Thursday, September 3, 2020

Let's Read Barbarian Prince - part 1 Map and Layout

I recently read a really glowing review of the boardgame Barbarian Prince that got me curious about the game - both what it's like to play it, and also at a more basic level, how it works.

You may have noticed I have an interest in using procedural instructions to generate a game experience, and learning from other games that use instructions, like the roguelike genre of computer games, and the Choose Your Own Adventure series of game books.

So consider my interest in Barbarian Prince to be part of a broader interest in how to use game rules to create a certain kind of experience, either in the absence of a gamemaster, or with a gamemaster who's more like an interpretive guide than someone actually directing the action of the game.

Fortunately, since 2003, the Reaper Miniatures company made six games originally published by Dwarfstar Games available as free downloads, including Barbarian Prince, so it's very easy for us to experience, despite the game being out of print from something like 30-40 years at this point.


Barbarian Prince map by Cynthia Sims Millan, copyright Reaper Miniatures

Let's start by looking at the map. It's really gorgeous, and it's fair to say that the beautiful map is the only reason I ever heard of Barbarian Prince before reading that review.

The Dwarfstar games were a bit before my time. Same with Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival and Magic Realm and TSR's Divine Right. But the maps are so evocative that people still post about them from time to time. Like many of you, my first knowledge of the existence of those games was seeing one of their maps online.

The first Dwarfstar game I ever saw was actually Demonlord. I learned about it, roughly at the same time, from People Them With Monsters (where it was being used as the map for his Outland campaign) and from Dungeon Skull Mountain (where it was being used for his Demon Verge campaign). Following the link to learn about Demonlord first introduced me to Barbarian Prince, although at the time, the map was the only part of the game I was interested in.

In thumbnail, the thing I notice most about the map are the colors, the soft lovely shades of green and purple that help distinguish the terrain types. If you look at the enlarged version though, there are details I didn't initially see. The cross-hatched fields of the farmland, the numerous towns, temples, castles, and ruins. This isn't, as I thought at first glance, particularly a wilderness map, like in Outdoor Survival, it's a map of a settled and interconnected region.

The dimensions of the map are unusual, 23 hexes down by 20 across. Its scale reminds me of Save vs Total Party Kill's repository of crowd-sourced hex maps, but the most common size there is 20 by 20. Outdoor Survival has a big map made of 6 smaller ones, and each of those is 17 by 14. Divine Right's map is oriented the other way, and it's 31 by 34. The Land of Nod's maps of, well, the land of Nod are even bigger. Even the Demonlord map is 22 by 23. I would say that 20 by 23 is a size that never caught on, but I think the fairer assessment is that there simply is no standard size for large hexmaps.


original layout, copyright Reaper Miniatures
   
layout by jumbit, copyright Reaper Miniatures

While the map is beautiful and informative, the appearance and layout of the rules is ... not. I'm not going to throw stones at what was - for all I know - the cutting edge of information design in gaming in 1981, but I will note that by contemporary standards, it is maddeningly poorly laid out, and that's just my reaction as a reader. I have to suspect that these problems would be amplified in play. If ever there were a document that cried out for the loving touch of a skilled layout artist, this would be it.

The rules of Barbarian Prince are divided into two booklets. e000 - e199 are events and covered in the Events Booklet, and r200 - r399 are rules and covered in the Rules Booklet. No, I don't know why the rules come second. These numbers correspond to sections rather than pages (they could as easily be labeled §000 - §399, like you see in some works of philosophy) and their purpose is to facilitate easy lookup. That's how the Choose Your Own Adventure books work too, (though with page numbers instead of sections) but what it really reminds me of is computer programming using the BASIC language. All that's missing are the GOTO statements.

(I spent a couple years in high school learning to program in BASIC on Apple IIE computers. This was some time around the turn of the millennium. My high school was ... not good. In college, I gave up on computer programming in favor of finally learning to understand other people, a decision that has unquestionably enriched my life ever since. I did have one accomplishment to show for my computer classes though. Some of my classmates had copies of Drugwars on their TI-83 calculators. I was never cool enough to have a copy on my calculator, but I did write my own game of trading stocks and avoiding the SEC and IRS that had the same interface and, as closely as I could guess, the same price fluctuations and kinds of random events. The Barbarian Prince rules remind me so much of the dot-matrix printouts of my game code. As I'll discuss in a future post, there's actually a very similar logic at work. You start each day on the "main menu", then select an action, which takes you to new submenus to resolve the consequences of your selection.)

I think I know why Barbarian Prince is written this way, or at least I have a couple guesses. I suspect the primary purpose was to minimize the space required to print the booklets. By never giving more than the 4-digit code number to look up another instruction, and never retyping any text that could simply be referred to by referring to its code number, the game probably minimized the number of lines and pages they needed to print the instruction books - and thus maximized the amount of game content that would fit in that number of lines and pages.

If the designer, Arnold Hendrick, was familiar with computer programming, he might also have felt more comfortable replicating the logic of reference and look-up to organize the game he was writing. In fact, one good question is, why isn't Barbarian Prince a video game? either instead of or in addition to being a board game. I feel fairly certain the Commodore 64 or Apple IIE could have run this program, perhaps with a short chiptune MIDI soundtrack and some rudimentary on-screen graphics to show your position on the map, or the appearance of the nearby village or temple, like you see in Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego. A computer would also do a bang-up job of tracking your money, food, and time. I suppose the answer might be as simple as the fact that Dwarfstar wasn't a video game company, but it still feels like a missed opportunity. Maybe an enterprising retrogame emulator will some day fill in the gap.

Aside from the eye strain of trying to scan through so many pages of undifferentiated text though, there are a couple down sides to this organizational approach. The first is that there are some rules that are more important than others, that serve as primary references that do most of the work of directing you to the other sections you need to read. Because you need to look at these rules to play the game, it's something of a problem that playing the game also requires you to continually turn the page away from them.

It would be enormously helpful to have key rules and reminders printed out on separate reference sheets, perhaps page-sized or half-page for certain tables, playing-card-sized for monsters and NPC allies. The top "Travel Events" sheet shown above, I think, was printed on a separate sheet of paper, but a bit more of that would have gone a long was. As would some color, variations in font size, table formatting ...

To give only the simplest example, compare the original layout above to one fan's attempt at an improved layout right below it. The second layout does take up more space, it's true, but look at how much easier it is to read, and how the addition of section titles alongside the section numbers already helps to orient you to what's coming next. Notice also the way the sample hex illustration and larger title fonts helps guide you to the correct terrain type, and how the inclusion of the rules for getting lost, for triggering an event, for hunting, and for finding animal fodder actually reduces the amount of flipping around you'll have to do, even though you will have to turn a page to find the correct table.

Another problem with using references and look-ups instead of repeating text is that it makes it that much easier to run into the "infinite regress" problem that can strike any game that uses procedural generation tables. Basically this is a problem where you look up a rule or event, and it has you roll on a table, that then directs you to another rule or event, which has you roll on another table, that then takes you ... and on and on and on.

Infinite regress can be difficult enough to cope with in a really well-organized document, but the additional page-flipping and booklet-switching here seems like it has the potential to really get you lost. Short of never having one table refer to another, you probably can't completely avoid the risk of too-much-page-turning in any game that uses procedural generation, but I think the takeaway for anyone wanting to design such a thing is that these cross-references can add up quickly, and that the total will always be more than the sum of the parts. I can't know without playing it (which I will!) just how much Barbarian Prince suffers from infinite regress, but the way it's written certainly appears to create a risk.

This time I focused mostly on appearances, but I'll start diving into the actual rules next time.

8 comments:

  1. Funnily enough, Hendrick was extremely familiar with video games after the fact:

    https://www.mobygames.com/developer/sheet/view/developerId,978/

    including Darklands.

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    1. (though apparently never a programmer, just designer, so perhaps that's just how he worked?)

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    2. Interesting! Yeah, it looks like he started designing video games in 1986 and had a good decade-long run at that.

      So you're right, it's possible that he was already thinking about design in a way that was compatible with the video games of his era.

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  2. You tempt me to try it myself.

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    1. I'm glad you did! I'm going to finish my read-through first, but I do plan to give it a play as well.

      For anyone interested, Dan's actual play is here:
      http://throneofsalt.blogspot.com/2020/09/play-report-barbarian-prince.html

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  3. There was a video game "inspired by" Barbarian Prince: Road of Kings by Dancing Sorcerer Games. It was available on android and apple devices but disappeared in 2015. Fortunately I bought an android copy before then and can still download it today. It was Barbarian Prince with just enough numbers filed off to make it legal.

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    Replies
    1. That's cool to know! It's too bad it's vanished.

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  4. My friend had this back in the day. We thought it was very cool as we'd got our RPG start mostly with Tunnels & Trolls solo play. The map and miniature definitely added to the cool factor.

    As for playing it I remember it being very unforgiving. I don't think we ever completed it or even got very far.

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