Transcript of our podcast from 20 October 2007
by Moritz Eggert
Again I would like to offer some ideas for budding game designers - why do the umpteenth game about trading in the Mediterranean? Try this instead...
We all remember the paragraph based solo gamebooks from the 80's, most notably the Fighting Fantasy Line. Taking an idea from Rick Loomis from his solitaire adventure "Buffalo Castle", which he had devised for the Tunnels and Trolls roleplaying game, they use numbered paragraphs ordered like a decision tree. So you might stand in a room and get offered to open the chest, go to the door to the left or go through the door to the right, each leading to a new page and more decision trees. The complexity of these gamebooks reached their pinnacle with the sadly discontinued line "Fabled Lands", but that's a subject for another segment.
The boardgame industry quickly took note of this new invention in adventure gaming. The first game to probably do this was Tom Wham's "Awful Green Things From Outer Space", which included the famous epilogue in which the crewmen could either make it or not make it in a little space adventure after their flight from the alien infested ship Znutar. Jim van Verth has featured this game detailedly in his excellent podcast "The Vintage Gamer".
Then came more ambitious projects, most notably some games published in "Ares Magazine" like "Voyage of the BSM Pandora" or "The Stainless Steel Rat". The most outstanding two games which used paragraphs were Greg Costikyan's "Tales of the Arabian Nights" and Victory Games' "Ambush" system, both very different in approach but getting the most variety out of the paragraph system. Let's look at the latter closer: "Ambush" simulated deadly squad missions in World War II. At its basis it was a individual level wargame similar to games like Squad Leader, so it still has to-hit-tables for example. But the appearance and actions of the enemy soldiers were programmed in a very ingenious way that made every game slightly different and allowed for a lot of variation.
After the upcoming of computer games, paragraph-based games slowly faded out, but many of us still remember them fondly for their ability to really tell-a-story within a game.
Even though "Ambush!" was a very successful game at it's time wargaming mostly stayed very conservative and didn't experiment more with paragraphs.
I personally think this is a crying shame, as I would have loved them to have tried out something which I think could be very interesting.
Imagine a wargame with counters, but these simply have a name, no numbers, and no combat strengths. You just know this is your 8th Infantry Platoon, this is your 6th Tank Army, etc. If one thinks about it, no real life commander thinks of his units as having neat combat strengths, defense values, etc. Napoleon knew that his Imperial Guard could kick ass if need be, but he could not be sure of it, and he certainly didn't have a number representing this in his head.
Many wargames try to solve this problem by using a luck based combat system, that makes units behave erratically well, depending on your luck. This is in my opinion a quick and easy system, but it sometimes lacks variance. I mean you can only invent so many retreat, disrupted and eliminated results, but in real life military conflicts are much more complicated. There are many examples of strange developments in battles that can never be really simulated in a normal wargame, but that could easily be solved in a storytelling wargame.
Now imagine this: in my imagined game the players would not roll dice when their armies clashed in a hex, instead they would consult a matrix like a programmed adventure that would bring many factors into the fray, like weather, leaders, momentary condition and morale, etc.. Instead of having a luck roll you would get a text result that describes exactly what happened. And these results could cover all kinds of historical what-if's, taking into account the various quirks of historical leaders, for example the nearly wondrous ability of Masséna to save Napoleon's hide in some key battles through unexpected heroism.
What this would be is a kind of story-telling wargame - instead of a dice result you would get a unique description of the outcome of a specific skirmish. The game designers would have prepared a matrix that matched every unit in the game with every unit of its opponent and depicted several possible skirmish outcomes depending on the leader of that unit. A game that used this system would be very different and actually feel more realistic than a normal wargame, as each commander/player would only have limited info on the actual abilities of his or her men. They could perhaps even act independently, with their own will, directed by paragraphs. You could introduce things like not hearing from a certain unit for a while after a battle, it vanishes from the map, only to reappear at an unexpected moment. Leaders suddenly have unexpected inspirations or unexpected failings, etc.
In a way card-driven wargames introduced a certain storytelling aspect with great success by using event cards that would trigger certain historic events. Why not go a step further?
Replayability of such a game would be an issue, but that could be the challenge of the designers. A game like "Tales of the Arabian Nights" doesn't get old quickly, for example, as Greg Costikyan has used several clever mechanics to prevent that.
Anyway, I personally would love to see such a game. Wouldn't you as well?
Hear you next time, when I meet the Lord of the Killer-Kimchis and pay hommage to the greatest games never made, found in the pages of ARES magazine...
©2007, Westpark Gamers