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Designer’s Blog

17 February, 2017

So, I’ve been continuing on a couple tracks.

One has been playtesting of the new edition of Bonaparte at Marengo, both by Cyberboard and by local (to me) face-to-face play. The testers who’ve been using Cyberboard have of course been doing this for quite a long time now (since November) but those who’ve been doing the face-to-face games have only been doing it for the last couple weeks. Both methods have proven valuable to me and are contributing to getting the game ready for release.

I’ve also been continuing with the revitalization of the research section of the web site. You know, years ago, before I even started Simmons Games, I got the idea to produce an HTML version of the 128 volume Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. (Universally known among anybody who does American Civil War research as the OR. Needless to say, this was a really big job, and it was the beginning of what I expected to be an even bigger job, but it seemed like a worthwhile thing to do. I actually did complete some of it, and the results have been and continue to be available on the research section of the website. What stopped the project was Google Books. They were providing an awful lot (though not all) of the value to people that I was hoping to provide, and it just didn’t seem like a good use of my time to continue with my project. And so, I didn’t.

Anyway, having recently discovered that there was indeed value that I could add to Google Books with the Eylau sources discussed in previous entries, I thought I would check out the situation with Google Books and the OR. What I found was that while they have pretty much everything up there, locating a volume of interest was a mess, and some of the volumes had issues in the quality of their scans. So, I went through, located all the volumes, downloaded PDF copies, cleaned them up some where there was a need and ready means to do so, and posted the PDF's on this site, with a proper table of contents for locating particular volumes. There was a certain satisfaction in this work, a sense that I was (in at least some sense) completing a project that at one time I had put a lot into, and giving some better closure to it.

Links and descriptor are shown below:

Campaign of the Army of the Reserve in 1800 Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies by the US War Dept. This massive 128 volume work is a collection of official military documents from the American Civil War, from both the Union and Confederate armies. Although the full title is “The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies”, it is known to anyone who’s ever done research in the ACW as simply the OR. The compilation was authorized by act of Congress in 1874, but is completion was the work of many years. Although this collection deals only with the armies, there was a second collection made for the navies, called the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (known as the ORN). Praise for the OR is superfluous: it is THE essential source for research on the war. PDF (complete) or HTML (partial).

8 February, 2017

Too late to make yesterday’s blog entry, I finally acquired a print copy of a pamphlet that Napoleon had produced as a post-Eylau propaganda piece to support his claim of a French victory in the battle. I had a digital copy of it already, but the maps that were included in the digital copy were too low-resolution to be of much use and I waited until I could make new, high-resolution scans from print before putting it up on the site. Sample areas of the online version and the new scans are shown below, to show you what I mean:

Online Version New High Resolution Scan

The pamphlet with the improved maps is now available as a PDF in the research section, with the descriptor as shown below:

The War of 1806 and 1807 Bataille de Preussisch-Eylau (The Battle of Preussisch-Eylau) by Napoleon I. This work was published in 1807. Although no author is given on the work itself, authorship is usually credited to Napoleon. Its basic function was propaganda. A Prussian pamphlet about the battle had been published including a rather abstracted map of the battle, showing how the French army had been defeated by arriving Prussian forces. To counter this, and to establish a French (and personal) claim to victory, Napoleon ordered the publication of a pamphlet of his own, centered on battle maps using on a survey of the battlefield Napoleon had ordered, along with some bulletins and an account ostensibly by a German eye-witness to the battle, which is actually thought to have been written by Napoleon himself. PDF.

Anyway, the inclusion of this material sets the stage for me to tell a story, one I learned from James Arnold’s book on the Eylau Campaign, Crisis in the Snows. As mentioned above, Napoleon was motivated to do a survey of the battlefield to support his narrative of the battle, presenting it as a clear French victory. In parallel to this, there was another battlefield survey underway for the Prussian king, by a Prussian officer named Knakfuss. Knakfuss was working without a rush deadline, and so was able to proceed more slowly and carefully than Napoleon’s surveyor was able to do, and as a result produced a much better map. I’ve included some samples of the Napoleon and Knakfuss surveys, along with the later topographic maps I included in yesterday’s blog entry, to give you an idea of what I mean:

1807 Napoleon Survey Map 1807 Knakfuss Survey Map
1860 1:25000 Prussian Map 1940 1:25000 German Map

In spite of the deficiencies of the 1807 Napoleon survey map, and the ready availability of a superior alternative, the Napoleon map has been used in a lot of different places, in military history and in wargames as well. For example, it was the clear basis of the Eylau map in the West Point Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars:

1807 Napoleon Survey Map West Point Atlas Map

And, before I wrap up today, I wanted to share with you full, high-resolution versions of both maps, extracted from the books I included in the research section of the website. The troop positions in the Napoleon map are from Napoleon’s Bataille de Preussisch-Eylau pamphlet, and the troop positions in the Knakfuss map are from Lettow-Vorbeck in his Der Krieg von 1806 und 1807, although I actually used the scan of what looks like the same map from Goltz's Von Jena bis Eylau because that scan came out a little better.)

1807 Napoleon Survey Map 1807 Knakfuss Survey Map

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

7 February, 2017

I originally started the research section over ten years ago, and the decade since has made a striking difference in the way this sort of research can be conducted. Back then, I was still very library-bound in my research. While library catalogs mostly were on-line, not much else was, and even the catalogs were quite incomplete.

For map research, my main resource was to physically visit the map room at the Library of Congress. I would go, and use their copiers to copy maps (which had to be done in sections as the maps were pretty much always larger than the copiers), and then take the copies home, scan them into my computer, and re-assemble the sections using Photoshop to make usable digital maps. It was time-consuming, introduced small but noticeable amounts of distortion, and resulted in a loss of detail from the original.

But today, things have changed, substantially for the better. In some cases, maps that were formerly available only in libraries are now available for direct download online of clean, hi-resolution scans. You can see below the difference that can make. On the left is a section of the Eylau battlefield from a 1:25000 WWII-era map that I copied, scanned, and composited back in 2004, and on the right is the same area from a near-identical map that I downloaded in 2016:

2004: Photocopied, scanned, composited 2016: Direct download

(In case you were wondering why I would use a WWII map as a source for a Napoleonic game, the WWII map has accurate topographic information, which period maps do not, and is more accurate as to location: if you overlay a period map on a modern map, the same terrain features are frequently present on both, and the modern map allows for more accurate placement of the terrain features than the period map does.)

Trips to the library haven’t been eliminated, but there are process improvements there as well. Now I have a lightweight scanner that I can take with me, and rather than having to photocopy at the library, take home, and then scan, I can now scan at the library itself, which is faster, simpler, and produces a higher quality result. (Compositing still usually required.) Even my old haunt of the Library of Congress Map Room has been upgraded. They now have a large format scanner: I can take an entire oversize map sheet, and feed it into their scanner, and get a high-resolution digital file directly: replacing the entire photocopy-scan-composite process.

Maps aren’t always available for direct download, but sometimes there is another change for the better: you can simply find out more about what resources are available. For example, in 2004, I was entirely unaware of the fact that the 1:25000 German WWII-era maps I was scanning were of a series that began in the 19th century. Now, I have read that this goes back to Prussia in the 1830’s, but I admit I have not been able to find 1:25000 Prussian maps that are that old. I have, however, been able to find maps from 1860, and license high resolution scans of those maps. While license restrictions (very regrettably) prevent me from posting the actual maps in their entirety, I can show you a section of one so you can see what it looks like compared with the WWII-era map of the same scale and the same area:

1860 1:25000 Prussian Map 1940 1:25000 German Map

Improvements in the online availability of research materials is by no means limited to maps. For older sources, Google Books is an incredible resource. What once required a trip to a major research library is now instantly available to anyone anywhere. When I started this site, one of the things I wanted to do was to make scans of hard-to-find books I was using in my research and make them available through this website. Doing so was a lot of work, but it was something I wanted to do. Google Books, as well as similar digital book collections have made this as a personal task unnecessary. What’s more, Google Books has done on a mass scale what I was able to do for a small selection of books: scan the text so as to make the books accessible not just as page images, but as searchable text.

Given this, it was at first unclear to me whether there my research section really had anything to more to do. And frankly, the answer is, not a great deal. And that is a good thing. But there are still a few things I can do, and so I am trying to do them. First, Google Books is not actually complete. There are volumes that it should have but doesn’t. The same applies to other digital libraries as well, but the gaps in one are not necessarily the gaps in another, so with some digging, gaps can often be filled in. Second, it is imperfectly indexed. Titles and author names are not consistent. And third, their automated book scanning system could not handled folded inserts and in some cases images were simply dropped.

And so, I have taken the time and trouble for sources I am using to correct these deficiencies. Below you can see sources newly added to the site’s resource section, based on what is available in Google Books. I’ve restored missing volumes from multi-volume sets as well as missing maps and images. (That there are two works called “Der Krieg von 1806 und 1807” is not an accidental duplication on my part. They are entirely separate works.) Anyway, here they are:

From Jena to Pr. Eylau Von Jena bis Pr. Eylau (From Jena to Pr. Eylau) by Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz This work was published in 1907. It's author was a Prussian General of Infantry. Early in his career, the author was attached to the historical section of the Prussian general of Staff, where he wrote several books on Prussian military operations. The current work was a sequel to his book Von Rossbach bis Jena und Auerstadt. The earlier book traced the Prussian army from what Goltz took to be its high point, the Battle of Rossbach, to its humiliation at Jena-Austerstadt. The current volume was intended to take that story forward, to the Battle of Pr. Eylau, which Goltz took to be the moment when it merited (even if it did not at the time receive) the recovery of its honor. Thus, the book's subtitle, Des alten Preußischen Heeres Schmach und Ehrenrettung, which roughly translates to The Disgrace and Redemption of the Old Prussian Army. PDF.
The War of 1806 and 1807 Der Krieg von 1806 und 1807 (The War of 1806 and 1807) by Eduard von Höpfner This work was published in 1850. Its author was a Prussian Major General (then a Colonel). One of the oddities of the 1806-1807 campaign was that it produced two different four-volume Prussian staff histories of the war, both with the same title. Staff histories were notable for their use of archival sources (by no means the rule in historical writing prior to this) and high degree of operational detail. This is the earlier of the two staff histories of 1806-1807, and is largely (though not entirely) subsumed by the later work by Lettow-Vorbek. Still, it is still not wholly without interest and is routinely cited in modern histories of the conflict. Volumes.
The War of 1806 and 1807 Der Krieg von 1806 und 1807 (The War of 1806 and 1807) by Oscar von Lettow-Vorbeck This work was published in 1891. Its author was Oscar von Lettow-Vorbeck, then a Colonel in the Prussian army. This is the later of the two four-volume Prussian staff histories of the war, and for modern research purposes, much the more important of the two. The level of operational detail is very high, and it is well-supplied with orders of battle and maps. Unsurprisingly, it is more focused on Prussian operations than either of the other two armies, but it hardly neglects either. It remains a invaluable research source over 100 years after it was written. Volumes.

6 February, 2017

So, one of the problems of putting a business on hiatus for years, as I did with Simmons Games, is that routine maintenance type things that should be done, don’t get done. While over the last few months I’ve breathed life back into this blog, other parts of the site have still been neglected. Over the last couple of weeks, in parallel with other activities, I’ve been started fixing the site up a little.

One of the more embarrassing areas of neglect was just to remove the references to Guns of Gettysburg as being “in development”. Another was the broken search feature for the site. (I moved the site to a different hosting service late last year, and lost search at that time, as the implementation of it was tied to the old hosting service.) Anyway, the search feature is now working again and uses Google’s site search option. Another small change was to switch to a higher-resolution version of the Simmons Games logo, although how much of an improvement you’ll see depends on the resolution of your own computer’s display. I can say that on mine it looks marvy.

Looking ahead, the main area of the site that is in need of extensive renovation is the ecommerce section. It was originally developed around an shopping cart system specific to the site that doesn’t really make sense anymore. It never was ideal: it required customers to create accounts, enter shipping and credit card information, and so forth. For the customers and myself alike, it was tedious at best, and introduced trust issues at worst. One of the nicer consequences of the sale of the remaining inventory of Napoleon’s Triumph is that it gave me a low-risk way to work with alternative sales models. Looking forward, I would like to keep the means of selling through BGG, eBay, and Amazon. In addition, I plan to add direct PayPal sales as well. (So if you have a PayPal account, you will be able to place a direct order using that account, without the need for another account at eBay, Amazon, or anywhere else.) One thing I won’t do again, however, is accept credit cards directly. Too many negatives for the customer and myself alike. Never. Ever. Again. (I could tell you about my dealings with the Wells Fargo vampire on this, but I would rather not descend into a state of apoplexy.)

Anyway, as we get closer to publishing the new edition of Bonaparte at Marengo, you can be sure you’ll hear more about progress on the renovation of the site’s eCommerce facilities and the new business model.

23 January, 2017

(This is an adaptation of something I wrote for a different purpose than this blog. On reflection, I decided that there was material for a good blog entry here as well. While much of this is stuff I’ve said in previous blog entries, not all of it is, and pulling it all together in a single entry is, I hope, interesting and useful.)

Designing From Limits

For me, a game design is defined mostly by its limits. And that is the first thing I like to do when starting work on a game. All of my initial research and investigation is focused on this. Once I know what the limits are, I know what else I need to know, and what I can ignore. (If I know that the pieces are brigades, I know I can generally ignore the such-and-such battalion in my research. It doesn’t matter.)

Some of these limits are subject-limits, and apply to what boundaries I will draw around history to determine what parts of history the game will include, and what parts of history I will leave out. Other limits are game-limits and define what kind of game I will be making, and are related to the subject only indirectly. All of the various limits flow back and forth into each other; changing one will generally have consequences for the others. So, let’s begin.

Subject Limits

To start, let’s go through what I see as the major subject limits:

Subject Area. This begins with a geographic rectangle around what will be included on the game map. I do need to be aware I will need space somewhere in that rectangle for play aids and tracks and such. But so long as I have extra space, I don’t need to worry about the exact layout until later.

Subject Time. This is a range of time, with a start and end, that defines what time period the game will cover.

Subject Scope. What sort of things are included in the game. For a wargame, I pretty much certainly intend to include the locations and movement of military forces in the subject area, but there are other things I can choose to include or omit as part of the subject scope. What about forces that weren’t there historically, but which might have been there? What about forces that arrived at one time, but might have arrived at a different time? What about limited intelligence? Weather? Ammunition? Morale? Command and control? Individual commander personalities/abilities? Fields of fire? And so on, and so on. (Note that setting scope of a system is not the same thing as designing the system: choosing a city I want to live in and a rent I can afford to pay is not the same thing as choosing the exact apartment I am going to live in.)

Subject Scale. How fine-grained is the subject resolution going to be? What are the smallest areas I can resolve? What is the smallest time unit? For the military forces I include, what is the unit scale? For each of the subject scope elements I plan to include, what is the mix of detail and abstraction do I intend to use?

Game Limits

Now let’s go through what I see as the major game limits:

Game Size. Physically, how big is the game going to be? This starts with board dimensions, but doesn’t end there. How many pieces are there going to be? How many markers, charts, play aids? Game size is not only about how much space players will need to play the game, it also correlates strongly with manufacturing costs and retail price point.

Game Time. How long is it going to take to play the game from start to finish? In general, the longer the game, the less often it can be played. People only have so much time, and the space the game occupies will have rivals for use of that space. A game that takes up a 44"x34" but can be played from start to finish in 3 hours is a very different proposition for players than one the same size that takes 20 hours to play. The 3 hour game can time-share a dining room table with family meals. The 20 hour game can’t. There is another, more subtle consideration with regard to game time: playtest time requirements scale with game time. All things being equal, a 4-hour game will need twice as many hours of playtest time as a 2-hour game to reach the same level of quality.

Game Complexity. How hard is it going to be to learn to play? A useful metric is rules length, but writing style makes a big difference there. Still, within any given style, complexity generally rises at least as fast as word count. And so, rules length of a given rules style is a good stake-in-the-ground complexity budget for the game. I can look at a game with rules written in a style like that I plan to adopt. Compared to that game’s rule book, how long is the rule book going to be? The same? Half as long? Twice as long?

Game Variability. How much game-to-game variation will there be in terms of how the game plays? At one end, there are games that I consider to be “closed”, where the players have very limited scope in the choices they can make. On the other end, there are games that I consider to be “open” where players can make a lot of different choices. (Choices that almost always end in defeat are not, by the way, things I consider choices in this context.) By way of example, NT was designed as an “open” version of Austerlitz where the Allies could try a lot of different plans. On the other hand, there have been “closed” versions of the same battle where the Allies were pretty much compelled to always repeat the historical plan of attacking the French right.


Wargame designers as a group, I think, tend to design around subject limits and let game limits fall out of that process as consequences of the subject and their treatment of it. (For example, I’m pretty sure that the design team of War in the East didn’t decide to do a 200 hour game on the WWII Eastern Front, and then chose a division scale as the best way to make that happen.) But that is not at all how I work. For me, game limits are very strong limits and have a very powerful effect on how I treat a subject. Generally, I start with game limits and a subject, and then see what subject limits fall out from there, to tell me to what I can and can’t do with the game.

21 January, 2017

Just a short blog entry for those left in doubt by the last one.

There is another game in the chute after the new edition of Bonparte at Marengo, and that's an Eylau game. It has the working title of Napoleon, 1807 with a subtitle of The Battle of Eylau. In giving a game a title I try to ensure that the most important word that establishes what the game is about is in the title of the game. In the case of Napoleonic games, that’s usually going to the name “Napoleon” (or “Bonaparte” as the case may be). The trouble with Eylau is that it isn’t that well-known a battle, and the name is rather odd looking. (And no, thank-you very much, I wasn’t about to go with “Preussisch-Eylau”.) If people who are not Napoleonic enthusiasts see the game, and get the message that the game has something to do with Napoleon, I will feel like my game title has accomplished it’s mission.

(And I would like to say that I have quite a few customers for my Napoleonic games who don’t know much about the Napoleonic period, and I am glad and happy to have them. I value all my customers, and want anyone who gives up time and money to learn and play one of my games to have a good experience with it. And if one of my Napoleonic games is a gateway drug to the period, so much the better. My own love for Napoleonics is true and deep and it always delights me if I can introduce someone new to it.)

Anyway, I can’t say I’m completely happy with the title, and will certainly change it if I get a better idea. One of the problems though, as with anybody trying to do a new game in this period, is that obvious titles tend to already be taken. You can re-use a title, which not generally illegal as copyright law doesn’t apply to titles, but doing so is confusing to customers and that is generally a bad thing to do if it can be at all avoided.

I may yet get a better idea for a title, and certainly would be pleased if I did, but for now, it is “Napoleon, 1807”.

18 January, 2017

A peek at what’s coming down the road.

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

14 January, 2017

So, originally for this blog entry I had this grand plan that having discussed two eastern front games (Stalingrad and War in the East) I was going to drill down into how those games handled production, and then use that as an introduction to my thoughts about production in Stavka, an eastern front game of my own that I’ve been working on. However, once I finished discussing Stalingrad and War in the East, I found that the blog entry was quite long enough already, and that it made better sense to just go ahead and post it, and talk above Stavka another day. And so, that’s what I’m going to do.

Anyway, I’m going to start with Stalingrad, the older and simpler of the two games I’ll cover today. (Incidentally, the Stalingrad rules refer to production as "replacements", but we’ll use a more generic term in this discussion.) Below is a process model, focused on representing inputs and outputs.

As you can see, it is super simple. Production cites make production points which are used to buy units. The production rates (points per turn per production city) are low for the Germans at start and stay low. For the Soviets, on the other hand, rates start low but go up over time. The result is that the production system is designed so that the Germans generally grow weaker over time, as their production can’t keep up with their losses. The Soviets, on the other hand, tend to grow weaker early in the game, but as their production rates rise, so does their strength. The only way the Germans can win is to capture production cities to cut off the Soviet ability to replace losses. The importance in the game of German capture of production cities is reinforced by the fact that production cites are the actual objectives in the game. If the Germans capture them all, they simply win. Game over. The system, which unifies military and game play goals, is neat, clean, and easily grasped. The production rules are covered in about 650 words, or about 15% of the Stalingrad rulebook.

Considered as a simulation, the system is more synecdochical (the part representing the whole) than directly representational. Essentially the three cities if captured represent such large territorial losses that the Soviet Union would genuinely have been in dire straits, even if not exactly in the way represented in the game. The biggest disconnect between history and the Soviet production system, I would say, is the inability of the Soviet army to ever exceed its pre-war strength levels, since the only units that the system allows be produced are those the Soviets had at the start of the game. But given the game’s general indifference to the latter half of the war, when the Soviets switched to the offensive, this is at least consistent with the way the game treats the history of the war generally.

Now, let’s move on to War in the East, and take a look at how it handles production. (Note that this discussion is focused on the system used by the Soviets for the campaign game. The Soviets don’t use it in the single-year scenarios, and the Germans have a completely different, more lightweight system of their own.)

Obviously the system looks (and is) significantly more complex, so let’s walk through it. The Soviets have personel and arms centers, which produce personel and arms points. Those points are used to buy units. The units are then placed on training centers, and after some period of time the units are trained and ready for use. An additional wrinkle is that units can be re-cycled through the production system to produce other units: units can be both a production input and output. And that’s it. If we compare the War in the East system to Stalingrad, the most important functional difference is time. In Stalingrad, unit production is instantaneous, and in War in the East it takes time. The basic arithmetic of the War in the East system (personel points plus arms points plus time buys units) is somewhat more complex than Stalingrad’s (production points buy units). Where things can be quite surprising though, is if we look at the cost in rules text for the two systems. The rules for production in Stalingrad take up 650 words, or about 15% of the rules length. The rules for production in War in the East take up about 8,000 words (!), almost 30% of the game’s total rules length, over ten times the length of production rules fo Stalingrad, and almost twice the length of the entire Stalingrad rules book. Even allowing for the fact the the rules writing style of War in the East is quite a bit more verbose than that of Stalingrad, that’s a lot.

So what happened? Why is the rules word count for the production system of War in the East so high? In general, the answer is that the production system in War in the East has a very process-heavy focus. Arms and training centers are movable pieces on the board, and each has its own special rules. There are three or four different ways (depending on how you count) of using units as production inputs. Unit training is literally localized on individual training centers, and building units involved placing them on the tracks shown below, each of which corresponded to a training center:

After being placed on a training center track, a unit being trained is literally pushed forward by the player, one space a turn (and yes, it did get old real fast to do that), until it is ready, when it can be moved to the front. Because units frequently required other units as inputs, units often have to be moved to training centers, as well as from training centers. Ironically enough, The entire localized training center system is frequently rendered irrelevant, as training centers can be moved to the abstract space of “Siberia”, where centers no longer have a specific location. This left the rules to regulate both non-localized arms and training centers (those in Siberia), as well localized arms and training centers (those on the map).

Now, the actual management of a war economy was a vastly complicated thing, but the things that made it complicated weren’t the things that War in the East simulates. In the actual war economy, factories didn’t produce generic “arms points”, they produced specific types of weapons, ammunition, parts and supplies, and they in turn depended on the production of various kinds of raw materials. Further, the factories themselves need machines for production, and those machines had to come from somewhere. People drafted into the army weren’t able to keeping doing what they had been doing: if you draft your agricultural labor force into the army, who’s going to be producing your country’s food? So finding people to serve in the army while keeping your economy going was a difficult problem. War in the East doesn’t simulate any of those things. It abstracts them. Now, to be clear, I think abstracting them was an excellent decision. Big, long game; lots of other things for it to do. No need to open that can of worms. But if you aren’t going to simulate them, what do you need a complex production system for?

I can’t know for sure why the War in the East design team went with a system that abstracts so much, yet remains so complex. (Incidentally, the 2nd edition of War in the East, designed to integrate with War in the West to make War in Europe vastly simplified production from the first edition.) I can, however, make some reasonable guesses. First, I’m pretty certain that when the design team started down this path, they didn’t realize how complicated it would ultimately prove to be. I think they thought the whole production system would be a fun and interesting game-within-a-game, a mixture of representation and abstraction. The design just got away from them. (Complexity creep is a problem in all systems development. An unexpected problem arises, and the system is modified to fix it. Over and over again. It might be that none of the individual modifications is large, but they add up over time, and eventually the system becomes much more unwieldy than ever envisioned at start. And for the record, I’d really like to say that if that’s what happened to the SPI design team on this one, that I have a lot of sympathy for them. I’ve been there.)

And with that, I’m going to close off this blog entry. A Stavka discussion is coming. I promise.

12 January, 2017

I would like to begin today by telling you a story.

Years ago, when I was just out of high school, a store opened near my house that sold books and wargames. I applied for and got hired there as a clerk. (For me, at that age, it was the perfect job; sure beat the dry cleaners where I had worked before.) Anyway, the store hadn’t been open long before it became the home to a group of Napoleonic miniatures players. (Not all were miniatures players before joining the group, but all were wargamers of one sort or another.) At the endorsement of their host, my employer, friend, and owner of the store, they began to use an informal adaptation of the rules to Wellington’s Victory, Frank Davis’s game on the battle of Waterloo, for their games.

I wasn’t a part of the group at first. Miniatures weren’t really my thing: you either had to have tons of money or a love of painting tiny figures, and I had neither. Still, I watched some and began to get interested. I could see that they were having problems because their adaptation wasn’t really written down anywhere and they had to work out issues on the fly. Anyway, I offered to see what I could do to help. And so, with my copy of Davis’s rules to Wellington’s Victory in hand, I wrote an adaptation for Napoleonic Miniatures, dropping the things that were Waterloo-specific, and introducing generic rules where they were needed. And from that point on, I became both a member of the group, and (at first) the keeper of their rules, and later their in-house designer. (Because they later wanted a series of strategic rules for campaign games, being their in-house designer was actually a fair amount of work, but it was also great fun.)

Anyway, because of this group, the rules to Wellington’s Victory were the core of my wargaming life for about five years. I got to know them about as well as it is possible to know a set of rules, what they did well, and what they did less well. I loved them. I loved how creative they were. I loved how much they rewarded study and thought. I loved how clean they were. I loved their capacity for drama and excitement. I had previously greatly admired Davis’s Frederick the Great but my experience with his Wellington’s Victory system took my admiration of him to a whole new level. He was my hero and everything I aspired to be as a game designer.

It was during this period that I got to meet him. (It was at my request. We were both at the Origins gaming convention in Baltimore.) I was very nervous and very excited. I worried that he would take offense at some of the changes I had made in adapting his design for miniatures. I hoped that he would help me with advice on how to design wargames professionally.

The meeting did not go at all as I expected. He was kind, but seemed quite sad. I was sure that things were not going well for him in his career, though I had no idea in what way. (I still don’t. I could speculate, but don’t see the point.) Anyway, at one point when I was gushing in my enthusiasm, he just said, “Where were you several years ago?” It almost broke my heart. Of course I had been in high school then, but I knew he wasn’t asking the question literally. I took it to mean that at an earlier time in his career, he could have used my enthusiasm, but now that time had passed.

I never met Frank Davis again. I heard occasional snippets of news about him in the gaming world, and it seemed it was never good news. Eventually, I stopped hearing anything at all.

But Frank Davis is still my hero. I titled Napoleon’s Triumph as an homage to Wellington’s Victory. It seems pretty certain that he no longer has any connection to the gaming world, and perhaps that is how he wants it. But his influence there continues: I am part of that, and grateful for it.

A week or so ago, I found out that Decision Games had published what they call a second edition to Wellington’s Victory. (They actually published it over a year ago, but I knew nothing of it then.) This news really upset me and still does. An actual second edition of Wellington’s Victory no longer seems possible. Now, I am not upset at all that a new game on the same subject in the same scale by a different designer was published. In fact, as I think of design in our community as a long-running conversation, and so each new design is welcome and adds to it. What hurts me here is that calling this new game a second edition of Wellington’s Victory it doesn’t so much add to the conversation as attempt to erase and overwrite one of its most distinctive voices. Anyone who read the design notes for Wellington’s Victory knows what a personal project this was, how much of himself Davis put into it, and how long and hard he worked on it. He should not now be treated this way. It shouldn’t happen. It is morally wrong. I don’t think there is anything I can do at this point beyond voicing my protest, and remind you of the person I will always think of as the greatest designer whose work I was ever privileged to play, but I can do that, and I am doing that.

10 January, 2017

I thought I would follow up my previous post about the progress of playtesting with new edition of Bonaparte at Marengo with a more general discussion of playtesting in terms of process.

Generally, I move a design from development to playtest once it has a playable map, order of battle, and rules, and seems to function more or less as designed when I play it solitaire. At that point, I look for a playtest team. It is much my preference to get a fairly small group of people (5 or 6 is a good number) who have the time and interest to play basically the same game (with adjustments between games) over and over again. People who playtest for me will learn the game so well they could play in their sleep, and that is what I want. It is their expertise that I count on to ensure that the game that ultimately ships is balanced and the way it plays is well-understood. We live in the age of the Internet. If players find that a game is broken in some way, everyone in the community will know it. This is a good thing for players, but it is challenging for designers. Still, I firmly believe it to be a very good thing.

Anyway, if we look at playtesting from a process perspective, the core of the process is the playtest cycle, as illustrated in the diagram below:

One of the important things to understand about playtesting is that it isn’t necessarily the number of hours that matters: it’s usually more about the number of cycles. If you just play the early turns of of a game, you haven’t learned how it will behave in the later turns, as these cannot be necessarily predicted from the first. (For example, a version of Bonaparte at Marengo can work just fine in the opening and middle game, and fall apart completely in the endgame. And you wouldn’t know about the problems unless you play all the way through to the endgame.) Further, after you make a change, that resets the playtest clock to an extent and you really need to play it through again (at least once) to get even a basic understanding of the consequences of the change. In general, the faster you can get through a playtest game, the more cycles you can run, the more problems you can find and fix, and the more confident you can be in the fixes.

Because of the need to run full cycles, one of the most intractable problems in the design of long-playing games is how much time it takes to complete a cycle. Bonaparte at Marengo takes a couple hours face-to-face, and a few days over Cyberboard (roughly: Cyberboard playtime can be wildly variable due to wide differences in player availability from game to game.) Guns of Gettysburg was somewhat longer than Napoleon’s Triumph, for example, and so the playtest cycle time was longer as well, and for that reason alone it took longer to playtest. (Additionally, Guns of Gettysburg had a complex testing problem because of its variable reinforcements and moving objectives. Testing game balance took forever, a process I described at the time as the playtester death march.)

And this leads into a discussion about a game that I did not design, but which is relevant to a discussion about playtesting and time. (I said I was going to occasionally talk about games other than my own.) This game was SPI’s War in the East (1974). In a previous blog entry, I discussed Stalingrad, published in 1963, and the intense interest people had in making a better Stalingrad. This desire also was very much present in SPI, which took the form of the Stalingrad II project. (For SPI, better meant first and foremost bigger: they wanted an immense division-scale eastern front game.) Stalingrad II never happened, but with GDW’s publication of the conceptually similar Drang Noch Osten, SPI was challenged/provoked/inspired to go ahead with their version, dropping the title Stalingrad II in favor of War in the East.

If we were to compare War in the East to Stalingrad, an entirely appropriate comparison for a game whose origins lay in making a better Stalingrad, the first thing that would strike us is its size. It had four map sections, each as big as the Stalingrad map, and used about 5 times as many counters to represent the armies. (The total number of counters was enormously greater: 2000 vs. about 100, but only a fraction of the War in the East counters were units that would be on the map together at the same time.) But by far the most transformative aspect of the design was playing time.

In terms of playing time, Stalingrad was a longish game, but nothing more than that. Players whose expectations of board game length were set by Monopoly, for example, would have seen nothing extraordinary in the length of a game of Stalingrad. War in the East was so different in terms of playing time that it didn’t even really belong in the same genre as other boardgames. It wasn’t a game that you got out of its box, played for a few hours, then put back. War in the East was an ongoing, long term activity that demanded its own, large, dedicated space that it could share with nothing else: it was more like a model railroad set than a game. You could start a game of War in the East, and you could play it, but you could never really finish it: it had in the neighborhood of 200 turns.

And here we return to the subject of playtesting. I am certain that War in the East received more hours of playtesting than, say, the new edition of Bonaparte at Marengo, but it had many fewer cycles. (I infer from the design notes that in fact it never had even one full cycle.) So, if you can’t run playtest cycles, how do you test your game?

The short answer is that you can’t.

The long answer is you can try and test parts of the game independently from each other, and hope that if the parts seem to work ok in isolation, that when they are put together they will fit reasonably well. In practice, however, I think SPI had lots of evidence that their parts weren’t going to fit together, but knowing you have a problem and knowing how to fix and test it are very different things. Even their partial game tests (like yearly scenarios) had very long playing times in and of themselves. They wrote a computer program to try to test their production system, and as someone who spent many years writing computer programs, I can say that one of their worst features is that they are quite hard to dynamically change. If your program finds a problem in your production system, and you devise a new system in response (not merely minor changes to the existing system), you will likely have to write a new program to test that. As a way to test a subsystem for a boardgame? Not cheap. Not fast.

If we step back from theory and look at the actual game, we can see that design failures pervade War in the East. It is hard to think of a significant part of the game that doesn’t have serious problems, both in simulation terms and game terms. (Stalingrad may not have worked as a simulation, but it did work as a game.) I believe it isn’t so much that the design ideas in War in the East were bad starting points for a game, it was that without any real ability to run playtest cycles, there wasn’t any real way for SPI’s design team to find and fix the problems. It was a hugely ambitious project and badly needed playtest cycles to really get it working properly, but the game’s length made it impossible to run them. That it wouldn’t work very well was almost a certainty, and it cannot surprise that it didn’t. The SPI design team weren’t incompetent (far from it), just overwhelmed by how hard it was to do what they were trying to do. It wasn’t as if anybody then had a lot of experience then trying to create games this big, complex, and above all, long. There is no doubt that the game is a failure, but given the degree of difficulty, I think it was a respectable one.

Oh, and one more thing. Whatever its failings as a game, War in the East looked damned impressive on the table. And looks matter.

9 January, 2017

We’ve been continuing playtesting of the new edition of Bonaparte at Marengo. What makes the last week unusual is that I personally played a playtest game, which is very much not my usual practice. The “playtesting” I do tends to be fairly brief solitaire exercises of a few turns to make sure a change looks promising before sending it to the playtest team. Nothing like the full-length two-player games that makes up playtesting proper. This time, however, I played out a full Cyberboard game against one of the playtesters. So, why do I usually not playtest, and why did I decide to this time?

The reason I don’t usually playtest is that it takes time and mental energy that I think is best reserved for design work. There are design problems to be solved, rules to be written and edited, and map work to be done. Not just on the game currently in playtest, but in designing the next game to follow the one currently in playtest. I can’t do this work simultaneously with personally playing playtest games. Every hour I spend playtesting is an hour I don’t spend doing design and development work.

So, why did I do it this time? Well, it looked like the V20 version of the game (we generally refer to versions of the game by the rules version numbers, so this was version 20 of the rules) had a serious problem. V20’s first playtest looked really good to me (and it did solve a real problem with the game), but the second game went poorly and the playtesters were expressing reservations about the morale levels being too high (and a couple other things). I had some ideas on how to play the game that were different than what the players were then doing, and I wanted to test them out, to see if their concerns were valid for that play style as well as the ones they were using. And so, I played a game. The test taught me quite a bit about problems with the changes I had introduced in V20, but where it really got interesting was the endgame, which I hadn’t even intended to test; I expected to quit the game about midday.

What my playtest game taught me was that the game play was both super interesting and involving (very good) but the opening game balance was badly broken (much too tough for the Austrians) and the endgame balance and historical accuracy were also pretty broken (very bad). These were things I wasn’t even trying to test. I will say that doing the occasional playtest myself is something I should do periodically, in spite of the time cost. Looking at the game from the perspective of a player rather than an observer is a different enough experience that some problems (but not all) are just much more clearly seen from that perspective.

Since then, I’ve done a couple of new rules drops (V21 and V22), aimed at opening and endgame issues. V21 went through one playtest, reminded me forcefully of another endgame problem (a French late game retreat) that’s been there forever but which I had gotten so used to I had stopped really thinking of it as a problem. I decided that that was one tactic that really needed to go: it was ruining the endgame every time it happened. We’ll see how it works. These are both pretty substantial changes, and will need time to work through so that we understand the ramifications better. You just can’t rush playtesting. It takes as long as it takes, and if you hurry it, you run a real risk of shipping a bad or even broken game.

3 January, 2017

Well, the new edition of Bonaparte at Marengo continues to get a good playtest workout. We’ve had about 20 playtest games, mostly Cyberboard, but also some face-to-face. We’ve had 20 different versions of the rules (many of which contain only textual clarifications, and not actual content changes) and 11 different versions of the map (changes have tended to mainly concern of the morale schedule and objectives). In all of this, we have quite a few small changes, but nothing at all dramatic. We spent a lot of time working on the French activation/organization rules, and got to the point where we’re all pretty happy with the result. We’re currently working on getting some subtle but important combat changes tested, and also the latest version of the objectives/marginal victory conditions. It’s all very important work to making the final game one that customers will enjoy, but it does not make terribly exciting reading: you really need the kind of familiarity that comes from playing the game to “get” the changes. I am happy to say that the game has not gotten more complex; in fact, I think it is slightly simpler.

Regarding this blog, for the last month or so, frequent entries concerning actual game development have seemed quite unnecessary, given the kind of changes being made and the pace of those changes. And so, I’ve had fewer entries, and they’ve been more about theory and process than details about the actual game.

However, there is no need for a design blog to be solely focused on my own games, and so I thought I’d do some commentary and analysis on some other games: not from a player’s perspective, but from a designer’s. I have no particular schedule in mind, nor any set list of games. (Although I definitely have some candidates in mind.)

Right now, I would like to discuss Avalon Hill’s Stalingrad (1963). Although it is obviously not a modern game, and however often it may have been played in its day, it certainly is not a game that gets much table time from anybody today. Still, I think there is interest in discussing it, and I hope that by the end, readers will feel that it was worth their time.

Anyway, Stalingrad was of the first generation of commercial wargames, and had a great deal in common with other games of its generation. You can see the counters and map below (not to the same scale):

By modern standards, the art and print quality were exceedingly basic. The order of battle and map were considered marginal in terms of accuracy even by the standards of 1963. (Famously, Sevastapol was put on the wrong side of the Crimea.) Likewise, the core game system was not really up to the job of simulating its immense subject, and simply cannot play out in anything resembling history. Balance, in the first edition, was marginal: it was possible, but very far from easy, to win as the Germans.

Given all of the above, you might think the game was rather a failure. It was not. It was actually a great success. It was widely played and widely discussed. Game play (especially the Soviet set-up) was examined in almost microscopic detail, and there was an immense cottage industry in alternate counter sets and rules. (I don’t see such alternate rules and counters as necessarily indicating game design failure, any more than the existence of a thriving aftermarket for custom parts for a car necessarily means that the car design was a failure.)

In attempting to understand why Stalingrad succeeded, I would suggest that a good place to begin is if rather than think of it as a failed simulation, we think of it as a sort of an early, eastern front Eurogame, with more than usual attention to its theme, and go from there.

Part of the game’s success was of course simply that its subject was the largest military campaign ever fought, and there was real anticipation for it as a result. But to chalk it up to solely that, I think, misses its real virtues as a game. The first thing I would call your attention to is the short, muscular rule book. It was just about 4,300 words. If we were to graph its word count by subject, we would see the following:

About 45% of the text (about 1900 words) is devoted to the core game mechanics (sequence of play, movement, and combat). Another 30% of the text (about 1300 words) are devoted to the key strategic sub-systems (production, supply, and rail movement). Everything else divides up the remaining 25% of the text. I would say that the rules reflect an admirable focus on what the game is really about. It is a very direct, unfussy game. There aren’t many pieces to move to complete a turn. Combat resolution is quick and relatively painless (long division aside). Production (replacements and reinforcements) is likewise quick and painless: you get production points and choose units to spend them on. There is only one thing in the rules that really strikes me as a weakness: and that is the handling of rivers. Because the game put rivers in hexes rather than between hexes, the extremely simple idea that attacking across a river doubles the strength of a defender turns into a long, complex, confusing labyrinth of rules text. Somebody should have slapped the designers and forced them to put the rivers between the hexes: the world would have been a better place for it.

If we turn to the game play experience, the heart of Stalingrad game play is tactical, and the heart of tactical game play is mathematics. The game uses a probabilistic, odds-based system, so 14 points attacking 7 is quite a different thing in terms of statistical outcomes than 13 points attacking 7. With a wide range of unit strengths to choose from, optimally mixing and matching units and working out the various probabilities to get the best possible likely outcomes for attacks (including “soak-off” attacks which the rules force through mandatory attacks on adjacent units) is a genuinely interesting challenge. The spatial element of game play is important but plays a clearly supporting role to the mathematical engine. Spatial play is dominated by the terrain on the map that can double the strength of the defender, and the linear nature of rivers in particular substantially enriches the range of possibilities for attacker and defender both. Overall, tactical planning of where to put defending units and how to attack them is involving and rewarding for both players. The design effort put into the combat rules is well justified by the player interest that results.

Undoubtably the greatest weakness of the game play experience is strategic. At the strategic level, there is just not that much going on, as play is relentlessly tactical. Yes, there are some strategic considerations, particularly in the form of the three Soviet production cities (Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad), which double as objectives, to focus the energy of attacker and defender alike, but game play overall is dominated by tactical considerations as the Germans grind east, trying to keep the loss ratios as favorable as possible. It is also true that in the game the roles "attacker" and "defender" almost invariably map onto "German" and "Soviet". Winter does nothing that would tend to re-create the historical Soviet winter offensives, and with the game ending in mid-1943, the year-round Soviet offensives of the last two years of the war aren’t going to happen either. (What to do about the last two years of the war in an eastern front game is just a tough design problem; if Stalingrad took a pass on them, I don’t think that later eastern front games did much to persuade anyone that taking a pass was not a reasonable idea.) Anyway, the sharply defined attacker vs. defender roles for the opposing sides don’t make the game bad (generally players alternated between the two sides in different games anyway) but there is definitely a sense that an opportunity for drama, at least regarding the Soviet winter offensives, was lost.

So what can a modern designer learn from Stalingrad? Quite a few things, I think. I mentioned that the game was unfussy and direct. The core of the game is the mathematics of its combat system, and it presents that in a very clean way. Constructing and attacking a defensive line is a thoroughly involving process. There is no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all way to play Stalingrad. You always need to think through the individual implications of every single hex as a unique problem. Stalingrad also has a nice gradation of results for bad-to-good play, which makes it fairly forgiving for players of different skill levels: the weaker player can (and sometimes does) beat the stronger player, making the experience enjoyable for both, without being so random as to make thought and skill seem futile and pointless. Overall, the game is true to itself and what it is about. Game sub-systems that are intended to support game play do just that: they support it with a minimum of complexity and player effort. If Stalingrad is not played much any more it is not because anybody ever discovered that it was a bad game, it is because other games have come along since have its strengths but not its weaknesses. When you consider how many years and how many failed attempts were made before it happened, that’s a pretty impressive legacy that should not be lightly dismissed.

31 December, 2016

As sometimes happens to me, I started a blog entry with one idea in mind, then after developing it for a while, decided instead to take a different direction with it.

So, what I want to talk about is a sort of conceptual model for wargames. (Non-computer wargames, at least.)

To begin, let’s just consider a wargame just in terms of the physical game, independent of external relations.

Considered just as this, if we had to say something, we might say that a wargame is a game with a board on which pieces engage in conflict. (There are, of course, a small number of wargames, such as Up Front, that lie outside this level of generalization, but the existence of exceptions does not obviate the usefulness of generalizations.)

Still, at this level, we could be describing any number of abstract games (such as Chess) that are not wargames. And so, to this conceptual model, I’d like to add a relation that brings wargames, as a distinct category of games, into sharper focus: the subject.

The subject, I think, is an essential quality of wargames: the subject can be ahistorical (it could be from fantasy or science fiction, for example) but it does have to exist. While I am generally loathe to say what is and is not a wargame, I feel comfortable saying that a wargame without a subject is just not a wargame. Beyond simply having a subject, a distinctive quality of of wargames is the closeness of the relationship between game and subject. Eurogames, for example, have themes as a sort of subject (the difference in terminology here corresponds to a fundamental difference, I think) but Eurogame themes are worn pretty lightly. Nobody, for example, would criticize Puerto Rico for not being a very accurate depiction of the island’s economic development. It isn’t supposed to be, and it doesn’t pretend to be. Yet any wargame, by its nature, not only is open to, but invites such criticism regarding how well the game models the subject.

The closeness of the relation between wargame and subject has long dominated discussion of wargame design, to the extent that the basic “game” elements of the physical game (hex grid, cardboard counters, movement allowances, attack strengths, combat results tables, etc.) are often simply assumed as existing prior to the actual “design” work, which is almost entirely concerned with how to map the chosen subject onto that basic physical game framework. One reason for this design absorption is that the subject-to-game relation is the signature characteristic of wargames: one “does” wargame design by attending to it. Another, I think, is simply the degree of difficulty: the complexities of reality can never be mapped fully onto a game, but even if a perfect mapping is not possible, it always seems that a better mapping is, so the subject-to-game relation is an infinite sink for design time and attention.

However, if we follow this tradition of focusing on the subject-to-game relation, we might miss, I think, an even more vital relation: that of the player to game.

The player is the game’s motor, without which it is not a game at all, and is instead simply an inert object, a game only in potency (to use Aristotelian analysis) rather than act. Only through the agency of the player does a game become a game; and this is just as true of wargames as any other sort of game. But the importance of the player-to-game relation runs still deeper. Again, to use Aristotelian analysis, being played is not simply the efficient cause, the means by which the game becomes fully real, being played is also the final cause, the reason that the game was created in the first place.

The player-to-game relation, however, is not all about the game: in fact, what really matters is that it is about the player. The game exists to benefit the player, the player does not exist to benefit the game. So, how does the game benefit the player? Well, first, it is simply an object for the senses: in particular, it has form, color, texture, and weight. The overall aesthetic impact of a game is important, especially visual. Anything that a person stares at as hard and as long as players do wargames really should be a pleasure to see. Beyond the senses, it engages the intellect. The game presents goals and means by which those goals might be achieved (or fail to be achieved), requiring and rewarding intellectual engagement. Finally, the game operates on feelings and emotions. Tension, fear, excitement, and happiness (and we hope not boredom, but those hopes are sadly not always rewarded) are all commonly experienced during game play. By playing a wargame, we make the wargame more real, but more importantly, we also make ourselves more alive, by increasing our engagement with multiple aspects of our being.

Up to this point, we have considered two relations (game-to-subject and player-to-game) in isolation, but things get considerably more interesting when we consider both relations together.

The game then emerges as a central element, a link between player and subject. By playing a wargame, the player does not just relate to the game, but through the game as locus, to the subject as well. At one time, I regarded the common wargame practice of solitaire play as simply a reaction to the lack of opponents, and so it often is, but regarding solitaire play as only that misses the importance of the player-to-subject relation which the game enables. Enjoyment of the subject, even if the enjoyment of game-as-game is wholly absent, can be enough to reward the wargame player for his time and effort in learning and playing the game. Of course, the richness of this added relationship to the experience of game play does not come without a cost. To the player who is indifferent to the subject, the subject is at best an irrelevancy, and at worst a complicating burden.

The completion of this particular conceptual model, however, is only achieved once we introduce the final element: the opposing player.

It is through the opposing player that the game truly emerges as a game. Really, with just one player, without reference to subject, the game is really being enjoyed really as a puzzle: a set of problems to be solved for the enjoyment of solving them. On the other hand, when an opposing player is introduced, the game takes on its own life. By responding to both players, the game also responds to neither, as it takes on situations and forms that neither player foresaw or intended. But more than that, the game also serves as a locus for a social interaction between the players. So much of friendship lies in common experience and common interest, which the game facilitates not only through the game as game, but also through the shared experience of the game-to-subject relation.

C. S. Lewis, in his book, The Four Loves, wrote, “Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest.” While I think Lewis may have sold friendship a little short, as friends can have more care for each other than that image suggests, the common interest, is I think, commonly of great importance in friendship. Wargaming was so important in making so many of the friendships I’ve had in my life as to be almost impossible to overstate. More than that; in fact, I feel friendship for the community of wargamers as a whole. And here, I think is the final relation, in my model, in which wargames as a whole serve as a locus for the community of wargamers as a whole. We are all linked and bound together, however far apart we may be in space or time, and however many barriers might otherwise separate us. And that is a wonderful thing.

To all my friends reading this: Happy New Year. Now and always.

7 December, 2016

First blog entry in a couple weeks, so I thought I’d catch you up. Mostly what I’ve been working on is the new edition of Bonaparte at Marengo, trying to improve the quality of the opening game. The initial changes I made definitely shook things up, but they had quite a few issues that were proving difficult to resolve. Since I was having considerable difficulty in getting things to work the way I wanted, I decided to use a more formal method of analysis, rather than just thinking out it a little and throwing whatever I thought of into the rules to feed to the playtesters.

So what does it mean what I say a more formal method of analysis? Well, for me, the answer to that begins with Plato’s dialogue “Laches”.

Plato’s Laches

At the start of the dialogue, we have two older Athenians, Lysimachus and Melesias. They are interested in the question of whether to have their sons trained in fighting-in-armor (an Athenian activity that doesn’t translate well into anything in modern English, but which we can perhaps think of as being as a sort of gladiator-style method of fighting.) Anyway, seeking expert advice, they seek out the distinguished Athenian generals Nicias and Laches for their views. On finding them, they also find Socrates, and he is recommended to them as being worth asking as well.

So anyway, Nicias speaks first. He speaks at length, arguing that learning fighting-in-armor is a great idea and will be extremely valuable to their sons. Next, Laches speaks. Laches also speaks at length, but to the opposite position, that learning fighting-in-armor is utterly impractical, and more than a waste of time, that it would be actively detrimental to their sons for learning it.

Lysimachus and Melesias are pretty flummoxed. What are they to make of this? How should they proceed?

Then Socrates takes his turn. Rather than evaluate fighting-in-armor, he asks the men what they want their sons to be, and after some back and forth, the men affirm that what they really want is for their sons to become virtuous men. With that as the object, the question of fighting-in-armor training is dropped and never returned to again. As it turned out, Lysimachus and Melesias had not thought properly about what they wanted, and so had been asking the wrong question.

Now there are many ways to think about that dialogue, but the thing that has always struck me is that it is very hard to make headway on anything if you haven’t formed a clear idea of what it is you’re trying to do. And so, this gives us the first stage of what I mean by a formal analysis:

1. Understand your goal. What are you trying to do?

Now, let us suppose we have followed Plato and thought well about what we are trying to achieve. It is an excellent start, but in and of itself it doesn’t give us any answers. What might well be helpful next is some creativity. And for that, we turn from Plato to a second person whom I have found invaluable, Warner Bros. animator and director, Chuck Jones. (Even if you don’t know him, if you know Bugs Bunny, you know his work.) In his book Chuck Amuck, Jones talks about a key aspect of the process he and his fellow animators used, “The ‘Yes’ Session”.

Chuck Jones and The “Yes” Session

Rather than summarize Jones, I think I will just quote him:

“This session was, I believe, an event unique to Warner Bros. Unique at that time, perhaps anytime. Because this was not a brainstorming session in the usual sense, it was a “yes” session, not an “anything goes” session. Anything went, but only if it was positive, supportive, and affirmative to the premise. No negatives were allowed. If you could not contribute, you kept quiet. …

“The “yes” session imposes only one discipline: the abolition of the word “no.” Anyone can say “no.” It is the first word a child learns and often the first word he speaks. It is a cheap word because it requires no explanation, and many men and women have acquired a reputation for intelligence who know only this word and have used it in place of thought on every occasion. The “yes” session lasts only for two hours, but a person who can only say “no” finds it an eternity. Negative-minded people have been known to finally inflate and burst with accumulated negatives and say something positive, because it is also true that a person who heretofore can only say “no” is also a person who must say something.

“A “no” is defined as any negative: “I don’t like it.” “There must be a better way.” “I don’t like to criticize, but…” “I’ve heard that one before.” “I don’t know.” Or: “Oh, for Christ’s sake, Chuck.” All are roadblocks impeding the advancement and exploration of the value of an idea and are forbidden.

“Of course, all story ideas are not good or useful, and if you find you cannot contribute, then silence is proper, but it is surprising how meaty and muscular a little old stringy “yes” (which is another name for a premise) can become in as little as fifteen or twenty minutes, when everyone present unreservedly commits his immediate impulsive and positive response to it. And, of course, the enlightened self-interest of pouring your contributions unreservedly out in another director’s story session is sufficient motivation; your turn will inevitably come to present an idea to the group in another session, and at such a time you, too, will want, need, and expect full cooperation. A good premise always generates the most astonishing results.”

Now mine is not as collaborative an activity as Jones’, and so the collaborative aspects are not as important to my process as his, but the “yes” session absolutely can be used by one person. Just try to list ideas. Don’t devote mental energy to shooting them down, coming up with reasons why they won‘t work, or critiquing them. Just suspend that reflex to say “no” and let the ideas flow. Each idea isn’t necessarily the whole solution to our design problem, but each idea could contribute to that solution and be part of it. And so we have the second stage of what I mean by formal analysis:

2. Generate ideas. What might be useful?

At this point in the process, we will have a list of goals, and a second list of potentially useful ideas. What do we do with them? That is the third and final stage of this kind of formal analysis. This stage came from to me from mathematics by way of computing, where it is almost always used negatively, but which here we can use positively: the “combinatorial explosion”.

Computing and the Combinatorial Explosion

A combinatorial explosion describes a class of computational problems where the number of potential solutions increases exponentially with the number of elements in the problem. We encounter combinatorial problems routinely, but a classic example is what’s called the travelling salesman problem,

“Given a list of cities and the distances between each pair of cities, what is the shortest possible route that visits each city exactly once and returns to the origin city?”

In that problem, if we have three or fewer cities, there is just 1 possible route (in this problem a route and the reverse direction of that route are the same), at four cities, we have 3, at five cities we have 12, at six cities, we have 60, at seven cities, 360, and so on. By the time we get to ten cities, we have over 180,000, at twenty cities we have over 60,000,000,000,000,000.

In computing, combinatorial explosion problems get horribly hard to solve, for any but a tiny number of elements, and while enormous effort has gone into finding algorithms that can make these problems easier to manage, they’ve never really been tamed. So how does this help us? Why is this terrible thing in computing a good thing here?

Well, first of all, we don’t need a ‘best’ solution. In game design, it isn’t even clear what ‘best’ means. Second, people tend to be really, really good at coming up with ‘good’ solutions to many combinatorial explosion problems, even if not necessarily the best ones. (Look how much time and effort it took to develop a computer that could play at the same level as a strong Chess player.) Finally, we are in a creative process here. What we want is a set of possible solutions from which to choose, and the more combinations we have, the more possible solutions we have. And so, we are now at step 3:

3. Combinatorial play to build a solution.

Each new idea generated at step two hugely increases the number of possible solutions we can play with. And play is what we are doing. We have our list of ideas, we have our list of goals to guide us in combining those ideas. So, now we play. We create possible solutions: We start a proposal with idea A (our favorite), then consider our goals: which goals remain unachieved? Which ideas might help? We look and see that idea C might. We add it to the proposal. Look at our list of goals again. Once more, which ones haven’t we achieved? Once more, look at our list of ideas. We can look critically at our proposal: where does it contain redundancies? If we have ideas A,C,D, and F, is C really needed, or do D and F between them do the same thing? If so, we can delete C. In the process of working on our proposal, we may come up with new ideas, if so, we add them to our list of ideas. We may think of new goals that we missed the first time. If so, we add them to our list of goals. We may decide we just don‘t have enough ideas yet. If so, we go back to step 2. We may decide that our goals are in practice unachievable. If so, we go back: do we really need them all? Can we drop some? Can we come up with alternative goals that are good enough? We tug and pull at our goals and ideas, we subtly reshape them as we combine and compare them. Finding a solution will take time and effort, and at times it will seem impossible, but we persist. We have faith that the answer is out there.

All of this might sound rather vague. What does it look like in practice? Well, at one time, it isn’t something I really could have showed you, but since I’ve adopted the iPad, Apple Pencil, and GoodNotes into my design workflow, I can. And so, I’m going to show you some notebook pages from the work I did on the opening game of the new edition of Bonaparte at Marengo, which centered on coming up better rules on French Activation:

1. Understanding my goal 2. Generating ideas 3. Combinatorials

(Click on any of the above to open; the last two are multi-page.)

One thing, by the way, that you really should understand is that all of the above were dynamic throughout the process. They were constantly being edited during the process: in fact, to a large extent, editing them WAS the process.

Where this process took me was proposal B. I worked hard on it. I liked it. I believed in it. I wrote it up, put it on the game board and started play the game using it. And you know what? It didn’t work. It blew up on the launchpad. Which leads me to the step after the final step listed above:

4. Test. You aren’t as smart as you think you are.

It is well that Christianity teaches that humility is a virtue, because life gives me lessons in it so often. It is extremely hard to really get a good game design solution through thought alone. You just can’t think of everything without actually trying it out. Sometimes problems are there but won’t emerge for days, weeks, even months afterwards. (And yes, even years, but if it takes a problem years to emerge, in the game business, we call that a win.)

Now, a test failure, partial or total, doesn’t mean the process has failed you. It just means you haven’t finished yet, and it is time to get back to work. In this particular case, I felt rather starved of ideas. I seriously doubted that there was a solution in my set of ideas to the goals I had set forth. I needed more ideas. Sometimes, I have found, in historical games, that just going back to history can help. And so that’s what I did. I decided to order a copy of James Arnold’s Marengo and Hohenlinden: Napoleon’s Rise to Power. Now, back in the day, I read tons of Marengo stuff, much of which is actually on this website in the research section, which you can peruse at your leisure. I must have seen Arnold then, but I don’t have a strong memory of it. I had an awful lot of primary source material, and may have undervalued the work of professional historians, but that is a topic for another day. Anyway, sure enough, it had the hoped for effect: an alternate reconstruction of French initial positions, and parts of it, if used, would resolve my biggest problem for the opening of the game. You can see it, and the new proposal derived from it, below:

2.1 More ideas: the Arnold map 3.1 New combinatorial: using the Arnold map

(As before, click to open.)

Now this proposal held up well in my personal tests. It was written up, and an updated map and rules were sent to the playtesters. So far, so good. I think we have a much improved game, but it is much to early to say what other changes may be needed as playtesting continues. Anyway, you can see the revised map and an extract of the rules below:

(You guessed it: click to open.)

And what a long blog entry! Can’t say you didn’t get your (non-existent) money’s worth this time, can you? At least if we count by the word. Whether you found it interesting or not is another matter entirely. Anyway, until next time.


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