Archive for the 'Game development' Category

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!