Origins 1997: Our Thoughts

Note: Bruce and I were at Origins ’97, helping out at the Cheapass Games booth, amongst other things. What follows are Bruce’s thoughts on this Origins, and the industry in general. August 1997, by Bruce Biskup

Yes – I AM a Game Designer

Joshua asked that I become more controversial in my Ramblings so I think that it is important that I come out of the closet and finally admit that I am a real life game designer. I have a hard time admitting that I design games. I do not think it is because I believe that designing games is frivolous. Claiming that one is a game designer means that one has done something for others to enjoy. In addition, I am quite the introvert and do not like crowds. My fear is that people do not enjoy my games and therefore do not play them. After all, people will play good games. Bad games are just forgotten. So, I am admitting that I design games as a confidence boost. Since I want to make games that people will play I will have to work harder in creating playable games. To that end you will see some changes in my future work. I will probably take longer to move an idea from beta to playable game since Joshua and I are putting more emphasis on quality play-testing. Also, the games will be smaller in format. With few exceptions we are going to have to think about the footprint of the game design from an Internet and printing cost point of view. Other changes are also in the work. Together, Joshua and I should be able to bring better quality games to you our customers.

LIKES at Origins

BoneGames was at Origins: Joshua and I took that attitude that we were at Origins to have fun and look around. We considered this Origins recon work for a possible official BoneGames showing next year. I found the experience very educational. I meet many people in the industry who I knew only in passing. I experienced the fine art of schmoosing and failed miserably at it. Now that I know what to expect I am looking forward to future trips to Origins.

Cheapass Games: Folks, this is a real winner. James Ernst has put together a great set of fun games that won’t cost you very much money. I spent time at the Cheapass Games booth selling his games and playing them too. I consider Cheapass Games a successful attempt at what Joshua and I are trying to accomplish with BoneGames: inexpensive but quality games that people want to play. The differences between Cheapass and us is that, one, he sells his games, and two, people play his games, and three, his games are generally all at beer and pretzels end of the spectrum, where BoneGames are more varied. With titles like “Kill Doctor Lucky”, “Give Me the Brain”, and “Before I Kill You, Mister Bond” you cannot go wrong. Cheapass games are group games that can be played in about 30 minutes and average about $5 a piece. Cheapass is beginning to break into the general distribution but the best way to order his games is through his web page at Check out their offerings and you will find something to your taste.

The State of War Gaming: Those of you who have been reading my column may recall that I thought that the future of war gaming was pretty good. I saw real evidence that this was the case at Origins this year. Instead of just a few companies selling wargames you have the outfits like GMT, The Games, GRD, Clash of Arms, Avalanche Press, and several others all selling new games for the wargamer with more titles in the work. The basic quality of the printing has improved over the last 15 years as all of these companies are manufacturing visually attractive games. Good looks do not make the game but I did see people playing these games and claiming to enjoy them. There were also numerous titles to choose from all of the popular time periods from Napoleonic to WWII. The coming year should see numerous titles covering World War I so those interested in that era have something to look forward to. This diversity of topics will surely appeal to a broad range of gamers and help to invigorate the market. I myself look forward to playing GMT’s Army Group South game here in Houston and I purchased Avalanche Press’s Red Steel and already have a copy of their Great Naval War at Sea game. If you have been out of the wargame genre for a while, I would suggest you take a look at what is currently available from these relatively new companies. You might be surprised at what you find.

The sequin dress at the Noir booth: if you were there you’d know what I mean. 🙂

DISLIKES at Origins

Trading Card Games: I have played Wizards of the Coast’s Magic: The Gathering card game and thought that the game was pretty interesting. Not interesting enough to warrant buying my own deck and building up my collection. Unfortunately (in my opinion), the huge success of MTG has spawned a horde of want-to-be’s that are flooding the market. I noticed at Origins many new or recent trading card games. To name a few that I saw includes: the Dune trading card game, Avalon Hill’s Titan trading card game, Steve Jackson’s Illuminati trading card game, the Babylon 5 trading card game, several military oriented trading card games, and the X-Files trading card game. The situation is very reminiscent of what happened when the success of the AD&D role-playing. All the other game companies rushed out and made their own role-playing game. After all, to be a successful game company one must have a role-playing game. Many of these games were not worth the paper used to print them. Most have since faded from the scene. The same is true of most of the card games. I wish game companies would spend more time designing a good game rather than trying to clone someone else’s idea. Notice how many of the games I mentioned were supporting an established product line or market theme. I wonder how many of these games will still be being played in the next three years?

The National Security Decision Making Game: This turned out to be a major disappointment for me. This was especially so since I went to Origins for this game. The NSDM game is a role playing game where players assume the role of factions (cells) in a country. Players compete against one another. There is no team in the normal sense. Each nation is simulated by a unique composition cells and some simple rules about the interaction of the cells among themselves. This is a rather interesting detail since it does bring out some of the differences among the nations. For example, the game models the Iranian military as two separate factions. One is the regular military and the other is the Revolutionary Guards. Unfortunately, instead of being a game of high intrigue and global politics, what I got was Chaos. I do not like Chaos. In fact, the last time I looked, the world does not look too chaotic.

I played in the Friday game with about 60–70 other players. I was part of the China team and was actually People’s Liberation Army #1. It was not a bad position since I helped to control the world’s largest army. Unfortunately, I had no clue as to what was going on, what I could do, what I could not do and how this game was going to progress. This was despite the three hours it took to separate us into teams and to teach us how to play the game. Let me put it this way, I arrived well before the 10:00 start time and we did not actually begin to play until about 1:00 PM.

There was a distinct lack of overview material that could have been used to get me started. I was never given a situation report as to what was going on or given a high level overview of the composition and capabilities of the PLA. I was forces to rely on my own knowledge of China and her armed forces. I am not an expert on China so I was always concerned about being overruled by the official military expert. My companions were in a similar position. Information that was passed to me came without a time reference. This was critical since I could not plan any action since I had no idea of where I was in the timeline of the game and when previous actions took place. Finally, too many things were happening in the game that I was not aware of even though I should have known. Somehow, I do not believe that a leader of the PLA would not notice that the US was engaged in combat in the Arabian Gulf.

I did not like the way that the factions worked. The factions within other countries are different so I cannot comment on how they worked but for China there were three factions: PLA, Internal Security, and the Communist Party. Each faction consisted of 3 players who choose a leader who joined the Party Chairman and the Ideologue (Keeper of the Communist way) to form the head committee. As it turned out with China, if you are not the leader of your faction then you really do not have that much to do. I actually spent some time as leader of the PLA. While I was leader I had plenty to do. While I was not I had little to do. It is not fun having nothing to do especially since you paid for it. The problem with this is that although it may model China really well, it is a lousy idea to have new players in a game with nothing to do. They tend to become jaded and never play the game again.

Finally, like any role-playing game, the quality of the players impacts the quality of the game. China did suffer from an obnoxious player so we had him purged. I cannot blame this on the NSDM team since it is a problem with all role-playing games. However, having an independent judge to enforce the turn sequence and assist the players in role-playing their positions would have helped immensely.

I would like to think that the NSDM team was just having a bad day since I believe that the concept of the NSDM game is a good one. However, the NSDM team is going to have to work on making the game more fun for novices if they are ever going to get me to play again. I do not believe that I was alone in this opinion since many of my Chinese comrades also expressed disappointment in their game experience. Finally, this game takes all day to play. It needs to be a positive experience for everyone since there is always something going on at Origins.

Nobody was playing any BoneGames games: I had hoped to find someone off in a corner showing their buddies some cool game from this outfit on the Internet called BoneGames. I looked but except for Joshua and I, we were the only ones playing any BoneGames games that I could see. This is not a criticism of the convention. It just means Joshua and I will have to work harder to make games that people want to play and will play. Our work is cut out for us. (If anyone was playing, or knew of someone playing, a BoneGames game, please let us know.)

Well, this is it for now. Joshua and I are busy working on our current game projects. I have begun play-testing Combat Operations and it is going well. I am finishing the first play-test version of Game of Kings and am looking forward to exercising it. I have also been getting feedback on Freefall. (I could use some help here. I have heard from a few people. The most obvious problem is the design your own rules. I am rewriting them since the current system is sub par.) Your comments will be appreciated and helpful. I also have a few ideas on how to make Queen Victoria’s navy a playable game so I may have more on that title in the short future.