Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Allan B. Calhamer, inventor of the game Diplomacy has died

Gamescience box

Word is seeping through the Internet gaming community that Allan B. Calhamer, the inventor and designer of the board game Diplomacy, died Monday at the age of 81.

Gamesicence Map
While Diplomacy didn't bring Mr. Calhamer a fortune, and perhaps not widespread fame, it has, I believe, earned him immortality. Diplomacy is among that select few games that has earned the title of a "timeless classic."

In the adventure gaming hobby's earliest days, Diplomacy was considered of the the three legs of the hobby triad -- which was comprised, back in the 1960s, of board wargaming, miniatures wargaming and Diplomacy.

Allan B. Calhamer
The hobby evolved over time and role-playing games, collectible games and euros all far outgrew those original trio, but Diplomacy was never truly eclipsed in the genre of game that it spawned. While it's seen many variants and imitators over the years, Diplomacy has still retained its status as the premier game of cutthroat diplomatic competition. It's so cutthroat that friendships have been ended and marriages thrown on the rocks due to game events. It takes a certain kind of gamer to play and enjoy Diplomacy and it's certainly noit for everyone.

Large deluxe Hasbro box version
By today's standards it violates a lot of accepted rules for good game design -- it takes a long time to play and it has player elimination for example. While it's gone through a whole host of editions over the last half century through various publishers and languages, in the end the components are extremely simple -- a map of 1900 Europe divided into land and sea areas, a set of markers divided into armies and fleets for each of the seven nations and the rules -- the basic nature of which can be listed on a single page.

My first exposure to the game was actually from a home-brewed variant while I was in high school. My best friend's older brother had gone off to Yale and been exposed to the game. He didn't have his own copy, but the was able to create a facsimile edition when he got home for the summer and we spent the summer break playing out Yale variant game and having a blast. Naturally, having done the game from memory, our version had some changes from the original, (and not improvements) but before long we got a copy of the actual game -- (this was the Gamescience edition) and kept playing.
Current Hasbro edition

Myself, I had too eclectic tatstes to settle on playing Diplomacy only -- but many people did and still do. I did take part in some postal Diplomacy for a number of years -- a very popular way to play. Diplomacy was exceptionally well-suited for postal play and later, Internet play.

When Avalon Hill bought the rights the game got access to widepread distribution that increased its popularity and Diplomacy is one of just two of classic Avalon Hill titles that Hasbro has kept in print since it took over AH (The other being the equally classic game Acquire).

AH wooden block version
I've always been partial to the wooden-block Avalon Hill edition, but the first Hasbro version with its metal cannon and battleships is also quite nice and I like that version as well. The current edition is a very cut-rate edition with die-cut cardboard counters (although the map is nice) but Diplomacy is remarkably independent of the components used to play it. In that way it reminds me more of old abstracts like Go or Chess than most modern games. It's possible to have a really nice, physical game to play on -- but you can still play quite nicely with bare-bones, even hand-made, components as well.

Mr. Calhamer never really followed up with anything nearly as successful. He wasn't a brilliant game designer in the way of his contemporary Sid Sackson or today's Reiner Knizia. But he did design a brilliant game.There may be those inclined to dismiss him as a one-hit wonder, but I think that's a mistake. A one-hit wonder, after all, does have a hit -- which is something the vast majority of artists never have at all. And game design is, at heart, a form of art. Mr. Calhamer designed a game that, I am quite sure, will still be bringing enjoyment to players not yet born.  That's success.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Sunday, February 24, 2013

It's a plot to take my money, I say!

Oh, My, yet another Kickstarter project that I feel compelled to take part in!

Yep, Columbia Games is joining the fun and has announced a Kickstarter project for a new, 4th Edition of their classic Napoleon game.

Now the Avalon Hill edition of this game was my favorite game for many years, and while it finally got knocked out of the No. 1 slot, it's always remained highly regarded by me, being one of the game I liked well enough to have gotten several copies of over the years.

I also picked up the Third Edition, which increased the number of blocks by almost double, and changed the map a bit and some rules. While I really wanted to like the new version -- because I liked the idea of the blocks representing specific units, mostly -- after playing it  a few times I reluctantly concluded that Columbia had erred and the new edition really wasn't better than the Avalon Hill version.

In my opinion the old AH version was one of the very best three-player wargames ever done and it enjoyed a very fine balance and tight timing that really ended up being quite elegant. The way the new edition changed things the exquisite timing and balance of the original game was upset. It wasn't ruined -- so long as you played with the Historica setup you still got  a worthwhile game-- but it was no longer the classic the Avalon Hill edition was. Basically the number of units was increased without making comparable changes to the map and rules which resulted in overcrowding, more ponderous movement and an imbalance against Napoleon compared to the original game.

Wisely, it appears that the AH edition forms the basis for the new, 4th edition of the game which will start a Kickstarter campaign tomorrow, Monday Feb. 25th.

The rules are available online but they clearly are an outgrowth of the Avalon Hill edition, not the Third Edition. There has been some expansion in the number of units -- from 48 in the AH edition to 55 now, but three of those are the three commanders (Napoleon, Wellington and Blucher)  so the real increase in units is about 4. There's no listing of units on the site yet, but apparently the order of battle has also been tweaked a bit.

The leaders represent the most obvious carry-over from the Third Edition game, where they were introduced. This seems to be something the designer has decided he wants to backfit to all his older designs. Leaders showed up in the latest version of Quebec 1759, too.

The horse artillery is back by popular demand. While one could argue about the historicity of representing them at this level, they were a popular game piece and I'm already seeing positive comments.
The other thing which is changed is a simplification and clarification of the battle board rules. This was always the weakest part of the Avalon Hill game -- it really wasn't explained well and it made what is essentially a simple system seem complex.

The other major change I noticed, and this is also in line with the Third edition, is the change in the Allied supply cities. In the AH edition, Ghent and Liege are each worth 1 lost Allied unit per turn if held by the French -- with Liege costing a Prussian unit and Ghent a British unit. Brussels costs one of each.  Now Brussels and Ghent are one British unit each while Liege costs TWO Prussian units each turn it is held by the French. I assume the intent of this change is to introduce a little divergence of interests between the two Allies. In addition, the French can now win if they hold all three cities on the last turn, which negates the previous Allied strategy of just running away during the last few turns if they haven't suffered enough losses. This seems designed to make sure there is some fighting.

So it looks like Napoleon will join Ogre, Up Front and The Guns of Gettysburg in my Kickstarter queue. Interestingly, while Ogre is the oldest of the group, there's every reason to believe that both Gettysburg and Napoleon will beat it into my mailbox.

In nay case, I am looking forward to seeing the new Napoleon. While I was dissatisfied with the Third Edition, I was also unsure whether it was worth still playing the Avalon Hill version. This new edition seems to combine the best of both.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Dice research

Came across some interesting research done on 6-side dice.

It can make rather more difference than I would have thought and may make me examine my dice collection a little more carefully in the future.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Spammer comments

Just a administrative note. A lot of spam comments seem to be showing up. All comments are moderated and anyone posting as "anonymous" is assumed to be spam unless strong evidence shows otherwise. If you want to comment, please ID yourself. Thanks.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Kicking it! Wargames and Kickstarter

Over the past few months I've backed three wargame projects on Kickstarter, the crowd funding site that's become pretty popular for creative projects.

In each case, I've backed a project that was, in many ways, a proven quantity. And in each case, I think it's fair to say, was long-awaited.
Cover of Mercury Games edition

The most recent one is Mercury Games edition of Bowen Simmons The Guns of Gettysburg. Bowen needs little introduction here, I've written many posts about his previous designs -- Bonaparte at Marengo and Napoleon's Triumph. I think Bowen is one of the most innovative wargame designers we have ever seen. He's shown a remarkable ability to think "outside the box" -- or in this case, outside the hex.

His Guns of Gettysburg, while sharing some DNA with the earlier games, appears to be quite different in many ways and it really looks to be another tour de force as far as  a playing experience goes. If Bonaparte at Marengo was wargame-as-chess, and Napoleon's Triumph was wargame-as-poker, Guns of Gettysburg seems like it will be wargame-as-wow.

Sadly Mr. Simmons apparently ran into some serious health issues that left his nearly complete masterpiece in limbo and in real danger of never seeing print. To the rescue came Mercury Games and now, through Kickstarter, there seems to be a real chance we wil not only see the game, but we will have it in time for the 150th anniversary of the battle this July. Sweet.

The first of the three projects I backed was the new designer's edition of Ogre. Much like Simmons work, Ogre was a labor of love for an innovative game designer, in this case Steve Jackson. While Mr. Jackson has designed a lot of very popular stuff since -- notably GURPs, Car Wars, Illuminati and the Munchkin series, many -- including me -- still consider Ogre to be his masterpiece.

Ogre has been out of print for a very long time, so when the word came that a new, super-duper deluxe edition was planned, I was definitely in.

This new edition looks to be absolutely amazing in size and production value. I just wish I'd had the money available to buy several sets, as I think this will be quite the collector's item. It's also expected to arrive in the June-July time frame.

The third Kickstarter project is the one I'm most surprised to see -- the new edition of Up Front.

I was quite certain that the game would never be reprinted, despite demand, because it seemed like the legal questions surrounding the rights were intractable. I am very happy to report I was wrong and
 the problems appear to have been tractable after all. And so we have a new, expanded edition of Up Front coming.

I haven't seen an ETA on this one yet, but it looks like there's still  a lot of work to do yet. Still, I think there's real market for Up Front. In many ways it was really ahead of its time when it appeared 30 years ago. In my opinion a lot of hex-and-counter wargamers simply didn't know what to make of it. Since then we've had the rise of Magic:The Gathering, euro-games, card-drive wargames and other innovation sin game design that were foreshadowed by 1983's Up Front. So now that the world has caught up to it, maybe it's time for Up Front to come back.

Monday, February 11, 2013

GMT hit by hackers

Very odd situation. GMT reports it was the target of a denial of service attack.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Guns of Gettysburg Kickstarter

This is exciting. Kickstarter for Guns of Gettysburg starts Friday! Apparently the plan is to have the games shipped in time for the 150th anniversary this year.

It would be way cool to be able to play Guns of Gettysburg at Gettyburg for the 150th.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The cover of Columbia Games' Richard III wargame

So it appears Richard III has been found.

I'm not a big fan of wargaming that particular era and the War of the Roses is an especially confusing affair. Despite playing Kingmaker a lot back int eh day and more recently having Columbia Games' Richard III o n my shelf, I have to confess that I still can't quite follow all the ins and outs of the conflicts/.

It is exactly this sort of war that I think it's very hard for the modern mind to wrap itself around. There was no great ideology at stake. It wasn't a war between competing national interests or disparate cultures. Why, exactly, some thousands of men were willing to risk their lives is unfathomable. Sure, i get what Richard II and the other heirs had at stake. And even the interests of many of the nobles. But thousands of common soldiers also fought, died and underwent the necessary discomforts of campaigning and it's hard to see why.

As for poor Richard himself, well, he's not a very sympathetic character -- and his probable hand in the murder of the Princes of the Tower really makes him pretty monstrous. So it appears he ended his life being cleaved in the skull by a halberd -- a common soldiers weapon, BTW -- and a minor mystery of the time can now be answered in the footnotes of the relevant history books.