at the same speed, but the ship can spin about on its axis and fire in any direction. No frictional or aerodynamic forces would interfere with it doing that (like it would with an atmospheric craft). Even game systems that model space flight at least somewhat accurately, tend to ignore this very important point, a point which I find pretty boring in a game.

Of course we are dealing with science fiction here and not science. For this game to take place we have to have Faster Than Light drives, so why not Near Faster Than Light drives? This allowed me to set up the premise for the science fiction universe as I desired. I find this very realistic. First of all, the way I model movement is realistic to my premise. :-) Secondly, and more importantly, the game is realistic to the genre. The ships in this game move and turn as the capital ships do in the major science fiction franchises. When I play science fiction, that is what I am shooting for.

Here is the irony – a space combat game that chooses vector movement in an effort to be realistic has chosen a scientific premise. Yet, if the game allows a ship to turn and keep its momentum or does not allow ships to spin on its access at will, it is missing the two most important points of its scientific premise. In an effort to be realistic, it has made itself far more unrealistic than a game like Talon. At least Talon is accurate to its premise.

So, there was no way I was going to go with vector movement. The only reason I would have done it would have been realism, but if I made it truly realistic I would have made a boring game. Every ship would always be able to turn the shield and weapon of its choice against the enemy while the ships zipped around the board in mostly straight lines firing as they passed each other.

Jeffro: The big innovations of your design include pay-as-you-go power allocation (mirroring Federation Commander’s streamlining of SFB) and large hexes with complete record sheets on the individual counters. But a space game’s staying power is at least as dependent on its implied setting as on its raw mechanics. Will your game’s future history be something that could potentially serve as the basis of a role playing game, or is it merely a scaffolding rigged to produce the sort of space combat that you want to do?

Jim Krohn: Great question. The plan is for it to be a rich and deep environment. We (the playtest team) are calling it the Talonverse. At the moment, there is back story on the technology that is used in the game and a narrative that tells the perspective of the war through the scenarios. That is a good start, but our goal is to continue to flesh this out, keep a history and a timeline and build it up with characters, critical events, etc.

I would love to see fictional stories set in the Talonverse written at some point – but the game comes first, obviously.

Jeffro: Kudos for already planning out a set of ten linked scenarios to help showcase the game. Without that sort of thing, I’m left with the task of figuring out what to do with it! Starfire, for instance had a great set of scenarios that gradually taught you the system– very similar to how computer games like Starcraft “educate” you on all the various units and scenario types.

Based on the P500 description, it sounds like the ships that come out-of-the-box are designer crafted each with your own point value. I suppose that with a fleet combat game, being able to custom design an individual unit is less important because (as in games like Ogre and G.E.V.) being about to determine the composition of a fleet is pretty well all you need to satisfy the sort of people that really want to min/max their way to an easy win. Has developing a full featured ship design system ever come up as something that you’d like to pursue with Talon…?

Jim Krohn: Yep, I actually built the point system for the ship point values from a hull design system – meaning I get my ship point values from constructing the ships like you would in design your own. However, there are a few problems with that:

  1. I’m not yet confident in my point system.
  2. I did not design ships on the extremes. I’m not sure if it will work there.
  3. The counters that we use have all the information right on them and are laminated. Designing ships at home is not as easy because you actually have to make the ships.

With those issues in mind, I see ship construction as more of a down the road thing.

Jeffro: Thanks, Jim… it’s been a pleasure having you back on Designer Spotlight…!

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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