It is useful to understand some of the parameters, algorithms, assumptions, and approaches in wargame design. Occasionally game designers will share these, most often they don't. So called "Design For Effect" school designers are perhaps the most reticent in this regard. But it would be worthwhile to compare and contrast approaches to various kinds of issues that budding military historians, game designers, and more than a few of us curious players are interested in.

COMBAT ADJUDICATION, WEAPON POTENTIALS, AND TERRAIN EFFECTS: The granddaddy of OA application. Nearly everyone has to come up with an OA model for this function. And we're all interested in how this was done and what calculations/assumptions/validations went into it.

TERRAIN, WEATHER, MOVEMENT, AND UNIT AGILITY: Not often considered but often just as important is how movement is thought of and how well units can change direction. There have been a few attempts at modeling this to various levels of fidelity--traffic jam rules in Bulge games are one example, but some may remember units taking up various "road space" in SPI's hoary old LOST BATTLES and Jack Radey's KORSUN POCKET, which complicating things. In HIGHWAY TO THE REICH, you had to watch out in what order you moved units as stacking limits applied during the ENTIRE move--overstack even temporarily (commonly moving a piece over a stack during movement that created an overstack...albeit temporarily...as you piece intended to move on...) and everybody got disrupted (shades of Patton directing traffic). Impacts of terrain are also not a "given" and we've seen games take a number of approaches to it.

STACKING. This rates its own discussion. How much physical space does a unit take up before clogging itself (and others)? How do you determine this?

ZONES OF CONTROL USAGE. Some games have tried to address this (ZOC "links" in CAMPAIGN FOR STALINGRAD, among others). What leads designers to pick "locking" versus "fluid" ZOCs, and why have ZOCs at all?

COMMAND AND CONTROL. We began to see games treat this a little more seriously in the 1980s--what are the analyses that leads to the various systems we now see proliferating in games?

LEADERSHIP AND MORALE. What leads to comparative "ratings" and assessments between cardboard warrior leaders? Between units?

SUPPLY AND LOGISTICS. Where this is covered in some detail, what are the calculations that led to rules to govern unit/capability sustainability? What could be simplified? What couldn't be? We all know how detailed CAMPAIGN FOR NORTH AFRICA was, but in KORSUN POCKET you had to watch your artillery ammo...in OCS games supply is critical and explicitly managed, even if abstracted. You have to create dumps and forecast consumption well ahead of time when contemplating operations....

Don't know how many game designers/developers will frequent this group discussion, but I'd hope a few. In the meantime, when group members flip through designers notes in games (old and new) that seem to provide insight into these subjects, it would be worthwhile to post them here to "prime the pump" as it were. And if you have game designer/developer/playtester friends who are into this, please send them here....

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Replies to This Discussion

I agree with Don that monster games don't always call for monster decision-making. There may be a lot of counters on the map, but they act in sufficient coordination that there aren't decisions equal to the number of the counters. For example, in Terrible Swift Sword or Three Days of Gettysburg, the scale isn't really regimental, even though there are regiments on the map, but brigade, as that's the increment by which the units really act. The regimental counters function more like a finer approach to step reduction, or micromanagement within a brigade's area of operations.

This isn't to criticize the games, as I'm a big fan of the system, but you're not really playing with three hundred regiments, for example, so much as one hundred brigades.
EotS I've heard a lot of good things about. Our reviewer raved about it in his F&M review as well. Mark Herman always innovates when he designs. I just wish he wrote more design notes.
Jon,
It is a very thought-provoking article, and in order to do it justice, I read it twice. I have a few random thoughts.

I don't design a lot, but I try to keep in mind my audience as much as anything. With Inchon, I wanted to do a modest degree of simulation, for people with limited time and attention resources. One group I was trying to design for was experienced gamers introducing new people to the hobby, and I was happy to find many cases of that, most happily including fathers teaching their sons.

Britain Stands Alone went through a huge amount of evolution in the development process, and is much more sophisticated then when I started. In that case though, I wanted to push things a little more, and design something more for the hard core gamers, though more accessible than most "complex" games. It was also the one time when I tried to do something really innovative.

Rommel at Gazala was the exact opposite. It's a case of off-the-shelf concepts being applied to a small package, to demonstrate, literally, than anyone can design a wargame. It's not just supposed to be accessible, it's supposed to make the design process accessible.

One of the traps that I strongly believe that the industry fell into in the latter days of SPI, then the aftermath, was that designers and publishers lost sight of the audience. SPI did great, innovative work, and really pushed the state of the art. But new people were sometimes forgotten.

Then the reaction went the other way after the Decline and Fall.of SPI: Everyone wanted simple, and instead got simplistic.

More than that, they got crappy development. SPI was as guilty as anyone; look at The Next War, from a design standpoint a magnum opus, but saddled with enough errata to choke a maggot.

I think we have to keep the issue of innovation in perspective. Sometimes a little revolution is in order, particularly when a subject hasn't been simulated adequately, or it's a completely new subject. You example of Nicaragua is a very good one. I'll add in Mark Herman's Pacific War, which is not just revolutionary, but one of the best developed games of all time. Also, the Great Battles of History series takes a revolutionary approach.

Notice too how the name Mark Herman keeps on popping up?

More often though, change is incremental, and incremental works. A lesser designer might be better advised to stay within his capabilities and use the tools pioneered by others, adding a little to the state of the art on his own. Evolution, not revolution.

After all, customers shouldn't be expected to reward us for good intentions. It's the results that matter, and if the design flops around, regardless of the designer's level of effort, then it's a failure.

On another point, an award-winning designer once said "If it ain't fun it's ain't shit." In a way, he's right. We are in a commercial activity, and people don't pay to be bored. So no matter what we do, whether it's evolution, revolution, or The Same Old Thing, we have to dress it up to hold people's interest. It can educate and edify, but it also has to be fun in some way. It can be favorite grad school class fun, or it can be strip club fun (yeah, I wish), but it has to be fun in some way.

That might not be quite as true when marketing to the military, intelligence community or corporate America, where people are going to be paid to play simulations at work. After all, it's called work and not happy happy fun time. Still, a clean design that makes an effort to hold the users' interest is more likely to be a satisfactory product that the customer will use, and view as a productive tool and not a self-indulgent time sponge.

This is actually such a complicated subject that it probably can't be dealt with adequately with an article or a blog. Have you thought about a book?
Actually, yeah, I've thought a bit about a book. But it's not even on the stove, let alone a back burner. Just too much on the plate right now.

But you're right, it is a topic that is a bit much to deal with in a few posts. And yeah, if it ain't fun, it ain't shit. Yet, fun from wargames, at least to me, is based upon the decisions I get to make competitively in a constrained environment. Getting into the head of the decision-maker is where I take my reward from the effort of playing. Not everyone plays for the same reason, but I'm an evangelist for my own point of view, after all.
COMBAT ADJUDICATION

One of the keystones of Inchon - and the as-yet unpublished Frozen Chosin and Marianas Campaign - is to separate combat power and the "soft" factors. In those games, I made the combat factor the basis for computing odds, as normal since time immemorial in wargames, but throw in a separate proficiency factor as well to represent the aggregate of training, leadership, unit cohesion, and C3I. Then the difference between the proficiencies of the best units on either side becomes a die roll modifier in favor of the better side.

It's not the most original method, but it works, and I'd rather be effective than original.

In practice, how it works out is that a side can have tons of firepower, as expressed through high combat factors, but have low proficiency ratings, indicating a poor ability to use what they have. That might take a potentially overwhelming combat, and reduce it to something more questionable. If you want to think of it in real world terms, a unit with a high combat factor could have lots of automatic weapons, but if the proficiency is low, the soldiers could have a tendency to shoot them over the enemy's heads, with so much sound and fury signifying nothing.

In addition a higher proficiency is indicative of a greater ability to bear up under artillery and air attack, and retain one's unit cohesion. In my system, a unit can be reduced to a state of shock if subjected to indirect fire, either as stand-alone bombardment, or as part of a standard attack. A shocked unit has its proficiency reduced by one, and its movement and combat factors cut in half. Thus a poor unit is more likely to stumble into a fight, already shaken up by enemy fire, and not be able to perform even to reduced standards.

In end, in my approach, overall unit quality is at least as important as the quantity of firepower. Korean War-era Marines will whip their weight in wildcats when they fight less motivated second-string North Koreans, for example. But firepower still counts for a lot, and as the old saying goes, God favors the bigger battalions.
Jim,

This post got me thinking and I started listing out a bunch of variables. For a computer it would be easy to plug these all in, but if it were a board game I am not sure how I would reflect these.

Currently I have only brushed the surface of what I call my Combat-Qualifiers of 12 items. These items currently only reflect units I still have to come up with terrain qualifiers. Once I have these not sure what I'd do with them or if they would be any use (let alone put them on a piece of cardboard) but its worth my time to at least give it a try from a newbie perspective.
Don,
Why not write an article on your theories? Somebody should be interested, and if you can't find a major paying venue, there's always Line of Departure. It all sounds definitely worthwhile as a piece of analysis, even if you never design a game around it.
I'd be happy to run something like that in F&M as well, but I think Jim's beat me to it!
Go right ahead Jon, you've got the circulation and you pay better, so if Don would rather have it in F&M, I'm certainly amenable.
Well I'll see what I can do. So far it's not very much just the 12 combat variables. After I work on the terrain variables I was thinking of working on the environmental variables. Once I lay the ground work for that I'll go back and check my work with the Dupuy stuff I have (besides the books somewhere on this laptop I downloaded a ton of PDF's that has some really good info in it).

Once I have something worthwhile I would be more then happy to send it to Jon. If it gets rejected then I can try Jim.
Jim,

Okay that sounds good. I'll see what I can come up with. Your the editor of LOD correct?
Yes I am, as well as publisher, art director, primary writer, and janitor.

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