Designer Story 2: Why No Pacific Third Reich?

December 6, 2014: With Pearl Harbor Day coming up tomorrow I thought I’d offer another designer story to whet your appetite for the Favorite Game Designers Story Contest. This one is about why I never directly took the Third Reich game system to the Pacific War. Instead I did a game called Pearl Harbor.

Remember contest details are in another post here. The days are counting down. All entries must be received by midnight of December 15, 2014. There’ve been some good ones. Keep them coming!

So anyway, Third Reich had been a tremendous success. The idea of extending the game to the Pacific was a natural. More than that, I had cut my teeth on Pacific wargames. As a kid learning to do this stuff I had designed probably five or so versions of a strategic campaign game. In its most ambitious form this game was a hybrid that had a strategic map and then broke out various subroutines for different actions. There was a surface naval game modeled on Jutland, an air war module, rules for scientific and industrial development, and ground war provisions that broke out the level of the engagement (battalion, regiment, division or above) with both specific maps (for Pacific islands and certain large areas, such as Malaya or Burma) and generic ones. All of it had weekly turns. A group of friends played that game almost every day through one summer, and in those several months we did not get the game past early 1944. The problem was too much.

Third Reich was too different. That is, the continental warfare in Europe, with mass armies, in which naval and air forces played a subsidiary role, offered a version of war that in my view was distinct from that in the Pacific, where the air and naval forces put on the big show, and land armies played in sotto voce. Moreover, with the game Third Reich already out you couldn’t easily adapt rules for naval and air warfare which had deliberately been kept very simple.

So I did Pearl Harbor, which Avalon Hill was not interested in and which I took to Game Designers’ Workshop. I know lots of gamers disliked that one in comparison to the other, but I still think that design to have been less artificial than the Pacific TR that Avalon Hill finally tried. They had to go to Victory in the Pacific to get something successful. And I was sad the Pacific title had not clicked.

 

Gamers’ Corner: The Magic Bus: A Story to Whet Your Apetite

December 2, 2014–For all you Gamers out there! You’ll have seen I am hosting a contest encouraging you to give us stories about your favorite game designers. Keep those entries rolling in! Just to give you the flavor of the endeavor, let me tell this one . . .

It was the summer of 1978, coming up on Origins, which that year would be held on the campus of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Game designer Kevin Zucker had started Operational Studies Group (OSG) and was out with his first game, Napoleon At Bay. Naturally he wanted to make the convention with a load of them, where gamers would be anxious to scoop them up. He priced air freight. Too much. Post Office–too slow. Uncertain to boot.

Kevin had the idea of driving a van. He had a friend–another former SPI-er named Terry Hardy–now an official with Avis.  Terry had run office operations for SPI, that was his kind of thing. He was good at it. Same with Avis. Terry used his employee discounts and contacts to get Kevin a sweetheart deal on a van.

Van in hand, Zucker enlisted his OSG sidekick Jay Nelson to go along, but figured he needed one more person to share the driving. That’s where I came in. Naturally I myself was looking for passage to Ann Arbor. In those days you could go to the airport, sit standby, then pay for instant cheap tickets on half-filled planes to your destination. Better than that you could do it in the moment–no advance bookings, no impedimenta, just like that. My plan was to head for LaGuardia, fly into Detroit, and find some shuttle bus to Ann Arbor. Then the phone rang and it was Kevin.

Today (full disclosure) Kevin Zucker and I are good friends. In those days we were friendly but nothing like now. I suppose The Magic Bus triggered the change. I’d known Kevin from SPI, where he worked as an editor, assistant to Redmond Simonsen, and game designer too–a jack of all trades. I was past his door frequently since I was close to Redmond, who had the corner office in the Art Department and Kevin the next one over. I always made sure to stop and hang out a bit with Red whenever I was at SPI. So when Kevin left SPI we were on good terms–and indeed I subsequently published a game of my own with Kevin’s OSG. Anyway, when Kevin called and wanted another driver for the van that was fine with me. Kevin and Jay drove by my apartment and picked me up and off we went. It was less than a day until Origins was scheduled to kick off and time was of the essence.

Zucker was right that he needed another driver. With getting the van, loading the OSG games and booth materials, and picking up Jay and me, he was exhausted. We left New York down I-95 to the Jersey Turnpike and somewhere around the Delaware Water Gap Kevin started falling asleep. Jay was already out. We had started out before sunrise. I took over the driving.

There’s something about long-distance driving. I don’t know if it’s the Spell of the Interstate or Romance Behind the Wheel, but every time I get out on the road like that I always think of America on the go. Anyway we were driving along and it seemed only a minute later when Kevin woke up.

“Where are we?” he asked.

“Half past Ohio,” I replied (indeed we were somewhere between Cleveland and Toledo).

Kevin and I talked it over and agreed only a minute had passed since the Delaware Gap. That’s when we decided we had a Magic Bus. Jay took over for the last lap into Ann Arbor, where we arrived in time for the OSG guys to set up and still have dinner before dark. And the rest of that Origins trip was splendid . . .

Gamers’ Corner: Favorite Designer Stories Contest

November 12, 2014– Here’s a bit of a tease, just in time for Christmas. I’m planning an occasional series of profiles of favorite game designers for my “Simulation Corner” column in Against the Odds magazine. To supplement my own recollections of the various characters in our hobby I ask for your help, but do it in the form of a contest.

The prize will be a copy of one of my ATO-published games, delivered via postal service. Which exact game will be decided by consultation between the winner and myself, subject to which titles I retain copies of. If your interest is the new Arminius, that will have to be subject to when the game actually emerges from production.

To enter, simply go to the “Contact” section of this website and post a message giving your story. Only one story per message, please. The deadline for entry will be 11:59 PM, Monday, December 15, 2014. Be sure to include sufficient detail and color. Made-up stories are not acceptable.

You may enter as often as you like.

Entry in the contest will constitute your permission to publish parts or all of the stories you submit. Stories may be used in “Simulation Corner,” on this website, or in other writing that I do. There may be  posts during the contest that update status and that feature designer stories you send.

I shall be the sole judge of the winning entry or entries. I expect to choose the winning entry around the first week of December. The winner will be notified directly by email and also by means of a summary posting on this website.

Your story may relate to any game designer of a published boardgame title, active or past. Stories may relate a personal encounter, a gaming experience, a play or playtest experience, a simulation matter, or any other item of interest. The primary concern is that your story be dramatic, or colorful, or interesting or important.

Enter early and often. Gook Luck!

Gamers’ Corner : Set Europe Ablaze Bibliography

November 6, 2014–Just a head’s up! We have now posted a product which lists the various histories consulted in the course of designing the game Set Europe Ablaze and compiling the historical articles that appear with it. Not everyone will be interested in the bibliography, but for anyone who wants to look into Resistance to the German occupation of Western Europe in World War II, the history of the Special Operations Executive, and the French and American (OSS) special services that matched it, this listing furnishes a useful compilation of the sources. This product can be found in the “Downloadable” section of the website. It is a premium content item.

Gamers’ Corner: Four Roads to Paris

September 13, 2014–My colleague Stephen Rawling of Against the Odds (and several other boardgaming ventures), came up with quite a nifty idea with his “Four Roads” series. A package of games, smaller than a full-dimension wargame but still substantial. In days of yore there was a formula called the “quadrigame,” or just the “quad.” In those sets the games were linked because they were all on different battles of a war, and all had the same, very simple rules. Steve’s dared to forge a fresh trail, wherein the games are linked by means of all being on the same subject, but no longer simplistic and each the vision of a different designer on that theme. The first assay in this direction was called Four Roads to Moscow and framed the German invasion of Russia in 1941. Steve’s new selection is going to be four designer’s ruminations on the German defeat of France in 1940.

In history, of course, France virtually collapsed when the Nazis invaded that May. That makes a game on the subject a dicey matter. If you go “simulation” then the French have to collapse and there is little competition in the game. If you go for play balance you need some device to accord the opponents a reasonable chance without sacrificing the simulation quality. All in all it’s a challenging proposition.

Designer James F. Dunnigan long ago postulated one answer–a scenario-based approach. In Dunnigan’s France 1940 (published by Avalon Hill in 1972), players each selected a force mix that had a weighted value, in effect handicapping various alternate possibilities against the historical. Many  subsequent gamers have adopted similar approaches.

For this game I wanted to ensure the French (read Allied) side has a chance but without biasing the game. I also wanted to make it enough of a simulation that action on the board retains some of the flavor of the history. And I wanted to accomplish those things without artificialities. The scenario-based approach is fine, but what it does is tie the players to a moment in time, with backstories (the force mixes) that were completely made up. It is not at all clear that in the real Europe of the 1930s a nation’s procurement of the particular force mix represented by one of those scenarios would have been uncontested. The politics and diplomacy of the arms race could have gone so many different ways.

So, for my “Road to Paris” I decided to bring the players to the table in 1934. The Maginot Line is funded and construction largely complete. The massive buildups of armor and air forces are in the future, the big expansion of the German Army has yet to happen. What this game seeks to do is to bring the players to a combat contest (the blitzkrieg of 1940) based on an evolution of the game–active play that can take many directions.

To make this happen I have created a “scripted game.” Here we create a new narrative of the 1930s that will be different every time you play. Gamers who like Beyond Waterloo will be familiar with the idea of Diplomatic Status. This game takes the crisis level of Diplomatic Status and makes it the baseline for such game events as mobilizing forces or moving troops on the board. At the same time, the players are not the only actors in Europe and there are events outside their direct interactions which affect them (for example the Spanish Civil War). So the system introduces a “Chronology” device which influences war budgets and diplomatic status. Event Cards impact the players for every year-turn, and those play out very differently in successive games. There are two other kinds of “events”–command and intelligence–and both award the players capabilities they will exercise once it comes to combat.

This game contributes a mechanism for accommodating the impact of spies and espionage in an unusually detailed and straightforward manner.

The combat system accommodates air forces and mobile forces, has armies whose strengths reflect what the players were able to obtain with the military budgets the game allowed them through active play. Thus they arrive at war with military establishments conditioned by game events. I think that a more satisfactory arrangement than simply working off a scenario base.

There are some new wrinkles in the combat system but, for now, I’ll leave those for the future. Look forward to this piece of Four Roads to Paris.

 

Gamers’ Corner: Set Europe Ablaze

September 2, 2014–Just a quick note! Some of you will know that Against the Odds magazine has selected my Western European  (WW2) Resistance game Set Europe Ablaze as their “annual” issue game for this year. The game is a two-player simulation of the partisan war against German occupation from 1941 to 1944. Anyway, while ATO completes its playtesting and starts to put the game itself into production, I’ve taken time to craft the historical articles that will accompany the publication. (Thus I’ve been only fleetingly on this website of late.) That work is now done.

ATO doesn’t have space for everything I did. Accordingly I lopped off the Bibliography I had prepared for the game and articles. In the next few days I am going to post that biblio as a product on this website. FYI.

Wargamers’ Corner: Cobra II

August 27, 2014–I’ve been asked several times now, in connection with  my book Normandy Crucible, about making available to gamers the modifications I made in the wargame Cobra for purposes of creating the “wargame laboratory” I used as part of the research for that book. Most recently that question was posed directly on this website by gamers William Barnett-Lewis and Sergeant Skip Franklin. As we pass the 70th anniversary date I wanted to post something about why I don’t feel comfortable doing that. But I’ll also describe my process–and alert gamers will be able to craft their own “house” versions of the modifications.

Fundamentally it’s a question of publication rights. When I worked on that book and I wanted to put together a lab apparatus, that was for my own research and the only question was a suitable vehicle. The Simulations Publications (SPI) game Cobra had the right qualifications: a suitable geographic scope, a good level of unit representation; and, at one map, a game that was not impossible to keep up and get out of the way so that it could be used in spurts on a long-term basis.

But as for publishing amendments to the game, I would not want to do that without reference to the rights holders, and that’s a more ambiguous situation. Brad Hessel is the designer of record, but the game had editions from SPI and TSR Hobbies both. Most of the SPI/TSR games’ rights today belong to Decision Games but some do not, having been covered by direct contract between the publishers and designers (for example, my games Monty’s D-Day, Warsaw Rising, and Kanev reverted after publication). The situation with Brad I don’t know about. I asked around a bit, but no one I know seems to have his current address so I was unable to clarify the rights situation.

Now, if a publisher comes to me and wants a new Normandy breakout & pursuit game, I’ll gladly incorporate the features I am about to discuss. But short of that you’ll have to bear with me.

OK. There were certain problems with the Hessel Cobra design. One was that the Falaise Pocket battle rarely occurred with the game since the German line simply disintegrated, the German armies were destroyed and the Allied pieces rushed for the map edge. There were several reasons for this:

(a) One was the time scale. The game had three-day turns. The historical period for the Falaise Pocket typically ran out before the game reached the “pocket” stage. Switching to two-day turns allowed the history more time to develop.

(b) Most important was the issue of the Combat Results Table (CRT). This was an odds ratio CRT–very common for that time–and required mathematical calculation of a strength ratio between attacker and defender. Not only is that very cumbersome, since the society has moved so far away from these kinds of routine math problems, but all the trouble didn’t seem to be worth it–the strength disparities between the two sides were such that the vast majority of combats were resolved on the top few columns of the CRT.

This also meant that the German player had very few possibilities for counterattack, because his forces were just too thin to generate decent odds.

A related issue was with terrain effects. The requirements of the Terrain Effects Chart (TEC) were typically to shift columns, inserting an element of asymmetry with the odds ratio calculation. I thought that gave the idea. Change the CRT to a differential calculation. Now the attacker simply compares his strength with the opponent and immediately derives the CRT column. The “0” differential occurs at 1-2. Columns increase to advantage (+1), then by 5s to +25, then to +50, +75, +85, and 99+. Below zero the splits are at disadvantage (-1), -5, and -10 or less. The CRT generates step losses for both sides. In keeping with the larger differentials at high levels of advantage I used more higher-level loss results (e.g. 1/3, __/4) on high columns.

The one mathematical calculation I required was for troops attacking across rivers, who are halved or reduced to one-third strength depending on whether the river is minor or major. In general I converted most game effects to column shifts in keeping with this procedure. (For example, instead of doubling a stack (division), in this game unit integrity conveys a column-shift advantage.)

(c) Players might want to experiment with ZOC rules, giving Allied units and German mobile forces (because all are motorized) ZOCs but none to German infantry. That opened the game up when I used it.

(d) At the time of the original game the existence of intelligence (ULTRA) was just becoming known, much less understood in any detail. A major element was to insert intelligence rules. I added both sigint and combat intelligence (interrogation of prisoners). The former depended on an ULTRA table on which the players rolled each turn. That allowed the player to neutralize the divisional integrity of a certain number of opposing stacks and pre-emptively exhaust the column shift advantage of a number of Headquarters. (I also added Allied HQs for Bradley and Monty in addition to Patton). With combat intelligence, for every three losses the previous turn the player could neutralize the integrity of an opposing division.

Also–

Some German capabilities (Tiger Battalions, Nebelwerfer Brigades) were never modeled in the game. I added counters for these and endowed them with column-shift capabilities.

On the Allied side the rules governing the “Cobra” air strike were both too restrictive and too loose–too restrictive because they did not permit the Allies to create an actual break in the lines by means of a saturation attack, and too loose in that the player could stage a “Cobra”-level air mission every turn if he wanted to. (The Allies actually managed two “Cobra” equivalents plus two attacks that were of the same type but smaller.) I inserted a radically different rule on air strike effects that widened the sector struck and had target units incur losses, temporarily disappear, and reappear afterwards next to a friendly headquarters. This afforded the opportunity to open an actual hole.

At the time this game appeared in the 1970s, our knowledge of the Allied order of arrival, funneling fresh combat divisions into Normandy, was well developed, but our knowledge of the German side was much less perfect. So I created a new German order of appearance with units (and even replacements) arriving according to the historical record.

Apart from anything else I think these changes resulted in greatly improved historicity in this game. You can try it at home.

 

D-Day in Wargames

June 6, 2014–It’s the seventieth anniversary of what my parents knew as one of the decisive moments of World War II, what my generation saw as “The Longest Day,” and what now seems to have become endowed with a certain historical magic. News clips of Prince Charles, with an entourage, walking across Pegasus Bridge at the village of Benouville in Normandy were striking. They headed toward the flatland where British paratroops landed from gliders to grab that same bridge from the hands of German occupiers. Interviews with British paras who had participated in the lightning strike on the nearby Merville coastal battery were equally impressive. As I pen this no doubt the commemorative festivities in Normandy are coming to their climax, with delegations from five countries plus thousands of spectators.

The big shows happen only at intervals–70th anniversary seems to be one–but in between there is much less attention devoted to these historical events, climactic as they may be. Boardgamers, I am proud to say, have figured among the most observant of the public. Whether because the Normandy invasion is so dramatic, because the history is so important, or simply because gamers enjoy a good fight, D-Day boardgames have long been a staple of the wargame genre. Having designed a couple of them myself–including one that featured Pegasus Bridge and the Merville Battery, I can attest to that.

So far as wargames are concerned it started a little more than a decade after the real events, when The Avalon Hill Game Company put out its title D-Day. That was a picture of the “invasion” writ large–the whole Western European coast with the Allies to choose where to stage their invasion and the Germans to fight for France and the Low Countries. Since then boardgames on the subject have taken one of three paths. Games like D-Day– Fortress Europa and others–give you a bird’s eye picture of the entire military theater of operations. Titles like Axis & Allies: D-Day or Atlantic Wall, or The Longest Day offer a view more ample than that of D-Day itself–they go on for weeks of equivalent real time and give you the full Normandy campaign, invasion through breakout. There are not so many games which present the hours of D-Day itself as the main event. In the 1980s I published Monty’s D-Day, a simulation of invasion day on the British-Canadian beaches, long out of print today though I hope to bring it back. In 2012 Against the Odds brought out the companion game to that one, Bradley’s D-Day, which includes the American side of the invasion and the beaches known as Omaha and Utah.

It’s difficult to generalize on the basis of these few titles and their approaches. Over the long arc of boardgaming history there have been many more titles on the subject, these are just some of the games with which I am familiar. On the basis of game experience, though, I’d say the Normandy invasion was a done deal. In the theater-wide games there is some capacity to defeat the invasion, though usually on the basis of unrealistic historical elements (such as freeing the player from Hitler’s constraints on using the German mobile forces). In the Normandy campaign games and the D-Day beach games, outcomes tend to be Allied victories barring a run of extraordinarily bad luck. The Allied advantage at the tip of the spear was just that big. When modeled in a simulation the real capability disparities give Allied players the advantage in the game.

No matter. None of the advantage issues are likely to dissuade gamers from returning to Normandy’s beaches for another “go” at Operation Overlord. D-Day is just that big, the questions that hang in the balance just that important. I daresay that this weekend there will be D-Day games going up for another spin on tables all across the land.

The End at Dien Bien Phu

May 7, 2014–At 10:20 AM on May 7, 1954 (10:20 PM of May 6 on the U.S. east coast), the Frenchman leading all forces in Laos asked the general commanding the north of Indochina to give him immediate notice if there were a “grave event” concerning Dien Bien Phu. The Laotian commander, Colonel Boucher de Crevecoeur, was clearly thinking that he should warn the troops sent to effect an overland rescue of the entrenched camp that they should get out of the way. Tonkin theater commander Major General Rene Cogny advised De Crevecoeur a few hours later that if the threatened event occurred he would have French radios broadcast the phrase “The fruit are ripe.”

In gaming there are only a few boardgames which deal with the Franco-Vietnamese war, and even fewer that concern Dien Bien Phu itself. The ones that do uniformly confirm the French did not have a chance at that battle, indicating the dubious strategy of selecting that high mountain valley for the scene of a major encounter.

That was true of my game as well. Around the time I first wrote my book on Dien Bien Phu, Operation Vulture , I also designed a boardgame on the battle. For those familiar with the gaming of that era, it was a “mini-monster” design with a main board depicting the valley center and French strongpoints, plus a strategic board of the region surrounding Dien Bien Phu. The strategic/tactical split followed the concept of the Avalon Hill Roman era siege game Alesia. Using the strategic board forces could maneuver to the battle, the French in Laos could try and rescue the camp, and the French air force could attempt to reduce the scale of Viet Minh supply. French forces were modeled in companies, with breakdowns to platoons; the Viet Minh were at the battalion-level, with breakdowns to companies. It was a highly detailed boardgame and showed very well the dynamics of the strongpoint battle. Viet Minh forces sustained tremendous losses, but the French could not win.

What the generals learn–or do not learn– from history could fill books. Politicians too. Let’s just hope we’re not seeing this lesson repeated today.

House Rules Rule

March 27, 2014– News that Hasbro, the game company, has asked players of its classic Monopoly to write in with their favorite “House Rules” in hopes some of them may be formally included in new editions of the boardgame opens up a vein for discussion. (Personally, my favorites are “Free Parking” gets $500 plus all the fee and fine money; and the one where, if you land directly on “Go,” you double your income.) Media attention has centered on the supposition that Hasbro is updating the game, as they did last year by pulling the Shoe token, holding a poll, and then substituting a Cat. But I think there’s a more interesting question regarding House Rules.

People acquire all kinds of products–including games– which they adapt to their personal preferences. Zero in on boardgames specifically and you’ll find that one of the most frequent adaptations is the adoption of House Rules. For those who’ve never delved into this juicy subject, House Rules are changes you make in the specific rules of a game when you play it at your place (your friend may have different ones at his). Like when you play Poker (five-card draw) and declare that Aces, Deuces, and One-Eyed Jacks will be wild cards, or when a National League team plays at an American League ballpark (and vice versa).

The recent coverage of Monopoly has included some discussion of specific House Rules that seem to be common, like the ones mentioned earlier. What struck me is that so many of the House Rules I saw cited are ones I’m familiar with, either having used myself or played with someone else who utilized them. Coincidence? I think not.

Game rules are littered with ambiguities and questions that may require interpretation. The popular “family”-style games, which skimp on rules to the maximum extent possible in order to bring in the players, are especially prone to this. The more complex games and simulations, as the wargames strive to be, also have ambiguities, plus more perplexing contradictions where the designer or developer changed one aspect of the game without accounting for all the ways that rule interacts with some other. The bottom line is that ambiguities and contradictions can be minimized but never completely eliminated.

My advice has always been to go for it. The game won’t be perfect but it can be what you want it to be. If a House Rule makes the boardgame work better, play faster, or make better sense, by all means use it.

Meanwhile the Monopoly example shows something else very interesting about House Rules–that different players, from a wide variety of backgrounds, in different places, have all come up with the same or similar solutions to game issues. There were only one or two of the House Rules mentioned for that game which I’d not heard of. That was amazing. And amusing. Great minds and all that. So go for it–and keep on gaming!