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14 June 2006

 Products Napoleon’s Triumph Design Diary Round and Round We Go

Napoleon’s Triumph Design Diary:
Round and Round We Go

Command Pieces

It has certainly been a while since the last design diary update. I never intended it to be so long as this, but sometimes matters are not in your own hands. So what’s been going on? Well, play-testing, for one, with the adjustments to the rules and other components that are the normal result of that process, but what has mainly been going on has been a long struggle with the physical design of the command pieces.

I’ve never discussed this subject in any previous design diary entry. While in general, it has been my policy to be open, I have been secretive here but am now ready to discuss this subject.

Block Design

When I first decided to add command pieces to the game, my first thought of course was that they would be wooden blocks with the same dimensions as the other game pieces. The first problem with this that occurred to me was the silk-screening process I use for the other pieces might not work as well for the command pieces: silkscreening produces durable, attractive markings, but the resolution just isn’t that high. If you’ve ever carefully examined the pieces in Bonaparte at Marengo, you will have noticed that the edges of the lines on the symbols are a little rough; this is the limit of what can be reasonably done with paint applied to wood. These resolution limits would make it difficult to make attractive character shapes, and I might have to settle for something resembling block capitals if I used that process. An added problem with silkscreening was that each command piece would be unique, so if there was a manufacturing flaw, or one of them was lost or damaged, a unique replacement would have to be supplied.

My first thought was that I could mitigate the problems of silkscreening with stickers: the command piece blocks could be blanks, and then stickers would be supplied to mark them. This had a couple of advantages: first, stickers can be printed at high resolution, thereby allowing much nicer character forms in the commander’s names, and second, replacement stickers would be easy to supply to handle cases of loss or damage. Against these advantages was the problem of an inconsistency of style among the pieces: combat symbols would be silkscreen while commander names would be stickers. I found this off-putting: while it certainly would have been possible to use stickers for all the pieces (other publishers who use wood for game pieces routinely do this), I like the durability of silkscreen, I like the way it looks, and I like the fact that the pieces are ready-to-use right out of the box.

The concerns about silkscreen vs. stickers for the command pieces was in the end, though, really completely besides the point. Stickers or silkscreen, I did not like the idea of using wooden blocks for the command pieces. The first problem was that they take up space where I do not want space taken up: locales with a capacity of “four”, for example, really aren’t big enough for five pieces (some players would grumble that they aren’t big enough for four either, but I try to ignore such carping), and I either needed to change the piece size, change the map scale, or change the rules so that commanders counted against locale capacity, none of which I wanted to do. The second problem was that using blocks for command pieces felt really wrong in that it involved using the same physical design to represent radically different things: a combat unit represent a formatiion of a thousand or more men, while a command piece represents a general and a handful of staff officers. The third problem was that tests with wooden blocks showed that the eye could not readily distinguish between command pieces and combat units at a glance. The fourth problem was that they looked really bland, and that I could not live with.

A much better idea (in principle) occurred to me quite quickly as I began to ponder alternatives: I would represent the commanders with flags. Flags had a lot of advantages: they associate well with the idea of command, they would literally add a new dimension to the visual impact of the game (the combat units are seen to best effect from above, while flags are seen to best effect from the side), and their visual design adds historical flavor. I fell in love with this idea really hard, and it became hard for me to even conceive of the game any more without them.

Flags, however, presented multiple difficulties. The first difficulty was material: flags could not be made out of wood and so would have to be made out of something else. The second problem was their physical design: a flag needs a staff, and at the bottom of the staff there needs to be a base or the flag won’t stand up. The third problem was the commander’s names: if the commanders were represented by flags, where would the names go? The fourth problem was that stickers would almost certainly be necessary; only print on paper seemed likely to be able to resolve the detail that flags would require. The final difficulty was cost: could the pieces be made at a cost that I could afford?

Plastic was an obvious material for the flags as it is readily molded into almost any shape. However, if I was willing to use plastic I would have used it for the combat units and saved myself a great deal of trouble. (My hostility to plastic is rooted in a prejudice that plastic pieces don't feel right as playing pieces in a nineteenth century game because plastic isn’t a nineteenth century material.*) While it was borderline conceivable, I suppose, that some exotic material like ceramic could be used, the next most obvious candidate after plastic was metal. I liked the idea of metal right away; metal is heavy enought that it gives a game piece a pleasant heft in the hand, it can be molded into complex shapes, and it is a material “native” to the nineteenth century and can be used without anachronism.

Triangle Design

While cost was an obviously pressing problem, I decided that before I could look into it I needed a design for the pieces first, and so I set to work on the problem. My first flag design used a triangular base underneath the flag. This had a pleasantly directional look to it, as the triangle reinforced the direction in which the commanders would lead their units. It was, however, not workable. First, there was the problem of how big to make the triangle. The smaller the triangle, the less stable it was, but the bigger the triangle, the more space it took up, and lack of space was how I got into this whole mess in the first place. I thought maybe I could mitigate the space problem by having the wooden pieces slide on top of the base, which would reduce the space requirement to almost zero and which had the positive side effect of helping to stabilize the command piece. There was, however, yet another problem: how would you pick it up to move it? The easiest way to pick up the wooden pieces is by the sides (a technique with which all Napoleonic miniatures players are familiar), but if you picked up the wooden pieces that way, you would leave the command piece behind. This seemed too annoying to be endured and so I dropped the idea of triangular bases.

Rectangle Design

The problem of handling the command pieces eventually made it clear to me that from an ergonomic perspective, it would be a great advantage to have command pieces that were the same width as the wooden pieces. This led to the second design, and what was to be the working design for months. This design also provided a large space on which to write the name of the commander, which solved the labeling problem as well. The only fly in the ointment was the fact that if the base was underneath a wooden piece (as it generally would be), the name of the commander would be hidden. I fretted about this some, but decided it was still easily made visible for reference if necessary, and besides, there weren’t that many commanders so that it shouldn’t be that hard to remember which was which anyway.

With some confidence that this design would work for me, I decided to go ahead and see about getting some prototypes made and getting some manufacturing quotes. Since there are no companies specifically dedicated to producing prototype metal parts for games, I decided to look into what seemed to me to be some vendors who might be able to do the work. After some thought, I came up with two classes of vendors I thought could do the work: custom jewelry makers and military miniatures manufacturers. And so, I began to fire off inquiries, wait a few days for any quick responses, and if I didn’t get any, try a few more, and so on. I only got a few responses out of this process, and the few that responded initially stopped responding shortly after a few exchanges on the subject. In all, I spent about a month on this and at the end I had nothing.

Next I decided to try companies that specialized in prototyping metal products for manufacturers. The response rate from this group was much higher, but none of these worked out either: one decided their company’s process couldn’t do it, one stopped responding when I provided an approximate budget, and one actually sent me back an initial estimate, but it was far more than I could afford to pay. I was pretty discouraged at this point, but I also decided to see if the company that had printed Bonaparte at Marengo could refer me to anyone, but sadly, they said they didn’t know of anyone who could help.

And so, another round of inquiries had, after weeks of further delay, produced no useful results whatsoever. I then decided that I couldn’t be the first game designer with this problem, so I contacted game printers and manufacturers looking for assistance. Most of these made at least one response, but most lost interest when they discovered I wasn’t yet looking for a manufacturer for the entire game, just help in locating someone to make some prototype pieces. There were a couple companies that tried to help, but none of these leads in the end came to anything. One of them was even worse than nothing: one casting company took a look at my command piece design and described it as a “caster’s nightmare” and expressed doubt that it could be manufactured with an acceptable yield at all.

I have to say that this was beyond discouraging. By this time, I had spent about three months unsuccessfully looking for someone to prototype these pieces only to be told that it was probably all useless anyway, as even if I could get the pieces prototyped, it was unlikely that they could be manufactured. And so I decided to re-open the entire problem of the design of the command pieces. This did nothing at all for my morale. I couldn’t think of that many alternative designs that could stand up to even casual criticism. Some were visually too dull, others had balance problems, others had ergonomic problems, others were just too bizarre.

Drilled Block L Design Billboard Design Vertical Wedge Design Flat Design
Vertical Wedge Flag Design Vertical Rectangle Flag Design Vertical Rectangle Design Tall Block Design Wedge Flag Design
Round Design Arrow Design Triangle Design Inverse-T Design Inverse-T w/ Emblem Design

As part of the command piece re-design process, I decided to get some 3D modeling software to test out the designs (I admit that I was also hoping that I might be able to skip prototyping altogether and go straight to manufacturing based on how it looked in the modeling software). Well, because of the movie special effects and computer game industries, there are lots and lots of 3D packages out there. Many of them, however, are dreadfully expensive when you are planning such a limited use for them, and the ones I could actually play around with using free evaluation versions seemed utterly unintuitive. They may have been great if you were planning a career where did nothing except sit around using them for 60 hours a week, but for my purposes they were a very poor fit: the prices were too high and the learning curve were too steep. Finally, I did find a package I thought I could use. It was expensive, but not wildly so, and the learning curve seemed manageable.

Final Design

With practice I found I could draw 3D prototype pieces pretty quickly, which served as a spur to my imagination, and while working with the software I hit on an idea that actually seemed to work. It was very close to the original command piece design, except that the base no longer was at the bottom of the flag staff and designed to go under a wooden piece, but half-way up the staff and designed to slip on top of it. My hope was that this would make the design easier to manufacture since the two metal “plates” were no longer separated by as long a shaft, but it definitely had a real functional advantage in that the name of the commander would now be on top of the wooden piece instead of under it and would therefore always be visible. This cheered me up some; it was the first good thing that had happened with on the whole command piece project in about four months.

A second ray of sunshine was that I discovered that a company that specialized in casting very small pieces (even smaller than mine) in Zinc, and they also provided some information about Zinc casting that led me to be fairly confident that my piece could be cast, regardless of what I had been told earlier. This in turn gave me enough of a boost that I decided to look (yet again) to find someone to prototype them. For this round, I got the idea to try individuals and companies that specialized in making custom models (like ship models). I wrote off to several of them, and was pleased to find that most of them responded, and said that they could do it for a reasonable price, the only problem being schedule as none of them could to it soon. Later was still better than never, and so I picked one of them for my project.

I wasn’t promised that the work would be done quickly and it wasn’t. It took two months to get the prototypes made, but they were made! What’s more, having discovered the world of casting small Zinc parts, I was able to get manufacturing quotes. The quotes were for a higher price than I had hoped, but they were within the range I could afford.

As an overall experience, I think I would characterize the design of the command pieces as ghastly, and I am grateful that it is over (and of course I hope that it stays that way – I think I’d be ready for the rubber room if I thought I had to start it over again). In addition to the travails mentioned above, the process had one additional nasty side-effect of particular relevance here. I was deeply concerned that all of this might come to naught and I was terribly nervous about raising public expectations that I would ultimately be unable to fulfill. If I promised spiffy-looking metal flags, it would very hard to later say that I was just kidding, and give people wooden blocks. This fear led me to keep quiet about any aspect of the design that might even hint about it, which in turn led to a total shut-down of the design diary. This was never my original intent, and it always seemed like I would be able to lift the security lid in a few weeks time, but the date when I could lift security just never seemed to get any closer. Folks would write, ask how it was going, why the diary hadn’t had any new entries, was the game ever going to happen, etc. It was hard to know what to say, and so I tended to make vague references to “production problems” in response to such inquiries. It wasn’t very satisfying to me to respond to questions in that way, and I cannot imagine that it was very satisfying to receive them, but it felt like the best I could do.

And so, to all those who asked or wondered, I do hope this clears things up at least partly as to what has been going on. Of course, there have been other things happening with the game in the last half-year that didn’t have anything to do with the command piece design, and those will be the subject of the next design diary entry, which will go up soon (really this time).

Command Pieces in Play 3D
Rendering from the 3D design software.
Photograph of actual prototype pieces.

Sticker Sheet
Sticker sheet for command pieces.

* People who want to remind me of the plastic markers in Bonaparte at Marengo should be aware that I don’t think that off-map markers count as a violation of my rule. To those who say otherwise, I can only say that when I make a rule, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.