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Thursday, February 25, 2010


Steve Cole reports:

Now that F&E 2010 is finished and the first boxed games are en route to the wholesalers, it's time to take a minute a share some thoughts. I'm still pretty tired from the project, so this is not an exhaustive, detailed, or complete analysis of the project, but just some thoughts that came to mind when Jean asked me to do something for a blog.

The project began about eight or nine months ago, when we found the new die-cutting company and found out that we could get 280 counters on the same space we used to get 216 by reducing the size of the gutters and bars between the rows. The original layout of 216 was designed for TFG-#1 by the printer who did the first die cutting back in 1979, and he couldn't make it work and passed the job to another die cutter, who used the same die. The die was engineered to for the machinery used by the printer who ended up not doing the work, and I'm baffled why in all the years since then (with new dies built every few years) it never occurred to me to ask if we could put more counters on the sheet. We needed to print more F&E counters, and having 280 instead of 216 for the same price meant we could do some really great things. The very first thing I wanted to do was to get rid of the carrier group counters that I was forced to use (due to the budget on how many counters the game could have) back in the first edition of F&E in 1986.

The decision to do 2010 was somewhat controversial. Many did not want to get rid of the carrier groups because the strange rules required to make them work allowed carrier groups to use "out of sequence retrograde" and some players felt that game balance desperately depended on this rules fudge. Actual playtesting proved that it was no big deal and that the game would work just fine without it. But the real opposition to doing 2010 was from those who wanted to do the long-delayed ISC War product. They knew that there was no way for the staff (and the printing budget) to do 2010 and ISC War at the same time, and ISC War has been delayed way too many times. In the end, I'm still glad we did 2010 because when I processed ten years of Captain's Log rulings it became clear to me that the rulebook everybody was using literally did not exist. Everybody was using ten-year-old rules with twenty consecutive sets of rules changes. How many of you guys actually played F&E under those conditions is beyond me. Now, the new rulebook (which is truly a work of art) solves that problem and provides a firm base for us to move forward.

I was reluctant to work on 2010 for two reasons. One was that I knew it would be a ton of work, but the bigger reason was that the BBS gang has a tendency to launch endless witch hunts for rules changes that would mean they win the game on Turn #7. This kind of nonsense made the previous attempt to do the Warbook collapse as nobody could find the stuff we needed to work on because of the clutter of witch hunt rules changes that were being debated.

The first step was to convert the game into newer software, which required manually retyping all of the white-on-black titles. We found the last of the typos on those the day we went to press.

The second step was to include all of the Captain's Log changes that had been published over the previous ten years. The sheer volume of these made me wish we had done a 2005 rulebook, so I'd only have half as many to do now.

Beyond the Captain's Log updates, there were a total of twenty "core change case files" which were debated, some of them for months. Only two of these were things I wanted to do; the rest were player requests that got past the "witch hunt filter" and were deemed worth of being discussed. Most were eventually rejected as not needed or as bad for game balance. The six that were approved included Required Kill (adjusted to be about half of the new ship production rate); lowering the limit on minus points going into pursuit; getting rid of unbreakable carrier group counters; a minor limitation on maulers; consolidating the rules on tugs, LTTs, and theater transports; and eliminating the free slow-unit retrograde.

Some of these "core changes" were just bringing expansion rules including the basic game, including enhanced small-scale combat, flexible conversions, triangle fighter factors, limited war, and flexible tug assignments. These did not change anything, but simply brought later rules into the earlier game.

The many core changes rejected included: requiring two battle rounds for large pin battles (nobody wanted to count ships), more Directed Damage at higher battle intensities, using Directed Damage twice on battlegroup ships (no battlegroups in Basic F&E), eliminating free fighter factors (the hottest debate; it should have been done but was impossible to balance), making pursuit more deadly (wrecked game balance), more expensive allied repairs (wrecked game balance), limiting free Strategic Movement for repaired ships (wrecked game balance), limits on expeditionary reserves, bringing the F-111 rules into the basic game, and more deadly Directed Damage on CV groups.

The staff (Chuck Strong, Mike Curtis, Jeff Laikind, Ryan Opel, Scott Tenhoff, and Stewart Frazier) were very active in reviewing the revised pages and debating the core changes. Dozens of players also participated in some of the reviews and all of the core change debates.

The new rulebook got bigger, being 164 pages instead of 96. A little of that expansion (about five pages) was bringing rules from expansions into the basic rulebook (such as flexible conversions, flexible tug assignments, and of course, flexible carrier groups). Most of the rulebook growth was in those twenty sets of consecutive Captain's Log changes. Some of it, maybe a dozen or two pages, comes from a better layout, starting every rule (there might be an exception or two) on the top of a column (if not the top of the left column). This just made the book easier for me to work on, as working on rule 412 did not push rule 413 into another page.

Speaking of easier to work with, I think that the large reference blocks in the bottom outside corners (giving the number and title of the rule on that page) will make the rulebook very much easier to use. Previously, in all of my books, you had to visually fish a rule number out of somewhere in that page to tell if you were getting close to what you want. No more. Look at the same spot on every page (bottom outside corner) to see what neighborhood you are in.

There was a lot of debate and discussion about what expansion stuff to include. There were some who basically wanted the entire rulebooks of all six expansions dumped into the basic rulebook (presumably at no increase in price) and that was obviously not practical. (Besides pushing the rulebook beyond 400 pages, getting all of those rules updated was just not going to happen in the time available. As I mentioned, a few expansion rules were brought forward into the main rulebook, but the discussion of expansion stuff mostly focused on three areas: cross-references, annexes, and the Sequence of Play.

Thanks to the tireless work of Thomas Mathews and Stewart Frazier, every rule in Basic F&E that works differently with an expansion has that fact noted, with the rule number of the expansion rule (and marked with a double-dagger symbol) and provides an exception or special case. Just about any time we mentioned "bases" we listed all of the bases in the expansions, including types of bases not even published in F&E yet (and one that isn't even in SFB yet).

The Orders of Battle and Ship Information Tables do not list ships in the expansions because we thought this would clutter things up for new players. The other annexes do list these ships as it provides an overall view and the game system and makes sure that the expansions will be valid for the entire Warbook.

The Sequence of Play was another place we hotly debated what to do. At one point, we had two of them, one with everything in the expansions, and the other with just the Basic F&E stuff, and finally went with just Basic F&E as that would be less confusing to new players and save space.

There were suggestions that we include Maelstrom and Winds of Fire instead of the vague notes that comprise the current scenarios 604 and 605, but this was not done for several reasons. One was space (doing this would have made the book bigger), one was time (they need work to update them), and one was that those scenarios, being later in the General War, work better with the ships in the expansions and work funny with just Basic F&E ships.

The end of the project was very intense. I had to begin by shutting down as many of the different "places where I got input" as I could. I began by resolving and closing most of the core change debates. I reviewed the last of the Captain's Log updates that had not been reduced to specific rulebook language. I had a lot of staff reports on the PDFs they had been sent, and a large number of reports from the dozens of gamers who had seen the limited selection of rules PDFs I had posted. All of those had to be resolved. Then I began locking down the prototype report files, one for each chapter, and sending the final reports to a single topic.

In the final days, Jean Sexton went through the entire book for spelling, formats, style sheets, capitalization, punctuation, grammar, and other such matters. She even found more than a few rules glitches. Steven Petrick also read the entire book and found many issues which had to be addressed.

I was supposed to finish at 2pm on Friday the 19th. I actually finished at 7pm on Sunday the 21st, but we still shipped the boxed games on Monday the 22nd at 4pm.

The book had just started printing when one of the staffers posted on the BBS "Which expansion do we upgrade next?" That's a good question. Coming off of the euphoria of this successful project, if I had naught else to do, I would relish the chance to do it all again with an expansion. (Mostly to work with the same great bunch of guys again.) But, alas, there are two obstacles to this swell idea. One is that the company has six other product lines and I cannot ignore them to work on just one line (if that were going to happen, would F&E be the line that got picked?), and the second is that we really do need to devote the F&E energy into ISC War first, and doing an expansion over again second.