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!