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 News May, 2020

Designer’s Blog: May, 2020

29 May, 2020

So, I've been banging away at Stavka, alternating work on multiple aspects of the design as my mood and ideas take me. For today, I thought I’d start with a little map update. The big change is that the play aids are starting to go in. On the top and bottom edges are holding areas for cadre units (Soviet and German respectively) and along the left edge, the time track.

(Click on the image to open it in its own window.)

The cadre holding areas are probably pretty close to where they’ll end up in the final map, but as for the Time Track, umm, no. That’s where it is for now, but I’m pretty sure it won’t end up there. Those gaps at the top and the bottom corners are not a good look, so no.

There is a feature of the Time Track that I very much like, and those are the little thumbail maps of the historical situation at the time. It almost works like frames from a movie, you can start at the top, and bring your eye down, and see the war in miniature. I think it’s a cool effect. Considering the disproportionate time and energy I’ve spent on it, I hope that other people agree.

One reason I did the play aids was because in playtesting I needed the support to keep track of what I was doing. In a solitaire playtest, it isn’t hard to kind of lose track of what’s going on, and the play aids were to help me stay organized. And they had to be done sometime - so why not now?

And speaking of playtesting, the last test went pretty well. I’ve compared it to a rocket that blew up 2000 feet above the launch pad. Not really what you want, and a long way from reaching orbit, but it was good that it was able to get into the air at all. (And it was an improvement over the prior test, which was more like the rocket blew up 1000 feet above the launch pad.) The tactical game play is shaping up, but what I really need to focus my energy on is the economic and production model, because that’s what is causing failures so far. Basically, the game has what I call “the card economy” - players use production to buy cards, and then use cards to buy everything else, so there needs to be the right proportion between the rate at which players consume cards and the rate at which they acquire them in order for the game to work. The historical war had a certain tempo of active vs. quiet periods, and a certain rate at which Soviet capability caught up to and then passed German capability. For the game to work, the card economy has to model those things. What made the last playtest work was that it was my most successful card economy to date, and allowed the game to reach 1942 before going hopelessly sideways, which previous tests hadn’t been able to do.

One reason the last playtest worked better is that I’ve managed to set up a spreadsheet that lets me do baseline calculations of what the card economy will do over time. (Of course, in the actual game, what players do absolutely can affect that, but to understand it, it really helps to have a baseline to compare to.)

Anyway, I’m kind of tired, so I’m going to wrap this up here. Til next time!

26 May, 2020

So, design work isn’t all graphic and 3D design. A lot of time is spent writing and revising rules. Eventually, all this stuff gets entered into Adobe InDesign on my iMac, which is the page layout program I use for all the rules I’ve published. But when I’m early in the process (like now) I prefer to use a different tool: Goodnotes on my iPad. Goodnotes is basically all about pen entry. Each project gets a notebook, into which I handwrite pages of notes with pen, and mix in hand-drawn graphics as needed.

My handwriting is, shall we say, not great? I can read it, but I daresay many people could find my scrawl challenging to decipher. You can see a sample below:

One of the things that fascinates me is how good handwriting recognition technology is. The program can automatically convert my handwriting to text. A sample of its conversion is below:

- If the winner is the attacker an advance takes the
form of an immediate continuation of the unit's
operational move, with its strength set to the
final result t the battle. In that continuation,
it may choose a new destination, make additional
attacks, and be subject to enemy counter-attack.

Now that is almost dead-on: in the fourth line it is supposed to be “final result of” not “final result t”, but that is a forgivable mistake. Other mistakes, either in content or form, I think are mine, not the software’s. Back in the day, I had a lot of experience using OCR (optical character recognition) software on typeset text, and it generally did worse (sometimes much, much worse) than the new technology is doing with my handwriting.

As to why, one thing I do suspect is that the new technology is using strokes in-addition-to/instead-of pixels. Everything I write is recorded as strokes, not pixels, and only converted to pixels as needed.

But much more important, I think, has been the switch from traditional software development with hand-written programs to the use of trained neural networks running on modern processors, which can achieve feats of accuracy undreamt of in the days of traditional programming. Knowing how it used to be, it is truly staggering to see the degree of improvement achieved. What goes beyond technically impressive is how deeply weird it all is. If you are curious about how the neural network does what it does, how it knew a shape is a particular letter, there is no real answer. We can understand how a traditional program solves problems (they are, after all, encodings of the programmers’ understanding) but neural networks are only partly the product of conscious design: for the rest they are product of an iterative process of trial and error, repeated until a network is produced that somehow works (more or less); in the end, neural networks seem always to be shrouded in mystery.

But what does this mean for me as a game designer? Well, fundamentally it means that when I do want to switch to typed rules, I can start by having my existing handwriting automatically converted to type - I don't have to copy-type it all in. Basically, I don’t have to worry about preparing typed rules until I need to prepare clean rules for playtesters to read, and when I do switch, conversion of my existing text is pretty simple.

Of course, one might still ask why I handwrite the initial rules at all - why not start by typing? The answer is that I just greatly prefer the subjective experience of handwriting. In part, I think it is because it slows down the writing process to something closer to my thinking speed when I’m concentrating on rules issues (which is none too fast), and the creative process seems to benefit from that. Also, the physical posture of sitting back and writing things out with a pen is just more comfortable than hunched forward over a keyboard. And finally, and I think most importantly, writing by hand tends to propel the process forward: with computers, it is easy to get stuck in tight editing loops, writing and re-writing the same paragraph over and over, whereas when writing by hand, it is always easier to keep going forward than to endlessly revise a newly written paragraph. In writing by hand, editing passes are fewer, and have a more holistic quality where the entire set of rules is the object, rather than just the wordsmithing of a single paragraph that will very likely ultimately be thrown out down entirely once the design is closer to completion.

Anyway, I’m going to wrap this one up here. It turned out very process-focused, of course, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

24 May, 2020

OK. Ready for some piece designs? Finally? Well, here ya go.

Before breaking down the details of the design of the individual pieces, I thought it best to start with a visualization of what the game looks like, as I think the details of the piece designs are easier to understand when the pieces and map are first seen together as a functioning system:

Let’s start with color. It’s simple, and the most basic thing required to read the map: blue pieces are German, red pieces are Soviet, and grey is both/neither. And to spare you some possible trouble, the above illustration is just a visualization; it doesn’t represent anything that actually happened historically, although it does bear some resemblance to the situation just after the German attack on the Soviet Union began.

Since the grey are (perhaps) the most mysterious, let’s start with those:

Front Line (2 Connected Pieces) Front Divider

The Front Line above shows two connected front line pieces, hinged together in the middle. Each piece has a socket on one end, and a pin on the other, and when connected can be rotated with respect to each other horizontally through a maximum of about 270 degrees. The pieces are daisy-chained in this way to form the front line in the game. The pieces cannot be detached by dragging horizontally, so it is safe to reposition them by dragging; they can be separated only by lifting vertically. The front line is reset, as needed, at the start of every turn based on the results of operations during the preceding turn. In the game, the front line is formally defined as cutting across routes between positions. Every position on the map is either on the German or Soviet side of the front line; the front line never goes through a position.

The Front Divider is a physically simply piece. There are only two used in the game; they are placed over front line pieces like little bridges and divide the front line into North, Center, and South. The divide formally always goes between the routes cut by the front line: any route, where it crosses the front line, is either in the North, Center or South front. Only one is on the map visualization - you can see it near the lower-left hand corner on the image.

Next, let’s move on to the blue and red block-shaped pieces. Those represent large mobile/shock/reserve units of the opposing armies. (The portions of the opposing armies stretched out along the front are abstracted in the front line itself - they aren’t modeled by physical pieces in the game. Anyway, here are the two kinds shown:

German Armor Soviet Infantry

If you were wondering whether the game has German infantry and Soviet armor, the answer is yes, they just aren’t shown. German infantry looks just like Soviet infantry, only blue, and Soviet armor looks just like German armor, only red. If you were wondering about scale, the German armor pieces generally correspond to Panzer Korps, Soviet armor to Tank Armies, German infantry to infantry armies, and Soviet infantry to Shock/Guards/whatever Armies. (Soviet large-scale infantry organization was a work in progress throughout the war; formal designations tended to count for less than the quantity of artillery attached to infantry armies to support their operations.)

Anyway, if you have NATO military symbols wired into your brain, you might be perplexed by a few aspects of this design. First, you might wonder why the unit sizes are companies in a strategic scale game. Second, you might be wondering why the “armor” units are labeled with diamonds rather than ovals, and third, you may be wondering why the "infantry" units don’t have any symbols at all. (If you are not familiar with NATO military symbols, and want to understand the objections, there’s always Wikipedia.)

The short answer to these objections is that these pieces aren’t marked up using NATO symbols. The diamond symbol on the armor units isn’t NATO - it’s Soviet, and was used on Soviet military maps during the war to show the location of armor on military maps. The absence of a graphic for infantry also follows Soviet practice. Infantry was more or less the assumed default and the Soviets tended to mark their positions with circles or blobs along with unit designations.

The little tab thing at the front doesn’t indicate its size (as NATO symbol reading might have trained you to expect); it is actually a pointer that indicates the position of the unit. In the illustration below, all of the units are in Orel:

By the by, units in the game don’t have facing. The orientation of a piece is purely a matter of convenience and visual clarity; the pieces above aren’t shown as approaching Orel in different directions or being on different sides of Orel: they are all in Orel exactly the same sense. What is shown is no different than what in a conventional wargame would be a stack of units in a single hex.

You might ask, of course, why I didn’t just put units on top of positions? And why not stack to indicate multiple units in the same position? Originally, I did intend to do that. What changed my mind was that stacks can be unsightly and have balance issues when the units have substantial thickness - as these do. In addition, up near the front line, space can be tight. By putting units next to the positions they occupy, that allows them to be physically moved farther from the front line pieces, reducing crowding. Next, stacks all have the problem of only allowing the top unit to be identified without lifting and peeking underneath, a problem compounded by the fact that even a single piece on a position covers it up, and different types of positions have different rules governing them. By not requiring pieces to be on top of positions, it allows them to be placed where interference with map reading can be reduced to a minimum. Oh, and stacks where different units of the opposing armies are present together is just kind of weird looking.

Finally, you got these guys, contenders with the Front Line Divider for the title of “boringest piece design in the game”:

German Penetration Soviet Penetration

So, in the game, when units attack and break through the enemy front line, and advance into enemy territory, these pieces are put on the map to mark the path of their advance. Their function is purely a visual and memory aid. It doesn’t technically matter how many are put out - two of them on a path doesn’t mean anything different than three. So long as the unit’s path is marked well enough for both players to recognize what it was, the piece’s have done their job. At the start of a turn, when the front line is reset, all of the penetration pieces from the previous turn are removed from the board.

Anyway, I think I’m going to wrap this up for now. Til next time.

22 May, 2020

Remember how in the last post I said that I had meant to write about piece design, but things were taking longer than expected, so instead I wrote about something else?

More of that. This is also about something else.

Let’s start with a map update:

Now, unless you study the updated map reallyclosely, you’re not going to see any differences between it and the last one. Which doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Some of the changes are just clean-up of some less-than-artful point-to-point network decisions. And those will probably continue for a while. Pretty much any time I do a close study of pretty much any section of the map, I can find something there that doesn’t thrill me. But it isn’t clear whether listing those for you would be anything but a bore.

But there are some systemic changes. And those are worth a little discussion. Now, one of my most basic decisions in designing the network was to try and keep the distance between points proportional to the difficulty of movement in the terrain. The more difficult the terrain, the more closely spaced the points. That way, if a unit moves 4 steps, in open terrain that will be a lot more miles of movement than 4 steps in more difficult terrain. And this is done without the players having to do any work. In the end, however, this was causing me a headache. And that’s because in my most difficult terrain, the points were so close together that they were imposing unwanted stress on the piece design. To have them fit, the pieces were having to be physically too small to be easily handled. And so I decided to compromise on my goal and have some steps on the map cost more to move than is generally the case. To show you an example, let’s take a look at the Pripyat Marshes, before and after the latest map change, along with a crude annotation showing how movement is counted, before and after:

Pripyat Marshes (before) Pripyat Marshes (after)

In the new map, as you can see, the route position marker rectangles, which are evenly spaced in the old map along routes, are frequently found in doublets in the new. The doublets change the way movement is counted, as you can see. In the old, the movement route is counted off one at a time, with each route step costing one movement step. In the new, the doublets count, well, double, so each doublet route step costs two movement steps instead of one. And thus more space was added to allow the pieces to be physically larger. Interestingly, the change had a second effect: because of the way movement and combat are interwoven in the design, the doublets received an effective defensive bonus. And frankly, for the difficult terrain where these things are found, that is pretty much what you would want. But this was pure serendipity: I didn’t make this change because of that effect, it just fell out of it.

And this leads us to a second systemic change: river crossings. How were major rivers handled in the old map? Not very well. They affected the point-to-point network in that there weren’t necessarily many crossing points, but otherwise they had no effect. The introduction of doublets, however, let me make a change so that the handful of rivers so big they even matter at this game’s scale (the Volga, Dneper, Danube) get explicitly handled by the map design. And that, I think is for the better, both in terms of game play and in terms of the simulation. You can see them handled graphically here:

And with that, I think I’m going to close off this entry. I will get to piece design, I promise you. I am working on it - and in fact it was the piece design that sent me off on this little map update excursion.

18 May, 2020

I had thought that the next post would be about the piece design, but that’s taking a little longer than expect as I come up to speed on the new 3D modeling software I’ve started to use. (The software I used to use has changed, and for my purposes, not for the better.) So, I thought I’d show some card designs in the meantime. These aren’t final art (just my doodles, really), but they show the direction I’m thinking about in that respect, and provide a means to talk about how cards actually work in the game.

So here are some samples:

3 North 3 Center 3 South 3 Air

There are four suits in the game: "North", "Center", "South" and "Air". All but "Air" can only be used on their respectively named fronts. (They are broadly the same as the German Army Groups North, Center, and South.) "Air" serves as a wildcard suit that can be played on any of the three fronts.

You might be wondering about the symbols chosen for the suits.

For "North", the image is of the Russian cruiser Aurora, which had survived the battle of Tsushima, played a key role in the Russian Revolution after her crew mutinied. She was long obsolete by WWII, and had settled in for her second life as a museum ship, permanently docked in Leningrad, where she can still be seen today.

For "Center", of course, we have St. Basil's Cathedral. A bit on the nose, perhaps, but not everything needs to be obscure.

For "South", we have tractors rolling out of the Stalingrad tractor factory, from happier days when tractors were what the plant was able to make. I thought the tractors had a nice double meaning, referencing both Stalingrad, and for Ukraine as the heartland of Soviet agriculture.

Finally, for "Air", there is a Yak-3, which was perhaps the best Soviet fighter used during the war. Mostly I chose it because I just thought it was a nice looking aircraft, and perhaps unfamiliar enough to just stand in for "plane" to more players than a lot of other aircraft, particularly the better-known German designs.

Anyway, graphics aside, cards have a value from 1 (worst) to 5 (best), with the lower-value cards being much more common that the higher value. All suits have the same mix, which at the present state of testing is 6 of 1-value, 5 of 2-value, 4 of 3-value, 3 of 4-value, and 2 of 5-value.

On their faces, the cards are pretty simple, but the way cards get used in the game is pretty novel. Before starting, I’ll reveal a surprising feature of the physical design: the back of cards shows their suit:

North Center South Air

There is a lot about the way cards work. One of the most (to me) interesting things, is the way cards flow in the game. And that is what I thought I would share next.

Notionally, each player has 6 decks (Reserve, North, Center, South, Discard, and Rebuild) but at start, players have cards in only one of them: the Reserve deck, which is shuffled. This is as shown below:

Now, to conduct movement and combat operations, players need to draw cards from the North, Center, and South decks, depending on where the units are operating. (Units on the North front must draw from the North deck, Center from the Center deck, and of course South from the South deck.) However, when there are no cards in those decks, players draw cards one at a time from the reserve deck into the three front decks; cards of the North suit into the North deck, Center into Center, and South into South. Air cards can be placed into any of the three front decks as the player chooses.

It is important to understand that these are decks that players draw from, not hands that players choose from. And, as a side note, cards are added to decks on the top, and drawn from decks from the bottom: thus, for decks that don’t get shuffled (such as Front decks), cards are drawn in the same order they were added - First-in, First-out. Now, in some cases, players are just stuck with whatever card they draw; but in others, they can reject it and try again. (Sometimes with a limit on the number of tries, sometimes not.) And, when cards get used, sometimes they turn out to be "winners" and sometimes "losers", depending on the value of the card and circumstances. Higher value cards are more likely to be winners, and lower value cards losers, but not necessarily.

And this leads us to the next phase in card handling: cards that were rejected for use, and "loser" cards that were used, go onto the discard deck. "Winner" cards go onto the Rebuild deck. And so, as a consequence of operations, the next step of card flow is this:

Now, as you can see from the above, the general trend in a turn is for cards to migrate from a player’s Reserve deck, which tends to get smaller and smaller, into the Discard and Rebuild decks, which over the course of a turn tend to get larger and larger. Needless to say, it does not seem like this trend can continue this way indefinitely, and it does not. Eventually, the turn comes to an end, and a new turn starts. At that point, the cards move again, as follows:

This may not be what you expected. The decks for both players are shown above because in this phase, cards can and do move between the decks of the opposing players. (Arrows are shown only movements towards our own deck, but the same type of movements are occurring in the opposite direction - from our deck to our opponent’s deck.)

One movement is that each player gets, in its entirity, all the cards in his opponent’s Discard deck added to his Reserve Deck. This is done automatically: the only element of player choice was when players acted to put cards on their discard decks the previous turn, which they did knowing that those cards would go to the opposing player in the next turn.

Cards can also move from the Rebuild decks to the Reserve decks, but players have to pay for these with production points. The decks are shuffled before purchases are made, so players cannot be sure what cards they will be buying - and since draws are off the bottom of the deck, they only know the suit of the topmost card they buy; the others are unknown. Players can buy from the opposing player’s Rebuild deck as well as their own, but cards purchased from the opponent’s deck come at a price premium.

And with the movement of cards back to the Reserve deck where they started, we’ve pretty much closed the whole circle-of-life thing: so at this point, you know pretty much how card flow works in the game, but you don’t necessarily know why the system is designed to work the way it does. But that’s a big enough topic that I think I’ll save it for another day.

14 May, 2020

Long time, no see.

So, what’s the deal? Stavka is the deal. It’s been an intense couple of months of work, and I thought I would share what I’ve been up to. It’s a lot, and I’m not going to try to cover it all today, but let’s start with the current draft of the mapboard, which you can see below:

(Click on the image to open it in its own window.)

Because it has been a very long time, and I am sure nobody remembers it, let’s take a look at the original version:

The baseline artwork for the physical geography really hasn’t changed significantly. What has changed is the regulatory point-to-point movement network overlaid on top of it. That is radically different. One important difference is density. The new network has about 10 times as many points as the old. Below is a detailed view showing the difference:

Old New

If we look, we can see that for this area old map only has four points on it - the colored squares are terrain penalties; not positions units can occupy. The new map, showing the same area, has over 60. And the difference isn’t really linear. Suppose that this area of the map had two units on it - one German and one Soviet. There would be (in theory) 12 different possible positional combinations on the old map, while the new map would have somewhere above 3600 possible combinations. Of course, only some combinations would be plausible in terms of game play, but that applies with equal force to both.

But in addition to the fact that the old map didn’t really have a lot of possible positions on it, there is a second issue with it, that was at least as important in terms of its consequences:

The Old Stavka Grid The Chessboard Grid

Sitting in the heart of the game board for Stavka was a grid. It is a little harder to see than the Chessboard grid, because of the wavy lines and occasional deviations, but that’s basically a 6x6 rectangular grid. Of course, a square grid isn’t itself a problem in a game design, as Chess shows, but what it means is that the same sort of positional geometry repeats itself again and again, all over the Stavka board. The danger of it is stereotyped play, where the same tactical options repeat themselves over and over all over the map.

Of course, Chess has a grid. And while Chess certainly has "book" solutions for some positions, Chess play as a whole is not at all stereotyped. Why is that? There are two reasons: (1) variety in playing pieces, and (2) non-localized play. While the Chess board lacks variety, the piece composition does not: there are six different types of pieces, with widely varying abilities: the consequences of a piece in a square vary enormously depending on what type of piece it is, so the combinatorial possibilities are far wider than the square grid alone would suggest. Non-localized play means that you can’t generally analyze a section of the Chessboard independently of the whole. Five of the pieces on each side can reach all the way across the board (the queen, two bishops, and two rooks) and always have to be considered, and two (the two knights) have a wide, if not global reach. Finally, the dangers of pawns queening mean that they always require careful attention: endgames often involve examining relationships between widely separated pieces, even if the pieces are only pawns and kings, the least-global pieces in the game.

Stavka, on the other hand, lacked both of the features of Chess that support a rich game on a simple board. First, Stavka really only two types of pieces (armor and infantry) and at the start it is pretty much German armor pieces and Soviet infantry. (The game’s front line largely abstracted away the German infantry and much of the Soviet infantry as well - pieces only represented mobile strike forces and reserves.) Stavka also had a fairly high degree of localization. When working on one end of the board (say, Leningrad) you really didn’t have to concern yourself with the details of what was going on in remote areas: those might have strategic consequences, but they weren’t tactically important. So, just in terms of the positional play, the game was quite prone to stereotyping, where the same tactics would just repeat themselves, over and over again, in different areas of the board and in different turns.

of course, just because the board and piece design didn’t offer much richness didn’t in itself mean that the game as a whole couldn’t be a rich game - there are games that are extremely rich that don’t even have boards or pieces:

Bridge Poker

And, as it happens, from the first I did intend to use card play as part of Stavka - but by putting so little game play value into the map and pieces (not intentionally regarding the map - it fell out as a consequence of other decisions I had made) I was throwing almost the entire burden of making the game fun onto the card play. I didn’t just need card play to be part of the game: to a very considerable extent, I had left myself in a situation where card play either was the game, or there really wasn’t much of a game. And that was not something I had meant to do. And did I even want to try to design a great card game? Why include an expensive and space-consuming board for a game that at its core is a card game?

What it all came down to was that Stavka, as originally conceived, just wasn’t making a lot of sense. I couldn’t see a way forward with the fundamental design decisions I‘d made. And so, for years, I did nothing with the design. It was really only late in 2019 that I took another look at it at all. Then some personal stuff happened that kept me busy, then a global pandemic hit, and that was a distraction too. But anyway, I took another go at the design starting a couple months ago, threw out some of the earliest decisions, and since then ideas have flowed fast.

And for now, I’m going to leave it at that, saving the rest for another blog entry.