I reviewed Ash Barker's game Last Days a few months ago. In that review, I make a passing reference to the books foreword.
I love it when a game has designer notes. Ash has a nice forward that lays out what he was trying to accomplish beyond the 4Ms of the game. It is only a few pages long, but those few pages were excellent in describing the type of game we were getting into, and were good food for thought for other aspiring game designers. The way he establishes what made skirmish games so appealing to him was clear, and his taste and design aesthetic was clearly laid out. Kudos to Ash!
You can read the rest of the review at your leisure, but today I wanted to go back and take a closer look at this section of the book. As we all know, Ash Barker is a bit of a celebrity in the wargaming world due to his very successful and fun YouTube channel. There he shares and reviews a lot of games. He has been active in wargaming for a long time, and Last Days is not his only rules. However, in the Foreword to Last Days he lays out some thoughts about what makes a wargame, but especially a skirmish game successful.
In this day an age, many people are trying to create their own skirmish games. They are struggling with the 4Ms, massaging their concepts into workable games, adding chrome, activation methods, how to make Tactical play, and much more. Therefore, I thought it made a bit of sense to dig into what he wrote and talk about some of the key concepts as they are relevant to all those aspiring wargame designers out there.
The Soul of Your Game
I do not know the number of game reviews I have read that say.... "The game is well structured, cleanly written, and the rules are well laid out" Wow, what a ringing endorsement. You know what else is well structured, cleanly written, and well laid out? The phone book... makes you want to rush out and find one for a good read through! A game is more than the sum of its parts.
A good game is more than a set of mechanics, resolutions, and mechanics. Ultimately a game is supposed to be fun. Therefore, after reading through and looking at your own game, what experience do you walk away from the game with? What did it make you feel? Was that the experience you wanted it to have? Those in-game feelings are not going to be generated on their own. The mechanics need to lead you to those emotions.
Think of it as series of equations:
- (Mechanics + Decision Points) = Outcomes
- (Concept+ Game Play Experience) = Emotional Investment
- Outcomes + Emotional Investment = Fun!
This blog has talked a lot about mechanics, generating decision points, game structures, etc. However, those are only one side of the equation. They are the side that generates Outcomes. The other half that we talk about a bit less is that Game Play Experience. I.e. how does the game make you feel the way the concept of the game is supposed to make you feel?
The Game Play Experience is the Soul of the game. Mechanics, Decision Points, outcomes are the physical body. In my own series about wargame design the mechanical elements that are discussed use the body as a metaphor; Activation is the nervous system, Dice Mechanics are the muscle, etc.
This other side of the game is the soul of your game. It is where the emotional investment is.
How do you create Emotional Investment in a Game?
Ash has a list of a few things that he has named and that are is touch stones in game design. I have a few of my own as well. It is these pieces that will help create the right soul of your game.
These are the elements of the game you have added, so no one is playing the same game twice. This can be complications, scenarios, wandering monsters, win conditions, events, etc. They are things that take what the player thinks they know about the game... and changes them up, flips them over, or turns the game inside out. Therefore, you can play the game millions of times, but it is never the same game.
2. Mood Setters
These are mechanics or rules that are simply in there to help fit the right feel or concept of the game. They vary based on the game you are trying to make, but some rules are designed to evoke the right "feel" for the concept and to be able to get into the head space of the models in the game. An aerial game should feel different from a land based skirmish game..... how?
For example, in a horror game you need it to feel horrifying. How do you do that? Fear checks? Escalating tension? Blind reveals? Injury Charts? Loss of control? Low likelihood of success? That is up to you the designer.
3. Big Reveals
The Big Reveal is what the models get at the end of the game. Do they harvest abilities, stat increases, and loot OR do they wind up crippled, destitute, and hungry? It really depends on the feel of the game and how you reward outcomes in the game. However, players will be looking for these "Big Reveals" through the use of a campaign system, in game mechanics or even simple victory conditions.
4. Story Boards
This is where a game can become larger than the sum of its parts. Stand alone games can be linked into a larger narrative of events. Each game, each turn, each element of the game are a series of events. How do these events play into the larger game or campaign? Can they be linked into a narrative to "tell the story" of the game or campaign?
For example, Did Sergeant Wilkins stand at the old farmstead slow the oncoming tide of enemies long enough for the rest to escape? Did the destruction of the units at the Battle of A mean that the Battle of B Squared had to be fought? Did Johnny dropping his gun mean that the team had to break into the sporting goods store and secure a new one?
None of these elements are particular to Skirmish wargames. However, it is easy to see how the "campaign elements" encouraged by skirmish games tick these boxes off much easier than other types of games can. However, all games need these types of elements to build the soul of the game. The best games build these elements into the "meat and potato" mechanics that take place turn by turn. Without them, you have a series of operational instructions more akin to a phone book than a game.
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