Bruce Geryk

Confessions of a Dominions manual writer

, | Features

Almost exactly ten years ago, I happened to find an amazing demo on the Internet. It was for what looked like a fantasy strategy game. It was crude, even by the standards of 2003. It was completely inscrutable. You clicked on things and seemingly nothing happened. It had a lot of lore in it, but it didn’t explain many of the mechanics. It was almost like the lore was supposed to give you clues as to how the game worked. Except for selecting units and giving orders. You were on your own for those things. It was akin to being immersed in a foreign language by traveling to that country, but without knowing the first thing you needed to do was learn how to find the restroom.

After the jump, finding the restroom in Dominions. Continue reading →

Is that a Battle of the Bulge in your pocket?

, | Games

See that? If you’ve played Battle of the Bulge by Shenandoah Studios before on the iPad, that screenshot might seem a little odd. You might not be able to put your finger on exactly what is different. The combat boxes don’t look like that, do they? Sure, they are clean, well designed, and a model for conveying information to the player in a stylish and meaningful way. But did they patch the game or something? Well, yes they did.

Battle of the Bulge was a revelation in wargaming when it came out just about ten months ago, but it was restricted to the iPad. The new Battle of the Bulge 2.0, which you can just call Pocket Bulge, adds support for the iPhone and iPod Touch. It also demonstrates that Shenandoah is capable of getting every bit of efficiency possible out of a small screen. It bodes well for their future designs, and because I’ve been playing a lot of their upcoming game Drive on Moscow, I can tell you (spoiler!) that the lessons Shenandoah is learning about optimizing their interfaces are being well applied to future products.

Bulge plays pretty well on the iPhone, which actually surprised me, because after playing it on the iPad, I couldn’t really imagine it getting much smaller. Shenandoah is designing their new Gettysburg game with the iPhone in mind from the start, which I have to admit worried me at first. The way in which Shenandoah was able to adapt Bulge to the much smaller form factor gives me some reassurance. Shenandoah is sponsoring a tournament befitting a pocket-sized Bulge, using the pocket-sized Race to the Meuse scenario. As of this writing there are a few spots left. And if you go to the in-app purchases, you will find a free Player’s Guide* to help you with strategy, as well as a design guide describing the game’s development which — if you’re interested in game design — I have to say will be some of the best $2.99 you ever spent. And it’s on sale for $5.99 until October 24th.

I’ve spent a lot of time writing and thinking about Battle of the Bulge. And I’ve also spent a lot of time and energy thinking about and playtesting Shenandoah’s upcoming El Alamein and Drive on Moscow games. So when it comes to impartial observers, you probably need to take me off that list, although given my voluminous (internal) comments during the playtest, I still like to think I can tell the difference between good and bad ideas and implementation when I see them. But for the most part, I think that Shenandoah has got a lot of things going right now regarding traditional wargame design that are exciting to anyone who enjoys this type of game. What I’m trying to say is that if you’re following the future of wargame development, you should probably be following the progress of Shenandoah Studio.

*Full disclosure: I contributed to the Player’s Guide, so you’ll be reading some of my strategy tips. For free, though, so you don’t get any money back if you read them and lose anyway.

Starship Week sets the controls for the heart of Windsor and Warsaw

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We got to the end of Starship Week but still had a day left, which I’ll chalk up to the weird time disconnect that happens during faster-than-light travel. Kind of like when you travel through space for six millenia and when you get back you find out they’re still not out of Final Fantasy sequels. In any case, it leaves me a free day to explain that the moral of Starship Week can be found entirely in one story I could have told you at the beginning and saved you a whole bunch of time and screenshots.

After the jump, I hope you don’t feel mad or cheated. Continue reading →

Movie spaceship of the day: USS Enterprise

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Of all the starships in history, the Enterprise is the only one I can think of which has had such a long, consistent, and well-documented life. It started out in the 1960s as a toy suspended on wires and progressed through the 1980s and 90s as a more elaborate toy, to reach its present existence as a computer’s realization of its artists’ imaginations. Along the way, it died, and was reborn, and the emotions provoked by those events and its subsequent spawn form an almost family history that is shared by a fan base that has established its own lineages. Its captaincy is almost a royal succession, and the different courtiers all have their allegiances, but throughout it all, the throne itself is never in doubt. Because the entire timeline has taken place aboard one form or another of that talismanic ship.

After the jump, that darned ship. Continue reading →

Azhanti High Lightning and starships as platforms

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I was talking with a colleague about spaceship games, and told him I was particularly interested in games where you had to do things aboard a starship. He came up with a nice list for me that I’ve added at the end of this post. All of these involve being aboard a starship in some way.

But there’s one game that no one remembers anymore, and that you haven’t heard of either, and that’s reason enough to wrap up the week talking about it.

Because, after the jump, it tells a story that gets to the very heart of Starship Week. Continue reading →

Wham! Here come the Awful Green Things from Outer Space.

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I tend not to be jealous of people who are good at things that I’m not. I figure that’s just the way it goes. I mean, I’m good at some things, too. However, I make a special exception for artists. I have a great aptitude for thinking of things with none whatsoever for drawing them, so I can only imagine what it would be like to be able to illustrate my own ideas. If I had this and also had game design skills, then I’d be Tom Wham.

After the jump, wham, bam, thank you, Tom Continue reading →

Exploring the wreck of the Pandora

, | Features

I start the game by distributing the crew around the ship. Captain Neema Strof starts on “C” Deck in Pod 3 near the risor. Science Officer L.J. Gepidus is on “B” Deck, as is Maintenance Officer Najeb Kelly, although he’s all the way down the hall at the other end. Ground Survey Officer Blnt Skraaling and Biology Officer Hesiod Charybdis (I am not making any of these names up) start together up on “A” Deck, in the same pod no less.

After the jump, the adventures of Blnt and Hesiod Continue reading →

Unearthing the wreck of the Pandora

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The history of gaming is distinct, I think, from the history of gaming ideas. Gaming has been such a fragmented hobby that very often people weren’t aware of their peers’ ideas, leading to a lot of reinventing of the wheel. This struck me the other day when I was reading an excerpt from “Designing Modern Strategy Games” by George Phillies and Tom Vasel. Phillies is an old hand from the days of 1960s boardgaming, but what grabbed my attention was not about him, but about someone else. A guy named Sid Sackson. The excerpt below comes from that book. The “I” in the excerpt is Phillies.

Once upon a time, [I] had the good fortune to visit the greatest American board game designer, Sid Sackson, at his New York home. Sackson had by far the largest collection of traditional board games in the world. (He did not collect board wargames.) He estimated to me that he had 20,000 distinct titles. I can confirm that almost every room of his house was filled from floor to ceiling with games, including shelves in the middle of every room except the kitchen. He also had various game fragments, such as the cover of Race to the North Pole, a nineteenth-century game about a race to the North Pole via Montgolfier balloon. The collection was carefully organized, so that he could find whichever game he wanted almost immediately. Sackson’s game library was backed by a set of notebooks, so that when I described design elements of games from my board wargame collection, he rapidly inserted those details into a notebook and indexed them.

I have never heard of Sid Sackson, even though he wrote a column in the 1970s in Strategy & Tactics magazine, and has a Wikipedia page. That is almost certainly my loss. But if someone like me who plays (or at least knows about) a fair number of boardgames has never heard of the greatest American designer of such games, you can at least make an argument that someone should be doing a better job of spreading this information around. Oh, for those notebooks! So many designers were working in a vacuum, oblivious to all the game mechanics Sackson catalogued, reinventing wheels and warp drives.

But games do carry a flavor of their time, and picking up a box from thirty years ago can either dissuade you with the musty smell of outdated implementation, or entice you with the allure of imagination. There is a lot of imagination in games about spaceships. One particular one — The Wreck of the BSM Pandora by Jim Dunnigan and Redmond Simonsen — has about equal parts imagination and frustration. For the time, that was probably a big win. If only they’d had Sackson’s notebooks.

After the jump, the big win Continue reading →

FTL does people doing stuff on a spaceship like nothing else

, | Features

This is Free Trader Beowulf, calling anyone … Mayday, Mayday … we are under attack … main drive is gone … turret number one not responding … Mayday … losing cabin pressure fast … calling anyone … please help … this is Free Trader Beowulf … Mayday …

–cover of the original Traveller game box

One of my favorite books as a child was this oversize picture book called Space Wars Worlds and Weapons. It’s basically just a big book of paintings of science fiction stuff: aliens, planets, and lots of spaceships. There is some desultory text trying to tie these themes together, but it’s really all about the pictures.

The book starts out with a section on “space vehicles,” and the text quickly bogs down.

However you call it — star ship, rocket ship, space machine — the space ship is the foremost, some would say ultimate, sf symbol. If science fiction is all about other worlds, then the space ship is a part of that other-worldliness, connecting solar systems and universes … the public transportation factor.

After the jump, space fare Continue reading →

In Astra Titanus, it takes a fleet to save a colony

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There’s one last element to the scenario — a huge Titan bearing down on a space colony — I didn’t mention yesterday, and that is that the space lords have sent us a relief force!

Roll one die at the beginning of the End/Repair Phase and record a running total. When the total is equal to or greater than 12, the TDF player receives reinforcements (BCH, BC, CA x4) within 2 hexes of (E). This happens once per game.

Oh but it’s not here, yet.

After the jump, I’m sure it will arrive any minute. Continue reading →

Astra Titanus and the Terrible Thing from the Void

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Sci-fi? Sure, I like it, but only the trashy stuff. Not so much trashy as phony. The kind I can dip into between shifts, read a few pages at a time, and then drop. Oh, I read good books, too, but only Earthside. Why that is, I don’t really know. Never stopped to analyze it. Good books tell the truth, even when they’re about things that never have been and never will be. They’re truthful in a different way. When they talk about outer space, they make you feel the silence, so unlike the Earthly kind — and the lifelessness. Whatever the adventures, the message is always the same: humans will never feel at home out there. Earth has something random, fickle about it — here a tree, there a wall or garden, over the horizon another horizon, beyond the mountain a valley … but not out there.
–Stanisław Lem, “Tales of Pirx the Pilot”

I have always thought that science fiction, despite being forever linked with fantasy in the “fantasy/sci fi” section of bookstores and libraries, was actually best appreciated by adults. Unlike traditional* fantasy, which is wrapped up in quests and knowledge acquisition which are essentially coming-of-age concerns that resonate best with adolescents and young adults, science fiction at its best challenges our notions of what is possible by stripping away all the things we find familiar, and thus letting us examine fundamental beliefs and assumptions we have spent a lifetime constructing. It also taps our fascination with the unknown, specifically, that of distance.

After the jump, how far is far? Continue reading →

Baptism at Bardia for the PC finds life in some fossils

, | Game reviews

Never underestimate the effectiveness of direct mail marketing. A few days ago, I got an email from a site called Wargame Downloads. The name kind of gives it away. It’s a site that has a bunch of print-and-play games, mostly about historical subjects but not without the occasional elf or sportsman. I wrote about it a few months ago after buying a couple neat solitaire games. For a few bucks each, how can you lose? One of the games not mentioned in that article is called Baptism at Bardia. It comes in standard print-and-play format: color printer and glue stick required. But then I got the email: Baptism at Bardia has been released for PC! Straight to the site I went. It cost $12. If the Wargame Downloads guys can figure out a way to make each one of their emails turn into twelve bucks, they can probably afford to start printing and selling some of those wargames themselves.

After the jump, what twelve bucks buys these days Continue reading →

Drive on Moscow predicts heavy snow with a chance of Germans

, | News

Eastern_Front_1941

See that? That’s a screenshot of one of the most amazing things I ever saw in wargaming: snow in 1941. As I pointed out a while back, that’s more of an observation about what computers could do for wargames back in 1981 than doubt about the weather in Russia. So I was glad the third bullet point in Shenandoah’s press release for their newly announced game, Drive on Moscow, proclaimed “a changing map based on weather conditions.”

After the jump, I predict famous designers. Continue reading →