The Sage Welcomes You

So, here you find a blog about life in general, but with a focus on family, games, books and creativity. Other "stuff" will creep in from timt to time.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Savage Worlds and Da Bomb

On Saturday, my son and I went to the wonderful Labyrinth Games to participate in their "Taste of Savage Worlds" event.  Labyrinth Games is a terrific game store on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.  The owner, Kathleen, has let the store host a series of "Taste of" events that showcase different games with a free session of play.  So, several weeks ago I signed Ian and I up to go and play Savage Worlds.

Savage Worlds is a table top role playing game (RPG) published by Pinnacle Entertainment Group  and the basic rulebook costs about $10, which is hard to beat. I had never played Savage Worlds before, though I had heard of the game.  I did no research before we went to play.  My son, on the other hand, found a lot of information online and created one or more characters ahead of time.

We had a really good time (which I will go into in detail below), but first, one gripe.  Transit on a nice day in May in Washington, DC SUCKS.  We got to park for free at the end of the Red Metro Line, which was all well and good, and we gave ourselves an hour and a half to arrive from our end of the Red Line to Eastern Market on the Orange/Blue line, and we arrived in good time (we had maybe 15 minutes to look around the shop, talk to people and then get down to play).  Getting home was pretty much a royal pain.  We did dinner in town, and then had to wait a long time for a ludicrously full train to stop and not have room to pick us up, and then wait a longer time to get a train to go to transfer at Metro Center.  There, we waited about half an hour with a LOT of people for a train to finally come.  On a Saturday night.  And then, when we finally got to get on a train and stand for  most of the trip, they were doing track work, which meant we had another 15 minute stop in limbo while we waited our turn to pass through the single track area.  Now, I am a big supporter of public transit, and I think, in general, Metro does all right.  However,  when going to a four hour event takes almost four hours of transit, that makes deciding to take transit over driving or some other alternative (like not going and spending money in DC) more attractive. 

Still, even with transit woes, we had a good time.  I do wish that the market made sense to have a branch of Labyrinth Games in the little mall across the street from my neighborhood, but that's never going to happen, so I just have to be very happy that such a great store is reasonably close to me at all.

So, as far as playing Savage Worlds, there are two things that will make or break the event.  First, of course, is whether or not the game and its rules, in and of themselves make sense and are fun.  I can report that Savage Worlds appears to be a very solid and fun game.  It is advertised as "multi genre" (rather than generic), which means that it is flexible enough to be used in lots of different settings with an emphasis on fast and action packed play (so it could handle anything, to use some cinematic References, from the Silverado, to Raiders of the Lost Ark, to Lord of the Rings, to Terminator, or Mad Max).  The second ingredient is the people.  We did well in this regard too.  At our table, besides Ian and I, were Paul, our Game Master, Bob (who apparently helped organize the event, and he did a great job (and brought cookies)), and Chris.  Everyone was very nice, very relaxed, and there to have fun.

There were two other tables with different games.  If I have a regret, it is that we were not able to play all the games being run, because they all sounded and looked pretty fun.  Of the games we did not play, I don't know which one was better, because both looked pretty awesome.  One was apparently something like Sam Spade meets Inception meets Call of Cthulhu.  The other was something like the Wild West with Witchcraft (maybe Cowboys and Wizards instead of the forthcoming "Cowboys and Aliens" [which is something else Savage Worlds could probably handle)).  Both those talbes were packed and people had lots of loud fun dealing with the stories told.

Ours was great as well, and thus I save the best (because we were playing it) for last.  Our setting was "Darwin's World" a post apocalyptic survival game with mutants and radiation.  Our GM Paul had pre-made characters ready, and we got to customize them with our mutations, as we were all mutants.  Ian ended up with a vigilant guard who had toxic skin and a lethal sting.  Bob was the other warrior and was some kind of huge, winged reptilian.  Chris was, I think, slightly glowing and immune to radiation.  I had the healer of the group, and I was both mute and I stank and I had underdeveloped lung capacity so I was not good at certain survival things, like running.  Not all mutations exactly gave you superpowers.  Anyway, I named my mutant Red Cross (which Paul wrote down as Redd Xross) and indicated that he had a big red cross painted on his shirt so he could point to it to indicate his name (being mute and all).

It was a fun mix.

We were told to report for a little job.  The feel was like a frontier town, so a bit of a Western, with mutants and radiation thrown in.  Of course, just getting the job was hard as some kind of "bad guy" group was already trying to steal the packaged we were supposed to deliver.  We had a big fight and got to learn how combat works in Savage Worlds (pretty well).  It turned out that Chris and Ian's fortes were marksmanship with rifles.  Bob was one terrifying killer with a katana.  I got lucky with my pistol once and thought I was a gunfighter (turned out later, I was wrong and just got lucky once).  We rescued our erstwhile boss and he gave us the package to deliver.

We did have a vehicle, so it started to turn a bit more like Mad Max, but we did not actually have any vehicle combat.

Instead, we found the village we were going to almost empty, except for a few kids left on guard.  They volunteered to go with us to look for their families, as some big bad group (again, think the marauders from Mad Max) was out after everyone trying to get some prize piece of technology.  Turned out there was an old weapons lab nearby.  We went and checked it out.  We were not finding the adults from the village, though we spotted the bad guys flying mutants chasing something far away on the ground.

Our next big fight was in the parking lot of the lab.  It was a long complicated fight.  The best result was that we managed to keep the over enthusiastic kids from getting hurt.  However, we had to fight a huge flying poisonous snake/worm thing that could turn invisible.  In the end, it wrapped around Ian's character and tried to fly off with him.  Chris shot it out of the air and Bob caught Ian (remember, Bob could fly) and managed to make sure they both did not die in the fall.  I was mostly useless, and in the middle of the fight, a bunch of radioactive zombies showed up and had me surrounded.  We were running out of time for the game, so after managing to kill the big flying creature, Paul narrated the ending. 

The villagers showed up and polished off the zombies.  They were gratified that the kids were still alive and explained that the big marauder guys had killed the original recipient of our package (she sacrificed herself by drawing them off, riding a motorcycle).  So, we presented the package to her sister who said it was a key to get an atomic bomb. 

We broke into the research lab, got into the vault and repaired the equipment to load the bomb onto a flat bed truck.  Of course then the marauder guys showed up, and they seemed to think the bomb belonged to them.

A narrated running fire fight ensued, but with our brave mutant characters' help, the villages would get the bomb back to the frontier outpost where they traded it for protection and incorporation and we got made special citizens.

All in all, it was quite fun.  I though Paul did especially well in taking us through how the game worked without belaboring anything.  The game was all in all, fast paced and fun.

If I had any disappointment, it was that the second combat got bogged down, and that we had to have a narrated rather than played through ending.  However, Paul drove a very long way to come run the game, and on the whole, he did a great job, so I can't fault the pacing too much, as he was dealing with three out of four players that had never done the game before.

It was really a good fun for an afternoon.  It also made a long day because of the transit issues, so we can't do too many of these.  Still, we will watch to see what more Labyrinth has to offer because the store runs a great event.

Now I have to think about what in future I might run with Savage Worlds.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Playtest: Zeppelin Armada - Phase 3 (Some Explanations)

Fred Hicks, one of the guiding lights at Evil Hat Productions, has a good post about the game that I and my family have had a chance to play test, giving some evocative quotes and summaries about the game from some of the other play testers.  I wanted to take a moment to post again about the game, but from a slightly different perspective.

The other day, a neighbor who had seen some of my playtest posts asked me what it was I was doing.  The idea of this kind of game and the design process, including play testing, was outside of his experience, and, as I looked through his eyes and his questions, I could see that my writing was completely in a foreign language for him.  Whether or not it is coherent enough for people more on the inside of gaming is not for me to say, but I though I would do my best to, as a post script to the whole experience, try to more expansively describe what the playtest experience was about and what was this game we were playing.

I won't claim that I am such a good communicator that anyone will be able to understand from what I write, but I hope that I can be more clear and more detailed in this capstone to allow this to be more accessible and more understandable. 

And maybe it can, in some small way, bring people more towards the world of game playing that I enjoy and that the game, Zeppelin Armada, represents.

So, let me define first what my role was in the game design process, and then explain what the game itself was about (while protecting the still in development intellectual property of the game).

Games and the Design Process:

Games are part of almost every human culture throughout time.  Many games have been with us for a long time and they take lots of different shapes.  Some are games we play as children with various amounts of rules, such as tag, Red Rover, Sardines, hopscotch, 4-square, etc.  Some of these games require a certain number of people of equipment, but the knowledge of these games are pretty much passed down on the playgrounds of the world, if not from parent to child.  Other games like Chess, Checkers, and a million card games (poker, bridge, spades, hearts, canasta, pinochle) are more formal in their components (a board, chess pieces, decks of cards, etc.) and rules.  Many of these games are hundreds or even thousands of years old in their origin.

Then, we also have more modern games that we have grown up with.  Their age may be measured in perhaps a century or decades, but we know them well and love them.  These are games like Monopoly, Risk, Sorry, Stratego, Clue, Life, etc.  Generally, they are considred "board games" because their central feature is that there is a board that is the center of the game's action, and while there may be cards, dice, and game pieces to move around, the board definse the game for us.

If you think about how many games there are (maybe how many are just stuffed in your closet or on a shelf in your basement) you begin to realize how many games have come and gone.

And yet, we love games, and creative people love to make and sell games and new ones continue to appear.  Some are destined to be classics, many are destined to entertain for a play or two and then gather dust.

Yet, how is a game made today?

While I don't think there is a single "scientific" process, there are definite phases of development which a successful game has to go through.  It starts with an idea from an individual or group of designers who want to do something through a game.  The idea may start as a particular mechanic (way you play a game) or theme (what the game is about, like Clue is about solving a murder mystery or Monopoly is about making money) or some combination.  From the basic idea, you have to come up with the medium of play (a board, cards, dice, hand gestures, whatever), determine the goal (have the most money, capture the king, get around the board first, etc.) and form the rules (who goes first, how are pieces moved, when is it somebody else's turn, etc.). 

That can be, you might expect, a lot of work.  There can be, I think, a lot of trial and error.  From moving from the starting idea to a rough outline of why you play (goal), how you play (rules) and where you play (medium [e.g. on a board]) is a lot of work.  And, of course, once you have all that done, the designer can think that it all makes perfect sense.  But, until the game is explained to and played with other people outside of the design group, there is no way to know if the game really works and really is fun.

So, you have to start testing the game, and thus, the playtest. 

Typically, I think a game goes through an "in house" playtest.  That is, the designer or design group plays with people they know and explain and guide the play.  This is good, because the designers can be challenged to explain and clarify issues about how the game is played and to start to deal with design issues which they may not have thought of (what happens if two players are in the same space?).  The down side of this, is that because the game is still under the direct control of the designers, it is hard to tell if the game will work out in the real world. 

Have you ever noticed how many times you learn a game because someone explains it to you, rather than reading the rules?  Games often are transmitted much more easily from an experienced player to a new player.  Rules are looked up in novel situations, and to settle disputes, but often, most players never read through the whole rule book.

However, with a new game, the game will not spread far if the designers have to go and explain the game play to you personally.  Instead, they have to be able to write rules and provide components (board, cards, dice, whatever) that are sufficiently clear and self-explanatory so that someone whom the designer will never meet can buy the game, read the rules, and play and (most importantly) have fun.

So, that is why an external playtest is important.  The external playtest releases the rules and components to one or more outside groups to review and play on their own.  Then, as they run across things that don't seem clear or that don't seem to work in a game, they can give feedback to improve the rules, or to improve how the rules are written, and to improve and hone the game.

Some games will go through multiple external playtests, so that the game play and written rules can be really polished and ready for eventual marketing.

And that, of course, is the next move.  Once playtest is over and the game is "done," then the work begins.  You have to figure out how to manufacture the compoents (rule book, board, cards, dice, etc. etc.),  How to assemble those components.  How to package the game.  How to pay for the labor that goes into all of those things, and establish a market, and figure out storage, shipping, and pricing.

And eventually, people have to learn about the game, play it, like it, and most importantly, buy it.  That is, if you are doing this commercially.

And, since I am not actually either a professional or amateur game designer, I probably left out some steps, but, I think you get the idea.  The process of creating a game is pretty complex, time consuming, and potentially costly.

So, where did I fit in as far as this new game, Zeppelin Armada?

Me and the Playtest

My family and I were selected to participate in the initial external playtest of the game.

How did this happen?  Well, I keep tabs on a few blogs by smart people who do interesting things.  One of them is Fred Hicks, whom I mentioned above, and one day he mentioned that he was looking for playtesters for this new game in development by Evil Hat.  On impulse, I responded with my interest, and I was one of the first five who responded in the manner he requested.  We got added into a google group which was created to manage the external playtest process, and within days, I had access to the draft rules and the files from whcih I could create the essential components of the game to try it out.

This was my first time as a playtester, and it was exciting to be part of a creative process which is going to result in a game that goes out to the public.

So, what we had to do was, of course, play the game.  We also had to record how things went in the game and respond to a questionaire each time we played.  In it, we addressed specific questions the designers had about how the game went, and also had an opportunity to give opinions and observations about what we liked and did not like about the game.

We sent all that in (by e-mail) and our input, along with the other testers, is all be considered in a redraft of the game. 

We will be participating in a second round of testing which will examine the revised game.

And let me just say, as an aside, that the information super highway really makes this process a lot easier than it has ever been.

And what do we get paid?  We get credit and thanks in the printed materials when the game comes out.  For a small game company like Evil Hat, the reward is really to participate in the creative process.  If successful, we might get a copy of the game, but that is not really the point.  The point is to do something fun and constructive with interesting and fun people.

All in all, it has been a good experience.

The Game Itself

So, what is the game?

It is not a computer game.  Nor is it really a board game.

It is a game centered around a fun theme: Zeppelins and villains. 

Zeppelins were, for a short time, an important civilian and miliatry form of air transport.  During the 1930s especially, they fueled people's imagination and romantic sense of travel, adventure and scientific progress.  While the Hindenburg crash did not end the Zeppelin era, per se, it took the shine off of it.  Still, many look back to that time and cannot help but imagine wild and amazing adventures centered around Zeppelins.  This is especially true because the Zeppelin Age was also the age of the pulp fiction hero.  From detectives (think Sam Spade) to masked vigilantes (like The Shadow, or The Green Hornet) to space heros (like Flash Gordon), this era of pop culture burst with amazing adventures of derring do and mad science.

So, the idea of the game is to take your flagship and fleet of Zeppelins and rule the air.  You play not as a hero, but rather as one of several competing villains, the kind who would have given Flash Gordon or Doc Savage a run for their money.

Each player gets to choose a villain and his or her flagship, and then builds an armada to take down the other players and rule the skies.

The game is a card game, in that the play centers on cards, but not from a traditional deck, with traditional cards in suits (hearts, spades, etc.).  Instead, the cards are a combination of game pieces, like those you might use in Risk or Battleship, and game effects, like the Chance or Community Chest cards in Monopoly.

Besides cards, there are a few other things needed which come, not with the game, but from things you are likely to have around the house.  Some dice (traditional cube, six sided), a coin, and some counters (could be beads, stones, or other coins), just some things to help keep track of stuff that is going on in the game.

After choosing a villainous flagship, each player gets a number of Zeppelins with which to start an armada.  Rather than a board, each player has a formation of Zeppelin cards.  They have to be around the flagship, so that, at any one time, the most there can be down is a three by three square of Zeppelin cards, centered on the flagship.  Each Zeppelin has different qualities that help define how good it is in battle.

Each player then also gets a hand of cards.  These cards may include additional Zeppelins that can be played, as well as weapons with which to launch attacks on rivals, characters that can be played on Zeppelins to make they work better (for yours) or work worse (for your opponents), conditions that change the way the game is played, and events that can help you or hurt your opponents.

The game proceeds in turns, and each player gets to make decisions about how to play cards, discard cards and draw cards.  Attacks against fellow players are frequent, and really, the ultimate point of the game.  You are trying to be the last one standing, just like Risk, for example.

The game, once you get the rules and understand the different qualities of Zeppelins, etc., plays pretty fast.  Still, a whole game goes, generally about a hour and a half. 

It is a very directly competative game.  You are trying to directly beat the other playes by eliminating them (again, like Risk or Battleship).  If you play in the spirit of fun, it can be great to blow up your opponent's vessels, play a card to escape certain destruction of your own airships, and to try to be the most daring and merciless villain to cut a swath of destruction through the skies.

We are very much looking forward to trying out the new and improved game and doing what we can to suggest any additional changes that will help bring it out of testing and into production so that someday, not to long from now, anyone can pick up a deck, pull together a few things that are around the house, and engage in a battle royale for control of the skies.

I hope, in my long winded, way, I have explained what I have been up to and why.

Play on!