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8 August, 2020

So, having started playtesting with the actual physical pieces, I’ve started revising the rules as I find problems and/or come up with ideas on how to improve the design in one way or another. And so, let’s do another round of rules with commentary.

(By the way, in case you’re wondering why I do these, in part it is because I hope at least somebody will find them interesting, and in part because every time I do one, I see a rules problem I need to fix or an improvement I can make. Between the time I start one of these entries and publish it, I will have typically made 10 to 20 rules changes of varying levels of importance.)

Rules Text Commentary

There are some terms in a game you need to define because they are the names of visible or tangible things in the game, like regulatory items on the mapboard, or game pieces. But there are other things you define because doing so makes the rules easier to understand, so you don’t have to keep stating the definition over and over again, but instead can just state the name. The latter type of term can be quite fluid during rules editing, and can come and go and change as the rules are revised. And “breakthrough path” is a definition of that type.

Formerly, “breakthrough path” was defined to include the position the breakthrough unit occupies. Now it does not. In some game systems, this was done to deliberately produce a change in the game play, while in others it was just for clarity.

Oh, I should also mention that in the current text the formal definition and the example have both been made stronger and clearer as to which exactly which positions and routes were and were not part of the breakthrough path. By circling the path positions in the example, for example, I made it clearer that neither the last position in friendly territory nor the current unit position are part of the path. Good to be clear about these things, to prevent the players from experiencing what in computer graphics is called “endpoint paranoia” - that uneasy feeling of not being sure when the software renders a line as to whether the start and end points will be rendered as part of the line or not.

So, before there was a 6-step procedure that ended Economic Phase production called “War Deck Transfers”. It was giving me a headache.

One reason was that the order of the steps was often arbitrary – an order was specified but didn’t always have a logical reason behind that order – some steps could be reversed and it would make no difference. This made it hard for the players to learn. A second, more worrisome reason was that depending on which player went first, it could give quite different results. Which I very much did not want. It added yet another wrinkle that made it hard for me to feel I really understood how production would behave in all game circumstances. And some of the differences I very much did not want to happen.

The resolution of this problem you see to the left. Three of the steps remained in the Economic Phase, renamed “Card Transfers”, while the other other three got moved to the end of the turn, in the Adjustment Phase, in a new procedure called “Card Deck Adjustment”. I think that each three-step sequence is logical, and thus easy to understand and learn, and produces no unwanted differences in behavior depending on player order.

So, “Yay, me!” Another problem solved. As always, on to the next one.

Ready to learn about supply? No? Well, here’s the great thing about this: you can stop reading at any time.

So, in early drafts the supply rules were a nightmare. They sprawled across 4 different rules sections, had multiple repetitions and just enough small differences between different supply states to be confusing without being important. Much of the work since then has focused on fewer states, fewer differences between states, and a more compact, less repetitive presentation.

And so, there are four supply states. Probably the only one the existence of which will in any way surprise is “limited supply”. The others are, I think, pretty much what you’d expect for a game on this subject.

A pretty ho-hum rule. The only thing of interest is that the supply path includes both endpoints. Ready to move on? Me too.

Sometimes you do things because the alternative is an unnecessary complication. And so we see here. Historically, on what would be the last turn of the game in mid-1945, the German supply source as defined here would be under the control of the advancing armies of the Western Allies. But I did not deem it necessary to take that into account for two reasons:

First, it is difficult to say what the effects would be of different what-if game play Eastern Front results would have had on the rate of advance of the British and Americans.

Second, positing such hypotheticals isn’t important for the game. If the Germans still have something to defend on the last turn, the game is over and the Soviets have lost.

(Which doesn’t mean that the Germans have won – the game actually has three outcomes: German Victory, Soviet Victory, and Western Allied victory. The last of these is basically a victory for the German player. Reflecting my views of history, the game is being designed with a conceptual baseline of 50% Soviet victories, 35% Western Allied victories, and 15% German victories. To be honest, however, I think a lot of those German “victories” would have meant Germany getting hit with nuclear bombs, so there’s that.)

Anyway…

So, here we get an explanation as to how to tell if a unit qualifies for full vs. limited supply. Of course, it doesn’t (yet) explain what the consequences are of the distinction, but you gotta start somewhere. Now, as it happens, I could reverse the order of cause and effect in the rules, and explain the effects of the different states before I explain the causes of those states.

At some point, I think I will try that reversal and see if it makes the rules better, worse, or about the same. Seems like something I should try.

Anyway, the Kerch Strait is a giant pain in the ass. Originally, I tried treating it as a kind of sea supply, but that didn’t work well. Next, I tried to make it its own special supply state (“Kerch Strait supply”), and that was even worse. Eventually, it got merged with another supply state, which was originally called “Disrupted supply” to form what you see here: “Limited supply”. Mostly, the merger smooths things out, but honestly this still has rough areas that could use work.

Anyway, the whole point of what was formerly “Disrupted supply” was to take into account the disruption to planning, logistics, and control caused by a massive, deep incursion of enemy forces into the friendly rear and prevent units in the game from being able to ignore such problems, particularly to launch their own offensives as though everything to their own rear was just fine.

And speaking of the Kerch Strait, this rule is basically dedicated to identifying the damn thing, which not only has consequences for land supply, as explained above, but also for sea supply, which we haven’t even gotten to yet.

I am wondering if the little red circle in the illustration shouldn’t be bigger. Less precise location vs. easier to see approximation? The current version might not be the right balance.

Holy smokes: sea supply. Part of it anyway.

Now, in terms of pure game play, if I could choose, I would leave all this out, like Avalon Hill’s Stalingrad did. But, even I, committed as I am to making sure a simulation game functions as a game first, and simulation second (and make no mistake, those are my priorities) couldn’t bring myself to do that.

I will talk about the simulation priorities and the complexities shortly, but this section of the rules is really only concerned with getting decent rules for what constitutes a supply path for sea supply. That is, it has three parts: from the position being supplied to the source port, a body of water by which the supplier could move supplies, and a source port from which supplies could be shipped.

Keeping this manageable required cannibalization of part/all of the supply path rules from full supply, which you can see done here. In the older versions of sea supply, this wasn’t done, and a large complexity savings was achieved by said cannibalization.

So, what are the simulation functions of sea supply? In order of importance, they are: (1) The Siege of Leningrad, (2) the Kurland Pocket, (3) The Siege of Sevastopol (first siege anyway, I could honestly skip the second if it came down to it), and (4) the Siege of Odessa.

These involved supply over three bodies of water, with very different circumstances as a result. The Siege of Leningrad actually involved “sea supply” by the Soviets over an intermittently frozen Lake Ladoga, which had its own weird and idiosyncratic small-craft naval actions, akin to the War of 1812 on the Great Lakes. (Though in latter war, the ships got so large that they were on the scale of the largest naval vessels, which did not happen on Lake Ladoga, although picturing vessels the size of the Iowa class battleships on a lake does have a certain imaginative appeal.)

Where was I? Oh, yes. The Kurland Pocket was supplied over the Baltic, where in spite of the Soviets having at least nominally competitive navy to the Germans, in fact were utterly outclassed, leaving the Baltic as more or less a German lake almost to the end of the war.

Sevastopol and Odessa were supplied over the Black Sea. Initially, the Soviet Navy was more than capable of handling the small navies of Germany’s allies, Romania and Bulgaria, but things got bad once the Soviets lost Sevastopol as they had no other port remotely capable of maintaining their fleet and it rapidly deteriorated. The Germans in turn were able to, for a time, supply Sevastopol themselves once the Soviets re-took the Crimea, but found it too expensive to merit continuing and abandoned the port.

So, the main abstraction is that the bodies of water and the ports on them are organized into 4 zones, each of which is restricted as to which army can use it for sea supply. (I threw in the Caspian Sea, although it wasn’t used historically, because of course it might be used in the game, and so rules should exist for it.) To help jog the players’ memories, I provided custom versions of the port symbols that indicate who can use what port.

And here we clean up a couple of sea supply loose ends.

The first of these is to explain the pivot of sea supply in the Black Sea: control of Sevastopol. It is, to be sure, something of a simplification, but it does have the effect of giving the players a reason to think about Sevastopol, which they otherwise would not. I admit that I am trying hard not to be sucked any deeper into a naval game than I absolutely have to be, and this rule reflects that.

The second isn’t even so much a rule as a direct message to the players as to how to supply Leningrad by sea if besieged (and, at the same time, how to cut off supply to Leningrad if besieged.) I also spend so much time working on the route map east of Leningrad to make sure that in both game and simulation terms all of this more or less worked. If I haven’t made any mistakes, there should be an interesting little mini-game up there waiting to be discovered.

And, now, at last, we come to the end of our little journey through the Stavka supply rules.

There is an intentional redundancy here in that all of this is also present in other sections, but I felt that players really could benefit from a repetition where they could find the effects for a particular type of supply all in one place. It isn’t necessarily the easiest place in the rules to understand them, because it most concerns effects in systems that have not yet been explained, so it is mostly for reference. But I’m sure players will get something out of the presentation here regardless.

There are no special rules for full supply because that is the default state for the rules: they assume full supply unless specified otherwise.

Limited supply is basically a condition of full combat defensive power, but with a loss of offensive power and reduced strategic mobility.

Sea supply has the same effects as limited supply, with the added requirement that the units be maintained (which readers of the rules should already know since that was explained in the previous section).

Out of supply means you’re going to die soon unless you get out of it.

6 August, 2020

So the pieces showed up yesterday afternoon! Pics first, commentary afterwards:

So, first, this is what I call “the Big Board Version”. The game was originally designed (way back in the day) as 22"x 34". However, that was also when the game was conceived as having a much, much sparser grid than it currently has. I’ve strongly suspected for some time that those dimensions would prove too small for the game as it currently is designed, and, having finally gotten a full set of production pieces on the board, those suspicions were found correct. The version photographed is substantially larger: 30"x 42". This is not quite as large as Napoleon’s Triumph, which was 34"x 44", but it’s a pretty large surface nevertheless. Probably we’re looking at two boards, each 30"x 21"

The increase in the board size also means a longer front, which means more front-line pieces. I think my original planned quantity was marginal for even the small board and would have had to have been increased; for the big board, there is no question of it. I don’t think I will need more of the other kinds above what was already planned. (I think I had planned for more breakthrough markers than were actually needed for the small board; the big board just absorbs the excess.)

I do think that Stavka because of the variety of piece designs was already headed into the premium game category (like Napoleon’s Triumph), and the larger board size just confirms it. I think that’s ok, as long as the value proposition is there and the players feel like they’ve gotten a premium game. And I feel pretty good about that right now.

I have learned some things about the piece designs.

The front dividers are too small; they should be twice as wide as they are. Also, the absence of any visual contrast with the front line pieces is bad. I am considering color options, but might go with a dark gray, different enough from the black of the front-line pieces to be visually distinct, without being too loud.

The tolerances on the front line pieces pegs and sockets are too tight. I was within theoretical design spec, but the rough surface of 3D printing is prone to producing friction, and as produced, the fit was too tight. (The good news is that I was able to loosen them up acceptably just by rotating the pieces back and forth; so I won’t need to re-order these pieces.) The plastic pieces won’t have the surface problem, but from my experience with the current pieces, it is imperative that the peg and sockets be friction-free, and so I will enlarge the socket even for them. Better by far too have them a little too loose than to have any friction all on on peg insertion or rotation.

The breakthrough pieces are indeed tippy. Not unacceptably so, but not optimal either. In a typical turn, I find that I'm tipping a couple over by accident on a regular basis. This isn’t horrible, but none of the other pieces ever tip over. Otherwise, they’re working well. More mass at the base might help, but plastic isn’t heavy no matter what, and the fundamental problem isn’t weight distribution, it’s that it’s a tall piece on a narrow three-point base, so the margin for balance is narrow.

The first shakedown playtests have also taught me a lot about the rules and game mechanisms. But I think I’m going to save that discussion for another day and get this entry out there.

4 August, 2020

So, I’m going back to Stalingrad again for another design discussion, but this time instead of talking about graphic design, as I had previously, I want to talk about the question of the particular appeal of Stalingrad. What made it stand out among other games of its generation? Basically, what made it a good game?

Let’s start by looking at this Soviet starting set-up, which is an example of expert position design for the game. (At least it is if I copied it right – I did not design it; I was never the calibre of Stalingrad player who could have come up with this.)

The first thing I would call your attention to is its lack of uniformity. Of the front-line hexes (those to which the Germans could move adjacent to in the first German turn) 5 hexes are empty, 4 contain a single unit, 7 contain 2 units, and 1 contains 3 units. Among the hexes with 1 unit there is one duplication (the two 2-3-6 sacrificial lambs), and among those with 2 units there is 1 semi-duplication (the stack with two 4-6-4's is a semi-duplicate of the hex with a 4-6-6 and a 4-6-4). There are no duplicates among the rest. Further, the semi-duplicate turns out not to be an effective duplicate because one is protected by defensive doubling and the other is not.

This lack of uniformity is also present in the counter mix. Even if we ignore attack strengths and movement allowances, there is quite the variety of units present. There are three units with a defense strength of 3, eight units with a defense strength of 6, nine units with a defense strength of 7, one unit with a defense strength of 9 and two with a defense strength of 10. In this context, it is worth noting that in Stalingrad stacks are not unitary: individual units within a stack can be individually attacked within a stack. Putting two 2-3-6 units together in a hex is not the same as having a 4-6-6 in that hex.

An additional game play complication in Stalingrad is an attacker must attack all adjacent enemy units, which allows a unit to be indirectly strengthened by the units around it. If, an attacker, you want to attack enemy unit A, you may find yourself forced to attack units B,C,D,E and F as well in order to be able to do it. Unit A might be an attractive target in isolation, but can become prohibitively expensive to attack because of the units around it.

And then, of course, there is terrain. Many positions are doubled because of the rivers, but only if attacked from specific directions. The defense is thus not a straight line from one map edge to the other, it instead needs to follow the terrain to maximize its strength. Some hexes need to be avoided even though they would reduce the length of the front line because they are too exposed to occupy. The fact that Stalingrad has “hard” zones of control interacts with this in interesting ways. You do not necessarily need to occupy a hex to defend it – you can instead defend it just by occupying adjacent hexes, letting your zones of control keep the attacker out of it.

The bottom line is that really understanding a Stalingrad position, how best to defend it and how best to attack it, is a complex undertaking that requires careful consideration of every hex and which units (if any) are best to put into it. A change of a single unit in a single hex can have ripple effects on how to arrange the other units in both directions along the line. Vulnerabilities can exist which are quite hard to see because they depend on specific combinations of attacking units attacking from specific hexes. Stalingrad has an extensive history of published defensive lines widely thought to be sound turn out to have unnoticed vulnerabilities that could be exploited, requiring substantial re-evaluations of the entire defense as a result.

And thus, Stalingrad always remains capable of tactical interest in a way that not a lot of games do.

Having looked at Stalingrad from 1963, let’s look at a game that goes in a very different direction tactically, SPI’s War in the East, which was published in 1974.

Because War in the East is so long, and undergoes a number of major changes in unit mix, selecting a single representative image isn’t really possible. What we’re seeing here is basically a tactical target the Soviets are trying to hit in 1942, which tends to be the game’s decisive year. (Back when I played the game, literally decades ago, I don’t remember achieving this much in 1942; I mostly remember having had to make due with more vulnerable 4-4 infantry corps rather than the 5-5 infantry corps shown in the illustration.) Compared with our Stalingrad illustration, War in the East’s most striking tactical element is its uniformity: every front-line hex is the same. It is important to understand that this is not some idiosyncratic choice of an individual player; it is baked into the design. To see this, look at the designer’s model production program below:

Time Tracks Each turn represents a week, so the proposed schedule basically consists of 3 types of units for the first 18 months or so of the game. (The 8-6 armor units shown take a long time to build; they won’t come off the line until after the summer of 1942 is over.) The Soviets will have 1-4 infantry units (which convert tactically to 0-3-0 fortifications), 5-5 infantry, and 0-1-10 anti-tank brigades. (My having 4-4 infantry instead of 5-5 infantry was the result of my not having enough time and production to complete them as 5-5 infantry, and so I had to rush them into the field while they were still 4-4 infantry, not because I was attempting anything significantly different than this.)

I mention that the uniformity was designed-in enables us to discuss the above tactical situation as an intentional design feature of the game, rather than as a hypothetical or an accident. What we are seeing is not only intentional, it is more than that, it is largely forced. The production limits and rules, combined with the counter-mix and tactical rules, leave only minor variations as viable alternatives. This is how you play the game.

To be sure, it isn’t entirely as simple as the above. In a real game there would have been reserves behind this line that would vary from game to game, but their purpose would have been to basically repair any damage the Germans might inflict on the above. More, deeper lines of fortifications would be built to maintain a wall infront of the Germans, and new 5-5 infantry and 0-1-10 anti-tank units would be moved in and/or built to replace any lost. No matter what the Germans might do offensively, the Soviet tactical defensive response must be more of the same as the above, as they literally don’t have the units to do anything else, the only difference being doing it a little further back.

There is another tactical imperative in War of the East that is less obvious: the need to maintain a straight line within the hex grid. I do not believe the designers intended this; I think it was a side effect of other design decisions they made overlaid on the basic geometry of a hexagonal grid. The thing about a hexagonal grid is that straight lines are possible only at angle increments of 60°. So aligned, a given hex in a defensive line can only be attacked from two adjacent hexes. Any angle other than increments of 60° produces jags in the line, where a defensive hex is exposed to attack from three adjacent hexes, the worst case being at 30° off the 60° optimum, in which every other hex is exposed to attack from three adjacent hexes.

But, you might observe, Stalingrad has the same geometry: wouldn’t this mean it has the same problem? No; not to the same degree. This is where the specific design choices in each game come in. In Stalingrad, all adjacent hexes have to be attacked, but in War in the East they do not. This weakens (though by no means eliminates) the effect of the orientation of the hex grid through mandated “soak-off” attacks against recessed hexes, diluting the strength that can be directed in a main attack against a forward hex. We can see this in the illustrations below:

Stalingrad War in the East

In War in the East, though not in Stalingrad, a jag in the line results in the ability of three hexes of units to attack one at full strength. The defender who doesn’t straighten his own line is likely to find his opponent straightening it for him, through a series of high-odds attacks that rolls up his line, hex by hex, turn by turn.

The absence of any need for soak-off attacks has another consequence in comparing the two games: in Stalingrad, you can strengthen a defense of a more lightly held hex by putting strong units in adjacent hexes; since those units have to be attacked, they draw off attack strength that would otherwise target the lightly held hex. This is one of the things that makes the different parts of a Stalingrad defense interlock and protect each other. Defenses in War in the East just don’t do that: unlike Stalingrad, each hex in War in the East is defensively atomic: nothing can be done in adjacent hexes to make it any stronger.

In sum, Stalingrad may be a simple game, but it is pretty rich in features that give it a high level of tactical interest. War in the East, well, just doesn’t have those features and tactically just isn’t generally interesting as a result. In Stalingrad, each front-line hex is a unique problem that requires a solution specific to that hex.

War in the East just isn’t that way. It is much more about having a set of “tactical systems” that you apply on different sections of the front at different times in the game. So interest tends to be much more strategic, in building out the forces you need to implement the different systems and in the development of the details of the systems themselves. Because the game’s enormous size and length, I think tactical simplicity was not in and of itself bad, as it helps to keep the game’s pace up. I do think that its inability to tolerate anything other than straight front-lines on the hex grid is just bad, as is having the tactical systems being so heavily forced by the design, without much in the way of opportunities for player customization.

So, does this mean that War in the East is a bad game? No. Things can get complicated when you go from specific criticisms of aspects of the game (like the above) to global judgments of the game as a whole. In my teens, I played a lot of hours of War in the East. There aren’t a lot of games (maybe no games) that I played for that many hours. It wasn’t like a games I set up, played a couple of hours, and then set aside in boredom (or still, worse, active dislike), never to take it out again. So, from that perspective, it can’t be considered “bad” in the sense as those games. But will I ever play it again? No. In at least one way it is simply broken, and too many elements feel more like following a script than playing a game.

But once upon a time, I did play it. And it was definitely a gaming experience I won’t forget. And I can’t say that about a lot of the games I played in those days that were less broken and less scripted. And so, overall, I find War in the East easy to critique yet hard to summarily judge.

Anyway, that’s it for now. A full set of Stavka sample pieces for playtesting are supposed to show up tomorrow. That is something I am definitely looking forward to.

2 August, 2020

So, I thought I would do some more Stavka rules commentary, picking up where the last one left off.

At the end of the prior entry, we went through the process by which a player calculated his production card output. (To give you an idea of the sort of numbers we’re talking about, in the game, for the first German turn of production this will generally be 6, and for the Soviets 10.)

This sequence picks up from there, and covers the process by which a player rebuilds his War deck from the prior turn’s activities.

Rules Text Commentary

To start, the player shuffles his production deck. During the prior turn, the cards a players successfully used (generally high-value cards) will have been put in his production deck. If he was very active, he will have added a lot of cards to the deck; if not, only a few or even none. This shuffle sets up a transfer of cards from his production deck to his war deck. It is entirely possible for a player to have added more cards to his production deck than he now recovers, and so is accumulating high-value cards in his production deck, leaving fewer and fewer high-value cards in his war deck. This is not really sustainable and periods of lower activity will be eventually required so that the war deck can be rebuilt.

If a player taps out his production deck and can’t draw as many cards from it as he is entitled to (very possible), he can draw cards instead from his opponent’s war deck. The Soviets have high production and, early on in the game, few successes resulting in cards being added to his production deck, so very often he will draw from the German war deck to make up the difference

Next in the sequence, the player transfers the enemy discard deck to his war deck. The more active the enemy has been, the more cards will be transferred, but these will almost all be low-value cards. In this way, low-value cards tend to move back and forth between the two players.

Next, the player transfers his alt deck (which is basically just an extension of the war deck) to his war deck. The purpose of this lies in the next and final step of this sequence, shuffling the war deck. By adding the alt deck back in first, all the war deck cards get shuffled together.

At the end of production, a player will have added cards to his war deck. During “Expenditures” he uses them to maintain and strengthen his army.

A long-running design problem has been ensuring that the game behaves well when card distribution between the players is highly imbalanced. A particular concern has been that over time that the Soviets, with their high production rate, not be able to vacuum up all the cards, destroying the German army just through the mechanics of card play, without actually even needing to defeat them on the map. Some production phase sequences could produce exactly that effect, and avoiding it has been a headache. Honestly, I’m not certain that even now it is right; it would not surprise me at all if playtesting revealed problems here I need to address.

This sequence is actually fairly straightforward, with only two things I want to discuss.

The first is the cadres-on-the-time-track thing. Building up armies take time as well as resources, and this is signified by cadres being placed on the time track, creating a delay between when they are paid for and when they become available to enter play.

The second is the split between declarations and execution. There are two reasons for this: the first is to allow payment to be calculated and made in a single transfer, rather than as a series of small transfers (which would reveal the suits of the cards being paid for, which I do not wish), and to allow a graceful way to recover should it turn out that the player does not have enough cards to pay for all his expenditures.

This is the cost schedule for maintenance. There isn’t anything really complicated here. The number of units in the game is low, so there is little effort required to count them and determine how much is owed.

There may be a slight surprise that armor is cheaper than infantry, but this is because the armor units in the game are much smaller, with perhaps a quarter the manpower.

The most striking thing (perhaps the only striking thing) about the maintenance cost schedule is that it exists at all. Wargames with production models tend to have costs for building units, but not for maintaining them. The reason is basically just that it is mechanically difficult when you have a large number of pieces. But allowing units to exist at no cost creates the threat of runaway production, where armies keep getting ever stronger because there is nothing in the model to restrain their growth.

This section describes the consequences of not paying for maintenance, which a player may not be able to do or may choose not to do.

Unmaintained units simply become cadres, which the player can later build-up back into units. This can be done for any unit, but is far more likely to be done for infantry, which is more expensive to maintain and less offensively effective.

In principle, a player can choose to not maintain a front, but the consequences could be quite dire for the cost savings.

The rule for sea supply is something of a forward reference problem in the rules. Sea supply isn’t really explained until the next section, but in terms of the overall rules flow, it makes more sense to order the sections this way and accept the forward reference as a cost for doing so.

Front-line strengthening is a fairly late addition to the design. It’s gone from being not part of the design at all, to being in it but so expensive to make it an option of last resort, to having a reasonable cost for what it provides. The cost is the same as maintaining an infantry unit, but an infantry unit has more combat power. The advantage of front strengthening vs. an infantry unit is that although it provides less combat power, it provides it over a larger area.

This section shows the card costs for building cadres and for building up cadres into units. What you can’t see here directly is that combat can cause units to be either reduced to cadres or eliminated, the latter occurring when units are eliminated in pockets. When reduced to cadres they can be brought back into play both faster and more cheaply than if eliminated, especially for the Germans, reflecting their general manpower shortage and the greater damage done by the loss of the entire nucleus of experienced officers and soldiers that would otherwise be the foundation for rebuilding the unit.

This section seems to be about where units come back, but more substantially about when. A newly built cadre goes on the time track, reflecting a delay as to when it can come back into play, and the fact that units have to be placed in production cities implicitly means another delay in moving them to where they are actually needed. (Excepting, of course, the unhappy situation where the production city is where they are needed.) In principal there are also limits as to the number of units that can be built in a turn, but this limit shouldn’t normally cause significant difficulty.

The infantry limits are fairly generous. Neither army is likely to build out the maximum number of infantry units permitted. The Germans are at their armor limit at the start of the game. Even keeping their existing armor fully operational is a challenge for the Germans: armor is cheap to maintain but expensive to actually use, as we will see once we reach the military phase rules.

The Soviet armor limit is a whole ’nother deal. The Soviets had no difficulty building tanks, but had very considerable difficulty developing the ability to carry out the complexities of mobile warfare, and it is that learning curve that sets the limit on the number of armor units the Soviets can have. Mechanically, this is represented not by the game’s economic system, but by is instead abstracted as part of the rules for theStavka Reserve Deck, described in a later section of the game rules.

This is pretty straightforward. But it does have one feature of interest, and that is cards used for payment are transferred to the enemy Alt deck, which means that they will be (in theory) available for play by the enemy this turn, as the Alt deck becomes the War deck any time the War deck is empty. Having them go on the Alt deck is quite a recent change – formerly they were placed on the Discard deck, which still would have sent them to the enemy War deck, but only after a one turn delay. The reason for the change was I was nervous about taking substantial numbers of cards out of play each turn, especially in terms of how it would affect edge conditions where one army was very low on cards.

So anyway, this brings us to the end of the rules on the game’s economic system. In terms of complexity (or lack thereof) and speed of play, I’m pretty happy with them. But they make me extremely nervous. There are multiple potential problem areas:

On the positive side, the system is rich in “magic numbers” I can change: the composition of the card deck, the number of production cities, the costs for building and maintaining units, and how cards move between decks. All of these are places I can make adjustments as needed to try to produce the required behavior. So, if I have lots of uncertainties still, I also have lots of time to find problems and lots of methods I can use to resolve them. So, cross my fingers and hope for the best.

And with that, I think I’m going to let you go. Til next time!

31 July, 2020

So, a couple entries ago I did a thing with the board for Avalon Hill’s old Stalingrad game. I enjoyed the exercise and thought it allowed me to discuss some interesting topics, so I thought I would go back to the well for some more.

John Cooper Map Commentary

Now, this is not my artwork at all. It was done for online play and is credited to John Cooper. (If you’ve played the game on Vassal, I believe this map will be familiar to you.)

Now, first it is of course a total re-work with the primary goal being aesthetic. And it has lots of nice touches towards that end. But there are some functional changes as well, and I thought I would discuss them in the context of the functional improvement areas I described in my essay on the subject.

Its first functional enhancement is one I didn’t even suggest, but should have. He added id numbers to all the hexes, which I did not even think of, but should have, especially since Stalingrad has an old, long literature using them.

He further used the absence of numbers to indicate sea hexes that cannot be entered, but left the hexes in place, which I thought undesirable. He did, however, entirely remove the hexes for Sweden and Turkey as well as all the partial hexes around the edges.

The removal of numbers from sea hexes did provide a basis for differentiating lakes that freeze from open water that does not freeze. The distinction is subtle (frankly, over-subtle, I think), but it is there. No such differentiation, however, is provided for rivers and swamps that freeze vs. those that do not.

Another thing which I had noted but not actually bothered to draw up was to extend the mountain terrain all the way to the edges of the hexes, which I think he manages well. Oddly, however he chose to not to not extend rivers through cities, which I find difficult to characterize as anything other than a mistake. Those rivers have effects on play; they can’t be deleted on aesthetic grounds alone.

Still, on balance it is an aesthetically pleasing update of the old map, and with a variety of useful functional improvements as well.

Functionally Improved Printed Map Commentary

Now we’re going to bounce back and talk about some possible functional improvements to the printed map. Again, we aren’t trying to do anything that would make it more expensive to print, nor are we seeking aesthetic improvements as such. We are just looking for graphical touches to make the game easier to play.

The main one we’re going for here is adding protected hexsides to selected hexes (hexsides shaded in blue, brown, or gray). They are, to be sure, a little hard to see clearly at this zoom level, so let’s present them more closely below:

The red arrows in each hex show the protected hexsides for that hex. The effects are as follows:

If all of the attacks against a unit are across protected hexsides of its hex, the defense factors of the unit are doubled.

This one rule replaces all of the game’s rules for terrain effects on attacks. It in no way changes game play; the combat effects are exactly the same as with the printed rules; it is only how those effects are conveyed to the player that is different.

Printed Terrain Defense Rules Commentary

The advantages of the graphically adding protected hexsides cannot be fully appreciated, I don’t think, without considering what is being replaced by it. Which is the block of rules to the left.

It is important to understand that the rules to the left aren’t really rules at all in the sense of telling players what they can and cannot do when playing the game. They are instead an algorithm for determining whether a defending unit in some hex will have its defense factors doubled.

What is important to understand about this algorithm is that for any given combination of hexes on the map, it will always yield the same answer. As such, the answer doesn’t have to be calculated by the players, it can instead be directly printed on the map.

To say the same thing another way, the algorithm should be taken as instructions for the graphic designer on how to mark up the map, not as instructions for the players on how to play the game. And that is how I have taken it. With the map properly marked up, the players do not need to know this algorithm.

When I say “graphic designer” as as opposed to “graphic artist”, I want to emphasize the “design” aspect of the role as opposed to the “art” aspect. A game board is not only an aesthetic object, it is functional, it conveys information. And if it conveys it well, the design can make the game not only pleasing to the eye, but easier to learn and easier to play.

I’ve spoken, of course, as though the graphic designer is a separate person from the game designer, but honestly, more often than not, that will not be the case. A high-quality graphic design requires a level of understanding of the game and how it works, and often the only person with that level of understanding is the game designer. Doing graphic design in this sense is not about being an artist; the graphic designer and map artist don’t actually have to be the same person. What it instead requires is a way of thinking, of looking for opportunities to use graphical systems to clarify and even replace written rules and algorithms.

Anyway, that’s all for now. I enjoyed this little excursion into graphic design and Stalingrad, and hope it was of interest!

30 July, 2020

So, out of curiosity, I picked up a book.

Time Tracks

I honestly can’t tell you what I think, because I haven’t really been through it. I’m not sure yet how much time I will invest in it; I’m not the book’s target audience, so it isn’t clear how much of it would be of use or interesting to me. But, on starting it, I did come upon this, which is the basis of today’s blog entry:

“Once upon a time, one of us (George Phillies) had the good fortune to visit the greatest American board game designer, Sid Sackson, at his New York home. Sackson had by far the largest collection of traditional board games in the world (he did not collect board wargames). He estimated to me that he had 20,000 distinct titles. I can confirm that almost every room of his house was filled from floor to ceiling with games, including shelves in the middle of every room except the kitchen. He also had various game fragments, such as the cover of Race to the North Pole, a nineteenth-century game about a race to the North Pole via Montgolfier balloon. The collection was carefully organized, so that he could find whichever game he wanted almost immediately. Sackson’s game library was backed by a set of notebooks, so that when I described design elements of games from my board wargame collection, he rapidly inserted those details into a notebook and indexed them.

“Sid Sackson was the leading American designer of what we would now recognize as contemporary strategy games (“Eurogames”). An important part of his work was creative wisdom. An important part of his work was having immediately at hand examples of the solutions that every other game designer had found to design challenges. However, every reader does not have access to a game collection like Sackson’s.”

What struck me about this is that this basic idea of game design, of older games serving as basically a parts bin from which new games could be assembled, is exactly what I thought of as the foundation of my design process when I made my first professionally published game Thunder at Luetzen. TaL was a parts-bin game, with the most important contributors being SPI’s Napoleon at Waterloo-based games and Panzergruppe Guderian. And it was designed fast. From start to submission for publication I think it took maybe 2 months total. And other designs I created before then, for my own amusement, were similarly fast.

If you’re a publisher trying to crank out a lot of titles on a lot of subjects, like SPI back in the day, or (heaven help you) someone trying to earn a living as a game designer, the parts-bin approach to game design is actually fundamentally solid, and I don’t have any quarrel with it. Not all of your games will be winners, but the baseline quality should be pretty good, and sometimes you’ll get lucky and produce a memorable game, either because of a happy synergy of parts or just a well-chosen subject and concept. (SPI’s Battle for Germany broke no new ground at a game system level, but, man, was that ever a creative concept for the subject. Total respect.) And even parts-bin games needn’t be entirely a synthesis of old ideas. Any number of SPI games were mostly parts-bin games but still had some new ideas in them. A parts-bin approach doesn’t mean no creativity or innovation, it just means letting pre-existing systems do most of the work, reducing the number of new systems that have to be designed before getting the game out the door.

And, frankly, there are player benefits to the parts-bin approach as well. Once players have learned a system, they have learned it, and don’t have to re-learn it to play a new game that includes it. This can drastically reduce the amount of time players have to spend learning a game before they can play it, and also reduces the number of throw-away games wrecked by a misunderstanding of the rules. Finally, it also allows a much higher complexity ceiling than could otherwise exist. A game might have 30 pages of rules, but if the player already basically understands 25 pages of them before he even starts reading them, a game that might seem unlearnable approached cold can actually be no big deal for players already familiar with its parts.

So, the parts-bin approach has a lot of strengths and there are excellent reasons to use it.

Of course, I don’t use it. Not any more.

In many ways, Thunder at Luetzen and Bonaparte at Marengo are similar: they are both tactical Napoleonic games about a single battle. They have similar (though not identical) ground and unit scales. They are similar in complexity and playing time. They are even by the same designer, and were that designer’s first and second published games. By any normal standard, one would expect them to be closely related, probably just tweaked versions of the same basic system.

Of course, they are not. Not at all. In one sense, the differences are due to the fact that 20 years had passed between them. The person who designed the first was young and deeply invested in the wargaming world as it existed at that time. The person who designed the second was middle-aged, and deeply frustrated with the limits of that world. Before I designed BaM, I knew there was something I wanted to do, but I couldn’t even begin to articulate what it was, much less do it. I only knew that trying to build on the hex-and-counters foundation produced something that wasn’t it. The big breakthrough was when I decided I wanted to do something that looked like a 19th century Kriegspiel, with its rectangular wooden blocks. Everything I’v done since started there. Once you reject the physical foundations of wargames (hexagons and counters) you find that the parts in the wargames parts bin don’t really do much for you.

But it goes deeper than that. Knowledge of other games, far from being a help, can be the bane of my existence. At several times in the development of Stavka I wished I had never heard of Histogame’s Friedrich, because my ideas about card play kept falling into the Friedrich pattern, and that wasn’t the direction I was aiming to go. But Friedrich was there, and Friedrich worked and a lot of the stuff I was trying to do didn’t work at all. It was like I wanted to go north-east, but there was this terrific road – the Friedrich highway – that went east, and if I followed it I would go fast and make a lot of progress without a lot of effort. But I didn’t want to go east; I wanted to go north-east, even if north-east was all forests and swamps with nothing resembling a road, much less as terrific a road as the Friedrich highway.

But at the same time, it isn’t like I invent everything in my games myself. After all, I didn’t invent 19th century Kriegspiel, I didn’t invent point-to-point or area maps. I didn’t invent counters as used in Guns of Gettysburg, or even triangular counters. When I designed BaM, I knew of Quebec 1759; I didn’t invent using the 3-dimensionality of blocks to conceal unit strengths. (Whether I might have re-invented it once I chose to adopt Kriegspiel-style blocks I don’t know; but I do know that didn’t do it.) And the list can go on and on. My very concept of Napoleon’s Triumph was, compared with BaM to make it “less Chess, more Poker”. So, clearly, my work still has debts to other designs and other games.

So, given this, where is the line between what I do now and the parts-bin design I was using when I did Thunder at Luetzen? What has changed, really? I’m still using a lot of ideas from other games. Well, objectively, some things have clearly changed, and not always for the better. The idea of designing a new game in two months seems absurd now. Two years is a mark I have yet to hit using my current method. Design used to be smooth and fast, now it is full of dead-ends and explorations that go and on and that lead nowhere. Now, I end up with things like this:

Don’t recognize them? Those were card designs for The Guns of Gettysburg. But, you may think, GoG doesn’t have cards. Exactly. My work on them was a complete waste of time. (They are interesting to look at though, aren’t they? If you’re wondering what all that stuff means, beats me. It’s been years and I no longer have any idea.)

So, it seems there is a difference, but what shall we call my current process, what name shall we give it? How about the “train-wreck process”, because that honestly is what it feels like most of the time. So, what makes the train-wreck process different than the parts-bin process? (And why on earth would I keep using the train-wreck process knowing what I’m in for?)

The key difference, I suppose, is that in the parts-bin process I knew how all the major game systems were going to work before I even started the design. That’s what made it fast. In the train-wreck process, I generally have no idea, even when it seems I do: when I started Napoleon’s Triumph, I thought I knew (it was going to be BaM at Austerlitz) but that didn’t work out at all and I ended up staring at the wall for a couple of years trying to figure out a way to make the game work. When I started Guns of Gettysburg I had no idea – none – about how the map was going to work. And you’ve just seen the GoG cards. I had some ideas about Stavka but those ideas all crashed and burned and I redid everything – multiple times – before I was able to get the design to where it is now. (And it is still unfinished.)

So, it seems that there is nothing whatever to recommend in the train-wreck process. It is slow, painful, produces no certain results on no certain schedule, can wreck whatever self-esteem you may have, convince you that you’re an idiot twice over – once for even doing what you’re doing, and second for having made so many mistakes. So very, very many.

Except…

You can end up in some very interesting places at the end of it. And be glad you’re there. And I don’t think those are places you can reach with the parts-bin method. Not ever. So, that’s all I have to say for the train-wreck method, really. As much pain as it causes me (so, so much pain), at the end, it makes me glad to be where I am, and just plain glad to be alive.

And that is why I do it.

28 July, 2020

So, I thought today we might have a little fun with that old Avalon Hill chestnut, Stalingrad

Maps Commentary

So, what are we trying to do here anyway?

Well, what I thought I would do would be to try a little graphic design exercise. We aren’t going to change the rules, the pieces, or the terrain of the original game. We’re just going to give the map a minor facelift with the aim of improving playability.

To keep it interesting, we aren’t going to stray outside of the map’s color scheme or the various symbols used to indicate swamps or mountains: we aren’t going to add anything that would require additional color separations or plates, nothing that would add to the printing cost of the game. Our goal is not to make the game look better (or even look different in a way that would be immediately noticeable) but to make it play better. A little better, anyway. Same game, same basic artwork. Just a nip and tuck here and there.

So, what’s different?

Well, look at Sweden. See the hex grid? No? Bingo! It’s gone. The same with the hex grid for Turkey, the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. None of the removed hexes can be entered by a unit, nor are they needed for counting range or distance (as they might be in an air game), so, they don’t really have any reason to exist. They just add visual clutter and create uncertainty along the coast as to whether hexes might have tiny bits of land in them or not, and whether those tiny bits of land were printing errors, or actual land hexes in the game.

When I did this, I actually did find something perplexing. The rules forbid units from entering Turkey, but what that specifically means was left a little hazy. Turkey’s border doesn’t run between hexes, it runs through hexes, so when a hex has a bit of Turkey and a bit of another country in it, is moving into that hex forbidden or not? Is this an important question in the game? Nope. Anyway, I took a shot at resolving it. I seriously doubt that changes to my guesses would produce a game that played differently.

Well, they do say that everything looks better with a frame.

But our purpose here isn’t actually to improve the aesthetics of the game, it is to remove the ambiguous partial hexagons around the edges. Now most of the game’s map edges are pretty dead. But there is an exception: the northern map edge near Finland. That is very much in play, so the ambiguity there is annoying. So let’s get rid of it. We don’t want players arguing over whether or not units can enter them, or even scouring the rules to find out. (If they scoured the original 1963 rules, they would have found nothing; if they scoured the 1974 revised rules, they would have found that units cannot enter them.)

So in the end, the partial hexagons serve no useful purpose and are a source of potential difficulty for the players, so out they go.

One thing Stalingrad includes is a loose sheet with rules for the weather.

One of the things on that sheet is a description of the rivers, lakes and swamps that are frozen during snow months. But if there was ever a case in favor of the maxim, "Show, don’t tell", it is this. So, what we‘ve done is graphically differentiate between the seasonal features and the year-round features by adding white to the features that freeze during winter, so you can see at a glance which freeze and which do not.

Incidentally, if you have a good eye, you might have noticed that the White Sea (which is not named on the map) near the northern Soviet port of Archangel (which is named on the map) is not treated as ocean, but as a lake that freezes over during snow months. This was not specified in the 1963 rules, but was specified in the 1974 revision.

Because the map is greatly reduced, the frozen features are not as legible as they are at full size, but you can see that for yourself if you open the image in its own window.

Sometimes the line between the aesthetic and the functional can be a little unclear.

This map differs from the last in lightening Hungary, which was remarkably dark in the original map. The reason that it was darkened at all was because units aren’t permitted to enter it on the first turn. (There is a problem with the 1963 rules that the 1974 rules fixed; the 1963 version did not permit units of either side to enter Hungary until May 1942.) Anyway, I thought the darkness excessive

The above are the changes I’ve elected to show you, but by no means the only graphics adjustments that could be made. Here are a few more:

The purpose of all these notes is by no means to beat up on an old game. It is to discuss design and particularly how graphical design can produce a game that is simpler to learn, easier to play, and which requires less memorization by the players. I am very far from being inclined to mock Stalingrad as a game. As a designer, when I consider the amount of close, detailed scrutiny it has experienced by a large, intelligent, and active community of players, it makes me shudder. This sort of thing would have broken almost any wargame ever published, but Stalingrad was not only not broken, it even flourished. It remains playable, challenging, and full of interest. If I ever have a design that receives half the attention and comes through it half was well, it will be a very great pleasure to me.

Avalon Hill’s grand old lady may have her foibles, but she certainly deserves our respect.

26 July, 2020

So, more rules. This time, however, we are going to be talking much less about the problems of rules-writing as such, and much more about the content of the rules: what simulation and game problems they are trying to address, and how they are trying to address them. And with that, let’s get started.

Rules Text Commentary

The top-level sequence of play is super-basic. What is less basic is the fact that this top-level simplicity hides a lot of lower-level sequences. Because of Bonaparte at Marengo and Napoleon’s Triumph I gained an early reputation for designing luckless games. But I don’t think that’s the real through-line of my work. I think it is the way I design through procedures, particularly highly interactive procedures where the two players go back and forth frequently, like hitting a tennis ball back and forth across a net. None of the top-level phases in Stavka “belongs” to either player.

The upside is this design philosophy is that there are no long, boring periods where you just watch your opponent take his turn. The downside is that there is never time for you to take a bathroom break – you’re always going to need to do something in another minute or two, no matter where you are in the game.

I can’t say I’m fond of the “initiative” rule. It is a little too involved to figure out who has the initiative, and its use in determining who goes first in any given point in the game is too inconsistent. Sometimes the player with the initiative goes first, sometimes the player without the initiative goes first. I should really give this mess another look at some point. It is serviceable without being good the way it is.

This is exactly what it says. As a rule, it’s fine; I’m not sure where it really goes in the rule book though…

This is the first of the nested procedures, but it is far from the last. I‘vet ried flattening the top-level sequence of play to reduce the number of levels (replacing the “Economic Phase” with two phases, a “Production Phase” and “Expenditure Phase”, for example), but I haven’t really liked it any better. Maybe put the entire sequence of play in one place, but in an outline form? Might be better. I will play around with it some more.

This is another level of nested procedure. So, it’s “Sequence of Play” / “Economic Phase” / “Production” / “Production Output Calculation”. That’s a lot. Writing all this out like this has really convinced me that this is something I need to fix.

This is also me saturation bombing a paragraph with iconography. The second paragraph has 6 icons. There is a reason for them all, to be sure, but is it a good enough reason? That’s a question remaining to be settled.

The second paragraph here is also a pretty heavily iconographic, but I do think it has a good reason for being that way. It also is very straightforward in what it is saying. So I’m fairly happy with it.

This where we explain the concept of working, introduced but not explained above. So, the idea of turning enemy production cities into friendly production is the principle reason for all this. And that is only to try to make sense out of Hitler’s strategic war plans.

A frequent complaint of Hitler was that his generals didn’t understand economics. Which isn’t to say that Hitler was great at economics himself, but he was attending meetings and reading reports of the economic challenges facing Germany that his generals largely did not. Invading the Soviet Union was not, at root, an effort by Germany to defeat a rival power but to expand the base of the German economy.

And what we get into here is basically the problem of how realistic Hitler’s plans were. The answer (unsurprisingly) seems to be, “not very”. Yet if the game removes Hitler’s plans from even the possibility of success, that breaks the game as reflecting how Germany fought the war.

As a design problem, this is the “Picket’s Charge” problem from Guns of Gettysburg writ large. For that game to have even the possibility of a Pickett’s Charge, it had to be possible for it to work. It didn’t have to be likely, but it did have to be possible, or no Confederate player would ever attempt such a thing.

And in both cases, that is kind of the target that I’m aiming at: possible, even if not likely, so that in game terms, the historical plans don’t actually require something the game makes impossible for them to work. The game can’t rule out a priori the success of something so important to the historical subject.

Oh, as a final note? The token pairs thing. I love this as a solution to a problem I was wrestling with: tracking when cities would come back into production. One thing I was considering was markers with the names of the cities printed on them. But there were a couple problems with that: first, I would be adding die-cut cardboard to a game that otherwise didn’t have it, which seemed like production overkill for such a minor problem. Second, even if I did that, sorting through the markers to find the one you needed didn’t seem like fun. But marker pairs solve both problems. The markers can be generic off-the-shelf components, and finding two of the same color would be pretty easy.

So, oil is the only production resource in the game with a specific type. (I don’t otherwise distinguish between manpower, factories, steel, etc.) The basic design motive here was that oil was such a critical resource to the German war economy. Obtaining oil played a very large part in both Hitler’s motives for attacking the Soviet Union and for his strategy in how to fight that war.

To rationalize that, I felt I needed to make oil distinct from other resources. This is mostly in how quickly it can be flipped from Soviet to German use (3 turns instead of the usual 8) and because the sheer amount of production that could be obtained. The asymmetry in Soviet vs. German handling of oil is rooted in the fact that the German war economy was incredibly oil-constrained in a way that the Soviet economy was not. If the Germans had succeeded in starting large-scale production from the Caucasus oil fields it would have unlocked a lot of potential in their economy that otherwise could not be realized. The Soviet economy was not oil-constrained in the same way.

And so, the game is designed in such a way as to lure the Germans into attempting what they historically attempted. Is it likely to work? No, but honestly nothing they can do is likely to work: the fundamental economics of the situation are just too strongly against them. But it is possible. It could work. And if you look at the game from the German point of view, there is a lot of production in that part of the map just waiting to be flipped…

So, I mentioned fundamental economics as a problem for the Germans. And this is a game with two ticking clocks the Germans are fighting: This is the first, off-map Siberian production. Historically the Soviets had planned to relocate a lof of factories far into the interior in the event of war in order to preserve them against enemy invasion. (During the Russian Civil War, in which all of the Soviet leadership had participated, their territorial losses were huge but they still in the end prevailed. These were not people who were going to give up easily, no matter what Hitler thought.) As these factories came back online, which generally took place during 1942, the Soviet production advantage creates a widening gap over what the Germans were able to accomplish, especially given that German increases tended to be consumed by the ever-increasing scale of the war against Britain and America.

The other ticking clock was lend-lease. Not a great deal arrived in 1941, but the amount kept going up. There has been a lot of dispute over the importance of lend-lease, which is understandable in terms of the wide variety of items it included. I lean more towards that it was more important than less because of the extent to which it was almost a menu from which the Soviets could order to fix whatever shortfalls they might have, whether because of the disruption caused by the invasion or because of pre-existing shortages in the Soviet economy. This allowed the domestic Soviet economy to operate at high efficiency, without being handicapped by the constant shortages of different resources that plagued the German economy.

There were three major routes by which lend-lease reached the Soviet Union: the northern Arctic convoy route (by far the most famous), which was the Soviets most strongly preferred route because it delivered goods closest to where they were needed, the southern Iran route, which shipped goods up through Iran (a lot of by trucks, where the trucks themselves were part of the lend-lease deliveries), and the eastern Pacific route, which delivered goods by sea. This last is the least well-known, but in terms of tonnage was actually the most important route. The Soviet Union and Japan were not at war, and Soviet merchant ships could load up in America, cross the Pacific through the Japanese controlled waters, and deliver goods to Soviet ports. There was a constraint, however, in that Japan inspected the ships to ensure that they did not carry military goods (although air flights of military aircraft and with military cargo through Alaska could be made and were made). What could be shipped was food, raw materials, machinery, and petroleum products.

Anyway, the Pacific route was not really something the Germans could do anything about, but the Arctic and Iranian route were, at least potentially vulnerable to German army operations inside the Soviet Union, even if actually disrupting them was not something the Germans were ever able to really achieve. And so, the game includes a couple of lend-lease transit cities to serve as potential targets for German operations.

And with that, I think I’m going to close off this entry. Hope you enjoyed it, and until next time!

25 July, 2020

Hey, the new sample pieces are here! So how do they look? Pretty good. The surface roughness you see is an artifact of the 3D printing process and won’t be part of the production pieces. (Injection-molded plastic has its own set of issues, but they aren’t the same issues as 3D printing issues.)

The color accuracy also is not what it will be in the production pieces. Injection-molded plastic has a lot of fine color control available, but for these pieces I could choose basically blue, red, or black. You know, not ideal, but there is a reason why these are prototype and not production pieces.

What does matter is that they are good enough that I have gone ahead and ordered enough to make a full set for playtesting. Most playtesting will, I expect, be online, but I do need to supplement it with face-to-face playtesting because the game is a physical object and its physicality is part of what needs to be tested.

So, what is at hand is a big transition in the development process from design to test. Which isn’t to say that no design decisions will need to be revisited: it is guaranteed that they will, but it is still a critical phase transition during the process.

I am super-excited about this. It has been a long, long haul to reach this point. So much work; it has been almost 10 years since I first tried to get to this point, most of which was with the game abandoned because I had no idea how to move forward with it. I do think that the first time I actually get this thing set up and on the table that I‘m likely to cry. (And hopefully not because it sucks so hard.)

24 July, 2020

So, I noticed something over the last couple of close-in rules entries I’ve posted: it’s making me more aware of what the rules content is and how I’ve written them. So much so that I think it’s helping me improve them. So, let’s keep going.

Rules Text Commentary

Set-up is one of those things that can vary from being contant from game to game (ala Chess) to different for every game (ala Bridge). Further, some games with a variable set-up are luck-based (again ala Bridge) while others are decision-based (ala Napoleon’s Triumph) and of course you have everything in between.

Stavka is one of the games that are in-between.

This part of set-up, however is constant. In every game, the start turn is the same and the front line and front dividers are the same. One detail, I’d like to mention though is how the front-line set-up used to be represented vs. how it is represented now.

Old New

I do believe that the historically minded had some chance of figuring out the red|blue dots in the old map, but I rather imagine the significance of the "XXXXXX" line would have been a challenge. The new graphic’s images of the actual pieces, on other hand, will I think, be perfectly clear to everyone. Why I didn’t do this from the start I don’t know – it is basically the same thing that I did in both Bonaparte at Marengo and Napoleon’s Triumph. Getting stupider in my old age or something, I guess.

So, where was I? Oh, yes. Types of set-up: constant vs. variable-luck vs. variable-strategy. This part of set-up has some variable-strategy, but is mostly all variable-luck. The Germans get to start off with almost all the cards in the game, but have to shuffle them so they don’t control their order, and then have to pawn off 8 loser cards to the Soviets, which is where the cards on the Discard deck are going to go. In theory, it seems like there might be strategy here, and I think there is a little, but only a very little. I believe that in general, the Germans should put cards with a value of 1 or 2 on the Discard deck, and cards with a value of 3 or more on the Production deck.

Of course, I have noticed that there are some pretty clever people out there who play my games, and there are thousands of them, which is always unnerving to think about when wondering if I’ve missed something in the design…

So, more luck. This time 100% dumb luck. There is no strategy to be found here. But it does set up some interesting things in first-turn game play. The Soviets have 12 cards. They know the suits of 9 of them. (The 8 the Germans pawned off on them plus that of the top card of the 4 they picked for themselves.) But, the Soviets don’t know the values of any of their cards, while the Germans know the value of 8 of them. So, the Germans mostly know what they’re up against on the first turn, and can take tactical advantage of that knowledge, but with 4 unknown cards, the possibility is there for an ugly surprise. The Soviets, on the other hand, don’t know what to expect from any card value, except it it is very likely going to be bad followed by more bad.

But in terms of cards the odds rather overwhelmingly favor the Germans, who will likely start off with over 75 cards vs. 12 for the Soviets, with the ratio even more lopsided in terms of high-value cards.

The previous step in set-up was 100% luck, but this is mostly constant with some variable-strategy. The real strategy decision for the Soviets is the placement of that one infantry unit they can freely place. (The six infantry units on production cities are much set-up sensitive than first-turn-move sensitive, and here we are only concerned with set-up.)

Now, that infantry unit can’t really be much more than a speed bump to the Germans, but even that can have real value, but it can’t be a speed-bump everywhere, so: North, Center, or South? That is the first question. Another question is depth. A deployment closer to the front can be more disruptive, but can also make it near certain that it will be eliminated and not survive to be disruptive on the German second turn as well. I am absolutely confident that I have no idea what the best set-up is.

This step is 100% variable-strategy. The Germans don’t have any units whose initial placement is forced; they have pretty much free deployment, within basic historical limits. BUT this is a big decision. The magic numbers are 8, 3 and 3. The Germans have 8 units; there are 3 fronts, and there are 3 turns in 1941 before winter.

While it is common for east-front games (going back to Stalingrad) to encourage tactical thinking, here the focus needs to be more strategic: What are you trying to achieve in 1941? And more broadly still: How are you going to try to win the war? And whatever that answer, it shouldn’t be based on looking at tactical opportunities for your first turn. (In part because the first turn is all tactical opportunites; you can do pretty much anything.)

All of this goes back to one of the main things I try to achieve in games: no small decisions. Boil the situation down so that all the decisions are (at least potentially) big and the player feels the weight of all of them. This is never perfectly achieved, of course, but I do think the basic structure of Stavka, starting with set-up, is consistent with that ideal.

Having finished the commentary on set-up, there is one topic I want to expand on a little: the rules for the set-up of the Soviet War deck.

The historical situation at the front was one of breathtaking Soviet lack of tactical readiness. The chaos Stalin had introduced by his purge of the senior officer corps was not yet over (even if many purged officers had been re-instated), many of its numerous tanks were inoperative or lacking ammunition, and front-line units had been forbidden to take even basic precautions on the grounds that it could be read by the Germans as provocative. On the other hand, German intelligence gathering had left them with a detailed picture of Soviet front-line dispositions. Whatever the problems with German strategic intelligence regarding the capabilities of the Soviet war economy and potential military strength of the Soviet Union, their tactical assessment left almost nothing to be desired. But almost nothing is not the same as nothing. In particular, the Germans were not prepared for the quality of two of the newest Soviet designs: the T-34 and KV-1, and encounters with them came as a considerable shock to the Germans, particularly in the South.

And it is this that was basically driving the way the deck is set up. The Soviets will have an insufficient number of mostly low-value cards, with the Germans knowing the values of most those cards, with a few cards added that are (at least potentially) high-value, and whose values are not known to the Germans.

The exact rules have been through a lot of changes. One persistent issue has been concerns about the chance and/or German manipulation to leave the Soviets with no playable cards on a front, which is excessive in terms of my thinking of how the game should play. Because air cards can be played on any front, this requires a double-void: on both the front-suit and the air-suit. Now, a randomly occurring air/front double-void is going to be rare (about 6 out of 10,000 games), but because the Germans can choose whether a card goes on the Discard or Production deck, they could, in principal, force a double void for the 8 cards they control. Then they have to hope that their effort doesn’t go for nothing and the other 4 cards break their way, which is about a 6% chance. And for the Germans, there is a price for the attempt, naming putting low-value cards in their own Production deck, which will negatively impact them later in the game. Statistically, they could expect to put 8 low-value cards in their production deck, which will cost them about 30% of a year's production.

So, overall, it doesn’t seem worthwhile for the Germans to try to force a double-void. The cost is likely to be high, and the chances of success low. However, that doesn’t mean that the Germans couldn’t try to be opportunistic about trying to take advantage of a randomly trending distribution problem by exacerbating it. Suppose, for example, that there was a randomly occurring double void after 5 cards, with only 3 cards to go, the Germans could try to ensure that it remained a double void with the last 3 cards, which would likely be much cheaper than trying to force one from the start. But we’re still talking about a low-probability event to begin with, still with a low probability of success.

So, overall, I don’t think the current design has a weakness there. Yes, it could happen. Would it wreck the game if it did? Actually, no, I don’t think so. The Germans can do so well on the first turn anyway that there isn’t a huge margin for them to do better, and the cost of trying to force a double-void is likely to be high enough that even if the plan works it could end up leaving the Germans with a net negative impact on their chance of winning.

Of course, there’s always the chance I’ve missed something and that some clever player will see it and exploit it. But that’s my world as a game designer 24/7/365 anyway, so nothing new there.

And that’s it for now. Still expecting/hoping for the new sample pieces to arrive…

22 July, 2020

So, remember how last week I said I thought I would have the next set of 3D printed pieces on hand? Funny story. I still don’t have them. What I’ve been up to is (all together now) continuing to grind away at the rules. So, let’s take a look at some of what’s been going on, shall we?

14 July Text 22 July Text Commentary

Well, for starters, we’re down from 6 decks to 4. This change was mostly motivated by a desire to simplify the physical mechanics of card play. We’ll see how it was achieved directly.

The prior version used a Reserve deck to feed 3 front decks. The front decks had a great deal of functional overlap with the front suits. And, after a lot of working on the details of how to do without both, I satisfied myself that I did’t need both. The War deck takes over all of the duties of the Reserve deck, and about half of the duties of the front decks. The Alt deck takes over the rest of the duties of the front decks.

Oh, and I should mention that the icon designs for the War and Alt decks are vast improvements over the icon for the Reserve deck, which was pretty terrible. I always knew that icon would get the axe, even if I didn’t used to know how.

Unchanged.

This deck hasn’t been substantially changed, but it has been re-branded. I decided to go ahead and label it as the Stavka reserve, which establishes its historical roots better, although the more historically minded must notice the game abstraction elements present in the way it is implemented.

Fewer decks.

Card handling simplification. Drawing from the bottom of the deck is history, now drawing is from the top. This can produce a real difference in behavior. The old system allowed decks to function as queues (First-in-first-out) but with this method, they only sometimes act as queues; sometimes they act as stacks (Last-in-first-out), and mixing the two required a lot of thought to make sure I understood the consequences of this change in behavior – particularly of mixing the two behaviors.

For development purposes, there was one huge benefit to this: it made it easier to adapt the game for computer mediated playtesting, which for the last 10 years has been the primary form of playtesting for my games. As far as I can tell, the main computer-mediated systems I might use both support drawing cards from the top of a deck, but I don’t think either supports drawing cards from the bottom of a deck.

No change except an update to the Transfer icon to show draws coming from the top of the source deck instead of the bottom. Too bad; I liked the old icon but it had to go.

Apart from the benefits of the physical reduction of the number of decks, this is where mechanically you get a payoff by replacing the Front/Reserve deck system with the War/Alt deck system. Three interconnected procedures have been replaced with one. The rules are now both shorter and (I think) easier to understand. I do think that there is room for improvement in the text for the new rule: the use of the word “kept” followed by the word “discard” isn‘t great: you can discard the card you keep. So, at some point that will have to be cleaned up. Still, I think it a considerable improvement.

I think you can see the benefit of the change again here in the example. The example is shorter and easier to understand.

That’s it for now. UPS tells me to expect the new sample pieces sometime tomorrow – probably late tomorrow. So hopefully the next entry will show them off.

14 July, 2020

So I had hoped that by now I would have the next set of 3D printed piece prototypes on hand, but they‘ve been delayed. So I thought I might try an annotated rules walk-through for the first few sections. So, let's go.

Rules Text Commentary

So: to do a historical introduction or not? That is the question. And if so, how long should it be? What should it attempt to do? In this particular case, I decided to start with the assumption that the player already is familiar with WWII and the fact that Germany invaded the Soviet Union. And so, I just used the first sentence to do minimal context setting: this thing you know about? This game is about that thing.

One point I did want to subtly make, though, was that this game really is supposed to go all the way to the end of the war. There is a long tradition of Eastern Front games giving up de facto or de jure sometime in 1943 or 1944. If you don't have Berlin and Budapest on your map, your game isn’t really trying to make it to the end of the war. I’m not faulting other games for this: we all have to set our scope limits somewhere. But, going to the end of the war is a thing about this game that is not a given for all WWII Eastern Front games.

Anyway, after that super-brief historical intro, I moved into discussing how the subject is adapted, in the most bare-bones way. The turn length is very long by East Front game standards. Monthly turns have been more-or-less standard since the first of the genre: Avalon Hill’s Stalingrad. The use of cards to represent resources might be new (or might not be), although cards can’t possibly be new period. Cards have been part of the wargame world for decades now, and certainly somebody must have used them in a WWII Eastern Front game, even if I’m so totally out of touch as to have no idea who, what or when, or for what.

Anyway, next I have this full-column with graphic of the mapboard. What function does it serve? I honestly couldn’t tell you. I keep thinking of yanking it, but it looks pretty cool. And so every time the edit knife comes out to remove the image, its attractiveness saves it.

Now, you may not know how Adobe InDesign, the program I use for rules writing works, but in general graphics are external files that are linked into the main document. And this image is actually going to turn up with overlays upon it again and again through the rule book. So maybe as an establishing base image it serves a purpose, but I don’t know: am I really writing for readers who don’t know what the map looks like?

So, here we see the first appearance of in-line graphics in the rules text. It’s very compact, kind of fun to read in a children’s-book kind of way, and it allows me to mix comments in with pure dictionary-style this-is-the-name-of-this sort of rules writing. I’m also introducing the use of color in the text itself, which I think I’m inclined to over-use, honestly, as I have tended to scale back on its use as I’ve made editing passes. But the idea is to show not tell where I can. Use the color itself to reinforce the word for a color.

My favorite paragraph in the entire rules book, no doubt. I wish all the rules paragraphs were this clean, lean, and muscular. It introduces a lot of important terms and ideas in a way that I think it is very easy to absorb. I think the first version of this had a table and like three or four paragraphs that did the same job, though not nearly as well. To be sure, though, the rules themselves have conceptually been streamlined since then. There was this old concept of “doublets” that I struggled to explain, always a bad sign, and the doublets have since gone bye-bye.

Here is where we start to get into a little more difficult territory. The prior paragraphs had the advantage of being printed rules explaining printed images. But the actual game pieces aren’t printed, they’re 3D pieces of plastic. I tried renders of the actual 3D pieces, but with the loss of that 3rd dimension and a reduction in size, they become indistinct. And so, I have printed renderings of the images instead, with the use of lighter shades of blue and red substituting for the missing 3rd dimension. I HOPE this approach works, but I can’t say that I KNOW this approach works.

A second issue here is that I’m explaining two paired oppositions: German/Soviet and Infantry/Armor. There isn’t really a natural order of the two. There is also a potential clarity issue in the fact that I’m using a symbol for “unit” that is generic: it isn’t infantry but it isn’t armor. There are not, however, actual generic pieces in the game: the pieces are all infantry/armor. So, this is a conceptual abstraction being mixed in with concrete representations. This isn‘t great, but it is where I am for now.

This is ... kind of ok, I guess? I think the text itself is pretty good, and it is nice to have a compact map representation next to it, but the ability of the reader to see that it is a map representation isn’t ideal. The text itself implies that it is a map illustration, and the city is an image the readers have been shown before, but will they easily understand: “I am looking at an image of the map.” I don’t know.

One possible approach would be to use a map background color, to more firmly suggest map but I don’t do that in other places, and I don’t want to do that in other places, because I use color as an illustrative device, and introducing non-illustrative colors complicates that task. Sigh. Some unnecessary routes maybe? But that can lead to readers wondering what the significance of the routes are, and they wouldn’t have any. Grrr.

So, one thing I learned writing the later rules sections was that I needed to introduce cadres early. In fact, I discovered that I was talking about cadres in later rules sections without realizing that I had never explained what a cadre was. So here is the explanation of cadres. It isn’t a complicated idea, and I’m sure players will grasp it, but I am wondering about the graphic I’m using for cadres and for cadre boxes. Both of these iconographic representations rather than literal images of things that exists in the game.

There are two potential problems here, even conceptually: (1) the rules contain a mix of literal images and iconographic images, with no obvious distinctions between the two: will readers think there are actual pieces that look like the cadre icons? (2) The use of icons interrupt the text. I’ve already gotten negative feedback from one reader who pretty much would like to see them all gone.

My hope is that the icons will serve to aid readers whose learning style is more visual than textual, and it is a way of marking out terms that have a formal definition, to alert the reader about what is going on. I actually want to slow the reader down some, I want him to not skim past this. That’s the theory anyway. I have very little data yet, however, as to how it is actually working.

This is the first block or rules that is really built around a large-scale illustration. The sort of small-scale images used earlier in the rules won’t work as well here because I need to explain some related concepts that really require a larger scale image as an illustration.

That said, the image is definitely bigger than it needs to be: it could be 2/3 the length for sure, and maybe half the length, and illustrate its points just as well. But leaving it as a horizontal image, but shorter, really doesn’t save any space in the rules, it just creates unsightly white gaps on either side of the image. An alternative would be to use a vertically-oriented image, to the right of the text. Probably worth an experiment, I guess, but I have a lot of things I need to do and this is an experiment I haven’t gotten round to trying.

Anyway, I supposed I should say something about the rules content and not just how it is presented. The front line is one of the two core ideas that drive the whole game, and that is to abstract away the function of line-holding. Rather than include a large number of German pieces and a large number of Soviet pieces whose basic game function is to constitute opposing front-lines that neutralize each other, the two are together abstracted into the game’s front-line pieces. The main purpose was to speed play, to greatly reduce the number of pieces in the game that have to be handled in order to play. The German army really only typically has 8 pieces, and the Soviets a varying number between about 6 and 12 (more or less). I want the game to move at a furious pace, compared to what players are used to in games on this subject. 4 turns a year, 20 pieces total (more or less) in play. On paper, at least, it should make for a fast-moving game.

OK. This is a litte image/definition/explanation that I have struggled mightily with. Where should I introduce this? Honestly, a reader progressing through the rules doesn’t really need to know this for a long time, not until nearly the end of the rule book. And its core concept is pretty intuitive, even if the details are not. But structurally, it really does belong here. Introducing it later (as I’ve tried to do) feels weird.

There is, however, a technical problem with introducing it here. Formally, it is best understood once you know the concept of sea zones and those don’t get introduced until the supply rules, several pages later than this. So I admit I’m depending a lot on the reader’s intuitive grasp of the concept here, and willingness to use a pretty small illustration as an absolute reference source. I don‘t know: maybe attempting to shore up this somewhat loose definition later with a more formal explanation based on sea zones would work.

I don’t know. So many problems I need to figure out.

(By the way, remember how I mentioned that the large map image introduced earlier gets re-used a lot with overlays? This is the first one.)

Now, THIS is a big meaty slab of rules trouble. One of the reasons the section about the front-line ends needed to be moved up was because I also wanted to re-structure this. Earlier versions of the rules introduced front-line dividers and the concept of fronts, but had nothing whatever to say about pockets, and were completely silent on how front-line dividers got positioned during play. So there was a big split where the two halves of explaining front dividers were sitting at opposite ends of the rule book. So bad, so very, very bad.

But there was a deeper problem than just how to structure the rule book, and that was that the entire system about how to position the front dividers was overly complicated, subject to gamey manipulation, and add dubious play value. And this was true of the entire history of this area of the design, from the very first version of Stavka that included it, so many years ago. The main motive for having fronts was to provide for some level of geographical pinning of resources. Cards, after all, don’t inherently have a spatial aspect, it has to be added to them. And fronts were a conceptually sound approach to that problem, being grounded in history, and they didn’t seem difficult.

It is probably too big a subject to insert into a general commentary of the rules, but the key problems were manipulation of front lengths, and (in earlier versions where each player set their own front boundaries) manipulation of front boundaries to create odd mismatches that didn’t really have anything to do with history. Anyway, after trying and failing with a lot of different approaches I finally realized that I just needed to print the front boundaries on the map. The game didn’t need a sub-game here (especially a bad, ahistoric sub-game, which is all I’d ever come up with), what it needed was simplicity.

And so, this is what we have. It still hurts a little, because I had hoped that somewhere in there I could find something good, and a lot of effort was expended in that search, but it is best to have that rotten tooth pulled.

Oh, and remember what I said about the front-line illustration being bigger than it really needed to be? Same here.

The concept of breakthrough markers (named “penetration pieces” or “penetration markers” in older versions of the rules) is another very old part of the Stavka concept, along with front-line pieces. In fact, it is the combination of the two that was intended as the game’s visual signature, to make it instantly obvious that Stavka was not like traditional Eastern front wargames, or pretty much any kind of wargame for that matter.

You will notice that the breakthrough piece design in the rule book is not the same as that shown in the piece design article I wrote earlier. The reason is that the rules version is older, and I’m delaying the work on updating the rule book until I feel more confident that I won’t end up changing it back again. Also, there is a rules visual design mistmatch here between the 3D look of the breakthrough pieces and the 2D look of the units. Same problem of not wanting to do work until I’m more confident I won’t have to redo it. At some point, the units will get a more 3D look, but I’ve been saving the labor until I feel more confident in their fundamental design.

Do this is the first time in the rules that I’ve really had to deal with the problem of representing change over time. My approach here is the fairly basic before-and-after method, which I’ve underlined with by twice using the literal words “before” and “after” in the descriptor text. I’ve also tried to visually distinguish between representing a unit’s path (the solid pink) and its move (the red arrows). My intent here was having just used a solid line to represent the path in the previous example, that the reader will have that associative memory carrying forward into this one. You can also see that I’m falling back on the use of inline graphics and text coloring to link the label and the graphic.

I think this is ok, but I do have a minor concern in that the text talks about “loops” and “reversals”, but the example only shows a loop. I think I can get away with this because the concept of reversal isn’t hard (easier than loop) and later examples will show reversals, and the handling of reversals is likewise repeatedly underscored in the rules text, but I don’t think I ever mention loops again after this.

The final paragraph about “removal” is one of those short, but really important paragraphs that can show up in rules texts. Could readers not fully pick up on it here? Yes, I think so, but it is a point the rules do come back to, so I’m not super worried about readers not playing the game properly because they missed this rule.

Hoo boy. Remember what I said about short, but really important paragraphs? This is another one. Originally, this was written with no example, which was bad. The problem is that the rules definition is a bit of a boolean logic puzzle: a OR (b AND NOT c), and people don’t naturally process these things easily. A second problem here is that a non-intuitive distinction is being introduced between an army’s territory (what is on its own side of the front line) and its effective control, which takes breakthrough paths into account. This has been redone multiple times to make it clearer, but it still worries me. I don’t think the example graphic is the best, and I think a re-work is in its future.

We can also see here an effort at using an iconographic visual aid (the little black box with a circle around it) to highlight “effective control” as a technical term. When the phrase “effective control” pops up later in the rules, that little graphic will too, with the intent of helping the reader recognize it a technical term is being used whose specific definition needs to be understood to understand the rule using it.

This is pretty clean and shows off the strengths of inline graphics and text coloring pretty well, I think. The front colors were introduced earlier in the rules, but not the symbols used on the cards for those fronts. I still have not revisited the graphics used for the suits, which are still the same draft design I did some months back.

I can’t say I’ve gotten some positive and some negative feedback on these images. I was never planning to keep them, they were just doodles, but the I do have a sort of affection for them. Maybe because they are my doodles? Possibly, but I have been known to have a deep loathing for things I’ve done, so I doubt it is that simple.

Anyway, simple paragraph. Does its job well. Thumbs up.

An even simpler paragraph. How (and whether) to illustrate this has dogged me for a while. I wanted to illustrate it, but I didn’t want a giant slug of rules space devoted to something that was really very low-information. Shrinking the cards down was the obvious solution, but the intent is to have the suits be really pretty tiny on the cards, and early tests of small cards were discouraging. In the end, I did two things: First, I made the size of the images bigger in this graphic than they would be on the actual cards, and I produced a special version of the images that had the black lines stripped out, leaving just the color. The overal effect is quite nice, I think.

Oh, the black design for the card backs? Will absolutely not be in the production cards. My intent is to do a design that is custom to Stavka (and not black) I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.

Visually, this is a kind of crap-looking rule. I absolutely do want to include value distribution, but there has to be a better visual way than this. So, the most basic fact about the Stavka cards is that low-value cards (1 and 2) are more common than high-value cards (3,4 and 5). High value cards are scarce, but they are what you need for offensive work. This is a subject leading to what I call the game’s card economy, with more coming on that later.

This is where (for better or worse) we really start to see the iconographic style take hold in the rules. The use of icons for look and don’t is clearly logically unnecessary. If the icons weren't there, the rules lose nothing in logical content.

The reason they exist is because the game needs players to look at not look at the cards (front and back) at very specific times, but they aren’t really intuitive to players who haven’t played the game before. So, I wanted to basically stop players on one of these instructions and prevent their eyes from gliding past them. We’ll see more of this later on.

We’re now basically coming back at the concept of fronts for the third time in the rules: The first time was introducing fronts spatially on the mapboard, the second was in identifying card suits, and now, the third time, in terms of card decks.

Players at this point, will, I think have already figured out that their front suit cards are going to be only usable on the front for which they are named, while the air cards are usable on any front, making air cards the most flexible (and therefore most valuable) suit. The use of “air” to describe the wildcard suit is partly literal – air assets really could be moved around more easily than ground assets, but also is in part an abstraction of the ability of the armies to concentrate (to some extent) effort on one front or another, but not everything. Even a quiet front required a lot of resources that weren’t really movable anywhere else.

The Reserve Deck is more of an abstraction than the three front decks, but it is, I think, a pretty comprehensible abstraction. The Reserve and Front Decks are basically the decks used to play the military part of the game. What is not clear (yet) is that these decks are basically card consumers. They use and lose cards and are constantly in need of being replenished. If you can’t replenish them, you are seriously screwed. And this is what leads us to the game’s aforementioned card economy.

OK. The card economy? These are its foundational decks. Low-value cards tend to accumulate in the Discard decks (one for each player) while the high-value cards tend to accumulate in the Production decks.

Discard decks end up getting swapped back and forth between the players each turn. So, the cards you discard in your turn will end up in your opponent’s Reserve deck the next turn (and his in yours). However, because the decks do tend to end up with some high-value cards in them, the general effect over time is to equalize the contents of the opposing players cards. (Oh, did I not mention? At start the Germans have pretty much all the high-value cards. It makes the Germans pretty nearly unstoppable the first couple turns.) As a result of this swapping, players typically don’t run short of the low-value cards that make up the bulk of the Discard decks, but, if things go sideways badly enough, it is possible.

Now, the Production deck. If you go on a large-scale offensive, you’re going to be using a lot of high-value cards, and after you use them, they’re likely going to end up here. You get them back by production. The Germans, having a built a blitzkrieg army, has way too many consumers of cards for the number they can recover by production. Running the German army all-out can use 16 high value cards in a turn, but there are only 36 of these in the game, and the Germans can only recover 6 a turn from the Production deck. So, that just isn’t sustainable. The Soviets at start may have as few as few as 1 or 2 high-value cards, but they can recover more by production (even at start) and eventually, if the Germans can’t stop them, recover a lot more, with a production starting at 10 and potentially rising as high as 18. The threat the Germans face is the eventual rise of an unstoppable Soviet steamroller. Which is basically why invading the Soviet Union was not a great idea whose risks were vastly underestimated.

This is such an odd deck in the overall game structure, but also an extremely important one. It is basically an abstraction of two different things: First, the fact that the Soviets were always able to maintain deep reserves about which the Germans knew nothing. At Stalingrad, for example, the Germans thought they were exhausting the Soviet army while what was actually happening was a massive Soviet build-up. Second, the Soviet learning curve. The Soviets were never wanting in terms of mobile warfare theory, but developing the practical ability to execute their theories was painfully slow. The Soviets never wanted for tanks or planes, but mastering their effective use was a long process.

In general, the Soviets can stash cards in this deck and use them to buy units, and in particular this is the only way for them to build up armor units. But doing so requires diverting exactly the sort of high-quality cards into this deck that are extremely useful in operations at the front. So, the deck embodies a tension between Soviet short-term and long-term needs. For the Germans, this deck is basically a mystery: they can tell how many cards are in it, but in this deck, value is everything, and the Germans can’t see the value.

So, this is a deck that I think has a lot of interesting game play value and a lot of simulation value, even though the game design is still far from complete.

Simple, yet not really satisfactory. The problems aren’t in the text, which is ok, but in the image. There are two problems here: first, the image kind of implies that the German decks are blue and the Soviet decks red, which is not the case, as they are the same cards used for both sides. Second, the image kind of implies that the Germans would use the south and west edges at the same time, and that the Soviets would use the east and north edges at the same time. In fact, for both, it is either/or not both. I’m probably depending on the player’s intelligence to sort it out, which isn’t really where you want to be with an illustration that should be making things clearer, not murkier.

A couple things here. First, these paragraphs are the start of the rules for card handling operations, starting with the two most basic operations: draw, and add. Now, the fact that cards are drawn from the bottom of the deck but added on the top of the decks means that the decks in use are basically FIFO (first-in-first-out), not LIFO (last-in-first-out), or to use another pair of terms: queues, rather than stacks.

A queue will basically push all the cards through the deck, each card getting drawn once. Because there is some amount of deck shuffling in the game, some decks could likely be implemented as stacks just as well as queues, but not all of them. And rather than have some decks be stacks and others queues, I decided to make them all queues.

But in addition to the logic of the rules, I wanted to call your attention to how they are written as well. You can see more of the iconographic style of writing. The two images for draw and add aren’t pure icons: they are literal visual instructions as well. The draw icon shows that cards are supposed to be drawn from the bottom, and the add icon shows that cards are supposed to be added to the top.

Also worth noting is the switch from the descriptive to the imperative. Rather than say “Cards are drawn from the bottom of the deck”, it says, “Draw from the bottom of the deck”. English being what it is, the imperative style is shorter and tends to get the reader’s attention more, at some risk of having the reader think “Who? Me? Are you talking to me?”, which can be a problem in a two-player game where the instructions do not necessarily apply to both players.

Two (slightly) more advanced card operations. I admit to being quite fond of the icon for “transfer”, and it is fairly certain that I overuse it. I just think it is adorable. There isn’t that much to say about “shuffle”, other than it mentions a difficulty caused by my having put suits on the backs of the cards: shuffling without looking at the cards is made more complicated. But I’ve done it lots of times at this point. I don’t think it’s a big deal really.

I don’t know how many times I’ve re-written these two paragraphs and/or tweaked the artwork without having it ever be as clear as I would want it to be. It makes me feel like a failure as a writer every time I look at it. Honestly, if you watched someone do it, you’d get it in a moment, but the description makes it seem more complicated than it is.

And aggravatingly, this is basically THE key card operation of the game, one that you perform over and over again every turn. (It is to Stavka what rolling a die is to a traditional wargame.) If there was one thing I would want to explain clearly, it would be this. And yet I don’t think that’s what I’ve achieved. Uggh. I stare into my future and I keep seeing more re-writes here in an endless and seemingly futile quest for clarity and simplicity.

So, above I mentioned that players will perform front-deck draw and front-deck refresh operations over and over. Well, they’'ll be doing it while doing this, which is basically a loop of front-deck draws that ends when the player gets a high-enough value card for whatever he’s trying to do. It is this loop that ends up putting a lot of cards on the Discard deck, to get that one card (hopefully) that will be used and then placed (hopefully) on the Production deck.

As with the above, it just feels like it should be so much simpler than this to explain, but that I’ve somehow made a mess of it.

This is a card-play example that is intended to pull all of the above together so that the reader can get a better sense of how to actually do the card play portion of the game. I’m not sure that it really works. I think the example works technically, but I’m not sure it is particularly easy for a player to visualize. I’ve thought of trying to replace it with little actual cards and decks, maybe, rather than text? I don’t know.

Anyway, I’m going to stop the annotations here, on an admittedly slightly dispirited sounding note. But I do expect that I will eventually muddle my way through, even if at times it isn’t clear how. Because that’s basically how this process works: you grind along, day after day, and things don’t seem to get much better, and then out of nowhere, you get a good idea and a seemingly intractable problem is solved. So, anyway, back to the grind. Until next time!

5 July, 2020

While I’ve mostly been grinding through rules, that isn’t all I’ve been doing. Another task has been to prepare piece designs for injection molding. This has affected every design – some in little ways and some in small. So, let’s walk through the pieces and talk about the aesthetic and functional goals for the pieces, and how those goals have been affected by the needs to have something that can be manufactured at a price we can all afford.

Let’s start with the unit design. These pieces are armor on one side, and infantry on the other.

Armor Infantry

The first and most fundamental goal was the simple need to be able to tell the infantry and armor apart. The pieces aren’t large, and it would be a Bad Thing if game play was being affected by players not being able to tell the two apart. With that in mind, the armor pieces have a lot more going on in terms of shapes than the infantry. I have ordered new prototypes 3D printed for this design, but they haven’t arrived yet, much less have I had a full set that I could set up on the table. Still, initial renderings are promising and I think they will work at that basic level.

Another goal was thematic connection with the period. The Soviets in their military maps liked to use diamond shapes to represent tanks and had no particular shape to indicate infantry – if it had no special design, it was infantry. In both of the above, physical stability was a consideration in adapting the map designs to the table. The diamond shape was just not stable enough on its own, with a large rectangle perched on top of it. It also looked strange. So, a pair of walls were added to the sides of the diamond to stabilize it and achieve a cleaner look. For infantry, a simple box was both stable and thematically unobjectionable.

Finally, both have a little tab sticking out to give the unit a visual sense of direction, to make it meaningful to discuss which way the unit was “pointed”. One pleasing effect of the walls and front tab was that it made the armor units resemble little tanks, with treads on the side and a gun pointing ahead. It wasn’t something I was aiming for, but I quite liked it once I realized the resemblance was there.

The diamond and box elements were both present in the previous design I showed off, but the old version had a large central mass and the shapes were shallow indentations into the surface. In this design, there is no central mass; the indentations each side are very deep. The main motive for this change was the requirements for injection molding. As it happens, when you injection mold plastic, it works best to have a set of thin walls. Solid spaces don’t work well: they cool slowly, which reduces production speed and increases cost, and worse, tends to produce surface defects due to differences in contraction of the plastic as it cools.

The thick block of the earlier piece design was fine for 3D printing, but when it comes to plastic, thin is in.

German Breakthrough Soviet Breakthrough

Next up, the Breakthrough pieces. Boy these pieces have been through a lot of iterations: not so much refinements as trying to find a basic design that would work. The one you see here is actually a variation on the very first design from years and years ago: they’re smaller, and more highly arched, but there aren’t any other major differences. The earliest design had a serious problem in that the pieces were so large that they tended to cover up the map, making it hard to read, which was bad. I’m still not sure that this design won’t have that problem — honestly I’m going to need playtesting with the actual pieces before I can make a judgment.

In adapting this design for injection molding I want to talk about another requirement: unless you want an expensive mold, the mold has to consist of two parts, and when the piece is ready, you pull them apart and pop out the piece. For that to work, what you can’t have are overhangs - pieces of plastic that will get torn when the two mold pieces are separated. For this pieces, that was mainly an issue for the backs of the arrowheads. The bottom mold couldn’t come up on top of the arrowheads, or there wouldn’t be any way to eject the piece without breaking it. If you look carefully at the sides of the arch where it meets the arrowhead, what you see is basically a half-circle: if it had been a full circle, then the bottom mold would have had to go over the top of the arrowhead, which it can’t do. Another feature, not really visible in this angle, is a a small projection on the back of the arrowhead, which so I can have a bezel on the bottom of the arch that goes all the way around, but which doesn’t sit on top of the arrowhead. Early designs didn’t have these features, and couldn’t work. It can sometimes be the little things…

Front line Front divider

Finally, we have the front line and front divider pieces. The front line I’ve showed off any number of times, and this design has changed little from the previous version, except in small subtle ways to make it easier to manufacture. One thing I mentioned before was the need to ensure that pieces could be ejected from the mold when ready, and that has another small requirement that I hadn’t yet mentioned: vertical walls are bad. If you have a vertical wall, it drags against the wall of the mold when ejected, and can become scarred and damaged as a result. What you want are walls with a slight slope, so that as they are pushed out of the mold, space opens up between the mold and the plastic, avoiding scarring. The slope directions, however, are opposite for the top and bottom molds, and so, with this piece there is a seam that runs around the cylinder at the end where the slope of the wall changes direction, and the seam is where the two molds meet.

The front divider is a piece that, like the breakthrough markers, has had a troubled design history. The current version is intended to sit directly on top of the horizontal arm of the front-line piece, which helps keep it upright. (Otherwise, its base is so narrow it would be quite prone to falling over.) The downside of this is that it can’t be physically placed on the socket portion of the front-line pieces, which, unfortunately, can sometimes be the perfect place for it, but where it can’t physically fit. One thing about this design, though, is that if you look closely at the end, you can see that the top is slightly narrower than the base: that’s the slope I was mentioning to make it easier to eject from the mold.

Before I sign off for this entry, I do have one last thing to share: this working rendering I made to see how all of these designs worked when fit together.

It’s far from photo-realistic, and the map in particular just looks kind of bad, but it does give you some idea as to the scale of everything and how they are all supposed to work together to create the look of the game. At some point, perhaps in a month, I hope to have a full set of playtest pieces and can print out a map and take some actual photos.

But for now, that’s all I have for you. Til next time!

29 June, 2020

So, I want to talk some about rules today. Not rules content – rules presentation. Let’s start with what is more-or-less my traditional presentation, derived-from but not identical-to the wargame rules of my youth, particularly those of SPI, which sort of imprinted on me what it meant to write rules for this sort of game.

Below are the first page of the rules for each game, side-by-side:

Bonaparte at Marengo Napoleon’s Triumph

(Click on either page to open it in its own window.)

Now, the main thing I would call your attention to is how text-heavy they both are. The type is small and the line-spacing is tight. They also don’t really teach you very much. Mostly what you learn is the names of things: THIS is an “approach”, THAT is an “infantry unit”, THAT is a “locale capacity”, and so on. There is a little more taught than that: you learn, for example, how unit strength and losses work, and how to flip units between sides.

Now, let’s take a look at the rules to NT again, this time alongside the first page of the rules for Stavka:

Napoleon’s Triumph Stavka Latest Draft

(Click on either page to open it in its own window.)

There are a lot of differences, but let’s start with just some data. The first page of NT has about 830 words. The first page of Stavka about 560. This is almost entirely due to the increase in type size. Stavka uses a larger type space and has more open spacing: fewer words per line and fewer words per line. But here is another data difference we can look at: how are column inches used in the two rules sets?

NT Space Usage Stavka Space Usage

The space used for graphics in the two is actually pretty much identical. The biggest structural difference is that the first page of NT uses a significant amount of its space for tables, whereas the first page of Stavka has no tables. Tables in this page of NT are pretty much the result of its primary function: teaching the names of things. So, you have a lot of table rows where on the left side there is a thing, and on the right side is the name of the thing.

It isn’t that this page of Stavka doesn’t teach the names of things: it does. But it does it in a more compact way. Let’s look at how the two teach the names of some terrain features:

NT Teaches Names Stavka Teaches Names

One reason that the Stavka approach couldn’t be used in NT is, ironically, NT was saving space by using a smaller type face. The lines were too short to easily accomodate inline graphics: hence, tables. In working on the rules for Stavka, providing space for inline graphics was the driving reason for making the lines taller.

The above example, though, suffices to show how to use inline graphics to make a more compact dictionary, but it doesn’t really properly exploit the potential of using inline graphics. For that, we need a different passage. Like this one:

In the above, what we’re seeing isn’t just a dictionary. It doesn’t just teach you the names of the different kinds of routes, it is teaching you what the functional differences are and how to count distances on the map. More is being taught in fewer words and in less space.

But more deeply than that, I’d like to avoid the split-presentation problem that dogged NT. In NT, commanders are intimately connected to corps, but although I introduce commanders in section 3, I don’t explain corps until section 8, and in one of my worst structural decisions, I also explained corps (partly) in the game set-up rules in section 6. Commanders and corps really needed to be introduced at the same time, and that time needed to come BEFORE I tried to explain set-up.

Let me give an example in Stavka of how I’m trying to do better. Stavka has front line pieces. These pieces are introduced at the same time as the front line rules, in section 4. There is no NT-style gap between the introduction of the pieces and the rules explaining their basic function in the game.

And the same structural approach applies to front-line dividers and breakthrough markers. The pieces are introduced and their game function explained together. This takes less space, fewer words, and produces less strain on the reader’s memory. By the time you’ve finished the first page of rules in Stavka, you’ve had to read a lot fewer words than NT and you’ve learned a lot more. None of this means that Stavka will therefore be a better game than NT, but I do hope it will be more approachable. That’s what I’m aiming for, anyway.

And with that, I think I will be closing up this entry. Until next time!

19 June, 2020

So, although I’ve been seriously banging away at the game for the last week and a half since the last update, I haven’t posted anything here. Most of that time has been spent working on the rulebook, and that just isn’t that exciting as far as this blog is concerned. But here, I have done some map work, so have a cookie and take a look:

Notice any big changes? No? Well, you’re not wrong. Where we are is a process of refinement and it’s all about the details. Let’s start with a comparison of the Map Legends:

June 1 (old) Legend
June 19 (current) Legend

So what’s new? Well, we can start with something that isn’t new: the elevation table (left edge). The map elevation layer was created programmatically. I found a set of digital elevation data for Europe, and then wrote a program to process it and output an image file. The image file was then processed to produce a vector art file, which was then massaged a little to make the current map. I don’t think it likely that it will ever change. It is (more) than good enough for game terms - far more, if we want to be serious about it, since the elevation image is largely eye-candy and doesn’t have any actual game function.

But if we move to the right, we can see the legend for the cities, and see that 10 different classes of cities have been slimmed down to 5. This was done as part of a simplification push. I had become concerned that I had over-designed the game in a lot of ways, and instead of adding more details I really needed to focus on essentials, and that meant taking a critical eye to any distinctions in the game that might be more fussy than substantial. And the number of city classes was pretty high on the list.

At the top, the largest cities are in the the class labeled Sehr Grosse Stadt (”Very Large City” in bad German translation), which came in 3 sub-types: non-production (Rome), single production (Leningrad) and double production (Moscow and Berlin). Well, Rome got dropped from the map: Italy was out of theater and in cleaning out “dead” areas on the map that were out-of-scope for the game, Rome got the axe. Leningrad got demoted to the next size down, where all the cities were single production cities, leaving just Moscow and Berlin, both double production and both capital cities, allowing the sub-types to be eliminated in favor of just the base type: Hauptstadt (German for Capital City)

One other detail about the Hauptstadt change you might notice is that the map symbols have been shifted. Hauptstadt is using the symbol that was associated with Grosse Stadt (more bad German), and GroßStadt (better German) is getting the symbol that was associated with Mittelgrosse Stadt (Good German? Bad? Not sure.)

And finally, what were the classes Mittelgrosse Stadt and Kleine Stadt have been collapsed together into one class: Stadt, given the symbol that was associated with Kleine Stadt

Still moving down, if you see the little square that was labelled Überschneidung, which was SUPPOSED to mean “intersection”, but which greatly puzzled a native German speaker as to what it could mean. (Never a good sign for a translation.) It is now Dorf, meaning “village”. This is actually a deeper change than it appears, because if you look at the row above the map scale you can see something called Routenpunkt supposedly meaning “Route Point”. Route points are gone: what were intersections and route pointes have been collapsed together into villages.

You might ask: “What the hell were route points, and why were they in the game to begin with?” Well, sometimes you reach a design by inches. In the first design from years ago, all the routes connecting the points in the network were the same length with the same movement cost. When I redesigned the route network I needed different length routes with different movement costs, so I used a design with alternating black and white segments where the number of segments was the movement cost for crossing the route. Then I got the idea of allowing the units to stop on the positions where the segments switched between white and black, and those were route points. Then it was suggested I needed a different design to make it more obvious that the routepoints were places where units could be, so I replaced the black and white band transitions with rectangles. And finally it was suggested that it didn’t really make any sense to have Überschneidung AND Routenpunkt and that I should combine them. And thus: here we are.

Now there is actually a lot more I could say: after all, I haven’t even been over half the Map Legend yet. But I am starting to think that for the sanity of all concerned that I should wrap it up. The fact is that the exciting life in game design is a lot of this stuff. Grinding away at details, over and over again, trying to make it a little better each time.

Hopefully, eventually, you end up with a game where everything fits together and everything makes sense as you come to understand it. God knows I don’t always get there but it is never because I didn’t try to do better. I try until I just can’t figure out how to do anything that doesn’t make the game worse. Then I stop. Every game represents a series of decisions, and eventually you reach the point where the game is as good as its oldest, deepest decisions allow it to be, where the only way to hope to make it better is to tear it all down and start again. Hopefully, by then, the game has gotten pretty good and it is something you think people will enjoy, but sadly there are never any guarantees that you will get there.

Herre’s crossing my fingers for Stavka.

8 June, 2020

So, the big news today is that the first prototype 3D printed pieces are here! Below is are a couple of sample front-line pieces in my daughter’s hand.

They’re pretty cute, I think. You can compare them to this rendering of the 3D model from which they were made:

The prototype surface is a little rough, which is pretty common with 3D printing, and I need to widen the holes in the 3D model because the fit is a little tight - with these you have to push the peg a little to get it to go into the hole, and I would rather that the peg just fall in. Still, it isn’t too bad, and once the peg is in the rotational motion is pleasantly smooth.

I also printed some prototype unit pieces, one German and one Soviet:

And again, for comparison, here are the 3D models from which the pieces were made:

As before, you can see the surface roughness introduced by the 3D printing process. You can also see a softening of the hard edges of the design, as we bump into the resolution limits of the production process. Color accuracy, by the way, isn’t something this process does. When I ordered the pieces I could specify “black”, “blue”, or “red”, but not what shade of each color. The actual production colors will be darker, and for the Germans basically a blue steel, which is pretty close to gray.

But I knew before I got these that the color was just going to be whatever it was. A larger issue is that the units were supposed to have slots in the back into which the tabs on the fronts could slide, but the slots didn’t really come out — they were present, but very shallow, so the basic idea of being able to snap pieces together front-to-back simply doesn’t work with these.

My plan is to revise the designs, and submit the revised designs, along with samples for two other types of pieces (penetration markers and front-line dividers) for prototyping as well.

While I was waiting for these, I’ve continued doing work on the rules. I’ve begun the process of converting from handwritten notes to typed, illustrated, and composed, and that’s coming along ok. A little less than halfway done with the first typewritten draft I think. In the process, I’ve also made some map revisions. But I think I will save the details of those for another day…

1 June, 2020

So, clearly we have another map update. (What can I say? The blog is about what I’m doing, and what I’ve been doing a lot of lately is map work.)

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

The most visible change since last time is pretty clearly the map legend. Now, this doesn’t actually mean the legend is done: all the text is machine translation from English, and no native speaker of either language has yet reviewed it, so the probability that it contains dubious-to-very-dubious labels is pretty nearly 100%.

That said, I’ll talk about it a little. The biggest (literally) thing about it is the giant Russian-German versions of "Stavka", the game’s title. Now, it very much was not my original intention to do this: I meant to put the game’s title untranslated there. I was tweaked by a person who will remain nameless about my inclusion of English on the game board, pointing out that consistency required German and Russian. I did it more or less as a joke, then wondered, “Should this be a joke? It is consistent.” And, to myself replied, “Are you serious? It looks stupid. What is wrong with you?” From there, my internal conversation got ugly, with abusive name-calling, ending with me refusing to speak to myself again until I apologized to myself and admitted I was wrong.

But anyway…

So, I never really enjoy work on legends. It consists largely of fussy alignment issues, along with trying to figure out someway to organize a bunch of items so their layout looks vaguely intentional. I have my doubts that the legend as-is really meets those basic goals of design and layout. But honestly, before you can do a revision, you have to have something to revise, and so, here we are.

Anyway, if we move on from the map legend and talk about the time track, we can see a vastly more successful layout. Since the last blog entry, the track has been enlarged somewhat so as to make it take up the entire east edge of the map. At the same time, making the individual cells larger meant that the amount of white space in a cell increased, making the cell design more open, which I think is a good thing.

If we move on to the map proper, the whole map is now shifted slightly to the west, such as some cities that were on the west edge are now off-map. None of the lost terrain will, I think ever be missed in play. The reason this was done was to provide space for the enlarged time track, and yet keep Baku (which could matter, in that it was a German war objective) comfortably on the map.

Next, and even though this is a small thing, I think it was pretty overdue: to bump up the size of the city names some for readability. I have long noted a tendancy that, when working on a computer where you can zoom in as much as you like, to tend to make things smaller than they should be. Constantly looking at things in 200%, 300%, 400%, etc. gives a very distorted perspective about how small a map element can be and still have it fulfill its purpose. And that was certainly true for the game map and the city size names.

Finally, I’ve mentioned in a previous post that the game’s “Card Economy” right was critical to the game functioning properly. As a result of quantitative spreadsheet modeling and the results of the last playtest, I became convinced that I had gotten too far away from the card economy concept: originally, I had the idea of production cities as being solely about determining the number of Rebuild Deck cards that could be drawn in a turn, but increasingly I had introduced other uses for production points directly: as a result, some things were paid for with production points and other things were paid for with cards, and there really wasn’t any logic as to which was which. Really, what I needed, I thought, was to return production as solely a means to buy cards, and that everything else would be bought with cards.

Another aspect of the clean-up and simplification of the production system was that there needed to be fewer production cities. Of coure, the entire distinction between production and non-production cities is a gross economic simplification to what was necessary to drive STAVKA as a game. And here is where I needed to focus: What was I trying to achieve in designating something as a “production city”? A very large part of that is that it drives game strategy, and since this is a game, that matters. With that in mind, I made the following cuts:

A final advantage to cutting production cities is that a larger number poses more of a countability problem than a smaller number, especially when counting widely scattered objects that aren’t ordered in a particular pattern. Even if players didn’t have to count them very often, a smaller number is inherently less challenging to deal with than a larger one. Six is an easier number to handle than ten, and nine is an easier number to handle than fourteen. It isn’t, of course, that players couldn’t deal with the larger numbers, it just that it is better for them not to have to. This is, after all, a game.

Anyway, that’s it for now.

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.

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