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8 August, 2014

You know, most designers don’t do their own art. They design with roughed-out art, and when everything is ready, they hand it off to an artist to make it pretty. Among those designers who do their art themselves, I’m pretty sure they still follow that two-stage process: design first, art second. That is really a very sensible way to go about things, much better than the way I do it, which is to produce art before the design is set, throw it away when the design changes, do more art, change the design, throw that art away, etc. If you ask me why I do it the way I do, the only real explanation I have is that the design doesn’t feel real to me without art. And so, inefficiency and illogic rules the day.

And so, even though I have nothing resembling a finished design, I have some art to share. I may change it. I may keep it. Who knows? But this is where I am right now:

Stavka Sample Art

The black circles are points designating cities. (Riga is a major city, which is why it gets the solid black dot in its circle.) If you see any name issues, by the way, don‘t stress. Very little effort has gone into getting the names spelled right at this stage. Anyway, the little diamonds indicate movement directions that are legal. For example, the diamond at Saldus pointing to Riga (with the corresponding diamond at Riga pointing to Saldus) indicates that it is legal to move directly between Saldus and Riga. Mostly, this is pretty intuitive in practice. If two cities seem close enough that you can should be able move between them, you almost certainly can, and if they seem too far away, you almost certainly can’t. There are no intentional gotcha’s hidden in the map, and the diamonds serve mainly to eliminate ambiguity in edge cases. Oh, and also to mark terrain. The color of the diamonds indicate whether there is any terrain penalty. White means none, blue means a river penalty, green means a forest penalty, and brown (not shown here) means a mountain penalty.

And there is not a lot more to it than that.

Now, you might well wonder why I don’t connect the cities with lines to indicate when you can move between them. As far as I know, every other point-to-point game does, and the previous iteration of Stavka did as well. Well, mostly, I just don’t like the visual clutter of all those lines. But there is another reason as well, having to do with a hidden feature of the point-to-point designs generally work. This will take a little explanation, but I’ll give it a go.

Generally speaking (I know of no exceptions, but it is certainly possible that instances exist unknown to me and so I hedge), in a point-to-point game, the lines connecting the points do not intersect except at points. In fact, the intersection of lines can be understood as what defines a point. (In this view, the map is not a set of points connected by lines, but a set of lines where points mark intersections.) When you draw the lines on the map, not allowing lines to intersect except at points seems very sensible, because the point-less intersections just seem odd. Still, you can get into difficult design situations where points are arranged in roughly a square, and it would be sensible to have lines running through both diagonals, but you can’t without either: (1) putting a point there, which might not make sense in terms of point density, or (2) having lines intersect at a non-point. And so, only one diagonal line can be drawn, even though it would make more sense to have two.

I have run into this repeatedly when I have played with point-to-point designs, and have never failed to be annoyed with it. And so, a second, subtle reason for the current line-free Stavka design, is that it will allow me to smuggle in diagonals in both directions (as wanted) without it being obvious that that’s what I’m doing. (Sadly, the art example doesn’t show one of these.) It is a very small thing, but in designing the map, I find it very liberating.

Anyway, that’s it for this entry. I still am working on figuring out what cities go on the map; I’m maybe a third done with that right now.

6 August, 2014

First, I’d like to thank the various people who have expressed their support and good wishes in the wake of my coming out. It is very much appreciated.

But that really isn’t what this blog entry is about.

What I wanted to talk about was Stavka. First, simply, I have resumed work on the game after a long time away from it and I plan to make it my next game. I have no definite plans as to how to release it at this point, but I have had no lack of interest from publishers, so if I do not feel that I want to continue Simmons Games as an independent publisher, I am still confident that I can get the game released. In any case, that’s a problem for later. The problem at the moment is that the game isn’t done yet.

When I left off development previously, the main problem was the map, which really wasn’t working. Although the game was notionally a point-to-point system, I had imposed constraints on the map design that drove me to space the points far apart and at a very narrow range of distances. These two, taken together, resulted in a rather unsatisfactory map, both from a historical and game play perspective.

From a historical perspective, the decision to space the points so uniformly made it very difficult to make good use of the historically important locations in the war. I kept being forced to ignore major cities and include small towns, just because the small towns were at the right locations for points and the major cities were not. It made for a very odd map.

Things were much worse from a game play perspective. The distances between the points were too great for any operational fidelity (even at the level of a resolutly strategic level game such as this), so that game play suffered from a poverty of options in terms of the movement and positioning of forces. Second, the fixed distances tended to force a grid-like design on the arrangement of the points, producing stereotyped play that didn’t vary with location on the map.

Now, to put this in perspective, poorly-functioning maps are a common problem in the game design process for me. Both Bonaparte at Marengo and The Guns of Gettysburg had major map problems that had to be corrected during the design process. The problems come up, you work through them.

As part of working through them, in the last several days, I’ve been re-thinking the map system for Stavka and have had some very promising ideas on how to redesign for a higher-density of points and less uniformity in their arrangement. I have resumed work on the map in order to test them out. I have very little to show at this point though: just a mess of in-progress map artwork dominated by measurement graphics, which you can see a sample of below:

Stavka Measurements

Basically, the black circles are proposed point locations, and the transluscent blue circles around them are measurement devices to help me be aware of minimum and maximum distances between connected points that I try to maintain in the layout. (In this design, "connected" points are to be between 0.75" and 1.5" apart, which some exceptions permitted here and there.)

If you think it looks god-awful, you're right. But you're looking at the scaffolding around the building, not the building itself, so try not to panic. Once I’ve finished the layout, I’ll replace this crap with actual production artwork. And I’ll let you see it then.

31 March, 2014

Another (very) long time between updates.

What I am going to say now is something that I have been deliberating about for many months. Every year, since 2009, March 31 is a completely non-official holiday called International Transgender Day of Visibility. My telling you that will very likely tell you where this post is going: It is to tell you that I am transgender. The last two years or so of my life has been dominated by a social and medical transition from male to female. I tend to think of it has having hit a giant reset button on my whole life, with almost no area of my life left untouched and many profoundly changed.

With my life in so much turmoil, I sought quiet where it could be found, one consequence of which was that Simmons Games was put on hiatus, until I had a chance to figure out whether to continue with it, and if so, in what form. At this time, I'm afraid that I still don't really know, as much as I wish I could say otherwise.

Why, then, communicate now? And why begin by disclosing such a personal item of information? The reason is that transgender people are in a struggle for basic social rights, and as a transgender woman, I need to do what I can to help, and helping begins with visibility. As long as we, as transgender individuals, hide ourselves, we play into the hands of those who dislike us and seek to spread fear of us. It leaves their negative and hostile image of us as the only image of ourselves that the general population sees. The whole point of the Transgender Day of Visibility is to combat that image by presenting ourselves as we are.

I will not be turning a game design blog into a forum on transgender issues, and so I am going to keep it short. At some point, I may post a longer essay on the subject and on my life, but if I do so there will be no more than a link to it here. For now, just a few more things:

(1) First, my name is not legally Bowen any more, but I will be retaining it as a professional name in the game world. It is what I am known by, and it has acquired a lot of “brand” value that I wish to retain. Calling me Bowen in public game forums and professional correspondence is completely ok. Female pronouns (she/her rather than he/him) should be used, but many people will still use male pronouns because they don't know about any of this, and I will not be attempting to police public pronoun usage, nor will I expect anyone else to. FYI, my legal name is Rachel, but please don't change my profile on BoardGameGeek or any other professional context to use that name rather than Bowen. If you want to call me Rachel in private correspondence, that's fine.

(2) One reason I am comfortable being brief here is that much of what I would say on coming out as transgender and what it means to live as a transgender woman prior to coming out has already been said by Lana Wachowski, co-creator of The Matrix, in her acceptance speech for the HRC Visibility Award. It was an excellent speech, and if you want, you can see it here on YouTube.

(3) This is me. Finally.

Rachel Simmons

21 February, 2013


It has been a long time since I last updated anything on this site.

It seems I must comment again on my personal affairs rather than the much more interesting subject of game design. My shoulder problem got better, recurred, and then got better again over the course of several months. However, the recurrence left me without any real confidence in my ability to sustain the business as I had been running it, and so I felt strongly that I needed to consider alternative approaches for bringing out games. Mercury Games, a new publisher but with veteran game industry people running it, had expressed an interest in publishing The Guns of Gettysburg. After much deliberation on my part, I eventually decided to go ahead. I must say that so far, so good, and it looks like they will do a fine job bringing it to market. After having worked so hard on it for so long (and having put the playtesters through a grueling death march of repeated tests of game balance) it will be a source of great satisfaction to me to have it finally reach the hands of the people who have been waiting for it so long.

The decision to let Mercury Games handle it proved a good one for another reason, one that I did not anticipate. A long-term chronic health problem of mine (not related to my shoulder) finally reached the point where it required treatment. This has enormously complicated my life, making it difficult to run Simmons Games in any form at all. While I am optimistic that all will be well in the end, the fact is that there continues to be so much uncertainty in my life at present that I have decided to even stop taking orders for Napoleon’s Triumph and so I have updated the site to remove the order links.

I hope to be able to get back to the point where people who want to can still buy NT. There is still some inventory remaining. It is the order fulfillment process that has been broken at what has proven to be its weakest link: yours truly. If you would, please accept my embarrassed apologies.

20 November, 2011

This blog is of course supposed to be about game design. However, I think that I should discuss personal affairs some, much as I dislike doing so, because it has been so long without news. Since the beginning of summer, I began to come down with adhesive capsulitus of my shoulder, and over time have been losing mobility in my right shoulder, accompanied by some pain. In addition, my efforts to work with the printer for The Guns of Gettysburg broke down, which was very discouraging, but given my shoulder issues may have been for the best. The problem with a one-man operation is that it is a one-man operation, and my shoulder issues has made it difficult to get games ready to ship. Not impossible: the relatively small number of orders I get these days (games generally sell most strongly when new, and then decline with age) has remained manageable, but I would not have been physically able to handle the shipping volume of a new game.

I have considered whether to close down Simmons Games as a publisher and just continue as a designer instead, and that is still possible. However, I like publishing and am reluctant to give it up. I am currently working on regaining more use of my arm and increasing my pain-free range of motion. The doctor thinks that I should be able to greatly improve over the next six months or so. Given, this, I'm more or less in a holding pattern, which I know is not good news for those of you who have been waiting so long for The Guns of Gettysburg, and for that I'm sorry.

I do have some good news: the second edition of Bonaparte at Marengo has completed playtesting, and so I find myself in the strange position (given my extremely low design speed) of having two games ready to go.

As a last note, I wouldn't want anyone to feel too concerned. My shoulder mobility is reduced, but not eliminated, and I generally get by ok. It is just that I haven't been up to the task of packing and shipping large numbers of games. But I have every reason to believe I will get full use of it back; it is just going to take time and work.

14 May, 2011

It has been a while since my last blog entry. I have been much busied by a non-game project over the last couple of months, but game work has not totally stopped. I thought I would run down the status of the various projects.

The Guns of Gettysburg: I’m still working with printers to get production underway. This has been mostly out of my hands as I wait for responses on this or that question. I am hopeful that this will all shake out satisfactorily and that production can begin. (And sometime thereafter, once I am certain of a date, that I can begin accepting pre-orders.)

Bonaparte at Marengo, 2nd edition. Playtesting has been continuing on this. The current version is V18. V18 is looking good at this point and may well be the final version that will go into production. The main difference between V18 and V17, the last version discussed, is that the French morale boosts for each group of reinforcements are distributed over several hours, rather than being concentrated in the hour of reinforcement arrival. In V17, the French received +2 morale at 11AM, +4 at 4PM, and +1 at 5PM. In V18, they receive +1 at 11AM, 12PM, 4PM, 5PM, 6PM, 7PM, and 8PM. The intended effect of these changes is to add more drama to the endgame. A side effect is that they tilt balance somewhat towards the Austrians, and indeed the Austrians have won most of the V18 games.

2nd edition balance could be adjusted by removing the most easily reached objective, but so far the playtesters have been opposed to the change, and think that better French play could suffice. We'll see. In any case I think that V18 is very nice, better than V12, which had been the best version of the 2nd edition prior to V18. (Sometimes you have to take backward steps to go forward, and so it has been with versions 13 through 17.)

Stavka has been the game most affected by my non-game work and little has been done over the last two months. Still, it is also behind the other two in the release schedule anyway, so it can afford a quiet development interval.

Anyway, that’s it for now. Hopefully the wait between entries won’t be so long.

20 March, 2011

Well, things have been pretty quiet lately in playtesting of the 2nd edition of Bonaparte at Marengo, but testers have had a face-to-face game of V17, which ended in a win for the Austrians as the French (by their own account) botched the defense of the northern road. A second V17 game is underway in Cyberboard, but that hasn’t even reached the end of turn 1.

The last few days have seen some new ideas for Stavka, which has been pretty quiet itself lately. In playing with the front-line pieces I had manufactured, I have begun to get dissatisfied with my design. (Not the production; eMachineShop did as good a job as I could ask for with that.) The basic problem is that the aluminum sheet from which the pieces are stamped is quite thin, and when viewed from directly above, and the pieces are seen edge-on, they almost disappear; they just have no visual mass at all from that angle.

After considering this problem for some time, I decided that I needed a new design, one that presented a stronger visual presence when viewed from above as well as from the sides. The new design, as it currently stands, is shown below:

Stavka Front Line

Of course, this illustration makes it appear much larger than it really is. The piece is somewhat smaller in all dimensions than a wooden block from BaM, being only 3/16" of an inch tall (as opposed to the 1/4" height of the wooden blocks). Insofar as how they connect, the basic concept of a hook and a loop remains, although both are altered in shape from the previous design.

This actually leads to a second issue, this one with the way I’m showing terrain penalties on the map. As you may or may not recall, the current map uses small squares to indicate terrain penalties (rivers, mountains, etc.) In testing, these have too easily missed, especially when near a front line. I have been looking at some redesigns, but so far I’m only in the initial stages. You can see the current design and a candidate replacement below:

Current Possible Revision

The goal is to come up with a version that is less more easily seen, without it being visually oppressive. I’m not convinced that my candidate replacement is either, but I haven’t even tried it out in print yet; I’m still considering alternatives. As with the current version, the type of terrain would be indicated by color, with the blue in the example indicating river or swamp.

11 March, 2011

While I haven’t posted a blog update in couple weeks, I have actually been very involved in public design discussions elsewhere: a thread in the website BoardGameGeek, where I answered questions from members of the BGG user community. If interested, you can read that thread by clicking here. If you like that sort of thing, there is also an older interview I did back in 2008 for the website Fortress Ameritrash, which you can read by clicking here.

On a more newsy front, playtesting has been continuing with the 2nd edition of Bonaparte at Marengo. I had some issues with V15 in that I felt that French withdrawal was proving too difficult, and so did a significant rules amendment and tried that in V16. Well, that was just too much of a good thing, and as Aristotle would have told me (actually, did tell me, not that I listened), too much of a good thing is a bad thing.

So were to go with BaM2? Not entirely sure. It remains true that V12 was the best version of the game to date, and I am doubtful that moving further away from it in the direction taken with V16 is the way to go. If moving away from V12 isn’t working, perhaps moving back towards it will. I think that the best direction for V17 might be the morale levels from V12 (Austrian starting morale 12, French starting morale 9) and the map and rules from V15. And we’ll call that V17.

On the Stavka front, I got the metal front-line pieces I had custom-made by eMachineShop. They came out pretty well, I think. Not quite up to the level of what I would want in mass-produced production pieces, but certainly far better than the pieces I made from PolyClay. There are still three other piece types in the game, two of which I am still unsure about even from a physical design point of view. More work ahead there.

Finally, I don’t have any production news yet on The Guns of Gettysburg, but I will post here when I do.

26 February, 2011

Playtesting has been continuing with the 2nd edition of Bonaparte at Marengo, with the current version being V14 (the same as V13, but with lower initial morale). I think that V14 is a step in the right direction from V13, and I think that the lower morale helps the mid-game, but I remain concerned about the endgame.

There are three endgame problems, I think. First, allowing the Austrians to win by taking any three of the nine objectives is spreading the French too thin along a north-south line. Second, and this is related to the first, having nine objective locales that need to be protected, creates defensive depth problems for the French if one or more Austrian cavalry pieces sneak through the French lines. Third, the northern objectives are more attractive to the Austrians than they should be, from a historical perspective, owing to their distance from the French 4:00PM reinforcements. All of these together create a fourth problem, a balance problem where endgame play excessively favors the Austrians. (Superior French early and mid-game play can still result in French wins in V14, but if the early or mid-game is close, or favors the Austrians, a French win in the endgame would be quite difficult.) Overall, I don’t think that this set of objectives is likely to produce a satisfactory endgame — and certainly not one that is better than V12, which remains the best version of the game played to date.

And so, I am looking at a revamp of the objective locale design that is intended to address all of these issues, tentatively planned for a V15 version. First, the number of objective locales has been cut from 9 to 6, however, the Austrians only need to take 2 of them rather than 3 to accomplish a marginal victory. The distribution of the objectives has also been changed: rather than being distributed 3-3-3 on the northern, central, and southern roads, they are distributed 1-2-3, with one on the northern road, two on the central road, and three on the southern road.

So, how are the revised objectives supposed to improve the game? Well, first, it allows the French to lose the northern road without automatically losing the game, since there is only one objective there and the Austrians need two to win. This reduces the north-south coverage strain on the French; it is helpful for the French to defend the northern road, but it isn’t absolutely necessary. Second, the reduction in the number of objectives reduces the defense depth problem. Third, the “tilt” in the objectives towards the south will increase the number of games where the southern road is the main point of contention, as it was historically. And of course, the end result should be a more competitive endgame, that (hopefully) will be as good or better than that of V12. That’s the theory, anyway.

You can see the planned revisions for V15 below. Also present are a few minor graphical adjustments, to move some of the roads away from the extreme corners of the locales, where they can be hard to read:

Marengo Board

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

20 February, 2011

Well, we’ve gotten some more playtest results on V13 of the 2nd edition of Bonaparte at Marengo. I think the opening game is quite nice in V13, more interesting and more historical than in V12. However, the mid-game is another story. Balance has been an issue as a repeated theme in the mid-game has been for the Austrians to get hung up on the Bormida and break out very late or not at all. (The mid-game play hasn't been boring, just unbalanced.) Also, the French morale is so high that an Austrian victory by French demoralization is too hard to achieve. Because of the mid-game problems, it is hard to properly assess the endgame; the end-game redesign of the objectives might work, or it might not.

Looking forward, I think that V13 has enough going for it to merit some additional development work. I think the proper thing to test is lower starting morale levels: in V13 the initial morale levels are A17/F13 (Austrian 17, French 13), and I intend to try a V14 with initial morale levels of A14/F11. No changes to the objectives yet; if we can get a version that enters the endgame in better shape than V13, that will be the time to assess the endgame.

Things have been quiet on Stavka as I’ve been considering alternatives to making the winter of 41-42 play better. I have some ideas partly worked out, but haven’t tried them out yet.

I have also been trying to work out some issues on an idea I have for the game after Stavka. The potential subject for that game is an operational game based on the campaigns between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia in the American Civil War. I have made some progress, but not enough that I feel like starting active development.

The basic problem with an ACW operational game is avoiding having a game where the players spend all their time marching forces around before battle, and end the game by rolling a die to determine out who wins the battle, which settles the outcome of the campaign, making all the marching the players did kind of irrelevant. One thing designers sometimes do is to create some sort of battle-board (the game Napoleon, for example, does this) where the players take the pieces off the main board and use them to fight the battle in a sort of abstract space. I’m not enthusiastic about this approach, as the generic battles aren’t interesting to me in terms of game play or history. I understand why designers do it, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it or want to do it myself. Anyway, I have some thoughts on the subject, but I’m by no means sold that I have a solution, and I don’t want to start work in the absence of an idea on how I intend to have the game work in this critical area.

13 February, 2011

Well, let’s see. There was a face-to-face playtest with the revision of Bonaparte at Marengo shown below. (In playtest terms, it is referred to as V13; the prior version was V12.) The first test of V13 ended up with a fairly easy French victory, but the Austrian player thought that it was better French play, rather than the game balance, that was the cause. Another playtest has started, using Cyberboard, which has already revealed at least one change to V13 that would need to be made to it.

The most recent test of BaM2 V12 ended in an Austrian victory, which I think reflected the play of the opposing players. (The French player described his play as how NOT to conduct a French withdrawal.) V12 is a quite solid game, but the jury is still very much out on V13. Maybe there is something good there, or maybe not. I do think that the opening game is more interesting than in V12, so there is some promise there and as of now it merits further investigation.

Another Stavka playtest took place. For once I’m pretty happy about play up until winter of 1941-42, which is a pretty big deal in the game’s development. However, I’m not happy with the play of the 41-42 winter itself, which I think is too skewed in favor of the Soviets. Whether I should just adjust production numbers or whether rules changes are needed is not yet known. (There are special rules for winter in general, and special rules for the winter of '41 in particular, but these are not yet working as I would like.)

Overall, things are pretty encouraging on the testing front, but it is always a long process.

10 February, 2011

Well, it’s been a few days since my last entry. I have been more or less stuck for a while on both the 2nd edition of Bonaparte at Marengo and Stavka.

In the case of BaM2, it really came down to whether or not the game was done. Was there anything more I really wanted to do or try? The development direction I had been working on since I reset the initial morale levels for the opposing armies had, I think, pretty much played out. The game was solid and worked well, and tweaking it wasn’t going to make it significantly better. But was the direction I had set out on the best direction for the game? That’s always hard to say because there is no fixed number of directions a game can go, so there isn’t a list you can check off. It essentially is a problem of creativity, of seeing new possibilities and ways to get there.

I had been poking around with a few ideas for some time for BaM2, but they hadn’t really jelled into anything I was in a big hurry to try. I ended up spending a number of days when I really didn’t think about game design at all, and that was probably a good thing. Sometimes in a design, you can feel like you’re just driving around in the same circles over and over again, driving the ruts deeper and deeper but otherwise not accomplishing anything.

Anyway, after being poked by the playtesters as to whether there was anything new for them to try, I suddenly realized that there was. You can see the map revision below:

Marengo Board

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

Now, the revisions are not that obvious, so I’ll call them out to you.

First, the locales near the Austrian entry locale have been revised in a way discussed in an earlier entry. Second, the initial morale levels of both armies have been raised (from 9 to 13 for the French, and from 12 to 17 for the Austrians), and third, the objective locales have been completely revised, now being all of one color and arranged along the three east-west main roads rather than along the eastern edge of the map. Unseen changes not reflected om the map are to the rules, which now allow the French to initially activate two pieces instead of one, and redefine an Austrian marginal victory as the simultaneous occupation of any three objective locales.

Now, to understand these changes, it is best to start with the reason why they are being made. The first goal is for the game to have more combat. The second goal is to make the opening game more interesting. The third goal is to make the closing game more interesting.

So, how is this supposed to work? Why are these changes supposed to effect these changes?

First of all, the ultimate limiting factor on the amount of fighting in the game is morale. Once one army or the other reaches demoralization, that ends the game. So, if the armies are already fighting to demoralization (or very near to it), then the only way to increase the amount of fighting in the game is to increase the morale levels of the opposing armies.

Second, the opening of the game generally takes place at the bottleneck near the Borminda river, and the French generally hold it as long as their morale holds out. Now, this isn’t where the historical French resistance took place and it isn’t that interesting a place (in game terms) for the French to fight. Historically, the main French initial resistance was a little further back, on the Fontanone, which would also, in game terms, would be a more interesting place for combat. Thus, both history and the game suggest that having more action taking place on the Fontanone would be a good thing. Effecting this, however, is a subtle problem. Partly this is achieved by the redesign of the entry locales, but the increased morale levels also play a role, so that the French have the morale required to defend the Fontanone longer, should they wish to do so. (The main constraint on the length of time the French can hold the Bormida bottleneck is the number of pieces they can activate early in the game.) However, having increased French morale, it has been made possible for the French to delay the Austrians for a longer time; that leaves the Austrians less time to reach the objectives. To offset this, the objectives have been moved closer.

Fourth, the objectives have been changed to require a wider French commitment and to give the Austrians more ways in which they can achieve a marginal victory. Previously, for a marginal victory, the Austrians had to pretty much win by a northern strategy or a southern strategy — in both cases combined with a push in the center; the theoretical Austrian combination of a push in the north and south but not in the center rarely appears in practice. The change to the objectives is to allow the Austrians a richer set of ways to a marginal victory. They could take the three locales all in the south, all in the center, all in the north, or any combination of northern, central, or southern objectives.

So, that’s the theory. How about practice? Does it work? No idea as of yet. Not everything that looks good on paper necessarily works in practice. Always, in game design, the test is when people actually play the game. I could have screwed this up in any number of ways. Maybe the initial morale levels are now too high and the Austrians can’t break through (at all, or in time to threaten a marginal victory). Maybe the balance is now broken. Maybe the objective changes spread the French too thin. Maybe the entry locale redesign combined with the activation rules allows the Austrians a way to slip past the French defenses before the French can wake up. And finally, maybe the resulting game just isn’t a better game than the previous version; maybe it works in terms of what I was trying to do, but maybe it isn’t as much fun as I thought it would be.

There are a lot of uncertainties about something like this, and I have had enough changes blow up in my face that I have a cautious attitude about them, but certainly I hope that the game will be better. I have plenty of time to get this ready, and I would really like it to be the best game that I can make it, as is true of all the games I design. If it isn’t, then for me at least, there is no reason to do it at all.

6 February, 2011

I thought I would take some time away from my own games and talk about somebody else’s. Below you can see what is, for me, an old friend: The fire table from Wellington’s Victory, a game on the battle of Waterloo, designed by Frank Davis and published by SPI back in the 70’s:

Wellington’s Victory Fire Table

Now, I always loved the design of this table. At first, it can appear a little complicated, but it is actually wondrously easy to use and is extremely cool. Let’s suppose we wanted to resolve an attack by an 8 gun battery of French heavy artillery against a regiment of British cavalry at a range of 4 hexes.

To do this, we start by tracing down from the top-left corner of the table until we find the correct line for the firing unit. Now, in Wellington’s Victory, 4 hexes is medium range for artillery, so we would use the line labelled “Three Rank Line/Med Range Art”. This is step 1 of 5:

Wellington’s Victory Fire Table

Next, in step 2, having located the correct line for the firing unit, we trace along it to the right until we find correct column for the strength of the firing unit. In the case of an artillery unit, the strength of the unit is the number of guns. Thus, our 8-gun battery has a strength of 8. We will use the column labelled “7,8”:

Wellington’s Victory Fire Table

Next, we need to trace down and then figure out which sub-column to use (1, 2, or 3) which is based on the firing class of the firing unit. (The lower the number the better.) For artillery, heavy artillery is firing class 1, medium artillery is class 2, and light artillery is class 3. Our artillery in this attack is heavy, and so it will use the class 1 sub-column:

Wellington’s Victory Fire Table

We have completed finding the right column on which to resolve our attack. Now we need to find the correct row. For that, we scan down the ”Target Class” labels until we find the one that corresponds to our target. Our target is cavalry, and so the target class labelled “Line and Cavalry Formations” is the one we want. Our target is target class 2:

Wellington’s Victory Fire Table

Next, to find the correct sub-row, we roll a die and trace down until the find the correct number. If we rolled a “4”, then we would (of course) use the sub-line labelled “4”:

Wellington’s Victory Fire Table

And, finally, we cross-index the sub-column we located earlier and the sub-line we just found, and the number where they intersect is the result: A loss of “2” strength points to the target:

Wellington’s Victory Fire Table

And for review, we can see all the steps showing how we got there at once:

Wellington’s Victory Fire Table

Now, the neat thing about this table is that it uses no modifiers, requires no calculations or arithmetic, and can handle every type of fire combat in the game in a single table. Love this design. Since, however, we are interested in critiquing as well as appreciating design, there are some critical points I will make.

First, the choice of the word “class” for both the firing unit and the target is unfortunate and unnecessarily confusing. For either, the word “category”, for example, could have been chosen, avoiding the unnecessary overloading of the world class.

Second, having the lower numbers of the firing class be better is contrary to the general direction of the design, in which higher numbers are better: higher strengths are better, higher morales are better, higher cannon-weights are better, and so on. Given this, the best firing class should have been firing class 3. This would also have allowed the design of the 3 sub-columns to get better left-to-right, which is consistent with the graphical direction of the design.

Third, the target classes would have been better to have been reversed, so that the least-vulnerable classes were in the top row, and the most-vulnerable in the bottom row. This would have had two benefits. First, it would have generally oriented the table so that the worst results were to the top-left and the best restuls were in the bottom-right, which is visually consistent. Second, it would also have facilitated a more logical scan: for example, if we were looking for a line-infantry formation in soft-cover, then scanning from top to bottom we would then have found the soft-cover line first, which is the correct one to use. The numbers used for target classes, are by the way, inherently ambiguous: as to whether “1” represents a “better” target class than “2” depends on whether the perspective is that of the shooter or the target. The numbers can certainly be reversed if that is desired.

Now, let’s just do a little table redesign. We won’t change any of the values, or the basic concept of the table, we’ll just re-arrange things a bit in line with the above critique and see how it looks:

Wellington’s Victory Fire Table

I don’t think the improvement is anything dramatic, but I do think that the changes do make the table more consistent in how it is read, even if the effect is fairly subtle.

There is one interesting effect to the way I’ve re-arranged things, and that is that the upper-left corner, which is visually the easiest corner to reach, in that when we trace horizontal and vertical lines, the shortest lines reach the upper-left corner, while the longest lines reach the bottom-right. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? This, and more substantial WV design questions are something I will be taking up at a later date.

2 February, 2011

Well, I’ve started working on trying to lay out play aids on the mapboard of Stavka but I haven’t been particularly happy with the initial results. The initial layout attempts have all resulted in a rather cluttered and messy-looking board. I think I need to step back and re-think this.

The 2nd edition of Bonaparte at Marengo continues to be playtested. I think it is a good game, but I have this sense that if I could see how, I could make it a better game. It may be that the various locale revisions discussed previously would do the job, but I’m not completely sold. The first few turns still have too little in the way of play variations for me to be completely happy. I think I need to think some more about this too.

Overall, a day more characterized by dissatisfaction than with positive progress, but, taking a more positive perspective, improvement begins with dissatisfaction with the status quo.

1 February, 2011

It’s been a while since I had any new artwork to show (apart from reporting on old The Guns of Gettysburg art that I sent off for printer quotes). But, here is some actual, new art added to the Stavka map. What’s new here are country names and river/lake/sea names.

Now, rivers are about the only place on this map where I curved text along a line and very nearly the only place where text isn’t oriented to be read from the south side of the map. Curving text along river courses is an old map-making technique, and I saw no reason to depart from it here.

I did try out curving the names of large bodies of water (like the Baltic Sea) and writing them in a much larger font, but it was much too distracting; there is no naval component to the game, and the graphic design needs to reflect that. And so, the names for even the largest bodies of water on the map are written in a moderate-sized font and are in a low-contrast medium blue against the background water light blue. For the same reason, I also decided against labeling some other bodies of water (such as the Gulf of Riga) in order to avoid pulling the eye too much towards water.

Country names have also been added. They are semi-transparent, so that they can be written in larger font sizes (as befits the names of large areas) without overwhelming the eye. As I mentioned in a previous post, the political boundaries shown are those in effect on 22 June, 1941, which means they are mostly the result of actions on the part of the two antagonists: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The German-made borders did not survive past 1945, but as the winners, the Soviets were able to preserve their border “adjustments” in the post-war world.

There is one special situation I’d like you to note: the oddly-named Generalgouvernement (General Government), which basically covers a rump Polish territory after annexations had been made by Germany and the Soviet Union. It might be thought that Poland would have been the obvious name for this territory, but the Nazi government did not want a place called “Poland” to appear anywhere on any map, nor the name “Poland” to appear in any official documents. At the same time, they were not willing to incorporate the territory’s large Polish population into Germany proper. And thus, the deliberately non-descriptive name, “General Government”.

Anyway, you can see the map as a whole below as it currently stands.

Stavka Board

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

31 January, 2011

In moving Stavka forward, one of the issues I will need to address is on-map play aids. One reason I have been delaying this is that I haven’t been certain what play aids the game would need. My current thinking is that it will need the following:

Of these, only the first two are really informational displays; the others are really nothing but blank spaces on the board that help the players keep their stuff organized. Finding map space that is available for use for play aids can be a problem — it was a big problem in The Guns of Gettysburg because with the moving objectives it was never clear where the battle was going to take place — but I think that Stavka has enough suitable areas that it shouldn’t be a problem. Stavka play aids in principal can go in Scandinavia/The Baltic, Italy/Yugoslavia, The Black Sea, and the Urals without getting in the way of the game.

Of the various play aids, the time track is the most flexible in terms of layout: it can be one long row, or it can be coiled up in various numbers of rows and columns as needed. It even has a fair amount of flexibility in terms of the sizes of the boxes for the individual turns. The map legend has some layout flexibility, but it needs to be big enough for full-size terrain samples and labels, and for aesthetic reasons it needs to have an aspect ration broadly around 4:3. The reduced armor areas also have some flexibility, although they also should have a roughly 4:3 aspect ratio and need to be large enough to hold perhaps a half-dozen armor pieces comfortably.

The areas with the least amount of flexibility are the card areas (draw deck, discard pile, and armor pool) since these need to be the size of the cards used in the game, plus a small decorative margin. Of course, I could go with playing cards with custom sizes or dimensions, but I would much prefer to stay with standard-sized playing cards.

Another question regarding the play aids has been language. I have made the map bilingual (Russian/German) but have always assumed that text in the play aids would be English. I have not, however, actually tried it out and am a little concerned that it might look odd. If it does look odd, I have grave doubts about the wisdom of making Russian/German play aids, and even graver doubts about Russian/German/English play aids, and so I fear that I will have to choose between accepting its oddity and abandoning my bilingual map, which I don’t want to do. Still, I suppose I will cross that bridge when I come to it.

30 January, 2011

In the Stavka turn structure, after the production phase, the front line is reset to reflect penetrations made in the previous turn. Either side is also allowed to make voluntary withdrawals by abandoning cities. Cities that were front line cities in the previous turn can be abandoned at no penalty, while those that are not front-line cities can be abandoned only at a penalty of one card per city. That’s the idea anyway.

There is a potential problem in that system concerning which side can abandon cities. In theory, the offensive player (such as the Germans in the early part of the game) could withdraw to force the creation of Soviet salients, which they could then cut off. This is undesirable. My current thinking is that a player cannot abandon a city if the nearest penetration to that city is theirs. If a city is equidistant to penetrations of both players, neither player can abandon it. This seems sensible, but I’m not sure as yet whether it is sufficient. In particular, if neither side made a penetration in the previous turn, then neither side can abandon any cities. That might be ok, but I can’t say for sure at this point.

One other activity occurs during this phase is that each player is allowed to voluntarily remove any of his strong-points from the map. The timing of this, after the production phase, is intended to complicate the defense and work to the advantage of the attacker. The reason this works is that the cost of a strong-point depends on the number on the map, but because in the turn sequence old strong-points can’t be removed until after new ones are built, the old strong-points increase the cost of the new. In early versions of the game, this rule wasn’t in effect, and it produced a weird form of virtual “teleportation” of strong-points where a player could first delete his old strong-points and then cheaply build replacements in the desired locations, more quickly and flexibly than even armor could be moved. It was weird and bad, but the new rule neatly eliminates it at no real cost in complexity.

29 January, 2011

Another cyberboard playtest of the 2nd edition of Bonaparte at Marengo wrapped up, and there was another French victory. After taking it in the chin in earlier playtests, the French have definitely come back. Still no decision on whether to try the V13 revisions discussed yesterday though. I am, however, leaning more towards giving them a try; it isn’t like I can’t back them out if I don’t like them.

Stavka also had another playtest, this one much more successful than the previous one. I did retain a couple positive features out of the previous train-wreak playtest, so even that wasn’t a total loss. I didn’t pursue this test far, only into the winter of 1941-42, but it was never my intent to go any farther. I think that Stavka’s problems are, one by one, slowly getting resolved, but I’m really feeling the need for some sort of mathematical baseline model to help me arrive at the right magic numbers.

To give you some better idea how the game works at present, each turn starts with a production phase, in which the Soviets and Germans draw new cards and make payments for things. In the current design, the list of things that can be (or must be) paid for in the production phase is as follows:

As you can see, there is not that much to production. There is one wrinkle that I haven’t mentioned, and that is that leadership cards count double in strong-point builds, armor rebuilds, and armor builds. (I have been going back and forth, incidentally on whether the leadership multiplier should be limited to one card per purchase; if so, I should definitely cut the armor build price from ten points to eight.)

There are still multiple unresolved issues in production, in addition to those noted above: There are no clear rules for ordering of actions between the Soviets and the Germans, it isn’t clear whether the definition of a deep penetration for resupply should depend on where it starts or where it ends, and it isn’t clear what the limit numbers should be on cards placed in the armor build pool. Still, in spite of these issues, things are undoubtedly getting clearer. Sorting these things out just takes time.

28 January, 2011

I thought I’d talk a little bit about the design of the locales near the Austrian entry area in the 2nd edition of Bonaparte at Marengo. Below you can see illustrations of different versions of them (the version numbers are the numbers assigned during playtest):

Version 11 Version 12
Version 13 (?)

Version 11 is the original design I made when I first drew the map. Version 12 is the most recently tested version, and version 13 is one that has not been tested, but which I am considering as an option for future testing. (The large locale id numbers, incidentally, will not appear on the production map.) The difference between 11 and 12 is that locale 3 in version 11 has been split into two locales in version 12, numbered 3 and 4. The difference between versions 12 and 13 is that locale 4’s eastern boundary has been changed; in version 12, locales 4 and 9 are not adjacent, but in version 13 they are.

So, what is motivating these various changes?

First of all, all locale sizes generally represent the degree to which the terrain is obstructed by terrain, slowing movement. Where the terrain is open, the locales are generally large, and where it is difficult or closed, the locales are small. Boundaries correspond to natural terrain features as much as possible, given the map scale. Because of the number of significant terrain features in this part of the map, most of the locale boundaries are easy choices, forced by terrain features.

If you look at version 11, locale 3 is quite large, but it is almost entirely surrounded by difficult terrain. Generally, I try to avoid such a large locale where this is the case. What is more, in version 11 locale 3 is very long on the north-south axis, quite a bit longer than I generally allow. However, locale 3 has no obvious internal boundary along which a dividing line would go, which is why in the original version of the map, it was left as a single large locale.

Version 12 tries a split in locale 3, breaking it up into two locales. From a terrain modeling perspective, I think version 12 is probably better than version 11, and what is more, I think it promotes somewhat more interesting game play in the opening, because it makes the Austrians make decisions earlier about which forces are going to press north and which south, and it slows the Austrians up just a touch. Still, it isn’t a very big change in the overall design of the game.

Version 13, on the other hand, would be a more substantial change. In fact, unless there were other changes in the game, it would probably stress the French defense to the breaking point. The key difference between versions 12 and 13 is that it would increase the minimum number of approaches that a French forward defense would have to cover from 2 to 3. With the two pieces just off-map to the east and one initial activation, that would give the French 3 pieces to defend 3 approaches, which just isn’t viable, especially since it would leave them with no reserve to cover the road to Castelceriolo. Unless the French got very lucky in their initial piece draw, they would almost immediately be unable to defend not only the forward positions, but the Fontanone stream as well.

Now, from a historical point of view, there is nothing wrong with making it harder for the French to defend the forward positions: they historically did so only very briefly. However, a design that makes a French defense of the Fontanone almost impossible is historically quite dubious — in the actual battle it was the main French defensive line and they held all morning into the afternoon. Further, from a strictly terrain analysis point of view, version 12 is a better model of the terrain than 13 is.

So, given all this, why am I considering version 13 at all?

Well, in part because I think that the forward defense is probably easier in the game than it should be, given that the French were historically surprised by the Austrian attack, and what’s more, it isn’t a particularly interesting game play option. I think that the game would be better, both as history and as a game, if I made it harder and less attractive. The goal isn’t to make it impossible, as I think that the French could have fought longer than they historically did on that line if they had wanted to, just more difficult. I would like it to be more of a real decision point in the game, rather than an easy default line of play.

And so, version 13 comes basically from that motivation. Although it is objectively an inferior terrain analysis, divorced from historical context, as part of a general simulation of the entire battle, in context it could be part of a reasonable simulation. However, it can’t be made in isolation or it will wreck the Fontanone defense as an option, and so I am considering it in combination with another change that would allow the French to activate two pieces on the first turn instead of one. As a bonus (in theory, anyway) this would also make the initial game play more interesting for both sides. Those would all be good things, but what I’m not convinced of yet is that this will really do that, nor that it is the best way to do it. And so, it remains only a potential change.

27 January, 2011

Playtesting for both the 2nd edition of Bonaparte at Marengo and Stavka has been trundling along.

BaM2 has had a number of face-to-face games with French wins, so concerns about a pro-Austrian balance problem may have been calmed. One tester even thinks that it is the French that have the edge. I’m less concerned about balance, but I’m still not entirely happy with the opening game. I’ve made a small map adjustment (as well as correcting an unintentional road inefficiency introduced during an earlier locale change) in response, and am considering another. Other changes I’m thinking about are small morale level adjustments, and a revision to the objective locales. Nothing decided yet though. In general, there are no rules problems and the game is playing well, but I’d like it to play even better if I can think of a good way to do it.

The last Stavka solo playtest (the only way Stavka gets played, until it is further along) was a dismal mess. I had a number of new ideas for changes to the game, threw them all in at once, and the result was a complete train wreck. I did learn a couple of useful things from it though, and expect to run another test soon, with most of my “innovations” from the last test backed out. I think that I need to provide base production numbers per turn (rather than it always being the total of active production centers), with deductions for enemy-held production centers, and after a delay for conversion, additions for captured enemy production centers. It isn’t more complicated than a total, and I think it gives me the flexibility I need to handle the different phases of the Soviet war effort (initial mobilization vs. ongoing production). We’ll see how it goes.

26 January, 2011

The last several blog entries have been used to show you the various components of The Guns of Gettysburg being sent off for quotes by printers. This is the last of these entries, which show the box top and bottom.

Top Bottom
Gettysburg Box Top Gettysburg Box Bottom

(Click on images to open them in their own window.)

There is not much new here, except that this shows you what the files look like untrimmed. The four corner sections of the art files are not visible on the finished box, since they are where the paper folds around the box corners. There are also large margins on the edges of the art. Some of the margin will be wrapped around the box edges, while the excess is trimmed off.

I don’t expect to make many more posts about GoG from this point on, although you can expect some updates as the manufacturing process moves forward. The next major milestone will be when I get production samples, and at that point I will finish the web pages for the game (which are currently just a stub linking to the diary). After that, I will get a firm date and will start taking pre-orders. After that will come, you know, actually shipping actual games to customers.

25 January, 2011

Here are images of the files for the rules and map components of The Guns of Gettysburg. (The rules have had a number of small revisions, but the map hasn’t changed since it last appeared in this diary and is included here only for completeness sake.)

Rules Map
Gettysburg Rules Gettysburg Map

(Click on images to open them in their own window.)

The main area of recent work was the rules index, on the play aid page in the back of the rule book, which had numerous small errors that had crept into it since the last revision. (In theory, Adobe InDesign, the program in which the rules were written, supports automatic indexing, but I wasn’t happy with the automatic indexing results or the process.)

The play aid page on the back of the rule book is one of those things that I really should have always done. (Napoleon’s Triumph would particularly have benefitted from it.) You can see it below:

Gettysburg Rules Play Aid

One of the issues I had in designing it was understanding exactly what it was for. There is a lot of information that potentially could be on it, but what should be on it? As it worked out, it is a patchwork of different elements, each of which muscled its own way onto the page.

The first of these were the state flags, which are used on the game pieces. These found there way on it in part because they are attractive designs and add a splash of color to an otherwise gray page. (I greatly believe in trying to avoid any page of solid text in a rule book; rules by their nature tend to be intimidating, and images are a great help in softening that impression.) Also, frankly, the game needs a key to the flags somewhere, because who knows all the state flags anyway? Especially since these are antiquarian state flags, so even if you know the modern flags you wouldn’t necessarily know these.

Next were the orders of battle for the opposing armies, as represented in game pieces and tokens. I thought this was important information that the players should have without having to count through a large number of blocks and tokens to get it.

What information to extract and summarize from the rules was kind of a thorny question. At one time, I played with a “key rules” idea, but in practice I decided I didn’t know what a “key” rule was: there are lots of rules that, if omitted, tend to blow a hole in the game, far too many for the space available. After messing with that idea for a time, I decided on a different approach: that the rules summary of the play aid would be about procedures and modifiers: lists and numbers.

Finally, of course, there was the index. I always intended to include an index, but wasn’t sure how to best construct it. Ultimately, my decision was made by space limits. The index is about as much information as I could cram into the single column allocated for it, and is basically built around the rules’ technical terms — those terms introduced in bold-face and then formally defined in the rule book.

24 January, 2011

Another The Guns of Gettysburg component that is all spec and no art are the wooden pieces:

Gettysburg Wood Pieces

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

There is not a lot to say about these. The dimensions and colors are the same as those used in my previous games. The biggest change is the switch from silkscreening to stickers, which is a tradeoff of one set of advantages for another. The main strengths of silkscreening are their durability and that the pieces are ready-to-use right out of the box. The main strengths of stickers are the higher resolution and color, which make it possible to make a much greater variety of piece designs than is possible with silkscreening. For Bonaparte at Marengo and Napoleon’s Triumph, the limited number and simplicity of the piece designs made silkscreening the better choice, but for GoG, with its more varied and more complex designs (largely owing to the command names on the pieces) stickers were the choice that made the most sense.

23 January, 2011

The game tray is a The Guns of Gettysburg component that is all spec and no art. You can see the 2-page spec below:

Page 1 Page 2
Gettysburg Tray Spec, Page 2 Gettysburg Tray Spec, Page 2

(Click on images to open them in their own window.)

I have some experience with metal game parts in that the command pieces in Napoleon’s Triumph were cast zinc. (Zinc was chosen because it flows well into small molds when cast.) It certainly would have been possible to have had cast metal trays, but the weight of a solid metal part of that size would have been prohibitive. (The games do need to be shipped, and shipping cost goes up with weight.) Another alternative would have been Scrabble-style wood trays, but I thought I’d go with a more industrial product as befits the period, and so I decided to go with stamped sheet metal. I haven’t had a price quote yet, but this is supposed to be the cheapest form of metal product, and so I am reasonably optimistic that the price will be acceptable.

For a material, I decided to go with steel. I considered aluminum, but aluminum is quite light, and the game trays need to be heavy enough that they won’t accidentally move when brushed by a player’s hand. The only way to have aluminum trays as heavy as I wanted would have been to use much thicker sheets, and the sharpness of the bend you can get with sheet metal is inversely proportional to the thickness of the sheet. (Try to bend sheet metal too sharply and it fractures.) Steel, however, rusts, and so I specified nickel-plating to protect it — a customer suggested that as a suitable low-cost rust-prevention process.

Each tray is designed to hold 8 tokens comfortably; a token is .8 inches wide, so 8 tokens close-packed are 6.4" wide. The trays are 7.5" to allow an inch of additional room. Originally, the tokens were .75" wide, but were increased to .8" in order to allow some additional margin for die-cutting error. When that was done, the tray width, which was originally 7" was increased to 7.5". The heights of the trays are high enough to support the tokens, but still leave a bit of the token poking over the top of the tray. This makes the tokens easier to pick up, and also allows players to easily see how many tokens their opponent has in his tray. (The number of tokens each player has is not supposed to be secret, only their identities.)

22 January, 2011

A couple more images of the files sent out in the quote request package for The Guns of Gettysburg. This time, the sticker sheet art and sticker die specification.

Art Die
Gettysburg Tokens (Front) Gettysburg Tokens (Die)

(Click on images to open them in their own window.)

One of the late changes I made to the physical design was to the objective markers. My purpose all along was to have markers that laid flat on the map and looked as if they were part of it. My live playtest games were all with printed acetate markers, which accomplished this goal very well, but there were, unfortunately, issues. The first was that they were so thin that they were very difficult to pick up. Second, they were so light that it was easy to sweep them to a different position on the board by accident. Finally, they got lost easily, as they were very difficult to see. All-in-all, I have to describe the experience as something of a failure, which was too bad, because I had a lot of interesting ideas as to how such components could be used in future games. But if they didn’t work, they didn’t work.

The only reason they stayed in the design as long as they did was because I was unsure about what to replace them with. I still wanted something that would like flat on the map, so blocks were out. Thin slices of wood were another idea, but wood as a material really doesn’t like to be too thin. I thought of adding them to the counter sheet and having them as cardboard, but a star shape would leave a lot of edge, and the exposed cardboard edges of wargame counters always have an unfinished look to them. (I was prepared to deal with the edge for the tokens, because there was no practical alternative material for them.) I also thought about clear plastic. Really, clear plastic was the obvious material for the job, but I had issues with the use of plastic in an ACW game. It just didn’t feel very period to me. I also thought of more exotic materials like metal, but frankly the expense of metal for the objectives just didn’t seem justified. Burying the metal under stickers made it seem so unnecessary — visually, there would be no sign that they were metal, and there was no structual quality of the pieces that required metal as a material. After going back and forth over the same stupid issue and the same alternatives literally for months, I gave in and decided to go with clear plastic winks, with star stickers on them. Not ideal, but then nothing was ideal — that was the problem. They’ll work fine, and I think they’ll look fine, but I have never been able to think of them with any fondness; they are very much something I felt forced to do rather than something I wanted to do.

On the plus side, I do think the sticker sheet looks quite pretty.

21 January, 2011

I mentioned in the previous blog entry that I had prepared the files for getting printer quotes. I thought I would show some of them. Below are images of the three files used to specify the die-cut tokens used in the game. The first two images are of the artwork files for the front and the back of the token sheet, while the third image is of the specification for the die used to cut them.

Front Back Die
Gettysburg Tokens (Front) Gettysburg Tokens (Back) Gettysburg Tokens (Die)

(Click on images to open them in their own window.)

The artwork files are slightly larger than the actual sheet. The extra color around the edges is called a bleed. It gives the printer a margin for error on his cut lines, without which there is the risk of a fine white line on one or more edges where the paper didn’t get any ink.

20 January, 2011

Well, I spent much of yesterday putting together a quote package for The Guns of Gettysburg. I don’t know how much folks know about how the publishing business works (some more than others, I’m sure), but publishers don’t typically own any of the equipment to print and manufacture games. That work is contracted out to printers or other manufacturers, depending on what is to be made. The first step in that process is to get quotes from potential printers, which in turn requires that they have enough information to make a quote. This information basically consists of all the art files for the game, and the manufacturing specifications for the various components.

Now, GoG was pretty much ready for me to get a quote, but there was still some final work to be done. My art files generally have layers that are useful to me while working on the game, but which aren’t useful to the printer, and in fact are potential sources of confusion. (For example, I GoG has a layer with locale id numbers, which I use in playtesting, but which I don’t want printed on the production map.) So, I make copies of the art files and delete all these non-production layers from them. Another important step is to do a final pass on the rules. The purpose of this pass is to check cross-references of various kinds, since these are the items that most easily get out of sync as the rules change during development. Such references include the table of contents, the index, play-aids, and page headers. Most of yesterday was spent doing final checks. (Of these, the index was the most time-consuming.) Finally, a master file is produced, which lists and describes all the game components and identifies which files are for which components. At that point, everything needed to get a quote request is completed.

Once complete, I upload the results to the server and send emails to printers pointing them to them and requesting a quote. And that is what I will do today. If, from this, it sounds like I am moving forward with publishing GoG, well, that is correct. I don’t know at this point when it will be ready. One of the things I’ll get from the printers, along with quotes, are schedules. However, as nothing ever goes perfectly, there are always some issues that come up that add time to the schedule, and I’m sure that will be the case here. Generally, I don’t announce a date until the games are actually being printed, which is the earliest point in the process that I have any confidence as to when the game will be ready. So, don’t ding me for any publication date. I will give a date when I have one myself.

19 January, 2011

One of the most important qualities I look for in a game design is tightness (as distinct from looseness). Tightness is a subjective quality in a game; it is when the player feels that his choices are difficult, but that it is important that he make the right choices in order to win. The opposite is looseness; a player’s subjective sense that his choices are easy and/or unimportant. Tightness contributes to a player’s sense of involvement and enjoyment of a game, while looseness induces apathy and boredom.

One major element that drives tightness vs. looseness is balance. In general, if a player feels that a game is balanced against him, the game will feel tighter to him, but only up to a point: as the balance becomes more and more unfavorable, eventually a tipping point will be reached where the player concludes that he can’t win no matter what he does. At this point, instead of feeling that his decisions are critical, he feels they are irrelevant; he can’t win no matter what he does and so the game feels completely loose. While imbalance against a player induces tightness (up to the tipping point), imbalance in a player’s favor always induces a sense of looseness. Therefore, for both players to experience a game as being tight, it is necessary that the game be reasonably balanced.

Balance is important to creating a tight game, but it isn’t sufficient in and of itself. Players not only need to be unsure whether they’re going to win, they need to be unsure how they’re going to win. To really have a tight game, the game has to make the players have to sweat over what they’re going to do. One of the great things about game design is that there are an awful lot of ways to get this particular quality. Chess and Poker, for example, both have it, but they achieve it in completely different ways. For Chess, the problem is trying to see the future, to look ahead into a complex tree of possible futures that gets overwhelmingly large as it gets more remote. The tension comes from the concentration required and the intellectual difficulty of the task. For Poker, the test is more of judgment of character and of nerve rather than abstract intellect: Do you know your opponent better than he knows you? Can you control your nerves while breaking his? What Chess and Poker both have in common, though, is that the players feel that it is their decisions that decide the game, but that the right decision isn’t easy to see.

The process of making player decisions more difficult, more challenging, is what I call tightening the game. Ideally, players should feel that the decisions are hard right from the beginning and all the way to the end, although it is quite common (and not unacceptable) for there to be a couple loose turns at the beginning, if the players are starting from pre-determined situations. Initial looseness is not fatal, providing that the game gets tighter as it goes along. It is also common for a game to lose tightness as it goes for the player who is gaining the upper hand during the game. To some extent this is inevitable, particularly if the players are not closely matched, but the main thing here is to avoid a prolonged but pointless end-game where the game keeps going even after the outcome will generally be obvious. (That was a fault in the 1st edition of Bonaparte at Marengo, which allowed games to continue even after one side was demoralized, an event that almost always effectively ends the game and should have formally ended the game as well.)

I think that one of the most successful aspects of Napoleon’s Triumph is that it is a very tight game. (One of the least successful is the learning curve of the attack resolution procedure, but that’s a whole different area of game design.) The tension kicks in right away with the initial set-up and continues as each player’s plan unfolds and they adapt to what their opponent is doing. That morale losses only apply to the loser of an attack help to keep the tension up during play, since the sense is there that a big win can reverse even a bad situation — and indeed it often can. The game’s major kicker is the French reinforcement decision, which can make the whole game turn around, but it is also a very tough decision that abounds in negative as well as positive consequences.

Looking ahead, I think that The Guns of Gettysburg is a nice, tight game, but probably less so than NT. (The balance between offense and defense had shifted so between the two periods being simulated, that big attacks in the Civil War were much more likely to break the attacker than the defender, which tends to make players more cautious.) GoG does have some advantages, though, even compared with NT. The unpredictability of the reinforcements is challenging, and the complexity of the terrain on the battlefield compared to that of NT (Gettysburg was a much less open battlefield than Austerlitz) rewards close analysis and punishes carelessness. The variable turn length and general order system are also nice tightening design features not found in NT.

With regard to the 2nd edition of BaM, making it a tighter game is partly a matter of correcting the balance, and partly a matter of having the game tend more to build towards a climax, rather than tending to gradually loosen, as the 1st edition of BaM1 was prone to doing. It is tricky work, for a variety of reasons, but I think BaM2 is already tighter than BaM1, and I’m still looking for opportunities to make it tighter yet.

I admit I’m not spending a lot of time just yet worrying about Stavka’s tightness. The basic game concept is sound, I think, and will make for a good game, but it is far from being a finished system. My major concern at present is that my plan to carry the game through the end of the war runs the risk of having a game that keeps going after the outcome has been decided (which as mentioned above is generally a bad thing), but I have some ideas on how to address it, and I have always thought it a pity for the Soviets in eastern front games to have to take a lot of punches early and never get a chance to really return the favor. So, we’ll see.

18 January, 2011

Although I’ve gotten a reputation for producing a certain kind of game, I actually don’t have much in the way of fixed beliefs about what makes a good game, mostly because I think there are a lot of different ways for a game to be good. One thing I do believe in though, is in trying to make the kind of games that I enjoy playing myself. I won’t start development on a game if I don’t think I would enjoy playing it, and I won't close development on a game and publish it until and unless I do enjoy it.

Apart from that most basic approach though, there are certain things that are characteristic of my taste in games. One of them is a preference for small numbers and consequently very basic arithmetic. If you look at some of the number ranges in my games, for example, you can see this:

Bonaparte at Marengo (1st ed.)1-30-21-3
Napoleon’s Triumph1-30-11-3
Guns of Gettysburg1-20-21-2 (hourly)*
Bonaparte at Marengo (2nd ed.)1-30-11-4
Stavka (as of now)1-30-21*
* Feature unlimited distance “strategic” movement (no counting)

The main reason I like smaller numbers is that people can calculate with them quickly, and because wargames tend to run long, I”m always looking for ways to speed play. Another reason is that because my numbers are small, they also are in a very narrow range, and even the smallest change (+1 or -1) generally makes an important difference. Since, to me, arithmetic is a negative element in the game experience, I want there to be a payoff for any arithmetic operation I make a player perform. If I make him add one to a total, I want that plus one to matter; it shouldn’t just be a waste of his time and effort. That which doesn’t matter shouldn’t be in the game at all.

17 January, 2011

The use of front-line pieces in Stavka is in large part an aesthetic decision, but it also reflects one of the most important design elements of Stavka: the abstraction of infantry. Strategic east front games in general are notable for the large number of infantry units they include, almost all of which are basically front-line filler; their job is to create the front line separating the opposing armies. In Stavka, all of this front-line-creating infantry is represented by the front line they create. From a cause and effect perspective, the game shows the effect by abstracting the cause. This is essentially an inversion of the way traditional games on this subject work, which abstract the effect but show the cause.

I owe this idea to this picture, submitted by Rusty Ballinger to the website BoardGameGeek, where he drew the front line onto a photo of a game picture he took:

Looking at it, I realized that the image of the front line was more visually revealing about the state of the game than the picture of the pieces themselves, and I thought that if it was more revealing, then that is what the game should have. My first thought was to use a chain in the game to mark the front line, but I quickly realized that it wouldn’t work once I began to think about how a chain would actually work in play: there was no way to easily alter just one section of the front line without pulling on the chain and causing the entire front line to move around.

With this realization, it became clear that what I needed instead was a set of parts that could be linked and unlinked easily, so that one part of the front could be left in place while another part was moved. The other part was that the links had to be able to connect at any angle, since the front had to be able to curve and undulate from one end of the map to the other. After playing with a lot of different alternatives, the best approach I came up with was the hook and loop design. Another aspect of the design is that the hook is wider at the opening and tapers towards the top. By making the hook wider at the opening, less accuracy is needed when dropping it down onto a loop, while the taper towards the top makes for a snugger fit once it finally drops down. Ideally, the top of the hook is the same width as the metal used to make the piece, but the test piece (as shown) has a wider gap because it is cheaper to make, and I don’t want to spend more money than I need to on test pieces.

Another aspect of the design is that the pieces are intended to be stamped from sheet metal rather than molded, which is a cheaper process. (And with a lot of metal pieces, I do need to watch the cost if the game is going to be reasonably priced.) I am concerned, with this design, however, about the loop on the back and how it is to be machined. It is a critical element to this design, and if it can’t be machined reasonably cheaply, then I’ve got a problem. But we’ll see.

I’ve gone ahead and ordered some playtest front-line pieces from eMachineShop. Here’s hoping that they come out well!

16 January, 2011

Sorry to have gone dark for the last few days on the blog. I’ve been traveling and wasn’t able to post any updates. Just before I left though I found an interesting site called eMachineShop. They have a specialized (and simple) CAD program you can download, and then use it to specify what you want machined, upload it to them, tell them how many you want, and then they’ll machine them and send them to you. (Assuming they are able to do so — they try to make sure that what you design in their app is something that they can machine, but their tests aren’t infallible.) Now that is pretty cool. Also pretty cool is that they have a 3D viewer so you can see the part you’re designing. I tried it out with the front-line pieces I’ve been working on for Stavka, and you can see what one of them is supposed to look like below:

The picture is huge, but these parts are pretty small: the piece as a whole is 1.25" long, with the end loop being .25" in diamter. Now, physically, the way these things work is that they have a hook on one end and a loop on the other, and in the game the front line is constructing by hooking these things together to make a chain. A turn of Stavka is basically a series of attacks by each side to penetrate the front line, and then at the end of the turn the front line is reset to reflect the results of those attacks. Resetting the front line means unhooking the parts of the front line that have been penetrated and replacing them with new sections that reflect the results of the penetration. You can see a series of conceptual illustrations below:

Front Line at Turn Start
Operations (Attacks)
Reset of Front Line at Turn End

Now, territorial control of the game is in terms of cities, and the front line runs between them and indicates which cities are Soviet-controlled and which cities are German-controlled. The gaps between the cities are fairly large (a couple of inches) so the game isn’t physically fussy about placement. An inch one way or another makes no difference as long as the line runs between the right cities, and the number of links in the chain doesn’t matter, so when playing, just go with what’s easy — or, with whatever looks cool, though easy often tends to produce pretty cool-looking fronts without any particular effort.

On another note, I think I’ve figured out how to manage supply within the framework of my cards/production system. Initial tests have been positive, but the real test is when I try to actually to calibrate the “magic numbers” of per-turn card income for each side.


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