Wargame series are the bedrock upon which wargame publishers have built their brands. Few wargame publishers that have seen growth and increased following have ignored the power of at least one series in their stable of games. Wargame series are double-edged swords though and in my last article, I started with the negative by examining five reasons wargame series are awful. Now that I’ve gone to the dark side in this two-part analysis it’s time to return to the sunlight of why so many of us love wargame series!

5 – Easier access to opponents

One reason I think series are so powerful is that its often easier to find opponents for series games. This is a part of what I’m going to coin as the series hype-cycle.

The first phase of the cycle is the announcement of a new title and the initial promotional rollout. Most series start with a great title on a popular topic. Few series start with some little-known topic in a corner of the gaming world. In fact, the only one that comes to mind readily is Comancheria from Joel Toppen and it’s uniqueness was one of its greatest strengths! The built-in audience for that topic is recruited and they begin to start the buzz amongst their network as influencers.

The second phase is the playtest photo and session reports. These typically come in the form of articles from the publisher, posts to popular gaming sites like Board Game Geek or ConSimWorld and help expand the audience.

The third phase is the pre-order and final component posting. This is often accompanied by a rulebook draft or player aid card draft floating around with it and drives pre-orders for the new game. The rulebook, especially if it’s the first in the series, is scoured and people typically support it with questions and observations that are enthusiastically comparing it to other series. If the series design fills an empty niche with an audience this will further propel interest and broaden the audience.

The game’s release is the fourth phase and this is where the rubber meets the road for most gamers. Not everyone is into the whole pre-order rat-race and they are patient enough to await word from local gamers. If the game is good, not even an unqualified classic in the making, then it will attract folks who are ready to use this release as the entry point for their participation in the series. After all, local gamers or VASSAL opponents are now starting to show themselves!

The review and early topic preview for the next game is the final and fifth phase of the hype cycle that links it back to the first phase for the new title. As reviews are coming in, the question is inevitably asked, “So, what’s the next title going to be?” The designer hints at it a few possibilities and finally lands in the coming months. People, now assured by a track record of a solid release and game series, start thinking about the next title and get a case of the FOMO or Fear Of Missing Out so they buy into the hype cycle and get ready for the next release.

Over the course of even two of these complete hype cycles, a series has built a solid foundation of players who are actively playing the game face-to-face or online and are talking about the game to give it sustained “buzz” in the community so that even new converts to wargaming have a well-discussed entry point with a topic that probably piques their interest.

As the European audience for wargames continues to grow, the topics that will pull people into wargaming will continue to be less United States-centric which is also exciting for those of us who have been around long enough to get our fill of the typical series chestnuts like Bulge, Stalingrad, D-Day, and Gettysburg.

4 – Systems provide a means for common analysis

Well designed games, as I’ve said before, have an opinion about their subject-matter. Series games provide an opportunity to track a designer’s thesis about the era(s) that they’re covering with multiple games attempting to showcase some core design values. The Great Battles of History take big stock in the concept of unit cohesion and the way that interacts with various formations, weapons, and leadership. As a result, gamers who invest in this series have a chance to see how this take on ancient Mediterranean combat tracks across a dozen or more titles.

At the core of a series’ long-term success is whether gamers also buy-in to at least some degree to the statement being made in the series rules booklet. We’re not talking about whether every gamer loves every release in a series, but the core belief’s of a game series are critical to its long-term success. As such, it’s more important in series games that the core design be opinionated and easily accessible for gamers. This can be a blessing or a curse, but it provides the designer with an opportunity to say more about an era than any single wargame could offer.

I don’t suspect most gamers are doing era modeling and study based on wargame series, but at some level, we are evaluating the game against its design each time. When that design is repeated, as in the case of a series, the structure must be strong enough to sustain interest and critical evaluation repeatedly. Some people might just describe it as a “gut feeling” or “intuition” while others can specifically cite the reasons why the series rules break-down upon repeated play, but the bar for sustaining a decades-long game series is more challenging than designing individual games across that decade if only from the standpoint that a poorly received game in a non-series environment won’t necessarily threaten the subsequent games.

3 – Springboards for new designers

Series offer opportunities for new designers to try their hand at game design. They can get their foot in the door, so to speak, with a known series and then springboard into new ventures. Ed Beach, Mark Simonitch, Joel Toppen, and  Marc Gouyon-Rety all come to mind as these folks who had started working within existing series games and have all either designed stunning non-series games or are in the process of doing so.

Wargame series provide a baked-in audience, era(s), and ruleset from which a new designer can build. Since series games provide the core rules and the individual game in that series requires modification in some way to meet the new topic’s criteria it’s a perfect proving ground for a designer. Fans of the topic and/or series end up getting a great new game from an up-and-coming talent that tends to shine through the injection of new blood.

I mentioned in my prior article that echo-chamber playtesting was problematic for wargame series and that when series creators leave the gap is rarely filled with fidelity to the original design. The positive potential though is that a new designer takes the reins and builds something equivalent or innovative in a new direction that breaths fresh life into the game. I think Ed Beach’s work on the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War series is a fantastic example of this in practice. In a non-wargaming world, I would say that Mike Mearls of Wizards of the Coast has done this for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.

Personally, I would love to design a wargame. One barrier is my comfort-level and designing a title or even co-designing a title in an existing series would certainly lower the stress-level a hair. I suspect, the intimidation of creating an original design in the face of so many great games already on the market and a deep bibliography of existing historical materials to distill your design philosophy is a challenge for just about everyone. The old SPI “guild” model for creating designers doesn’t have a neat corollary in the current environment. A goodly chunk of games produced today are still being created by a cadre of designers who were doing this 30+ years ago as well. Series offer an excellent springboard to infuse the ranks of designers with the necessary new blood to sustain quality design in the hobby.

2 – Learn it once, play for a lifetime

Let’s face it, there are too many games for any one person to play in their lifetime. Assuming you could learn a new game and get in at least 3 plays of it every two-weeks the released games in 2017 would keep you busy for almost SEVEN years. That’s just one year of wargame releases excluding expansions for existing wargames according to Board Game Geek! That means that series games can occupy a permanent spot in our memory as we experiment with non-series games. Then every other year, or every year depending on how many series you follow, there’s a new game that takes advantage of the existing rules knowledge already semi-current in your brain.

Series offer the opportunity to come back time and again to well-loved classics or to go to a convention and sit at the table of anyone playing these series. They offer a great conversation starter with a new gaming partner. They provide a basis for the evaluation of non-series games. Series provide the potential for being a monogamous gamer who loves only one series. There are plenty of Advanced Squad Leader fans who have done just that and because of the volume of quality content released every quarter seemingly, they sustain and expand their love for the series. This is how games get the reputation of being a “lifestyle” game because they require this kind of devotion. Another series that comes to mind is the La Bataille series or the 18xx series of games.

This bleeds over into mechanically related families of games. Card Driven Games and the COIN games come to mind here. Though no two games play exactly the same and aren’t necessarily a true “series” they share enough common design heritage and rules that it makes the transition from one to another easier. As a result, designers have adopted some core mechanics that help define many of their games. Richard Berg, Richard Borg, Uwe Rosenberg, Mark Simonitch, and the like have a strong similarity between many of their games that keeps gamers loyal and ready to move from one design to the next.

There is value, from the consumer’s perspective, to learning a system once and playing it for a lifetime!

1 – There’s always something fun on the horizon

By their very nature, wargame series are typically somewhere in the series hype-cycle (I’m going to make this a thing…). That means there is always something new even if it’s not a new game at that moment. It might be a great session report, a rules clarification that can be tested across prior games in the series, teasing the next title, or introducing a new designer into the mix. This constant stream of new is fun and keeps the downtime between playing games fun.

It can be easy to forget about fun for some reason. It’s obvious why we play these games at least on some level…to have fun! That said, a lot of the conversation around wargames are tangentially related to the concept of fun. We enjoy the historical discussion, the comparison of designers and rules. We like the articles that support our viewpoints on game topics and are challenged by those that change our minds. It’s a part of the contextual environment of loving this hobby, but it must all contribute in some way to our enjoyment and fun with the games we play.

Series games provide that fun in enough ways that it seems like there’s always something new to reignite interest.

I sincerely hope you’ve enjoyed this series and have some new ways to think about why you love (or hate) wargame series. Let me know in the comments below what you love about wargame series and what your favorite series is right now!

This is the first in a two-part series where I talk about the virtues and sins of wargame series. For better, and for worse, our hobby is built upon the foundations of series. They attract gamers to the hobby, they sustain purchases for publishers, and they ease the transition from one game in the series to the next. Games series carry baggage from release to release though and end up succumbing to their own rules weight over time with very few exceptions. So, why do we love series? If they weren’t popular and profitable, then publishers wouldn’t bother. Today though, we’re going to be looking at the nefarious side of wargame series and why you should think twice about buying into a new series!

5 – The series creator doesn’t always stick around

Series games start with incredible promise, but most series require fresh design talent to sustain them and that leads to the series creator moving on to newer and better things. Unfortunately, that leaves the series in the hands of folks who may have very divergent ideas about where the series should head. This doesn’t always just include new topics, but also the addition and revision of core rules to suit each subsequent designer’s vision. In some cases, this has proven wildly successful because the series was more of a framework (COIN), but in other series, it has created oddball outlier games. This can be seen in the Downtown series of games which originated with the Vietnam Era game Downtown covering the air campaign of that conflict. Since then, series creator Lee Brimmicombe-Wood has not been involved and we had a similar-era game from Terry Simo about the Arab-Israeli wars that more or less works in Elusive Victory, but the series has been ported to World War I (though technically not a Downtown game it CLEARLY draws many mechanics from it) in Sim’s Bloody April and soon in the Cold War Era game Red Storm from Douglas Bush.

Another series that lost its designer mid-run was the Grand Tactical Series (GTS) over at Multi-Man Publishing (MMP). Designer Adam Starkweather and MMP parted ways, but now two series with a common ancestry exist in the marketplace. MMP is continuing on with the Grand Tactical Series under new leadership while Starkweather has moved over to Compass Games and is at the helm of their Company Scale System (CSS) which has released two pacific theater games already (Guam and Saipan) and one that’s due to release in May 2018 Montelimar – Anvil of Fate. For fans, that potentially means an uncomfortable choice between design or series loyalty. Some folks will buy both and that’s great, but this introduces fanbase dilution for both series into the mix which is unfortunate since it will likely mean the longterm viability for only one of those series. In effect, fans of one series will lose out.

It’s hard to pass blame on series creators for any of this of course. Is it realistic that Richard Berg and/or Mark Herman should be directly involved in every Great Battles of History game released?  In a December 2017 interview I conducted with Mark Herman (coming soon!), he indicated a proclivity to avoid getting drawn into series. For one, they’re not purpose built and therefore require compromises on what the game can and cannot do for the sake of preserving the underlying core rules. Secondly, Herman suggested that his interests aren’t linear and that sometimes a great idea or another design in the market catches his eye and seems to match with a specific topic or game mechanic he has in mind.

As a result of that conversation, it was clear that the design alchemy of topic, mechanic, and history don’t favor series. This leads me to my next point.

4 – Series favor breadth instead of depth

Series do a great job of presenting a wide variety of topics from an era, but they do so without the depth necessary. The two series that seem most guilty of this are the Standard Combat Series (SCS) from MMP and GMT Games’ Great Battles of History series. Between those two series alone, I own 25 titles. I can say, almost without exception, that they are fun games. Both provide a taste of the historical era they are trying to represent in an approachable format that makes buying the next one in the series a near automatic (see #2 below). That said, they favor breadth of topics.

Great Battles of History, at least, has an era to which it has largely remained true. Even within that series though there are outliers. Lion of the North, for example, gets into the Musket & Pike era of warfare in the 17th century. Another outlier is War Galley, which really shares very little with the rest of the series other than ancient Mediterranean conflict. These broad strokes make it challenging to give the depth of treatment that a purpose-built game might provide on any one of the topics or even scenarios. While scenario specific rules, found in nearly every series, help to add dabs of color appropriate to the scenario, they don’t fully embrace the how and why of the battle or conflict.

My case in point here is the inclusion of War Elephants. While they were employed in battles throughout the ancient world as everything from morale busting shock units to siege weapons and beasts of burden, their utility and effectiveness are completely situational. Add to that the complexity of moving them, keeping them alive, and training them and the War Elephant stands as an avatar of excessive indulgence. Include them in games and I’ll appreciate that they were there. After all, one of Zama’s defining features were the Roman’s letting the things charge and allowing them through their lines only to destroy them with javelins. Romans also adapted their tactics to favor an ax over the gladius when facing these creatures. In India, when used as siege weapons, doors were equipped with spikes to deter this kind of action.

In short, breadth of series topics will reduce the depth at which any topic in the series will be covered. The ancient Mediterranean world games from The Great Battles of History stand on their own and are strong games with a decent amount of depth. In spite of that, the outliers in the series can be head-scratchers to some degree.

More guilty of this is the Standard Combat Series. On the one hand, I understand the lack of depth because the game’s core rules are around 12 pages with series specific rules often confined to a few pages. The goal was specifically not depth, but breadth with the series. It certainly achieves that providing everything from specific battles in World War I to the invasion of Europe on the beaches of Normandy to the 1944-45 campaigns of both Russian and the Western Allies against Festung Europa. These varying scales and eras create the hit or miss gameplay that’s often determined by title. A great example of this is the ease with which an allied advance after D-Day to capture ports in Northern Europe can stall out completely in the bocage of Normandy in The Mighty Endeavor 2nd Edition. The way combat factors are calculated and combat is resolved, it’s difficult to bring sufficient forces to bear and if the allies don’t keep on the move they will fail. That leaves the advance largely dependent upon die rolls. While I accept that luck is a part of all wargames, when an entire game comes down to a handful of unavoidable die rolls, then it’s time to just flip a coin and call it good.  The lack of depth and the scale conspire against providing players with meaningful choices and opportunities for maneuver once the landings have occurred.

3 – Echo-chamber playtesting

How does something like this happen?

It’s my belief that series tend to attract a common core group of playtesters. Locally, the same guys are playtesting the same games for the same series and publishers year after year. More broadly, when I’ve playtested, it’s tended to be for series or games that I already know and love! This is, again, a double-edged sword for designers and publishers. By inviting in folks who are naturally fans of the game you’re going to ensure that your game can stand up to the hardened veterans who know exactly how the series plays and will understand how a veteran might break it. The downside is that it largely forces out competing opinions about the series or the topic.

As someone who has played Great Campaigns of the American Civil War or GCACW for the past 15 years, I can say that when I had a chance to playtest Atlanta is Ours I brought a very specific set of knowledge about how the game should be played to the table even though I didn’t bring sufficient historical knowledge of the campaign it covered. I read a book on the topic Kennesaw Mountain: Sherman, Johnston, and the Atlanta Campaign, but that was it for my historical knowledge. As I’m beginning to learn, playtesting is as much an art as it is a science. As such, overfilling the cupboards with playtesters who are familiar with and passionate about your series can be toxic for the series growth.

In fact, if you couple this problem with series creators not sticking around, it can lead to battles within the series for edition changes, odd rule interpretations, and a sense that new gamers and their ideas aren’t welcome. I know I would have trouble with someone coming in and suggesting major changes to GCACW! While I wouldn’t go so far as to name it “Gatekeeping,” I do think there is a large degree of series loyalty. After all, many fans of a series have been fans for a decade or more and have played hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of their favorite series. The chance to shape the next one in the series is a fantastic and attractive opportunity, but it carries the risk that designers and publishers only hear from their most ardent supporters.

2 – Series Acquisition Disorder (SAD)

This loyalty can be tricky because it takes time to learn a series and, once learned, many gamers get hooked! The problem then really begins. How do I get more of this great series of games? Since our hobby is a niche within a niche, publishers are rarely able to keep all their series in print all the time. Combat Commander even suffered from this for quite a while at the peak of its popularity. This drives up the third-party market for games and profiteering sets in amongst gamers who are looking to clear up space on their shelves.

I think back to the first GCACW game I got Grant Takes Command which was, I believe, the first released under MMP’s control of the series after Avalon Hill went to Hasbro. I was immediately hooked. I scoured eBay and found copies of Stonewall Jackson’s Way and Stonewall’s Last Battle. This was great, I thought to myself. Three games from this awesome series. Then it hit me, I wanted to see how the series tackled Gettysburg! I looked online and was shocked by the prices. By the time I was truly invested in the game and had shelled out the marked up prices for games, I knew it was time to look for On to Richmond! which was selling for $200 or so at the time.

I call this Series Acquisition Disorder while others might call it Completionist Syndrome. Again, it’s a blessing and curse because you’re getting more of a great system that you love. That said, you’re missing out (or last I was) on other games and series because I was spending gaming dollars completing a series. Life is about choices, but series encourage this kind of purchasing behavior and it’s exactly why series make up a large number of titles released by publishers today. It’s really no different from Hollywood to be fair. We’re inundated with unoriginal three-act structured superhero movies because they feature popular actors in franchises that folks have already bought into so people will go and see them. This spring’s two biggest original adaptations failed miserably at the box office. Ready Player One and A Wrinkle in Time showcase that popular topics and books don’t necessarily cross over into commercial success.

Series in the cinema and in wargaming are pretty much a sure thing. Whenever MMP throws up a pre-order for an ASL product, that game will meet its goal in a day or two. The All Bridges Burning COIN game P500 from GMT Games met its goal in a single day! Series are winners which means other games are going to be losers. Sometimes those games deserve to be losers because of poor design, an unpopular topic, or a game system nobody “gets” (I’m looking at your Variable Combat Series…). There are many games from smaller publishers that aren’t getting the appropriate time and consideration from a broader audience though because there is such a glut of series content from large publishers who built their reputations on a stable of successful series that release a new title every year or two.

1 – Edition Dysfunction

Finally, and most troubling are the editions of popular series. As much as we’d love for our favorite game designers to take the approach of “do no harm” when going from version 1.0 to version 2.0 for our favorite games that’s becoming less and less common. I do NOT recall such a creature as an “upgrade kit,” but I’ve purchased and P500 pledged for every COIN one,  Unconditional Surrender, and Butterfield’s D-Day at…series like crazy in the last month. This is a function of #5 on this list I suspect. Creators want their games to feature the last chromey-bits and goodness offered by subsequent titles in their series. They want to give players the opportunity to play the game as they envision it kind of like George Lucas’ special edition Star Wars trilogy re-release…with fewer farts and burps.

I call this Edition Dysfunction because it forces series fans to make finite choices. Am I out or am I still in? If I’m still in, will I keep the old versions separate from the new versions or will I upgrade? What if there’s a version 3.0? How frequently should I expect to buy both a game and a bunch of upgrade kits for prior games in the series? Did the publisher or developer push the designer hard enough to try to maintain fidelity with the originally released and great playing game? Do I continue to trust this publisher/designer?

I’ll call in my personal experience here with the Conflict of Heroes (COH) series from Academy Games. I was ALL IN on that series when it was released. I bought everything there was to buy for it and I printed out player aids and third-party scenarios. I made a binder that contained those scenarios and player aids. I laminated the flimsy player aid cards and loved those games. Then Price of Honour came out and suddenly I was learning that the information on the counters was changing. Then a 2nd Edition was released without an upgrade path for an already expensive game within a few years of the release of the original game. We weren’t talking about a game that had been on the market for like 5 years or 10 years. It was out for 3 years and suddenly the game was getting an overhaul that made past games incompatible with new editions. I sold the games and never looked back.

I could absolutely have continued to play and enjoy those games. A second edition did nothing to change those experiences. Designers always have the right to change their games and publishers should do everything possible to make money while not alienating customers. However, there is a humane way to change editions and designers should feel obligated to provide at least a plausible explanation for why the changes are happening to their game’s fans. Responsible publishers, like GMT Games, are offering upgrade pathways for the people who care to do so. In effect, there’s a right way and a wrong way to handle edition changes. Academy Games got it 100% wrong and GMT Games is working on finding a way to make it right which goes a long way.

No series creator should feel beholden to a game they created if it means their alienation from it. After all, they created the game for folks to have fun and if there is a new and better way to achieve that, then isnt’ that what I argued for by avoiding echo-chamber playtesting? However, wholesale changes that require massive component swaps should always come with an upgrade path that isn’t simply “buy a new copy of the game or quit whining.” Series attract fans to publishers, designers, and historical topics. It’s important to handle this well both as fans and as publishers to meet in the middle in a way that facilitates innovation and sustained support rather than stifling those things.

Next time, we’ll be looking at the 5 reasons wargame series are awesome!

Eating an elephant can only be done one way. A bite at a time. Wargames, like elephants, require designers to figure out not only which bites they want to take, but also how to season and serve them. It is tempting to try and uncork a game about Ardenne’s Offensive that incorporates everything from gasoline, small cadres of men broken away from their units dodging German patrols in the woods, and maybe even something like the masquerading units that attempted to slip past Americans in the chaos of the opening days. Generally speaking, there is a tradeoff between the scope of topics you want to cover and how much detail you can bake into it while still yielding a playable, enjoyable game. This week, I’m looking at wargame design focus and why it’s critical for designers to have a strong vision for their game, topic, and what they want to say about each.

The first designer I heard that truly knew their game and was willing to stand up for its philosophical underpinning was Chad Jensen with Combat Commander. This unique World War II game, in hindsight, re-opened the floodgates for streamlined World War II tactical games and demonstrated the market for a lower complexity tactical game that focused on tough choices rather than layers of shiny chrome. The first critique that the game faced was the absence of tanks. Jensen regularly defended this position often boiling his argument into two points. The first was that the effects of tanks on a scale of this size were already taken into account by the cards. The second was that the scale prohibited a meaningful and quality inclusion of tanks. Both arguments either sated the appetites of curious fans and critics or simply kept the kettle boiling.

This willingness to leave the design undiluted from the infantry-based narrative it was telling saved what made the game special. On the one hand, a system with tanks would satisfy a segment of the gaming community. On the other hand, there’s always a segment of the gaming community that finds an excuse for why they don’t like a game. Does catering to a vocal group of gamers achieve anything in the long run for a game? Certainly not. Instead, the strength of the original design intent, and its underlying design philosophy, become muddied. The result isn’t an overall improvement, but most commonly rules overhead that doesn’t also add fun to the game.

Paul Rand, the famous graphic designer, once said “The public is more familiar with bad design than good design. It is, in effect, conditioned to prefer bad design, because that is what it lives with. The new becomes threatening, the old reassuring.” This is absolutely the case in the example of Combat Commander.  Tactical World War II combat games had become stagnant with games either resembling Advanced Squad Leader like Advanced Tobruk or shifting the scale slightly and looking more like Panzer Grenadier. Those games aren’t bad games. Their design, however, is based upon the fundamental flaw that it’s somehow possible to capture the essence of tactical combat with cardboard and dice. The games achieve fun, camaraderie, competition, and that’s remarkable. The enduring legacy of a game system like Advanced Squad Leader is aspirational for most game titles! That said, they set the tone for what should be expected. As Jensen’s game hit the market to widespread and near instant praise, the backblast it received was largely centered around the tenets of design espoused by these prior game.

No game can be everything to everyone.

Gettysburg games, for example, cover well-worn territory. I own at least 10 games on the topic in my collection, but the ones that stand out tend to pick something unique about the battle and stay true to that like their north star. The best example of this is Rachel Simmons’ game Guns of Gettysburg. Simmons manages to pluck this notion that there was significant concern and uncertainty on both the part of the Union and Confederate command about when and where the other side would reinforce. The chit pull system that facilitates this uncertainty is the core mechanic of the game and is what truly sets is apart from other games on the topic. Whether gamers find Guns of Gettysburg succeeds as a wargame is dependent upon their willingness to buy into this design focus.

Similarly, Compass Games’ new American Civil War Series Battle Hymn from designer Eric Lee Smith takes a long hard look at the effects of casualties on fighting strength. The chess match of positioning, advancing, bombardment and the effects of motion on combat strength are given loving attention. It ignores a lot of things other Gettysburg games have focused on around fighting armament, unit leadership, command, and control, or even specific unit formations. Instead, Smith is asking players to carefully think about the way in which they employ their strength, particularly in multi-hex combat. From a design standpoint, smoothing the rules for this into a cohesive procedure that progressively shows the escalating lethality and combat effectiveness attrition on a civil war battlefield is paramount.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” In the case of Chad Jensen, Rachel Simmons and Eric Lee Smith we see this in action. There are a million ways to add more to these games. It’s even possible that a little addition here or there might improve upon otherwise quality titles. That said, there is no denying the incredible power of the games and their easily identifiable design focus. Games that lack a relentless commitment to a singular focus are far more likely to fail. It’s not a guarantee, but it certainly increases the chances.

Games that try to be everything about a topic are bound for failure. Some might call them monster games, but even monster games can have a singular focus. I would suggest, returning to our initial example of a Bulge game, that Last Blitzkrieg from The Gamers and designer Dean Essig is a great example. The game’s campaign scenario is undoubtedly a monster and not a “big dumb” monster, but rather one that requires some study and dedication to play effectively. Essig’s focus here was on the nature of command and control. While there is sufficient chrome to complicate the system and give it a specific feeling comfortable to bulge gamers, it’s the focus on command and control that sets it apart as one of the greatest bulge games of all time. Essig’s design notes for the Battalion Combat System of which Last Blitzkrieg was the first and the semi-equivalent adventure in the American Civil War the Line of Battle Series shows a design with a scalpel in hand and, when necessary an ax.

Chipp Kidd, famous cover designer for some of the most iconic book covers of all time like Jurassic Park said “Never fall in love with an idea. They’re whores. If the one you’re with isn’t doing the job, there’s always, always, always another.” Upon re-reading some of Essig’s notes, it’s clear that he’s operating from this standpoint. Design is evolutionary and in that evolution, it’s just as likely to add features as it is to wholesale disregard what was once seen as essential to the design. Fixation on design style, patterns, and expectations can be dangerous when developing a game’s focus. Often, our first impulse can be misleading and fall apart upon the first contact with the playtest group!

The next time you fall in love with a game, or find that you don’t like it. Ask yourself, “What is this game trying to teach me about the topic?” If you can quickly put your finger on that lesson, then depending on your agreement with its thesis statement, you are more likely to find a quality wargame. If, however, you find yourself bumbling for an answer, or there are many demanding equal footing the game likely lacks this essential design focus.

What are some of the games you’ve loved and their design focus? Tell me in the comments below!