Could the Germans have taken Moscow?

Saturday, July 10th, 2021

When more than 3 million German and German-allied troops surged across the border on June 22, 1941, many expected Operation Barbarossa to be a walkover:

“Bolshevism will collapse as a house of cards,” predicted Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. An embarrassingly large number of U.S. and British experts agreed, mindful of then-Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s officer corps purges and the Red Army’s incompetent performance against tiny Finland in the 1939 to 1940 Winter War. An unending series of Soviet military disasters in the summer and fall of 1941 — including the killing or capture of 650,000 Soviet soldiers at Kyiv — only reinforced that opinion.

But the red banner flying over the Reichstag in May 1945 proved the experts wrong. And a new computer wargame helps explains why.

[…]

The game is a number cruncher’s dream, tracking everything from the number of operable tanks and trucks, to the combat and administrative competence of individual generals, to whether sufficient raw materials are reaching arms factories.

[…]

Battlefield success in the game depends on factors like morale, combat experience, troop fatigue, and the skill of their commanders. Because the Germans have better troops and commanders in 1941, they can chew up the Soviet armies, forcing the Soviets to hastily commit unprepared reserves, which in turn get destroyed in a vicious cycle.

[…]

Compared to the lavishly equipped U.S. Army of World War II, the German and Soviet armies faced a logistical nightmare. Although the United States and Britain held an abundance of Detroit-made trucks to haul supplies, the Germans and Soviets were always short of vehicles, and the ones they had were quickly devoured by Russia’s primitive roads. While armored units were fully motorized, Germany and Russia’s poor infantry relied on horses to haul artillery and supplies. For them, World War II was more like World War I (what historian Omer Bartov has called the “de-modernization” of the German army in the East) and only a short step away from French leader Napoléon Bonaparte’s ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812.

Hence, both sides on the Eastern Front relied on railroads to move troops and supplies. Armies tended to move along routes where there were railroads to supply them, but even then, logistics were difficult. Compared to Western Europe and North America, rail lines in Russia were sparse and wider than European tracks, which meant the Germans had to re-lay them as well as repair Russian scorched-earth damage to rail yards.

[…]

The game features a detailed logistical model that tracks supplies by the tons. (Yes, the tons, although the computer does most of the bean counting). Fuel, ammunition, and food are transported along rail lines to depots, where they are distributed by truck and horse-drawn wagon (and a limited capacity for aerial resupply). But railroads have a limited capacity; the rail lines actually change color on the map as their capacity is quickly overloaded. That leaves trucks, but there aren’t enough of them. And the more trucks that travel through Russia’s forests and swamps, the more trucks that break down. (Yes, the game tracks broken-down and repaired vehicles.)

This is devastating for all mechanized units, for which gasoline is life. But especially so for the Germans in 1941, who relied on their fast-moving panzers to encircle and pin the Russian armies until the foot-slow infantry moved in the for kill. Without gas, the tanks can’t perform their bold maneuvers.

This isn’t a problem at the start of the game as the Germans begin their offensive from well-stocked bases in East Prussia, Poland, and Romania.

[…]

The biggest question: Could the Germans have taken Moscow if they concentrated all of their forces on a single knife-like thrust to the Soviet capital? War in the East 2 suggests this strategy would have been a disaster: There simply wasn’t the rail and truck capacity to mass forces for a Moscow-only offensive.

The game is Gary Grigsby’s War in the East 2, from Matrix Games.

He pounded through that dungeon with a ruthless efficiency

Tuesday, June 15th, 2021

Ben Espen reviews the D&D-inspired anime Goblin Slayer, whose main character is old school:

The Goblin Slayer, in his obsession with killing goblins, studies them relentlessly. He learns their ways, and schemes better and better ways to kill them. It reminds me very much of this Hill Cantons blog post about they way Chris Kutalik’s Vietnam veteran father played D&D like he was leading a patrol in ‘Nam. All the other adventurers find the Slayer kind of weird. And he is kind of weird. But he is really good at what he does, and he takes a real problem very seriously that no one else does. The metajoke here is of course that everyone else this fantasy world thinks they are playing the modern roleplaying game of improv theater with fantasy superpowers, while the Goblin Slayer lives in Fantasy F**king Vietnam.

Here’s how Chris Kutalik describes Fantasy F**king Vietnam:

My father was a Vietnam vet. Not a “I scrubbed B-52s on Guam” or “flew F-16s in the Texas National Guard” kind of vet, but a Purple-Hearted combat veteran of the First Cavalry. I always felt that he hated the war though, what it did to him body and soul — he still carries shrapnel in a shoulder to this day. It haunted him, but he spoke freely of it and even let it enter our play with him.

On long hikes he’d send me or my brother, stick in hand, to walk point — several yards in front so that the sudden blast of an imaginary mine or grenade didn’t wipe out the “squad”. Hike done we’d jog back to the car Jody-chanting: “I wanna be an Airborne Ranger, living my life full of danger.”

And I played D&D with the man.

Somewhere in the summer of 1981, I ran a few sessions as a DM where he played a first-level mook of a Fighting Man, fittingly called the Tunnel Rat, alongside my brother’s bland-by-comparison elf. He played the game with every bit of a rigor that phrase conjures up for latter-day REMFs.

He pored over the equipment tables, grilling me on the properties of this or that item. It took him about five seconds to grasp the killing power of the standard Molotov-like flask of oil. He bought 20. Grokking the need to travel light and mean he skimped on armor and the excess weapons so common in our summer camp D&D experience. He bought dogs instead.

Viet Cong Tunnel Complex

He pounded through that dungeon with a ruthless efficiency. At first my brother’s PC walked point. When that nearly ended with his death at the hands of a goblin ambush, he switched to running his dogs into rooms and closing the door before running in on the attack. When that stopped working, he doused the dogs with oil, set them on fire, and loosed them into the massed ranks of his opponents.

There wasn’t a trap in the place he didn’t find, and little in the way of anything hidden missed his eye.

The game was tense, adversarial even. It brought out a side of him that scared me a little. I think sometimes we forget that games — especially such demanding ones as the role-playing variety — aren’t always leisurely fun, sometimes they mix passion and a welter of emotions in them. Those sessions certainly did, but I treasure them because they taught me something about the man.

This is the flip side of Tucker’s Kobolds:

Tucker ran an incredibly dangerous dungeon in the days I was stationed at Ft. Bragg, N.C. This dungeon had corridors that changed all of your donkeys into huge flaming demons or dropped the whole party into acid baths, but the demons were wienies compared to the kobolds on Level One. These kobolds were just regular kobolds, with 1-4 hp and all that, but they were mean. When I say they were mean, I mean they were bad, Jim. They graduated magna cum laude from the Sauron Institute for the Criminally Vicious.

When I joined the gaming group, some of the PCs had already met Tucker’s kobolds, and they were not eager to repeat the experience. The party leader went over the penciled map of the dungeon and tried to find ways to avoid the little critters, but it was not possible. The group resigned itself to making a run for it through Level One to get to the elevators, where we could go down to Level Ten and fight “okay” monsters like huge flaming demons.

It didn’t work. The kobolds caught us about 60′ into the dungeon and locked the door behind us and barred it. Then they set the corridor on fire, while we were still in it.

“NOOOOOO!!!” screamed the party leader. “It’s THEM! Run!!!”

Thus encouraged, our party scrambled down a side passage, only to be ambushed by more kobolds firing with light crossbows through murder holes in the walls and ceilings. Kobolds with metal armor and shields flung Molotov cocktails at us from the other sides of huge piles of flaming debris, which other kobolds pushed ahead of their formation using long metal poles like broomsticks. There was no mistake about it. These kobolds were bad.

We turned to our group leader for advice.

“AAAAAAGH!!!” he cried, hands clasped over his face to shut out the tactical situation.

We abandoned most of our carried items and donkeys to speed our flight toward the elevators, but we were cut off by kobold snipers who could split-move and fire, ducking back behind stones and corners after launching steel-tipped bolts and arrows, javelins, hand axes, and more flaming oil bottles. We ran into an unexplored section of Level One, taking damage all the time. It was then we discovered that these kobolds had honeycombed the first level with small tunnels to speed their movements. Kobold commandos were everywhere. All of our hirelings died. Most of our henchmen followed. We were next.

I recall we had a 12th-level magic user with us, and we asked him to throw a spell or something. “Blast ‘em!” we yelled as we ran. “Fireball ‘em! Get those little @#+$%*&!!”

“What, in these narrow corridors? ” he yelled back. “You want I should burn us all up instead of them?”

Our panicked flight suddenly took us to a dead-end corridor, where a giant air shaft dropped straight down into unspeakable darkness, far past Level Ten. Here we hastily pounded spikes into the floors and walls, flung ropes over the ledge, and climbed straight down into that unspeakable darkness, because anything we met down there was sure to be better than those kobolds.

We escaped, met some huge flaming demons on Level Ten, and even managed to kill one after about an hour of combat and the lives of half the group. We felt pretty good — but the group leader could not be cheered up.

“We still have to go out the way we came in,” he said as he gloomily prepared to divide up the treasure.

Tucker’s kobolds were the worst things we could imagine. They ate all our donkeys and took our treasure and did everything they could to make us miserable, but they had style and brains and tenacity and courage. We respected them and loved them, sort of, because they were never boring.

The first two works that Tom Clancy published were a letter to the editor of Proceedings and this plan

Thursday, May 27th, 2021

The first two works that Tom Clancy published were a letter to the editor of Proceedings and this plan for using hovercraft to deploy MX missiles:

A successful MX deployment system must meet a number of tests:

  • Insensitivity to first strike: The deployment scheme must allow a large proportion of its missiles to survive a strike and retaliate in force. The MX is more likely to deter a war rather than fight one if this criterion is met.
  • Reconstitution of forces: The insensitivity to attack must continue for an indefinite period of time. This will allow NCA to determine how many missiles have survived, choose an appropriate response, and to redirect the missiles to still-valuable targets.
  • Continuous launch capability: The system should be able to launch under the widest range of circumstances, including disablement of the missile carrier itself.
  • Separate vulnerabilities: The distinct nature of this leg of the strategic Triad should be retained, forcing an opponent to contemplate the most difficult range of tasks.
  • Communications security: The most attractive aspect of the land leg of the Triad is the availability of secure two-way communications at all times.
  • Environmental impact: As was demonstrated by the MPS deployment mode; any system which has a negative impact on local populations or environments will generate significant legal and political resistance.
  • Operational safety: Since any deployment system will touch upon civilian areas, its routine operation must not be perceived as a possible danger by the populace.
  • Cost: Ideally, the system should be as inexpensive as possible to initiate, operate, and maintain. To this end, a system that does not operate continuously has long-term advantages.

A number of deployment systems have been examined, and each fails on one or more of these criteria. The MX has been described as “a Rolls Royce without a garage.” But a vehicle exists to deploy the MX that meets the above preconditions: the U. S. Navy’s air cushion landing craft (LCAC).

LCAC with MX Missile

The LCAC has a standard payload capacity of 60 tons, and an overload capacity of 75 tons. This is less than the weight of the MX (85 tons) , but well in excess of that for any other American strategic system except the obsolete Titan II. The LCAC has a speed of 50 knots, and a range of 200 nautical miles. It can cross land or water, and does minimal damage to the terrain.

Were the MX missiles to be deployed on vehicles of similar performance, they would represent exceptionally elusive targets. Once deployed, the LCAC(M)s would scatter like quail before am incoming strike

I’m not sure I’d consider a hovercraft the most stable platform for a 72-foot missile. Clancy’s concept bears little resemblance to the G.E.V.s of Steve Jackson’s futuristic wargame;

GEV Cover

Tom Clancy’s third published work, by the way, was The Hunt for Red October, which I enjoyed in audiobook format not too long ago.

A near miss means you still lose

Tuesday, May 18th, 2021

In 2010, a cognitive neuroscientist named Reza Habib asked twenty-two people to lie inside an MRI, Charles Duhigg explains (in The Power of Habit), and watch a slot machine spin around and around. The pathological gamblers got more excited about winning:

“But what was really interesting were the near misses. To pathological gamblers, near misses looked like wins. Their brains reacted almost the same way. But to a nonpathological gambler, a near miss was like a loss. People without a gambling problem were better at recognizing that a near miss means you still lose.”

In the late 1990s, one of the largest slot machine manufacturers hired a former video game executive to help them design new slot machines:

That executive’s insight was to program machines to deliver more near wins. Now, almost every slot contains numerous twists — such as free spins and sounds that erupt when icons almost align — as well as small payouts that make players feel like they are winning when, in truth, they are putting in more money than they are getting back. “No other form of gambling manipulates the human mind as beautifully as these machines,” an addictive-disorder researcher at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine told a New York Times reporter in 2004.

The maladaptive variety is what gives competitiveness its bad name

Tuesday, March 9th, 2021

Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing draws a distinction between adaptive competitiveness and maladaptive competitiveness:

Adaptive competitiveness is characterized by perseverance and determination to rise to the challenge, but it’s bounded by an abiding respect for the rules. It’s the ability to feel genuine satisfaction at having put in a worthy effort, even if you lose. People with adaptive competitiveness don’t have to be the best at everything—they only strive to be the best in the domain they train for. They might be perfectionists at work, but they don’t care if they’re the worst at tennis and shuffleboard. They are able to defer gratification, meaning they accept that it can take a long time to improve. Healthy competitiveness is marked by constant striving for excellence, but not desperate concerns over rank. It’s adaptive competitiveness that leads to the great, heroic performances that inspire us all.

The maladaptive variety is what gives competitiveness its bad name. Maladaptive competitiveness is characterized by psychological insecurity and displaced urges. It’s the individual who can’t accept that losing is part of competing; it’s the person who competes when others around him are not competing. He has to be the best at everything, and he can’t stop comparing himself to others even when the competition is over. He doesn’t stop when the whistle blows. He drags others into competitions they don’t want to be in, by provoking them. And he will resort to cheating when he can’t win.

The only thing worse than hardly knowing anything was knowing a little bit more

Sunday, January 31st, 2021

Tom Vanderbilt decided to learn to play chess as an adult, when his daughter started learning:

Even as your skills and knowledge progress, there is a potential value to holding on to that beginner’s mind. In what’s come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, the psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger showed that on various cognitive tests the people who did the worst were also the ones who most “grossly overestimated” their actual performance. They were “unskilled and unaware of it”.

This can certainly be a stumbling block for beginners. But additional research later showed that the only thing worse than hardly knowing anything was knowing a little bit more. This pattern appears in the real world: doctors learning a spinal surgery technique committed the most errors not on the first or second try, but on the 15th; pilot errors, meanwhile, seem to peak not in the earliest stages but after about 800 hours of flight time.

[...]

In the face of my agonised dithering, they would launch fast, brute-force attacks — sometimes effective, sometimes foolhardy. “Children just kind of go for it,” Daniel King, the English grandmaster and chess commentator, told me. “That kind of confidence can be very disconcerting for the opponent.”

Young children, for example, have been shown to be faster and more accurate at tests involving “probabilistic sequence learning” — the sort in which people must guess which triggers will lead to what events (for example, if you press button A, event X will happen).

After the age of 12, this ability begins to decline. As researchers suggest, people start relying more on “internal models” of cognition and reasoning, instead of what they see right in front of them. In other words, they overthink things. In chess games, where my adult opponents often seemed to battle unseen internal demons, the kids just seemed to twitch out a series of moves.

[...]

When I asked our chess coach about what it was like to teach adult chess beginners as opposed to child chess beginners, he thought for a moment and said: “Adults need to explain to themselves why they play what they play.” Kids, he said, “don’t do that”. He compared it to languages: “Beginner adults learn the rules of grammar and pronunciation and use those to put sentences together. Little kids learn languages by talking.”

[...]

A study that had adults aged 58 to 86 simultaneously take multiple classes — ranging from Spanish to music composition to painting — found that after just a few months, the learners had improved not only at Spanish or painting, but on a battery of cognitive tests. They’d rolled back the odometers in their brains by some 30 years, doing better on the tests than a control group who took no classes.

A game that plays people

Sunday, December 20th, 2020

A game designer working in the niche of Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), LARPs, experience fiction, interactive theater, and “serious games” — fictions designed to feel as real as possible, games that teach you, puzzles that come to life all around the players — immediately recognized QAnon:

I had seen it before. I had almost built it before. It was gaming’s evil twin. A game that plays people. (cue ominous music)

[...]

QAnon is like the reflection of a game in a mirror, it looks just like one, but it is inverted.

[...]

In one of the very first experience fictions (XF) I ever designed, the players had to explore a creepy basement looking for clues. The object they were looking for was barely hidden and the clue was easy. It was Scooby Doo easy. I definitely expected no trouble in this part of the game.

But there was trouble. I didn’t know it then, but its name was APOPHENIA.

Apophenia is: “the tendency to perceive a connection or meaningful pattern between unrelated or random things (such as objects or ideas)”

As the participants started searching for the hidden object, on the dirt floor, were little random scraps of wood.

How could that be a problem!?

It was a problem because three of the pieces made the shape of a perfect arrow pointing right at a blank wall. It was uncanny. It had to be a clue. The investigators stopped and stared at the wall and were determined to figure out what the clue meant and they were not going one step further until they did. The whole game was derailed. Then, it got worse. Since there obviously was no clue there, the group decided the clue they were looking for was IN the wall. The collection of ordinary tools they found conveniently laying around seemed to enforce their conclusion that this was the correct direction. The arrow was pointing to the clue and the tools were how they would get to it. How obvious could it be?

I stared in horror because it all fit so well. It was better and more obvious than the clue I had hidden. I could see it. It was all random chance but I could see the connections that had been made were all completely logical. I had a crude backup plan and I used it quickly before these well-meaning players started tearing apart the basement wall with crowbars looking for clues that did not exist.

These were normal people and their assumptions were normal and logical and completely wrong.

In most ARG-like games apophenia is the plague of designers and players, sometimes leading participants to wander further and further away from the plot and causing designers to scramble to get them back or (better yet) incorporate their ideas. In role-playing games, ARGs, video games, and really anything where the players have agency, apophenia is going to be an issue.

This happens because in real games there are actual solutions to actual puzzles and a real plot created by the designers. It’s easy to get off track because there is a track. A great game runner (often called a puppet-master) can use one or two of these speculations to create an even better game, but only as much as the plot can be adjusted for in real time or planned out before-hand. It can create amazing moments in a game, but it’s not easy. For instance, I wish I could have instantly entombed something into that wall in the basement because it would have worked so well, but I was out of luck!

If you are a designer, and have puzzles, and have a plot, then apophenia is a wild card you always have to be concerned about.

QAnon is a mirror reflection of this dynamic. Here apophenia is the point of everything. There are no scripted plots. There are no puzzles to solve created by game designers. There are no solutions.

QAnon grows on the wild misinterpretation of random data, presented in a suggestive fashion in a milieu designed to help the users come to the intended misunderstanding. Maybe “guided apophenia” is a better phrase. Guided because the puppet masters are directly involved in hinting about the desired conclusions. They have pre-seeded the conclusions. They are constantly getting the player lost by pointing out unrelated random events and creating a meaning for them that fits the propaganda message Q is delivering.

There is no reality here. No actual solution in the real world. Instead, this is a breadcrumb trail AWAY from reality. Away from actual solutions and towards a dangerous psychological rush. It works very well because when you “figure it out yourself” you own it. You experience the thrill of discovery, the excitement of the rabbit hole, the acceptance of a community that loves and respects you. Because you were convinced to “connect the dots yourself” you can see the absolute logic of it. This is the conclusion you arrived at. More about this later.

Everyone on the board agrees with you because it’s highly likely they were the ones that pointed it out to you just for that purpose.

[...]

Every cloud has a shape that can look like something else. Everything that flickers is also a jumble of Morse code. The more information that is out there, the easier it is to allow apophenia to guide us into anything. This is about looking up at the sky and someone pointing out constellations.

The difference is that these manufactured connections lead to the desired conclusions Q’s handlers have created. When players arrive at the “correct” answers they are showered with adoration, respect, and social credit. Like a teenage RP, the “correct” answer is the one that the group respects the most and makes the story the most enjoyable. The idea that bolsters the theory. The correct answer is the one that provides the poster with the most credit.

It’s like a Darwinian fiction lab, where the best stories and the most engaging and satisfying misinterpretations rise to the top and are then elaborated upon for the next version.

Stefan Zweig liked to play an interesting game

Tuesday, December 8th, 2020

The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, during his many years of delightful and luxurious travel, liked to play an interesting game — one very similar to a practice that Seneca had:

As soon as Zweig arrived in a new city — no matter how distant — he would pretend that he’d just moved there and desperately needed a job. He would go from store to store, checking to see if they were hiring. He’d read the help wanted ads in the newspaper. He would often go all the way through the hiring process until he got an offer. Offer in hand, he would then walk out and enjoy his trip, feeling the pride and comfort of knowing he could handle starting from scratch if he had to.

Seneca’s version of this was to practice poverty once per month. He’d wear his worst clothes and eat the cheapest food. He’d sleep on the ground. The point was to get up close and personal with the thing most of us secretly and subconsciously fear: losing everything. Being poor. Having nothing.

The invasion of Japan might have resembled the Okinawa campaign

Sunday, August 23rd, 2020

The US dropped two atomic bombs on Japan 75 years ago, but what would an actual Allied invasion of Japan have looked like?

A clue can be found in Japan ’45, from John Tiller Software, a hobby wargame that depicts Operation Olympic (a sequel, Japan ’46, covers Operation Coronet). Japan ’45 is a battalion-level simulation involving thousands of U.S. Army and Marine, Japanese, British and French units maneuvering over a 2-D map of Kyushu.

At first glance, the Allies appear to be an unstoppable juggernaut. They field a staggering array of units, including tanks, armored cars, infantry (foot and mechanized), paratroopers, commandos, artillery (towed and self-propelled) and anti-tank guns, backed by fighters, bombers, battleships and destroyers. They enjoy far more firepower and mobility than the Japanese, whose army is mostly a First World War-style force of foot infantry and artillery.

But the unstoppable Allied war machine soon clanks to a halt. For starters, the terrain is not friendly to a mechanized army. In Japan ’45, the map of Kyushu is studded with rice paddies, forests, hills, villages, rivers and streams. The terrain restricts movement to a crawl, and provides natural defensive cover for the defenders. Despite all those Allied Sherman tanks, there will be no dashing Patton-esque blitzkriegs on Kyushu.

And what nature can’t provide, Japanese shovels will. The invasion beaches on Kyushu are studded with minefields, trenches, bunkers and pillboxes. The Allied player can only gnash his teeth as bombs, napalm and one-ton shells from battleships barely scratch Japanese troops embedded deep in their fortifications.

Finally, there is the Japanese soldier to contend with. The core of the Imperial Army was its legendarily tough infantry, which could withstand the hardest privations, and preferred to fight hand-to-hand with the bayonet. Even if their weapons aren’t quite as good or plentiful as Allied equipment, they’re good enough to inflict massive casualties on the invaders.

Playing Japan ’45, as the Allies against the AI-controlled Japanese side, graphically demonstrates that Operation Olympic would have been a meat grinder. U.S. Army and Marine assault troops splashing ashore suffer heavy losses from minefields, artillery and machine guns. Pinned down on the exposed beaches, the riflemen and engineers advance inch-by-inch. Eventually the Japanese are dislodged from their entrenchments, and once in the open, they are vulnerable to Allied air and naval firepower.

But then what? The terrain on Kyushu is too rough and restricted to allow an Allied breakthrough. Once the Japanese defenders are pushed off the bushes, they just regroup inland among the hills and woods, and the Allies have to dig them out again.

The game suggests the invasion of Japan might have resembled the Okinawa campaign, where U.S. troops had to battle through multiple Japanese defensive lines in a grinding battle of attrition that cost 50,000 American casualties — and 400 ships sunk or damaged by kamikazes — before Okinawa was conquered. Like Okinawa, the question is not whether the Allies will capture Kyushu, but what price they will pay for it.

In 2019, fans pledged more than $176 million toward tabletop games

Monday, July 20th, 2020

Tabletop gaming has evolved dramatically over the years, but lately board game funding has changed even more:

Then, on March 30, the board game Frosthaven — the dungeon crawling, highly-anticipated sequel to the hit game Gloomhaven — surpassed its funding goal of $500,000 on Kickstarter in mere hours. Today, it is the most-funded board game on the site ever, with nearly $13 million pledged toward funding the game’s development. Only two projects have ever crowdsourced more funding on the site.

[...]

Games like Dark Souls, Ankh: Gods of Egypt, Cthulhu: Death May Die and Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon are among those that earned multiple millions through crowdfunding.

Creators use Kickstarter like a social media site, an advertisement and a fundraising tool all in one, and they use it more successfully than nearly any other game creators on the site. In 2019, fans pledged more than $176 million toward tabletop games — up 6.8% over the previous year, according to Kickstarter data gathered by the entertainment site Polygon. In all, more than 1 million people pledged to games on the site last year.

[...]

It takes a lot of startup value to create your own video game, for instance, but for board games, you only need a good enough idea and a well-placed Kickstarter page to gauge public interest.

[...]

Creators are responsible for everything if their goals are reached. They have to print the games and send them to their customers on their own — a process that can be grueling, time-consuming and even detrimental. One board game creator miscalculated the amount of money it would cost to ship games and lost his house due to the unexpected financial burden.

(Hat tip to Nyrath.)

Maxis didn’t want to make professional simulation games

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2020

SimCity wasn’t meant to be taken seriously:

The game was inspired by research on real-world urban planning concepts, and although it was created as a way for players to experiment running a city, the goal was to be fun rather than accurate. “I realized early on, because of chaos theory and a lot of other things,” said designer Will Wright, “that it’s kind of hopeless to approach simulations like that, as predictive endeavors. But we’ve kind of caricatured our systems. SimCity was always meant to be a caricature of the way a city works, not a realistic model of the way a city works.”

“I think if we tried to make it realistic, we would be doing something that we wouldn’t want to do,” Wright said in an interview in 1999. But that didn’t stop companies from believing Maxis could design realistic simulations. Will Wright didn’t believe that was even possible. “Many people come to us and say, ‘You should do the professional version,’” he continued. “That really scares me because I know how pathetic the simulations are, really, compared to reality. The last thing I want people to come away with is that we’re on the verge of being able to simulate the way that a city really develops, because we’re not.”

Maxis didn’t want to make professional simulation games. But for two brief, strange years, they did.

From 1992 to 1994, a division called Maxis Business Simulations was responsible for making serious professional simulations that looked and played like Maxis games. After Maxis cut the division loose, the company continued to operate independently, taking the simulation game genre in their own direction. Their games found their way into in corporate training rooms and even went as far as the White House.

Almost nothing they developed was ever released to the public.

[...]

For Wright, games were a way of helping people create “mental models” for understanding parts of the world. The team at Maxis would research a topic like urban dynamics — or something like ant colony behavior, in the case of another game they made called SimAnt — and create a game where players could experiment with those ideas. The goal wasn’t to teach anything directly, but rather to help the player get the model of SimCity in their head, so that playing this game could help them understand how the different systems within a city interact.

For many people though, that nuance was lost, and instead they treated it like Maxis could build accurate simulations of the real world. And they wouldn’t stop asking about it. “In the first couple months after SimCity appeared,” Wright told Wired, “we were approached by a number of companies saying, ‘Hey that’s great! If you can do a city like that, we want you to do SimPizzaHut, or SimWhatever.’ We thought these things were so weird that we said no, but they kept coming in.”

“So at some point, as we got big enough, we decided to give it a go.”

John Hiles knew about SimCity. He also believed in the power of building mental models, and he saw something in SimCity that was missing from the simulation modeling work happening at Delta Logic: it was fun. It had an intuitive interface and friendly graphics. That was the missing ingredient. Hiles believed that if they teamed up — Maxis’s style with Delta Logic’s systems — they could create simulations that were fun and powerful. Maxis had been looking for new partners for software development, so Hiles used that as an opportunity to get in their orbit. He approached Jeff Braun, and in 1991, his company became a contractor for Maxis.

[...]

As part of the company’s restructuring in the wake of SimCity, in the summer of 1992, Maxis accepted a $10 million investment from Warburg Pincus Ventures, who received a 30% stake in the company and a seat at the board. According to Braun, Warburg Pincus wanted Maxis to start doing business simulation games more seriously.

With their new directive, Maxis decided to jump in all the way. That July, they purchased Delta Logic, turning them into a new division of the company — Maxis Business Simulations. John Hiles was named VP and general manager.

Their first project? Chevron wanted them to make a game about an oil refinery.

Oil refineries are really, really complicated. That’s why Chevron wanted Maxis to make them a game like SimCity, to teach the employees at their oil refinery in Richmond, California how it all worked.

To be clear, they didn’t want a game that was supposed to accurately train people how to run an oil refinery or replace an education in chemical engineering. That would’ve been incredibly dangerous. What they wanted instead was something that showed you how the dynamics of the refinery worked, how all the different pieces invisibly fit together, like SimCity did for cities.

The operators at the refinery sometimes had trouble getting a big picture for what was happening at the plant beyond their particular area of focus. “The whole goal if this was to teach operators that they are part of a bigger system,” Skidmore said. “Their concern at the time was that operators tended to be very focused on their one plant, and their one thing they do, and so [they] weren’t keeping in mind that what they do affected other parts of the plant. So they wanted a training tool that allowed operators to manipulate inputs and outputs of the various pieces of the refinery process to see how they impact.”

The non-technical staff at the Richmond refinery needed to know how it worked too. The people in human resources and accounting weren’t chemical engineers, but it would help their work to see how the different areas of the plant were networked together, how one department affected another department.

Chevron paid Maxis $75,000 for a prototype of a refinery simulator. The project began even before Maxis bought Delta Logic, back when they were still just contractors.

How do you get started on a project like this? They did it the same way Maxis developed their own games: they did research.

John Hiles and the Bruces took a visit to the Chevron Richmond Refinery, where they met with a specialist who took them on a tour of the plant and explained how it worked. It was a collaborative relationship with Chevron throughout the development process; Chevron sent them the raw formulas they used at the refinery, and as Maxis Business Simulations turned that into a game, Chevron would double-check their work.

[...]

John Hiles said that most of the trainers at Chevron wanted to use it as a conventional training tool, “but some of the more astute teachers said, ‘Let’s just get you started here by seeing if you can wreck the oil refinery, if you can abuse the inputs and the settings and essentially get fired,’” he remembered.

That was a legitimate way to learn how a refinery worked: if you start breaking the refinery, you can see how ruining one part of the plant will affect the other parts of the plant. “The tool — the game — was agnostic,” Hiles explained, correcting himself. “It would work for someone trying to ruin an oil refinery just as well as somebody trying to run it efficiently.”

SimRefinery was finished in fall 1992, earlier than the 1993 date that’s usually reported online. The trademark registration for SimRefinery suggests that the game was officially handed over to Chevron on Monday, October 26, 1992. (It’s unusual to have a specific release date for a corporate training product, but that’s a result of Maxis trademarking the SimRefinery name almost a year after it was completed.)

Chevron liked it. They started testing the game with their staff in September, and Chevron reported that communication from marketing and finance staff “improved dramatically.” Speaking to The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Chevron training specialist Susan Gustin praised the game’s effectiveness. “Just dumping information on people isn’t effective,” she said. “People only remember what they use.” She told Computerworld, “Some of these relationships aren’t at all obvious until you play the game a bit.”

It seems to have even won over one of its critics, Will Wright. “He was initially skeptical,” Skidmore said. “I think when we eventually finished SimRefinery, I think he approved of it.”

[...]

Whatever the long-term interest in SimRefinery, it wasn’t adopted at Chevron out of the gate, and that was the start of a pattern for the games by Maxis Business Simulations — a skepticism towards the idea that a simulation game could teach you something. Or should teach you something.

Good isn’t stupid, or weak, or nice

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2020

Good isn’t stupid, or weak, or nice, Rick Stump argues:

I had spent my early years reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard, Andre Norton, Le Morte d’Arthur, and (especially) the stories of Charlemagne and the Twelve Peers. Heck, I read Vance’s Lyonesse before I read The Fellowship of the Ring.

The great thing about the books that I read first and most, from the Twelve Peers to The Return of the King, was that they all give a very clear idea of what is meant by good and evil, especially within the milieu of fantasy, be it literature or tabletop role playing.

The Twelve Peers, John Carter, Allan Quatermaine all shared a few traits — they were brave, they were honest, the protected the weak, and they were decisive. They also laughed, had close friends, drank, and fought. But they also were champions of the weak, loyal friends, fierce enemies, and able to judge others by their words and deeds rather than being bigoted (John Carter not only has friends of all of the races of Mars he forges close ties between them for the first time in millenia; Allan Quatermaine admires and supports Umbopa/Ignosi long before he learns he is a king; if a man is a good fighter and a Catholic his past is his past to the paladins.

Note that I didn’t mention King Arthur or his knights here. This is because in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (and unlike the earlier source material) Arthur and most of the rest are actually cautionary figures; Arthur is a deeply flawed man and poor king who begets an illegitimate son with his own half-sister, then kills all of the newborns in his lands trying (and failing) to hide this sin; Merlin is capricious and advises Arthur to hide his sins through mass infanticide; Lancelot is portrayed as not very clever and, essentially, a plaything of Guinevere who believes his sins are not sins because the queen says so; Gareth is underhanded and deceitful in his quest for fame and tries mightily to break his chastity; the list goes on. Suffice it to say that Le Morte d’Arthur was written during the Wars of the Roses and was meant to be a warning about men who claimed to be good but were not. It is truly unfortunate that Malory’s work is so popular that many modern readers mistake the figures in his version of the stories as examples rather than warnings.

And I suspect that this may have a lot to do with the confusion some have over how to play good — modern culture is saturated with King Arthur and the Knights as being exemplars of knighthood when they weren’t.

[...]

I am far from the first guy to point out that Good is not Weak. C. S. Lewis directly addressed this more than once, perhaps most famously in this quote,

“Then he is safe?” asked Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver, “Didn’t you hear what she told you? Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

Or this one, more detailed is less famous,

“Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.”I am dying of thirst,” said Jill.

“Then drink,” said the Lion.

“May I — could I — would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.

The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.

The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.

“Will you promise not to — do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.

“I make no promise,” said the Lion.

Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.

“Do you eat girls?” she said.

“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.

“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.

“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.

“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”

“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.

Both of these quotes from C. S. Lewis are concerning Aslan the lion who is a stand-in for Jesus Christ. Lewis was eager to dispel the mistaken concept that being good means being soft, weak, or harmless.

[...]

Traditionally, while demons might be able to overwhelm any human they stood no chance against angels and typically fled at their approach. While movies like The Prophecy and Constantine change this in the hopes of good storytelling they skew the traditional concept of the power of angels and nerf them pretty badly.

In the bible when an angel appeared to a human their mere presence was so overpowering that the first thing they usually said was a variation of ‘don’t be afraid’. John Milton mentions this in Paradise Lost, book IV, when he wrote, “Abashed the Devil stood, and felt how awful goodness is.”

Medieval books of magic warned would-be summoners to never attract the notice of an angel and certainly never to summon one, because angels would destroy them for attempting to make pacts with evil and their power was so vast no warding circle could stop them.

Make torches burn for one hour

Sunday, April 19th, 2020

Old-school dungeon master Rick Stump explains that if you really want your players to engage with your game world, make torches burn for 1 hour and weigh 21/2 lbs.:

Remembering that AD&D is a resource management game is the key to having players and character motivations intersect with your campaign.

Way back when in the late ’70′s when I started playing I dutifully wrote down my maximum encumbrance, recorded all of the locations and weight of my gear, listed containers, etc. As a DM I have all the PCs do the same for themselves, their mounts, their henchmen, and I track hirelings. It affects movement, naturally.

I also keep careful track of time overland and in the dungeon which means I track food, water, and light source usage.

I use reaction and morale checks. I use the disease and parasite rules. I use the overland movement rules, the rules for getting lost, and random encounter checks. When missile weapons are used the ammo is often lost or broken.

Even in 1977 when I was first playing a few DMs weren’t doing these things. They had everything from rolls to see if you still had arrows after you fired the first 12 to blithe indifference – everyone had infinite food, water, light, and ammo.

I also noticed that in virtually all of those games the PCs had damn near zero interaction with NPCs and henchmen were vanishingly rare. And in a ton of them the DM’s complained that no matter what else they tried the game was only about fighting.

Here’s how the enforcement of the basic rules on resources demands my PCs engage with the campaign in one easy, if long and boring, lesson. The source of great power and great loot (as well as great mystery) is Skull Mountain, a remote area surrounded by the Briars. The only safe-ish way to get there is the Old Road – there is one stream halfway up the Old Road and no food available along it. For an unencumbered man on horse in good weather it is 3 days to the mountain and 3 days back to the nearest town, Esber. So if you want to spend a day in the mountain you must have no less than seven days of food and the capacity for 3 days of water so the bare minimum encumbrance per person is 31 lbs and per horse (horses aren’t bicycles! They eat and drink, remember?) you’ll need a minimum of 100 lbs per horse. So for a party of 5 on horses that’s about 660 lbs just for provisions.

I’ll write a big blog post on logistics someday soon, and it’ll be about 12,000 ‘why yes I was a soldier, why do you ask?’ words.

If you switch to foot travel to avoid horses you go up to 9 days food and 4 days water, minimum, etc.

Then you’re in the dungeon. Low-level parties don’t have Continual Light objects and Light spells use up rare slots and don’t last long. Assuming the party is underground for 8 hours and has two light sources (a lantern and a torch) they’ll need 5 lbs of food and water (bare minimum) each and 31 lbs of light sources total. And this leaves no room for error, at all. Need to be underground for days at a time? Without magic you’ll need about 50 lbs of light sources per day if you all sleep in the dark.

[...]

So if you enforce encumbrance, food, time, distance, etc. rules the characters have to be prepared and the players have to plan. This is a perfect excuse to make them interact with the world you’re building and toss in tons of details they will get no other way.

The players will need to find sources for food and equipment, like torches or oil. This makes everyone think – where does the oil or resin come from? Can I get more/a better price if I go to the source? Are there limits? What food is available? In what season? How much? Where? etc.

As the party prepared for the Mapping expedition, a full year in the Briars with a base camp in the Mountain, the party had to source 13 months worth of food, water, light sources, etc. and get it to the mountain. The result?

Most of the light sources in the Mountain ended up being torches, then candles because they bought all the oil in the region and the few torch makers couldn’t keep up with demand. Food prices in Esber skyrocketed because they bought all the smoked ham, salted fish, and cheese to be had for ever-increasing prices. They also stripped the area of oats and sheep tallow, making the local favorite breakfast (unleavened oatcakes fried in sheep tallow) rare and angering many. The price of mules and pony carts went through the roof because they bought every one they could find in the kingdom for the bi-weekly caravans to the mountain. Independent merchants from Adrian started making runs up the Old Road to try to sell to the base camp (even though 3 in 4 vanished, never to be seen again).

In the end the increased demand opened up trade and diplomacy between Seaward and Banath for the first time in a generation, all because the party was feeding 25 people and 20 horses in a remote area for a year as well as stocking up a mountain hidey-hole for future expeditions.

I’d also like to note that the party did fun stuff like replacing or repairing a number of strategic doors and putting locks on them; hiding huge stashes of food, water, torches, lamp oil, candles, rope, spikes, etc. in several places; and conducting regular patrols in the upper levels. they effectively added treasure and random encounters to my dungeon.

The party also hired factors (merchants that buy and sell for you) in 5 towns and cities, bought an inn within Esber as a base and storehouse; met with the local Baron and Bishop to smooth things over with them, and; gave generously to the poor affected by the lack of food.

They also then had to use the mule train to get the loot from the Briars and the Mountain down to Esber, then sell everything off (taking a loss) before feeding the mules wiped out their treasure.

If I simply said,

“Don’t worry about food, water, light, or time. Let’s just play.”

None of that happens. They don’t have ties to NPC factors in five towns and cities (that have already triggered 3 more adventures), no meeting with the baron and bishop, no interaction with farmers, or the beggars, no long argument with the muleskinners about if they should get paid as much as light infantry if they also fought the kobolds, no stash of 3,000 gp worth of gear on Level Three, none of it.

The resource portion of AD&D is there for reasons, and the reason isn’t to annoy you. It is to point out that the characters live in a world that is supposed to make (at least internal) sense and provide a non-combat challenge for players to overcome with wit and skill.

Want the players involved in the campaign? Want them doing domain level stuff?

Then make torches burn 1 hour and weigh 21/2 lbs.

(Hat tip to Benjamin I. Espen.)

Being able to quick draw is probably the number-one skill in this sport

Sunday, March 15th, 2020

John Jackson is credited with founding the sport of archery dodgeball in 2011:

Also known as combat archery and archery tag, it’s grown to more than 1,300 locations throughout the U.S.

Rules differ state to state, but essentially when a referee blows a whistle, teams rush to a central dividing line, grab as many arrows as possible and attempt to hit their opponents while simultaneously dodging incoming fire. Unlike dodgeball, players can shield themselves behind inflatable obstacles. If players are hit, they’re eliminated and move to their team’s sideline. If they catch an arrow, the shooter is out and a sidelined teammate can return.

“At a distance, you can catch or dodge an arrow, but at close range you’re getting hit,” Mr. Reckner says. “The speed and force is comparable to a dodgeball thrown by an adult who is pretty good at dodgeball.”

The arrows are foam tipped:

Games consist of seven rounds, each of which may have different rules. For example, each team may have a target resembling a domino, with foam circles as dots. If a player shoots a foam circle out of the opposing target, an eliminated player on the shooter’s team can return to play. The round ends when one team has all players eliminated.

“It’s easy to think the most accurate shot wins, but really the game is more about being quick on your feet, being fast with the bow and having solid cardio conditioning,” Mr. Reckner says. The Cincy Aimbots have won a round in as little as 30 seconds, but Mr. Reckner says some last over five minutes. “Getting gassed in the middle of a round makes you an easy target,” he says.

Mr. Reckner started watching YouTube videos of Danish archer Lars Andersen:

To build speed, he lines up five arrows on the ground and attempts to pick up, load and fire all five within 10 seconds. “Being able to quick draw is probably the number-one skill in this sport,” he says. He repeats the drill 10 to 20 times. To build muscle memory, he loads an arrow on the bowstring and draws it back 25 to 50 times as quickly as possible.

Mr. Reckner says being able to hold an extra arrow is very useful—you become vulnerable when you attempt to grab an arrow from the gym floor. To build grip strength, he practices shooting while holding an extra arrow or two in his left hand. He also keeps three grip trainers of varying resistances in his living room. While watching TV, he’ll do three sets of 10 reps with each grip trainer. “I don’t have the biggest hands, so a strong grip helps me hold a bow and extra arrows,” he says.

He rides his Peloton bike four to five days a week, simulating hill climbs to build leg strength. “There is a lot of squatting during the matches, to either hide behind a low barrier or to pick up an arrow from the arena floor,” he says. He isn’t as committed to his strength routine and says he only uses his home gym one to two days a week, performing dead lifts, squats, bench presses and overhead presses.

Their writings were taken quite seriously

Monday, December 16th, 2019

In There Will Be War Volume II, Jerry Pournelle introduces “On the Shadow of a Phosphor Screen” with some thoughts on war-gaming:

In the late 50’s and early 60’s, the US Department of Defense became interested in war games. These were highly complex affairs, typically conducted in three rooms laid out with one-way glass so that those in the “Control Room” could see into each of the two participant rooms. I was involved in several of those war games. In one series, it was my responsibility to try to inject the consequences of tactical air power into a ground forces engagement.

Eventually that series of games led to the creation of the 11th Air Assault Brigade; which became the Air Cavalry. Helicopter troops are now a mainstay of US (and Soviet) military forces.

[...]

Such games can be useful. For example: it is nearly impossible to simulate Fall Gelb (Operation Gold), the German breakthrough which brought about the Fall of France in 1940. Any rational analysis leads to a clean win by the Allies, who had a preponderance of armor, men, and supplies, and who were defeated only by a total lack of understanding. Thus, one might think, had gaming fanatics and the tools for simulations games existed in the 30’s, the course of the war would have been far different.

[...]

Lest one place too much faith in these analyses, it should be remembered that the intellectual tools leading to Blitzkrieg were developed by Captain B. H. Liddell Hart and General J. F. C. Fuller, both of His Majesty’s forces. Their writings were taken quite seriously — but alas, only by the Germans.