Rules of Outdoor Survival, Part 2

If you visit a site like Boardgamegeek.com, you'll find that the usual knock on the Outdoor Survival game is that it's impossibly difficult to win at. This seems to be an interesting common theme with my other favorite stuff: Early-edition D&D, my work at Papyrus Racing, and my profession of teaching mathematics. As JFK said, we choose to do these things "not because they are easy, but because they are hard". So we should explore that further.

Outdoor Survival reviews at Boardgamegeek.com

Scenario Cards

Outdoor Survival isn't just a single game; it's actually a whole bunch of games, even an open-ended platform for making your own games (sound familiar?). The boxed set comes with 5 "Scenario Cards" which respectively outline completely different objectives, win conditions, and rules for being lost and finding sustenance. In the interest of comment, criticism, scholarship, and research, here's the front side of each of the cards:

Outdoor Survival Scenario 1

Outdoor Survival Scenario 2

Outdoor Survival Scenario 3

Outdoor Survival Scenario 4

Outdoor Survival Scenario 5

Aside from the context and objectives changing, the key observation is this: The scenarios represent a simulation of characters with progressively greater experience in surviving and navigating the wilderness.

Scenario 1, "Lost", is a situation with totally unprepared and disoriented characters stranded in the wilds; there is always some restriction on their movement. Looking on the left under "Direction Ability", they must always travel their full movement allowance. Half the time their movement starts in a random direction; only 1/3 of the time are they allowed even a single turn; the best they can hope for is being able to pick a direction of their choice and go in a straight line, full distance. On the right under "Necessities", their daily food and water requirements are almost never met. The only way that happens is to end a move directly on one of the few food hexes or a stream/water basin; and recall that players cannot choose how far to move in any event! I interpret this as a completely unaware lost soul, with no map, compass, food, or even a canteen with which to take water out of a stream when they pass one by. Indeed, the normal end to this game is everyone dying, no matter how well you try to play.

But on the other hand, as one progresses through the scenarios, these heavy restrictions are lessened. Direction ability options become more often a matter of player choice, and food/water become easier to collect and maintain. For example: Scenario 4, "Rescue", clearly features expert outdoorsmen looking to find and extract stranded victims. There is never any random direction taken; the choice is always up to the player, and they choose exactly how far to travel, and only half the time have any restrictions on the number of turns they make. Water supply is automatically full in all cases; the water index loss rule is completely a non-issue for these characters (full canteens?). Food may be found in any hex whatsoever, and certainly by passing through any indicated food hex. Simple survival and navigation about the map is all but guaranteed here; these characters are dealing with entirely different mental challenges than those in Scenario 1, say.

In short: The Outdoor Survival scenarios provide the germ of the idea of advancing character levels in D&D. Which is arguably the single most powerful game-design invention of all time. The scenarios provide a spectrum of characters of increasing knowledge and proficiency in surviving the challenges of the wilderness. At the lowest level, death is the most likely outcome, even with the best of strategies on the part of the player. But the strategy and game itself is entirely different as we advance experience. At the highest levels, mere survival is assured, those concerns are swept from the mental space of the game, and instead we wrestle with different, higher-order challenges.

Likewise as in D&D, it may be considered somewhat counter-intuitive that the hardest game (to simply survive) is at the introductory, lowest levels. If someone plays only Scenario 1 of Outdoor Survival, and dies several times in sequence, then perhaps they are not incited to play the other,  higher-level scenarios which are actually much easier to win at (due to increasing character proficiency). The traditional boardgame gesture is that more "advanced" scenarios are adding more and more rules, and hence increasingly hard to manage the play/strategy. Here this is reversed; higher levels actually remove certain rules from consideration (like the need to track water resources). If someone were committed to winning the first "level" before proceeding to others (which is not guaranteed in any case), then it is no wonder that they walk away from Outdoor Survival with the impression that it is simply an assured massacre on every play of the game.

Finally, consider the expression of the same kind rule for being lost in Original D&D (Vol-3, p. 17). While it doesn't perfectly match any of the "Direction Ability" tables above, it is more like the higher-level ones than the lower. Again on a low roll, the PCs may have to start in a random direction and be restricted to a single "turn" in their move. But this chance is lessened (either on only a 1, 1-2, or 1-3, depending on terrain), and at no time are they required to move their full speed for the day. Meanwhile, traditional D&D never included any rules for adjudicating a lack of food or water. D&D seems to expect that only the "highest level" of Outdoor Survival characters will be active in its wilderness play.

D&D Vol-3 Lost Parties rule

Still more to come.


Rules of Outdoor Survival, Part 1

Recall again that having a copy of Outdoor Survival was originally listed as one of the top pieces of "Recommended Equipment", above dice, paper, pencil, players... everything, in fact, except for the D&D rules themselves (Vol-1, p. 5). Almost all of us have seen the Outdoor Survival map, I think, many times, because it keeps get re-used for many purposes. Instead, I'm looking at the rules of the game today; in some ways their direct relation to early D&D rules is a lot more interesting. Outdoor Survival says very little about its in-game context (or exactly what strategy to use while playing it), but it implies much.

Scale of the Map

Outdoor Survival map scale text
Notice my hand-annotations. While not explicitly stated, we can back-calculate from the given square mileage of the map to determine that each hex is about 3 miles across (i.e., 1 league). I tend to think that having a move system that handles up to about 7 spaces moved per turn is ideal (See: Magic Number 7 from back in '07). Indeed, as you can see below, the maximum (full health) movement for a man in Outdoor Survival is 6 hexes.

But the wilderness rules of D&D Vol-3, which use the Outdoor Survival map, also need to handle travel modes such as horses, ships, and even flying dragons (much faster than walking). There, Gygax made the hexes about twice as big (5 miles; compare to 6 miles in later material like Moldvay/Cook, i.e., 2 leagues), thereby cutting the hexes walked by about half, prolonging the adventure and handling horses without leaving the entire map behind them in a single day. I constantly engage in a never-ending debate with myself over the descriptive elegance of having 1 hex = 1 league, versus the need to have a larger hex size so movement in hexes is a manageably low number.

Life Level Chart

Oyutdoor Survival Life Level Chart

Each player gets one of these yellow cards to track their current life level. Each day without food or water decreases the respective track by one box; after several are missed, life level is decreased. This happens more quickly for water than food; and in the later stages the loss becomes exponentially greater. Life levels A-O (15 stages) are noted, starting with A (full health). The intimate connection between health and mobility is the key mechanic of this game; as soon as a single life level "point" is lost, movement is reduced from 6 to 5 hexes/turn. The longer you go without food or water, the worse your mobility is, and it becomes increasingly hard to get to the next food/water supply point. If prolonged, it quickly falls into a "death spiral" where reaching food/water becomes impossible. Indeed, even by life level L, movement becomes zero, and you are effectively dead at that point.

It's an elegant rule, and it does a reasonably good job of communicating the critical concerns of real outdoor survival (I like this game a lot). Tracking the connection for one person per player is fairly easy by using these cards. But in D&D, we are likely to be running many people, characters, mounts, henchmen, etc. (to say nothing of the DM with dozens or hundreds of monsters!), and trying to use this exact same mechanic would become quickly, totally unworkable. In D&D, of course, decreasing mobility from injuries was never part of the core rules -- but is referenced in the earliest edition as something a DM could consider ("Whether sustaining accumulative hits will otherwise affect a character is left to the discretion of the referee.", Vol-1, p. 18).

More to come.


Book of War Updated Prices

I'd very much like to update the OED Book of War (see sidebar) for a 2nd Edition, but at this point it's unclear when I'll have the time. I will take the opportunity to release this much:

For more than a year now we've been playing our games with a somewhat revised pricing list. This was triggered by a few things. One, I revised the simulation/pricing program to take into account the effect of a large unit "wrapping" around a smaller unit, which gave a boost to the efficacy of really cheap unit types. Two, I allowed myself a little more leeway to slightly massage the prices at the higher end to round numbers to make it easy for players to quickly budget their forces without needing a calculator. (For example: The cavalry costs are now simply 10/15/20 -- the exact same as seen in Original D&D Vol-3, as opposed to having heavy cavalry priced at 18 or 19 as the simulator actually estimates).

Another important item that we've made a core rule (whereas it used to be optional) is the requirement that any units on the board need to have a total budget cost of at least 50. This corrects a few possible trouble spots: Players taking cheap forces and making them into lots of tiny 3-figure units; buying all different types so as to create 1-figure units; short-circuiting the critical importance of the morale rules; greatly slowing down the game due to the proliferation of units on the board; and so forth.

Some other changes that we now regularly play with can be found at the bottom of this post.