Friday, 20 March 2015

Game Design #34: Making Wargames (#2): Brent Spivey

This is an interesting look at designing wargames by one of my favourite games authors, Brent Spivey.  He's definitely the China Mieville of wargames and his rules are always different and interesting. From the vastly underrated fantasy skirmish Havoc (well, it did nominate for an Origins award but it's not a high profile rules set by any means), to the PC FPS-style Battlefield: Miniature Modern Warfare, the sci-fi RTS-influenced OP4S to the mass fantasy battle Mayhem, and lately Rogue Planet (a game so unusual in its concepts I can't decide how to best review it).  

This follows a similar format to the Ivan Sorenson interview here, but Brent's comments on game design are so thorough and interesting I feel they should be reproduced separately so not to get 'lost' within the interview.

What are some of your key influences? 
My influences are all over the board and range from tabletop classics like Chess and Go to include all manner of video games, board games, card games, and puzzles. While I've played and enjoyed what I'm sure are most of the same miniature games that others in the hobby have, I think I tend to have my designs influenced more from other sources. This is especially true of video games. Anytime that I find myself inspired or enamored by a particular aspect of any game [or the game in it's entirety], I try to figure out and quantify what makes it special for me. If I can do that, I attempt to get a plan for how I would execute or translate that on the tabletop. On a quasi-related note, I'll add that I really enjoy seeing what other indie designers are doing and support their products. 

What is your overall design philosophy?
Overall design philosophy? I have lots of opinions and philosophies where game design is concerned! I'll try to keep my reply short and not ramble too much. 

As far as the nuts-and-bolts of game design go, I like to keep things as simple as possible while still creating interesting interactions, challenging decisions, and engaging gameplay. I like to feature a few simple systems in a game that layer together in such a way that they become more than the sum or their parts and end up requiring both analysis and intuition in equal parts for the highest level of play to be achieved. I also try to create games in such as fashion that they will evolve, grow, and reveal themselves to players over time. My hope is that a game will change in ways that you didn't expect as you begin to understand its nuances and see new options that you didn't even realize were there. Most importantly, a game should be fun! 

On a broader scale, as an indie designer, I personally believe that it's important for me to push the boundaries, preconceived notions, and classic paradigms of how a tabletop game is typically designed and played. I want to be clear that this isn't about utilizing a particular mechanic or 'cute trick' for the sake of being perceived as different or 'innovative'. I'm talking about really challenging the norms that we [myself included] accept as rules or laws of design and/or play and asking 'Is there a better way to do xyz?' or more importantly 'Why do we do xyz at all?'. If I can use existing mechanics in a ways that haven't been seen before or create mechanics that others try to copy, then I know I'm doing something right. The true end goal is always to produce and deliver the best possible gaming experience to the player even if it means taking them outside of their comfort zone. This is directly tied to another of my design ethos. 

Don't compromise the design or integrity of the game, and don't let fear stop you from committing to a particular design direction. Sounds easy enough, right? It's much more difficult in practice unless you make it a core belief and make efforts to hold to it. Fear of failure and a need to be successful in the traditional sense are two of the prime factors that I believe cripple many people in their creative endeavors.  For example, I reached a point at the end of Rogue Planet's design cycle where I actually had two complete versions. One featured more classic movement options that included using a tape measure or movement sticks with the second being the public release version available now that's free of traditional measurements. When sitting around the table with my design buddies and playtesters and trying to decide which version to release it all eventually boiled down to two questions
1) Which version would you rather play and achieves the design goals best? 
2) Which version would sell better?
Everyone overwhelming agreed that the now publicly available version is both the best playing and better designed version [especially considering the initial design goals]. Everyone also overwhelming agreed that the version featuring traditional measuring methods would sell exponentially better and gather a larger player base. The safer choice [on so many levels] would have been to release the more traditional game and maybe make some extra money. As you already know, I didn't release the safe version. I just couldn't do it. I'm not saying that I'm fearless. I'm just more afraid of making a mediocre game that I don't believe in 100% than not getting public acclaim or mainstream acceptance. There are plenty of mediocre games out there already. So, I guess my larger design philosophy could be summed-up as some sort of weird combination of the ideas of Malcolm Gladwell and Mark Twight: put in your 10,000 hours, have a distinct opinion and voice, and adopt a samurai's desperateness and insanity. 

How did you get into designing games?
I guess, like a lot of designers, I've always been designing games on some level. I've always had a passion for gaming, and games of all sorts have played a central role in my life and interests for as far back as I can remember. I was always hacking or modifying an old school RPGs as a kid, creating levels and multiplayer maps for video games later in life, or making board and card games for my friends. I've always had tons of notebooks [and napkins or anything else I could write on] lying about filled with ideas, concepts, and mechanics for various games. I was always tinkering with some design.

I guess it really all got serious when I was having a discussion with some fellow gamers at the local game store about a game we all played that a few of us felt was flawed. You can imagine how that conversation went over with the diehard fans of the game. During the course of the discussion, someone on the other side of the issue made a few heated remarks that boiled down to 'if you think know so much and can do better why aren't you a designer?'   Fair question. I'd always wanted to design games and be published. I felt like I had the tools. Why wasn't I designing games? To make a long story short, I went all in.

Where did the ideas from Rogue Planet  originate?
I'm a huge fan of sci-fantasy. At the beginning of Rogue Planet, I mention some of the influences that inspired me from an artistic direction: Final Fantasy VII, Star Wars, Mass Effect, Gamma World, Heavy Metal, and other grim dark futures. In addition to these worlds and stories, there are a ton of great sci-fantasy models out there and the other interesting universes yet to be created by players themselves. In sharp contrast, I've always felt that sci-fantasy is under-represented from a rules standpoint on the tabletop. Many of the rules that are out there are usually either tied to a specific IP and restrictive or are very traditional in their mechanics and play style. This traditional gameplay isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I wanted a sci-fantasy game that delivered an experience focused on the cinematic action found in the fluff for these games or seen in the movies and stories that are typical of the genre. I wanted a game that I could play where a space marine felt like a space marine. 

These influences and broad ideas led me to create a set of design goals and rules for myself. These included:
  • no hit point boxes or stat tracking [Energy expenditure mechanic]
  • no chits, tokens, or markers on the table [Pawn system, Energy expenditure, and immediate effects]
  • no charts or tables [stat-to-stat comparisons for resolution]
  • heroes that lost effectiveness and/or abilities as battles progressed [this led to the Pawn System]
  • interactive turn structure [counter-actions and rules for Rogue Die]
  • creation of a game engine and 'world physics' that make it possible for science fiction and fantasy elements to battle while maintaining game balance
I'm really pleased with the end result.

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

Other than starting earlier, I can't say that there's much I would change. Don't get me wrong, I look at some of the things I did when first starting out and either laugh or cringe. There's just so much to learn as an indie game designer. But - and I know this sounds cliche - all of my decisions have made me better and pushed me forward as a designer, publisher, and artist.

Any plans for the future? What genres would you like to explore?
Big plans. Big, scary, plans! I have a game that has been in development for a really long time that should be released sometime this year. I really can't put into words how excited I am to get this one out there. Obviously, I tend to like my own games. But this one...  this one has both me and my group completely obsessed with playing it like nothing else ever has. It's one of the first games that has me thinking about it as much from a player's viewpoint as a designer's viewpoint.

As well as having evidently a well-defined design philosophy, Brent gives very thorough comments and insights on the design and playtesting process which I think are both a fascinating and worthwhile read.  The second section of this article is reproduced here. 


  1. Rogue Planet looks really interesting.
    Thanks for taking the time to do the interview :)

  2. I was just looking up Brent Spivey thanks to the reference in your Game Design #34 article.