Archive for the 'Game development' Category

Kingmaker: The Carisbrooke Anomaly

Many older games have little quirks and foibles that would nowadays be smoothed away in the interests of consistency and playability. Kingmaker has some of these. One of my jobs in the re-development of the game for the new version is to identify them and take my knife (and sandpaper) to them.

The Carisbrooke Anomaly: Carisbrooke is a royal castle in the centre of the Isle of Wight. It wasn’t particularly important in the Wars of the Roses, though its existence did discourage French raids. It was held by the Woodville family for Edward IV for a while. It is more famous for its royal occupant at the end of the English Civil War, when Charles I was imprisoned there.

In the original Kingmaker, Carisbrooke was represented by a Crown card with just its name (left), updated for the Avalon Hill/Gibsons version with some graphics (right):

Within the Crown deck, the ownership of royal castles is generally indicated on an Office card, such as the Constable of Dover Castle (for Dover), or the Chancellor of England (for Caernarvon). Except for Carisbrooke. This royal castle, and only this one, has its own specific Crown card with no associated Office. In every respect, except for its picture and fortified location type, Carisbrooke is equivalent to a fortified Town, like, say Southampton. This has the unfortunate side-effect that this type of Crown card cannot be accurately called a “Town card”, because one of them is a castle. As an aside, there’s also Bristol with its own card, though it’s a City not a Town; nothing’s perfect.

I’m experimenting with a resolution of the Carisbrooke Anomaly by removing its current card and introducing a new Office: Warden of the Isle of Wight. This Office would have 50 troop strength and control of Carisbrooke Castle. In addition, it would have a ship, Le Maudeleyn of Newport (Isle of Wight) with a capacity of 150 men. The ship and troops represent the considerable efforts that the crown took to contain piracy in the area, both locally and from across the Channel. Furthermore, to reinforce this anti-piracy role, the Warden of the Isle of Wight is called away by 2 Piracy Events on the South coast.

Here is the new card, not tested as yet:

I’m hoping that this will make Carisbrooke Castle a little more relevant and interesting in the game.

Kingmaker re-developing: playtest version on Tabletopia

First cut of re-developing Kingmaker on Tabletopia:

Re-developing Kingmaker (1st cut on Tabletopia)

Re-developing Kingmaker (1st cut on Tabletopia)

Game development components!

Kingmaker: moves afoot!

I’ve been working on a proposed revision to the Kingmaker board using ‘regional’ movement. In this idea, noble pieces using non-road land movement simply move from 1 region to an adjacent region, rather than having to count up to 5 ‘squares’. In this way, players can avoid many of the difficulties and inconsistencies with the original Kingmaker map, and also the slightly counter-intuitive diagonal movement that is available in many places in the original board. Although there are some necessary compromises, the actual distancies moved are similar in the new mechanism compared with the old one.

When a noble piece lands in a new region, the player selects a specific area within the region for the piece to occupy. This enables a noble or stack of nobles to end up in a specific named location (town, city, castle), in the ‘open field’ or on the road network, ready to exploit road movement in a future move. For ease of play, and maybe a bit of historical realism, I don’t force nobles to decide immediately whether they are in a specific location, thereby avoiding potential random plague death; the decision about the noble’s precise whereabouts can be made when a potential hostile force enters the area. However, if your noble is sent to a location by a raid or revolt, then he should be in that location – so, if it’s a fortified town or city, the noble will be risking plague in this case.

We played the revised map last weekend at Eclectic Games, and it will have another outing or 2 at HandyCon this weekend. It was well received. In the meantime, here’s a sneak preview. Bear in mind that this is a prototype version for playtesting purposes, based loosely on the old game board; it is not a newly created production version; that will only be commissioned once we have the prototype finalised.

In this map, the purple lines are ‘region’ boundaries, the white lines are area borders. Wooded areas are passable only on roads. I would also note that the current draft hasn’t been fully checked, so there may be the odd line missing or spelling mistake; it’s very much a work-in-progress. Also, many thanks to my wife Charlie for much sterling work on this board. Finally in addition, we’ve not yet addressed the heraldry and any geographical anomalies that fans of Kingmaker have identified.

Kingmaker: Raids, Revolts and other shenanigans

I don’t want to change the Kingmaker Event deck much at all, as so much of the flavour of the classic game comes from there. One of the basic mechanisms in the Event deck is to break up turtling stacks of nobles through raids and revolts that send powerful office-holders hither and yon. Part of the game is to be in a position to exploit this, either by picking off individual travellers, or by instigating a major engagement before a key noble can get back into position.

Offices can give a noble many more troops, the Marshal of England doubly so, in that he has 100 extra troops anywhere in the country, whereas others have only 50, with some having extras in restricted geographical locations. However, allocating the Marshal of England and the Bishop of Norwich to Mowbray for example isn’t a great idea. In the original game, this would be the cards for that allocation:


It’s not obvious to a new player why this might not be a good idea. A difficulty for new players is not knowing the details of who gets sent where by the Raids and Revolts in the Event deck. I think one way to help resolve this issue is to put more information on the Court deck cards to reference the Events that might occur. At the moment, I’ve put a simple number at bottom left in square brackets – this probably needs a better graphical and layout treatment, but it’s a start:

Although Mowbray in this example has 160 starting troops, there are 16 cards in the 90 card Event deck that move him involuntarily around the country. That’s slightly more than 1 in 6 times per Chance Phase. So, in a 4-player game, he’s likely to get moved approximately every other round (1 Chance Phase per player). This grossly reduces his effectiveness, and you need to take this into account when allocating the cards.

Hopefully, putting some of this information on the cards will help. I wonder whether increasing the information to ‘Events: 4/90’, ‘Events: 11/90’, ‘Events: 1/90’ might be better – at the expense of more clutter.

Kingmaker: Red-faced

Hmmm. The colours on the Events cards didn’t work. My print facilities failed to differentiate between the 2-1, 3-1 and 4-1. Now revised:

Not exactly pro graphics standard, but I hope good enough.

Playtests of Kingmaker upcoming: Sat 11 January at Eclectic Games in Reading; HandyCon 17-19 January.

Kingmaker: Events, dear boy, Events

I’ve been re-doing the Events Deck to make the lookup of odds easier for players to process. I’m using a bit of colour and a bit of layout amends. I’m still unsure whether to completely overhaul Events card wording (for clarity and consistency) – that sounds to me more like a final production process, so I may not. Also, I’m pondering the whys and wherefores of revising the Event content; I’m wary of that, because the ubiquitous Peasant Revolts, along with Marshal to Black Heath, are iconic.

However, there are 90 Event Deck cards – it takes a while to scan, prep, stick ‘em into InDesign and then add stuff and check! Here are a couple of examples:

Without InDesign and Photoshop (other s/w programmez are available) this would have been pretty much impossible. I now have an intimate knowledge of the makeup of Kingmaker cards. Apparently, left align wasn’t a thing in those days, and neither was consistency of positions on a card. Also, consistency of font size and CAPS was not pursued. Ah, well sans DTP, I guess it was very tricksy.

The ‘victory block’ will match up with the lookup table, currently much like the original in the Gibson’s rules, but with added colour and amended heading. This will be subject to proper design and layout by graphics experts – this is just my prototyping.



Starting to make a new Kingmaker

A few months ago Gibson’s asked me to develop the new edition of Kingmaker. This was the result of a conversation at UK Games Expo, brought about significantly by a meeting between my fellow Surprised Stare Games director, Tony Boydell, and the good folks at Gibson’s, about another project entirely. Serendipity in action. It took only a few weeks to sort out details, which, amongst other things involved a brief conversation with the original designer of Kingmaker, Andrew McNeil; I wanted to check he was happy – which he was, thank goodness.

I suspected there would be some talk on BGG about the game – and was I right! There’s an immense amount of fan-based material developed over the years, including extensive sets of house rules, and a whole other game, Bella Rosarum by Greg Sarnecki, alias shturmovik14. I have to confess that I will not be able to contribute more than a jotting to the painstaking research carried out by Kingmaker enthusiasts. However, my commitment, alongside the Gibson’s team, is to create the best Kingmaker yet, while retaining the essence of the classic game that we don’t want to lose.

I played many a game of Kingmaker back in the day, and I have the original Ariel edition, a Gibsons 1983, an Avalon Hill v1 and a TM Games copy. I had a small involvement in the TM Games version, though it’s probably best to draw a veil over that (in short, I felt that TM Games didn’t want to invest any significant time and effort into improvement, so it was very much a lost opportunity).

So, I am very familiar with the game.

My starting point in the development was to read and digest the hundreds of comments about Kingmaker on BGG, leavened by further discussions with my design and development friends and colleagues here in the UK. This has included conversations with Andrew McNeil and Charles Vasey, in order to gain an understanding of how Kingmaker was designed and developed. I now have a rather large inventory of issues and pointers, as well as a vast array of suggested solutions, some good, some bad. Also, I have extensive notes of my own initial reactions, again, some good, some bad. I’m very conscious that I’m unlikely to satisfy everyone in the Kingmaker community; I won’t be able to implement many of the suggested solutions, because changing a part of a complex system is apt to have knock-on effects elsewhere, or might destroy the kernel of the game experience I’d like to retain.

Development and playtesting of the revised version started earlier in the autumn 2019. I’m focusing on making the play of the game run more smoothly, but with the same feel as the original. There are elements of the map that need clarification – for example, does the road go through Shrewsbury or meet outside? Does Oxford block the London to Bristol road? Is Chillingham in The Cheviots and does it matter? There are some ambiguities in the rules to tidy up – mainly in the Avalon Hill version, to be fair – for example, where precisely in a square does a noble end up when he’s finished movement? what happens if a ship-board force has to battle its way into an unfortified port? How is the movement of stacked allied pieces tracked?

In view of the perceived length of the full game with 7 players to the traditional end point of controlling the last crowned royal piece, I am developing and testing a revised ‘short format’ game, aiming to come in at 30 minutes plus 30 minutes per player. Based on scenarios for 3, 4 or 5 players, this is intended to produce a 2 to 3 hours game that still captures the traditional feel of Kingmaker. I envisage that we will include the full length 7-player game too. In addition, I would like to make a 2-player scenario based on Henry Tudor versus Richard III.

Current ideas that I am testing include:

  • Big game scenario: 4-7 players for the classic Kingmaker experience with the original end conditions, and optional alternatives.
  • Short format game: 3-5 players with a time limit of 30 minutes plus 30 minutes per player. This would involve alternative win conditions currently under development and called ‘Dominion over Territory’ (conquering cities), ‘Dominion over Government’ (obtaining most of the Offices in play), and ‘Dominion over the Church’ (obtaining most of the Archbishops and Bishops, plus Canterbury and York). I’m currently testing the details of the win conditions, so I won’t share the full mechanics here yet. There is also a relatively simple method for assessing victory after the time limit (not votes in Parliament!).
  • 2-player game: Henry Tudor versus Richard III. Missing from the original game, but should be a fun addition.
  • 3- and 4-player scenarios: with set factions specifically to make these balanced. I envisage these based loosely on specific historic starting positions, such as Warwick’s rebellion against Edward IV.
  • Game board – I am now testing an idea for a major change to the board to make it regional movement rather than “squares”. The idea here is that this will help with playability. I’m thinking that we could have a new regional movement map on one side of the board, and a version of the traditional map on the other. So, players with feelings of nostalgia could opt to play the original movement system, but with an unambiguous implementation of the board.
    Crown deck and Event deck much as now, but with different layout for playability, and proper playing card stock. There will be some amendments, but retaining the current balance of the combat system, so the game feels the same.
  • Pieces: hunky Eurogame style counters for nobles and royal pieces. For ease of play, each player might have a set of noble pieces with their player colour in the background, so everyone can see who owns which stack. Royal pieces could be flippable when crowned, so it’s obvious who are the current monarchs.

If you’re in the UK, please do get in touch about the possibility of playtesting at various conventions, including AireCon, HandyCon and UK Games Expo.

Connections UK 2018

On Wednesday 5 September I nipped down to my alma mater, King’s College London, for probably the best professional wargaming conference in the world, Connections UK. Within the over 200 delegates from across the globe were some of the finest wargames designers you could shake a stick at. Unfortunately, this year I could only attend the one day, rather than the whole 3 day conference, but there was a splendid packed programme (and also good nosh too).

There were excellent presentations from Professor Phil Sabin on Dilemmas and trade-offs in wargame design, and from Brian Train on Game design as a form of journalism. The former covered some of the material in the good professor’s book Simulating War. “Operationalise the dilemmas for players” was a phrase that stuck in my mind. Brian’s perspective was a new one for me, and I’d really like to review my thoughts on it once the transcript / audio has appeared. Matt Caffrey, who introduced the first plenary, mentioned a couple of new books to look out for: his own “On Wargaming” and a forthcoming book “Successful Professional Wargames” from John Curry’s History of Wargaming project.

The second plenary was on Wargame development, rather than design or implementation, and was a very welcome part of the programme. This is one of those areas where we could get into a bit more detail about the nuts and bolts, whereas I have felt that previous conferences had more of a focus on selling wargames to potential professional users than on advancing the craft. Dave Manley had an interesting presentation on nesting 3 games within the topic of conflict in the High North (the Arctic). It highlighted the difficulty of nesting, in that the implementation of a follow-on game can be perceived as very dependent on outcomes from the first game. Much of the development here is how to get credible traction with the follow-ups without predetermining too much – or in short, fudging it. Players need agency and, perhaps more importantly, need to be seen to have it. Volko Ruhnke gave a stimulating talk on model calibration, a central point being related to a systems thinking approach: calibration is the process of making your game outcomes interesting for the purpose of your game, as opposed to being accurate (true to reality). He involved his audience in a striking interactive session modelling the spread of an epidemic disease in less than 10 minutes including explanation. This involved a couple of simple rules: (1) If you are touched on the shoulder once, you must touch 3 others on the shoulder (you’re infected); but (2) if you are touched twice, you sit down (you’re dead). The point was that we could easily tweak the design to give interesting results about how to prevent spread or to experiment with different lethalities. This approach to calibration has direct impact on my own designs, and it’s easy to lose sight of the original purpose of the game when wrestling with development problems as a result of testing – for my own Mission Command: Normandy game, I’m focusing now much more on the player perceptions of command, control and communications rather than on mechanics, because the purpose of the game is to show differences in those areas.

The Games Fair is a central part of Connections. This year, there were about 20 games on offer during the afternoon and evening sessions. These ranged from the historical Western Approaches Tactical Unit Wargame, based on the exercise used during 1942-5 to help to train naval officers, through a modern naval wargame used in the education of postgrad naval architecture and marine engineering students, to Phil Sabin’s excellent brand of WW2 dogfighting, as well as the Rapid Campaign Analysis Toolset and the Strike! Battlegroup Tactical Wargame, both already used by the UK military.

I played Brian Train’s Guerrilla Checkers game, a cunning asymmetric abstract game with a squared board. The COIN player uses relatively few pieces on the squares, and the Guerrilla player has relatively large numbers of pieces played on the nodes. The COIN player takes in a fashion much like draughts, whereas the Guerrilla has to surround the COIN pieces. My interest was in its simplicity and how it was aligned to its purpose – showing the different approaches of each side; particularly in the light of my own abstract conventional historical strategy micro-game The March of Progress. As it happens, my own game has a couple of asymmetric scenarios, and it’s great to see how the world’s master designer at this type of game works his magic.

The key note address was by Volko Ruhnke on “Wargames and Systems Thinking” – so that’s 2 of my primary interests in 1 session! I won’t attempt to cover Volko’s address here in detail – however, I commend it to you for reading/listening, if and when it’s available on the internet. One of his main points was that wargames start out as mental models in the head of the designer. They’re simplified in accordance with their purpose. When you produce a wargame (in other words, when it’s out of your head), it’s then an external model subject to use and critique by others. This is a good thing. When we have many external models, we can synthesise them in order to get closer to reality. Many perspectives and many types of modeling media will get us closer to reality, as the different types have different strengths and weaknesses. So, implications for defence (and in my view for a discussion of history too) are to use a mix of models, a mix of people and to involve model users (consumers of models, if you will) in model building. It was a very stimulating talk.

Apart from the sessions themselves, an absolutely key component of the conference is chatting with leading experts in the field. I’m very grateful to so many fellow conference goers for putting up with my comments and also for engaging in constructive discussions.

The aim of Connections UK is “To advance and sustain the art, science and application of wargaming.” From my viewpoint, as a hobby gamer and commercial designer, it’s a highly successful conference, enabling the linking of professional wargamers and designers with those who wargame as a hobby and those of us involved in design for a variety of purposes. Though I’m not a “professional wargamer”, I’m keen that my designs might pass on some historical lessons to other wargamers. Connections UK gives a great many useful perspectives, and I hope to keep on going back to Kings.

Politics By Other Means: new card designs

Conference of Wargamers is coming up next weekend. I’m planning to run a session with Politics By Other Means, my micro-game based loosely on Clausewitz’ On War.

I played it at the last CoW, but now it’s had a face-lift. New iconisation of the cards will, I hope, make the play a bit slicker. It will at least require less reading, which is a good thing.


Politics By Other Means: now with icons!

Politics By Other Means – Variants

Continuing on from my previous two posts about my microgame project, based on Clausewitz’ On War.

I omitted to put in a piccy of the Basic Game setup for the edification of potential readers, so here it is.
The Basic Game is abstract. It’s all about getting the drop on your opponent, so you can either take their Home Country or ensure you can get more than half the available VPs – although there is the philosophical side to the game too. Once you’ve played the Basic Game, the idea is that you experiment with variants, either by tweaking the rules yourself, or by cracking on with a pre-set variant, as follows.

18th Century so-called Limited War

Here we provide 2 neutral provinces with VPs varying between 1 and 3, representing possible targets for positional warfare. You can’t reduce your Home Country’s VPs dice to less than 2 (king’s tended not to want to devastate their own countries). You can’t score VPs for your home country, if you have no armies there when an enemy army is also there. The intention here is to force players to defend their core logistical area. As it’s limited war, the game ends when the first player reaches 13 points, compared with effectively 25 in the Basic Game. It’s possible in this variant to play a delaying and obstructing game, focusing on scoring points, rather than committing to battles.

Napoleonic Wars

Representing the French conscription and war footing, Blue starts with 2 armies in France, strength of 2 and home country of only 2, as it has already suffered from previous invasions. The Allies (Orange) don’t have their ATK+1 card, representing their lack of tactical flair, but can buy it for later with VPs. However, they have 2 armies in the neutral country, presumably Belgium and / or German states – but these are weaker than the French. Occupation of the capital ends the game, and the French have the early advantage, which may slip away.

World War 1 in the West

Getting to grips with trench warfare and potential stalemate is the objective here. In this variant, you can’t move past an enemy fortified army, so it’s possible to have a war of manoeuvre only until both realise the importance of fortification. The defender can discard a movement card to add 1 to their combat strength – representing reserves moving up to block threatened breakthroughs. In battle only one army is destroyed per engagement. While this looks like less casualties, in fact the dynamic means that armies have to be quickly re-cycled back into the meat grinder. If you score and pull your action cards back to hand without having attacked, you lose a VP – there’s an expectation on both sides that you have to attack the enemy to win. Finally there are game end conditions for a negotiated peace (by agreement), a peace as a result of revolutionary collapse (no VPs), and a peace from military defeat and exhaustion (all VPs claimed, most wins).

World War 2 in the West

This final variant for now hasn’t yet been played, and I’m not yet certain how many of the changes should be in it. Various changes reflect blitzkrieg, the forward defensive of the Allies into Belgium, German initiative, and the gradual increasing strength of the Allies. Using VPs as resources for increasing army strength represents industrial and manpower strength.

Conclusions so far

It’s been a lot of fun so far. I’ve learned that a surprising amount can be accomplished by very small tweaks. I think this shows the framework is robust (at least according to me, and play testing seems to bear it out). I’m hoping that this will be a fun game to play, as well as providing some insights for those that have a more academic perspective.

Airfix Battles: A sneak peak at Operation Cobra

Airfix Battles, The Introductory Wargame, has now hit the shops.  If you’ve not yet seen it, have a look here:

The basic game has 10 scenarios, many of which are geared to teaching you how to play the game.  We thought it would be a great idea to present a whole campaign of scenarios to test out our more advanced players – enter Operation Cobra, the US offensive at the end of the Normandy Campaign that resulted in the (almost) encirclement of the German’s 7th Army and 5th Panzer Army.

The Operation Cobra Airfix Battles campaign is made up of 10 linked scenarios.  At the end of each scenario the winner earns Cobra Campaign Points (CCPs).  Most points wins at the end of the campaign.  However, you’re unlikely to play all 10 scenarios, because the outcome of a scenario presents some choices about which one to play next.  Some of the scenarios are not necessarily balanced, but rather they might favour one side or the other – or your style of play may suit you to one type of scenario, but not another.  So, if you think the next scenario is maybe a bit too demanding for your side, you may be able to opt to skip it, and move to a more palatable option.  In this way the path through the campaign can be different each time.

We’ve also introduced a few new bits and pieces for building your forces, setting up the scenarios and ending them.  Typically the Germans during Operation Cobra were scrabbling to keep up with the movement and materiel of the US advance.  To reflect the German losses, in most scenarios German squads will start with less than their full complement, but they’ll still cost the normal stars to buy.  Your Grenadiers may have only 7 or 8 men, instead of the normal 10.  Sometimes the German tanks are not fully repaired, so may have to start the game with 1 pip less on their Hit Dice, while at the end “The Last Throw of the Dice”, German tanks cost an extra star each to purchase.  In compensation, and because they’re on the defensive, the Germans frequently get to place terrain where they want it to be, so their relatively smaller force sometimes has the advantage of the ground.

As Operation Cobra was an offensive of rapid manoeuvre, both sides will face having to split their troops.  In Scenario 3, “Armoured Breakthrough”, the US side has a main and a flanking force and tries to take an on-road objective worth a large number of points.  In this scenario the Germans don’t have any tanks, so their problem is how to shift infantry around to block a flank attack, while also parrying a frontal force.  In Scenario 5, “Encircled!”, the Germans attempt to break out or rescue a trapped force by running the gauntlet of the attacking Americans.

We’ve included a lot of variation in the scenario designs.  The number of troops ranges from 10 Stars to 25, and many scenarios use both maps, so you’ll have a lot of ground to fight over.  We’ve also provided some very different end game and victory conditions.  For example, in Scenario 2, “Opening Attacks”, the Americans can choose to end the battle at the end of any round, thereby allowing them to limit their loss, take a quick victory, or go for broke by staying in the fight.  On the other hand, Scenario 4, “Panzer Counter-attack” is a do or die that only ends when one side has been destroyed, routed or withdrawn.

Scenario 10: Allied Briefing – “That’s it, boys, the Krauts are beaten. I doubt they have a single tank left in the whole of France! It should all be plain sailing from here on.”  Or the Axis Briefing – “General, you may demand all you want, but I cannot make tanks appear out of thin air! The whole division is destroyed! What’s that? An order from Berlin? Then I suppose we have no choice…”  Your chance to fight the enemy in Operation Cobra!

Politics By Other Means – having a CoW

Continuing on from my previous post about my microgame project, based on Clausewitz’ On War.

I’m now into the play testing phase of the game. I’ve probably played it between 20 and 30 times with opponents varying from highly experienced professional wargamers at the Conference of Wargamers to novice gamers at Heffers’ game evenings in Cambridge. As far as I can tell (and sometimes less experienced play testers are not necessarily frank!), everyone who’s played it has enjoyed it. The thinky players have thought hard, and the romantically brash ones have dived in where angels fear to tread. I’ve also received a fabulous number of suggestions for refinement, additions, improvements and, occasionally, re-design. This is usually the case with game designing, until the very end stage, when I hope it’s ‘pretty perfect’. I’m trying to resist the siren calls of extra action cards, more countries, and more complexity.

I’ve not yet blind tested it, nor have I done much simple watching of others playing it. I’ve been concerned to get a firm foundation before launching it free of my own intervention. That’s the next step.

The current version of the game has a Basic Game with 4 additional scenarios: 18th century limited war, Napoleonic Wars, WW1 in the West and WW2 in the West, but more of that later. The Basic Game has solidified around 8 Action cards: Move 1 army, Move 2 armies, Build Army, Build Fort (fortify army), Attack, Attack +1 (with discard), (increase) Army Strength, Score+Retrieve action cards. There’s a Home Country card for each (Orange and Blue) player and a Neutral country card. 2 other cards are quite important – a Play Aid that shows the order of the actions, and an Initiative card (orange one side, blue the other).

The order of the actions is vital, and it’s common for new players to need to learn by experience, rather than to just read it. The order is: Move, Build, Attack, (increase) Strength, Score/Retrieve. There are a few important implications here. Attack comes after Move, so your opponent might move away before your attack, and, because armies don’t block, enemies *could* move away from your own armies in the Neutral Country straight into your Home Country. Build is before Attack, so a defending army can dig in and gain +1 just before you attack. However, increasing Army Strength – you reduce by 1 the VPs of a country card you control, in order to increase the strength of all your armies by 1 permanently – comes *after* Attack. This represents the idea that it requires significant sacrifice to ‘level up’ your armies with better equipment, training, etc. So using that card won’t help you this turn. One advantage both players have is that discards are all open – I didn’t want this to be a memory game. Even though there are only 8 action cards each, I figured it’s no hardship to just leave them all open, so both players will know what their opponent can potentially do each turn.

Initiative turns out to be pretty important too. The basic rule is: if both players Move, or both players Attack, then the player with the Initiative does it first, and the initiative then switches to the other player. So, if we both attack and only have one country card occupied by opposing armies, then only one attack will actually happen, and the other will fizzle. If I have the initiative, then I might be able to guarantee to win an offensive battle, but I must still get the timing right (tactics) using Move and Attack actions.

I played about half-a-dozen games at the Conference of Wargamers ( early in July 2016. I hadn’t advertised it as a session before the conference, because PBOM is a shortish game and didn’t seem to warrant a whole session. Besides, I was doing two others (Mission Command and Airfix Battles, since you ask). Arriving Friday eve, I stuck a sign-up sheet up on the notice board for later in the evening, after our usual ‘warm-up’ plenary game. What I *should* have done was just plonked myself at a table in the main entrance area, but what I *did* do was to pick an empty room and add that venue to the sheet. I was then obliged to play in The Board Room – not, as you might expect, a central location, but a heavily concealed one, only entered through another room and via a narrow ill-lit staircase cunningly marked “No Entry”. I made the very last bit up. Not unsurpringly, only Nick and I made it, although I had, I think, 4 sign-ups. I played a few more games later in the conference using the less organised method.

So with just the select 2 of us, Nick and I played the Basic Game. The initial explanation only takes a few minutes, then you’re in the action. I’ve found that there are different styles that new players have. Nick proved to be “moderately cautious”. His opening gambit was to fortify his starting army, build another and only then advance into the Neutral Country, while I scored some VPs. Having a mind on defence is, I would think, a sensible approach. It did mean I was able to nip into the Neutral Country before he could capitalise on it, and increase my army strength using the Neutral VPs. We had a good, lengthy and thinky session. Owing to relative inexperience, Nick made a couple of small errors that allowed me to capitalise on Army Strength for an eventual win by virtue of gaining more than 50% of the available VPs. However, it was a fine tussle, and I think we illustrated the tensions inherent in the design – you need to keep a watch on the relative strengths of both sides in the field, while plotting how to maximise your future potential strength, while also ensuring that you don’t concede too much of the VP pool, while also looking at what actions you and your opponent can do each turn.

The game can be varied by very small rule changes. The original form had unlimited VPs, an end game “whenever both players agree to finish” and victory to the player with most VPs at that point. The purpose of this was to show the Clausewitzian tendency of war to go to extremes. Generally what happens is that countries are devastated in order to maximise army strengths, and it’s rare to end the game with more than 1 VP potential remaining. With no limit to VPs, the accumulation of VPs during the main part of the game becomes irrelevant – as long as I can generate some VPs at the end and my opponent can’t, then I win. So the focus here is simply on getting the drop on your opponent by devastating as much of the country cards as possible, to increase your Army Strength more than your opponent can. This can get quite philosophical. One player might propose to stop (presumably when they’re ahead in VPs), when it looks likely that the opponent is on the ropes. This might result in a perception of a ‘marginal’ victory, though the game doesn’t recognise such a result. On the other hand, one player might just refuse to give up, even when the situation looks completely hopeless – I view this as a bit like the Paris Commune period of the Franco-Prussian War, or perhaps a never-say-die guerrilla struggle. This approach lends itself to the use of the game as a teaching tool perhaps, and I suspect I’ll include it somehow. However, the Basic Game is more accessible with a fixed number of VPs, which introduces the extra concern of watching the VP pool.

Next post on this: variants

Politics By Other Means – a microgame project

I’ve always had a bit of a problem designing microgames.  It’s not something I’m particularly good at, because I’m always wanting to put more details into a design, often to its detriment.  I seem to be unsatisfied with ‘small is beautiful’.

For example, way way back, when Imagine magazine was published in the ’80s, I designed an abstract game called ‘Mindmeld’ (  It was a bit like a microgame, in that it was a complete game published in a magazine and had a strong, simple central idea for a solo game.  With only limited pieces and a small hex board, you had to prevent ‘enemy’ pieces of 3 sizes from moving from the edge of the board to the centre.  It was designed on a ‘rule of 3’ principle.  Small, medium and large enemy pieces moved 3, 2 or 1 hexes.  The player had pieces that could ‘meld’ to form small, medium or large stacks.  To defeat a small enemy piece required 1 friendly piece to move adjacent to it.  To defeat a medium sized one, you needed 2 pieces with at least one of those a stack of 2, and to defeat a large piece, you needed 3 friendly pieces moved adjacent requiring at least a large stack, a medium stack and a single piece.  However, friendly stacked pieces also had more limited moves, 3, 2 or 1 dependent on the size of the stack.  Enemy pieces had simple programmed movement, and the difficulty level was increased by stepping up the number of enemy pieces that started each round.

Tony Boydell and I took another look at it, when we started up Surprised Stare Games, and it quickly spiralled into a larger edifice with a re-theme into a circus game, cards were added, then over the years we considered adding more circus animals to ‘flesh it out’.  It crept up to full-blown board game size.  It definitely lost its microgame footprint.

A few weeks back, I was re-reading Clausewitz’s On War (as one does, when researching wargames stuff!).  Having reached only Chapter 2, as I recall, I had a flash of inspiration – what about a microgame based on On War that would attempt to show the tendency to extremes that Clausewitz mentions, and that might also introduce variants to show the limitations of more realistic warfare, such as 18th century so-called “limited” war, Napoleonic wars, even WW1 and WW2?  Central features of the game would be very constrained strategic space – a card for each home country and a neutral country, so only 3 areas – and very constrained choices – a handful of action cards to build and move armies, and a typical ‘get back all the action cards’ card to collect up your used cards.  I sketched out some notes in one of my many A5 game design notebooks – I usually start either at the front of a notebook or the back, thereby limiting each book to 2 new or newish game ideas, and I tend to fill a few pages with scrawled notes, mind maps and diagrams, in a very unfinished, stream-of-consciousness manner.

At this stage, I wasn’t sure this was in any sense original, or yet interesting.  I considered it a small design exercise to see if I could come up with a microgame, while most of my design time was taken up with Airfix Battles (, Mission Command and Dolphin Adventures (a family game project).

I wrote out some cards by hand and played a few times solo.  The advantage of microgames is that they’re small, so hand writing the cards wasn’t particularly time consuming.  I played around with the number of cards required, whether any action cards needed to be repeated, and with the nature of the 3 country cards.  The first version’s sequence of play was simply ‘each player secretly selects a single action card, then simultaneously reveal and enact them’.  Actions were: Move, Build, (increase) Army Strength, Score VPs, and Return cards.  Each player had only 3 armies.  The Army Strength card enabled the player to decrease the VP value of a country in order to increase the strength of all their armies by 1 (starting STR was 1).  Final array of 8 action cards turned out to be Move 1, Move 2 (2 armies, not 1 army twice), Build Army, Build Fort (fortify army), Attack, Attack +1, Army Strength, Score+return cards.

I also experimented with 1 or 2 actions per round.  It nicely turned out that only 1 was necessary.

So the final orientation of the game gave a good set of decisions: you need to deprive yourself of VP value in order to increase the STR of your armies.  But there’s only 1 of those cards, so while you’re doing that, your opponent may sneak into the Neutral country and score.  And also can reduce the Neutral country’s VP value to increase STR.  I introduced specific Attack cards, as the first version had auto-combat.  This turned out to be very neat: do I Attack and run the risk that my opponent will have moved out, so I waste the card?  Also I put in the Attack +1, where the +1 requires you to discard a card from hand.  Combat was basically bloody – if you have more strength, you wipe out the enemy for no loss; if strengths are equal, everyone dies.

The tension seemed to give a nice Clausewitzian dynamic.  You need to devastate your home country and the neutral if possible, in order to increase your strength.  In fact, sometimes you’ll want to throw everything away in order to gain the edge to win.

I’ll write another post or two about this thingy, showing how it developed further.

Essence of a wargame – IV

…part IV of a two-part series…

SPI’s La Grande Armee

Convincing portrayal of topic

This game is an old hex-and-counter strategic game. It’s one of the better SPI strategic games with some good but simple mechanics for army movement (breaking large units down to divisions, then stacking and recombining for combat; d6 with possible strength point loss for forced marches), supply (separate attackable supply units and depots), and Combat Results Table combat resolution. Nowadays it’d have lots of cards and funny dice, but probably to no better effect. It gives a good feel for Napoleonic strategy, with the French having to do a heck of a lot to win – 1805, 06, 07 and 09 scenarios (from memory). Stacking and unstacking restrictions and simple combat and movement strength variations give players the opportunity to use the armies in a way that feels historical. High score in this department, despite its lack of modern colour.

Encouraging players to carry out believable actions within the game’s context

French divisions – in game and in history – could march long and fast, then combine to form very powerful stacks modified positively by the French marshals, so sweeping Napoleonic manoeuvres were definitely not only possible in both, but also necessary for the French to achieve their decisive victories. For the Austrians, Russians and Prussians there are the strategic choices about whether to rush reserves up to support relatively weak forward forces or to march more circumspectly but risk being beaten in detail. Playing the French with caution or the Prussians with elan can be punished.

Victory conditions are carefully worked out to reflect the undoubted power of the French and the weakness of its ancien regime opponents. For example the Prussians don’t have to hold a lot to win the 1806 campaign! You could win the game, even if to all intents and purposes you lost the campaign, as long as you don’t lose too badly. And making good use of the excellent Prussian cavalry could potentially save you – something the Prussians historically were unable to do.

The game system encourages the telling of the historic story.

Excellent fit of mechanics to topic

I think that the simple design captures the essence of the topic well. A more modern game might have added more chrome (or heaven forbid, a tactical sub-system), but this game demonstrates the relatively straightforward strategic choices available, and allows players to concentrate on the more complex planning and implementation. For example, depots produce a supply unit every turn, so you can arrange a string of such units to supply your armies in position or in response to a slow advance. Concentrated armies need more supplies, dispersed ones can live off the land to an extent (dice rolling for potential losses). However, a rapid or forced march will outstrip the movement of the supply units, so you have to make alternative arrangements, perhaps using up supplies to force march other supply units, altering supply routes, creating new depots (a slow process), or just fighting less powerfully with less supplies (a battle generally consumes a supply unit, or you fight with less strength). This simple mechanical sub-system covers:

  • Basic logistics of static armies
  • The problem of supplying rapidly moving forces
  • How to ensure that armies engaged in combat are supplied
  • The extra logistical problems of switching the direction of attack
  • Supply problems caused by divergent lines of attack
  • The importance of defending lines of supply and vulnerable depots

As I recall, the game is significantly weaker in terms of command control rules, but in general the mechanics are an excellent fit.

Appropriate level of challenge

As I’ve mentioned, the victory conditions are set so that the French don’t merely have to win, but have to win each campaign decisively to win the game. This gives the players an appropriate level of challenge. It means that if you win a decisive tactical victory, but in the wrong place or at the wrong time, then you could still lose the game – it is the strategic situation that determines the outcome. Experienced players would develop delaying tactics for the weaker Austrian and Prussian forces, limiting French forced marches through astute use of cavalry, and perhaps sending outlying forces on wide flanking manoeuvres to threaten supplies. Keeping large armies in fortresses might be an appropriate method (fortresses have their own supplies), but you also need to know the victory conditions – besieged fortresses are automatically taken at the end of the scenario, yielding only half the victory points for the city, so the Austrians or Prussians might be able to win by only losing to a siege, rather than battling in the open field.

Having played many games of La Grande Armee I would say that it provides a good level of challenge.

Next: some conclusions?,

Essence of a wargame – III

continuing with part III of a two-part series…

Paths Of Glory

Convincing portrayal of topic

Definitely. The cards and rules restrictions give huge amounts of colour in that they are all derived from historical circumstances, and they strongly encourage political background actions to reflect this.

Encouraging players to carry out believable actions within the game’s context

The game restricts players to only 6 card plays per quarter of a year. So only important operations and events can be carried out. The players don’t represent a specific role, but rather a collective command view from either an Allied or Central Powers perspective.  This permits greater co-operation between fronts than would have been possible, and perhaps an air of unreality or ‘gaminess’ in the play. Certainly believable actions are possible, particularly attritional offensives. It seems much less likely to get to some of the hoped-for results that high command had, so players can become insulated from the expectations of success that pervaded high commands at times. There is also the problem that the VPs on the Turkish and Italian fronts make these more important than they actually were. These aspects may be necessary to make PoG into a more interesting game, but they do represent a compromise.

Excellent fit of mechanics to topic

The game has had some criticism because of its draconic approach to supply lines. If armies are cut off, then they are destroyed at the end of the turn, and have no attack capability in the meantime. I don’t agree with this criticism, preferring to see this as a way enforcing a more realistic approach to continuous front warfare.

I particularly like the rules that stacks cannot both move and attack, but only one or the other, and that moving units cannot end stacked with other units designated to attack. These rules ensure that there is no blitzkrieg possibility, and deployment of vast bodies of troops is necessarily cumbersome.

Appropriate level of challenge

PoG has a steep learning curve. It has a whole list of exceptions to the normal rules, in order to include or preclude a-historical events. For example German armies cannot end movement in the Channel Ports early in the game. These exceptions get in the way of a clean game system, but they add historical flavour and make the flow of the game feel right. So I give PoG the benefit of the doubt in this department.

Play balance has also been criticised by some. The primary scenario has a historical set-up and the nature of the strategic choices give the CP less chance of victory in a long game. This can be corrected; for example in tournament play auctioning using VPs will often mean a player spends 2 or 3 VPs in order to play the Allies.

Next: SPI’s La Grande Armee,

Essence of a wargame – II

Being the second part of a mini-series (probably of 2) about what makes a great wargame.

In Part One I suggested 4 points that a great wargame needs to address:

  • Convincing portrayal of topic
  • Encouraging players to carry out believable actions within the game’s context
  • Excellent fit of mechanics to topic
  • Appropriate level of challenge

Assessment of games against these criteria is difficult to do in an objective way. While it might be possible to create some form of rating system with defined levels that seems a bit of a heavy weight tool and a lot of work. Instead I’ve taken more of a comparative and qualitative approach, which is probably indefensible scientically – but then again, this is a blog, so what the heck!

Now it might be a good idea to look for some examples of games that meet these criteria. What follows is of course my view based on necessarily limited experience despite over 40 years of wargaming. Ahem. Let’s start by considering the three games I’ve mentioned already: Up Front, Paths of Glory and La Grande Armee.

Up Front

the first of three assessed on these criteria (suggesting this series might be 4 or 5 posts).

Convincing portrayal of topic

This game is about WW2 infantry section combat. It has individual soldiers differentiated by their own characteristics for morale, and whether or not they have NCO rank. The focus on what happens to individual soldiers, and a high level of differentiation between weapons, including tanks and anti-tank guns, as well as a wide variety of scenarios and nationally characterised troops, make this a convincing portrayal in my view.  The use of individual cards rather than counters makes the troops feel more like real soldiers.

Encouraging players to carry out believable actions within the game’s context

Player actions are centred on a group structure (from 2 to 4 groups). Although this may not reflect historical doctrine, it permits the player to make fire or movement decisions that feel like believable decisions in the context of the game, as it is important to weigh up tactical circumstances against the possibilities presented by cards in hand and the state of one’s own and the enemy’s troops.

Excellent fit of mechanics to topic

Game mechanics for Up Front are designed to create short player turns with few decisions, so that action is fast and furious, interspersed with periods of inactivity, as players search for the right balance of cards for the next operation. In my view it is this aspect that portrays the ‘hurry up and wait’ nature of infantry operations.

Appropriate level of challenge

Up Front teaches the the game by gradually introducing more terrain and troop types as players progress through the rules. While this makes the rules difficult as a reference set, it improves the learning aspects. There is a mix of scenarios at all levels of complexity, and also a campaign system with points assigned to individual soldiers who can increase expertise through successes in scenarios. For those who want a tough challenge, try a parachute landing!

Next time : Paths of Glory,

WW2 miniatures – WGRG 1973 revised and revisited again

All preps now done for our next Wargames Research Group 1973 revised ruleset outing. This is the sixth game in our regular-ish series, running at 2 per year.

For tomorrow’s game, we’re attempting a historically based, but not actually historical, situation, set in Poland in 1944. The Germans are counter-attacking against a Russian armoured force. Both sides have considerable trimmings – can’t give away too much as the blog has ears!

There are two main differences in the format of this game that make it more than usually interesting. It is our first attempt to run the new infantry rules we’ve been developing. These are intended to speed up infantry combat, to represent the Command/Control, Firepower (capability) and Morale (resilience) effects of a company – not individual figures or individual stands. We’re modelling company level capability not actual structures, which, for a corps level game, is rather too much detail. We’ve focused in on the fact that a company basically has rifle power, LMG power, AT, mortar and other specialist functions, plus command. It’s the distribution and tactical use of these systems that gives each nationality its different doctrine in the use of infantry. Our design of infantry elements is intended to represent this company level capability and doctrine, rather than platoon or squad organisation. So, for example, late war German infantry have a predominance of infantry support weapons and less riflemen, whereas the Russians have large concentrations of rifles, but fewer LMGs and supports. This means that German firepower can be maintained even if extensive casualties are taken, whereas an equivalent Russian unit will tend to fade – of course the Russians will just stick another unit in! In addition the German infantry have very flexible heavy weapon support down to company level, whereas the Russians have separate battalions for support, requiring much more command effort.

The second innovation, developed by Pete, is to run the Corps level game via a series of separate one-on-one encounters between individual sub-commanders, while the C-in-Cs simply carry out the overall direction, in terms of grand tactical movement, reserve placement, and so on. Only the sub-commanders get to move the figures around. We will play up to 4 rounds of 90 minutes to 2 hours during the day. Rapid victory on one table can mean you get an advantage on the next table if following up. Also there’s the opportunity for long-range weapons to fire from one table across to another (some guns and howitzers have ranges of 4 km or more, and our tables are 2.5 km x 4km). We reckon to have up to 6 games running in a round (though more likely 4), so we may get 16 to 20 individual encounters.

We’ve had considerable pre-game action in terms of reconnaissance, and things are shaping up for an epic encounter. And at the very least we will have tested out this method.

Stabcon weekend

Managed to play the following games, unless I’ve missed a few:

  • Totemo
  • Dominant Species
  • 7 Wonders several times
  • Dixit
  • Vasco da Gama
  • Antics
  • Adventurers
  • CatASTROphe
  • Workshop of the World
  • Braggart

Thanks to Hammy and all the organisers for an excellent weekend.

Dominant Species

4-player game with 2 newbie players, plus Charlie and myself who’ve played it once complete 2-player.  When teaching D’Species I use the teaching script from BGG, which works well I think.  Maybe this is something that should be developed for all new complex games; noting that Richard Breese did this very effectively on the Geek for Key Market.  The game took 5 hours including explanation and will be quicker with players who know it.  I like this game a lot (and not just because I spent a lot of money on it!).  I’ve only started to scratch the surface of strategies – for example, my birds retreated to a Tundra and beyond domination strategy, owing to the ability to migrate to regions others couldn’t reach – and there are some excellent possibilities for tactical play, because of the large number of actions and action combinations that are available.  I believe it will be important to get out of the micro-management mindset and into strategic thinking for this game.

Seven Wonders

This has turned into the filler or short game of choice.  It’s particularly strong for this because it is very accessible, predictable in duration and can run with 3 to 7 with equal satisfaction (and has a 2-player variant I’ve not yet played).  In addition it’s not too demanding and seems not to permit the ‘expert’ player to dominate overly.


We played Dixit a couple of times, then loaned it out for almost the whole weekend.  Possibly the most accessible and fun game for some while, and it appeals to a wide audience, including both casual and serious gamers.  The influence of the artwork alone in Dixit cannot be underestimated.

Vasco da Gama

We had a learning game of this with Paul and Hammy.  The initiative system is the core, and in my view it’s genius; I may have to nick that mechanism.  Hammy compared VdG to Caylus, and where I can see the similarities, I’d have to say I much prefer VdG, especially for its strategic aspects, which are absent from the older game.


90 minutes on the box, rather longer in real life for our first game!  Antics is much heavier than it looks, owing to the planning element.  I’d have to say, this was less fun and more serious than expected.  I’d want to play it with experienced and quick players I feel.  Please please, never ever write rules with puns and other non-essential stuff integrated into the body of the rules; it doesn’t help clarity or conciseness, and the joke wears off pretty much immediately.


Indiana Jones pure and simple.  Very well executed ‘temple robbing’ archaeology game, this was great fun for the start of Saturday morning; so much so that we played it twice.  There was some satisfaction from the other players in seeing Geoff’s character, loaded down with a winning amount of treasure and running for the exit, only to be crushed by the massive boulder because he failed to get a 1 or a 2 in the final 5-dice boulder movement roll!  Recommended.


A play test of one of SSG’s newest designs, still very much a work in progress.  More later on this.

Workshop of the World

Ragnar Brothers version of Brass / Age of Industry.  Not sure what I think of this one; more thought required.  I enjoyed it, but I’ll have to work out a comparison with other similar fare.


A brilliant filler, not to be taken seriously!  Recommended.  And Vic did the artwork!

In the Western Desert

Our WW2 game in the Western Desert turned out OK on Saturday.  Some players were a little nonplussed, because we allowed the Brits to carry out an extensive turning manoeuvre that placed them in the Italian rear, through the efficacy of placing some more tables.  This was somewhat unconventional, but I’m hoping that players will get used to the idea that the world doesn’t end at the table edge in our historical games.

Interestingly there was virtually no small arms fire in the game, as most elements were engaging at longer than 250m and often at longer than 500m.  Infantry was mostly smoke shrouded, or in the case of the Italians withdrew before enemy infantry could get into range, in order to avoid the Matildas.  The Matildas were pretty much invulnerable, as expected, except to Italian large howitzers, which could kill Matildas and Valentines on a 6 – quite a few 6s were rolled.

There were a few game design and development points to consider as a result of the game.  The concept of Cold Bounds (15 mins) and Hot Bounds (5 mins) certainly speeded up the flow of game time.  With the game starting well before dawn and the first pre-planned action due at 05:30, we still managed to play till 08:45 in game time, nearly 30 bounds done.  If we’d stuck to the traditional 5 minute turns, we would have completed barely an hour and a half of game time.  I think this worked well, because units at the edge of 500m range could decide not to engage (not firing) and force a Cold Bound; a withdrawal would enable their rearward units to catch up.  In a more traditional game, forward units tend to get mixed up in long range action to little effect but expenditure of time and effort.

However, there were some glitches:

  • As all units can attack twice in a Cold Turn (although I failed to change it properly when I dropped the warm bound concept), artillery were able to bombard twice on the same location.  Nobody queried this, but moving units should only be subject to a single bombardment through a beaten zone.  This would possibly have made the Italian artillery a little less effective, though they did have double the normal allocation anyway.  We also failed to implement drift for newly targeted batteries, though actually most of the Italian fire was pre-programmed map fire so didn’t need it.
  • We need a ruling on what happens if a battalion HQ is hit – this may not directly affect companies, except for disruption of communications.  But this still needs handling in the rules, and similarly for higher level HQs.
  • The current rules don’t have an adequate sequence for air attacks, especially during Cold Bounds, so we improvised, allowing CAP to intercept and flak to fire prior to attack runs.  This was fine, so I’ll work it up to a proper sequence.
  • There needs to be greater clarity in the rules on interrupting Cold Bounds – direct fire or movement within 500m makes it Hot; if the latter, then this will immediately make the Cold Bound into a Hot one, with loss of movement rate if not co-ordinated correctly by the phasing player.  This should reflect friction better in a multi-player game, but will require sensitive or at least firm umpiring.

For the next game, I want to have re-written the whole ruleset and hopefully have changed the dicing, so that we just use d10s for consistency.  2d10 would give a useful % feel to it as well.  This will give us the opportunity to review the weapons and armour penetration stats, as well as to consider our new plans for companies: we aim to reflect a company’s capability within its elements, but not its organisation.  So we may decide to have AT capability as a separate element, even though it might be integrated into platoons.

Previous games I’ve done cards for commands, which is too labour intensive.  This time we went the other way and didn’t have enough information about the commands.  The best solution is I think to have a specific play aid that includes only the weapon systems involved in the scenario, plus copies of the whole command structure of their side for each player, so they can see how it all fits together, using standard NATO symbols.  These could be crossed off as losses occur, or players can just rely on the figures.

More preparation time for players is required.  Perhaps we should have a more explicit lead-up to the day, with all details out to players a week in advance to permit planning and recce.  Both planning and recce, if taking place before the actual day, should be finished 2 or 3 real days in advance of the game, so that umpires can adjudicate and tell players what has happened.  There should only be a minimum of decisions by players for this – umpire it within the broad plans of each side.

It would help to have a complete breakdown of the whole sequence of play in detail (a la FoG).  Plus some areas need a bit more work: minefields, particularly clearing them, effect of artillery on them, time to repair, doctrines for laying and marking; effect of artillery on telephone lines needs clarification – I think Stephen was too generous to allow buried lines to survive artillery bombardment with no effect; combat within area effect smoke screens; conversion dice for well-dug-in infantry in trenches (not just slit trenches).

Just realised that I should really have taken some piccies.  Oh well, next time.

Quatre Bras next version ready for more play testing

I’ve been working for some time now on the Quatre Bras game based on Martin Wallace’s Waterloo system.  This is the first step in making the Waterloo system into a generic Napoleonic one with the object of making more battles available without having to design separate systems and components for every game.

There have been several challenges with this mini-project.  The main one has been that Quatre Bras was an encounter battle, not a large-scale set piece like Waterloo. Both armies were coming off line of march straight into the fight, and on the Allied side were to an extent thrown into the action wherever the worst threat appeared to be.  So, many of the troops arrive as reinforcements and relatively few are set up on the board initially.

The ratio of forces between the sides was subject to change as reinforcements appeared.  This is modelled by limiting the action discs and damage cubes appropriately, while not permitting one side to run down the clock so fast that the enemy is prevented from taking actions.  Removing both the ‘5’ action discs helps to sort out this problem, and it’s justified by the small size of the forces compared to the Waterloo game – only about a third of each army took part.

The second potential problem was one of ‘figure scale’, a term I hesitate to use, as this is not a miniatures or figure game.  Martin was careful in the Waterloo game not to state a number of men or a type of military unit represented by each piece.  The units in the game are merely a representational feel for the strength of the armies.  The advantage of this approach is that, within limits, the game system can be scaled to suit different battles.  So Quatre Bras can use less actual pieces but proportionately more pieces than Waterloo.  For example it uses 11 French infantry, compared to 17 in the larger game.

Quatre Bras was a see-saw affair that only stabilised once the Allies had received several doses of reinforcements.  So there is a danger that the French might overrun the Allies, resulting in a relatively short game. On the other hand the French suffered from some handicaps, primarily undue caution on the part of several generals who had fought against Wellington in the Peninsula, and the often overlooked fact that Marshal Ney had only joined the army the night before, so was unfamiliar with its contents, its staff, some of its commanders and more importantly, exactly where all its components actually were.  For this game, I’ve introduced a special rule for the first turn to reflect the French wariness, such that French morale suffers a handicap in the first two assaults.  This feature is designed to limit in a realistic fashion the possibilities that the French had to overrun the Allied forces quickly.  For French players, such a tactic is still possible, but does not guarantee victory.

Most of the other rules are the same as in the original game.  However, the extensive fighting in the wood of Bossu during the battle causes a further difficulty.  The French pushed the Dutch very hard in the woods, but were unable to clear it, despite committing veteran light infantry to the fight.  The battle of Waterloo was not much influenced by woods, so the original game system doesn’t make woods particularly hard to take – both sides suffer a one right column shift for morale and there’s no firing benefit to the defender.  I’ve changed this so that infantry suffer a -1 modifier when firing at infantry in defensive formation in woods.  This type of woods represents open woodland, which often has paths and clearings, but also lots of useful cover for a defender, so this defensive bonus seems appropriate.

Finally, victory conditions in an encounter battle are usually rather different from a set-piece, being dependent both on taking positions and often more pertinently on the relationship between this battle and a decisive set-piece later in the campaign.  For Quatre Bras each side has two levels of victory, tactical or strategic, dependent on places they take, and for the French, exiting pieces from the board.  A French strategic victory represents aid from Ney’s force to Napoleon’s main army fighting the Prussians at Ligny, giving an opportunity for a decisive victory against the Prussians.

Game design and development: part of a LinkedIn discussion

This post is an edited version of part of a discussion on the game design and development process that occurred on one of the LinkedIn board game groups.  I think someone in the discussion was going to pull it all together and do a useful PDF of ‘how to do it’!  This was my attempt to distill some of the process out from my experience over the last 25 years or so of my own, and Surprised Stare Games, board and card game design and development.

First be clear about your objectives as a game designer.  Is it your intention to design a game for sale, or for your own personal enjoyment.  If the latter, then it’s much easier on the stress levels.  If the former, then before you start, immerse yourself in what’s already been published.  The Board Game Geek website is a good place to start.  Will your game add anything to the field?  If not, then, even if it works as a game, it may not sell.  Bear in mind that at the Essen Spiel 2009 some 690 new board and card games were launched – if you don’t know about the Spiel fair, you should find out as a matter of urgency at

Decide on your market segment (there are many) and likely geographical areas of sale.  There are 3 major segments (well, simplistically speaking, I’m not a marketing specialist!): toys and simple games for children, mass market games for the family, specialist games aimed at hobby gamers.  Naturally, these segments have multitudinous sub-segments.

The first two segments – toys and simple games for children, mass market games for the family – are worth billions of dollars (or pounds) per annum and are dominated by large international corporations (Hasbro and Mattel, for example).  To break into these markets you’d probably need a very good agent or high quality corporate contacts.  Unless you’re wildly lucky or exceptionally talented, an independent game designer is extremely likely to experience very high levels of disappointment operating in these segments.  In-house designers and ‘known’ independents tend to be used, or those with a good track record of successful invention.

The third segment is much smaller.  While there are some large companies (Kosmos, Ravensburger – they’re mainstream too – Days of Wonder, Games Workshop, Zoch – they do children’s games too) there are many more small publishers (such as our company, Surprised Stare Games).  Even breaking into this smaller world is difficult for an independent, because there are so many aspiring (and talented) game designers out there, including very well known ones like Reiner Knizia, and in the UK, Martin Wallace and Richard Breese.

So having started with all the discouraging stuff (you need to know that!), in terms of the game design process, there are some guidelines (NOT hard and fast ‘best practice’) that we’ve found very useful.

1  Have a good idea that no-one else has had.  This can either be in terms of a central game mechanic, a game system or even a theme.

2  Check carefully that your good idea really is a new one.  It’s actually fairly easy to design something that you *think* no-one’s done before, only to find that you’ve actually designed ‘High Society’ or ‘Modern Art’.

3  The design process: this tends to be individualistic.  You need to flesh out the game mechanics so that the game works, it has internal consistency, and is an enjoyable game (in your view).  Some designers do this in a formal way, writing a design brief and meeting design objectives; personally I’ve found this approach can help, but it’s best not to be rigid about it.  Design contains a lot of inspiration and hope, then a lot of iterative work to find out if the inspiration and hope can be actualised.  Sometimes a design might pop into my head pretty much fully formed; other times it will be hard graft.  Sometimes the idea starts with abstract mechanics, sometimes with theme.  At some point during this process you should have a prototype and some rules – then you may ditch the whole thing, or take it on to the next stage.

4  The game development process: don’t miss out this stage.  When *you* think the game is finished, I can pretty much guarantee it isn’t, if you haven’t gone through this process.  Inflict your game on as many different friends as you can.  At this stage, it’s usually helpful to run the sessions yourself, because you need to know about and record all the rough edges and comments.  Keep your expectations low at this point!  Preferably use a high proportion of people who you trust and who know about development.

This is the period when you find out about and modify the ‘playability’ of the game.  You or your favourite game developer friend need to concentrate on the experience of the gamers.  You must be prepared to sacrifice parts of your design in order to get to the point where gamers will play it, so being a purist is not a good idea.  Do not expect the development process to be quick – it can take a couple of years or more to ‘finish’ a game (the average lifecycle from idea to finished unpublished game is 2 to 4 years).

For some games, the design can be handed over to a developer, and you can stop at the end of the design process.  If you’re working with a company, they may insist on this if they like the design – this independent game development process carried out in-house by a publisher may take months or years, and the game may end up with a different theme.  You shouldn’t care too much – after all, you’re being paid!

Game development should involve huge amounts of play testing involving as many different groups as possible.  Keep good version control, or you’ll go mad.  Identify and use gamers who will give you high quality, critical feedback.  Use gamers who always try to break the game (and if they do, then take that very seriously).  Use ‘serious’ gamers who play at a high level.  Use casual social gamers who play for fun.  If possible, use groups in different countries.  When you’re sick of play testing and don’t want to see your game ever again, take a short break, then keep going – you haven’t finished.

The game development process is only finished when the development team (which might be just you, but should include other trusted people too) is happy that the product is as good as it can be.

5  Sale.  Try to get a slot at a games publishing company – I’ll not go into details of this step.  Most games fall at this hurdle.  Alternatively publish the game yourself.

6  Production.  Make sure the production team thinks the game will sell, at an acceptable price, for an acceptable profit level.  Don’t be too disappointed if it fails at this point; a lot do, but reaching this stage is very positive and I would say that most games that reach production will reach the shelves.  There’s a lot more detail that can be offered on this stage, but ‘real work’ beckons!

Multiple games from the same components

Multiple games from the same components is very often done as a ‘game design challenge’ (see BGDF), but only rarely as a production.  One exception is Stonehenge (; I’m not sure how successful that was commercially.

The problem tends to be the compromises you have to make to ensure that all the games work – those can reduce the focus of each game.  Expansions (usually charged for) or variants (usually available online) are the more normal way to go.  Expansions that require the original game (cheaper to produce, but smaller market) are common, as are self-standing expansions that are fundamentally the same game, but don’t require the original one (Carcassone: Hunters and Gatherers vs original Carcassone).

Expansions that increase the number of players are very common, because they increase the potential market too (Settlers of Catan is a good example).  They may not, however, increase the playability of the game :-).

Poorly Written Rules = Everybody Loses: some comments on a LinkedIn discussion

This was an extensive comment about rules writing that I made.  See here for the original LinkedIn thread.

Good article Kim. In fact it’s not necessarily the size of company that dictates the quality of a set of rules. While many large publishers have staff writers, they don’t always get it right.

A common example is our old favourite, Monopoly. How many people actually play Monopoly by the published rules? This is at least in part because many versions of the published rules were poorly written and open to multiple interpretations.

Writing rules for games is a technical skill; it’s a type of technical writing. As such, it is amenable to a traditional quality process approach. At Surprised Stare Games (we’re a small UK publisher, who’s staff all have non-gaming jobs) we have the following process:

  • Designer writes the first draft, which could be notes rather than a full rule set.
  • In-house team plays the game extensively as part of our normal development, then our in-house rules writer (primarily myself) produces a second more or less comprehensive draft rules set.
  • * As development continues, the rules will commonly be re-written two or three times from scratch.
  • * Once the in-house team is satisfied with the game (note: game not yet finished!), we’ll produce another draft set of rules, reviewed in-house, for inclusion in prototypes that will be used in our play-test groups. Then the game will be play-tested, supervised by members of our team.
  • The rules will be revised following play-testing. Up to this stage, we’re looking at the draft rules to answer the questions: “Does the game work?” and “Does the text say what we mean?”
  • Towards the end of the development process, we re-write the rules again, this time laying them out with pictures and diagrams in a format that is as close to the published one as possible.
  • This draft is then shared with our external ‘rules lawyers’ – a couple of people who have a good track record for writing rules. Result: A comprehensive draft rules set that we will use with our 4 or 5 blind play test groups (these are not blind people, just people who have not previously had contact with the game!).
  • Blind play testing will usually come up with further suggestions for revisions, so we will have a final review prior to producing what we hope will be the final draft.
  • We then play test the final draft.
  • We also (usually alongside final testing) get the rules translated into German (we usually produce multi-language games) – the translation process often picks up English language problems because of the differences between UK English and International English (let alone US English). We’re finding this so useful that we’re revising our process to push the translation back into the development process rather than leaving it till the end.

As you can see, the rules will have gone through at least 10 drafts over this process, including several re-writes. Our latest game (Totemo, see ) has gone through this full process, although the rules would fit comfortably on 4 sides of A4. In fact, looking through our Totemo files, I can see 13 versions of the rules. With larger games than this it’s easy to get to dozens of versions.