Archiv der Kategorie: Podcast

Gaining Speed

Transcript of the podcast published on May 1st, 2011.

One of the biggest challenges in game design is the creation of speed. Each game has its own sweet spot of length. 10-16 hours of playtime might be the ideal length for an immersive and narrative game like “Here I Stand”, but it would kill a game like Carcassonne if it was that long. It would just fall flat.

Most Euro gamers perceive 2 hours as the maximum ideal length for a game – and this includes explaining the game! I know many German gamers who will – no matter how much you coax them – flatly refuse to play anything even 1 minute longer. 2-3 hour Euro games like Agricola are actually extremely rare. I would compare it to the ideal length for a film – many people think that 1½-2 hours is the best length for a film, and anything beyond that is either Lord of the Rings or boring. Or both!

It’s interesting to note that films longer than 2 hours are usually sprawling sagas with more complex narrative or boosting amazing special effects to keep you entertained – this can be compared to the much longer American style games, which usually fall in the 3 hour or more range. Think of games like Arkham Horror or Talisman – even hardcore fans would immediately admit that these games take a lot of time, not to speak of war games, which are the kings of the hill when it comes to length!

The speed of a game has two aspects, though. It is a mixture of two conflicting perceptions: the length of the game as a whole and the length of downtime that you experience while it is not your move. Some early war game designs featured a lot of downtime as your opponent pondered moving his hundreds of counters over a cluttered board. Games like ASL with their more complicated turn structure made sure that this downtime was separated into little chunks, but still, as an opponent you were mostly rolling dice while your opponent had something to do.

Even though the game is actually one of my personal favorites, History of the World in its old versions is a good example of bad downtime. If you ended up first in one epoch and last in the next one you theoretically could look at up to an hour waiting, with no meaningful decisions at all and some dice rolling at the best. A game like Cosmic Encounter was actually not only deemed revolutionary in its time because of the changing player powers but also because it attempted to keep everybody constantly involved by giving them the ability to ally with attacking or defending players. This involvement outside your turn was actually a very fresh idea at the time, people tend to forget this.

Nowadays most game designers try to create a mix of interactive elements to keep players involved who are not active at the moment. Classical basic strategies for this can be easily named: bidding, negotiation or trading. This always involves all players and is mostly easy to pull off design wise. Newer interactive strategies would be card drafting (like in 7 Wonders) or role selection, where players in turn select roles that then affect all players, like in Puerto Rico. All these game design strategies are usually perceived as giving the possibility of interaction. An additional strategy which is more difficult to pin down could be called “reaction window”. What this means is that a player has the possibility out of turn order to insert an action into the flow. A good example for this is for example having a “bomb” in the card game “Tichu”. With a “bomb” you can interrupt the card play anytime, but it also involves the risk of other players having bombs as well. Or take “Cosmic Zap” in Cosmic Encounter – any card that can be played out of turn order gives players a reactive game element. But of course there are also real ”reaction” moves, when players react to each other’s actions. But there is a difference between meaningful and a “lucky reaction”: Let’s say a player attacks a space you occupy with troops in a war game. Usually you would roll dice to determine the outcome. Even though rolling dice can be fun it is not what I would call a meaningful decision. If all you do as a reactive action in a game is rolling dice it can become dangerous for the game experience. But now imagine this dice rolling results in a retreat of your troops, and you now have the decision to retreat them to hex A, B or C. This usually would be a meaningful decision, as this will set things for your next turn.

Don’t worry, most war games involve this kind of decisions, and newer designs like “Combat Commander” go to great pains to make the game flow as interactive as possible, with both players constantly being involved in meaningful decisions. But in a way the worst game possible would involve a convoluted and long turn order which only involves one single player. But luckily the time of these games seems to have passed.

Some thoughts on game development

Transcript of the podcast published on April 5th, 2011.

It seems game designing is all the rage at the moment. I get many emails from avid listeners who are in the process of designing games inspired by something we said on the Dice Tower. There are currently hundreds of small game companies who – with the power of state of the art Desktop Publishing – publish their own games. At the Westpark Gamers Aaron Haag as well as me are involved in the design of new games, and we often host test sessions for other designers who test their new material. If one goes to a convention chances are high that you will bump into someone who is currently working on a new game. Rare success stories of freelance designers like Martin Wallace and Reiner Knizia attract thousands of new designers who want to follow in their footsteps. It seems every gamer one meets nowadays is also a game designer. Hey, half of the guys working on this show are game designers, including Tom Vasel himself!

But what sets apart good games from just games? It’s a difficult question to answer, as it is rare that a game captures that elusive lightning in a bottle: being balanced, accessible as well as unique and innovative at the same time. Granted: not all games try to invent the wheel anew, in fact only very few do, and perhaps that’s not even a bad thing, as some ideas set into motion a huge host of variants and spinoffs that can actually be equally interesting.

But one thing is never a rarity: and that’s the ideas for games. I am sure every single listener of our show has once thought: Hey, that would be SUCH a great game idea, and some of them might even have started working on such a game. But anybody who ever dabbled in game design knows one thing for sure: It is hard, hard work. And it is not always fun work. Once you’re up to your umpteenth prototype, where you had to graphically redesign everything again from the scratch to incorporate your new ideas, and while playing it you feel that it still doesn’t work yet, despair can set in. Also playtesters can be harsh. Your family or your spouse might love your game and think you’re a genius, but the average gaming geek will have a totally different opinion, if he thinks something doesn’t work. And to be a good game designer you actually HAVE to listen to your playtesters, even if they are very critical, because the things they don’t understand will be something that average people without strong gaming expertise will have even less understanding of.

So while designing a game one has to be prepared to start again and again from the basics. Your ideas might already be great, your concepts unique, but they just don’t gel yet, they just don’t go together to create an engaging game.

This is where the mysterious “game development” sets in, which I think is the most important part of game design in a way, next to the idea itself. Game developing is not necessarily testing – that can be done by anybody, especially if it is about blind testing rules and such. No, game development is about finding the hidden strengths – and weaknesses – of a game and bringing them to the fore or removing them. People rarely take notice of the guys listed under “game developers” in a rulebook, but hey, these guys are more important than you think! In fact most successful publishers have a great development team.

I have already told the story about “Puerto Rico” having originally been an SF game – this would have meant it had not sold as well in the German market and probably not become the international success. This was a development decision, and this also meant changing the effects of buildings in the game to fit the new theme.

“Carcassonne” in its original form had no limits on meeple placement. One just placed the meeples wherever they wanted to score, even in an already occupied city. One can imagine that this makes a HUGE difference in the whole gaming experience of Carcassonne, and this decision came out of the development process.
I think one can compare game design to the musical genre of opera, which is always a team effort. One needs not only composers but also librettists, directors, stage designers…. Game design should not be a lonely job, it is a mutual effort.

So next time you pick up a game you like check out the guys who developed it as well as the original designers. They might be the very reason you actually like the game!

Where do we go from here?

Transcript of the podcast published on March 7th, 2011.

Let’s just take a break and reflect on the past developments in the gaming world. Where do we go from here? It is clear that board gaming as a whole is a very healthy hobby at the moment. It might not have the breakthrough fad or trend of past decades, like a new concept to sell huge amounts of cards like in Magic the Gathering, but all in all there are lots of very good companies who each have found a niche in which they have a relatively healthy life. Fantasy Flight Games has basically grabbed the Fantasy, Horror and SF niche market, GMT is catering to the Euro-influenced and opinionated war gamer, Days of Wonder successfully delivers great accessible family games and so on. Also in Germany the game market has been relatively stable – the old great companies can still exist and deliver good product and there has even been a possibility for young and upcoming companies like Argentum games to grow and prosper somewhat. The same is to be said about the European market as a whole – Eastern Europe has expanded as a market with many of the best games of the last years coming from the Czech Republic for example, but now also from Poland and other places. Italy, France, Holland and England are also strong as countries in which game design is practiced an art and the population is increasingly interested in it, not to forget Belgium, Switzerland and Austria. Essen attendance is still growing every year, and the number of published games as well.

If there is any kind of problem it is the problem of over-saturation. At the Westpark Gamers we have already found that we return to older games that we like instead of playing the new Essen games, which is unusual, because the last Essen is not that long gone. Usually we were busy until at least the middle of the year before a certain expectation for new games kicked in. But we are already returning to established games for entertainment.

It’s not that last Essen’s games were a worse than usual – quite the opposite! In fact 2010 was quite a good year most remarkable for a high level of general quality and relatively few disappointments. That it was not the year of a standout game like Dominion should not be something to be expected every year – that would just be silly. Still – we have super fantastic games like 7 Wonders or Dominant Species, and that’s really something.

In fact if you took any, and I really mean ANY of the top games of 2010 and put them in a time machine to travel back to 1980 or even 1990 they would all be huge hits that the whole gaming world would talk about. But today they just go under in a huge torrent of quality. It is very difficult to get noticed with a game when already even small companies or DTP publishers manage to bring out product that is equal to the best games of the past years in both production values and content.

In a way we now repeat the situation that computer games found themselves in a couple of years back. When the computer game market emerged, many new and spectacular ideas for games were born: the RPG’s, the RTS games, the Adventure games, the Ego-Shooter games, etc.. All these genres were defined like the different board gaming genres, even taking cues from them in many ways. But looking at computer games now one seems to notice that there are very few new ground breaking ideas anymore, it is just the technology like the graphics of games that is still developed. Another area is bringing games to where there have been no games before. I was once told that the fastest growing market in electronic games is the so-called social games market, where people play games via facebook or through their browser. These games are quick and accessible and don’t need any preparation to jump in.

This does not surprise me as I see the time-factor as the biggest enemy for physical board games in the future. Once the electronic game table market really kicks off in the near future – and I firmly believe that this will happen – board games with physical components will increasingly have a difficult time except perhaps with spectacular miniatures. But already many Fantasy Flight Games like Arkham Horror for example are clustered with so many card decks, counters and paraphernalia that I for my part would welcome if a computer all set it up for me in a millisecond and I could start right in. Even FFG themselves have realized this and start publishing ipad and iphone apps that actually reduce the time needed for playing their games.

The games of the future will also use sound effects and videos to enhance the game experience, I am sure.

But fact is: We are at a crossroads right now. Not a moment to despair, but a moment to take note of what we like about gaming and to pave the roads for what gaming will become in the future. One thing is sure: the social aspect of gaming, the table banter, the camaraderie, the real people with which you interact will always be the biggest asset of face to face gaming. Let’s try to preserve that!

Game Companies of the past, part 11, Gray Giant Games

Transcript of the podcast published on February 25th, 2011.

After 10 segments about game companies of the past I want to add a bonus segment about a company that nobody of you has ever heard of, probably: Gray Giant Games.

Gray Giant Games was the brainchild of Tim Bedford and Lisa Peterson, 2 students of MIT who were caught by the Fantasy Roleplaying game craze of the 70s. They both became avid game masters to their game group, the MITfits, and revered for their colourful and literary campaigns that spanned whole worlds. Soon enough they became tired of some of the clichés of D&D, especially the munchkin like amassment of XP’s and levels. This is how “Foragers into the Unknown” was born, their first roleplaying game, a radical reinvention of the RPG genre with an ingenious combat system that was elegant and realistic at the same time. “Foragers” had some success in gaming circles and soon Tim and Lisa began to professionally package their product, naming their company after the first monster they had invented for their game, and to sell it at gaming conventions. This was about the time their first daughter was born, so they lacked time and especially money to really run the publicity that sells a product to a bigger audience, but in specialist circles their fame increased. Soon 2 supplements followed: “Foragers into Space”, and “Foragers into Horror”, both equally excellent RPG’s.

At this point they noticed that they had less and less time to be GM’s, but their players wanted to adventure on in “Bellaphon”, their fantasy roleplaying world. Long before paragraph adventures were invented they thought of a role playing game that needed no Game Master and could be enjoyed by a whole group. This is how “Endless Adventure” was born, a truly unique fantasy board game that could be enjoyed by 1 to many players, and that is only rivaled by “Magic Realm” in atmosphere and scope.

In “Endless Adventure” the game simulates a complex dungeon expedition. The dungeon is randomly created during the game, but there are also certain predetermined quests that fit into the bigger game, much like today’s fantasy computer games are designed. “Endless Adventure” could be played either in short or continuous sessions, as a never ending campaign that also enabled players to develop characters, an idea that was later also realized in “Warhammer Quest”, but in a much simpler way. “Endless Adventure” is a truly magnificent, albeit complex game. Its biggest bonus was its expandability – in later supplements players could explore the wilderness, cityscapes and the sea. It was also possible for them to engage in world politics, to wage wars or to found a shop and sell their treasures. With each expansion – all of which are hard if not impossible to find nowadays – the game became richer and deeper, nearly reaching philosophical dimensions. Some players are still playing this game and have not yet explored every part of it.

Encouraged by this success the now husband and wife team thought about new ways to use their creativity. This is how one of the weirdest games in existence was created: “Serenade”, a game with a completely empty board and no rules to start with. Through a complex web of secret decisions, bidding and alliances the game was literally created on the spot – when you started the game you didn’t know yet if you would end up playing an economical game, an abstract strategy game, a historical simulation or a racing game. The only thing one could set up at the beginning was the game length, which could be anything from 30 minutes to many hours. The theme of the game would be decided by the wishes of the players, so that every player would play the game he or she liked the most in the end. “It’s an experience, not a game” was the tagline, and the revolutionary concepts behind this game were never equaled. Unfortunately a great part of “Serenade”s first print run was burnt in a mysterious fire and only a few copies have survived.

But Gray Giant Games was just starting it’s great run: The next game was simply called “Euro”, and was the pinnacle of European board games design: an elegant, incredibly thought-through design that gave each player the possibility to win until the very last moment without invoking the least of luck, but which was also – a feat that not all Euro Games manage – highly thematic and full of weird and crazy humour, with players trying to create the perfect European parliament, an impossible task as every European knows.

Tim had dabbled in wargames now and then, so he started a new project that was supposed to revolutionize the wargaming world: “Waterloo 3000” was the most ambitious wargame ever produced: a double blind game using ingenious hidden movement and doing away with any combat tables and odds, instead using an intricate paragraph system like in fantasy gamebooks to decide the outcome of a battle. The accompanying “battle book” indeed had 3000 entries, and few players have explored them all.

After that Lisa Peterson approached another, nearly impossible task: to create a witty party game for intelligent people that doesn’t embarrass and doesn’t bore. The result of this was “Betty Boop”, a game so fast and furious that it was impossible to not break out into wild laughter during it. One reviewer literally said that this game was so much fun that it could revive a coma patient.

Slowly a trend became clear: Gray Giant Games took on established game genres and tried to create the best possible game for it. But there were factors which always stood in their success: Tim getting a professorship at MIT and Lisa getting the Nobel prize for her work at the decryption of the human genome. Not out of failure but simply because they had no more time for their games, Gray Giant Games closed business in 1987.

And they lived happily everafter, like in a fairy tale. Like in this segment.

Influential Game Companies of the Past Part 10: Iron Crown Enterprises

Transcript of the podcast published on December 28th, 2010.

I am ending my little series of memory segments for groundbreaking game companies of the past talking about one of my favourite companies: Iron Crown Enterprises, or short: I.C.E. (not to be confused with the fast trains used in the German railway system). This company was a newcomer when the major role playing boom already faltered in 1980.

It was founded by roleplaying game enthusiasts Pete Fenlon and S Coleman Charlton who had just graduated from the University of Virginia and were hungry to promote their own super-complicated roleplaying system Rolemaster, which grew out of a series of supplements originally intended to expand already existing roleplaying systems like D&D.

Rolemaster – which still is played today in it’s umpteenth version – is a heavy-weight roleplaying game not for the feint of heart, trying to achieve ultimate realism by the most brutal critical hit tables ever devised in a RPG combat system. Going into a battle of Rolemaster often meant losing vital organs, limbs, digits and probably also your head. Which is of course realistic! The system had some success but was no real competitor to the big names at the time. But then something extraordinary happened: through circumstances that are never described exactly anywhere ICE suddenly acquired the licence to produce roleplaying- and boardgames based on Tolkien’s Middle Earth World. This licence had formerly rested with SPI, who had produced some well-known games already featured in my segments, but this move was as surprising as Warfrog games suddenly acquiring the Star Wars licence. Well, perhaps not that surprising – remember, 1980 was not too long after the commercially failed attempt to film the books by Ralph Bakshi and Peter Jackson was still a pimply teenager, so perhaps the Tolkien estate thought: “What the heck?”.

ICE proved to be a very good choice, as they treated the Tolkien material with great respect, probably making more of it than anybody could expect or even has done since, and I’m including Fantasy Flight Games, who currently hold the licence. ICE’s first move was to create a fantastic Middle Earth roleplaying game (a simplified Rolemaster and compatible with that system) that is still considered the best system ever devised for Tolkien’s world. Their sourcebooks and adventures were considered to be the best that RPGs could offer and are valuable collector’s items today – they were incredible labours of love with wonderful maps, graphic art and full of endless content expanding Tolkien’s world with great love and passion.

This brought the company some financial success so they began to create other types of games connected to these licence, both collectible card games (who were still young at the time) and also boardgames, and these games are what makes me love ICE until today. Their Middle Earth Collectible Card Game, MECCG in short, is probably the deepest and richest CCG ever devised. It ran for roughly 10 years, and was highly unusual in that it incorporated solitaire and team play and was also comparable to games like Magic Realm in overall complexity and strategy. Because the game was so beautiful and detailed it never created the raw-edged tourney scene that Magic is known for – instead players simply enjoyed revelling in Tolkien’s world –experiencing this was more reward than winning tourneys or money. MECCG also never went the easy way of reducing complexity to sell more units. Even though MECCG is long out of print it is still beloved by many fans, and it is actually possible to acquire a good collection of it via EBay for relatively decent prices.

But there were also board games – most of them connected to Middle Earth. Their first Tolkien Game was “Riddle of the Ring”, a strange hybrid of card game and Adventure game that wasn’t entirely successful – yet. Then came “Battle of the 5 Armies”, an absolute collector’s item if there ever was one, even though it is a relatively conventional wargame.

But then came a moment of glory, as shortly after each other two games were published that I would consider a shining example of great design as well as impossible rules sets: “The Lonely Mountain” and one of the best games ever created: “Fellowship of the Ring”. “The Lonely Mountain” is a successful dungeon exploration and adventure game romp that makes it possible to build a party of Rangers, Elves, Dwarves or many other characters from Tolkien’s books to explore the lair of Smaug the Dragon.

To make the game more fun the designers introduced some new monsters to Smaug’s domain that might seem out-of-place to Tolkien purists, so it is actually well possible to encounter Krakens and Trolls in one of the many caves of the mountain. But if one sees it as a multiplayer exploration game with wargame elements this is actually great fun and used to be a favourite of my Frankfurt games group for many years.

But “Fellowship of the Ring” has to be mentioned as a highly unusual game recreating the events of the Tolkien Trilogy from the perspective of the hunter and the hunted, not from the perspective of all-out war like in SPI’s and Nexus Games’ “War of the Ring”. In “Fellowship” an ingenious system of movement dice that serve as placeholders for possible positions of the fellowship is used that keeps the Sauron player really guessing where the hobbits are. Combats are rare and spectacular and one really has the feeling an alternate history to the books is created, so detailed and rich is the gaming environment. The board is absolutely fantastic and true to the high graphic standards that ICE employed throughout their existence. For some strange reason this game has little love on the Geek, but it is truly a masterpiece that is worth every cent you pay for it on EBay. Beware the rules though – they are badly written and confusing, but underneath is one of the best 2-player games ever created in my opinion. Perhaps somebody will find the time to create an improved rules set?

There were many more games produced in ICE’s roughly 20 years spanning career –I should mention for example “Dicemaster”, a collectible roleplaying dice game which was weird and fun but without success, and “Silent Death”, a good Sci-Fi space battle game. But not the quality of their games but the downfall of games distributors proved to be the end of ICE –they simply could not sell their games through the usual vendors anymore.

ICE still exists, but only as a brand of roleplaying games now owned by another company. In their time they created incredibly detailed worlds of imagination, and they are still underrated as game designers in my opinion…

Influential game companies of the past, part 9: Game Designers’ Workshop

Transcript of the podcast published on December 1st, 2010.

BGG Con: Moritz playing Magic RealmI have just come back from BGG con and it was a blast to meet all you Dice Tower fans out there. Thank you for all the great moments I had there – the Dice Tower fans are the best! But I have to hurry on as Tom only gives me 5 minutes…

We are nearing the end of my 10-part series about game companies of ‘ye olden times’, and this time I would like to counter my last segment about Games Workshop with a segment about a company with a very similar name: “Game Designers’ Workshop”, or short GDW.

The two companies have nothing to do with each other, and they also existed on separate parts of the globe, as Games Workshop is British and GDW was an Illinois based American company founded by four game designers who then went on to regularly create games from 1973 to 1996: Frank Chadwick, Rich Banner, Marc Miller and Loren Wiseman.

It’s active life of 23 years makes it one of the longest running game companies in my list, and their output was truly impressive, even though it is probably still more known for its role playing games than its boardgames, the most famous being the most influential SF role playing game of all time, “Traveller”, a game which solely used 2 normal dice for the resolution of everything from skill checks to character creation.

How did such a company come about? Chadwick, Banner and Miller were the founding and basically only members of the Illinois State University Games club. Rich Banner was into graphics and secured a grant that enabled him to print blank hex paper to be used for wargames, something that wasn’t as easy then as it is today. Shortly after that Illinois University suddenly became a haven for gamers, as educational initiative SimRAD (Simulation, Research, Analysis and Design) was founded to encourage the use of games in the classroom. Chadwick, Banner and Miller began work on a huge World War II boardgame using the blank sheets and the fund money. For this they founded the game company with the name GDW. Soon after they shifted to the commercial sector when the grant money got cancelled, and they did so with no little success.

This can mostly be attributed to the incredible hard work of the founders of this company, (especially Frank Chadwick) who were joined by Loren Wiseman in 1974 – there was probably never a small game company that was run so efficiently by a small group of people that also mostly designed all their own games. The Wikipedia entry states that GDW published a new product every 22 days average and that for 23 years, which is quite a feat. This is why mentioning every game in this feature is a futile task – there are way to many!

GDW was famous for their game presentation which can be described as minimalist. Most games came in small boxes featuring bound rulebooks which always had a similar cover design, paper maps and charts. The first edition of Traveller the role playing game had barely any graphics and used a font that became GDW’s trademark for science fiction games. Also their later games kept eye-candy to a minimum, rather concentrating on story and atmosphere. “Traveller” became the first SF roleplaying game and also spawned a couple of boardgames related to its universe. My favourite were always the 2 sci-fi skirmish games “Snapshot” and “Azhanti High Lightning” which were the first games featuring single-man combat on starship maps using role-playing style characters. These games actually had relatively simple and elegant rules using Action Points, and were closely related to Traveller’s combat system, which is known to be extremely lethal – when you were hit by anything you basically died. This gave the scenarios a usually rather short playing time, but one played the games again and again because of the great starship maps.

But these games were not their most famous SF-boardgame, this honour goes to “Imperium”, perhaps the most influential SF-boardgame ever created, and predecessor to contemporary games like “Twilight Imperium”, which even honours GDW in its name.

In “Imperium” – a game influenced by the writings of Isaac Asimov and especially the Foundation series – a young upstart human space empire fought against a Roman like “old” alien imperium who at first underestimates them completely. The battle rages across the galaxy, depicted by a web of jump points that basically form a point-to-point map. Both players can run a huge assortment of small and big ships, and there are Star-Wars-like space battles galore, as well as epic ground combat. This is even more impressive when one thinks about the fact that “Imperium” was published in the same year that “Star Wars” was first screened, so there must have been some prescience by the designers, as there are certain similarities, especially the “Death Star” like units.

Before that game there was also “Triplanetary”, a game that is now less known, but which already featured the same ship types of “Imperium”. “Double Star” featured two planets battling that were also moving in an orbit around the same star, ensuing in interesting tactical challenges. “Asteroid” was a pulp-exploration game of an asteroid controlled by a mad computer. But there were also many traditional wargames, classics like the Civil War game “A House Divided” or submarine warfare game “Harpoon” by Larry Bond. The list of games is huge, as well as their output of roleplaying games which saw several editions of Traveller in various time periods, like Traveller 2300 AD, but also horror and historical roleplaying games.

One genre totally missing is Fantasy – there are no fantasy boardgames by GDW, only historical and SF, and with the exception of “Asteroid” even their SF games were usually of the “hard SF” variety trying to base their rules on real physics. There was only one attempt at a fantasy role playing game called “Dangerous Journeys”, which was a design by Gary Gygax, abandoned in the end.

The output of GDW was so persistent and of such a persistent quality that only one thing could end their run – and this was of course financial troubles suffered as late as 1996, long after other industry giants like SPI had folded. This long life can be attributed to GDW’s quite good management. But apparently it was simple burnout that ended the run of one of the most successful and influential game companies that ever came out of a university experiment in a basement.

Influential game companies of the past Part 8: Games Workshop

Transcript of the podcast published on November 1st, 2010.

This time I want to talk about another company that existed some time ago but which has left its mark on the gaming scene, and this company is called “Games Workshop”.
“What?” you may ask, “Games Workshop? But they are alive and kicking and very much in the business? What is this, some evil mockery”?
But I am not talking about THAT Games Workshop, that multimillion dollar company that sells crack in the form of miniatures to masses of teenage boys and men, about Warhammer or Warhammer 40000, game systems that have mainly been designed to make people follow the cult of GW, as they are mostly called nowadays.
No, I am talking about the ORIGINAL Games Workshop, a company founded by genre luminaries Steve Jackson, Ian Livingstone (they were later famous for their Fighting Fantasy solitaire game books) and John Peake, originally as a manufacturer of wooden boardgames in 1975, but then quickly becoming the main importer of that game called D&D and spearhead of the British gaming scene.
In order to promote their postal games, the London shop that was called “Games Workshop” printed a magazine called Owl and Weasel, which later became “White Dwarf”, perhaps the most important European roleplaying magazine ever, a fantastic magazine that used to be full of scenarios for all kinds of roleplaying games, along with fantastic art and comics, and which now also has become a Warhammer only magazine about how to paint miniatures. But in the days back then every roleplaying fan used to anxiously await the new issues of “White Dwarf”, because it was simply the best magazine out there, even more beloved than the “Dragon”, TSR’s own house magazine. There was actually a time when Gary Gygax proposed a merger between TSR and Games Workshop to prevent this competition, but even then Games Workshop proved to have a lot of business sense and declined. By now they had expanded all over Britain, with shops opening practically everywhere.
But I am not talking about Games Workshop the role playing and miniature gaming entity, but about the relatively short period of time in which they produced great board games.
The most famous of these is most certainly “Talisman”, a game hated by Tom Vasel but beloved by many, as it was the first successful attempt to transfer a role playing experience into a boardgame, along with the possibility to add endless expansions with new adventure cards and boards.
But there were also other influential games, next to the reprints of games like “Cosmic Encounter” that Games Workshop also had in their line.
For example “Blood Royale”, a now highly sought after game by Derek Carver about medieval power politics that enabled players to actually marry off their princesses and princes while fighting wars with neighbouring fiefdoms. Or “Fury of Dracula”, the game of vampire hunting and a variant of Ravensburger’s Spiel des Jahres’ “Scotland Yard” (a fact that is often forgotten) which for a long time was one of the most expensive out-of-print games one could buy because of it’s legendary fame and a relatively low print run.
“Warrior Knights”, another medieval wargame. Or how about “Dungeonquest”, the first international edition of the Swedish cult game “Drakborgen” which became very successful in the Games Workshop version and thus created more expansions than the original Swedish version.
Or “Battlecars”, a generally underrated game that transported players into the world of Mad Max style automotive combat, a game that was famous for its big car displays that were literally slowly shot to pieces by using damage counters showing the piercing of the various armours of a car. This was also followed up by an expansion, “Battlebikes”, a very rare item to find nowadays.
Or “Dr. Who – The Boardgame”, the first “serious” boardgame in the Doctor Who universe, in itself related to Talisman from some of its mechanics. Or the ingenious “Rogue Trooper”, a game based on a series in Britain’s number one selling anthology comic, “2000 AD”.
Or “Warlock”, a card game of duelling wizards which most certainly was an inspiration for the biggest success story in gaming ever, “Magic The Gathering”. Or “Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb”, a game mostly known for its actual cardboard depiction of a pyramid that players could explore Indiana Jones style. Or “Apocalypse”, a Diplomacy variant set in an apocalyptic future.
As you can tell many of these games are still known well today, which has to do with the fact that one excellent company called Fantasy Flight games is publishing them in new and very often improved editions today. This in itself was no simple task. The Games Workshop juggernaut more and more concentrated on their miniatures brand that made the most business, and the GW of today has little to do with the friendly hobby orientated beginnings, and it also has different owners now. GW is feared for being very protective of the game rights they own, even if they don’t plan to ever publish these games again. This went so far as forcing Boardgamegeek contributors to remove all fan-created files for their games to protect their copyright, a stupid move if there ever was one. But somehow Fantasy Flight managed to convince some folks at GW to let them republish their most beloved titles, and as far as I can tell they have a very good success with it. This is also good for the games themselves which usually had quite flimsy production values when they originally came out. So we have to thank Fantasy Flight that one of the most important fantasy game companies of the past is still with us, at least in spirit. And perhaps the current Games Workshop will at some point change back into the friendly Games Workshop of the days of yonder. Let’s hope that!

Influential Game Companies of the Past Part 7: Yacquinto

Transcript of the podcast published on October 15th, 2010.

As one of the more unusual and quirky game companies, Yaquinto was always its own beast.  It existed only for short 4 years and was founded at a time when wargaming was already on its way out in mass popularity, 1979. But in these 4 short years they managed to become quite a voice in the gaming scene, publishing games of an unusual variety.

The name Yaquinto sounds like a Japanese battle cruiser, but it is derived from the Robert Yaquinto Printing Company of Dallas, Texas, which decided to use its printing resources to power up a game company. For this they hired two well-known wargame designers, Steve Peek and Craig Taylor, who were responsible to create an interesting line-up that would eventually include wargames but also family games, role playing games and SF and Fantasy Games as well as light historical games.

Yaquinto is remembered for their invention of the Album Game format. These came in 2 versions, used at different times in the life of the company:

  • The slim album games used a record sleeve for a vinyl record double LP as the game box. The record sleeve folded out to create the game board, counters and rules were stored in the 2 pockets. This made for extremely slim storage, but usually the many game counters inside the sleeves formed little bulges that eventually began to destroy and bend the cardboard covers. Ironically many of these games actually had a sign “This is not a record” on them, so that people would not accidentally think they would buy a music record!
  • There were also thicker versions of these album game boxes that had something like a paper counter tray insert in between the two sides. This prevented the problem of the bulging counters, but the insert was so flimsy that it was easily crushed if you stored the games on top of each other. If you stored the games in the upright position though the contents of the insert tended to fall out and get lost easily.

Even though the album games looked cool on first glance, the were something of a  drag to use, but they were still MUCH better than the normal oblong boxes used for their larger games – .these were so flimsy that actually already looking at them made them bend. It is extremely hard to find good condition Yaquinto games nowadays and still harder to find some of their best and sought-after games.

It is absolutely impossible to list every Yaquinto game here, so I will name only a few that I know well:

“Swashbuckler” is a still legendary game that simulates Errol Flynn style tavern or pirate combat, using written hidden commands. This is one of the funniest games I’ve ever played; you can confuse opponents by hurling insults at them or waving your hat in their face. It is absolutely stunning to play this game with 6 or more players; the influence on Robo Rally is clearly visible. There was also a science fiction version called “Adventurer” which is less known.

“Mythology” is the best game ever created on Greek mythology. Players have heroes roam the land to fulfil tasks – the players secretly influence these heroes representing the Greek gods by assigning influence points. The game has many rules problems, but these can be solved to create a highly unusual game.

“Hero” was a very successful attempt to create a 3 player dungeon skirmish game. Player A sends his hero into a dungeon controlled by player B, player B sends his hero into a dungeon controlled by player C and player C sends his hero into player A’s dungeon. Lots of hilarity ensues with hidden movement of monsters and even traps. Players design characters like in a role playing game, one important trait was looks, as if you were too ugly the princess you tried to rescue in the game would ignore you.

“Attack of the Mutants” is a very much “Plan 9 from Outer Space” like game, where you defend an underground basis against the attacks of Zombie-Mutants.

“Beastmaster” was Yaquinto’s partly failed attempt to create some kind of “Super-Titan”-variant, but still remains one of the more interesting fantasy battle games out there.

“Apache” was a Western game where players could have Cowboys and Indians fight it out. The game was notorious for its random events table which also featured a landing of aliens in the prairie.

“Dallas” was a roleplaying-lite boardgame featuring the famous J.R. and his consorts.

“Market Madness” was a crazy luck-driven stock market game. Just like real life, then!

“Ironclads” was the still legendary game about battleships in the American Civil War, popular until today.

“Starfall” was an ambitious Science Fiction exploration game for 1-4 players, where the universe was randomly created by a set of sophisticated rules.

“Time War” was the spiritual predecessor of “Time Agent”, a fantastic Time Travel game with many unusual ideas.

“The Roaring 20’s” had players create speakeasies and flee from the police.

“Ultimatum” tackled the most difficult of subjects: Nuclear War.

As you can see the line-up of Yaquinto was weird and very varied, but that is exactly why their games still are remembered until today. Graphic design was not always their biggest strength, but their hard-duty, extra thick cardboard counters were always a joy to handle, even if they were very hard to unpunch.

The games mentioned above are all recommended by me, some of them highly, like “Swashbuckler” or “Mythology”. One can do worse with collector games than with Yaquinto, a company that folded after the computer game market began to take over in 1983. We should remember them fondly – they don’t make them like this anymore!

Influential Game Companies of the Past Part 6: TimJim/Prism Games

Transcript of the podcast published on September 30th, 2010.

TimJim/Prism Games – both names work – was always a small company and never a big player on the market, but in their short life – they closed down business 1998 – they managed to put out a small but extremely influential portfolio of pretty outstanding games. In fact they could be called one of the few game companies which never published a game that sucked.

TimJim Games came out of Prism Games, a small company started by James Hlavaty and Tom Lehmann. The first game published by this company was “Outpost”, a game that nowadays has a nearly legendary fame for being one of the first boardgames to translate computer game concepts of science fiction empire building games into a tight and simple design that is still appreciated today and which has even been updated as a fantasy game as “Das Zepter von Zavandor”. Next came “Mystic War”, a fantasy card game that probably would have been a big success had it had glossy cards and beautiful graphics. This was also the year that Tom Lehmann began his design career. Tom should be known to current gamers as the inventor of the widely appreciated “Race for the Galaxy” game, but he has designed games for much longer, having been active as a designer since 1992. Tom has played games all his life, role playing games and 18xx games being his specialty, and is also an avid dancer and choreographer of group dances in his spare time. Logically the company should have now been called TomJim Games, but I am glad they decided against it.

Next came “Fast Food Franchise” by Tom Lehmann, which has the honour of being the only Monopoly variant that I would ever sit down to play, by giving the player’s many more choices during their turn while keeping the fun of estate or rather burger franchise dealing alive.

“Suzerain” was Tom’s attempt at a card game, a game simulating medieval wars of succession to great effect.

The same year saw the release of their magnum opus in my opinion – the super excellent and totally underrated “Time Agent”, the best time travel wargame ever invented in my opinion, a fascinating and intelligent design in which several races try to manipulate time to their advantage. A Wargame with some connections to 1830, as the time web is simulated by hexagonal tiles interacting in complex ways. Actually playing a game of “Time Agent” is like looking at a picture by Dutch artist M.C. Escher, which makes sense, as time travel should make your head spin.

“Age of Exploration” came 2 years later, another solo Lehmann design – this being an interesting and super realistic simulation of the exploration of the two American continents, so realistic that one usually ended up being killed by natives or lost at sea. It’s similar to “Source of the Nile” in style, being more of an educational than a gamers’ game, but still very good.

1995 saw another mutual effort by Tom and Jim, “2038”, perhaps the most involved 18xx variant of them all where players try to mine asteroid fields instead of building a network of rails only. The game is considered one of the best 18xx variants out there and is a sought-after collector’s item.

After a two year delay the last game of TimJim Games was published: “Throneworld”; an ambitious Science Fiction Game design, which can be considered an update of classic games like “Stellar Conquest”. Again an outstanding and good design.

Prism games used the Avalon Hill established bookcase format for their games, which made them handy to store and relatively durable. The graphic design was usually perfunctory but professional, their rules tightly printed and sometimes difficult to work out, while never being illogical or confusing. Just think of your first game of “Race for the Galaxy” when you tried to work out the iconography and you will know what I mean.

Why did they go out of business? I couldn’t find any information of that, but from their line-up one can tell that they tried to cater for the specialist gamers’ market at a time where Boardgamegeek wasn’t yet the force it is now, and before models like GMT’s P500 made small-audience games with good production values feasible. Some of their games could have actually crossed to a bigger market had they had a bit of more glossy production values.

But still, for me the great value of TimJim Games is the high quality of each of their games – one can always tell that a lot of work went into each of their designs, and they strove hard to present them in the most professional way they could achieve at the time. Every game collector worth his salt is bound to have a few of their games in his possession, and they will be treasured for a long time to come.

Moritz over and out.

Influential Game Companies of the Past, Part 5: Hexagames

Transcript of the podcast published on July 16th, 2010.

This time I am going to talk about a German game company that few of you will know, but which was extremely influential in the rise of the Euro Game phenomenon in Germany. The company was called… Hexagames.
For 10 years, 1982 to 1992 – which seems to be the lifespan of many game companies – Hexagames was an independent voice of quality in the German gaming scene.
It was founded by L. Hensley to promote his stock market game “Long Short”. I say L. Hensley because nowhere on the web could I find his first name, not even on Boardgamegeek.
There is actually an interesting story behind this game: L. Hensley was not a gamer but a business man who did something that today would probably be called “Day Trading”, meaning that he bought the rights to buy and sell shares only to wait until the shares had fallen before actually buying them, then selling them for the old price making a profit.
This activity – which regularly brings on financial breakdowns until today – was regarded as highly dubious in Frankfurt at the time, so L. Hensley actually went to prison in Frankfurt. There he had 7 months and 1 day of leisure time which he used to create this stock market trading game. Hagedorn met him and became his business partner after his release from prison. The resulting publicity about the “stock market game that was invented in prison” fired up the company that was Hexagames. It was Hagedorn’s idea to create a special hexagonal game board that could be looked at from each side and give the same information to everybody, because he was annoyed with the usual boards where some players always have to read everything upside down. As he used the hexagonal board design for several games in a row it gave the early games of the company a distinctive look and the name Hexagames was born and quickly became a trademark.
At it’s time “Long Short” was regarded as something of a hit, and if one believes the comments at the Geek it still can be regarded as a business game of high quality, simulating the turns and tides of the stock market quite well. Together with Juergen Hagedorn Hensley wanted Hexagames to publish further new games, but quickly they found themselves as the inheritors of the Buetehorn games line instead, a company that went bankrupt roughly the year Hexagames started business. Buetehorn had several beautifully produced games in its line, most notably the strategy game “Conquest” which still exists in one form or another until today. Buetehorn games had a specific box design – a sturdy cardboard box that opened and closed with a button that was also used by many of Hexagames’ games.
Hexagames was quickly recognized for their design quality. First was “Uisge” by Roland Siegers, which garnered the special “beautiful game” or “Schoenes Spiel” prize at the Spiel des Jahres 1984. Already their next big game, the fabulous “Abilene”, also by Roland Siegers, made it on the selection list of the same prize a year later.
I still have a special place in my heart for “Abilene” – it was an unusual design for the time: a fun Western game that was specifically designed to be only played by 3 players, something that is still a rarity and difficult to pull off. Sadly it fell under the curse of the Western game genre – always a difficult sell in Germany – and is now mostly forgotten. But I can only recommend it to anybody interested in unusual games.
Also in later years Hexagames always was a contender for the Spiel des Jahres, but it unfortunately never won the coveted prize. But the company attracted top game designers like Sid Sackson (who did “Die 1. Million” for them) and especially the young Reiner Knizia, who did one of his first and some may argue still best card game design for them, “Res Publica”, a very good civilization light card game that is in print until today.
Like many game companies Hexagames also specialized in bringing interesting games over the pond. They were the first German company to produce a German version of “Cosmic Encounter” for example, still a rarity among collectors. “Cosmic Encounter” had attracted them because of their similar use of a hexagonal game board, so it was a perfect fit to them. Alan Moon did “Black Spy”, a game that was also published by Avalon Hill.
Other games in their very varied line were for example:
“Choice” – an interesting dice game by Sid Sackson which can be seen as an influential multiplayer solitaire dice game, later known as “Einstein”:
“Gimel” – a 2 player abstract game influenced by Egyptian designs.
“Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom” – an unsuccessful movie tie-in attempt.
“Karriere-Poker” – a wonderful card game that later became “The Great Dalmuti” and which can be seen as the direct predecessor of the wonderful “Zoff im Zoo”, sharing some of its mechanics.
One of the most legendary games ever produced by Hexagames must certainly be “McMulti” by James St. Laurent, though, a game that still is held in high regard in German gaming circles. This is an economic game that has some design similarities to the much later “Settlers of Catan” and which has been published in the US under the name “Crude: The Oil Game”.
Another notable Hexagames game is “Showbiz” by Derek Carver, a game that bears a not too slight resemblance to “Modern Art” in a way and which has players manage stars with varying success levels.
Many of Hexagames’ games may seem as if they haven’t aged that well, but in their time they were highly influential. One impressive aspect of Hexagames output was a great variety of games with a preference for simple and non-convoluted designs paired with good production values.
The end of Hexagames was a prolonged one. First Hagedorn left the company and was replaced by Joe Nikisch who later founded “Abacus-Games”, a company that is still going strong today. Hexagames was dissolved in 1992, but was taken over by the Berlin company “Sala Games” which published the best of Hexagames under their brand name. But also Salagames went down, only 2 years later, in 1994.
Today Hexagames’ games are sought-after collector’s item – their legacy is not forgotten and they have shaped many designers that still are successful today.
Moritz Eggert