Archive for the 'Game development' Category

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,