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 News December, 2010

Designer’s Blog: December, 2010

31 December, 2010

Just a short New Years Even entry. I continue to slowly work my way through The Wages of Destruction, an economic history of Nazi Germany. I wouldn’t say that I’m making the most efficient use of it strictly from a game design point of view, but it does make interesting reading. On another Stavka note, I’ve ordered a thin sheet of nickel sheet metal. Although polyclay has proven highly useful as a way of making test pieces, I’d really like to try to get some made out of metal, since that is what I’m ultimately hoping to use as the material for the game pieces. The difficulty is that metal is hard to work, unless you have skills and tools that I don’t possess. To make it manageable, I’ve been looking, on and off, for sheet metal that is thin enough and soft enough that I can work it with a reasonable level of effort, yet strong enough that it will hold its shape once worked. Once the stuff arrives, then I’ll give it a go.

30 December, 2010

After thinking about it, I’ve decided to go ahead and adjust the objectives for the 2nd edition of Bonaparte at Marengo. The adjustment has two parts: (1) a change in the red and yellow objective locales, and (2) the addition of a sudden-death Austrian marginal victory, based on objective locales for the end of any round on or after 3:00PM. This change stems from the fact that the objectives, as designed, aren’t suitable as French offensive objectives should the Austrians take them early on, causing the offensive and defensive roles to reverse. The objectives’ basic function in the game right now is that the French need to defend them; counter-attacking to retake them later is not a French strategy that the game supports. The decision to limit the Austrian sudden death victory to 3:00PM or later is to prevent the French from being undone by a couple of stray cavalry pieces leaking through their lines early; if that’s the only problem, the rules will give the French time to recover. Essentially, the rule reflects Desaix’s famous quote that, ”This battle is lost, but there is still time to win another” — in the game, if the Austrians have already attained their objectives, there isn’t time to win another.

I am not yet certain that the game wouldn’t be better served by different objectives that could taken and re-taken, but I have no specific objectives worked out at this point that would do that, so there is nothing along those lines I can test. In any case, since I do have SOME rules are at least a candidate as a solution, it makes sense to try them out and see how they work. If at some point I come up with some other candidate that might work better, then I can try that out then. In the meantime, there is no longer any point to going forward with the old rules that I know I’m not going to use.

It is worth pointing out that the change does not mean that the French can’t counter-attack; of course they can, but a French counter-attack in game terms would be pre-emptive, to keep the objectives from being taken (or to demoralize the Austrians) rather than a reactive response to the loss of the objectives. Anyway, you can see the objective locale revisions yourself below:

Marengo Board

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

29 December, 2010

I’ve still been thinking about the defense-in-depth piece cost/maintenance issue in Stavka. I have a new idea that might work that I will try out in the next playtest: no maintanence cost, but escalating production cost. For example, if the Soviets have no DiD pieces in play, they can buy one for 2 points in infantry cards; if they have one in play, they can buy another one for 3 points, with two in play, they can buy another one for 4 points. This is kind of like maintenance without an actual maintenance cost. The cost progression itself ia also liable to tweaking as needed (for example, instead of something like 2-3-4-5-6-7..., it might be 2-2-3-3-4-4...) and a design mechanism that is capable of tuning is generally preferable to one that isn’t. One of the problems with an actual maintenance cost is that because a fractional cost proved clunky, my only choices were 0 (which had been tried and found too low) and 1 (which had been tried and found too high), with nothing usable in between.

So, in the next playtest I will likely give escalating production cost a try and see how it actually works.

There is another topic I continue to stew over: the locations and rules for the territorial objectives in the 2nd edition of Bonaparte at Marengo. Now, the reason that the 1st edition had so many objective areas, but only required that the Austrians take two of them, was to force the French to spread out. If territorial objectives don’t cover a large enough area, they encourage the defender to contract a tight defense around them. Now, I’m not sure that the revised objectives of the 2nd edition don’t allow the French to form too tight a line around the red and blue, leaving the board edges to prevent their position from being flanked and their high morale to prevent a direct assault. This is more of an issue in the 2nd edition than the first because the French morale advantage is so much greater. Within the current framework of the objective design, adding one more red objective north of the current red objectives would probably stretch the French position to prevent such a French strategy from working, forcing a more active, interesting, and realistic French defense.

That said, whether I ought to make deeper adjustments in the BaM objectives is a question that is raised by a separate and deeper problem: the objectives don’t work very well if the Austrians take enough of them need to win and the French have to counter-attack. Because the Austrians only need 2 objective locales to win, they can do what the French can’t: build a tight defense with a short perimeter and let the rest of the board go hang. Now, it isn’t necessarily bad if the game is designed so that if the Austrians take the objectives they are largely assured of a win, but if that is the design, I should probably end the game immediately on the Austrians taking the objectives they need rather than allow the game to go on: letting it go on with objectives that aren’t designed to be defensive objectives for the Austrians only exposes the limits of the design. If, on the other hand, I decide I want objectives that can function as defensive objectives for the Austrians, then I need different objectives than I have now, that force an Austrian defense to cover a historically reasonable area and not just one or two locales. One way or another, I need to come to a decision on this. The way it works now just isn’t satisfactory.

28 December, 2010

Still not a great deal happening. I’ve been trying to think through a set of Stavka problems, all concerning card income and expenditure. As I’ve mentioned before, cards are closely tied to production and are the main resource tracking mechanism in the game. In order for the game to work, card income and costs have to work together to produce historically reasonable game play. Each turn a player draws a number of cards proportionate to the production centers he controls. From these he can attack and defend and buy new units. He can also save cards from turn to turn.

In my last playtest, I got through 1941 reasonably well, but I wasn’t happy with the play in 1942. In the prior test, the Soviets looked like they didn’t have enough cards in 1942, so I increased their card draw and decreased some of their costs. I think I went too far and need to back up some, but I still need to maintain a reasonable balance in playability and keep the right balance between Soviet short-term and long-term capability. A big question concerns maintenance costs for defense-in-depth pieces. In the first game, the Soviets paid a per-turn maintenance cost (1/2 infantry point per piece) which was undesirable in terms of playability, in part because of the fractional cost, and which, given their card draw rate in that game, left them underpowered. In the next game, I dropped the maintenance and increased their card draw rate, but as a result they were cranking these things out and even so had lots of infantry cards in '42, which made it harder than it should have been for the Germans to attack.

No maintenance cost didn’t work very well, so I’m looking at going back to that, but I don’t want to do fractional points again; I suppose I will try the whole point maintenance cost with the higher income, and see if they work ok together. I do think, however, that the game would play more smoothly with smaller hands and without a maintenance cost, but I haven’t found a way to make the numbers work for that yet — there has to be some restraint on the number of defense-in-depth pieces in play or they will multiply until the map looks like Verdun. I want the Soviets to be able to have a few of them in play, which I think reasonably reflects the sort of defensive set-ups they employed and makes for interesting game play, but I seem to be flip-flopping between rules that have too many and rules that have too few. Hopefully, I’ll come up with something.

I wouldn’t want you to be alarmed at this: identifying and solving problems like these are what the design process is all about.

27 December, 2010

Hopefully you all had a good Christmas. My family and I did. Not much has been happening over the last few days on the design front, for obvious reasons. I’ve done a little road cleanup on the map for the 2nd edition of Bonaparte at Marengo in order to adjust a half-dozen or so of the roads that ran too close to the corners of locales. Mostly this was to improve player’s ability to see them, rather than to resolve any actual ambiguities, although there was one case where an intersection was actually in the no-man’s land between locales. Other than resolving ambiguities, no changes were made that would actually affect play. You can see the current map below, although only close comparison with the previously posted version would enable you to see any differences:

Marengo Board

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

23 December, 2010

I’ve been slowly working my way through The Wages of Destruction, an economic history of Nazi Germany. It is much broader than I strictly need for my purposes, but I figure a li’l book larnin’ won’t do me no harm in any case.

I still don’t have any sea supply rules for Stavka, but I know they’re coming and I’ve gone ahead and marked the ports on the map. That funny white line across the Baltic is the winter ice line (more or less). The white shapes are supposed to be snowflakes, but I think they look a little too much like doilies, and snowflakes may not be graphically right in any case. Probably a re-do is in the future there, but for now it will do. Anchors mark the port cities, and while the designs are graphically unobjectionable in and of themselves, but I haven’t been entirely sure where to put them. My first thought was to put them inside the city circles, but that didn’t look as good as I had expected. Then I thought of putting them over the ocean, and that looks good for most of the port cities, but for cities like Astrakhan, which are basically deep-river ports, that isn’t really a practical solution and so the port symbol for them is basically over land, which doesn’t look awful, but isn’t terribly attractive either.

There are a couple of obvious ports that aren’t marked: Trieste, for example. Trieste is unmarked because I don’t currently expect to have sea supply in the Adriatic. Another example that I’m more ambivalent about is Rostov. The thing about Rostov is that shipping between it and the Black sea would have to pass through the Kerch Straits, and I’m not sure about that as a complicating game feature. There are also some quite small ports that perhaps shouldn’t be marked as sea supply points. For now they are, but I may drop some of them later on.

You can see the map as it currently stands below:

Stavka Board Ports

22 December, 2010

Part 6 of the line-of-sight discussion. Previous parts are in the 11 Dec. entry, the 12 Dec. entry, the 14 Dec. entry, the 19 Dec. entry, and the 20 Dec. entry.

When last we left off this discussion, it was with the admission that The Guns of Gettysburg line of sight rules could be improved upon. Of course, this begs the question of how. As with any game, GoG is a compromise among multiple competing goals. Accurate line of sight was a goal, but not the only goal, and consequently the game’s line of sight rules were limited in some ways in order to achieve other desired features of the game, such as design targets for scale, complexity, and playing time.

The principles underlying the line of sight rules do not depend on any of the distinctive design features of GoG. We could just as easily apply them to a hex-grid based game at different scale. By way of example, below you can see a portion of the GoG map with a hex grid overlaid onto it. This grid is close to the map scale of Three Days at Gettysburg, though I haven’t attempted to make it an exact match.

Now, a hex grid of this scale would require a much larger map than GoG possesses, or REALLY small pieces to fit in such small hexes, but it does show how a different scale and terrain model can result in higher resolving power. For example, the spur at the northern end of Cemetery Hill can be resolved by the hex grid as a half-dozen or so hexes, but cannot be resolved at all by the areas of GoG due to the areas’ larger size. (Of course, hexes have their own issues, but our purpose here is to demonstrate how to apply the LOS system to a different style of game map, not to get into the various pluses and minuses of hex grid vs. area designs. That is a discussion I may take up at some future date, but not now.)

Anyway, before we start, I want to try to break the spell of the arbitrary contour intervals in the map. Because we can see 20-foot intervals on this map and we can’t see any others, we find it very hard to resist the idea that the location of these intervals is important, even though we know, that if the mapmaker had put in intervals at 630, 610, 590, 570 yards, etc. instead of 620, 600, 580, and 560, we would be looking at lines where we now see gaps and gaps where we now see lines. One possible antidote is this map of the same area, with many more contours, and none of them privileged with special markings:

One of the things we can see on the above map is that there is actually a good-sized hill on Cemetery Ridge, south of Cemetery Hill proper, which is completely invisible on the map with contours only at 20-foot intervals. What appears on the 20-foot contour map as a large plateau south of Cemetery Hill is actually an illusion created by lack of detail: The “plateau” actually consists of a hill and the meeting of two ridge lines, with the beginning of a valley between them that deepens as it goes north.

The importance of not being hypnotized by the location of contour lines is because to build our LOS map, what we want to find are the hills and valleys: the places on the map where the ground is convex and will block fire across it, and the concave valleys between the ridges where fire from ridge-to-ridge over them is unimpeded by ground clutter. So, let’s make a map that marks convex vs. concave rather than specific elevations:

Now, this is a rough-sketch, and if I were actually designing the game rather than writing an essay as a design exercise, I would wat to review this map carefully. As it is, however, it will do to make my point. Simple as this is, it catches a large percentage of the important line-of-sight features of this part of the battlefield.

Before improving it, let’s consider what the basic rules should be. First, we need to take into account ground clutter. Since we don’t have the map accuracy to depict it, in our back-of-the-envelope game design, we will plan for reduced fire range and effectiveness by units firing from valley hex to valley hex (as well as a lesser penalty for firing from valley hex to ridge hex). Second, we will not permit fire (or at least aimed fire: our game might or might not permit unaimed fire) from a valley over a ridge into another valley (a valley-ridge-valley sequence), or aimed fire in ridge-valley-ridge-valley sequence (either direction).

With these rules in mind, we can see one deficiency already: Cemetery Hill’s line of sight is obstructed by the low ridge to its northwest, but on the actual battlefield Cemetery Hill is high enough to see over it. Now, one way to fix this is by basically the same method we used on the GoG area map: we mark off areas (for valleys and hills) on top of the hex grid, and then use special line of sight lines to indicate exceptions. And really, this would work fine. However, because this is a design exercise, and we’ve already seen that method, let’s use a different method: we’ll mark off some ridge hexes as being “dominant hills” that can see over other ridges and down into the valleys behind them, like so:

Now frankly, this method is less flexible than the exception method, but it takes less map markup and is probably easier for players to see. If you don’t need the additional flexibility, this would be the way to go. Now, one thing worth noting about this: we are not indicating absolute elevation, but local prominence. The Gettysburg battlefield, for example, generally slopes upward from the southeast to the northwest corner. An absolute elevation that is high ground on the southeast corner of the map is low ground on the northwest corner. As we only care about local dominance, it is perfectly possible that the same elevation could be dominant in one part of the map and not dominant in another, depending on the height of the surrounding terrain.

Now this map is quite a bit better, but at this scale we should really be thinking about not just capturing the tops of the ridges, but capturing the forward vs. the reverse slope. Military units do not generally deploy on the very tops of ridges; they deploy slightly lower, on what is called the “military crest”, where they are not silhouetted against the sky and the view of the ground at the base of the ridge is better. The following illustration shows this:

Now the interesting thing about the military crest for our purposes is there are two of them, one on each side of the ridge. Depending on the game scale, the difference between the topographic crest and the two military crests may or may not be worth capturing. At this scale, we can reasonably represent it, so let’s do so. We’ll mark the ridge tops with a double line of hexes, for the forward and reverse slope military crests, with a line between them marking the topographic crest. (We don’t need to use a hex to mark the topographic crest, since it is wrong for the scale, and units don’t occupy it anyway.) We will also amend our rules to block line of sight across a topographic crest except from an adjacent hex or from a non-adjacent dominant hill.

Now, the above is a pretty good LOS map of the area, with simple rules and very good results. The map shows ridge positions, forward and reverse slopes, and dominant positions like Cemetery Hill. Further, with the ground-clutter fire penalties for valleys, the rules will strongly incline players towards the sort of tactics that the armies historically adopted. If even better results were desired, they could be obtained for only a modest effort. The use of areas and line of sight exceptions used by GoG, for example, are a very flexible tool that this design doesn’t even use, but could use if desired.

And with this, I think I will finally tie off this topic. Although I personally am interested in design theory, I’m never sure how many readers are actually following along on a subject like this. Still, with so many of my entries being graphics or research-oriented, I thought a dose of something more abstract would at least be a change of pace. I actually do find this sort of thing helpful to me: in trying to explain a subject to others, I find that it tends to force me to think more clearly about it myself. And, hopefully, there is at least a couple readers who followed and were interested in the whole thing as well.

21 December, 2010

This entry is NOT about line of sight.

I ran another Stavka playtest. The purpose was to try out a number of system refinements to correct problems encountered in the last playtest. In the last playtest I had a card cost associated with rear-area armor movements that I dropped for this test. It involved fractional point-costs that were just a pain to deal with. The game worked fine without them, so that was good. I also corrected some sequencing issues in the production phase (the game has two phases: production and operations) but I’m still not happy with everything there. One big unresolved issue in sequencing is the order of card losses for pockets of surrounded troops vs. card expenditures for production. Which should come first? No matter which one comes first, sequencing problems crop up, keeping the game from flowing as smoothly as I’d like.

Also, the playtest exposed a problem I’ve been avoiding: supply by sea. In their winter of 1941 offensive, the Soviets drove to the Baltic, cutting off the German forces that had just taken Leningrad in the previous turn. Now, I haven’t sketched in any sea supply rules, so the Germans basically lost Army Group North. Whoops. In fact, historically, Army Group North was cut off in the Courland peninsula in October 1944, but survived until May 1945. I haven’t read that much about Army Group Courland (as it was renamed) but I’ve always assumed it was supplied by sea. So, I need to look into that. There was actually a similar situation with the Soviet forces in the Caucasus in 1942: although the German army never actually reached the Caspian Sea, they did cut off the transportation network needed for overland supply to the Caucasus, forcing the Soviets to supply their forces in the Caucasus by sea. Now, I pretty much know that I need rules for supply by sea, but haven’t really worked up how they would work.

Also, there is a rear-area mobility problem that needs to be addressed. It is too easy to set up defense in depth pieces behind your own lines, and rear area armor movements are too slow. Consequently, it isn’t at all hard for the Soviets to simply put defense in depth pieces in front of the German armor, which is too slow to get around them easily. Obviously that isn’t right, so it needs to be fixed.

Still, it was a pretty good playtest. The things I was trying to fix I did fix, more or less, so the list of problems that need to be addressed did get shorter, and that’s a good thing.

Incidentally, when I halted play in the summer of 1942. The Soviets were torn between an offensive towards Minsk vs. halting while building up more armor formations, while the Germans were undecided between a southern offensive vs. a switch to the strategic defensive. A map showing more or less where the front line was is below:

20 December, 2010

Part 5 of the line-of-sight discussion. Previous parts are in the 11 Dec. entry, the 12 Dec. entry, the 14 Dec. entry, and the 19 Dec. entry.

In the previous entry, we showed a Guns of Gettysburg map which showed just the ridge and obstructed terrain positions, and omitted the other positions. The importance of these positions to the battle can be seen by this map showing the main defensive lines the Union army took during the course of the battle:

Essentially, the battle of Gettysburg was a series of fights for ridge-lines. If the Union lost one, they fell back to another. Further, Confederate attacks typically consisted of setting up on the ridge line opposite the Union, and then attacking across the valley in between their ridge line and the Union ridge line. The critical nature of the ridges to the battle of Gettysburg is almost impossible to overstate. So, given that in the previous entry we proposed a map system which differentiated terrain first by whether it was convex or concave and built the Gettysburg map on that principle. So was it a success?

Not entirely.

There are several problems with the map as shown above. First, it has no mechanisms for regulating movement: it cannot answer the simple question of how far a unit can move. Second, the map cannot represent the important tactic of flanking a ridge position, forcing the enemy to defend across floor of a valley in order to protect his flank and rear. Third, the map has no mechanism for regulating fields of fire, both in terms of range and firing angle. All of these things, taken together, required non-ridge positions, which were added to make the final map:

Still, as a first order solution to the problem of line of sight, simply differentiating between convex and concave ground proved remarkably successful. (I think.) There is one thing, however, that the map design did not naturally handle well, and that is the case where fire went from one ridge to another, over an intervening lower ridge. Now, because of the limits of weapon ranges, this was much less of a problem than it might seem. Really, there are only a few places on the map where this is possible, and those were handled by the dotted special line-of-sight lines on the map.

In any case, the result is a map which can handle complex line of sight in a math-free way. To a considerable extent, that is because line-of-sight calculations are built into the map design itself. The map does the work, so that the players don’t have to.

Now, there are a couple of questions that can reasonably be asked: First, is GoG the best that can be done, and second, does this approach require an area map? The answers are no, and no. The problem of how to design a more accurate map than GoG based on the same principles, and how to apply those principles to a hex grid, will be taken up in a later diary entry. (And probably the last entry on this subject.)

19 December, 2010

Back to line-of-sight. This is part 4 of this discussion, begun in the 11 Dec. entry, and continued in the 12 Dec. entry and 14 Dec. entry.

To begin with, I wouldn’t want you to think that by mentioning Three Days at Gettysburg in the previous entry that I was singling it out for abuse. Actually, I think the rules text just acknowledged that the line of sight methodology it (and many, many other games as well) used had come to a sort of dead-end: not really satisfactory, but with no obvious way forward. I don’t think that TDAG had worse line of sight rules than other games; it was just more frank about its limitations.

So, the whole point of this exercise is to find a way forward, but we can’t go forward the way we’ve been going. Let’s go back to the beginning and take a fresh look at the problem.

(1) If the ground were perfectly flat, then line of sight would have no definite limit. Of course, minimally, the earth is round, not flat (a point that seldom matters on land but which matters very much at sea). The reason that the earth's shape limits line of sight is that it is a convex curve. Now, what is interesting is that any convex curve will do this, not just the convex curve produced by the shape of the earth. This is because the curve of the ground rises up and blocks the line of sight from the shooter to the target.

(2) In previous entries, we talked about ground clutter: small (less than 4 meter) variations in elevation, standing fields of crops, tall grass, patches of trees and bushes, fences, etc. Ground clutter is limits line of sight, even on “flat” ground. Now, what enables a shooter to see over ground clutter is when the shape of the earth is concave, dropping the clutter below the line of sight from the shooter to the target.

So, to build on this principle, rather than try and identify ground first by elevation, let’s start by identifing it by general ground shape. Areas of ground will be identified as either convex or concave: hill or valley.

In fact, this is the first-order basis for the map of The Guns of Gettysburg. The ridges and hills on the battlefield are positions while the valleys are the areas. This version of the GoG map, with non-ridge positions stripped out (we’ll talk about non-ridge positions in a later blog entry) shows you how this theory was applied to create the map design of an actual game. (As a side note, I also left in obstructed posititions, since they have their own large role to play in line of sight.)

Gettysburg Hills

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

18 December, 2010

Well, I finally completed a task that’s been on my to-do list for quite a while: river clean-up. As I mentioned in an early blog entry (I’m too lazy right now to look up which one), the elevation and rivers come from different sources and hence don’t quite line up. Almost, but not quite. The difference isn’t uniform across the board, but generally is less than 1/16". That doesn’t sound like much, and mostly it isn’t much, however, in places where a river runs up a narrow valley it can cause the river to run next to the valley rather than in the valley, which looks ugly. (Admittedly it only looks ugly to those studying the map closely enough to find the rivers in question.) And so, I knew that I wanted to make a clean-up pass over the map, to align any rivers that were visibly inconsistent with the elevation data. There are a lot of rivers, and they have to inspected and cleaned up at high magnification (generally zoomed about 600%), so it is somewhat tedious and time-consuming to do.

My head was bothering me today, so a job that didn’t require much thought seemed just right. To show you the sort of thing I was doing, you can see a zoomed-in sample of the clean-up work, with the “before” image on the left and the “after” image on the right. The difference is subtle, but if you look closely at some of the Alpine rivers (and at Lake Garda, the big lake in the lower-left corner of each image), you can see the difference:

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

Stavka Board V4

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

17 December, 2010

Bit of backdating here. I meant to get this entry up last night, but one thing another and I didn’t. Still, I’m dating it for last night anyway.

Much of the day was spent getting ready for another round of Stavka playtesting, which mainly meant making armor pieces. (I never really made up any for the last round; I just used found objects instead.) Anyway, doing the armor meant more mucking around with Polyclay. I had been thinking about how to do this for some time, and had finally concluded that the best way was to mold them, and so I set about making positive and negative molds for the front and back respectively. That took a while, and at the end, when I tried it out, it just didn’t work. The clay stuck to the mold too much and tore when I tried to take it out. So much for that idea. Oddly enough, what worked acceptably well was a method that I used to make the mold itself. It was basically a stamp applied to the top of a rectangle of clay to emboss the desired design on the front. Given the circumstances, I thought that would be good enough. No photos; they don’t look good enough for me to want to show them to the world; my skill at clay sculpting is too modest for that.

I think the design is basically ok, but they are physically too large at 3/4" x 1/2" x 1/4". That doesn’t sound that big, but I think they would be better at something like 1/2" x 3/8" x 3/16" or something like that. The smaller the piece, the harder it is for me to sculpt in clay, so when I eventually get around to re-doing them, I expect the level of craftsmanship on my part to be even lower. I also have one remaining class of piece to make: defense-in-depth pieces, and then I will have my first full set of Stavka game pieces. Even if some of them need to be redone for one reason or another, it will still be a milestone to have them all made.

Also, I made up a new Stavka playtest map, a task complicated somewhat by the fact that the printer ran out of memory and refused to print it. Well, that was manageable. I made a high-resolution version of the map in Photoshop format and printed that instead. That worked, but man, was it slow: I think it took about three hours to create and print the map. (All computer time — I was able to do other things, so no big deal really.) I also ordered more memory for the printer.

A lof of the things I’m worrying about now (when I’m not struggling with the mechanics of making physical games for testing) are about how to smooth out the mechanics. The last Stavka playtest showed some rough spots in play. Since then I’ve been trying to figure out how to smooth them out and I have some ideas I’m ready to try out. I know it all sounds rather vague, so I’ll try to give an example: The game doesn’t assess losses like conventional wargames. Mostly losses are assessed in terms of cards rather than pieces. Cards are generated by production and are used in movement as well as combat, so the movement/losses/production all need to be a balanced system where the rates all work well with respect to each other, and for both the Germans and the Soviets. Getting all of these numbers right is critical to the success of the game, and will take substantial time and effort.

16 December, 2010

Even shorter entry today. I tried some objectives changes for the 2nd edition of Bonaparte at Marengo. They didn’t work out and I backed them out again. I tried to do some layout revisions on part of the map for Stavka. They didn’t work out either and I backed them out too. Oh, yes, I took my wife Christmas shopping and we did some returns.

It was one of those days.

15 December, 2010

Short entry today.

The 2nd edition of Bonaparte at Marengo continues playtesting. To date, the Austrians have won all but one game, although several have been close. It is likely that some adjustment will be made to the balance, but I haven’t yet decided what to do. The main thing is to alter the balance while keeping the game in the desired shape. (More fighting, less running.) Moving back the objectives, while it would tilt the balance, would tilt the game more in the direction of more running, so that isn’t a direction I particularly want to take. Morale adjustments are a possibility, as is changing the French reinforcement arrival times a little. (As with most historical battles, sources tend to be vague and/or contradictory on when things happen, which means that things like arrival times are often not very precisely documented, which gives a designer some freedom regarding them while staying within what is historically known.) I could also mess with morale levels some more, but I don’t have a lot more freedom there as I’ve already depressed Austrian morale quite a bit compared to French, and if I overdo it some strange things can pop out.

I have made some adjustments to the locales at the east end of the map. (These aren’t in playtest yet.) A couple of the old boundaries violated some of my informal design rules on locales, and could result in some odd frontages if the battle lines should swing north-south. I didn’t do this for balance though, just to rationalize play.

I also integrated some more proof-reading results into the Stavka map, and added a new road between Serbia and Bulgaria, which I expect to have absolutely zero impact on play.

Anyway, you can see the map updates below. Click on either one to open it in its own window.

Marengo Board

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

Stavka Board V3

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

14 December, 2010

This is part 3 of the line of sight discussion started in the 11 Dec. entry, and continued in the 12 Dec. entry.

The problem of line of sight where the shooter and the target are not on the same elevation has been where wargame line of sight tends to simply break down. The mathematics of calculating whether a given obstacle blocks the line of sight to a given target can be expressed in a variety of different ways, but basically amounts to comparing the vertical angle from the shooter to the target and comparing it to the vertical angle from the shooter to the obstacle to see which is greater. This isn’t hard to understand, but it is far too computationally intensive for use in a boardgame. But even beyond the computational complexity, to give the right answers it requires the correct elevations; the approximate elevations used in board games give rise to a variety of odd effects. For example, here is the illustration we used earlier for a smooth slope:

Plugging its numbers literally into the line of sight formula named above represents the smooth slope not as smooth, but as a sort of ziggurat:

Without adjusters for the height of the shooter and the target above ground level, and interpolations for the heights of the hexes between the elevation gradations, the formula simply gives a huge number of obviously wrong answers, and adding interpolations make a formula that was too complex to start with a great deal more complex. And so, the whole exercise simply collapses under its own weight.

To review: There are two problems with line of sight in boardgames. The first is that they have too little data to give good answers on “flat” ground, and can’t use the data they do have on sloped ground because of overwhelming computational complexity. Faced with this problem, one can understand why the designer, in the line of sight rules for the third edition of Three Days at Gettysburg, wrote: “We’ll try to keep this as simple and basic as possible...There are sure to be anomalies: try to solve them based on the underlying principles these rules portray.” Now this is about as clear an example as you’re likely to find of a designer simply throwing up his hands in despair (and this is after three editions of the game and two editions of its predecessor, Terrible Swift Sword) and leaving it up to the players to fix the game.

So, what is to be done? Can anything be done? Obviously I think so. Perfect line of sight rules are not really attainable, but then, nothing else in wargames is perfect either, so there is little reason to expect line of sight to be any different. Still, I think it is possible to do very substantially better, which is a problem I will take up in a subsequent — possibly the next — blog entry.

13 December, 2010

I’m taking a break from the line of sight discussion to talk about some Stavka work. I’ve been working my way through Soviet Planning in Peace and War, 1938-1945 and while it is informative, it is (not surprisingly) pretty dry and not the sort of thing I can keep reading hour after hour. I’ve also been spot-checking The Wages of Destruction (on the German war economy) on specific questions, but have not yet really started reading the whole book.

One thing that has come out of my reading is that the German 1942 offensive was much more damaging to the Soviet war economy than I had guessed. While it failed to capture the main Soviet oil fields around Baku, it was a sufficient threat that it disrupted oil production through evacuations of personnel and equipment, particularly from the smaller oil fields north of the Caucasus, such as around Grozny. Even more importantly, it caused major transportation disruptions in how the Soviets moved oil, so even while the Soviets were able to still produce oil, they couldn’t move all they produced and actually had to slow production just because of lack of transport and storage. All of this was at a time when the major bottleneck in Soviet war production had shifted from arms to more basic goods (steel, coal, and oil). Also, the fields north of the Caucasus, particularly around Grozny, were evidently substantial enough that Hitler thought their capture critical to resolving Germany’s own oil shortages.

Given all of this, I’ve done some re-arranging of the cities and roads north of the Caucasus to better reflect the realities of the transportation situation there. I’ve also demoted Baku from a double to a single production center, and added a center at Grozny. I think this will result in both a better simulation and a better game. (Baku might be re-promoted to a double center, depending on how the overal Soviet production numbers work out in the game.)

I’ve also gotten some very helpful feedback on city names, and have corrected quite a few names (both German and Russian) in the western half of the map. I was a little taken aback at the number of corrections required, I thought I had done a better job than that, but there were some systemic problems that I had not caught with regard to the languages shown on my source maps, as well as some transcription errors on my part. In any case, you can see the current map below:

Stavka Board V2

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

12 December, 2010

This blog entry is a continuation of the line of sight discussion started in the 11 Dec. entry, so reading that one before reading this one will make it easier to follow along.

Anyway, previously we looked at the problems wargames have in handling line of sight on “flat” ground. Now let’s look at how they handle ground that isn’t flat. To begin, let’s get a trivial matter out of the way. Absolute elevation (as in height above sea level) is of no importance whatsoever in line of sight. The two examples below are exactly the same, even though they occur at different elevations:

Now, I don’t know of any wargames that have trouble with this. Everybody knows that absolute elevation doesn’t matter, and everybody gets it right without any difficulty. Now, let’s take a look at relative elevation, when the cannon and target are at different heights. Here is how that might look in a wargame that includes elevation contours:

And now let’s take a look at what the above example represents in cross-section:

The interesting thing is that the above cross-section is just our old friend, the flat ground cross-section, just tilted. Relative elevation, as such, made no difference either to line of sight. Of course, the ground would be unlikely to be really this straight a line, no more than it would in the flat ground example. Really, it would likely be more like this:

Which is just our old friend, the real-world “flat” ground, just tilted. So, as it turns out, not only do we not care about the absolute elevation, we don’t care about relative elevation either — at least, we don’t care about relative elevation when we are talking about just the firer and the target. We only get useful line of sight data when we include the elevation of a third point: a potential obstacle.

For the moment, let’s forget about the ground clutter that is below the map resolution of wargames and just take a look at the big stuff, such as a hill tall enough to actually show on a wargame map. For our first example, let’s go back to having the firer and target on the same elevation, and introduce a big hill between them. We’ll see how it looks on the wargame map and what it represents (ignoring real-world ground clutter):

Now, so far, so good, right? We can easily see on the wargame map that with the cannon and the target at 590 yds. elevation, and a hill at 600 yds. elevation between them, that there is no line of sight. For this entry, I’m going to leave it here, and take up a more complex problem in our next blog entry: what if there is a hill and the cannon and target are not at the same elevation, what then?

11 December, 2010

Today’s blog entry is actually about Guns of Gettysburg, in that it concerns one of the main challenges faced by that game, and the approach taken to address it. I’m talking about line of sight and fields of fire.

Before going into the GoG design, let’s talk about line of sight, and why it is a hard problem in wargames. Let’s start with how wargames normally handle line of sight:

The above example is a trivial wargame line of sight problem: There is no blocking terrain between the cannon and the target, and they are both on the same elevation, so the line of sight is clear. The cannon can see and fire at the target. Let's take a look at the situation in profile, so we can see what is being modeled:

Now, far be it from me to say that there is nowhere in the world that isn’t exactly like this, but much more common are cases where the ground has gentle undulations, standing fields of crops, tall grass, patches of trees and bushes, fences, and so on. Wargames in general don’t show any vegetation less significant than actual forests, and ignore any hill less than 10 meters (or 20 meters) high. Now, the problem here it only takes 2 meters in height of stuff to hide a human target, and the longer the distance you try to cover, the more likely you’ll find something 2 meters or more in height that does exactly that. And so, what appears to be an easy line of sight problem is only easy because the game leaves out all the things that would make it complicated — and which could give the opposite answer as to whether or not the cannon could see and fire at the target:

Part of the problem here is of course that wargame maps just plain don’t have the detail required to model “flat” ground well, and not just a little short: really, they would need to increase the vertical map detail by about 10x in order to have the raw map data needed. Where things get sticky is that that level of map detail doesn’t usually exist in the sources themselves. Where things get stickier is that the rules modeling to take advantage of more detail would greatly complicate and slow down play.

Thus, we can see the first problem in modeling line of sight: doing a really accurate job, even for modeling “flat” ground is not at all an easy problem to solve. Even if you have the source data, and even if you cram it all onto your map, your players’ heads may explode from the calculations required to make use of it all.

Now, I still have more to say on this topic, and if I were still doing the old Design Diary format, I would work on this longer, and then post it all as one big essay. However, I’m keeping blog entries short, so instead I’m going to post what I have now, and take the subject up again in the next blog entry. (At least, that’s the plan.)

10 December, 2010

Well, I did finish the regulatory map art for Stavka, and it went smoother than I expected, in part because Google Maps is actually easier to use (for a non-Russian speaker) to get the names in Russian for cities outside of Russia than it is for Russian names inside of Russia. This is for the simple reason that inside of Russia, Russian google maps is mono-lingual, while outside of Russia it is bilingual, eliminating the need for a parallel use of the German version of Google Maps. Oh, and also I was using almost all major cities outside of Russia and was spared the pain (mostly) of looking up small cities. Yay.

I was surprised at the number of people who wrote me with various tips as to how to configure my keyboard for Russian text entry. I do appreciate the thought, but without the ability to see what letter a key will type, it isn’t as useful as it might seem. However, one good thing did come out of it, which was to remind me that the software keyboard also reconfigured, and I could see the characters on it. I should have thought of it myself. No idea why I didn’t. As it happened, I didn’t really use it much (copy and paste is still much preferable to typing), but it was a nice to have as a backup option. So, to those who wrote to help, I do appreciate your good wishes.

I now have copies of The Wages of Destruction (on the German war economy) and Soviet Planning in Peace and War 1938-1945 (on the Soviet war economy, naturally) in my possession, but have scarcely started to look at them, being much occupied with touching up lines and dots and typing in languages that I don’t understand. I do have the provisional production centers on the map. For the Soviets, they are what I expected to do, but for the Germans I’ve taken a bit of a turn.

As it happens, the production centers actually are serving two different functions in the design: first, as mechanisms for reproducing the ability of the armies to build and maintain their armies, and second, as objectives for military operations. Now, for the production centers in the Soviet Union, these two things are very closely linked, but once I began to look at those in Germany and its allies in Eastern Europe, I realized that they weren’t. Soviet military operations were inside enemy territory for only a short period. By then, German defeat was clear and how to cripple the German war economy had very little to do with Soviet planning, which was much more driven by the state of the postwar world and the creation of a Soviet sphere of influence. To model Soviet military operations, I think modeling political objectives is more important than modeling the location of German production, and so I’m taking a look at distributing the German “production” centers on that basis. In the end, everything is subordinate to making the game work; I think I need a good model for Soviet objectives more than I need a good model for German production (geographically anyway, the a good model of the overall level of German production is very badly needed) and so for now I’m letting politics rather than economics drive the locations of the German production centers. We’ll see how it works. Hopefully, I won’t need better production modeling AND better objective modeling: simpler is better than more complicated, and I’d rather not have separate German production and political cities.

Anyway, you can see the current map below:

Stavka Road Art

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

9 December, 2010

I continued work on the regulatory map art for Stavka. Mostly done now with the cities and their names. I like the bi-lingual names, but I decided to cut the type size for the non-production cities a little to keep the map from being too type-heavy. The whole process of adding Russian names has been a bit of an adventure. My source maps for the game don’t have Russian names, only German ones.

My main tool has been the international versions of Google maps: I can look for the city on the German Google maps, see where it is shown there, and then look for the same city on the Russian Google maps, which has the name in Russian. Now, this usually works pretty well, but can fail for a couple reasons. First, not all cities have the same name today that they did in 1940, so finding the same city on my 1940 source map and on the German google maps can be a challenge. This is particularly true for cities that are now part of a different country. Second, there is more than one way to get from Russian to German, and the German spelling for Russian cities on my source map and in Google maps are not necessarily the same.

Below, for example, you can see basically the same area in my source map (left) and the German version of Google maps (right). If you look, some places you will be able to match pretty quickly, others with a little more work, and some not at all because they’re just not on both. (By the way, by giving you images that already are of the same area, I took away half the fun of when I do it: the way to match the areas is to match the city names, and once you’ve matched the city names you don’t need to match the areas.) I won’t bother with the Russian version, as it looks identical to the German except for the names, and for this area the German version has the Russian names anyway:

When I can’t find a city I’m looking for even on the German Google maps, then I go to plan B. (This is generally a problem with the smaller ”cities” on my map that were added not because of any special significance of the city, but because the game needed a point for its point-to-point system in that area, and the “city” in question was the biggest one I could find in the area.) Plan B is a general Google internet search. This has generally worked, however in some cases I still draw a blank. Then I go to plan C: Pick a different city and repeat plans A through C as many times as needed.

Once I’ve found the Russian spelling for a city, I’m in the home stretch, but I’m not there yet. Ideally, I can just copy and paste the city name from the source into my map. However, you can’t select a name on a Google map directly. Google maps are image files and text selection doesn’t work. Now, sometimes I can just click on the Russian name of the Google Maps, and do a "Get Info", and then it will pop the name into the top-left corner of the window where I can select the text. Sometimes, but not always. If it doesn’t, then it is back to the Internet to find a version of the Russian text I can copy and paste. This almost always works, but when it doesn’t, then I fall back on entering it myself. If I had a Russian-language keyboard and knew Russian, this would be a breeze, of course, but since I don’t, I have to do a character-by-character unicode look-up in a character code app, and insert the characters that way. Slow going, and did I mention that the letters in Google Maps are really tiny and cyrillic character shapes (particularly accents on cyrillic character shapes) are just plain hard to see?

However, painful the process may be sometimes, it is still grinding forward and I should finish sometime tomorrow. Much proofing will still be needed, and help by German and/or Russian speakers will be welcome.

On another topic, there was a new playtest of the 2nd edition of Bonaparte at Marengo. MUCH more satisfactory than the first one. The changes look like they’re moving the game strongly in the right direction, which is basically to make the game play more dynamic, with a greater variety of strategy options for both sides, than the 1st edition. It will take more testing to check the balance, but things are looking very good. The testers also found a small loophole in the rules. (Yeah, playtesters!) We’re gearing up for more testing with more people, although holiday schedules will no doubt complicate matters. I hope it goes smoothly: It would be a nice change after the Guns of Gettysburg playtest deathmarch, which may have resulted in a really good game, but which was just brutal as a process.

Not sure yet, but hopefully I’ll have the finished version of the Stavka regulatory art up tomorrow. We’ll see how it goes.

8 December, 2010

I started work on the regulatory map art for Stavka. Still a ways to go, and I may revise the style I’m using in a couple of different ways, but here’s a sample of how the current design looks:

As you can see, the basic concept of black circles for cities connected by black lines for roads hasn’t fundamentally changed. The circles are a little smaller, and the lines aren’t as thick, but it is the same basic idea. There are, however, a couple of new things. First, you will see little blue squares along the Dnieper, these are water terrain penalties — generally for rivers, but not always. Next, you will see a green square in the top-left corner. That’s a forest terrain penalty. The basic idea is that the type of penalty tells you what the seasonal variation is. For water, they drop to zero during winter, and double to two during Spring. Forest penalties, on the other hand, don’t vary by season. You will also see that Kiev has been marked with a red dot. The dot indicates that Kiev is a production center. Finally, you will see that odd spellings abound. The map currently shows the Russian spelling on the top, with the German spelling below. The idea behind this is for ambience, to introduce the main languages of the opposing armies. Is it a good idea? Maybe. I like the idea of it, but including two spellings for each city tends to make the map a little type heavy, and it may not be a good idea to make non-Russian, non-German speakers have to work to recognize the more famous cities without their familiar English spellings. I’m still trying it out. I may keep it, or I may do something else. (English & Russian? English only? German only? Not Russian-only, I think.)

Now, it actually isn’t my habit to consciously follow a board style from another game. Various historical map styles, sure, but game boards don’t generally inspire that reaction from me. In the case of Stavka, however, I actually did have a previous game in mind. The original board for that classic game beloved by psychotic gamers everywhere (by no means excluding myself, once upon a time), Diplomacy:

I always loved that board. All that completely meaningless, but delightful-looking full-color topographic detail contrasted with very strong black lines and circles that indicate the business part of the map. Now Stavka is actually interested in functioning as a simulation, which Diplomacy was not, and so the terrain depicted in Stavka isn’t utterly irrelevant to game play, but I was very much echoing Diplomacy in making it gloriously overdone, with visual detail vastly in excess of the needs of the game. Take that, Redmond Simonsen functionalism!

7 December, 2010

Made progress on a couple of fronts. First, I think I’ve identified a good source on the Soviet war economy: Soviet Planning in Peace and War, 1938-1945 by Mark Harrison, and I’ve ordered a copy for myself. There were several other interesting looking titles, but this looks like the one with the most direct relevance to the design of the Stavka. I already have Stalin’s Keys to Victory by Walter Dunn, and while it has been quite useful, I also want something with a broader economic perspective, and I think Harrison’s book is the one I want. (Dunn also did a book called The Soviet Economy and the Red Army, and I may get that as well; we’ll see if Harrison’s book leaves me with the feeling that I need another source.)

For the Germans I have a book coming called The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, by Adam Tooze, and we’ll see how well that leaves me covered for the Germans. The book is widely acclaimed and I am looking forward to getting it.

On the operational side, way back when, decades ago, I once read quite a bit about the Soviet-German war, but the sources were heavily German in perspective, and much more based on memoirs than archival research. Much more recently, a little prior to starting design work on Stavka, I bought and read a copy of When Titans Clashed by David M. Glantz and Jonathan House and found it fascinating. First, because it was the war primarily from a Soviet point of view, and second, because it was fundamentally based on archival research rather than memoirs, so it presented an old subject in a new way.

In addition to research, I’ve done some more Stavka map work, this time on the regulatory layer. I have completed a pass on the road network (finally). Still missing are terrain penalties, production centers, and final art. (The current regulatory art is temporary and is not intended to go into print.) You can take a look here:

Stavka Road Map

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

There are any number of questions still outstanding. I’m not sure at all about the mountain passes yet: Do I have too few? Too many? Are they the right ones? And the attempt to construct a militarily useful map of the USSR out towards the Urals involves a lot of guesswork, since there were no military operations out there that I can use to validate it. The main thing is that not only the terrain has to be manageable by armored forces, but the transportation network has to be able to handle their logistical requirements. As you get further east in the USSR, the rail network gets a lot more sparse, and much more dedicated to moving goods east-west than north-south, and the road network thins from bad to barely existant. My guess is that logistically the armies would have have had to keep large-scale operations pretty close to the main rail lines, and that’s what this map reflects. It isn’t like to matter too much, since frankly, if the military operations are going on that deep into the Soviet Union, the Soviets aren’t too likely to be coming up the winner, but it would still be nice if the game in that situation stayed reasonably to close to what was historically possible — whatever historically possible may have been.

6 December, 2010

The recent playtesting of Stavka and the 2nd edition of Bonaparte at Marengo have given me things to work on. For BaM2, I made some rules changes to bump the game more in the direction I think it should go and have some others under consideration. For Stavka, I think I need to build out more of the game (it is only partly done, after all) before doing more testing. In particular, I think I need to put some meat on the bones of the production system.

Now real economies are fiendishly complicated things, even if you just focus on the parts of an economy required to support warfare. I haven’t got the slightest intention of trying to model the details of a war economy in Stavka. My intent is to greatly abstract it: certain cities on the map will be designated as production centers and each side will get to draw a number of cards each turn according to the number of production centers they control, less some delay for captured production centers. This was sort-of tested in the last Stavka playtest, but I think it is time to come up with at least a working list of what the production centers should be. I’m still doing research, but this is the current candidate list for the Soviet Union:

The various cites are on the list for different reasons: some were important for natural resources, others for administrative reasons, others as population centers, and others as industrial sites. A sophisticated model would differentiate between all of these, but I’m not going there. For a game perspective, what matters in the game is that the Soviet loss of these cities will reduce Soviet card draws and so impair Soviet military effectiveness.

There is another general issue with modeling the Soviet war economy, and that is the difference between 1941 and the rest of the war. During 1941, the Soviets were mobilizing their reserves and consuming pre-war weapons stockpiles, but not producing much in the way of new weapons, as their armaments factories were generally on trains shipping east. After that, they had finished mobilizing their reserves, so new manpower wasn’t as plentiful, but the new manpower they did have was much, much better equipped than in 1941. It isn’t entirely clear how strongly the game will need to differentiate between these periods. Probably the most significant game difference is that the Soviets really couldn’t replace the armor they were losing and fielding new large armor formations that year really wasn’t doable. The first playtest suggests that doing nothing to differentiate between the two periods probably won’t work, but what exactly I’ll do about it I’m not sure: there are several alternatives and I’m not sure which will be the best. I’ll work on it.

I’ve really done very little work yet on the Germans. I think Berlin and Ploesti will both be (x2) production centers, but I don’t know where the others will be. The German economy was only very partly mobilized for war production in 1941, but as it began to pick up production, it also had to contend with the demands for other fronts and the need to replace ever-growing losses against Russia. The result was that in spite of the vastly greater German arms production in the later years of the war, the German army in the east was never really more plentifully equipped or supplied than it had been in 1941, and the quality and quantity of its manpower only diminished. In game terms, I will start by doing the easiest thing: assume a constant German card draw rate and see how that works. While I may need production adjusters over time (apart from production centers changing hands), I may not; it could be that the various factors that increased German strength were canceled by those that caused it to decrease — excluding losses on the eastern front itself — and I won’t need any adjusters at all.

And so, for both the Soviets and the Germans, my approach follows my usual pattern of start simple, and let the need for greater complexity be proved by actual game play results. Often times, I’ve found, complexity that seems necessary prior to actually playing the game turns out not to be needed after all, and it is easier to not add complexity in the first place than it is to add it and then take it back out later.

5 December, 2010

While I talked a lot about the map research for The Guns of Gettysburg in this design diary entry, I don’t think I ever talked about the other sources I used in the game, and I thought I’d address that now.

Official Records Research for the game, like pretty much any ACW research, started with The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. No other conflict that I know of has a better collection of primary source research material available to it. It is the foundation of all Civil War research and scholarship. (I still get cross-eyed with irritation when I recall David Isby's dismissal of it as "a grab-bag of reproduced original documents", which may be the stupidest thing anyone has ever written about ACW research — I’m sorry, David, but I think it may be.) I was particularly interested in the accounts of the artillery officers, since I felt that I really needed a firmer understanding of that arm to do Gettysburg justice, although for the game I read every Gettysburg report in the collection. Also, as much as I enjoy the work of a skilled historian in assembling a narrative of a complex subject, nothing can ever replace letting the participants speak for themselves.
Regimental Strength and Losses For order of battle details, I used Busey and Martin’s Regimental Strengths and Losses at Gettysburg. It is an admirably careful attempt at reconstructing what units were present at the battle, how they were organized, their arms, and their losses. It is a pure reference book: it is just page after page of numbers and calculations. The level of detail went far beyond my needs, but I always appreciate working from good sources. The nature of the work means that it will never have a wide audience, but the audience it does have will always appreciate it.
1864 Field Artillery Tactics This volume, The 1864 Field Artillery Tactics, and its two companion volumes, The 1863 Union Infantry Tactics and The 1862 Union Cavalry Tactics, were not greatly used in my research, since they are the manuals for units only up to regimental size (for infantry or cavalry) and battery size (for artillery), and my game was really more at the brigade/division/corps level, but it was nice to have them as a way of keeping myself mentally grounded in the reality of what it meant to manage small units on the battlefield and what sort of things they were and weren’t trained to do.
The Gettysburg Campaign As a single-volume history of the subject, I found Coddington’s The Gettysburg Campaign, a delightful read, as well as a fine volume on the higher-level command issues of the battle. I can’t point to any particular game element that came from it, but it definitely was helpful to giving me a sense of the historical battle. You don’t need to be doing Gettysburg research to enjoy this.
Gettysburg—The First Day The trilogy (future quadrilogy?) Pfanz's Gettysburg—The First Day, Gettysburg—The Second Day, and Gettysburg—Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill were, like Coddington’s book, fine examples of the professional historian’s craft. I was sorry to see that he admitted that trying to put together a detailed chronology was too complex a job to be undertaken with confidence, but I respect his reluctance to go beyond where he feels his sources justify his going. Much of these books is dedicated to reconstructing low-level fights that were not of direct interest to me, but as always I appreciate a source that has material “in reserve” that goes beyond my immediately obvious needs. The maps were welcome too.
Small Arms at Gettysburg Two other books that I will mention together, though they were written years apart and by different authors, are Paddy Griffin’s Battle Tactics of the Civil War and Joseph Bilby’s Small Arms at Gettysburg. The two books are linked in their common view that the theoretical capabilities of ACW weapons had led to frequent incorrect analysis of ACW tactics and battlefield experience, that lack of training and practice meant that whatever the weapons could do in the hands of marksmen on a shooting range, what they could do in the hands of ACW infantrymen on the battlefield was very different. I think it is especially useful reading to a generation of gamers, such as myself, who have experienced too many games in the Panzerblitz tradition, which translate theoretical equipment capabilities directly and literally to unit capabilities, with little or no consideration given to the idea that they might not be the same thing.

The above weren’t the only books I used, but they were the books that were particularly notable in my research and that I thought I would call out here.

4 December, 2010

First off, I just want to mention that there was a source to the Stavka map that I haven’t mentioned yet. It was a European land use map published by the Swedish General Staff in 1943, although it was evidently later updated with post-war borders. Now, I’m not going to post a high-res copy of the map yet, not until I have a better understanding of Swedish copyright. If I get reasonably sure its ok, then I’ll make it available. In the meantime, you can content yourself with this low-res version:

If it looks a little badly put together, well, there is a reason for that. When I got it at the Library of Congress, it was a huge wall map that had been pasted together from multiple smaller sheets. Whoever did it didn’t do a particularly good job, and the process was further complicated by the fact that I had to copy this great big map onto 11"x17" sheets and then put the whole thing back together digitally. What a mess. (I left off Iceland — sorry Iceland.) However, it is good enough for my purposes. Now, I had the 1:1,000,000 International Map of the World, which was generally better than this map, except that the IMotW had very incomplete forest coverage. Some sheets showed forests, but most did not. I considered myself quite lucky to have this Swedish map to fall back on, regardless of how oddly it’s put together. Forests are very often a tough subject in terms of historical map coverage. Any reasonably contemporary, reasonably reliable map that shows forests is a treasure.

On to some other subjects. I talked about the rather mediocre Bonaparte at Marengo 2nd edition playtest in my last entry. On reflection, I decided that BaM2 needed some more designer love. Really, I threw it over the wall to the blindtesters without much in the way of serious work to improve the gameplay. Shouldn’t have done that, although it didn’t seem bad at the time. Well, I decided to get more ambitious and put in some serious time looking at BaM2 as a game (rather than as historical research effort, or a rules-writing exercise, or as a graphic arts project), and made some rules and map revisions, and did a serious playtest. I expect to be continuing this effort for a while, but any game I intend to sell to people deserves my best effort, and I need to make sure that BaM2 gets what it needs to make it a well-tuned game.

I also did another, more extended, Stavka system test. Mmmm. Stavka’s going to be a good game. I played 7 of the game’s 18 turns in about an hour of playing time. A two to three hour playing time for the entire war looks doable, although to be sure the low end probably assumes that one side or the other throws in the towl before the summer of '45. One major difference between this game and my last game, The Guns of Gettysburg was that in GoG I was really sweating to squeeze as much historical simulation as I could into my complexity box, and playing time was ALWAYS a struggle. (Three summer days of battle. That’s a lot of battle.) Now, I’m very pleased with the way GoG came out; I personally like it better than either NT or BaM1. (Your mileage will vary.) However, I have this sense that starting really with NT my interest in history has been pulling me towards the high end of my target complexity range, but I want to work in the low end of that range as well. Part of the desire to work on less complex games is satisfied by BaM2, but really Stavka is big for me in that way. Lots of work still to do on Stavka, but the core system looks fully capable of doing what I want. I couldn’t be more pleased with Stavka development so far.

So the game designing is going well, but you know what I’m tired of? Writing this infernal that’s-all-for-now closing to these blog entries. I have got to come up with a way to close off each entry without some variation of that. I am such an imaginatively challenged writer. Really. Well, that’s all for now.

3 December, 2010

Well, blind playtesting of the 2nd Edition of Bonaparte at Marengo has begun. the first game wasn’t a disaster, but it wasn’t a brilliant success either. (The first blindtest attempt of The Guns of Gettysburg WAS a disaster: the players couldn’t figure out much of anything about the game. And I have to tell you, that hurt.) The BaM2 testers were able to set up and play a game, and had no rules issues, but they had competitive issues and I’m not sure they enjoyed it particularly either. So, the game is functional, but not yet good.

The basic problem, I think, is that the game isn’t properly shaped yet. By shape, I mean the envelope of competitive game strategies that the two players can pursue. The worst case is that for one side or the other there are NO competitive game strategies: they are going to lose no matter what they do. However a successful game has to be more than balanced: it also has to be interesting.

Interest in a game can come in two ways: First, from the variety of strategies that the players can pursue, and second from the tactical problems that result from trying to execute their strategy. The 1st edition of Bonaparte at Marengo really derived all its interest from execution. The French generally try to withdraw and the Austrians to pursue, but in BaM1 the devil is in the details. The players have few moves, and using them wisely is critical. But determining what is and is not wise is not at all easy, and every turn throws up a new situation that has to be analyzed afresh. By comparison, Napoleon’s Triumph had a larger strategy envelope. Although execution is a big part of successful NT play, and poses just as many interesting situations to be analyzed as BaM1, in NT it is also important to try to throw new plans up each game. In NT, if your opponent knows what you’re doing, it is quite difficult to win, so deception and creativity are big parts of successful game play.

The basic weakness of BaM1 is that it would have benefitted from more shaping. Now, I like it very much, and personally I’m not at all sure I like NT better, but I can see how BaM1 could have been better yet (and, for that matter, I can also see how NT could have been better*) and that is a big part of the justification for BaM2. I think there is an excellent game in there, but it is just going to take more work to bring it out. BaM2 would be better if it were more strategically open, but there is still work ahead to get it there. I wouldn’t want you to think I was discouraged; strategically, games tend to collapse into a single "best plan" pretty easily, and it takes a good deal of work to avoid it, and really that work for BaM2 has just gotten started.

* With regard to NT, its biggest fault is its rather steep learning curve. NT has excellent game play, I think, once learned, but it would be nice if people got to enjoy that game play more quickly and with less effort.

2 December, 2010

It took less time to do the forests for Stavka than I thought, and I have them ready. Before showing the overall effect, I thought I’d start by showing art detail (enlarged) for forests through my games to date:

Bonaparte at Marengo (1st Edition) and Napoleon’s Triumph used the same tree artwork, although they were colored differently and I reduced the density for NT. The art for The Guns of Gettysburg was the same concept, although more types of trees were used to reduce repetition, and the density was increased back up to BaM1 levels. Bonaparte at Marengo (2nd Edition) used new tree artwork: opaque and with multiple colors. Stavka again uses new artwork, but only of the most basic type: forests are represented by green dots.

As to what is going on with this, I should explain that the big graphical problem with woods is how to balance the woods artwork with the other artwork in the same location. In BaM1, the only other artwork that competed with the woods the regulatory graphics. The solution used was to contrast the colors (gray for regulatory, green for woods) and to put a thin white border around the regulatory graphics so as to bring out the shape a little more. BaM1’s regulatory layer does not stand out particularly well,but there are very few woods on the map so it is not a big problem.

When it came time to do the map for NT, I had a topographic layer and a regulatory layer in visual competition with the woods. To visually tame the woods, I decreased the density of the tree art, and to bring out the regulatory layer I actually used darker art for the approaches in woods than in the rest of the map and avoided placing trees directly behind any capacity number or terrain penalty icon.

The Guns of Gettysburg had even more visual competition with woods than NT did, because in many places there were text labels as well as elevation art and regulatory graphics in the same location as the woods. Although the density of tree art is very high, the tree icons are actually semi-transparent: if you look you can see the elevation contours right through the green used for the trees. I didn’t use any special tricks to make the regulatory layer more visible, in large part because the regulatory layer is much stronger visually than in the previous games and didn’t need the extra help.

For BaM2, I wanted to upgrade the art and so I made up multi-color tree icons. They look pretty, but they are visually quite strong and it took a strong mask to make the regulatory layer visible against them. (Compare the thick, heavy mask used in BaM2 with the much thinner, barely visible mask used in BaM1.

For Stavka, I stepped back and used the most minimalist artwork of any of the games: trees are just small green dots. There were two reasons for this: First, this is a very different scale and I didn’t want a less literal symbol at this scale. Second, visually the elevation colors were of primary importance in the map and I didn’t want the woods hiding them from view. Unlike the previous games, the high elevations on this map aren’t hills, they’re mountain ranges. The idea is that the woods should occupy a different visual plane than the elevation, and you can change your focus to see the one you want and ignore the other to please yourself: if you want to see woods, you can see woods, and if you want to see elevation you can see elevation. I think what I have works, although I don’t rule out future changes. I have not yet decided on the graphics for the regulatory layer, but certainly the woods are visually weak enough not to seriously compete with any design I might choose.

Anyway, you can see the result as a whole below. (One small note: After adding the woods it became clear that I needed to increase the density of the swamp graphics to bring them into visual balance with the woods and so I did so.)

Stavka Woods Map

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

1 December, 2010

I got tired of polymer clay, so I decided to go back and do some more Stavka map art after a long hiatus. Swamps seemed as good a thing as any to do next, so that’s what I did. Now, I’ve had to do swamps on each of the game maps I’ve done, as you can see below. (All of the maps, incidentally, are somewhat enlarged so you can see them better.)

I didn’t really do anything with how I represented swamps graphically between the first two games (BaM1 and NT) other than shrink the icon I used (and no, I don’t remember why I shrunk it), but I made a real effort at a better design with GoG. Still, I wasn’t entirely happy with the result, and so decided to try a new tack with the 2nd Edition of Bonaparte at Marengo, especially since one of the big goals of that game was a graphical upgrade.

The BaM1 and NT maps just used the same icon repeated over and over, but in GoG I varied with width soe, although the little bush shape was the same for all of them. For BaM2, after studying some more maps looking at different styles, I went with this, which uses about 15 or so different icons. They actually are in a repeating pattern, although the pattern has enough elements in it that it isn’t (or shouldn’t be) immediately obvious.

Now I like this design quite a bit and so I decided to re-use it for Stavka, but I shrunk down the icons because I thought the result would work better for a map with a much smaller scale. The swamps are graphically pretty subdued, except for the Pripet Marshes, which are more visible not only because of sheer size, but because they are close to the center of the whole game board. Even for those, however, you will have to click to zoom in enough that you can really see them. Even if you do zoom in, you still won’t be able to see the individual shapes that easily: they are designed for printing at 300DPI, and the online map is only at 150DPI, and at 150DPI the fine detail is lost. Still, you can see the overall effect easily enough.

Stavka Swamp Map

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

That’s it for now. I expect to be working on forests next, which is a bigger project and will likely take two or three days to finish.