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Author Topic: Steampunk/Mechanical Games  (Read 517 times)
Beylon
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« on: December 14, 2017, 06:19:40 am »

So I'm designing a mechanical boardgame where real mechanical fighting machines roam around and smash each other up. I've largely failed to uncover any competing games in this genre, so I'm starting this thread in case anyone cares to share similar concepts available out there today.

For clarity, I grew up with Warhammer and always debated the merits of tactile tabletop miniatures over video games like WarCraft, and ultimately Dawn of War. I dreamed of a "real-world" game where the pieces actually stood up and moved around on their own. Something more complex than Rock'em Sock'em Robots, anyway. With popular ideas like that weird Dejarik game from Star Wars or even Wizards Chess from Harry Potter, I'm pretty sure most people have thought about this on some level before.

Chess has made a pretty good go of it over the years. The Novag Adversary and Novag 2 and any of the "ghost" chess sets all had moving pieces. These were very much computer-powered but I'm told there was once some aristocratic steam enthusiast from ye olde Russia who had a preprogrammed steam-powered chess set. Why does this not still exist?!

Various Japanese companies have made forays into the mechanical gaming field too. Tomy is the obvious one here, with their spring-powered versions of popular video games like PacMan and Pong (Blip). Of those, Blip was probably even better than the original! But other companies like Takara have also made contributions, such as the spring-powered Battle Deck game, with weaponised toy vehicles.

But where have all these games gone? It seems to be a kind of lost genre. I see Mousetrap and a few Golfarb examples still on shelves and that's about it. No doubt the new Jumanji will be just as disappointingly inert (and more disappointingly app-ised) as the original. Can anyone shed some light on whether this genre even exists anymore?
« Last Edit: December 24, 2017, 06:11:34 am by Beylon » Logged

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Atterton
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« Reply #1 on: December 15, 2017, 04:16:56 am »

It sounds like it would be prohibitivly expensive. Though it might depend on how you define mechanical. Rock Em Sock Em and Hungry Hippos are both mechanical. Also part of the appeal of board games over computer games is the tactility. You want to be doing things, not make a move and then watch a device go through the motions for two minutes. Then I can play Battle Chess on my computer.
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RJBowman
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« Reply #2 on: December 15, 2017, 05:58:43 am »

If you are interested in fighting on tabletops with real working miniature robots, look on You-tube for Robo-One competitions in Japan. This is a fighting contest where contestants build and operated miniature walking robots, actuated by servo motors and controlled with various controller types including keyboards, game controllers, and even waldo-style gauntlet controllers. The object of the game is to knock over your opponent's robot. This has been going on in Japan for over a decade, and I am mystified as to why no competitions of this type are being held in America.

ROBO-ONE 10: Championship Match - Ivre vs. King Kizer
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Beylon
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Australia Australia



« Reply #3 on: December 15, 2017, 10:44:50 pm »

It sounds like it would be prohibitivly expensive. Though it might depend on how you define mechanical. Rock Em Sock Em and Hungry Hippos are both mechanical. Also part of the appeal of board games over computer games is the tactility. You want to be doing things, not make a move and then watch a device go through the motions for two minutes. Then I can play Battle Chess on my computer.

There's a lot of philosophy behind that first part, yes. I originally imagined two top-hat wearing toffs would arrive at a bar where each might produce from their pocket an ornate timepiece. These devices are placed on an ebony table, as the barman serves the toffs pints of Guinness. Then, the two "chronauts" on the table sprout legs and charge, grappling and smashing until only one remains alive. The looser buys the next round.

So much of steampunk (or any punk, really) seems devoted to moral questions of creation vs destruction and, you know, the art of creating destruction. Seems poetically on-point for this type of game. Two meticulously crafted works of art, born from all the collective design and technology science has to offer, brought into this world simply to kill each other. It's madness. And it's awesome.

My task is to get the game as close to that ideal as possible, without becoming an obviously ridiculous fantasy. Like any game design, it basically comes down to compromise. Hopefully without betraying the theme of the entire concept or mutilating what it means to be mechanical. Deserves more discussion.

You're absolutely right about the hands-on thing too. I completely agree. The "original" concept above does not cater for it, which is a flaw. Good news is that the designs I've come up with since do. I've attempted to incorporate the act of actually building one of these little robot things into the game itself. My playtesters all seem to appreciate this.

Hmm. This is fast becoming more about my own game than those made by others (the point of this thread!).

If you are interested in fighting on tabletops with real working miniature robots, look on You-tube for Robo-One competitions in Japan. This is a fighting contest where contestants build and operated miniature walking robots, actuated by servo motors and controlled with various controller types including keyboards, game controllers, and even waldo-style gauntlet controllers. The object of the game is to knock over your opponent's robot. This has been going on in Japan for over a decade, and I am mystified as to why no competitions of this type are being held in America.

Robo-One is excellent! Although competitions do happen all over Asia, I'm always impressed by how uniquely Japanese these types of robot-fighting games manage to remain. Non-lethal robot combat is something the West never truly embraced. The basic premise of all Western fighting games has always been to knock-out your opponent. That is, stop their brain from working. Not so, in Asia. It is a rift which I think will always remain. Hence, no non-lethal biorgs in the States.

So can something like Robo-One be steampunk? Even if we dressed the robots up or made them out of brass and mahogany, they're still operating on some of the most complex digital software and battery power known to humans. They need silicon chips to operate. Let's imagine for a moment a Robo-One robot built in the style of an Al-Jazari automata (ala Hugo). Can we build a Robo-One fighter powered by steam/springs and a programmable cam-system? Or perhaps more importantly, can we communicate the same sense of joy and accomplishment to the fighters and audience using a similar, perhaps simpler, design?

This post got  out of hand. You guys raise good points.
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RJBowman
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« Reply #4 on: December 16, 2017, 12:39:11 am »

So can something like Robo-One be steampunk? Even if we dressed the robots up or made them out of brass and mahogany, they're still operating on some of the most complex digital software and battery power known to humans. They need silicon chips to operate. Let's imagine for a moment a Robo-One robot built in the style of an Al-Jazari automata (ala Hugo). Can we build a Robo-One fighter powered by steam/springs and a programmable cam-system? Or perhaps more importantly, can we communicate the same sense of joy and accomplishment to the fighters and audience using a similar, perhaps simpler, design?

Mechanical computers don't have the speed to handle the processing. The hypothetical mechanical automaton would have much simpler control system. Control might be electric or, if that's too modern for you, control could be through pneumatically controlled clutches that would transfer power from a spring or air driven main rotor. Everything would be controlled by the operator; I just don't see any possibility of a tiny autonomous  fighting device built with pre-electronic technology.
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von Corax
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Prof. Darwin Prætorius von Corax


« Reply #5 on: December 16, 2017, 12:38:46 pm »

This post got  out of hand.

That's the best kind of post.

So can something like Robo-One be steampunk? Even if we dressed the robots up or made them out of brass and mahogany, they're still operating on some of the most complex digital software and battery power known to humans. They need silicon chips to operate. Let's imagine for a moment a Robo-One robot built in the style of an Al-Jazari automata (ala Hugo). Can we build a Robo-One fighter powered by steam/springs and a programmable cam-system? Or perhaps more importantly, can we communicate the same sense of joy and accomplishment to the fighters and audience using a similar, perhaps simpler, design?


Mechanical computers don't have the speed to handle the processing. The hypothetical mechanical automaton would have much simpler control system. Control might be electric or, if that's too modern for you, control could be through pneumatically controlled clutches that would transfer power from a spring or air driven main rotor. Everything would be controlled by the operator; I just don't see any possibility of a tiny autonomous  fighting device built with pre-electronic technology.

Had you considered something along the lines of Crabfu's steam-powered R/C vehicles?
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Beylon
Deck Hand
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Australia Australia



« Reply #6 on: December 16, 2017, 01:27:32 pm »


Mechanical computers don't have the speed to handle the processing. The hypothetical mechanical automaton would have much simpler control system. Control might be electric or, if that's too modern for you, control could be through pneumatically controlled clutches that would transfer power from a spring or air driven main rotor.


Well, I'm turned off electricity for the same reason I've always been attracted to steampunk. I find the use of almost all my daily devices can, to some (often limited) extent, be replicated using Victorian or pre-Victorian technology. Weird stuff too, like TAI (universal time), GPS (location discovery) or VR (real-time rendering). It figures that old technology preceded the new but it amazes me just how obvious some of these connections are, despite being all but forgotten today. Same goes for robotics, as I expect you know, having read a number of your threads here (which are awesome, by the way). That most of this alternative technology I subscribe to only became popular around the Victorian era (even if it was actually older) and thereby falls into the realm of steampunk today is basically a coincidence of monarchical support for science and industry, riding on the back of empire and slavery. Ouch. But smoosh all that together and apparently you have a basis for good design without the basic functional need for grid-mechanisms like batteries or power sockets (despite those tethers being the ultimate result).

Short version: if you can get something to work without electricity, do that. Maybe it's just daddy issues, but all my favourite childhood toys were analogue. I've also done some air-motor stuff in the sub 100gm range for this, which I might share eventually.

Had you considered something along the lines of Crabfu's steam-powered R/C vehicles?


Yes! I love Crabfu! And I'm also a big fan of his Spyro stuff, which is kind of the opposite solution to this issue. For all my own steam stuff though, I actually use a Chinese company called Microcosm-Engine, who I believe make superior "things" to the Crabfu parts. They even do a pre-made steam-driven walking car. No joke.

Everything would be controlled by the operator; I just don't see any possibility of a tiny autonomous fighting device built with pre-electronic technology.


Curious. See, when I say, like some doh-eyed fool, that, "I'm designing a mechanical boardgame where real mechanical fighting machines roam around and smash each other up," I'm actually saying... It's already made. I made it. I have it here in front of me. You build the "robots" and they smash each other. It's great. I was thinking of doing a kickstarter or something. People keep telling me to do that. But I feel a bit weird just marching into a forum and announcing "MY STUFF" before I've had a chance to really mull it over with the locals and discuss some of the context the idea will ultimately exist in. Hence this thread.

I mean, I suspect you know more about the world of Victorian robotics than I do. My little creations might not fit in here, if the mechanical game genre is something steampunk has never concerned itself with. You know? There are plenty of steampunk games which I am very familiar with, some discussing this very concept, many of them being card and board games, with fewer being mechanical, and I do suspect everyone, everywhere, likes games generally about the same amount. But it is sometimes hard for me to understand whether peeps who support steampunk (or any literary culture really) are only in it for the fantasy, or whether we'd like to actually bring some of that fantasy to life, for real. Some people don't want that. Some people think it's a little weird, just too much or kind of intimidating. And that's okay.

But I guess if you'd all rather have me discuss the actual game here, or whatever, I could probably just rename this thread and start again. Maybe move it to a different subforum? I was just curious to see if anyone had some latent knowledge of the genre more broadly. Seems to me it's a field sorely lacking in design, despite being so well suited to the steampunk ethic. As in, where is my copperplate Mousetrap?
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Beylon
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Australia Australia



« Reply #7 on: December 18, 2017, 01:56:38 am »

No? Excellent, moving on! I want to address this quote more fully:

It sounds like it would be prohibitivly expensive. Though it might depend on how you define mechanical. Rock Em Sock Em and Hungry Hippos are both mechanical.


Both those games are mechanical, far as my definition goes, yes. If Hungry Hippos was made in an artisanal manner reflecting the value of the innovation within each mechanism, then maybe it'd contribute to the steampunk idea... Maybe? But Dr Fidelius once contested that idea in a nearby thread:

Just because something is steam driven does not make it Steampunk. Creating a steam-powered airship is not the same as making a working Steampunk airship - one is an engineering puzzle, the other is a fantasy (using the term in nothing but a positive manner).

There is no way to make a Steampunk airship in real life, because we do not live in a world which allows lighter-than-air privateers to haunt the trade routes, or to explore the ruins of the Antarctic civilizations, or be part of Her Majesty's Aerial Defence Forces. Sorry, but Steampunk is much more than what a thing is, it is mostly what we do with that thing.


I am inclined to agree that the "user model" for an object (or game) is just as important as its aesthetics when evaluating its association with a culture, like steampunk. But from what I understand, parlour games in Victorian times could be pretty raucous. Maybe a cast-bronze version of Hungry Hippos would fit right in at a steampunk party?

From that perspective, while clockwork games like Forbidden Bridge (or even Fireball Island) seem to embody a kind of steampunk on a technical level (using spring-motors and working parts to achieve a similar effect to modern electronics) the vast majority of mechanical games (almost none of which are still sold these days) appear to be cultural mutants with no originating gene pool. And I guess that raises a second question: how does a mechanical game elevate itself into steampunk culture?

Another quote, from Narsil:

I think that one of the key things about SP, at least for me, is that it is about doing very sophisticated things with essentially simple technology refined to a high level... It's that blend of fundamentally simple tech, (ie; it's just about possible to build a steam engine in a shed) with very sophisticated execution... SP is much more about tweaking the circumstances to bring about a different route of technological and social evolution than just transplanting radical new technologies or shoehorning in basically modern concepts.

The good thing about using Victorian type tech is that it's perfectly possible for a non-specialist to grasp the underlying concepts with a realistic amount of application and research and from there, there is a lot of scope to apply creativity and imagination. A lot of the stuff is there already, it's often a case of finding new applications for it with the benefit of hindsight... This could almost be seen as the opposite to sticking gears on a laptop.


Okay, with a broad sense of what it means to be mechanical (where interactions occur physically between non-living components instead of mentally or directly between players) and a holistic understanding that the point of a steampunk game is not to reinvent the wheel but to reimagine the very process of reinventing the wheel, there are a few mechanical game options still available which might support the broader purpose of the culture. And they appear to know it:


Pucket is one of those games which, it seems to me, embodies the boisterous nature of a Victorian parlour party. It revels in its own form, with raw wood materials proudly on display from every angle. It does not encourage (as a standard) physical contact between the players, which has always been a little weird thematically (looking at you, Twister!). And finally, it makes good use of simple technology to level the playing field; like all good mechanical games from the Victorian era, it does not rely on the physical prowess of the individual players, instead mitigating that element with an elastic "shooter" so that each player's shots are of essentially the same power. EDIT: oh yeah, and the fact it achieves all this with what is actually super-modern technology. Ergo, a mechanical game, at home at a steampunk party.

Obviously the little wooden discs in Pucket are not little clockwork robots... But the vibe of the game, I think, sets a standard for other steampunk gaming ideas to aspire to. You know, where you could crack it out over martini's at 1806 and not look totally out of order.
« Last Edit: December 18, 2017, 02:00:16 am by Beylon » Logged
Atterton
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Only The Shadow knows


« Reply #8 on: December 19, 2017, 10:20:02 pm »

Having little windup creatures wander around and then perform some spring-loaded attack when encountering/touching the enemy seems doable. The problem I see is finding mechanical way for them to seek each other out on an open battlefield. Though one could cheat and use magnets under the playing board to move them around.
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Atterton
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« Reply #9 on: December 19, 2017, 10:44:42 pm »

Mechanical jousting could be an option. Also look up the boardgame Shogun. They way it uses magnets could probably be expanded on to trigger something more.
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RJBowman
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« Reply #10 on: December 20, 2017, 05:24:46 am »

So how does one build a miniature no-electronics tabletop battle bot? I picture something akin to the old Japanese tea ceremony automatons.
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Beylon
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« Reply #11 on: December 23, 2017, 02:26:39 am »

So how does one build a miniature no-electronics tabletop battle bot?

I intend for my game to answer that question. So perhaps it would be better if I showed you the process I went through myself and then worry about the final product afterward? This way you might come to the same conclusion I did, karakuri and all. But, uh...


Prepare yourself.
I wrote an essay.
(with pictures)


Having little windup creatures wander around and then perform some spring-loaded attack when encountering/touching the enemy seems doable. The problem I see is finding mechanical way for them to seek each other out on an open battlefield.

My research suggests there are three facets to solving the problem of analogue autonomous control. The combined solution is a lot simpler in practice than it looks in longhand but it’s kind of my job to consider the fleshy version. So here it is. The solution must consider:

  • Power
  • Behaviour
  • Environment

The question of power is foremost of the entire problem. In my designs, I leapt to the conclusion of spring motors as a familiar solution explored by countless wind-up toys since Victorian times. But rather than becoming enamoured by the fantasy of a clockwork humanoid, stomping around on its two legs, wielding a steam-driven weapon, I was more inspired by the popular designs of common Robot Combat machines. Most remote-control combat robots roll around on wheels – which is a surprisingly inobvious solution, so far as most non-robotics enthusiasts are concerned. I figured if an electric motor could power a wheeled combat robot, a spring motor might also.

While most wind-up toys which exhibit some manageable autonomousness use wheels, and despite such mechanisms being used in complex automata for centuries, my experiments soon suggested wheeled locomotion was problematic. For the most part, it is frustratingly impractical to modify the behaviour of a wheeled vehicle in any meaningful way without effecting the most minute of (clumsy) adjustments to the mechanism’s internal workings. At this scale (palm-sized) such adjustments are next to impossible. Confounding this, the vast majority of wheeled wind-ups are today manufactured in China, meaning they rely heavily on economic, plastic components. Such components are next to impossible to hack. Most debilitating of all, the basic premise of a wheeled vehicle working on only a single lateral plane of balance means that even subtle obstacles can ruin the autonomous routine, upsetting the carriage and often flipping the vehicle onto its side or top. It was clear I needed a mechanism which would allow my wind-up robots to change direction mid-locomotion whenever they encountered an obstacle.

Although my research subsequently moved away from wheeled locomotion, there is one example of a wheeled mechanism worthy of mention here. The modular Non-Fall Wind-Ups from Hans are miniature plastic wind-up mechanisms designed to wear an aesthetic outer shell, depending on the toy. The mechanism itself was invented in Germany, long before it was introduced to England in Victorian times, but the Hans version is the smallest, lightest and most modular example I am aware of. It uses a replaceable clockwork motor (with an escapement) which simply clicks into the chassis and connects the gearbox automatically. The chassis itself has four wheels: a single drive wheel at the rear, with a stabilising wheel on the same axel, a probe-wheel at the front and a directional wheel in the middle, angled at 90 degrees to the others. Whenever the probe-wheel falls off a shelf, the directional wheel naturally makes contact with the ground and (because it is connected to the drive gearbox) turns the machine away from the potentially dangerous fall. In this sense, the machine can avoid falling off a plinth, which makes the mechanism useful in a Sumobot combat context, where the object is to push the other robot off the plinth. Fittingly, Hans has released an aesthetic “sumo” skin for the mechanism (not depicted here) packaged as a fighting set – which I believe is actually the smallest and most complex clockwork fighting game ever made.


Simultaneous to my move away from wheeled machines, the famous Hexbug Nano robotic toy was released locally. This curious device was designed by David Anthony Norman, Robert Henry Mimlitch III, Douglas Michael Galletti and Joel Reagan Carter for Innovation First International and proved to be a game-changer. Here was a mechanism which, with all but a single motor in a closed circuit, could navigate its way around practically any obstacle. It used the most basic sense of “touch” to locate objects and react by bouncing away from the sensory collision. Doing this hundreds of times per second, the machine could confidently bounce around the environment without losing control in any permenant manner. If it ever fell over, or into a cavity, its arching backbone would roll the machine back onto its feet, whereby its shuffling motion would begin the locomotion all over again. With only a battery and a motor, the Hexbug Nano was both locomotive, sensory-aware and self-aware, being able to move around, interact with obstacles and correct itself if necessary.


Further research revealed the Hexbug Nano was under commercial attack from a host of Chinese knock-offs. The Nano patent had been filed years in advance and covered a broad range of mechanisms presumably intended to gradually expand the range. But the patent was so specific and well written that its unreleased concepts were easily copied by pirates. The result was a veritable black-market ecosystem of evolving shufflebot species flooding the global toy sphere. For my purposes, the wild array of variations demonstrated how physical differences in the sensory organs of the machine (the head, shoulders, spine and legs) could be used to influence the behaviour of the mechanism robotically.


For example, the infamous i-Insect has mandibles either side of its head, as distinct from the bald Nano. This variation is described in the Nano patents and illustrated on the Hexbug website as an early prototype. From a practical perspective, the mandibles increase the elastic properties of the sensory organ (the head) at its widest points, preventing the machine from becoming stuck in tight corners. Suddenly we see a Nano variation which behaves differently to the original when caught in a nook, solely due to its shape – the very essence of modifying autonomous behaviour by programming physiological differences in the sensory organs.


Other Nano knock-offs explore the more complex variations described in the patent. The Nara Battlebug has a larger motor and counterweight with additional legs, being designed specifically to carry cargo on its back. The Micro-Insect is primarily aesthetic but its bulky shoulders prevent it from tipping over. Meanwhile the Crazy Bug (yet another white-label variation) has dynamically programmable legs, allowing the behaviour of the machine to be programmed directly into the body with basic routines such as “turn left” or “turn right” or “spin” and such. For such a tiny machine, just 40mm long and weighing under an ounce, this level of sophistication in programmable behaviours is utterly unique, setting the Nano apart from earlier designs like the original Evil Mad Scientist Laboritories bristlebots.

As if to completely vindicate the Nano as a research subject for combat robotics, the toys even come in a specially designed fighting set, with a fighting arena and specially decorated fighting Nano machines. The designers of the Nano, it seems, are well aware of their invention’s potential. The Nano Bridge Battle set is the smallest autonomous robot fighting game ever made, establishing a new standard for the entire genre (and Innovation First International would indeed go on to create merchandising toys for the television show Battlebots).


In the same vein as the Nano, we can control the autonomous behaviours of our own fighting machines by designing their sensory organs. Programming behaviours into the physical form of our machines (previous to the fight) theoretically gives us remote control without electricity – that is, autonomous control.

So far as I was concerned in my initial research, the same principle of a spring-motor powering a wheeled combat robot equally applied to a spring-motor powering a combat shufflebot. I designed and constructed a clockwork version of the Hexbug Nano, learning quickly that the weight of the spring-motor itself could be used as the sole counterweight for the bouncing shuffle-motion. This basic innovation meant I could dispense with the need for more complex gearing in favour of simple store-bought motors – a method which would come to define my spring-powered designs.


As an aside, the brief development of the clockwork Nano demonstrates how romantic notions are so quickly stripped away by raw design-necessity. In the early conceptual stage, the clockwork Nano closely resembles the original electric design. The final version is bloated, flimsy and only operates for about three seconds before powering down. Still, it works.


With the concept proven, albeit in the most basic of tests, I expanded my designs. Inspired by similar mechanisms employed in many of the Chico wind-ups, I amplified the effect of the whirling spring-motor using a horizontal mounting method, larger carriages and more complex leg-configurations. The results were impressive. At least, for that early period in development.

Using spring motors taken from the little-known Battle Deck game (designed by Kenji Horikoshi for Takara-Tomy) I was able to build a wind-up locomotive which would operate for between 45 and 60 seconds, as well as negotiating practically any obstacle it encountered; changing direction whenever it hit a wall and bouncing over obstacles and gaps in the floor. This efficiency was far in excess of the performance of my clockwork Hexbug Nano or any example from the Chico line. Most Robot Combat fights would end within 60 seconds anyway, so I was fast approaching something usable.


Another benefit of my original wind-up robots was their soft legs. Made of steel at first, then brass and copper, the legs could easily be formed into a variety of shapes – a feature curiously lacking in the Chico toys. Shaping the legs determined the locomotive behaviour of the machine, the speed at which it would turn, the response time upon hitting obstacles, its tendency to travel in straight lines or sweeping arcs. The little series of robots I made during this time were, so far as I am aware, the first truly programmable wind-up walking robots ever – and if not, then surely at this scale, weighing less than an ounce.

To be continued...
« Last Edit: December 23, 2017, 02:34:24 am by Beylon » Logged
Beylon
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Australia Australia



« Reply #12 on: December 23, 2017, 02:27:19 am »

But there was a problem: while these robots could walk around and interact with their environment like never before, they struggled to actually fight each other in any meaningful way. Even with their spindly legs and exposed motors, they just could not muster the hitting power necessary to really impact on each others’ behavioural routines. At best, I had essentially created what many had already created before me: walking race cars. I was reminded of that humorous scene from the Simpsons where Moe is running a washing-machine race in his bar. Traditionally the solution would be to increase the power of the spring-motor – but this would also increase the weight and bulk of the entire machine, as in this automatic fishing-reel powered car:


No matter how hard I searched, I could not find a spring-motor at this scale (palm-sized) which could deliver the necessary power to actually smash up an opponent. It was clear I needed a new direction.

While I subsequently moved away from spring-power, two honourable mentions from the world of spring-powered combat robotics come to mind. The first is the previously mentioned Battle Deck, a game where players construct weaponised cars which speed at each other on a modular track. Like mounted knights jousting – but with cars. The theory is that the weapons, armour and motor in combination will give the player an advantage during the inevitable climax of the fight. Battle Deck was unceremoniously cancelled (probably due to the infamous restructuring at Takara-Tomy when Transformers was revived) but its patents reveal designer Kenji Horikoshi had big plans for spring-powered and mechanical weapons built into the existing vehicles. The image below illustrates a kind of reverse-mousetrap flipper device which would presumably trigger on contact with the opponent.


The other game is a reduced version of the Battle Wheels remote-controlled fighting robot toys. These almost-humanoid warriors have an unusually powerful spring-motor concealed in their undercarriage. The motor uses an innovative gearbox which spins the wheels (thereby sending the robots into battle) as well as rotating the upper-torso at a reduced rate (thereby whirling the weapons around, fish-slap style). The mechanism in Battle Wheels is hokey and largely uncontrolable but this little gem deserves mention for being essentially the only spring-powered humanoid fighting game ever made. It is also curiously multicultural.


While investigating the potential of fly-wheel technology, I came across Osamu Mashimo’s celebrated fighting game Beyblade (1999). I never experienced Beyblade as a child (too old, I suppose) so the concept of spinning top fighting was new to me. Essentially, players build spinning tops from a range of modular components then use specially designed “launchers” to send their tops spinning into an arena, where they battle. The last top standing wins.

From a robotics perspective, a spinning top can theoretically fulfil the same objective as the Hexbug Nano. Both are “ergodic bodies” in the sense that subject to a certain constant force, both will inevitably explore every physical space within a closed environment. Like the old billiard-ball analogy – hit it hard enough and it will eventually sink the black. Likewise, spin a top in a box and watch as it bounces off the walls and tracks across the floor. This kind of “patrolling” behaviour could reasonably be used to cover a much larger and more complex physical space than a wheeled vehicle might.

It soon became obvious that the Beyblade toys had come a long way since their plastic beginnings in the 1990s. The new Metal Fight Beyblade (2008) series from Takeaki Maeda, Haruhisa Ujita and Hisao Nishimoto (of Transformers fame), known in the West as Metal Fusion (2010), pitted solid zinc-alloy tops against each other in an open-walled fighting arena (the famous BB-10 stadium). The audible sound of these tops fighting is like something straight out of Battlebots.


While experimenting with the notorious “Poison” Beyblade design by Haruhisa Ujita, I accidentally ripped off one of my fingernails by picking up the top mid-battle. Ouch. It was a painful realisation that these tiny spinning tops were vastly superior to my spring-powered designs – and should be treated with the care you might normally afford a combat robot.

Despite this demonstration of raw power, it may be helpful for us to briefly glimpse the secret history of Japanese top-fighting in order to fully understand the potential of the spinning top mechanism in analogue combat robotics. As you will see, the Japanese have been using autonomous combat robotics in gaming for at least 800 years – so there must be something we can learn from them.

Beyblade is the modern form of the ancient Japanese game, Beigoma. The word “beigoma” is a localisation of the original Chinese, meaning “shell spinning top” and referring to both the game itself and the spinning tops used for play. The original beigoma surfaced in the record books around 1200AD, during a period of great influence from the Chinese mainland. Although there is no record of beigoma actually being used in China, other Chinese spinning top games were introduced to Japan around this time and quickly became a ubiquitous part of Japanese life.

The original beigoma were crafted by hand from the common Babylon shell. The shellfish itself was collected as food all across Japan, so almost everyone had access to them in one form or another. The players would collect the shells, going out into the wild and combing the natural environment for a good “bai” to use as their spinning top. They would then grind the open end of the shell flat (leaving just the cone shape) before packing the hole with sand or lead shot (for ballast) and sealing it with wax.


To play the game, a string was wrapped around the shell before being whipped into the play arena (usually a cloth draped over a barrel, forming a soft bowl) where the last beigoma spinning was the winner. Other ways to win involved hitting the opposing beigoma out of the arena or smashing the opponent to pieces, sending the balast everywhere in a climactic explosion. These concepts survive today in modern Beyblade, where the most recent “Burst” series incorporates an artificial exploding mechanism in the vein of Rock’em Sock’em Robots.


Beigoma was perhaps the most popular sport in Japan for over five hundred years. It was so well crafted in itself, it never really needed to evolve in the same way as other spinning-top games of the period – which relied heavily on advances in wood-turning technology and ironmongery. It was not until the upheaval of the Meiji Period that beigoma saw its first technological evolution.


The cultural and economic reforms of the Meiji (when Japan finally opened its borders to the West in the 19th Century) forced the popularity of cast-iron beigoma. It is a debatable subject but Japanese people in this time apparently had more money to spend on toys. The Victorian influence on Japanese culture also drove the adoption of “sophisticated play” as a priority in the lives of Japanese people. With new technologies flooding the Japanese market, the cast-iron beigoma was a symbol of scientific and industrial status in a metagame previously dominated a hunter-gatherer mentality. In reality, the hunter-gather theme never really abated, except that the hunting and gathering moved out of the wild and into commercial stores. Cast-iron beigoma were collected as part of the game, with each different design behaving in a unique way during the fight. Even today, popular Beyblade videos on YouTube involve “bey-hunting” where the host scrapes their local stores for rare finds. Cast-iron beigoma were also the first to introduce the “fighting spirit” mythology to the game, where each top was inscribed with the Kanji of a great hero or mythical beast – incarnated today by the often bizarre Beyblade manga and anime.


To be continued...
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Beylon
Deck Hand
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Australia Australia



« Reply #13 on: December 23, 2017, 02:27:59 am »

While Beyblade often totes its historical roots in ancient beigoma, the creation of the franchise was actually a direct response to fierce toy-market competition in the mid 1990s, which found traditional Japanese toy manufacturers struggling to cope with the advent of video games. But that history begins almost a decade earlier again...

While the Western toy market had been using spinning top “launchers” for almost a century (yes, the Victorians had mechanical launchers) and Eddy Goldfarb had popularised the idea of fighting tops with Rene Soriano in their aptly-named Battling Tops (1970) for Ideal, the first modern revival of the beigoma concept actually came from Japanese designer Takayuka Onoda, with his beigoma-like Spinjaz (1987) for Tomy. Onoda introduced mechanical control to a profoundly Asian gaming concept hitherto reliant on the physical skill of the player. Spinjaz was the first modern use of hand-held mechanical launchers in a beigoma fighting game.


The beigoma concept was fully revived by Tomy’s arch rival Bandai just years later, with its hugely successful Spin Fighters (1993), designed by Tsuyoshi Nonaka and Minoru Sawada. While Spinjaz revived the beigoma concept, Spin Fighters really set the standard for all top-fighting games ever after. Easy-to-use mechanical launchers, collectible beigoma-style tops, customisable tips and, perhaps most importantly, the first open-walled arena design.


Spin Fighters was among a host of Japanese games taking advantage of video game merchandise at the time. For example, the mythical beasts depicted on the fighting tops were typically from popular video games, such as Street Fighter, or from popular television shows, such as Power Rangers. Meanwhile, Beyblade inventor Osamu Mashimo, working at Takara (also a nemesis of Bandai) was creating a top-fighting line for the popular Bomberman (B-Daman) franchise (called SugeGoma), based on the toy company’s recent commission work for a local noodle company who wanted to merchandise their brand with Transformers-like toys (a concept Takara held the patents for). Mashimo also produced a similar concept for the Madaou Monagatari video game series called Puyo Puyo Battle Top. Clearly top-fighting was all the rage in the Japanese toy market of the 1990s, so when Spin Fighters fell out of popularity in 1997, Mashimo devoted all his energy to creating a stand-alone beigoma game: Beyblade.




In the context of modern fighting games, the beigoma revival of the 1990s has gifted us one crucial concept which defined the new direction of my research: the launcher. Games like Spinjaz, Spin Fighters and Beyblade all place the power-generation units for their fighting machines in an entirely separate device. This allows the launcher to absorb the bulk of the power generation duties, leaving the fighting machine free to focus on combat-strategy and weapon-design.

It also means that we can transfer the full power of a human punch into a miniature analogue fighting machine, giving that machine more than enough power to literally chop apart one of my original spring-powered robots.

As we branch into the strange world of modern top-fighting, it may be of some comfort to remember that my original inspiration for a functional miniature fighting machine came from the world of Robot Combat. For the uninitiated, there is a kind of rock-paper-scissors hierarchy in Robot Combat which favours one kind of robot design against another specific type. Typically flippers, grabbers, spinners and wedges. Of these, the most aggressive and destructive design is always the spinner – using flywheel momentum to accumulate huge amounts of energy in a whirling disc-weapon before forcing it into a nearby victim. Spinners are so effective that they are often banned from play or limited by “sportsman” rules. In fact, the first Robot Wars championship was won by a full-body spinner named Blendo, designed by Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman. See how this machine is basically a gigantic spinning top?


The principles of spinner-design in Robot Combat apply equally to miniature mechanical fighting machines. It makes sense to embrace the spinner style for its efficient use of energy. Beyblade has been doing this for years, with spin-times for even its most aggressive designs ranging between 2 and 7 minutes – far more efficient than any other mechanical fighting machine (ever) and more than enough for a single round in a fight.

It is also worth noting that Beyblade has transcended the robotic many times. Certain Beyblade designs incorporate miniature robotic mechanisms which allow the top to autonomously change its behaviour according to the progression of the fight. Some tops will trigger an internal spring-motor on contact with a target, providing a much-needed speed-boost at exactly the right moment. Others have basic bearing-drives for extended run-times. Others again have centrifugal clutch mechanisms which engage a transforming mechanism to modify the machine’s behaviour based on its current state – turning an agressive top into a passive defensive top, for example, by modifying the shape of the spin-tip dynamically. The very basis of the Beyblade brand is its modular construction system, which allows players to program behaviours into their beyblades by, for example, choosing the shape of the tip, the width of their weapons, moments of inertia, the type of internal motor and a myriad of other options; the very crux of physical programming in the style of the Hexbug Nano.

I have been involved with the World Beyblade Organisation for a number of years now, largely in support of my research, and I have watched with interest as the fads of one Beyblade series are replaced by the fads of the next. At its heart, Beyblade is a game like any other. A finite selection of components all interacting together as a whole. Its parts are designed by just a few select people whose priority is to maintain the game itself as a single entity, above all else. This means the vast majority of individual Beyblade toys released into the market are deliberately sub-performing – the natural by-product of a losing attempt to maintain balance in the overall metagame. In practice, this makes Beyblade play like a collectible card-game. Which figures, considering the original inventor himself once said this was the whole point (he designed the Fatal Fury card game, previous to his work on Bomberman).

My game, with its more complex modular construction system, is heavily inspired by the ancient beigoma of Japan – the romance of that personal connection to those original seashells which players hunted, gathered and crafted themselves. It borrows from the technology and aesthetics of the Meiji Period (the Japanese Victorian Era) and it pays homage to the great designers who reinvented beigoma with mechanical launchers for modern audiences. But more than that, my version attempts to break down the game-design barriers established by those holistic “balance” issues in Beyblade.

Instead of a finite system based on predefined fighting machine designs, my game attempts to tap that scientific ingenuity so commonly encountered in Robot Combat. I have produced and intend to grow a series of miniature combat components, with guides for using them, allowing players to build basically any mechanical fighting machine they can imagine, within a weight limit. Crucial to this concept is the use of a “gang” of fighting machines in each fight, instead of the traditional single warrior. This way, each fighter in the gang can specialise in a particular combat aspect – be it attack, defence, stamina or whatever. The game rules essentially focus on how this play passes between each warrior in the gang.

Unlike previous systems in this genre, my game gives players the power to expand their fighting machine collections indefinitely and forever, without relying solely on the next product release to supersede the last. Might seem obvious to fans of other successful game franchises... But so far as I am aware, this has never been done in a mechanical fighting game before.

Although I have a pretty sound history in video-game design, I accept that this is my first tactile game and I realise that new territory presents new challenges in the design process. I want to start small with this and build up a timeless library of fighting machines and mechanical components which people can aspire to and add to their existing collections. Every product should be just as important and useful as the last, opening up opportunities for more complex design rather than simply closing-out previous releases. This means that my construction system is deeply modular – every piece interacts with every other piece. Kind of like Beyblade meets miniature Meccano. The best of both worlds, without actually copying either.

To be continued...
« Last Edit: December 23, 2017, 02:48:07 am by Beylon » Logged
Beylon
Deck Hand
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Australia Australia



« Reply #14 on: December 23, 2017, 02:28:39 am »

So around about now you’re probably starting to wonder how we achieve balance in the game if players just build whatever fighting machines they like.

The first control is the designated weight limit. Each fighting machine can only weigh up to 75 grams and each player can only have 3 fighting machnes in their gang at one time. This stops the machines themselves getting out of control and also limits their physical forms to the realm of “miniature mechanics” where breakages and mechanical failures are very rare (like dropping a mouse down a mineshaft). Conforming to the principles defined in the United Kingdom Fleaweight rules for Robot Combat, 75 grams also allows for easy adaptation to suit the fighting environment on-the-fly.

Traditionally, games like Beyblade have relied on just one or two specially-designed fighting arenas for the entire game. The curvature and dimensions of these limited arenas largely determine the design of the fighting machines (the Beyblades) used in them. The result is that the machines must all conform to a strict set of variations if they are to perform well in that strictly regulated environment. Just two or three designs from the entire game will usually prove to be the most useful and supersede all others – stagnating the play. So the designers release more toys to shake things up, everybody has to buy the new toys to stay competitive and eventually the whole thing runs out of ideas and winds down to nothing. Happens every time.

My game reorientates the focus of play from the fighting arena to the machines themselves. The process of building your own fighting machines is incorporated directly into the gameplay so that you undertake actual building during the fight, adapting the physical form of your machines to suit the changing conditions. This is a strategic planning element often missing entirely from such games. Combined with my more detailed modular construction system, this means many more different combinations of fighting machines can be constructed from a single set of components than would be possible in the entire Beyblade franchise.

Simply put, the fighting machines in my game can adapt to a wide range of environments, so the fighting arena can afford to change its physical form on a regular basis without unbalancing the play. This way, the metagame never stagnates or becomes reliant on power-creep releases to keep things fresh. You just adapt the play environment instead. It blows my mind how so many fighting games just don’t get this idea of a variable environment. In other genres, the concept has litterally informed the very creation of that genre’s first examples.

The grandfather of wargaming H. G. Wells, in his first published wargame design Little Wars (1913), wrapped his game around the popular mechanical toy cannon – a common feature of toy soldier sets, as adopted during the Victorian era. Previous to Wells, there were no rules for these mechanical cannon in wargames. Other “games” of the genre (Kriegsspiel, for example) had existed for decades but never incorporated mechanical components.


Little Wars, by virtue of coincidence, solved two of the three mechanical gaming problems (power and behaviour) in one go. The cannon were armed manually, aimed manually and fired manually. So the power (reloading) came more-or-less directly from the operator and the behaviour was determined in realtime – like a turn-based Rock’em Sock’em.

In the rulebook for Little Wars, Wells muses about the conundrum of balancing a wargame so heavily reliant on actually firing at the miniature soldiers on the battlefield. At first, his construction of the “country” (the terrain of the battlefield) is merely to reinforce the illusion of the battle. He soon realises its importance as a game-balancing mechanism; too much terrain and the guns become useless, with each battle devolving into a grinding hand-to-hand stalemate; too little terrain and the foot-soldiers are mercilessly shot to pieces before any meaningful battle can take place. The commercial release of Little Wars uses battlefield terrain to guide the gameplay toward balance and encourages a changing landscape to keep refocussing that crucial element of the game. It follows that the physical environment in any game should be intrinsically linked to the balancing of the behaviours exhibited by the playing pieces.

The gaming environment can likewise be used to balance a game involving just three or four soldiers. Or even just two, as in most mechanical fighting games. If you have ever seen a classic samurai movie, you will have noticed how entire duels can be determined by the surrounding environment, before the fighting even begins. This demonstrates how an “open battlefield” is not only a kind of paradox in itself but also a sort of game-design fallacy. We always have control of the environment in a game and we can always design it to influence the play.

Historically, mechanical fighting games (whether autonomous or not) have taken place in a predefined play arena. This is usually a circle or ring, like in sumo wrestling, but can sometimes be a square or box, like in boxing. Until only recently, and in examples such as Battling Tops (1970), these arenas were always enclosed by walls. Though primarily a cultural device, walls did serve a practical purpose in confining autonomous fighters – which might seem artificial, until you consider the walls of the Roman Colosseum did exactly the same thing, to great effect, but with humans, who mostly died as a result. Human or robot, using walls to prevent autonomous entities escaping the fighting arena is an example of using the play-environment to direct the balance of the game; otherwise the slaves would win just by legging it.

So far as I am aware, the first modern use of a play arena without walls was the previously mentioned  Spin Fighters (1993). This game elevated the play arena as a kind of plinth so that the fighting tops could be ejected when struck. In this case, being ejected from the arena was equivalent to a knock-out – so players had to seriously consider the effects of battle-physics such as recoil when planning their strategies. Apart from all its other qualities, Spin Fighters was an important step in the evolution of mechanical fighting games because it proved that totally enclosed play arenas were not strictly necessary when influencing gameplay through the environment.


All the most celebrated play arenas in mechanical fighting games following Spin Fighters have been of the “open walled” variety, including the famous BB-10 Beyblade Stadium (2008), designed by Haruhisa Ujita for Takara-Tomy. The more popular sport of Robot Sumo also eschews an enclosing wall, forcing its competitors to adopt hyper-aware navigation behaviours. It is broadly accepted in modern mechanical fighting games that the “out of bounds” area is just as important as the fighting arena itself, which expands our options for designing the play environment.

While I have designed a basic fighting arena for use with my own game, I have tried to design fighting machines which can cope with a variety of different landscapes. Ideally, players will provide their own fighting arenas which come to signify their own personal territory. For example, I began developing this game using heat-pressed stainless steel camping plates from Kmart (made in India) because they had a non-uniform surface and low walls, making the machines’ movement around the play area more erratic and unpredictable than usual, without letting them escape in the process. Such implements are very easy to find locally and much cheaper than I can produce myself. My camping plates cost $3 each – cheaper than a coffee – and will essentially last forever. The arena I have made specifically for the game is much larger and more grandiose but essentially subscribes to the same concept.

The most common play area in modern mechanical fighting games is a shallow bowl, with enough altitude at the edges to goad the fighting machines into the centre. It is otherwise entirely feasable to have an undulating surface, convex tray or towering plinth, depending on your preference. When playing my game in a tournament situation (a common theme in mechanical fighting games), it is expected there will be multiple different fighting arenas to keep players on their toes throughout the event. As the play area will directly influence the design of the machines fighting there, I have tried to create machines which players can reconstruct quickly, mid-battle, to cope with changes in the fighting environment. Again, Beyblade meets Meccano.

Hopefully this is all starting to come together. We generate power with an external device before transfering that power into the fighting machines mechanically. This reduces the weight, bulk and complexity of each machine and frees up our attention to focus on programming behaviours. Then a deeply modular and widely accessible construction system makes building our machines so easy that physically programming fighting behaviours becomes a question of strategy rather than pure function. Our strategies are directly informed by the fighting environment, which can change at will because we are confident our machines can handle the variable circumstances. With all three problems apparently solved (power, behaviour, environment), it is time to play!

Just be sure to wear some safety goggles.

Wow.
« Last Edit: December 24, 2017, 06:07:38 am by Beylon » Logged
RJBowman
Zeppelin Captain
*****


« Reply #15 on: December 24, 2017, 06:48:14 am »

So your game is more like battling tops than robo one.

I wish that someone would write a history of Japanese die-cast robots with the level of detail and research of your article.
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Beylon
Deck Hand
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Australia Australia



« Reply #16 on: December 24, 2017, 10:14:53 am »

So your game is more like battling tops than robo one.

Yes! Exactly. My research suggests the "spinning top" is simply the best machine for the job. Just naturally turned out that way. When people imagine the experience of a miniature analogue robot-fighting game (such as my "original" idea with the toffs in the bar) this evolution of "top fighting" is absolutely the closest thing to that experience they can hope to achieve. The fights really are exactly like what you would expect from robot combat - just in miniature, which makes the whole experience kind of... Sexy?

But until now, players have lacked the design freedoms you'd reasonably expect from a game about fighting robots. Something like Beyblade uses modular parts, sure, but the game actually has nothing to do with "building your own machine" at all. I hope to solve that problem with more complex play and a super-detailed modular construction system for machines of all kinds, even those not strictly defined as a spinning top. But you know, tops being the most efficient, I'm focussing on those first.

Larger, heavier robots would allow for more powerful springs and potentially Robo-One/Karakuri complexity but obviously this puts pressure on the feasibility. How many people are realistically going to be able to fix their smashed up TeaBot? Or pay for it? Or enjoy doing it? And on top of that, large springs are a curious taboo of the robot combat world - owing to the health risk, not that I've ever seen one go wrong. I'd like to see it in practice someday though - just sold by someone who isn't me.

I wish that someone would write a history of Japanese die-cast robots with the level of detail and research of your article.

Me too! The illustrated Bandai vs Takara would be awesome. Also, thanks for saying so. I know I get carried away.
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Kensington Locke
Officer
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United States United States


« Reply #17 on: January 08, 2018, 07:19:08 pm »

Beylon,

You just made BeyBlade (and fighting tops) sound cool.  I remember dismissing BeyBlade as it was just kids trying to take up space at the local game shop and making a lot of noise playing with tops.  Like you, I was too old to pay attention to a kids game.

Your presentation here with all the historical  research and technical aspects paints a different picture.

I'm still not sure what these BeyBlades looked like, but I can imagine two gentlemen, Russel and Gilmore meeting at a pub, each bearing an ornate wooden box.  They sit across from each other, a crowd gathers around them.  They open the boxes and reveal their fighting top.  Each a marvel of machining, brass and steel.  On a word from a self appointed referee, the tops are launched into a spin and the crowd cheers as the fighters circle each other toward the inevitable clash in the center.

How do I get me some of that?
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Mercury Wells
Rogue Ætherlord
*
I insiste that you do call me WELLS. :)


« Reply #18 on: January 10, 2018, 09:50:52 pm »

Sounds like Steam powered autonomous "Robot Wars" type thing?

(Somehow your robot have been provided with an outline of the enemy & vice versa, that type of thing?)
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Oh...my old war wound? I got that at The Battle of Dorking. Very nasty affair that was, I can tell you.

The Ministry of Tea respectfully advises you to drink one cup of tea day...for that +5 Moral Fibre stat.
Beylon
Deck Hand
*
Australia Australia



« Reply #19 on: January 12, 2018, 11:57:59 am »

Beylon,

You just made BeyBlade (and fighting tops) sound cool.  I remember dismissing BeyBlade as it was just kids trying to take up space at the local game shop and making a lot of noise playing with tops.  Like you, I was too old to pay attention to a kids game.

Your presentation here with all the historical  research and technical aspects paints a different picture.

I'm still not sure what these BeyBlades looked like, but I can imagine two gentlemen, Russel and Gilmore meeting at a pub, each bearing an ornate wooden box.  They sit across from each other, a crowd gathers around them.  They open the boxes and reveal their fighting top.  Each a marvel of machining, brass and steel.  On a word from a self appointed referee, the tops are launched into a spin and the crowd cheers as the fighters circle each other toward the inevitable clash in the center.

How do I get me some of that?

From the kickstarter, actually, which will hopefully be live in the next few weeks. I've been trying to sort out the social media thing over the past few days but it's taking too long and delaying me bandying about the REAL marketing. You put the scenario so beautifully that I'm giving you this image to suit it:




The "power unit" is a late prototype but the "shell" device is the real deal. The dragon motif is traditional.

Not sure if this imagery is steampunk exactly but the style is supposed to draw a parallel between the archaic and the futuristic - while also existing happily on Kickstarter. Did you know that stainless steel was first manufactured in 1913? That's a pretty astounding thing, I reckon. One year before the Great War. One year before the event that essentially ended steam.


Sounds like Steam powered autonomous "Robot Wars" type thing? (Somehow your robot have been provided with an outline of the enemy & vice versa, that type of thing?)

Yeah, but in miniature. In the game, fighters have three "shells" each and the fight passes between them. So you can get an idea of how an opposing shell behaves before you commit to fighting it in the next round. There are opportunities throughout the fight to modify the shells in your "gang" depending on what you have seen the enemy do. So reading the enemy behaviour and adapting to suit is part of the skill.
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