Strategic Primer (a strategy game): Players Wanted!

[Administrivia: This was originally posted on Facebook as a Note on December 26, 2008, at 10:50 PM. While I apologize to my readers on Facebook for the duplication, I have still not heard from any of you one way or the other–even those I tagged in the Note because they had expressed some interest or curiosity. As I’d like to start this up on the first day of classes–January 7–comments would be helpful.]

INTRODUCTION

Strategic Primer (SP) is a turn-based strategy game. It is closer to pure strategy than most other such games, because the player normally has no direct control over tactics.

I am hoping to run a campaign of Strategic Primer this Interim (which means “fifteen weekdays this January” for non-Calvinites, but the campaign would perhaps continue thereafter), and have tagged in this Note those of my friends who expressed even the slightest amount of interest. (Feel free to untag yourself if you decide against playing.) This Interim’s campaign would have at least one turn per day (except Sundays), or if enough players agree two turns per day until the end of Interim. (A possible compromise is one turn per day except Saturdays.) I would like it to continue (at a somewhat reduced pace) into the following semester.

In the remainder of this Note, I discuss the game in somewhat more detail, growing increasingly technical toward the end. If you can’t follow some of it, don’t worry about it; a primary feature of the game is that players need only make sure their orders are understandable to the human Judge rather than a computer, and I provide all of this (and perhaps more upon request) because I believe a basic understanding of how things work “under the hood” is important in nearly all contexts, even for people who should never have to deal with it. (For example, in Windows you “should never see” the Blue Screen of Death, but it’s a good idea to understand what the various error messages mean.) A good rule of thumb in SP might be “be as specific as you feel necessary, and otherwise as general as possible.”

THE PLAYERS AND THE JUDGE

In this version of the game, each “campaign” is run by a Judge. He is responsible for keeping track of what (of significance) happens everywhere in the world each turn, based on all the players’ strategies (see below), and returning reports to each player of the results of his or her strategy (and other relevant news) as that player’s advisors, officers, and other subordinates would have presented them. He is also responsible for preparing strategies and results for the non-player-controlled countries. There are usually at least ten countries in total.

STRATEGIES AND COMBAT

Each turn each player submits a “strategy” to the Judge; this strategy consists of orders to his or her generals, scientists, treasury, diplomats, production facilities, etc. While the player may micromanage almost as much or as little as he or she wishes, these orders pass through the chain of command, with the attendant risk of miscommunication at each step. Orders are delivered by messengers who travel along routes and are thus subject to possible capture. After the Judge determines, based on all the players’ strategies, what happened in the world that turn, he returns a report of the results to each player. Strategies may be submitted via an official form or in any other form giving the same information and the player name. If a player is unable to produce or deliver a strategy for a given turn, the Judge determines what that player’s subordinates would do based on previous orders and any previously stated intentions. (The Judge can run a player’s country as if it were an “AI”‘s upon reasonable request.)

Diplomatic relations between players are very important. While the details may safely be delegated to the player’s diplomats, a strategy containing orders that would affect another player should be thought through carefully. In particular, random attacks without declaring war on “reasonable grounds” first are a generally bad idea. Even in a game with all human players, there are potential repercussions for diplomatic missteps other than merely “international standing,” including worsening prices on the “global market.”

As mentioned in passing below, this game is rather RPG-like in that all people in the game (in theory, at least) are characters in the RPG sense. A player would be wise to include instructions as to the organization of a chain of command in his or her initial set of orders; without such, the most charismatic and least qualified soldiers could take command, leading to any number of problems.

If a player’s orders include any non-trivial modifications to the landscape of the world (including building a fortress), that turn’s strategy should also include an (at least general) map showing what those changes would look like (in the case of a fortress, its floor plan, a map of its grounds, and a plan for where its defenses should go). This includes the first turn, when all players should submit a plan of their headquarters.

Combat is handled in a manner very similar to a tabletop RPG, i.e. on a local grid with position handled precisely, time counted in rounds, etc. Since each “player character” in the game-world is the commander in chief, located at headquarters, he or she usually has influence over combat only through the orders he or she gives at the beginning of each turn (his or her strategy). Those orders should include, either explicitly or through an implied inclusion of “standing orders” given earlier (at the least an explicit inclusion of a document, with a reminder to the Judge of where to find it, would be wise), an at least general plan of tactics saying (in as much detail as the player wishes) what actions the soldiers should take in various situations. In some exceptional cases, such as if no results come back from a unit (usually because either the messenger or the unit were captured or destroyed), at the Judge’s discretion, orders to cover that eventuality may be “back-dated” as if they had been given immediately when the news came in rather than as usual the next morning.

SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY: RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT

Scientific and technical advancement is a major focus of Strategic Primer. While there is a mechanism (yet to be determined) for a player’s scientists to do their own original research, and some of that original research is required to implement advances received from some other source, a primary source of technical advancement is the following rule: If a player can describe an advance in terms that his or her scientists (and the Judge) can understand, and the scientists have the necessary tools to test and implement it, and the advance is permitted to exist in the world, the player gains that advance.

That last caveat will most likely be invoked rarely. If an advance depends on certain assumptions about the nature of the universe that do not apply in our world (for example both faster-than-light travel and most forms of applied metaphysics, sometimes called “magic,” appear to be impossible) but those assumptions are consistent with or independent of the assumptions made by the rest of the player’s advances, and the effects of both those assumptions and the advance are clearly and logically reasoned out, the player may be able to gain the advance despite its impossibility in our universe, at the Judge’s discretion.

Advances are organized into “specialties.” Most, especially early, are in the “general” specialty, the catchall category for advances that don’t fit into another specialty or deserve to found a new one. They represent lines of research. With very few exceptions, advances in a specialty will depend only on other advances in that specialty, or on “general”-specialty advances. (The one exception is that some exceptional advances come about through cross-fertilization of specialties.) Similarly, no two advances in a specialty will require contradictory assumptions about the nature of the world or two different kinds of applied metaphysics.

LOGISTICS: MESSAGES AND RESOURCES

Logistics is a second focus of the game. Napoleon reportedly said that “an army marches on its stomach,” and the supplies it needs for success go far beyond food. While most logistical and organizational tasks may be delegated to subordinates, the player is ultimately responsible for ensuring that his or her soldiers, citizens, and officials are fed and supplied and that technology is maintained to prevent failure. One aspect of the logistical framework underlying the game is a depiction of time that attempts to be somewhat realistic. Messages and supplies both take time to transport. While messengers generally use the fastest form of transportation available (and are eliminated entirely when better transmission methods like semaphore towers or radio are available), a unit’s distance from headquarters determines how long it takes for messages to reach it and reports to return from it, which influences when in the turn it receives its orders and might, in the most extreme cases, induce a delay of a turn or more.

Production of resources is generally done in dedicated buildings by specialists (with more or less training), either from scratch (as in the case of a farm), from natural deposits (such as trees or coal), or from other resources (as in the case of an oil refinery or gunsmith). Resources are also available through trade with other players, with travelling merchants, or with “the global market” (whose purpose in the game is to make economic but nonmilitary blockades nearly if not entirely impossible).

There will be no single resource designated “money.” While undoubtedly some resource will become a portable currency, no resource will be initially designated for that purpose, and whatever resource eventually fills that role will have some other use.

TECHNOLOGY USED TO PLAY THE GAME

We may be using MapCraft for our maps for this game. Based on its (minimal) documentation, it should be capable of managing local maps (perhaps a map of each of a player’s fortresses, or any other local area, editable by him or her) as subsets of the world map. I have not yet selected what, if any, technology may be used for such things as designing formations. I may use custom software to help write results, but they will be in standardized human- and machine-readable formats, at least HTML.

THE MODULE SYSTEM: LARGELY “UNDER THE HOOD”

This game is organized in a highly modular way. First, units’ types can be changed by changing their equipment, though adding equipment cannot ensure that the unit’s proficiency with it. Second, unlike early versions of this game, there is little if any difference between (for example) a cannon on the wall of a fortress, a cannon on a ship, and a cannon on a cart on the battlefield, and the same cannon could be used all three places. Third (and don’t worry about this, it’s all “under the hood” unless you find it helpful), while all people in the game will be characters with their own personalities (as in an RPG), they are also Modules like all the equipment, and all Modules are part of larger Modules. What level of the Module tree a “unit” is depends on what scale is being discussed.

FINAL REMARKS

In the beginning of this first campaign in several years, both rules details and balancing data are likely to be in quite a bit of flux for a while.

Again: players wanted!

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