Thursday 12 March 2015

Game Design #32 - "Making Wargames" (#1) - Ivan Sorensen

I spend a lot of time criticizing game design decisions so I'd like a chance to let the "other side" be heard once in a while.  Ivan Sorensen has been leading the Wargames Vault bestseller list for quite a while.  

Many of us would have known him for his free sci fi rules, FAD - which are one of the most thorough and well-presented free rules I've come across.   He's since had commerical success with his 5Core skirmish rules and variants . It's been adapted to 5Core Company Command and his latest, 5Core Brigade Commander, is currently sitting at #1.   The platoon level No Stars in Sight (hard sci fi) and No End in Sight (moderns) have also been big hits.    His rules have so many good reviews, and such good word-of-mouth, I'm finally convinced he doesn't have 100 alternate email accounts ;-)

I particularly like that Ivan always has a strong "design philosophy" and his comments are always interesting.   I'm putting this as a "game design" post as he gives useful insight into the process and publication of wargames.

Tell us a bit about yourself; personal background, gaming history

My name is Ivan Sorensen, I grew up in Denmark though I currently reside in Oregon in the United States.  My gaming background started with tabletop roleplaying games, went through board games like Hero Quest and Space Crusade and then, as I imagine it did with many who grew up in the late 80's and early 90's, through Games Workshop, specifically Warhammer 40.000 which held us with an iron grip for years.

What are some of your key influences/what is your overall design philosophy?
From a war gaming perspective, I am sure we all carry influences from everything we read and play, but if I had to pick the games that stand out to me as “Woah” moments I'd pick four:

Warhammer 40.000 (particularly the first two editions). It's where I started so obviously it's been a big influence because to some extent, I can't help compare everything I read to 40K 2nd edition subconsciously.  But I think it also really illustrates how setting can influence game design. When the game is best, it's giving us tools to tell stories.

Stargrunt 2 was a huge eye-opener. It was my first encounter with the idea of a “quality” score instead of a stat line and taking morale seriously in a miniatures game. The idea that a squad can be incapacitated while most of its soldiers are still okay was a big deal.

Crossfire showed me that you can break the sequence of “every figure does one thing every turn” and the result could in fact be a better simulation.

Finally, the Two Hour Wargames stuff (Nuts, 5150 etc.) finally knocked it into my skull that campaign play is important and should be a standard.

Outside the gaming field, I don't want to get into politics too much here, but I think I come from a more left-wing, hippie, Red perspective compared to a lot of game designers out there, especially in the historical war gaming field.  I try to always remember that fundamentally, warfare is a horrible thing and to try and treat it respectfully and tastefully.


How did you get into designing games?
Ever since I was a kid, I always tried to make my own games.
I remember getting copies of a Danish Nintendo magazine, even though we didn't own a Nintendo, and I'd try to make little dice games based on the moves for games like Street Fighter.

Later, I'd read about interesting games I couldn't afford and I'd try to make my own versions. I remember I made an overcomplicated version of Necromunda with hit locations and everything, after reading about it in White Dwarf.  The first “original” game I made was heavily inspired by Warzone. I don't know if any copies of it even exists still.

After I moved to the United States, I had about a year where I did not have my work permit yet, so I had plenty of spare time. At the time, I had been tangentially involved in the NetEpic project and I thought I should try creating something from scratch, based around core mechanics.

I had been playing a free ww2 game called 1943 but had become annoyed with how the fire combat was so random.   So I got the idea of rolling two dice for the unit and picking the higher score to make it less random. From there, everything else fell into place.


Where did the ideas from 5Core/NSiS originate?
All my designs come from thinking of an interesting dice mechanic or concept, and then building it out to see if a game can come out of it.

With FiveCore, those ideas were:

A: I tend to dislike games with modified dice rolls. I hate the feeling when I have a good roll, only to realize that it was a miss anyways.  So I set as one of the goals that I wanted the dice roll to always tell you exactly what happened.  This meant that I had to find other ways to do things like cover, which forced me to try and get creative.

B: I liked games where every unit does not always activate each turn, but I also felt that the chance of nothing happening at all didn't make for good game play. The balance then became “2 guys”. You can always do something you want to do, but you can never do all the things you need to.  I thought that made for a more interesting turn sequence because it forces you to make a lot of choices.

C: I felt there was a gap in the character-driven, low level skirmish. Nuts covered it to an extent but at the time, it seemed like they were pushing the games bigger so I figured I could carve out a niche for myself.   

With the “In Sight” system (No End in Sight and No Stars in Sight), it started with some basic ideals as well:

A: I wanted a system where you have to make choices about how hard you push your leaders and where the pressure of combat would build up in a tangible matter. Hence the Stress mechanic.

B: I was really disenchanted with games that otherwise felt realistic but had 50% casualties as the norm for the winning side.   So I wanted something where that wasn't the case, but where you could still feel defeated even with only a few injured soldiers.


Describe the design stages:
I'm a bit old fashioned, so I always start with some scribbled concepts like the ones I discussed above, on a note pad.  I'll then go about hashing out what those mechanics might look like for typical situations and start piecing together some sort of playable framework around them.

Usually, I do this for 2 or 3 different things at the same time. About a third of the way through, before the part I term “the grind”, I'll realize that the system isn't going to work or isn't going to be something people haven't seen before, so I'll drop it.

If I feel that “this is it”, I'll start sharing it with people. I have a small group of trustworthy people who will reality check things and can be relied upon to put things to the test.

Then, it's a process of iterations: You test something, it doesn't work, you change it, a new idea pops up, something radical comes up and so forth.  I find if I set out clear guidelines at the beginning, I do much better at staying on track and hitting a workable design.

It's VERY easy to get side tracked along the way and introduce something that's cool but doesn't fit at all. I think we've all seen games where there's a really cool mechanic that seems oddly super-detailed compared to the rest of the game, and often for a fringe mechanic or sub system to boot.

The hardest part is knowing when to say “no”, because the things you say no to (whether they're yours or someone else's) are probably really good ideas, but they might not fit what you are trying to do.

How did you go about publishing your work? Can you recommend the PDF route? What about hardback publishing? Any plans for working with mini companies?

Self publishing through Wargame Vault, which I'd highly recommend.
I try not to sound like a shill but if I was going to shill for anybody, they'd be it. Other than the initial quality check to make sure you aren't a fraud, you can publish at your own leisure, put it together the way you want to do, and they make it very easy to get paid.

I've always approached this as a “Zero Risk” endeavour. I don't want to sit on any inventory that may not sell and I don't want to make any investments that I may not recoup.
That has it's limitations, for example in terms of art (public domain plus GIMP for me) and layout (what you see is what I've taught myself and I'm hardly an expert at it) but it does mean that tomorrow, I could walk away, go back to an office job and not have lost out on anything.

I'd like to look into print on demand but the layout requirements are very different so there's a barrier of entry there. It's not a high priority for me.

I've made partnerships with a few people, notably Keith at Armies Army and I would love to see more coalitions like that take place.  My dream world is one where you have a coalition of miniatures makers and game designers all supporting each other.

You'd have manufacturers saying “You can showcase our miniatures in your games and provide stats for them” and in turn the writers would help promote the figures.

If you had your time over again, what would you do differently?

Probably create a little more separation between myself as a person and as a business person. I haven't had any serious problems but it's always on my mind that someone might be looking for my games and they'll come across me running my mouth on social media.

When I published “No End in Sight”, I had a bit of anxiety because I had elected to put anti-war quotes in the chapter headings.  I wanted to try and sever the tendency of modern wargaming to become a bit jingoistic but after I published it, I must admit, I was nervous about the possible reactions.

In the end, the only people that ever did comment on it were happy I had done so, and I got some nice emails from some super-conservative wargamers who thought the game was great, so I guess either it went well or the angry people didn't want to make me upset.

Any plans for the future? What genres would you like to explore?

I've gotten about 10 million requests for a medieval or fantasy FiveCore game so I will have to tackle that at some point, though I am doing a lot of thinking, since core aspects of the game will have to be rewritten for sword fighting.

I REALLY want to do something cool for the 6mm scifi scene. I think that scene is right on the edge where it could explode like 15mm scifi did a few years ago, and if I could do anything to help that happen, that'd be phenomenal.

The more immediate plans are a post apocalyptic expansion for FiveCore and a world war 2 version of No End in Sight, tentatively titled “No Tigers in Sight”. Other than that... silence.

Again, thanks to Ivan for his very thorough responses.  His comments on the design philosophy, design stages and PDF publishing are, I think, useful reading for any budding rules writer.


  1. interesting read - thanks for posting

  2. Good stuff. Thanks for the insight.

  3. Hey WeaselFierce, nice to see that all that chatter on Portent and Warseer lead somewhere good!

  4. Nurglitch - It did, it just took a long time to get there :-)
    I kinda miss the Portent days.

  5. Good questions and great answers...and helpful too. Thank you.

  6. Is there a forum or news group where questions about the FiveCore Company Command rules can be asked?


      Is the best place.

    2. Thank you. I have joined that group as greenew2001.