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20 July 2009

 Products The Guns of Gettysburg Design Diary Blocking and Screening

Blocking and Screening

In this diary entry, I'm going to discuss the design for the wooden blocks for The Guns of Gettysburg. There is no doubt that the design of the blocks is the clearest physical design element linking the games Bonaparte at Marengo and Napoleon’s Triumph. The distinctiveness stems from two main elements: the color of the blocks and their shape. Both of these are derived from the style of military cartography used in the nineteenth century, a style still in use today. Below are two sections from two maps of Gettysburg. The map on the left is a period map, drawn up by the Topographical Office of the Army of Northern Virginia in 1863, and the map on the right was drawn up by the U. S. Military Academy in 1995.

Period Battlefield Map
Modern Battlefield Map

One question that came up during the design process was whether to continue with this color scheme in the new game. While red and blue have an impressive pedigree (the maps drawn up by the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac for their own use both used it), there is another color scheme that actually has over the years developed a stronger grip on the popular imagination: blue and gray, which is derived from the uniform colors of the opposing armies.

I did seriously consider switching to blue and gray, but ultimately decided against it. Gray does have a practical problem as a game piece color in that it not only has a low contrast with blue, it also has a low contrast with just about everything. We can see the contrast problem pretty easily just by taking the two maps above and removing the red from the Confederates. (In looking for the Confederates, we can be grateful for the bits of remaining red that I couldn’t easily remove; as even that small amount of red helps significantly in finding them, who otherwise have literally faded into the background):

Period Map in Blue and Gray
Modern Map in Blue and Gray

So, in spite of the positive value of the association of blue and gray with Civil War armies, gray is just not a good color visually. And so I decided to stick with blue and red.

The other design element associated with my games is the shape of the pieces. Both of my previous games used the same dimensions: 1.5" x 0.25" x 0.25". While the general reason for choosing long, thing rectangles for the piece shape can be easily discerned just from a glance at the maps shown above, the exact dimensions used do have a certain arbitrariness to them. In general though, I wanted the pieces to be as thin as I could make them and still have them be easily picked up and still have enough room to put legible markings on them. A quarter of an inch was about right for both, although had I used metric instead of English measurements I might have gone with something like 6 or 7mm instead — who knows?

One question I considered carefully this time around was whether to make the pieces a little taller (1.5" x 0.3125" x 0.25") with the intent of giving myself a little more room for markings. I even wrote a draft of the rules that used these dimensions and made up rules illustrations with them. You can see the difference below:

Side View of Tall Blocks Experiment
Top View of Tall Blocks Experiment

Yet, in the end, I decided to reverse myself and go back to pieces that had the same thickness and height (0.25"). My reasons were that, first, I decided I didn’t really need the additional space, and second, having the pieces be taller than they were thick created problems when you flipped them over to show to hide their faces: suddenly they would take up more room on the board and could get in each other’s way, and third, if you had some pieces with their faces towards you and others (literally) face-down, it was visually very unsightly because the pieces were no longer uniform in their height and thickness. Overall, it just didn’t seem worth it. The only thing I was getting from taller pieces was something I didn’t need, and the things I was giving up were things I really cared about. And so, I decided to go back and use the old dimensions. I backed out all the illustrations with the taller pieces and all the rules references to them.

At this point you might begin to wonder if I’m not just yanking your chain a little here: teasing you with ideas for changes and then just saying “Just kidding!” and going back and doing things the way I’ve done them before. Well, for better or worse, I didn’t decide to do everything the same way as in the previous games.

One other distinctive and consistent element in my previous games has been the types and method of marking the pieces. In both games I used variations of the boring old (but oh-so-recognizable for wargamers) NATO symbology, applied with a silkscreen process. The result was pieces that looked like this:

Silk Screen Markings

The silkscreen process had two positive qualities: First, the markings are very durable. They are paint and will not peel, flake, fade, or run. Second, they are ready for use right out of the box: no assembly required. Against this, they also had some negatives. First, cost. It is an expensive process and adds to the cost of the game. Second, limited resolution. Because they are paint on wood, very fine detail isn’t possible. These two combine to create a third limitation: single color designs. Because of cost and resolution, multiple colors are not practical. Fourth, simplicity. Few designs could be used and those that were used had to be simple. Fifth, quality control. The most inconsistent feature of the manufactured games has been the blocks, and the markings have been behind most of the problems.

One thing I did in Napoleon’s Triumph that I had not done in Bonaparte at Marengo was to introduce command pieces, which I liked and were very well received. Silkscreening onto the metal pieces was impossible, so I did a couple of things I had not done in the earlier games: use stickers and use flags as graphical elements. Stickers, while not as durable as silk-screen paint, are still fairly robust as game components go. The main thing about them that had bothered me was that it threw labor onto the players. Well, people didn’t seem to mind it too much, although the stickers were small and the odd shape of the command pieces could make it challenging to get them on right. This experience led me to think that customers had a greater tolerance for this sort of thing than I had supposed, and that from a customer point of view, stickers might be a net win for customers.

And so I decided to undertake a new design for the block markings, using stickers and flags rather than silk-screen. I also had a keen interest in trying to use the state flags because the regiments of the armies were almost all raised from within a particular state, which I think helped to individuate the pieces. (Incidentally, I really made a big problem for myself with THAT decision, but I will tell that story another day.) After fooling around with a number of different designs, this was my first attempt where I felt confident enough to make up a full set of blocks:

First Design (Chevron Blocks)
first design

Now the idea here was that the flags would indicate the dominant states from which regiments represented by the block were drawn, but otherwise had no significance. The strength of the blocks were indicated by the number of chevrons on the right, and the number on the left was to help speed set-up. (One down-side of individualized blocks was that matching them was more difficult; the numbers were supposed to remove that problem.) A smarter designer than me would not have even bothered to try that design, because it had certain deficiencies that became obvious as soon as I made up a set. First, the chevrons were hard to see when blocks were lined up front-to-back, and even if you could see them completely it wasn't always easy to count the chevrons. Second, I hated the little numbers. They had no useful purpose other than in set-up, and after that they just called attention to themselves but had nothing to say. Third, my little flags took up a lot of space but had no function whatsoever. (Cavalry was indicated by the use of little diagonal lines rather than chevrons to indicate strengths; otherwise they looked just like infantry.)

I never even played a game with these pieces. I just set them up, pushed a few of them around and then put them away. They were awful. I hated them. No go.

On reflection, I decided I liked the flags, but they couldn't just be ornamental: they had to do something. Also, I had also decided that I was not going to use a free-form organizational model like Napoleon’s Triumph, where players would organize their armies as they saw fit. I was going to go with the historical organization and the blocks needed to indicate that. I decided to let the number of flags indicate strength (which is obviously what I should have done the first time; but somehow I convinced myself that I would like the chevrons better) and would write the name of the commander (division commanders for Confederates, corps commanders for Union) on the blocks. This was the second iteration:

Second Design (Commander Names)
second design

Now this was a lot better, both visually and from a content point of view. No space is wasted on non-functional elements. (The size of the flags is to ensure that the number of flags can be easily seen from a distance; the design on the flags serves no functional purpose, but the space it takes up would have to be taken up by something.) One thing I did carry over from the first design, but more successfully this time around, I think was the asymmetric design, which is more visually interesting than the symmetric design used in the Napoleonic games. This design actually was used a lot, but in playing the game, a problem emerged in that the Confederate corps affiliation wasn’t indicated on the blocks (the names for the Confederates are division commander names, not corps commanders) but it was important in play, and players had trouble remembering it. And so, one small adjustment for the Confederate blocks was added in the form of stars to indicate the corps number (three stars indicates III Corps):

Third Design (Corps Stars)
third design

There is a problem with individualized blocks like these, and that is when they need to be replaced with lower-strength blocks to indicate step reductions. Finding and matching unique replacement blocks is basically a pain and so I decided not to do that. Instead, each command would have its own replacement blocks, but within a command any replacement could be used for any block. To make this work I substituted tattered national flags done in gray for the color state flags. As mentioned before, the number of flags indicates the strength of the blocks, so the top blocks have a strength of two while those below have a strength of one. (As a graphical touch, you might notice that the flags on the one-strength blocks are much more shot-up than those on the two-strength blocks.)

Reduced Blocks

There was one other issue, and that was how to represent cavalry, since the symbols themselves no longer identified what arm the blocks was. Here I took advantage of the fact that the cavalry blocks were all 1-strength, and used the extra space to insert a simple slash to denote cavalry:

Cavalry Blocks

That about wraps up this discussion. I hope you like the look of the blocks in the game. By the way, if you’ve been a careful reader, you might have noticed that I never mentioned artillery at any point in discussing the design of the new blocks. Well, the story there is one of the most radical departures between The Guns of Gettysburg and its predecessors. It is, as it happens, far too big a topic to be tacked onto the end of this diary entry and will get an entry of its own.