The Finesse of Failure


You may or may not be aware – I’ve mentioned it lightly in passing – but we’re working on a site overhaul.  Starting early in 2014, iSlaytheDragon will become far more than a straightforward blog.  We’ll still have our weekly posting schedule, but everything will be organized much better, easier to find, and easier to discover new things.  With that will also come a fantastic new look.

Part of the process of updating to the new layout has been digging through old posts to categorize and organize them all.  Not surprisingly, digging through written records of your past can bring up memories, it can show you how far you’ve come, and it can also remind you of your failures.  It’s a chance to reflect on such things, and its not always pretty.

In the process of going way way back, I stumbled upon my old posts about Armyland.

If you weren’t a reader around then, you probably haven’t heard about Armyland.  It was my first attempt at game design, and though I still have all the cards and parts it is deader than a desert stone.  And that makes me a little sad.

Armyland was an epic game of conquest, conceived originally back in my high school days.  Basically, my only reference back then to modern gaming was Settlers of Catan.  I wanted to build something more interactive, more directly competitive, and where resources weren’t based on luck.  I began work on what I called “Thrones of War” which at the very start had a few good concepts and a seatload of terrible ones.  I though of a way to collect resources – by building fortresses would collect resources in their spaces, and farms that expanded a fortresses income. There were armies of course, but each unit in an army was a card that represented hundreds or thousands of units – and you could increase the number and thus the power of an individual unit.  I created dozens of units with attacks, defense, protection values, special abilities, and different schools of magic.

Conceptually it wasn’t terrible, but in practice it was absolutely awful.  At that point I never even got the game to a playable state.  I was not experienced enough and I did not have the answers to far too many questions.  My friends, who I had put to work cutting out tokens and helping to design cards, were relieved I think when I basically gave up on the project.

In college, I can’t remember exactly why but the game came up again in my mind.  I wrote out a complete rulebook (so I thought; now I know it was woefully lacking) and submitted a write-up to Mayfair games.  Like I said, the concept was a solid one, and I got a response asking to see the rules.  Excited, I finalized the rules and sent them in, and got a rejection letter.  I’ve written about this before, but that was years ago, and before Armyland truly died.

As I began to play and learn more games after college, Thrones of War had a resurgence, namely because i had a brilliant idea – instead of increasing a generic attack value as unit sizes increased, why not increase the number of dice to roll? Still not a bad idea, but poorly implemented.  I figured rolling handfuls of chunky dice was a boatload of fun (it is) and went a little overboard – some attacks resulted in rolling 20+ dice.

“You will want to play Armyland after seeing this,” I said. Without any sampling of gameplay to back that up. Ooops.

Anyways, I’m going into far too much detail, so let me cut forward a bit.  As I began to brainstorm new ideas and solve old problems, I was quite energetic about the whole concept of game design.  I dragged my friends into playtests and constantly edited rules and plotted refinements.  I even got a couple nice copies from the Game Crafter, far too early in the process.  I believed I could turn this game into something worth publishing, that people would love to play.  The game went through a complete overhaul, gaining a sense of silliness as I created ridiculous fantasy units that could combine in even more ridiculous ways (Wizards mounted on Giant Spiders… cool!).  Like I said a lot of concepts were solid, but in the long run, I just didn’t have the skills or experience to pull it off.  It was far too complicated, too many variables, and I couldn’t make the game actually fun to play.  No matter how excitedly I wrote about it or felt about it at the time, it never came close to being worth anything.

Now I look back and while I learned some things from the process, it’s definitely a big red X in my past, and one that’s a little hard to shake off when I think about it.  A lot of effort and love went into that huge game. It was a monster out of control but I poured a lot into it, and now? Now, I have almost nothing to show for it, except a stack of useless cards and some wooden tokens.  I still have no idea how to fix Armyland if I even WANTED to attempt it again.  It’s dead, lying in a pool of its own blood in a dark alley somewhere.

Since then I’ve learned a lot more about board gaming.  I’ve experienced a significant number of wildly varying games, I’ve read and studied articles and blog posts written by designers, and I’ve made further attempts at game design myself with many valuable lessons learned.  But Armyland hangs in the back of my head, not just as the game I didn’t finish, but the game I couldn’t finish.

Failure is a big part of life.  It’s hard to know when to embrace it, when to study it, and when to leave it be.  I wonder how many complete failures many of our favorite game designers have had in their past.  Did Alan Moon ever start a design he couldn’t finish? Did Antoine Bauze create something to messy he just gave up on it completely?  There are many unfinished projects on my desk at home. Some of them I still hope to finish.  But Armyland? Will it ever be one of them? I doubt it.  Failure hurts.  Failure in one area means I might not be as good as I thought in other ways.  Friends and family always tell you that you’re doing good, that you are a success, that you are awesome.  Failure is proof of the diametric opposite; that something I created is not worth much, that I am a broken person, that I cannot just make something work because I want it to.

It can be hard to acknowledge failure.  That something isn’t really that awesome.  That it’s not even good enough.  How many kickstarter projects have we seen, not that simply fail to reach their funding, but are clear examples of poorly designed games whose creators are blinded to their poorness.  Either by sheer stubbornness or simple lack of experience, they do not see that their product – our products – are inferior.

But admitting my failure means I can try to learn and move on.  I can applaud those who made it all the way, who created something amazing, something that families and gaming groups get together and get a lot of enjoyment out of, because that is HARD.  That doesn’t just happen.  Playtesting isn’t always a fun process; its not just playing games all the time, it’s playing the same game over and over, and tearing it apart and figuring out how to put it back together again.  It’s amazing.  And its not me.  Not yet, anyways.

I hate to be a downer, so lets end on a positive note.  Aside from looking back at failures, looking back does another thing; it gives me the chance to revisit topics I wrote about 3 years ago as a fledgling gamer, someone who didn’t know what they were getting into.  I wrote a lot of things and not all of them as brilliant as I thought they were when I wrote them, and now I can take another crack, explore deeper, and see what I’ve learned, and what we’ve all learned together. And that seems pretty cool.  If there is one thing I feel I haven’t failed at, it is this blog.  Many dragons have been slayed, we’ve got a great team of guys, and a great group of readers.  So, carry on, comrades.  Carry on.

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

Discussion3 Comments

  1. Even if you view Armyland as a failure I will say the one game of it that I played was a very fun and memorable experience. It was one of my highlights and few things that I remember from the convention where I played it. I’m glad you made it and that I got to try it out.

    Sure it’s frustrating that it didn’t end up as a completed game but I bet you can recall a lot of positive memories that you have from designing and playing it. The journey may not have ended up where you wanted but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great trip (hopefully).

  2. Great reflection. We don’t often get to hear the whole story of developing a game, particularly games that don’t quite get out of the starting gate. It’s hard to find what you love to do if you don’t try and fail at a few things along the way.

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