Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Turning Research Into a New Championship Formula Racing Track

After my initial research phase, I had some thoughts on how this track would end up looking but the track doesn't really start to come together until I watch the race run with real F1 cars.

Thanks to the modern miracle of the DVR, I watched this past weekend's Bahrain race over the last couple of nights.  During the pre-race I may pick up a few thoughts from the commentators about parts of the track and sometimes I get to see another qualifying lap but the best part of the race for me are the first couple of laps -- especially lap 1.

I'm looking for a couple of things during the race itself.  Where are the best opportunities for passing on the track?  What lines do cars take through the corners -- especially when more then one car is going through the corner at the same time.  The ideal racing lines are easy to figure out.  What it looks like when 2 or 3 cars try to go through a corner wheel-to-wheel is impossible to figure out until you see cars try to do it in real life.

From the game perspective this all translates into corner layout and track width.  Corner layout, to me, is the core of track design.  The speeds and positions of the corners define a track in a very real way.  Most tracks also have a couple of corners that are either signatures for the track or just more interesting or important then the others.  For Bahrain I focused on corners 1 and 13.

Sunday night I got through pre-race and about the first 15 laps of the race.  By now I had worked through several different rough ideas about corners and track widths in different places.  Not too far into last night's watch of the remainder of the race I had settled on track widths and where the corners would be and started sketching out ideas for the layout of the important corners on scratch paper while I watched the race.

After the race was over I rewound back to the start and watched the first half of lap 1 again.  Then I sat down and roughed out the more straight forward corners and how long I thought the straights should be -- mostly based on top speeds achieved at the end of those straights and distances between corners.

Note, I'm going to start off referring to corners by their real world numbering by default.

Corner 1 was great fun during the race with lots of wheel-to-wheel action and I quickly decided that this would have to be the most interesting corner on the track.  While most corners really have one good way through them, this corner almost demanded a good secondary line.  During pre-race I decided that a couple corners I thought I could ignore might need more attention including corner 2.  But I didn't want the track to end up with too many corners so I ended up squishing corners 1 and 2 into a single speed circuit corner.  I often end up doing this.  There is a huge difference between having 2 corners a space or 2 apart and having 1 corner that is a couple spaces longer.  Although sometimes, having two separate corners makes more sense.  Corner 1 went through the most iterations during this part of the process but I like where I ended up here.

I'm still ignoring corner 3.  Corner 4 becomes the 2nd corner on the speed circuit track and looks pretty straight forward.  Corners 5 and 7 get ignored.  Corner 6 becomes corner 3 for speed circuit.  Corner 8 becomes corner 4.

I decide that corners 9 and 10 will become a single speed circuit corner... but a more interesting corner then the usual layout.  On track, the corner speeds drop considerably from 127 to 39 MPH between the two corners.  So I end up with a corner where the speed of each space in the corner is slower then the speed of the space in front of it... in the inside lane the speed actually goes from 100 to 60 in one space.  In the outside the corner speeds start at 100 then go to 80 and then 60 in three spaces.  No line for this corner.

Corner 11 becomes a straightforward corner (#6) on the speed circuit track.

Corner 12 was another corner I was planning to ignore.  But during pre-race it was lumped in with corner 13 a lot as essentially a very long two-apex corner.  So I ended up doing something similar to the layout I used to squish corners 9 and 10 together, but made it longer and more gradual.  Its also a corner that gets slower as it goes, so that seems like it will work.

Finally, corner 14 becomes the speed circuit tracks final corner #8 and I ignored corner 15.

Note that I'm now going to refer to corners by their speed circuit numbering.  (See below.)

I went back and forth on track width.  Visually I found it hard to tell if there were parts of the track that were noticeably wider then others.  But when I do a track, I end up paying as much attention to how a track races then how wide it really is.  Most of the wheel-to-wheel action was on the front straight through corner 1 and onto the next straight.  In the end, I made everything from the front straight through to corner 2 3-wide (minus the back half of corner 1).  Then its 2-wide through what is essentially the in-field and then back to 3-wide for the run down to the last corner and onto the front straight.

I find that I always start off sketching out straights that are too long.  My first pencil and paper sketch of the speed circuit track was 94 spaces long when I was targeting 78.  But I'll deal with that in my next step.

My next step is to take my many pieces of paper sketches and create a rough outline of a track on the computer.  This doesn't take me too long because I'm mostly laying out straights and very roughly indicating corner speeds, spaces, and lines.  This is where I often end up having to change straight lengths again in order to make the track fit roughly the shape it should be.  So now I'm look at the relative physical lengths of straights to help me cut down the overly long straights I sketched out based on top speeds and some innate desire to have a 24 space long 3-wide straight on every track.

As it all comes together for the first time, everything gets tweaked a little more -- even corners.

Now I'm ready to race the track for the first time.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Preparing to Build a New Track for Championship Formula Racing

For years now, I've been on a mission to create a track for Championship Formula Racing (my flavor of the classic 3M Speed Circuit) for every modern F1 track I could.  Hard for me to believe, but I've got 19 1/2 in the bag over the last 6 years (I've got two version of Silver Stone after a revision to the track in 2010).  One of the three tracks in the 2013 F1 calendar that I do NOT have done yet is coming up this weekend -- Bahrain.  This time, I'm going to do my work in public and let everyone ride along on my process.

Its the Friday before F1 races at Bahrain and that's the day I normally do my prep work.  Before I watch the race on Sunday, I want to have a track map with corner speeds, straight-line speeds, and a rough idea of how many corners I think I will end up with and how many spaces long the track will be.

First thing I need is a good track map.  The official F1 site has some good ones.  I'll crop that out and print it as a primary place to make notes on before and during the race.

The main thing I want to do before a race is find as much speed related data as possible for different parts of the track.  The two best sources of this information are the official F1 site and the Brembo brakes F1 site.

The official F1 site.  They will give you speeds in many corners and also speeds through a number of speed traps -- usually at the end of the longer straights.  This gives me a lot of good speed numbers from lots of the track.  For Bahrain I get 16 different speeds.  That's more raw information then I get from Brembo but I then supplement with the great data from Brembo.

Brembo provides brakes for many of the F1 teams and after Friday practice, they put all the braking data they get from every partner team together and report out on the braking areas of the track.  Specifically I'm looking at the initial speed (speed before they start braking) and the final speed (slowest speed in the corner).  This data is much better then the official F1 site data because its completely current (the official F1 site data rarely changes from year to year whereas the Brembo data does.  The other nice thing is that Brembo is specifically tracking braking events which is different then just displaying speeds at different points.  Where as the official F1 map claims that Bahrain has 15 corners, Brembo reports that it only has 8 braking events.

Now I convert all those speed from KPH to MPH and write them down on my track map.  Between my two sources I've got pretty good coverage on my map.

Next I calculate how many spaces long I think the track should end up.  The way I do that is to divide the length of the track in kilometers by .069.  Bahrain is 5.412 kilometers long so I will be trying to get the game version to about 78 spaces.  This will just be a guide for me, however, not a hard requirement.

Where does .069 come from?  I'm not exactly sure how it started.  Before I did my first track in this style, I did an analysis of the old Avalon Hill tracks looking at trends: average number of corners = 9; average corners speed = 99, average longest straight = 17 spaces, average 3-wide track = 15%; average track length = 72 spaces (for the statistically inclined, the medians were very close to the averages except that the median 3-wide percentage was 0%).  However, there did not seem to be any consistent conversion ratios that I could discern.  So I started out building Catalunya with a target to build tracks that were a little shorter then the old Avalon Hill tracks: closer to 60 spaces and 8 corners then 72 and 9.  Catalunya came in at 60 spaces and 8 corners but -- in hind sight is probably a good bit shorter then it should be.  But after that I had a rough conversion of track length to spaces that I could use as a guide for later tracks.  Early on I used it a very rough guide but now that I'm 20 tracks into this, .069 is the average of the ratios for all 20 tracks I've done so far.
Random fact: based on the current ratio a space in my tracks is 4/100th of a mile or 76 yards long.

Finally, I stare at the track a bit and look at the Brembo data especially and guess at how many and where the corners are for game purposes.  For Bahrain, it looks pretty straight forward. I don't see any reason why Brembo's 8 braking areas can't turn into 8 corners for the track.

Something else I can do prior to the race is watch a video of a lap on the official F1 site in their video section.  Besides, being very fun to watch, this can confirm some things I'm seeing in the data,  For instance, corners 2 and 3 don't get tracked as braking events by Brembo and sure enough Vettel is accelerating through both of those as he exits corner 1.  Corner 6 is very fast but tracked as a braking event by Brembo and yes, Vettel hits the brakes there and doesn't just coast some using the gearing to slow down.  Corners 8 and 9 are essentially one corner -- Vettel brakes before 9 and coasts into 10, not back on the gas till he leaves 10.  Now I thought 12-13 might be like that as well, but Vettel flies through 12 before hitting the brakes in front of 13, so I was wrong there and note on my sheet that 13 is the corner, not 12-13.  And finally its clear that 14 is the final real corner here with 15 being where Vettel begins the acceleration onto the front straight.

Next, I watch the race... well assuming my DVR records the race despite being apparently on its last legs.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Ghost Stories, Is It Bad To Be Hard?

I have a love-hate relationship with Ghost Stories.  On the one hand, its a good game.  On the other hand, IT IS SO HARD.  I bought the game years ago in cardboard and it took me many, many plays to win my first game on the easiest level.  But it doesn't get a lot of plays.

In February, I bought the iPad implementation.  I figured it would be a good game for the iPad.  Its got the draw back / feature of most pure cooperatives: its essentially a solitaire game.  I thought maybe playing it more often would allow me to win some games.  Not so much.

Above: me getting crushed.  Below: a snapshot of my leader board.  Notice, mostly me getting crushed.

A week or so after I got the game, I won 2 games in 20 attempts, on the easiest level of the game.  I basically gave up after that.  I decided that the game was just too hard.

Then, I read an interview with Ghost Stories' creator, Antoine Bauza, on Little Metal Dog Show.  The interviewer actually asks Mr. Bauza early on why he made Ghost Stories so hard and the answer is basically, yea we didn't want it to be so easy like some other cooperatives.  Then he reached out through the computer and smacked me in the face:

But to tell you the truth, the game is not so hard and when you know it well you cannot lose at all in easy mode and almost never lose in normal or nightmare mode.

What?  Are you kidding me?  I'm losing 90% of my easy games!  Am I doing this wrong?

So, I went to the internet -- specifically BGG's strategy forum for the game.  Wow.  I was seriously doing this wrong.

Since then, I've won 8 games in 14 tries and I seem to be getting better: 6-2 in my last 8 games.  I may even be ready to move up to whatever level is above beginner.

I think this may say more about me then the game.  I tend to like games that I can jump into quickly with some competence and enjoy.  My last instinct is to research strategies online.  I'm usually the opposite of a min-maxer.  I like my games with flavor more then ideal efficiency engines.

The other thing about Ghost Stories is that it really introduces the concept of "hard" to board games.  Normally, the difficulty of a board game is defined by your opponents, not the game itself.  And here Mr. Bauza is correct, most cooperative/solitaire games are not this hard.

And you know what?  Now that I'm competent (at easy), I'm addicted.  So maybe this hard thing is good.