Friday, October 20, 2017

Wargame Design: Innovation is Over-rated

Yup.  I said it.  Innovation is over-rated.  I feel this is especially true in the field of wargames design.  Too many people are trying way too hard, to be way too clever.  Most of the people I see try to re-invent the wheel end up stalling their project and never getting anything to a playable state.  There is no reason to try and make games if you never have anything to play. 

Alternatively, they get something to a playable state, but it comes out way to different and complicated that no one wants to play it.  The players can’t wrap their heads around it, or it requires a lot of tracking, or there is too much table clutter, etc.  People read the rules, scratch their heads and never look back.  Most of the time I see someone trying to innovate a mechanic or system they spiral into If This/Then That style of rules.  Instead, keep it simple.  If you use a method to roll over a target number to resolve an action, use that same model for everything else that requires a test.  Use the same core mechanics over and over in the rules.            
Once, a long time ago I took a class on screen writing.  The professor shared something that stuck with me for a long time and I recognize the truth of.  He said that if you want to actually sell manuscripts for movies and books do not try to be innovative.  Many people are afraid of that which they do not understand or feel comfortable with.  Innovative ideas are not comfortable and therefore lead to a lack of buying.  Instead, take an existing model and re-skin it.  Change the setting, a plot point, or a character around.  The skeleton is the familiar, the innovation or uniqueness is how you combine the pieces.    
My young ears were shocked by this notion.  Then, I actually started to look around at what the entertainment industry was offering me and realized with horror that he was right.  That was exactly what was happening for the most part.  Let’s look at “arguably” the first Blockbuster movie and nerd classic; Star Wars.  There is nothing new in Star Wars.  In fact, it is very “traditional” in its narrative.  The big change was simply placing it in a new setting.  How many times has the Seven Samurai been re-done?  The innovation is putting a new spin or use on a classic idea.  People do not feel alienated by the innovation and instead embrace the subtle change or re-use. 

Therefore, if you want to make games that you can play don’t try to re-invent the wheel.  Innovation is over-rated.  Instead focus on what you are trying to accomplish with your game and look at what other games do to achieve it.  Do they roll to beat a target number, cross-reference a chart, use opposed rolls, use an interrupt system?  Instead of trying to invent a whole new method, use one that works and apply it to your game.  Always remember what you are trying to accomplish and you will not go wrong.
Someone else probably thought of it somewhere first.  That is why it is so important to stay current with new systems and games.  You will slowly create an “inventory” of mechanics that you can then apply to the design problems you face.  These ideas become your “Tool box” where you apply these mechanics together into new and interesting ways.  It is this re-combination of mechanics and how you apply them to new or different problems where you will find innovation.  It is not creating something new from whole cloth.  It is something new from the sum of its parts.
If you read the rules for Castles in the Sky, you will find that it takes liberally from several games systems.  This includes Battlefleet Gothic, Aeronautica Imperialis, Battletech, All Quiet on the Martian Front, Dystopian Wars, and a few other game systems.  In fact, if you are familiar with all of these games then you can probably tell me exactly what mechanics came from which game.  However, how they all work together is what gives the game a unique feel and play style.  Plus, it is a complete and playable game system! 
Too many designers focus on creating the perfect mechanic, instead of just getting on with it and making the game.  Innovation is over-rated if it stops you from completing your wargame project.  Instead, remember what you are trying to accomplish and use the existing mechanics that will allow you to get there.  The innovation will come with how the mechanics integrate together to make the sum of the game.                   

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