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Baby, Be a Simple Kind of Battlegame Designer
[08/02/2012] [Randall]

Battlegames are fun. They let us make Amtgard more than the sum of its parts. I love ditching and sparring, but battlegames are special; they are what let us defend the fortress against a horde of orcs, wipe out the bandits in an enemy village, and seize the high ground held by the forces of evil (or good, depending on your preference.) The flexibility of Amtgard's rules let us do all kinds of cool things once we put people on teams and give them an objective more than, "Wipe them out; all of them."

A well-run battlegame is a thing to remember. I can still remember the castle battle in 2011, my first vampire hunt at Maize Maze, and battles with the Jabberwocky. Unfortunately, the flip side of that is also true—bad battlegames can ruin a day of Amtgard.

A major part of what V8 is trying to do is give us tools to make it easier to run good battlegames. Tools are a critical part of the equation, with the other part being design, and that's what I want to focus on today.

People run battlegames for different reasons. Some people run them because someone has to run battlegames, so they throw something together. Others run them because they've played in a bunch of fun games and decide they want to try running one. Still others have played in a few bad games and figure they can do better. For most of these people, their design follows a simple formula: this is what I've seen, so I will run something like this/not like this. That's not a bad start, but it only gets us so far, and in many cases can get people in a bad battlegame rut that is inescapable. To run good games, you have to do more than play in battlegames and throw in whatever elements you remember. You have to think from a design perspective.

Few people do this at first. Instead, they think about what seems fun in Amtgard. Monsters. Monsters are fun, right? Magic is fun too. So are teams. A person might start creating battlegames by throwing monsters, magic, and teams together and running whatever game that turns out to be. Just like if you cooked by randomly throwing ingredients together, you're going to get a mess. There's a difference between creating games and designing them. The difference is that designing requires thought.

The key design rules I teach:

  • Think about the game—make sure everyone gets to play
  • Focus on what matters
  • Keep it as simple as possible, but no simpler
Thinking about the game means more than just dreaming up a story and finding rules to match. Your story might be about heroes saving a village from a pack of werewolves, but you're going to have a mess if you just toss werewolves on one side and heroes on the other.

What does a werewolf mean in mechanical terms? Can the players kill it? How many players will it take to kill it? Do you have any other rules that make it harder or easier to fight the werewolves? For example, a game where you have a bunch of two-man teams competing with each other while also fighting a pack of werewolves is going to be very different from one where it's just heroes versus wolves. As a general rule, anything more than two teams results in encounter avoidance and a frustrating defeat for whatever team gets ganged up on first, so think carefully about what you want out of the game before doing that. Similarly, a pack of werewolves might be just barely defeatable in the open, but nigh-indestructible if they have defensive terrain. And if all your best fighters want to play werewolves, or vice versa, that will impact the game too.

To practice this, instead of coming up with a story and then writing a game, try to write the game first. Come up with a good set of rules, and you can hang any story you want on it and still make it work.

Always remember that people come to Amtgard to play Amtgard. Behind requests to balance a game that is unbalanced is the desire to play Amtgard. An unbalanced game often doesn't let players do that. That's why you should look at the way the teams are designed and think about whether each side will get to play. If a side has lots of advantages—monsters, great terrain, great fighters, great organization—the odds are high that the other side will take the field as little more than a piñata. Similarly, there's only so much a superior team can do if their disadvantages are many. Depending on the setup, a team of veterans against a horde of newbies might be fun when the odds are two or three to one, but might result in pointless slaughter at four or five to one. If only one side gets to play, only one side will have fun.

The most extreme versions of this involve special rules that literally prevents a side from playing Amtgard. Monsters that are immune to normal weapons or magic should be used with great care, because their use means someone isn't getting to play. I've played in scenarios where you couldn't even fight certain monsters until you accomplished certain objectives—but they could fight you. That was almost a perfect example of how not to make Amtgard fun, and you should avoid scenarios like that when designing your games.

Keep the games simple. When teaching people to run battlegames, I emphasize the importance of three—that is, the guideline that you should limit the number of special rules to three. People don't want to hear a long list of rules that they're not going to remember anyway. Conversely, people will remember something that they can explain in fifteen seconds or less. A common example of this would be a speed game where all counts are halved. In Dragonspine, we often do games with barriers marked off with surveying tape and special victory conditions, but even those are kept simple enough that you can explain them in seconds:

"Thirty second respawn, infinite lives, nothing can cross the tape, and we reverse sides when the castle is cleared of defenders. The side with the longest survival time wins."

A game that you can explain in moments is one that you can start playing immediately. That means fewer frustrations with waiting for the game to start and more fun. If it takes longer than that to explain, print the rules on paper and hand them out. If possible, do that before the game even starts by posting the rules to your group's Facebook page or mailing list. Even then, really think about whether the game should be made simpler. It might seem cool to have a dozen different monsters versus a team of heroes, but each monster is a special rule, and a dozen special rules is a recipe for confusion and frustration.

Remember to focus on what matters. I have played games in a corn maze that seemed to ignore the biggest prop—the maze. Similarly, I've played castle battles where the castle was incidental rather than primary. People play games with mazes and castles because they want to have fun in mazes and castles. If you realize what is important in the game you're designing, you can toss the unnecessary stuff and focus on a few central elements. In the case of the castle battles at Clan, the most fun ones I've played in divided the players into three groups, with each group getting a chance to defend the castle in a militia battle. A life-pool mechanic for the defenders and instant respawn for everyone kept the games fast. Because the defenders were outnumbered, the castle became a key part of the game, which is exactly what all the players wanted.

A good way to get from here to there—from bad games to good ones—is to steal someone else's ideas.. For example, battlegames are often similar in structure to real-time strategy games and team-based first person shooters. These games have already been designed for you, and already follow many of the design rules laid out above. It's not too difficult to adapt "the Allies need to seize the beach and broadcast the documents" into a battlegame, and it's even easier to adapt "raise your flag in these five areas and you win." The key to make it Amtgard is flavor. A game where you have to capture a few positions to win is going to feel a lot less like a first-person shooter if you make each of the positions an orc fortress and slap some green paint on a few faces.

People often stop playing battlegames because they decide they don't like them. The truth is they dislike bad battlegames, not battlegames in general. Good games make Amtgard a blast every week you play—the problem is that many people try to do too much with their battlegames, getting a cluttered mess rather than a memorable game. Start simple, and consider whether your games are as simple as possible or should be made simpler still.. Think about whether or not they let all people involved play Amtgard. Make sure the games do what they're supposed to be doing, and remember their raison d'etre by making sure that the coolest part of the game is front and center in the players' enjoyment.

Battlegames should be fun. As the person running games in your park or event, you can do your part to make that happen. Just keep 'em simple, keep 'em focused, and make sure people get to play.

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