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GrogHeads Interviews Uwe Eickert of Academy Games

Grogheads’ Corinne Mahaffey sat down to talk with Academy Games’ Uwe Eickert at Origins.  In person, Uwe radiates a cheerful enthusiastic intensity; game design is clearly one of his passions!

Grogheads:  What new games do you have coming up?

Academy Games:  The Conflict of Heroes Solo Expansion, and Conflict of Heroes – Guadalcanal are shipping soon.  We will have a Kickstarter for Conflict of Heroes: D-Day Airborne Battles this fall!

Academy Games

Academy Games

In addition, in 2015 we expect to publish the first game in our Civil War/Napoleonics series: Gettysburg – Day 1 Bloody Crossroads. This will be the first game in a 2 or 3 volume set based on this battle. The map boards and counters are big and incredibly beautiful! (Check our website for pictures [http://academygames.com/games/fight-for-the-colours/bloody-crossroads-gettysburg-day-1])  This is a new system that implements some of our newest and most advanced design mechanisms; there will be no dice, no numbers on the counters, and no charts to look up.  You will be able to see the detailed state of each Regiment by quickly looking at its Brigade Command board. This will tell you its fatigue, morale, and current capabilities.  The game can be played with 1 to 8 players and the decision cycle for each player is constant, with little to no down time.

We have been doing a great deal of research on the US Civil War, concentrating on the soldier’s fatigue and mental aspects of combat. We have factored these aspects into the game mechanism, so that brigades act more like they did in battle, often flowing forward and back towards the enemy.  We’ve been working on this for 4 years and hope to publish it in 2015.

 

Grogheads:  Could you compare how you build computer games versus board games?  What are the advantages and disadvantages of each medium?

Academy Games:  We always start with the board game because we find we have more subtlety when we design the board game.  If we have no computing power, then we build a better, more intuitive, more streamlined game to begin with, which we can then move to the computer.

When we create board game mechanics, the results are transparent; we know why we came to the in-game result that we did, and we learn the strategy of the game.

Computer war game AIs are often designed with a biased advantage.  They are often given limited, hard coded orders.  However, human thought patterns are not limited in this way.  The Artificial Intelligence (AI) that we have developed for Conflict of Heroes utilizes a unique Emergent Behavior and Agent Based Logic that evaluates Battlefield Situational Conditions. The AI then implements the best Tactical Response based on its available unit assets and resources. If the forces and logistics are available, the order is executed by the best available AI unit.  If not, the secondary procedure order is implemented.

We think people will be surprised by the intuitiveness of our board game AI.  Our AI does not “smooth” results or have arbitrary advantages.  No matter which side you take, the AI will kick most players’ butts 60% of the time. This system has gone through several development cycles and we have had help from some of the most cutting edge computer programmers, active duty Army officers, and game designers.

Grogheads:  How do sales compare between your board and computer games?

Academy Games:    Both we and our distributers have been amazed; our sales are up 300% over last year.  Despite being a five year old game, Awakening the Bear still sells almost 500 board game units each month.  We have a diverse customer base, and 45% of our sales are overseas. Our computer sales are also very good. We are now concentrating on developing iOS versions of all of our games.

Grogheads:  If there was one thing you could change about the games industry, what would it be?

Academy Games:  I wouldn’t change anything! There are many unique and beautiful games out there, and about 5% turn out to be very smart, fresh, and utterly new.  The gaming industry is very healthy now, and that is attracting regular retailers.  We have good competitors who are putting out good products, and the people in the business are good people, easy to deal with, trying to make better games.  Most important, we have a great fan base that helps us in our game development and review process.

Grogheads:  What games do you tend to play?

Academy Games:  Aside from testing prototypes, I play Euro games because the most creative design advances come from some weird Euro game segment.

Grogheads:  Whatthree other game designers impress you, and why?

Academy Games:  I don’t have three favorite designers, but I do have favorite games.  I like Through the Ages because it is multifaceted.  They took a complex, huge idea and made it easy to play, which makes it different and original.  This game and Twilight Struggle, another favorite, also enjoy the advantage that my wife insists on playing them!  St. Petersburg is a nice interactive “screw your neighbor” game.  Medici is most incredible.  It has a sleek, tight design, and is totally player interactive.  All of these are clean, versatile, tight games.

Academy Games

Academy Games

Grogheads:  What was your best idea in game design?

Academy Games:  I have been reading less about history and more about brain psychology, especially about what creates repeat compulsion and addictions. The Motivation-Reward Behavioral cycle is the basis of many compulsions – both good and bad. I then try to include this addiction cycle into our game designs. First we need to identify the dopamine hook in a game – The part of the game that you instantly identify as what makes it so unique and fun. The part of the game that makes your brain pump out that wonderful pleasure-inducing Dopamine hormone. Once identified, we highlight this hook and try to compress the dopamine cycle, while increasing its amplitude. We have developed a very detailed design cycle for this.

We start with an engineering methodology.  For each game, we create a ladder logic diagram; a visual tree that plots every decision and every action for every part of the game.  For a war game, I could have separate decision trees for resource logistics, movement, and combat.  We then find where the dopamine hook is in our diagram.  Once our diagram created, we can see what portions of the game are more involved than others. The decision flow for one aspect of the game may be much longer and involved than other aspects of the game. Does this bog down game play and impede our dopamine cycle?

A game’s dopamine hook cycle is comprised of “make a decision, anticipate the result, decision conclusion (either positive or negative)”. Then the cycle starts all over again.   We want to compress this cycle to make the length of time from decision to anticipation to conclusion as short as possible.

The dopamine flow does not commence at the conclusion of the hook cycle.  The dopamine rush instead builds during the anticipation portion of the cycle. For example, you are a hungry bush person. You decide to get up off your butt to look for food. In the distance you see an apple tree! You run towards the tree, pull down an apple and take a juicy bite!  Most people think that the rush surges when you bite into the apple. That is not the case. It really starts with the decision to get up and look for food. In game terms, this is the decision you make to take an action. Once the cycle concludes, you want it to start all over again to get your dopamine flowing, and this is the foundation to a nice new addiction: the game-play addiction!

I want our games to be the drug addiction of choice for the gamer, the PCP of the gaming industry!

Then we concentrate on increasing the amplitude of the cycle rush. We do this by limiting resources, making decisions more difficult, and making the consequences of your decisions greater. I want the players to oscillate on the border line between being comfortable and being overwhelmed by their decision-making process.

I want to clarify that by overwhelmed I do not mean that the game is difficult or rules intensive. Exactly the opposite, the game play needs to be easy and intuitive. This allows the player to concentrate on the decision-making process that skirts this border line.

Grogheads:  What would you do differently in your games?

Academy Games:  If I don’t like something, I will change it.  Between the first and second edition of Awakening the Bear I changed the entire unit activation system.

We have changed our AI to mimic that of T-Cell interaction with bacteria.

I also spent six months working with linguists to change the verbiage of AI orders.  I changed the word structure to cut their length by 1/3.  I also changed the font and layout of the orders.  For the solo expansion of Conflict of Heroes, the “situation” and “unit executive” orders are offset and in different fonts so that the player’s eyes are drawn from one to the other in order of their use.

I want games where you make intuitive and subconscious decisions, because this then makes them more fun and addictive to play.

Grogheads:  Which game is your favorite child?

Gettysburg, because of the unique directions we are taking the game mechanics system in.  It is so different, yet it is easy to understand.  Our war game focus groups react to this game with incredulity, since you can learn the game in two minutes and do not have to look up rules. The game is deeper than almost any other Civil War game published, but the nuances are built into the system, not in ‘exception’ rules.  We have taken everything we that have learned from Conflict of Heroes and our other games, and have applied it to this system.

This game system emulates the ebb and flow of battle that happened in this era.  In the last two years we have cut the time it takes to resolve a battle to a third of what it was, resulting in quicker decisions, faster interaction – and hopefully a hard case of game addiction!


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One Response to GrogHeads Interviews Uwe Eickert of Academy Games

  1. Phil Jervell says:

    Great interview, the thought process in designing games is very impressive. My favorite part of the article is the comment “The Conflict of Heroes Solo Expansion, and Conflict of Heroes – Guadalcanal are shipping soon…” Looking forward to getting my hands on the latest CoH releases and I will definitely keep an eye out for the CW\N series…

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