I don’t want to play your game if you care so little about its production that you phoned it in on the counters, map art, box design, player aid cards, and map. There, I’ve said it. I know that the quality of the game should matter way more than the quality of the components, but if I’m being 100% honest with myself…it still matters a whole lot more than I care to admit as the price of games continues to rise.

Today’s article is pretty simple, it’s a wishlist for publishers to consider and I hope you’ll add on to this with your thoughts as well to have a public conversation about what we like and don’t like! After all, we’re being held hostage by “the way it’s always been done” in an era where digital publishing and a worldwide network of manufacturers should ensure gamers get what they want.

There are, of course, tradeoffs and publishers try to balance the price of the game with the component count and quality that they demand. Further, the small (by comparison) print runs of boardgames means that there’s a threshold over which even giants like Fantasy Flight Games won’t tread…even as a Kickstarter. So, I fully recognize that the items on this list may cumulatively make games so expensive that they can’t reasonably expect to perform in the market. That said, without saying anything we’re going to continue getting what we’ve always received.

It starts with a box

This is easy…I don’t want a box that has enough room for a small above ground swimming pool unless the components inside demand the box be that big. Some folks like to store their wargaming components in game boxes, but even when the boxes are the deep 3″ – 4″ variety the components (unless bagged) rarely fit in even with thin profile trays like those from GMT Games.

I own a lot of games and it’s irritating when games come in that could have been in a smaller box and now it’s hogging physical space that could store 2 games with the same component count. It’s a waste of money and space…size the boxes for the game inside. That should go without saying, but I see it more frequently than I would like.

Maps are the centerpiece

Maps, for want of a better way to put it are the centerpiece of the majority of tabletop wargames. I want three things:

  1. Durability
  2. Clarity
  3. Appealing artwork

Two of these are on the subjective end of the spectrum, but there are plenty of examples after 50 years of making wargames that should inform artists to the extent possible about what the majority of folks can stomach. As Supreme Court Justice Potter famously said, “I’ll know it when I see it.” In the case of clarity and appealing artwork, there’s a growing consensus specifically around what this is NOT rather than what this IS and taking cues from that shouldn’t be ignored.

Let’s start with durability.

Should maps be mounted? I don’t care one way or the other, but I will say this durability applies to both and my expectation is that the map graphics should flake off from repeated folding and unfolding the game and the seams shouldn’t tear from light usage.

Further, paper should of a sufficiently thick stock that it’s not prone to these problems. Every time I take a paper map out of a box and see that from the initial fold at the factory there are now white lines on the map, I’m looking directly at Compass Games here who seem to charge the most for games with maps that exhibit these issues. It has gotten better in the last few years, especially in 2017 & ’18 releases but a map like the one that came with End of Empire should never have been approved in the proofing stage.

Maps have to sustain holding the pieces, repeated plays, and folding/unfolding on a regular(ish) basis if the game is excellent. Accordingly, it should be tested and given the utmost attention in terms of durability.

What about clarity?

Maps tell a story, but if its impossible to read, then how good is that story going to be? A map like the one in Amateur to Arms is gorgeous, but features horrible information design and layout. Entrances, trails, and boundaries are difficult to see and understand in many cases, especially on the western side of the map.

That said, clarity doesn’t trump aesthetics and maps should be both. There’s a balance that needs to be struck. On the other end of the spectrum are maps from The Gamers which feature smooth flowing, chunky lines, and are boring beyond belief. A little texture goes a long way and no texture is boring. These battlefields were living places and need some character to accompany the clarity or they become clinical.

A few things to consider:

  • Are my elevation changes and dominant terrain features in a hex easily identifiable?
  • Is the typeface period appropriate and easy to read on the map?
  • Are hex outlines understandable even in crowded depictions?
  • Are informational charts on the map placed appropriately and easy to use for both players?
  • Are game-specific features easy to locate and do they feature a creative depiction that’s adapted to the game in a meaningful way?

These questions get at the central challenge of information design for wargaming where there’s a balance to strike between art and design. Start with the feeling and build from there. We’re not trying to play games on an Ellsworth Kelly masterpiece (though that would be pretty awesome if Ellsworth Kelly had designed a wargame board!).

Appealing Artwork

Though the most subjective of my recommendations, it’s one that should be given just as much attention as the component durability. I’m not even suggesting that there’s a “right way” or a paragon of wargame map art. For as many people who love Rick Barber’s maps there are an equal number who don’t find it appealing. The same can be said of The Gamers maps and even the beloved Combat Commander map style.

Art, as much as it is an exercise in subjectivity can be evaluated based on its merits. As such, I think it necessary to propose some criteria for the evaluation of map art.

  1. Does the map evoke the period?
  2. Does the map give a clear picture of the challenges (or lack thereof) of the terrain?
  3. Does the map provide sufficient clarity on terrain occupancy?
  4. Is there sufficient space in the hex, or areas, for the pieces that will be required to occupy it? If not, what alternatives on-map (or off) are provided to players?
  5. Is the color palette both pleasing to the eye and sufficient for the utility of the game?
  6. Are the typefaces used on the map legible, easily seen from where a player will sit, and in geographic proximity to the subject described?

There are, of course, others but these seem to represent the most consistent shortcomings of wargame maps. To people who claim that map art doesn’t matter to them, then great…for some of us it does and if it’s truly not a big deal then why bother chiming in any time someone critiques map art? It gives the impression that you do, very much, care about what map art looks like!

What about counters?

The lessons of UX designer Steve Krug apply in wargame counter design as well (for the most part…).

Here are a few key lessons to learn:

  1. Counters should be usable – Easy to pick up, manipulate, read, and understand intuitively. If the game has lots of stacking, color code them for easy reference and have the colors mean something as well. A giant stack of white counters on top of a gray one is annoying an unusable.
  2. Don’t make gamer’s think – Counters should be easy to understand from an information layout perspective. Be consistent, if movement is always in the lower right corner…keep it there in every counter regardless the unit type. If you use NATO symbols, make sure it’s sufficiently big to see from the table’s edge and that it is used across ALL units of that type. I hate seeing games where some armor is the NATO symbol and on some units it’s the silhouette. Be consistent!
  3. Don’t waste our time – Jamming as much information as you possibly can onto a single counter might feel great because you’ve increased the complexity of the game with minimally adding to the rules overhead someone needs to keep in their brain. Unfortunately, these kinds of counters tend to lend themselves to exceptions which are the enemy of usability.
  4. We form mental maps of information – If the relationship between counters is important, make it obvious at a glance. I don’t want to read the tiny unit designation to figure out which units are in the same formation. Use color. I don’t want to see a tiny depiction of a uniform coat to figure out unit allegiance…La Bataille is guilty of this nonsense.
  5. We are creatures of habit – Use the work that’s come before you and will come after you as a starting point. Failing a compelling and necessary reason, stick with the design patterns that already exist in wargaming. Changing something for the sake of changing it is only going to add to confusion. When you have a novel design that demands the change, it will be intuitive and acceptable, but if you can’t solidly answer “no” to the question, “Could my design work within the norm?” then don’t try to reinvent wargaming. Not only are you not that clever as a design…we’re not that clever as gamers!

I’m going to do a whole article on rulebooks, so let’s leave this here for the time being and we’ll wade into rulebooks and player aid cards at a later date.

As always, if you want to weigh in on this article … hit me up below in the comments or over on Twitter @wargamehq! 

 

“Am I doing this right?”

That’s the question I find myself asking more than any other when I wargame. My hobby doesn’t set off some kind existential crisis, but wargames can be complicated either in the structure and length of rules or in the intricate ways in which the systems of a game interact. Regardless of the cause, I’m struck by how frequently I’m doubting either what I’m reading (or re-reading) in a rulebook as I play the game.

I don’t think my experiences are so unique to myself. In a recent post on Boardgamegeek.com a user raised a very similar question and I thought it was such a good question that I wanted to take some time to address it.

A little night music…

When I was 6 my dad bought my mother a piano for their anniversary. Both of them wanted to learn to play an instrument and 34 years old is as good as any time to learn to play an instrument so they began getting lessons. I was captivated by this instrument and soon learned to pluck out the melodies of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and other John Williams scores by ear. After a few years and some begging, my parents relented and I began taking piano lessons.

There are a few hard and fast rules you learn early on when you’re taking piano lessons:

  1. Keep your fingers curved like you’re loosely holding an orange.
  2. The composer wouldn’t have put that mark on the sheet music if they didn’t want you to follow it.
  3. Practice the left hand and right hand separately and then bring them together if you’re running into problems.

These simple rules underscore much of learning to play music and I still follow these three simple lessons when I’m practicing and playing as an adult even though my time is much more precious these days!

What does this have to do with wargaming?

Simply put each of these lessons should be followed AND broken when wargaming.

Keeping your fingers curved and over the keys is critical for the dexterity necessary to playing complex rhythms with fidelity. In wargaming, of course, having the right tools for the job are key and sometimes that means breaking out tweezers, a piece of string or laser pointer, and more directly organizing the game pieces in such a way that you can quickly set up and tear down a game when necessary!

What about the sheet music?

Again, the designer and developer presumably spent a significant amount of quality time in front of a word processor to bring these rules to you. They are each important and they each contribute to the enjoyment and fidelity of the game’s resolution.

However, like sheet music, everyone develops a musical style and sometimes you get the same results with “close enough” and learning to fudge the notes in such a way that allows you provide a close-enough approximation without damaging the integrity of the piece you’re playing.

The same is true of wargaming as well, as much as I’m sure publishers, developers, and designers are cringing right now as they read this. The bottom line is that all these folks are trying to bring a fun game to your tables that allow you to explore the historical, hypothetical, or fantastical topic covered by the game. There’s a level of trust and implied contract that when you buy a game you’ll try to learn the rules in order to bring that game to life as the designer originally intended.

Mistakes were made

The problem, of course, is that we’re humans and rulebooks do not program our brains like a computer programmer can write the code of an application. Instead, designers are relying on an imperfect machine, our brains, which make substitutions, interpret things differently, and are full of the non-hobby information we need to live our lives and perform our work.

As a result, we’re bound to make mistakes and how we deal with that is at the heart of our relationship with games.

Improvising for fun and profit

Repeated plays almost always evolve our understanding of the rules, but the payoff of improved rules understanding doesn’t always correlate with an equivalent appreciation or sense of fun in playing the game.

As a result, I’ve grown to approach wargame rulebooks more like sheet music and less like dogma and more like the lead sheet for a jazz session.

That doesn’t mean I’m throwing away all interest in playing by the rules or demanding my improvised way is THE way the rules “should” have been written. Quite the opposite actually. When I was learning Battle Hymn Vol. 1 from Compass Games, for example, I struggled mightily with the combat resolution systems for the first few games. I knew it wasn’t quite right and I kept asking questions online and re-reading the rules and eventually I got it. My enjoyment was in playing the game, though improvised at first, as I moved toward greater understanding.

Danger Ahead!

There is danger in this cavalier approach to wargame rules that, critically, needs to be taken into consideration. First and foremost, if you’re not following the rules AND you’re not having a good time with the game…please don’t go online and throw out your opinions as though you’re well-informed.

As we learn from Steven Covey in his work around The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, seek first to understand and then to be understood.

In short, ask questions about WHY you might not be enjoying the game and only after you find answers render a more informed opinion.  The trick here, of course, is self-awareness that you’re not following the game’s rules. I’ve been tricked by my own faulty sense of self-assurance on more than one occasion, but asking questions like, “The combat isn’t working out like I thought it would, does anyone else feel this way?” or even more aggressively like, “Applying these values BEFORE the odds determination seems dumb, wouldn’t it make more sense if they were die roll modifiers instead?”

On multiple occasions, I learn that I’m doing something wrong and being open to that rather than getting defensive has lead to more wargame and piano breakthroughs than I care to admit!

Practice makes perfect-ish

The more we play, both an instrument and a wargame, the better we get at it. Bad practice, with both, however, makes for bad play which is why I leave this as the final caution and is another way wargames and playing piano are similar.

It can be tempting to fall into an easy sense of “this is close enough and I’m having a good time!” Fight this urge, I can tell you that I fell into this trap with the incredible Fire in the Lake from GMT Games and only after playing it opposed against a few different folks did I learn just how much richer this game was than I ever would have realized on my own.

That’s not to suggest that solo play is inadvisable, but definitely take it with the biggest grain of salt until you’re tested both strategically and rules master-wise by another player.

When I was a kid, my mother would always remind me to practice. I wanted to be outside playing. I wanted to be doing pretty much anything other playing piano. When I was at my most defiant, she would remind me that this was a skill that could be applied across all areas of my life and would serve me well in the future. I’m certain she didn’t realize that might include in wargaming, but I’m glad she was right and I hope this has provided at least a little fun diversion for thinking about wargaming.

Tell me about it!

Like it? Hate it?

Tell me about it below, or hit me up on social media over at @wargamehq on Twitter!

We are still remembering the tragic loss of millions during the Great War which raged through November of 1918 and my sincere hope is that the centennial celebration of Armistice Day will serve as a moment for world leaders to recommit to peace as the first and only option in diplomacy. Great War Commander (hereafter GWC) was released in 2018 by Hexasim and transports the GMT Games Combat Commander series back in time to World War One. How did the series hold up through the changes required to make this jump? Read on and find out.

First, it is important to understand what this game is trying to achieve. It is a tactical squad-based game with infantry, support weapons such as the Hotchkiss MG, off-board artillery, and yes tanks which make their appearance in late war scenarios. The 12 maps that come with the game are non-geomorphic and therefore cannot be combined to diversify the terrain or create epic-sized battles. In fact, each map could have been bigger, but many of the repetitive game tracks are printed along one edge rather than being printed on a separate player aid card as in Combat Commander.

Players take the role of a commander for the French, American, or Imperial German nations. No British? Correct! My suspicion is that they will be included alongside other missing powers like Italy and Russia in a forthcoming expansion. Players command anywhere from 12 to 30 units taking turns playing a random hand of cards that contain actions, events, and dice rolls.

I won’t get into the mechanics here except where necessary, but they work well. One of the issues many players who didn’t like Combat reported was the lack of necessary actions to do anything meaningful during their action phase which lead to a lot of missed opportunities and discarding cards that could have been valuable in conjunction with coveted move or rally cards. GWC handles this by including fewer so-called dead cards. In the half dozen scenarios I played this was an issue maybe once or twice and was fixed during the first discard and draw I took.

Players use these cards in order to attack or defend (and usually a little bit of both) the five objectives that are pre-printed on the map. What keeps this exciting is the random chit pull for the value of the objectives. Some objectives may be worth just 1 point, but other objective chits increase their value to 3 or 5. Some objectives provide additional value to exiting friendly units off the board. Scenarios define specific objectives that are open to both players to use and see while players randomly draw secret objectives as well which can dramatically shift the balance of victory points.

While we are on the subject of victory points, the system uses a base-zero victory point slider meaning that the armies share the same number of victory points when the victory points total is zero.  When one army has additional victory points then the marker counts up from zero to account for the difference. I like this method because it provides players with an opportunity to see their relative performance rather than an arbitrary victory point score.

Because the game features an incredible amount of. Randomization, I think it is important to note how turns end.  Players draw cards for their hands, the size of which is determined by the scenario and the role that the army is playing. Attackers, for example, get 6 cards while defenders only receive 4. Inside this, there are limits to the number of orders that can be issued per side and how many cards that side can discard at a time. During the meat of the game, players will play cards from their hands and draw cards to both resolve those actions and replenish their hand size. At times there are keywords that trigger random events, snipers, and the turn end.

That means that scenario length can be quite variable, but even replaying scenarios didn’t reveal any shortcomings. It is clear that quality playtesting helped address this when fine-tuning scenarios which rarely were decided by more than 5 points. In fact, the core game mechanics are as strong here as they were in Combat Commander and the adjustments in orders give this game a feel like the stories shared by Rommel in his seminal Infantry Attacks which outlines small unit actions of the First World War.

Strategy Cards

Great War Commander - Strategy Cards

Great War Commander – Strategy Cards

One of the innovations that Great War Commander brings to the Combat Commander formula is the Strategy Card which provides the players with a one-time bonus. This bonus might take the form of a die roll modifier in the attack or defense, or it might grant your forces a special action. Cards are drawn at random from a small pool of Strategy Cards and are a welcome wildcard addition to the game. There’s nothing more disappointing than seeing someone commit to close combat only to have them play a card that effectively gives them the ambush action for that combat. I love this little tweak to the gameplay and find that it gives forces a national identity that doesn’t need to be memorized or cataloged on a player aid card.

So, how about those tanks?

Great War Commander - Tanks On The Move

Great War Commander – Tanks On The Move

Simply put, tanks add some additional complexity to the game and showcase the show-stopping power of these new and frequently faulty war machines. Tanks span two hexes and lumber forward with showstopping power and range. Their two guns give them unparalleled dominance in terms of firepower. That said, the tanks must pass a bog check and upon the destruction of the first tank in the platoon, they must be individually activated and lose the ability to platoon activate making them slower. On top of that, tanks are prone to bogging in the shell holes that litter the maps in which they are featured. As a result, tanks can be stopped not by enemy artillery or mortar fire, but instead because they throw a track or get stuck in some other way.

The range of the tank’s weapons and the fact that a fire command allows them to engage with multiple targets makes their deadly force that much more intimidating on the battlefield. In fact, tanks that bog even part of the way across the no-mans-land of trench warfare scenarios can bring devastating power to bear on the enemy. It’s hard to imagine a force more deadly within the game, but there remains one thing even more fearsome: artillery.

King of the Battlefield

That’s right, the impact of artillery upon World War I cannot be undersold. From the opening madness inside the Belgium forts at Liege to the devastated landscapes familiar to anyone with a passing interest in the conflict artillery literally reshaped modern warfare. The evolution of air combat was, at first, an attempt to bring more accurate artillery to bear on enemy trenches and positions. Aircraft were scouts before they were fighters after all. Artillery is readily accessible, accurate, and deadly in GWC to the point where I have to wonder why were World War I battlefields littered with shell holes if artillery was this effective? The process of laying down a barrage is quite simple:

  1. Play the Artillery Request card
  2. Roll for accuracy
  3. Place the round in the hex where it lands AND the six surrounding hexes
  4. Resolve attacks per the artillery caliber on each of the hexes.

This is a quick, streamlined process that facilitates drama and devastation. It is, however, seemingly too accurate and powerful for something that occurs fairly frequently within the player decks. In fact, I ended up creating a slight adjustment to the rules to make it a little less devastating by using leadership as a modifier for the attacks. Leaders in GWC have a 1, 2, or 3 leadership rating. As a result, I recommend altering the accuracy check to be colored die multiplied by white die MINUS the difference between 3 and the leadership rating of the leader commanding the formation making the attack. This, of course, relies on a few things…the first is that Artillery Requests don’t actually activate a unit or formation they just use a unit as the spotter, so I’m creating some overhead by saying that spotter must be in command range AND that you use the leader who would command that unit for the leadership rating.

In the end, this process altered the chances just enough to make the shots a little more unpredictable which helps units from getting into knife-fight range and then calling down artillery in preparation for an Offensive card play that will overrun an injured enemy. There is enough risk-reward built into the game already and using artillery as a “sure thing” just didn’t sit well with me in my playthroughs. I’m torn in that I recognize the importance of artillery and how it shaped World War I tactics, strategy, and the evolution of aerial combat, but by the same token in terms of the scope of the game it didn’t feel quite right. I will always recommend playing the rules as written to get started, but my variant might help address your concerns if you continue to have them as I did.

Finally, I want to address the maps which are gorgeous works of art in every respect. Unfortunately, GWC adopted the fixed on-map objectives from Combat Commander. The nature of trench warfare, however, doesn’t necessarily lend itself to these fixed objectives and though the scenarios presented are interesting for both sides, there’s little room to build your own scenarios that will be as interesting. One of the things that has generally separated long-term success versus short-term success for tactical games is how active the community is in building content to support the game. In the case of Advanced Squad Leader I have five 3″ binders full of scenarios both official and third-party produced. The steady stream of new content takes advantage of geomorphic maps and the ability to truly customize the game to fit the needs of a specific scenario. In GWC’s case, the maps themselves are a fantastic cross-section of World War I terrain, but the fixed objectives means that similar patterns of gameplay and defensive points will naturally remain the same between scenarios. The random selection of objective values and modifiers changes the pattern, but only slightly.

Take to the Skies

Great War Commander - Map Detail

Great War Commander – Map Detail

I mentioned aircraft and they are in Great War Commander to provide close air support through strafing and bombing runs. There are even little fighter plane tokens to mark your attacks. Ultimately, this felt a little tacked on, but was a fun way to give the game three-dimensions and though the use of air support was never decisive, it was exciting. Planes, depending on the year, can make bombing runs which attacks a single hex, or a strafing run which attacks adjacent hexes. Both attacks have their own combat factors, but the activation of the aircraft never feels like it costs anything. It’s just a bonus to what’s already going on, almost like a random event rather than the calculated arrival of close air support which one might expect at this level. After all, the combat is tactical so the chances that a single plane would suddenly appear at this point and this moment to strafe seems like a matter of convenience here rather than a matter of necessity otherwise it might be more frequent or impactful given the nature of the air war in World War I.

Conclusion

Great War Commander is a ton of fun, but it’s fun that requires you turn off your analytical/historical brain for a moment to revel in the great scenarios and gameplay. The underlying core is exciting and many of the “shortcomings” from Combat Commander have been addressed. The feeling of an empty-hand is all but eliminated and the new elements like artillery, aircraft, and tanks all provide necessary World War I flavor even if they aren’t perfectly implemented. GWC clearly respects its predecessor, but in some ways that may have held it back from truly transforming the Combat Commander system into something spectacular and fresh. New ideas are a great start, and the presentation is top notch, but once the scenarios are played and the game returns to the shelf, it’s hard to imagine pulling it back out until the expansion (if there is one) comes along with new challenges. In the interim, my sincere hope is that the designers rethink both artillery and aircraft to give them a more historic context. Tanks, for all their shortcomings in the games, are incredibly fun and add a new dimension to problem solving on attack and defense. If you’re a World War I buff who needs every World War I game that comes out, then this is your game. If you’re on the fence and love Combat Commander then you might give this one a try before diving in headfirst. It’s a great lightweight World War I skinned game that gets just enough right to keep my interest though.