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 News September, 2020

Designer’s Blog: September, 2020

August

23 September, 2020

So, I wanna talk about the mapboard work I’ve been doing. And, let’s just start with an image of it as it exists today:

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

And, let’s do a walk through, one piece at a time. The map legend is in the top-left corner, and that seems as good a place as any to start, so let’s start there:

So, here’s the thing regarding legends: I really hate working on legends. It isn’t that they aren’t satisfying when they’re done (or at last can be satisfying when they’re done), it is the endless alignment and layout issues involved, and if even one new class of map object gets introduced, the entire layout has to be redone. And because I was adding new map elements at a fairly regular rate for the last month or two, I kinda just stopped doing legend updates for a while and just let it rot.

So, this one is kinda sorta mostly ok. It’s gotta couple ugly things about it: it uses the same labels for routes that are slow in both directions and for routes that are slow in only one direction. This is partly because that’s too much Russian and German for me to navigate with only Google translate, and partly because the label is already so long it is trying to escape from the legend box. Then there's the weird physical arrangement of glaciers, lakes/seas, and rivers. There is an idea behind it in that linear features are all in the right column, and rivers are linear whereas glaciers and lakes are not. But it doesn’t look good. And then there’s the supply icons in the bottom-right corner. Hello! What are you doing there? They just got stuck in there because the layout is a 3x8 grid and that’s where the empty spot was. Do I feel good about that? No. No I do not.

I hate legends.

Next up, we got these guys. They’re new:

One recent change aimed at the getting the card economy to work properly, which is Stavka’s both the beating heart of making the design go and its chief problem child, was to change the maintenance cost structure from a linear one (maintenance costs scaled with units: double the number of units, double the maintenance costs) to a non-linear one (maintenance costs rise faster than the number of units: double the number of units, you might triple the maintenance costs)

Now, logically and in simulation terms, this is fine. It is just a step I had hoped to avoid because it added some complexity to maintenance calculations. Not a lot; it isn’t really what I would call hard, but it does add some. The good side is that the game formerly the game had a crutch in the form of unit limits, and the game had acquired a lot of barnacles in the forms of little rules telling you how to handle different situations when you were bumping into the unit limits. Changing to non-linear maintenance allowed me to delete all those rules as the appalling expense of maintenance at the highest price points will, I am fairly sure, be able to manage army growth without putting hard limits in place. (And if not, I can always hike the prices so that it does manage it.)

I’m not going to do a breakout of the cadre boxes because they’re not really very interesting and have been on the map for a long time. The cards have likewise been present for a while and have already been the subject of fairly extensive discussion, and quite recently.

Set-Up

These little guys, on the other hand, are pretty new, certainly new in this form, and I’m not sure I really talked about them before.

So, fairly obviously, they’re just little set-up graphics to explain to the players how to set up the units without having to make them dig into the rule book to do it. Originally, this was designed as a single graphic with set-up stuff for the Germans on one side and for the Soviets on the other. But that wasn’t great because it was the sort of thing you wanted each player to see, so I duplicated it and put one on the Soviet side of the board and one on the German side of the board.

But that kind of seemed like graphical overkill, to have two copies of the same graphic that was only used once in each game. Anyway, when I was fooling around with layout after adding expenditures, I decided to try them together in Siberia (the largest of the map’s three dead-space areas, the other two being Scandinavia and Italy). And that kinda worked, but it made it even more obvious that there were two copies of the same graphic. And then I noticed that I could trim the set-up for the Soviets from the German-facing copy, set-up for the Germans from the Soviet-facing copy, shrink the whole thing and clean up the layout at the same time. Win-win-win.

And so you see what you see. I like it. And it uses the same basic map scheme as is used in the Time Track, which is now adjacent to it. So the whole thing is more graphically unified. Sometimes you play around and you just get lucky.

There is a systematic thing I wanted to talk about as well: the bilingual (German and Russian) map. Now, to have a map with no English could be bold, given that the U.S. is the largest market for these games and with English as the widely spoken second language in the world. And, not every response so far has been positive. But here’s the thing: ever since I got into this field, I get to read that my work is wonderful and terrible on a regular basis:

Perfect wargame. Design is readable, player friendly and useful. Map and game pieces create "Kriegsspiel" feeling. Rulebook is one of the best rulebook ever written. After all those games there was no single thing which cannot be find. No errata, no home ruling needed. Perfect.

I couldn't find one thing to like about the rules, or the map (ugly colors, hard to see area borders and obstacle notations). Pieces were ok, although the lack of unit IDs made it all a very generic depiction of a very un-generic era. Soulless and chess-like.

Set-Up

Now, left to my own devices, I have my narcissistic moments when I think I really am a genius, when a solution to what had seemed a particularly difficult problem falls into place. And then I have my moments when I think I am a genius only in the Wile E. Coyote sense, when some idea I had congratulated myself for more or less blows up in my face, that I am self-deluded and nowhere near as smart as I think I am.

But most of the time, I just see myself as muddling along, iterating again and again the same damn problem, trying to get something that is less sucky than it was before. The moments of satisfaction are there, but inevitably fleeting, as one of the results of getting something that you’re actually happy with is that you stop working on it, and then turn your attention to some damn thing or other that makes you unhappy. And that’s my life as a designer.

And it’s ok.

But what I have learned is that you can’t really get “people” to guide you to your decisions because people don’t agree on much of anything. What one person will love another person will hate. So, to return to the bilingual map: Is it a good idea? Well, most importantly (to me) is that I like it and think it’s kind of cool. And that’s generally enough to make me decide to go ahead with something. But I do try to not be totally oblivious to the fact that there are other people in the world besides myself, and that this game is actually for them. And while I know I can’t please everyone, it doesn’t feel good knowing that somebody actually bought one of my games, expecting (or at least hoping) to like it, and then they didn’t.

So, is the bilingual map ok?

Well, the idea is that there is not supposed to be anything in it (other than place names) that isn’t in the rules, and the rules will be in English (and, I fully expect, in other languages as well; translations of my rules into other languages have been pretty common). Any text in play aids is not supposed to stand on its own, but to be experienced by someone who has read the rules and can thus contextualize it. I know, for example, that the graphic for expenditures is pretty cryptic to someone who has not read the rules, but that’s not who it is for: it is for someone who has read the rules and is just looking for a little reminder about how much it costs to maintain how many units, to save them the trouble of cracking the rule book.

If there are things on the map that don’t work for that intended audience, well that is a problem, and enough of a problem to crack my normal solipsistic decision-making process. Any such problems that arise, I will try to correct.

Now, there is another thing I wanted to talk about besides play aids and languages.

One of the problems that has become apparent since working with actual physical pieces on an actual physical map is that very short routes on the map create problems when positioning the front-line pieces. There just isn’t much margin for error there. And so, I set about modifying the map to remove the shortest routes. In some cases, that meant taking a route that was divided into a larger number of segments (say, 6) and reducing it to a smaller number of longer segments (say, 5). In other cases, it meant replacing two short segments with a single slow segment. In other cases it was just solved graphically by moving an intersection over a little to equalize two routes more so that the shorter route was not quite so short. And in other cases it meant changing the way that the historical transport network is translated into a game route map – pretty much always changing the simplification strategy applied to that case. And in still other cases it just meant removing a route entirely: short routes are used to indicate bad routes, and if a route is short, that means it is marginal to begin with, and sometimes the best way to represent a terrible route in the real world is with no route in the game.

Now these are a lot of possible solutions, and each route requires its own assessment and correction. And so doing all this is slow work. Further, over a period of days it can be easy to get confused about what I’ve worked on and what I haven’t work on (but need to). For this sort of work, I do a couple things: first, I hide the play aids. I generally try to keep the full map up to date, not just the exposed part. I do sometimes need to move play aids around, and I do want to know that there is a map under the play aid that is usable. So I feel that maintaining those “hidden” areas is desirable, because at some point, they may not be hidden any more.

But my most important tool in keeping sane when doing this sort of work is to overlay the entire map with red grid lines, as you can see below:

Each red grid square can be viewed at once on screen at high resolution. And that is how I work through it: one grid square at a time. I start in the grid square in one corner and then just work my way through the map, one row at a time, one square at a time, until I’m done. This by no means prevents all mistakes (if only…) but it does help my quality control quite a bit. And it helps with my sanity, which is also nice.

Anyway, I think I’ve rambled on enough for today. So, til later!

21 September, 2020

Very soon after the last blog post, I know, but this one will be on a completely different level. On the Consimworld forum for Simmons Games, Ethan McKinney wrote:

“For the past weeks, I've been thinking about your essay on quiddity. Even as I've been impressed by so much of your work on STAVKA, and many of the ideas, I've been trying to tease out it's quiddity. I may have missed something in a blog post; most likely I'm too stupid. But, I have no idea what STAVKA is about.”

So, what is Stavka about? For that matter, what is quiddity? From the referenced Guns of Gettysburg design diary entry, I wrote:

In medieval philosophy (My man Thomas Aquinas!) there was a concept called quiddity. The idea of quiddity was that for every thing, there was an essential quality possessed by that thing that made it what it was. In starting a game on Gettysburg, I felt that my first problem was to decide on the quiddity of Gettysburg: What was it about the battle of Gettysburg that made it what it was? It was an important question because that which was central to the battle also had to be central to the game, or it wasn’t a game on the battle. When I worked on Napoleon’s Triumph I had decided early on that the quiddity of Austerlitz was that it was an ambush: if I didn’t have an Allied attack into a French trap, I didn’t have Austerlitz. But what was the quiddity of Gettysburg?

It was pretty early on that I decided that the essential quality of Gettysburg was that it was an accident. It was a battle that neither Lee nor Meade tried to bring about; in fact, they both, in different ways, tried to prevent it.

So, what is the quiddity of Stavka? Again, what is Stavka about?

Stavka is about the end of end of the Clauswitzian era of warfare. It is about the transition from armies being the repository of military power, to instead being the expressions of military power, with the real repository being economies.

The German army leadership in June 1941 was steeped in Clauswitzian ideas. They aimed at the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces. Which they achieved. In the first two weeks of the war. Only to find that the Soviets built another army. Which the Germans also destroyed. Then another. In a war of armies, the Germans easily triumphed in 1941. But in a war of economies, the war had barely started and the Germans had achieved little.

The same scenario was to soon begin playing out again, 6 months later, and halfway around the world when Japan destroyed the American battleships at Pearl Harbor. It is true they didn’t destroy the American carriers, but it would have availed them nothing if they had. The Americans could and would build many, many more carriers to replace whatever Japan destroyed. (And in fact, by October 1942, the Americans had lost the Lexington, Yorktown, Hornet, and Wasp, and the Enterprise was badly damaged and out of service; it took longer than it might have, but the Japanese did eventually effectively destroy the pre-war U.S. carrier fleet. And it made no difference.)

The key expression of Stavka’s quiddity, in game terms, is the emptying out of the units as self-existent and enduring objects. Units in Stavka aren’t units at all, in the traditional wargame sense. Units in Stavka don’t have strength numbers or movement allowances. In and of themselves, they do basically nothing. They can’t even continue to exist on their own. Every turn, maintenance must be paid or the units wink out of existence entirely. Everything they do comes not from their own inherent capabilities, but from economic power (expressed in the game as cards) poured throw them. Units are not repositories of military power in Stavka: they are just means by which real power, that of the opposing economies, is expressed.

And yet, Stavka is a wargame, not an economic game. Because even if military power is an expression of economic power, it still must be applied and directed. And it is in the directing of that power that the game in Stavka lies. But deeper than that, I want players to have a constant awareness of the economic underpinnings of their armies. To be thinking in economic terms, of trying to use their armies to add to their own economic power and take economic power away from the enemy. To be thinking about whether units and operations are worth their cost, and whether they can be afforded at all.

And that is the quiddity of Stavka. Or at least what Stavka is aiming for.

18 September, 2020

Sometimes, in a design, you’re aware of a problem, but lacking an immediate solution you want to apply, you put it on the back burner while you work on something else. Eventually, however (hopefully) the problem gets moved back to the front burner to get addressed. Today, we’re going to talk about two such problems that are back on the front burner after time in the back.

The first of these is the problem of making minor changes to infantry units’ positions without exposing them to attack. In the game, attacks and counter-attacks are part of operational movement, and an infantry unit is limited to one operational move per turn, so making a move temporarily removes an infantry unit’s ability to defend itself and counter-attack. Which, near the front line, can be a serious problem. And because this is a structural problem in the game, it doesn’t go away if the unit waits a turn. Turn after turn, the problem can persist. (In practice, what generally solves the problem are changes in the front-line and overall game situation, since the unit itself cannot be moved to fix it.)

Strategic movement could solve the situation in some situations, but not in others, due to the restrictions about where a unit must be to make a strategic move. (This, incidentally, could produce high weirdness, where the best way to fix a front-line problem can be to move units in from hundreds of miles away by safe strategic movement to “rescue” local units which are unable to safely move.)

A couple months back, I tried to fix it by adding a “position adjustment” in the Adjustment Phase, but was dissatisfied with the result, and pulled it out. I think, however, that I have a usable fix, by changing “Strategic Move” to “Deployment Move” and removing critical restrictions for short range strategic/deployment movement.

The new rules for strategic/deployment moves now read as follows:

Rule Text Commentary

So, the change here is very textually simple. The pre-existing rule requiring that a Strategic/Deployment move start in a city/major city/capital city is limited to moves in excess of 3 route steps. And that’s it.

I’m not entirely sure that there won’t be unexpected, undesirable side effects. But that’s the sort of thing playtesting is for. I’m not too worried, though. For one thing, units starting their moves in cities of various sizes already behave this way. Since I haven’t observed any bad behavior in those units, it seems likely that I won't see any here either by extending the ability to make short-distance Strategic/Deployment moves to units starting their moves in villages.

And it is a simple change. Easily undone in the event the cure is worse than the disease.

The second deferred problem has been noticed more recently.

The problem is for attacks to tend to pile up into an epic series of attacks and counter-attacks into a single position. I think this is closely tied to my having changed the rules to more easily enable counter-attacks into front-line battles, but I think that isn’t all of it. The counter-move rules, which are the primary means by which counter-attacks are made, were fairly liberal even before from this change. I think the solution here is clamp down somewhat on counter-move counter-attacks, to bring the system better into balance.

But, as sometimes is the case, when I began to change the counter-move rules, I was reminded of other problems with those rules, and so mixed in what I hope are solutions to those as well. Anyway, let’s walk through the current draft:

Rule Text Commentary

Let’s start with the name: “Counter-move” was never a great name.

First of all, “counter-move” isn’t a word, it’s jargon, and generally the readability of a text decreases as the amount of jargon it contains increases.

Second of all, there were supposed to be two different types of counter-moves: interception counter-moves and continuation counter-moves, which people found confusing. Specifically, it was hard to get across that continuation counter-moves even existed because people were prone to thinking of “counter-move” and “interception” as synonyms.

So, I thought, let’s go with it. Let’s work towards integrating the former types of counter-moves into one type of move and call that move “interception” and see how that goes down.

And, oh yeah – I guess I forgot to mention, “operational move” is now trying out a new name of its own: “ops move”, which may or may not be better. The main problem “operational move” had was length, and I noticed people shortening it to “op move” or “ops move”. Not sure whether going ahead and embracing that in the official name is a good thing or not, but it is being tried out.

This is new. It is a rule long considered, but never before inserted, largely because I wasn’t sure it would make the game better. Previously, you could intercept at a position much closer to the enemy than to you, which was always logically iffy.

This is the rule expected to have the most dramatic effects on reducing the large attack/counter-attack pile up battles mentioned previously by restricting the number of units that will be able to counter-attack into a position. This is particularly true for battles starting in the first Military phase and extending into the second. In such battles, units could use strategic movement to come from almost anywhere in the first Military Phase, and counter-attack into the battle in the second from a distance of one.

With this rule, however, a distance of one generally won't be close enough in the second phase to counter-attack, as the attacks will generally come from units already in the position (at a distance of zero). Such newly arrived units from afar can still contribute to the defensive effort, but by adding another line of defense in different positons rather than adding to the pile-up at the old position. Which I think is better.

As a side effect, this will also make constructing defensive positions a little more difficult generally, but I think on that level, it may be as much good as bad.

So, I’m not super happy with the wording here as the grammer is on the complex side. It is basically a rule carried over from the old distinction between “interception” and “continuation” counter-moves, hence the odd conditional at the beginning of the rule.

Remember what I said about sometimes things are known to be problems but are put on the back burner because you’re not currently sure how to solve them? Here’s another one of those.

One of the problems with the old counter-move rules, which I became even more aware of when making these modifications, was that they weren’t as precise as they needed to be about what things happened in what order.

In addressing that problem, however, I did end up making changes that affect the types of interceptions that would formerly have been considered “continuation counter-moves”, most significantly the order of finding out the enemy draw and deciding whether or not to intercept. Formerly, in a continuation counter-move, the enemy draw came first. Now, the decision to intercept comes first.

I don’t think this is bad, but it is different. The decision to intercept now has an element of risk that it didn’t have before. And I’m inclined to think that’s better. But until it is seen working in a game, it is hard to know for sure.

These are rules that were basically there before. They’ve just had a little re-wording and re-contextualization.

This is another process rule aimed at clarifying the order in which things are supposed to happen. In this case, how multiple interceptions of a single enemy move are supposed to work.

And another pre-existing rule. And the one that ends the section.

And that is really what I wanted to talk about today. As always, you hope that changes will address the problems they are supposed to address, and not create new problems, but you never know until you try them out. And with that, I want to say, “Ta-ta” for the day. So: Ta-ta.

12 September, 2020

So, design is by its nature an iterative process, and today I’d like to talk about card flow in the game and how it has changed as the design has progresses, and why it may continue to change.

But first I want to establish a vocabulary for a little card play theory. Pictured below is a game of Bridge.

The basic card flow in a Bridge hand is simple: cards start in the deck (1). The deck is shuffled and the cards move from the deck into hands, one for each player (2). Over the course of play, cards move from hands to tricks, eventually 13 tricks of 4 cards each (3). Once all the cards are in tricks, the hand is over and a new one can be started. (Bridge matches maintain scoring between hands, but there is no continuity between hands in the card play itself.)

There are two properties I want to call your attention to:

Single Use. A card gets played only once and the card flow is unidirectional: from deck, to hand, to trick. Cards never move back from trick to hand or hand to deck. A single card cannot be played twice in a hand. By its nature, a 52 card hand can support 13 tricks. Once those 13 tricks have been played, it is not possible to play further because all the cards have reached a state from which there is no return.

Closed ownership. Cards dealt to one player can never be played by any other player. This is as opposed to, say, Rummy, where a player can discard a card from his hand and his opponent can pick it up and add it to his own hand. Which player gets initially dealt a card is not necessarily the same player as the one who ultimately plays it. Because of this, we would say that Bridge is Closed while Rummy is Open.

With regard to Stavka, one of the earliest things that was clear was that it could not have single-use, unidirectional card flow. The game was too long, and as every move and battle could involve card play, the number of cards required in a single-use game would be enormous. 10 decks might not be enough. So, rather have single-use cards, the cards had to be multi-use, where the same card gets recycled during play and can be played again and again and agin. Even a decade ago, where this project started, it was always assumed that cards would be multi-use.

The oldest design ideas for Stavka never amounted to a functioning game. There was never a working deck architecture. However, when work resumed earlier this year, there was. This was from an overview I posted back in May:

The idea was that cards were going to be recirculated. Cards were played from the reserve deck into one of the three front decks (north, center, and south), and after play they would go into either a rebuild deck or discard deck, and from there, they could come into play by going back to a reserve deck. And this was the basic method for recycling cards, thereby eliminating the need for an enormous number of decks for single-use cards.

The design did more than just recirculate cards, though, it was completely open: large numbers of cards moved between the players each and every turn. The motive for this was to deal with the gradual decline in German quality over the war and the gradual improvement in Soviet quality. The game would start with the Germans having all (or almost all) the good cards, but over the course of play, the good cards would increasingly shift to the Soviets. This was another exercise in keeping the number of cards down: I wouldn’t need a range of qualities for German cards and a range of qualities for Soviet cards, the movement of quality cards between them would reflect the shift in quality over time.

The first major change I made to this initial design was a simplification: the three front decks were removed, and their functionality and that of the reserve deck was replaced by a single deck: the war deck. There was no change to the theory of the card flow, however. Large numbers of cards still flowed back and forth between the players and they still recirculated from war deck to production and discard decks, then back to war decks again.

One thing that hadn’t changed was that there were a lot of different ways cards could move from one deck to another, and I was having a lot of trouble understanding how the system would actually work in practice. And with that was another problem: because the game depended a lot on open circulation of cards between the players, there were always nagging problems of one player potentially having the ability to cut off circulation, freezing the open circulation system and making it inoperable.

The next change was what was intended as another simplification: merging the two discard decks into a single shared discard deck. With the reduced number of decks and physically enlarged board, this made the number of decks for each player readily visible on the game board itself for the first time:

As I got more game play experience with the new decks, a couple of things became evident: (1) The German deck had become semi-closed for the first half of the game. By that I mean that it German cards would steadily leave the German decks, but there was not much in the way of movement in the reverse direction: into the German decks. This state of affairs would last until so many cards had left the German decks that they could no longer fulfill production entirely from their own production deck, at which point they would have to start drawing from the shared discard deck.

This was, however, radically asymmetrical: there really wasn’t any point in the game where the Soviets were doing the same thing: drawing production from their production deck almost exclusively. Instead, the Soviets were using the discard deck for much (and at start almost all) of their production all the time. So, the Soviets were drawing production from the relatively low-quality discard deck while the Germans were drawing production from the nearly 100% high-quality production deck. Thus, even if it seemed like the Soviets were drawing more cards (12 to 7 or some such) the high card draw could be very different: 2 or 3 for the Soviets and 7 for the Germans. The Soviet advantage was entirely in low-quality cards. Now to some extent, this quality difference was wanted and desired, but instead of it changing as a gradual process, it was like a cliff for the Germans: they stayed 100% high-quality until they suddenly weren't and were instead drawing 60% high quality.

All of this ultimately comes back to the complexity of the card flow and the difficulty I had understanding how the system I had designed would behave, especially with edge conditions. For me to have confidence that I knew how to adjust the design to deal with problems, I needed a simpler system, one whose behavior I felt I understood. And it wasn’t that one.

An additional (ongoing) problem is that the fun part of game play is intended to be on the board. The card play isn’t supposed to be fun, it is supposed to be fast, so the players can get through it quickly and get then get back to having fun on the board. And so, card operations are kind of a cost center for the players, where they had to spend time, but it wasn’t where the fun was. As a cost, the lower the cost, the less time and effort the players spent on cards, the better. So, a lot of my design time has been invested in trying to identify where card play can be made faster and avoiding anything that could make it slower. And one slow thing is shuffling decks. So, the fewer deck shuffles the better, which also tends to drive the game towards fewer decks.

And so, I decided to embark on a new round of design effort on card play: to go from the then-current 6 deck system (2 war decks, 2 production decks, 1 discard deck, and 1 Stavka Reserve deck) to fewer decks, to reduce the amount of shuffling, and time and effort spent on card play. And, of course, to simplify card flow so that I could understand it and predict how to adjust it to produce desired effects. Which leads us to this: the 5 deck system.

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

So, each player no longer has a production deck, instead they each have a discard deck that replaces both their old production deck and the shared discard deck.

An intentional consequence of the new system is that the two players’ card decks are much less open than before. Cards now are exchanged between the players’ decks using a fixed number of per-turn swaps, where the same number of cards is exchanged from each deck. This basic mechanism provides a steady change in the mix of the two cards, where the Germans start with a large quality advantage, but tending towards equilibrium where both sides have the same quality. Almost. There is a second mechanism, even slower, that uses the Stavka Reserve deck to do one-way transfers from the German to Soviet decks. At start, the two armies will each have a 48 card deck, but by the end, the Stavka Reserve one-way transfers will shift it to 65 Soviet cards vs. 31 German cards, with Stavka Reserve transfers biased towards sending higher-value cards to the Soviet deck. There has been a small increase in the number of low-value cards (from 41 to 46) with the number of high-value cards unchanged.

And we can look at the rules to see how this is done in terms of nuts and bolts:

Rule Text Commentary

And this is the introduction to the game’s decks. With fewer types of decks, the introduction is shorter and simpler.

I thought about keeping the name “production deck” for the new deck with the functionality of the old production deck and the old discard deck, but the phrase “discarding a card” to mean adding it to your discard deck was just too useful to give up, making “discard deck” the better label.

(Also added were some more explicit instructions about card-handling. An older version of the rules had these, but had cut them as perhaps unnecessary. However, I was getting feedback in the form of questions that these instructions had addressed, and so I restored a version of them.)

The changes to the decks necessarily required changes to the set-up instructions.

Basically, this splits the cards between the players, with each having 48 cards in his decks. The Germans have the great majority of the high-value cards, and the Soviets the great majority of the low-value cards. This is a simplification as well, but I did let go of a security blanket here: the prior design narrowed the range of high cards the Soviets could have at start from 0-3, (3 far more likely than 0) to a wider range of 0-8, with the center of the range around 3. So, on average, it will be about the same, but it will be less consistent.

One distinction that has been preserved is that all the German cards at start are in their war deck, reflecting their readiness for war, and the great majority of Soviet cards are in their discard deck, reflecting their unreadiness.

But the set-up changes reflect more minor statistical adjustments to the opening situation than any substantial change. That is felt more in game play than in set-up, as we shall see.

This change is to production.

Formerly, production cards were taken first from the production deck, then if there was a shortfall, the discard deck, and then, if another shortfall a mildly complex (and somewhat weird) system was used for resolving it.

Changing from a very open to a (somewhat) closed system simplified things in that the two players don’t end up competing to draw cards from the same deck at the same time, which is what complicated the prior system.

Another change was moving the Stavka Reserve Draw from this location in the sequence of play back to the adjustment phase. (Continuing the Stavka Reserve tradition as one of the most unsettled and frequently changing areas of the design.)

And of course we have the major intended effect of this change, to produce a more gradual shift in the production draw composition for the Germans in the game. It will introduce draws of low-value cards into their production draws much sooner than in the old rules, and at a gradually increasing rate instead of the cliff effect where it didn’t happen at all, to it happening a lot. The effect of this on the game’s balance will certainly shift the balance towards the Soviets, but whether that is a good thing or bad thing is as yet unknown, because I don’t think I understand the game’s balance right now. (This is one reason why we playtest.) However, for me, getting a system whose behavior I can understand and adjust as needed means that this isn’t a problem I’m terribly worried about at present. There are things I can do to shift balance.

Also a change to production.

This is the rule largely responsible for a gradual shift in quality between the two decks, with the two approaching equilibrium over time. (Once the decks are at the same quality level, the transfer no longer has any statistical effect on quality.) Worth noting however, is that although 5 cards are drawn from each player’s deck, only 3 are transfered. The handling of the other 2 is described in the Stavka Reserve rules – which we’ll get to later. Of course, even after the decks are at equilibrium regarding quality, these transfers continue to shuffle individual cards between the opposing players, providing some dynamism as to what cards each player has.

The current system is invariant: no matter what the players do, the number of cards transferred is the same. I considered a variety of dynamic exchange rates tied to player actions, but rejected them. First, it can be easy to inadvertently introduce perverse incentives through such rules, where players are rewarded and punished for things that don’t actually make sense outside of this rule, harming game play. But more pressing was I wanted to know the rate of transfer to make the system simpler and design adjustments easier to make with less fear of side effects.

As to history, this is rooted in the basic demographic and economic reality of the opposing nations. The Germany economy was a shortage economy, and was under increasing pressure from the Western Allies as well as the ongoing drain of war with the Soviet Union. As long as the war was ongoing, the German situation must deteriorate. This game design doesn’t need to worry about simulating the war after a hypothetical German victory over Soviet Union, because that situation ends the game. It is only the situation where that doesn’t happen that the rules need to work.

These two are basically the same rule. One is found in the rules for operational movement and the other in the rules for combat. (The seeming difference about showing the card face isn’t real — in combat the instructions to show the card had already been provided before this point.)

Formerly, there was a choice here between putting the card in the production deck or disposing of it, but with those decks merged, the cards are simply disposed of and the choice removed. (It was almost always a formality – there seldom a real decision in the game as to which was the right choice.)

And…

The latest revision to the rules governing the creation of the Stavka Reserve deck. This has been through so many revisions it makes me tired just thinking about it. Is this version the end? The final version? Well, that’s the dream. But it was the dream for all the older versions as well. I take comfort in the fact that one day the revision of this section must come to an end; if not with Stavka’s publication, then at least when sweet, merciful death ends this for me. (And, no, God, no living rules. Before that, kill me.)

Considerations about my personal fate aside, what we’re trying to do here is two things: get cards into the Stavka Reserve deck, with (hopefully) a reasonable ratio of quality cards, and slowly shrink the German deck and grow the Soviet deck. I am concerned that this will not get enough quality cards into the deck early in the game, because most of its cards are coming from the low-quality Soviet discard deck. That is the most likely reason that a revision will prove necessary.

In the meantime, the mechanics of it are kind of cool. One of the recurring little logic problems in this design is how to add a new card operation without requiring an additional deck shuffle. This operation had more complications than most because it could potentially draw from two different decks (Discard and War) and add back to those decks. So both decks needed to be a very particular state for the operation to work. The timing of this operation (as part of the transfer between decks during production) is just a delicate little thing – easily disturbed by other card operations. So, kind of cool, and kind of a nuisance. Which is which is mostly about my mood.

Any way, as always there is more I could talk about, but I gotta tie these things off somewhere, and this seems like the place for this one. Til next time!

6 September, 2020

So the past couple weeks has been a crazy fertile time in the design process with refinements being made all over the place. A lot of that work has been in the rules, so let’s dig in, shall we?

Rule Text Commentary

OK. For some time now, the rules have had this concept called a “pending cadre”, but it just gets dropped in where it is first used like an uninvited dinner guest with no formal definition or introduction. The reader might be hospitable, but can‘t be expected to be happy about it.

So, a formal introduction seems like a good idea, and this is added way early in the rules in section 3, where units are introduced. Now, this there is this concept in language called “marked” vs. “unmarked”. Pending cadres are a “marked” type of cadre: they have a qualifier in front of the word “cadre” that marks them off as distinct from other cadres. But what about cadres in the cadre boxes? Well, they were “unmarked”: no qualifier was used in front of the word “cadre” when referring to them.

The problem with “unmarked” sub-types is that there is no standard way to differentiate them from the base type: If I just use the word “cadre”, do I mean only the cadres in the cadre boxes, or do I mean to also include pending cadres? It isn’t clear. And that is the problem with unmarked types. And so, the rules really need (and have needed) to not use cadres in cadre boxes as an unmarked type: thus, the term “ready cadre” is introduced: “cadres” with no qualifier refers to both “ready cadres“ and “pending cadres”, and the appropriate qualifier is used when distinctions are necessary.

As a side note, this whole thing about “marked” vs. “unmarked” can have a lot of heat in the world of social categories. The qualifier “cis” as opposed to “trans” is an example. A lot of it is because people get confused about why a mark is introduced and can see it as an attack, whereas it is really just a linguistic way to distinguish between sub-types when needed. Nobody has to identify as “cis”, but it allows one to be clear when referring only to people who are not trans: it is a mark, just like “ready” and “pending” are marks for cadres: ready cadres did not stop being cadres when I gave them a mark. It just made it easier to be clear whether I meant one cadre type, the other, or both.

Anyway, time to return to having more or less zero socio-political commentary, which is where I generally like to keep this blog. Lots of political and social blogs out there, not a lot of game design blogs.

An odd but important change I made some weeks ago was to not include a unit’s position in the breakthrough paths.The rules stated it, included an illustration that showed it, but I don’t think people really were getting it. It was introduced in a rules paragraph and illustration where several other important but much easier to see things going on. And so, I decided to slow the rules down, and go back and state clearly that this was the case, in a paragraph where there was nothing else going on. (And this is included in some game play examples down the road, examples that make sense if you get this, otherwise not.)

Boy, this was just to fix a mistake. I had defined effective control such that units in battle positions in friendly territory couldn’t be in full supply, but units in battle positions in enemy territories could, which wasn’t what I had in mind. I didn’t want to just reverse the problem and make it so that units in battle positions in friendly territory could be in full supply, while units in battle positions in enemy territory could not, what I wanted was at least the possibility for them both to be. And so, battle positions have been changed to be under effective control of neither army, and with appropriate changes elsewere, this enables me to achieve whatever effect I want.

So, the Air suit is dead: long live the Reserve suit! Now, the air suit had always functioned as the reserve suit in the game, but at one time I also had a reserve deck, which had nothing to do with the suit, and I thought using “reserve” to indicate both would be incredibly confusing. And so I called the “reserve suit” the “air suit”. Well, the reserve deck is dead, and pretty damn likely isn’t coming back. So, the “air” suit gets its originally intended name back. I don’t know whether there will be much rejoicing, but it makes it a lot easier for people to immediately grasp its function in the game.

And speaking of suits, what do you think of this little guy? He’s an in-development candidate icon for the North Suit, to replace the venerable Cruiser Aurora. I have much love for the Aurora and the style in which she is drawn, but if we’re gonna be real, she just doesn’t look good against the new card background, and is probably too obscure for her intended role. The figure shown here is a modified version of the figure used in the Soviet medal for the “Order of the Red Star” awarded for exceptional bravery and service.

So, the thinking is that he gets to be North, a similarly styled Katyusha rocket artillery for Center, T-34 tank for South, and maybe still the Yak-3 fighter for air Reserve. The geographic tie to the fronts is, to be sure, not great. But I need to do something and this set should be thematically and visually unified, and capable of being distinguished even in small sizes. And that is at least something.

Some deck shuffling on set-up. (Get it? Deck shuffling? As my family says, they can always tell when I’m joking because what I’m saying isn’t funny.)

Anyway, I’m still working on getting the early-war Soviet army to play the way I want it. Part of the change is a reduction in their at-start high value cards (and a larger increase in German at-start high-value cards) but the big change is a lot of production cards in the first few turns to represent the early Soviet reserve mobilization, but also to continue leaving them without a lot of good cards. My current thinking is rather than trying to model them with an army with fewer units and fewer cards, I will try more units but few high-value cards. What I’m looking for is an army that the player can fight with, take large losses, and still win the game, rather than an army that needs to be afraid to fight.

Until I have that, the army isn’t being modelled correctly, because that’s what the early war Soviet army was. That’s where I’m aiming and I’ll keep working at it until I get there.

A lot of what I’ve been doing is tightening up the text. It is hard to show you because it is a few words here, and a few words there, maybe a sentence over here. But this is a clearer example (even without a baseline) in that this used to be two separate paragraphs, one for Siberian production and one for lend-lease. But they were very nearly identical, and having them be separate served no good purpose.

None of these changes are much on their own, but their net effect is less text to read, which will speed reading the rules. And this reduction in really unnecessary let’s me go ahead and expand where needed to explain a point that really needs more space, without feeling guilty about the added length (and read time) of the rules.

And this is another example of a tightening up. The original text is top, the revised text bottom. It is from the rules for game set-up. Now, what purpose did “German territory” serve in the original?

Was there territory in RUMÄNIEN at start that is not German territory? No.

Did players need assurance that a place where the Germans would set up units was German territory? No.

Did the players need help finding RUMÄNIEN on the map? Probably not — there was a small illustration showing its location in blue right above this sentence. And it is marked on the map itself, both by border and all-caps text. And there is an on-map set-up that shows the same as the above text graphically.

And even if they did need help finding RUMÄNIEN — was telling them that it was “German territory” well-suited for that purpose? No. There is a lot of German territory.

So, “German territory” is text that may confuse as much as it helps, and serves no obvious purpose. And text should have a better reason for existing than maybe-not-make-things-worse. So out it went. And a lot of other similar snippets all through the rules.

Now I know what you’re thinking — “Rachel,” you're thinking, “you promised something fertile. All this word-smithing stuff may be nice, but I’m not seeing that it’s fertile. Where’s the fertile?”

Well, here we go, my little Grognards, let’s dig in.

Now, prior to this, this game had 4 supply states (down from 5): full, limited, sea, and out-of-supply. With this release, sea supply as a supply state goes away. (Sea supply doesn’t go away, but supply by sea no longer provides something called “sea supply”, it now is another way for a unit to receive limited supply). This reduction means that fussy little paragraphs that talked about sea supply and limited supply can go away. This streamlines things conceptually and textually.

But anyway, let’s go on.

So remember that problem mentioned above with “effective control” and supply? Here’s where that redefinition of effective control for battle positions starts to pay off. Formerly supply paths had to be traced through “friendly effective control” positions, now they are instead forbidden from being traced through “enemy effective control positions”. Battle positions, which had formerly been defined in a way that unintentionally gummed up supply, now become well-behaved. Units in a battle positions no longer become out-of-supply by virtue of being in battle positions. Now, the game was never played this way. Because it would have been stupid and I never meant it to work that way and I was the only one playing. But that was the way it was written.

Now, holy crap, but do I love this. At one time I had so many supply states and so many different rules for them. Knocking out most of them was an improvement, but sea supply and limited supply remained and had a difficult relationship: what if a unit was receiving sea supply and its supply path went within 2 of an enemy breakthrough path and it crossed the Kerch Strait? What if it reasonably qualified as being in sea supply and limited supply? Yet aren’t they mutually exclusive alternatives?

It is the sort of thing that bugged me, because it meant there was a conceptual and structural error in the design. And I hate that. Yes, I could declare that if it qualified as both sea supply and limited supply, sea supply should be used, but that didn’t make the conceptual and structural error go away, it just meant that I had covered it up, and in a (to me) painfully visible way.

But now, now, there is no sea supply state. All of the above (sea-supply path, enemy-breakthrough-proximity path, Kerch-Strait-path) now mean the same thing: they are all paths that provide limited supply, individually or in any combination. They now live in harmony because the conceptual and structural problem in supply states has been addressed.

And because the structure has been cleaned up, defining what it means for a unit to be in limited supply becomes trivial: if it has a supply path, but doesn’t qualify for full supply, it is in limited supply. And I can throw in the definition of out-of-supply cleanly and neatly too.

Oh, and one more thing: what it means for a path to be within 2 of an enemy breakthrough path now has a name: a disputed path. If I need to refer to it (and as it happens, I do) it has a name I can call it by.

But, sadly sometimes the Good Lord giveth, and sometimes the Good Lord taketh away. And there is some of that here. There was this nasty little problem existing in counting distances to breakthrough path positions: in some situations, a count could be made through the front line and back across the front line on the other side, and create an effect that should never logically have happened: it was like in bad CGI when a character’s hand goes through a wall and comes out the other side. It is stupid looking and stupid looking in an obvious and startling way.

Well, I finally gave up on my idea of thinking “How often will that really happen? Is that something I need to worry about?” Well, it happened in the little BGG experimental playtest game. On turn 2. So much for thinking it would be super rare and I could get away with not thinking about it. Anyway, now we have a kludgy little rule to deal with it. Not great, but better than the problem it fixes, that’s for damn sure.

And, and, I used to have this thing where ports were alternate sources of supply, and what they supplied was sea supply. Except they weren’t sources of supply because they themselves had to be supplied.

Well, voila, ports are no longer sources of supply. The only supply sources in the game are the map-edge supply sources. Sea supply is just a special kind of path to the same supply sources used everywhere else, not a special kind of source and a special kind of path and a provider of a special kind of supply. They’re now special in only 1 way instead of 3, and that’s cleaner and better. By 2.

We still need to talk about the three sections of a sea supply path, and all the stuff about who controls which sea zone, but sometimes the complexity is rooted in the subject matter itself, and not introduced by bad design choices. And I think the sea zone stuff is rooted in history, and not in my having made design errors. So I can never like it, but that way I can become more-or-less comfortable in living with it.

So, this is a clean-up of when you could declare sea supply. The problem I was dealing with was that I had these restrictions as to one sea supply port per zone at one time, and you had to pay maintenance. But, could players work around those limits by rapidly and frequently switching sea supply from port to port? “Now sea supply is here! And now it is over here! And look, now here!” This sort of thing bugged me.

So, I wanted to impose limits on when you could declare it, but they honestly didn’t work very well, and I tried multiple combinations. Instead it seemed best to just direct the rule not at when you could do it, but the problem that really concerned me, which was how often you could do it. I’m sleeping better with this one, but I’m not entirely sure there isn’t a problem here too waiting to be discovered.

Moving right along. There is a brand new action in the Military Phase: Battle Resolution. Now, it isn’t that battle resolution wasn’t around before, it was that there was a lot of murk around when, exactly, a battle with a delayed resolution could be resolved.

I finally decided that adding a Battle Resolution action was the best way to clean-up these unresolved battles, since that is the method that fit into the structure of how Military Phases in the game work. Immediately resolved battles still exist and are resolved immediately as before.

I used to have two short subsections here: The Active Player and Ending a Military Phase, and I didn’t like either of them. Between the two of them they broke up how Initiative related to the Military Phase into two different contexts, and I really felt the treatment of that relationship needed to be in one context. I also didn’t like how the section about ending a military phase had redundancies with the section on Pass Actions.

And so I decided to let the rules on Pass actions take care of how Military Phases end, and bring together in this new sub-section let all the stuff on determining who gets to the Active Player, how it relates to Initiative, and who gets to have the Initiative here. It just seemed better organized this way.

What I want to call your attention to here is the last bullet item: the one about entering or leaving a battle position. That’s new. Now at one time, I didn’t need it, because the rules already require a unit to be in full supply to use a strategic move, and a unit couldn’t be in full supply in a battle position. But having changed one rule in a completely different section, I created a brand-new problem here: that it was now possible to use strategic movement to get in and out of battle positions.

Now the thing is, this sort of thing isn’t unusual. Changing a rule and introducing a problem in another rule in a far-away section that had been doing just fine, thank-you-very-much happens easily, can be hard to spot and if you aren’t very careful, can make it all the way into publication. As it happened, someone else reviewing the rules noticed this and asked about it. Left to my own devices, I don’t know how long it would have taken me to spot it.

Having your work proofed (not just for grammer and what-not, but at a content level) is good.

So, this guy’s new.

The concept for this rule goes back to when I got my first playtest into the time when the Soviets were beginning to take over the attacking role.

The fundamentals have remained constant, but it has been a flying dutchman of a rule, moving from section to section, with its details changing with every move. It has been in the Battle section, the Battle Resolution section, and at one time it looked it was going to get its own section. Finally, it became clear that it really belonged in the Operational Movement section, that its entry into the general rules logic was that it was a way (the only way) for a unit to move out of a position that was the site of an unresolved battle.

Its confused history is, I think, tied to the confusion about how unresolved battles ultimately got resolved. With that unsettled, it was hard to settle this aspect of that problem. But I think/hope that that is now more-or-less stable and this location will work and this implementation of the idea will work.

Counter-moves. Why do they exist?

Fundamentally, wargames tend to be turn-based, and turn length in them is tied to decision cycle. Make the turns too long and the player’s can’t react fast enough to what the other player is doing. Make the turns too short, and they react too fast. The turn length here was basically tuned to the cycle of offensives during the subject war. Large offensives would be launched, move incredibly quickly, which would be followed by a period of rest and recovery before another offensive could be undertaken. But this turn-length is too long for the shorter decision cycles of the more local aspects of game play.

And so, counter-moves were introduced, to allow quicker decisions to be made in reaction to local conditions, while letting the turn lengths reflect the longer decision cycles of the major campaigns.

A very short rule, but one that shows the two rates of decision cycles in the game. The shorter decision cycles of counter-moves exist within, but do not change or replace, the longer decision cycles of the game turns.

At one time, counter-moves were not a type of operational move: they were entirely unrelated types of movement (like strategic move and operational move are in the current rules).

However, they had enough similarities, which were clear enough even early on, that some level of merger was desirable: there were too many rules for both that were the same rule.

The first merger type was to create a generic base movement rules (a structure Guns of Gettysburg possesses), with operational and counter-moves being variations on that same type of base movement. (If you're object-oriented programming in your thinking, the generic move type was an abstract base class.)

Anyway, it seemed like more could be done, and over time, the operational move type had fewer and fewer differentiators between it and the generic move type. And so, it became clear that the operational move could instead become that type, and counter-moves would be a special type of operational move, which is where the game is today.

Another very simple rule, and one that establishes the fundamental function of counter-moves as being defensive: they are the means by which one army defends itself, not the means by which it attacks.

So the top bullet here is one that might at first make the player scratch their heads, but it addresses a deep potential gaminess that could exist in counter-moves: not as a means to have a short-decision cycle reactive move, but as an alternative long-cycle move that could take advantage of limitations in the game modeling as it abstracts the war.

The bottom bullet is more straightforward, except the bit at the end about not being able to intercept into a pre-existing battle. This is because there are separate rules governing counter-moves into battles, and this is to keep it clear which rules govern which situation.

This is just a technical rule defining how the transition from counter-move to battle works. Much of it could have been reversed and it would have worked just as well: but as game rules it needed to be clear which way it did work. This way.

An in-case-of-emergency-break-glass rule. I don’t expect that it will even once be invoked in a typical game between reasonably experienced players: units very seldom attempt intercept at distances so great that they might not even make it, but a rule had to exist to cover the possibility that they might. And so this rule exists.

This was a lot, yet there was a lot more that could have been covered. For now, though, I need to call it a day. There will be other days and other blog entries. Til next time!

3 September, 2020

So for the past few days, I’ve been running an odd sort of experimental group playtest at the BGG STAVKA forum. It started with this post and continued from there.

The basic idea was that interested participants form two teams, one to play the Germans (TeamOKH) and one to play the Soviets (TeamStavka). The teams would send me instructions for each phase/turn/whatever and I would carry them out on my board, and post a photo back. For me, it is sort of an attempt at a surrogate for the sort of in-person playtests I might be starting right now if we were not in our COVID-19 era. While I hope to soon be ready for online playtesting with a formal playtest team, I don’t feel quite ready for that yet. And so this.

I can’t say that it has gone quite the way I expected (the pace has been much slower than I had hoped, for one thing) it does have some charms all its own. Here is the sequence of the photos I took as the game progressed through its first couple turns. Some notes: (1) The cards shown are cards played (face-up) or discarded (face-down) during the turn and wouldn't normally be placed on the board this way. (2) Hand-drawn arrows show rear-area or otherwise invisible movements during the turn:

Soviet Set-upGerman Barbarrosa 1st Military Phase
Soviet Barbarrosa 1st Military PhaseGerman Barbarrosa 2nd Military Phase
Soviet Barbarrosa 2nd Military PhaseSoviet Summer 41 Economic Phase
German Summer 41 1st Military PhaseGerman Summer 41 1st Military Phase (cont'd)
Soviet Summer 41 1st Military PhaseGerman Summer 41 2nd Military Phase

With the Germans in Moscow, things are obviously not going the way the Soviets might have hoped. Whether this means the game is unbalanced (very possible) or the weird and novel situation I’ve put the players in has affected game play I don’t know.

What I do know is that I have benefitted from it, making revisions in a lot of places to the rules and even the map, so this is moving the game forward, and I greatly appreciate the players’ willingness to try this. It has helped game development, there is no question of it.