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Designer’s Blog: July, 2020

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31 July, 2020

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

John Cooper Map Commentary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Functionally Improved Printed Map Commentary

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

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

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

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

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

Printed Terrain Defense Rules Commentary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 July, 2020

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

Time Tracks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except…

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

And that is why I do it.

28 July, 2020

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

Maps Commentary

So, what are we trying to do here anyway?

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

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

So, what’s different?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 July, 2020

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

Rules Text Commentary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 July, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

24 July, 2020

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

Rules Text Commentary

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

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

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

Old New

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

22 July, 2020

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

14 July Text 22 July Text Commentary

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

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

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

Unchanged.

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

Fewer decks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 July, 2020

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

Rules Text Commentary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 July, 2020

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

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

Armor Infantry

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

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

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

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

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

German Breakthrough Soviet Breakthrough

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

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

Front line Front divider

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

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

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

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

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