Thursday, May 27, 2010

Wargaming School Renaissance -- Victory Point Games

Regular readers of this blog are well aware of the fact that I collect and play role playing and board games. My collection of each is quite large and ranges from the original D&D White Box by TSR to the recently released Old School Renaissance White Box by Brave Halfling Publishing on the role playing side, and a copy of Milton Bradley's Dogfight to Bucephelous Games Dogfight on the board game side.

What readers may not be aware of is the fact that I am also a fan of simulation war games as well. My collection currently includes the full line of Squad Leader boxed sets -- the precursor to Advanced Squad Leader (of which I don't own any sets) -- and a nice collection of issues of Strategy and Tactics and World at War among other things. My introduction to this particular market within the gaming hobby came in the early 80s when a friend named Christian Hunt introduced me to Steve Jackson's excellent mini-game Ogre which featured an artificially intelligent supertank crushing a small defensive force of human soldiers. The game was great fun, and it used all the classic components associated with the traditional war game -- i.e. hexagon maps, small 1/2" counters (hand or die cut depending on the game), and a Combat Results Table (or CRT). That game, with its small and easy to learn rules set, deeply ingrained an appreciation for how fun war games can be and made it possible for me to try out more complex rules sets -- though I must admit that I've yet to try Drang Nach Osten.

The vast majority of war games are time consuming affairs that take up a good deal of table space and require either familiarity with the underlying systems of a series of games, or the patience and time to read a complex rules set. This is one of the reasons there have been so many wargamers who play these games solitaire over the years. It can be hard to find someone else who had the time, energy, and interest to pour through pages of rules and who also spent the time futzing around with them enough that the two (or more) of you could just get straight to playing without one player having to teach the other the basics of the systems etc.

This "intimidation gap," particularly acute in monsters like Drang Nach Osten, is one of the reasons that I believe that Metagaming's line of mini-games (which started with Ogre) were so successful. They provided small, approachable, quick, and playable games that in turn gave players a substantive and robust gaming experience. A game like Ogre initially appears to have little strategic depth, but one quickly learns otherwise. In a way, the mini-game was the Eurogame before there was a Eurogame.

Recently, I had been lamenting the lack of a vibrant "mini-game" community of manufacturers. I believed, wrongly as it turns out, that there were few if any publishers selling games that offered depth of wargame experience with the compactness and playability of a mini-game or a Euro-game. I knew of Eurogames like Neuroshima Hex which were Euro-style games that approached the war game experience. I was even familiar with the Euro-influenced Card Driven Strategy war games available on the market -- ranging from Command and Colors to Paths of Glory. I was looking for a company more akin to Metagaming back in its heyday or Steve Jackson Games during its early years.

I didn't believe they existed.



Then I saw an advertisement for a new Independent French War Game Magazine called BATTLES -- published in English. That's right, a French magazine. The first issue of BATTLES contained a nice, playable, and quick wargame -- in contrast to the comparably monster games of Strategy and Tactics -- that had excellent quality components. The game was beautiful by war game standards...not to mention the magazine. BATTLES is a graphically amazing magazine that covers the war game hobby as a whole, rather than focusing on "in house" games as some other war game magazines do. But enough about BATTLES, or rather not enough but I'll save some comments for posts regarding the magazine, I want to talk about an American company that I found out about because of BATTLES.

You read that series of sentences correctly. I found out about an excellent American (Southern Californian in fact) game company by reading a French war game magazine (published in English). Talk about the world being flat!



That game company is Victory Point Games and they operate out of Irvine, CA. The story of the game company's founding, and the Wild West nature of their product line/production schedule, are very reminiscent of all the qualities I admire about Metagaming and Steve Jackson. The company started as an extension of a college course, and has become something of a "community course" in game design. From their "About Us:"

Most great game ideas begin with an impassioned gamer thinking about a game and saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” That’s how the best game ideas occur – not from bottom-line watching bean counters, not from Sales or Marketing, not through scientific research – it is gamer passion that creates the best games.

Enter Alan Emrich, who was teaching various game-related subjects such as Game Design, Game Prototyping, and Game Project Management at The Art Institute of California: Orange County in 2007. An impassioned gamer himself, while teaching other impassioned gamers about the art, craft, and science of making games, he had one of those “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” moments. Although he had been ‘designing game designers’ among his students for some time, the notion arrived as a culmination of thoughts coalesced.

Just as some genius at Reese’s figured out one day, “Hey, what if put the chocolate and peanut butter together?,” Alan blended the ideas of Desktop Publishing (DTP) with his students’ game projects. The seed of an idea for Victory Point Games was planted.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if,” Alan reasoned, “I could desktop publish a few copies of some of my students’ better course project games? That way, when they graduate and go find jobs in the game industry, they’ll have a published title to their credit and a copy of it in their portfolios. That would certainly be a plus on their resume and at job interviews. What a great graduation gift I could give them!” This became a notion that he had to pursue.

A quick look through their website shows a deep catalog of games that appeal to the simulation gamer, with creations by well regarded creators like Jim Dunnigan, Joe Miranda, and Frank Chadwick, as well as light-hearted games that appeal to the casual gamer. Games like Forlorn Hope and Nemo's War address topics (space marines vs. aliens and Captain Nemo's world on the world's navies) that don't fit within the narrow confines of traditional wargaming.



What one will also find are blog entries discussing Victory Point Games' business model, and giving advice on how to design your own games the "victory point way."

These are games by gamers for gamers, but they aren't just games by gamers for "hardcore" gamers. These games are for both experienced and inexperienced gamers. You won't find any games that have "hundred" of die cut counters here. In fact, they have a whole line of games that feature no more than 20 counters used during play.



Everything about the company echoes Steve Jackson's early days -- before everything they made was Munchkin! Back in those days SJG produced games like One Page Bulge (which had one page of rules), Ogre, Car Wars, Undead, and Kung Fu 2100. The games were innovative and fun and made by people who obviously loved what they were doing. Add to this that SJG's house magazine The Space Gamer had a series of articles discussing the art of game design and you quickly see some parallels between the two entities.

Don't get me wrong. SJG is a great company. Their Frag Gold Edition is a wonderful, if overlooked by game stores, product. The same is true for their Revolution game -- and I am looking forward to owning copies of their new Zombie Dice and Cthulhu Dice games as well. In fact, I think that SJG has managed to recapture a bit of the creative spirit that was lost for a time as they focused on the best way to pay the bills. My point is that Victory Point Games behaves like SJG did when they were small and hungry.

Victory Point Games is indicative of a movement in wargaming similar to the "Old School Renaissance" movement in role playing.  It's a movement of gamers who want to break from the current fads of gaming and introduce the world to a robust and vital hobby.

I'm all for it.

I am very excited about Victory Point Games offerings, and am looking forward to reviewing them as I'm playing them.
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