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30 May, 2005

 Products Napoleon’s Triumph Design Diary Time and Tempo

Napoleon’s Triumph Design Diary: Time and Tempo

Time and Morale Tracks The Time and Morale Tracks are shown to the left, taken from the lower-right corner of the game board. In this entry, there will be some discussion as to what’s going on here from a graphical design perspective, but most of this entry will go into some of the core problems of the game design of Napoleon’s Triumph, using these graphical elements as a springboard into those topics.

First, let’s get the graphics discussion out of the way. One of the things about that I liked about the otherwise ordinary tracks for time and demoralization in Bonaparte at Marengo was the way that the race between French and Austrian demoralization was graphically reinforced by the design: with both sides’ markers on the same track, the players could tell at a glance who was closer to demoralization, and it is always a real moment in the game when either side passes the other on that track. What didn’t work as well was the race against time aspect of it: although the design made it easy to tell how far the armies were from demoralization with respect to each other, it was not as easy to tell how far they were from it with respect to the clock.

This graphic design is my first pass at trying to build a better mousetrap in that regard. The idea is to present both sides’ demoralization and the game clock as a three-way race, so that a glance can reveal where these three quantities stand with respect to each other. So far, so good, and I’m happy with that idea. What I’m less confident about is another innovation that I’m attempting here: the idea for the demoralization tracks in this design is to have players put the actual pieces on the track to use as markers, in the order in which they are lost. Coupled with this, time markers (not shown) would be transferred from the time track to the demoralization track as time goes by: so for example, a marker for the French 8:00AM turn would be transferred to the demoralization track at the start of that turn, marking the French loss level at that time. The idea of all of this is to build a narrative record of the losses in the game, so that players can review what units were lost when; this is in part supposed to provide an audit trail so that players can be more confident that they are accurately recording losses, and also provide entertainment so that players are building a sort of history of the game as they play it.

I like the theory behind this design, but I’m less enthusiastic about how it is working out in practice. The first and most obvious problem is that I’ve replaced a very simple system (moving a marker down a numeric track) with a more complex one (multiple markers and multiple kinds of markers) and it is quite unclear whether the play value justifies the complexity. A second problem is that the spaces for the demoralization track are only 1/4" high, and it is not that difficult to accidently move a piece enough so that it isn't clear which space its on. Either of these is potentially fatal to this design, and together they mean that this system is unlikely to survive into the final game (at least in the form shown here).

Moving on to the game design proper, one of the main things that it is critical to get right in any simulation is the tempo of the game: does the game proceed at more or less the same speed as the subject of the simulation? In moving from Marengo to Austerlitz, one of the things that struck me was how fast a battle Austerlitz was. The French army, for example, didn't really start to move until 9:00 in the morning, and they had completed the defeat of the Allied army by early afternoon, about 5 hours later, moving over really large distances to do it. if you port the rules from Bonaparte at Marengo to Napoleon’s Triumph unchanged, what you find is that the French army just can’t do that: they can’t move fast enough and it can’t inflict losses fast enough to do what the French army did historically.

One of the interesting things about the development of Marengo is that the early versions of the game moved too fast compared to the original battle, and it was found to be necessary to slow things down to re-create the historical tempo. Napoleonic command systems were not up to co-ordinating a running battle effectively, especially on a battlefield like Marengo which was extremely flat and didn't offer much high ground from which commanders could get a good view of the battlefield. Without rules to slow down the game, the pieces tended to move with a coordination and speed that would have been more appropriate to command by telepathy than command by courier. The speed of the battle was also strongly affected by the to the complete unpreparedness of the French for a battle at all, and the Austrian problem of squeezing their entire army over a couple of bridges and then deploying immediately to attack.

Maneuver attacks and command limits were devices that were not originally part of the Marengo design but which were introduced during development as devices to slow things down (maneuver attacks do not obviously slow the battle down except in their bloodlessness when blocked, which requires an assault the subsequent turn to create losses). Those rules work well in that game and are indeed essential to making the game what it is, but they were rules developed in the context of simulating Marengo, not Austerlitz.

Undoubtedly, a problem with my early design plans for Austerlitz was the fact that I wasn’t really remembering how it was that those important rules found their way into Marengo at all, and was focused instead on porting the Marengo rules to Austerlitz, with the intention of making only minor adjustments. The first of these adjustments was to change the turn length from 60 minutes to 45 minutes. The second was to modestly increase the commands per army from 3 to 5 (this actually meant that I was planning fewer commands per unit in Austerlitz than Marengo, especially since I was planning to restrict the use of 2 of the 5 Allied commands to maneuver within a locale). The third was to allow multiple pieces to move by secondary road with only a single command (the armies scouted out and made much more extensive use of the secondary roads at Austerlitz than at Marengo).

The first full-up play-test was a solitaire game that used plans deliberately quite different from the historical plans (early partial play-tests had involved re-runs of parts of the historical plans). It didn’t go very well, but it didn’t go very badly either. The French actually swung to the south while the Allies attacked in the north. The tempo seemed a little slow, but not grossly so, and as a game it was interesting, even if it wasn’t as involving as I was aiming for. Still, it was only the first run, and I was optimistic that with some adjustments here and there I would be able to round the game into shape.

The second full-up play-test was with an opponent. In that game, both sides concentrated in the north and met in that half of the field. I played the Allies and moved up (very) slowly, as did the French. Eventually the armies met in the middle of the field and started bombarding each other, and, well, there was no and – that was the whole game. As a play-test, it was pretty much of a disaster. It was impossible to think after it that I was only a few minor adjustments from fixing the game. Things were pretty seriously out of kilter: it was a poor simulation and a dull game in the bargain. The only positive was that it looked good (Austerlitz set up is an even more handsome game than Marengo – the added color in the map and the increase in the number of pieces and the size of the map makes it quite striking), but that was poor consolation. I felt that as it was I had a game that nobody would play more than once, although my opponent thought that I underestimated wargamers’ tolerance for pain and might play it twice.

After that disappointment it took me a few days to recover. Intellectually I knew that many of the early Marengo play-tests had been just as bad (and some had been worse), but I had thought that I was in much better shape in the Austerlitz design than I was, and so was emotionally unprepared for having it go so badly. Still, sometimes you need a good kick in the head to wake you up, and that was true here. It was after this that I really began to open up my thinking on the design, to reflect back on what I had done with Marengo, how it was that I had arrived at the decisions that I had with it, and that the entire idea of approaching Austerlitz from the perspective of Marengo was preventing me from thinking about Austerlitz as a subject in its own right and how to make a game that was really Austerlitz, and not Marengo with larger armies on a different map.

So where is the design now? I’m afraid that I’m going to leave this entry at something of a cliff-hanger. Many new things have grown out that play-test: far too many to be dealt with this entry (or even in a single additional entry) and so I'm going to have to end with just the promise that there will be (much) more on this subject in later entries.