Saturday, 18 September 2021

Intercept Vector - WIP - Pulp Jet House Rules (2021)

I've often said how discontented I am with aerial wargames. They are usually copies of 1970s boardgames, have guessing games and are universally clunky and awkward, with recording and inconsistent mechanics - everything a game about jets blasting through the skies shouldn't be. C21:Air War (too complex for its simple gameplay, wrong "feel") and Bag the Hun (like most TFL stuff, a chaotic jumble of house rules turned into a game) are the only ones I've tolerated.

This is probably due to the complexity (and 3D nature) of air combat along with a desire to "sim" and micro every aspect of the aircraft - most air wargames work OK when 1 player controls only 1 aircraft, but quickly breaks down when they have to control half a dozen or more. It's also a disconnect in the "level of control" - if you are a squadron leader with 8 planes, you actually don't micro the precise throttle controls of each aircraft. You'd give them general instructions and the pilots would carry them out. Air wargames often attempt to make the gamer both squadron leader and individual pilot and it just doesn't work.

I've always loved 1:600 jets - they are just big enough to be characterful and detailed, and small enough to be extremely cheap, and I have a fair collection, largely from Tumbling Dice.

Why have I labelled these rules "pulp?" Mostly to remind myself not to get bogged with simulating every last detail. Cinematic combat - Ace Combat not DcS. If I want realism I should be playing a PC game where it can easily deal with the minutinae "under the hood." This should be about pushing miniature jets around, pew-pewing and making zooming noises. 

I've mused a few times over aerial wargames - creating a manifesto of rules musings, and revisiting them in 2019.  Trapped in a car trip with kids yesterday, I made some notes in my "game diary" about key features of an aerial wargame - for me at least.

1. Energy Management. The interplay between kinetic (speed) energy; potential (height) energy; and position (maneuvers) vs enemies.

2. Detection. This encompasses both visual and radar detection. 

3. Pilot Skill. This impacts #1 and #2, as well as evading enemy fire and reacting to opponents and dictating the pace of the fight.

I also added in

4. Endurance & Ammo. Many fights were decided when one or both sides ran low on ammunition or fuel

Now, how could I emphasize these factors, in as simple a way as I could?

Pilot Skill 

This is probably the easiest - I could implement using modifiers to evasion, attacks, and increased chance to perform special maneuvers. However I'd also like it to impact initiative and reactions. Initiative means controlling who moves & acts when. Perhaps a good pilot could also roll for extra actions representing his greater calm and focus in combat. I also would like to experiment with my "reaction radius" mechanic from my Delta Vector space rules; in this case, better pilots have a larger AoE ring around them; any enemies entering this can be reacted to; whereas oblivious rookies have a small AoE "reaction radius" - only responding to enemies who are very close.


While I'd like to go with blinds, blips and cards (moving tokens and dummy tokens around the map, only revealing them when "spotted"- I'm probably going to give it the flick, due to all the extra complexity and fiddliness. I'll save that for a submarine game where detection is paramount. Instead, I'll probably assume planes are aware of the rough location of enemies (due to AWACs, ground control etc). "Undetected" planes just have a bonus to initiative - i.e. they can control who moves first and kinda "dictate"the fight (gaining a large advantage) without being invisible Klingons or SSBNs. So detection will be important, but not have huge amounts of complex mechanics devoted to it.

There shouldn't be much to record either - maybe a black counter to indicate if a jet is undetected.

Endurance and Ammo.  

This is the first big problem. Individually tracking missiles, ammo and fuel supplies is, like blips, something that can bog the game down. However I was re-looking through Infinity the other day (as I was thinking the opposed rolls/AROs might be useful for dogfights) and I thought "why not an abstract, shared 'endurance' pool instead of an order pool?"

Basically all jets would contribute their endurance (a mix of fuel and loadout) to a combined "endurance pool" which is shared by all jets, who deduct from the corporate pool as they perform actions that expend notable amounts of ammo or fuel.

 So you look at the aircrafts common loadouts, and add "endurance points"

+1 for each missile

+1 if internal guns

+1 each ~200km of combat radius 

So a MiG-21 (+2 fuel, +1 23mm gun, +4 AAM2s) add 7 endurance to the pool each.

A F-4 Phantom (+3 fuel, +1 20mm gun, +2 AIM9s, +4 AIM7s) each add 10 endurance into the pool.

A flight of 4 MiG21s (28) would have far less endurance than 4 F-4s (40) presuming an equal distance from base.

Jets then "spend"endurance from the communal pool for actions such as

-1 gains energy (uses fuel)

-1 fires missile or gun (-2 if limited gun ammo <250rds; or only 2 missiles of that type carried)

Once a side loses its endurance it cannot perform any more combat actions and will withdraw. This communal endurance would be easily tracked as you could just make a ruler and slide a token along it.

This then allows mission and campaign level decisions where you might be operating far from your base (halve endurance). It would also simple allow campaign balancing; as you win the air war you range further and further from your base (and closer to enemy bases) i.e. the weaker side gets better endurance.

Energy management. 

This is another tricky one. There's always the X-Wing card based style, but I'd like to avoid guessing games and needing to make special templates or cards if I can. I think the success of this will hang on the "initiative system" I choose. We don't want players able to effortlessly move onto one another's tails, and there has to be some chaos in air combat (i.e. only wingmen should be able to reliably co-ordinate).

At the moment I favour a "energy bar" or "stamina bar" a bit like a RPG. This represents the amount of potential (height) and kinetic (speed) energy a plane has, and will be simply high (fast high), medium (fast and low/high and slow/medium-medium), and slow (low, slow) - using a green counter (high) a red counter (low) and no counter (regular). Thanks to Blood Red Skies for helping clarify my thoughts.

I've combined height and speed together due to the high thrust/weight and speed of jets - I probably wouldn't do the same with WW1-WW2 props.

So jets will have a top speed of say 4-12". I've made a list of maneuvers which is the minimal I think I need to represent the majority of air combat maneuvers. Tricky maneuvers will require a piloting test to pull off, or they may not occur quite as the player plans.

As you can see I'm assuming hex based aircraft and the possibility of using a hex map or plain table.

Now energy will impact the choice of maneuvers and both the chance of completing them and the effects of failure. A low energy (red) jet may have -1 to perform tricky maneuvers unless it has, say, a Low Speed Agility trait.  Failing a tight turn or reversal at low energy may result in a crash. 

I'm considering allowing an "On the Deck" option - pilots at regular energy can deliberately fly at high speeds at treetop height to evade enemies but risk crashing in exchange for being hard to hit. Maybe they get a bonus if they have a Terrain Following Radar trait or similar.

Additionally, high energy jets may opt to go "Supersonic" - limiting them from high-G tricky maneuvers but allowing higher speed sprints across the tabletop (and also to disengage freely from the fight).

I like this so far as there are merely red or green counters at the base of the plane; no altitude dice and speed dice, no written orders or complicated unique maneuver charts, or written orders to choose from. It's also simple as everyone shares the same rules.

What now?

OK, now we have a rough frame of the game. We can see where it is going. Obviously we need mechanics for shooting, etc but as usual I don't regard these as important - I'll just pick a simple consistent mechanic that fits the theme - probably d10s so the math doesn't hurt my brain.  For me the outsanding issues to go are detection and initiative

Initiative is probably the biggest issue as it's a bit of a multi-faceted problem.  First, air combat is pretty chaotic, so some randomness is required. However, wingmen should be able to work together ('follow-on''from each others moves, maybe) and better pilots should be able to control the flow of combat (decide when they will act).  I'd also like to consider 'reactions' to enemies who pass in range of jets; as jet combat should be fast and fluid and no one should be sitting around, hovering frozen while other jets shoot at them. The core dice mechanics should probably include some sort of opposed rolls as well.  In addition, the "better pilots do more" - in past homebrew air games I allowed pilots an additional action if they pass a piloting roll - I may do something similar again.

So far I'm pleased at how recording has been kept down - a "endurance ruler" as each player's side of the table, red (low) and green (high) energy tokens, and black (undetected) tokens won't even be used all the time for each plane. Probably a yellow (damage) token will be the sum of all the tokens/recording - which again, will only be used when needed.  Most jets should be "token less" most of the game. Which is good as I hate tabletop clutter almost (but not quite) as much as writing things down.

In the back of my mind I'm thinking 6-8 jets per side, bought in wingmen "pairs"  - I think the game as it stands will handle this without bogging down.  

Whether I finish it or not... well, let's just say I have a new idea for a wargame based on this....

Sunday, 5 September 2021

Modern Sail Combat (no, not that boring Age of Sail)

While I've played my fair share of Naval Action on PC and attempted many age of sail miniatures rules, wargaming sail combat seems stuck with ancient galleys, Napoleonics, and those Dutch wars no one cares about*. (*Unless you're over 60 or actually Dutch)

But to be frank, the sailing bit in these wargames is lame. The ancients galleys cheat a bit with oars and aren't proper sailing ships, and the Hornblower stuff isn't exactly riveting with most ships peak performance at  ~10kts and the handling of a gravel barge. Boring!

Compare this with sailing gear we have today.  Ice yachts, catamarans, hydrofoils - most of which can turn on a 10c piece and do ~50kts.  Epic!

Yes, there is the small issue that regrettably few wars have been fought with modern sailing boats, but wargamers have never let that stop them. I mean, the USSR and USA never fought in Fulda Gap, and the most popular wargaming franchise, 40K is 100% completely ridiculous handwavium.  So modern sailboat combat isn't that far fetched. 

In the frozen near future of a global cooling event, pirate ice yachts equipped with remote controlled GPMGs slaved to head tracking helmets, speed through the frozen northern wastes to intercept convoys carrying food and precious minerals. You could imagine one or two man "fighter" yachts spraying tracer and dodging between ice fragments.

In Waterworld-gone-hi-tech, you could imagine American's cup hydrofoils armed with Stinger missiles, rocket pods and .50 cals weaving in and out of skyscrapers drowned cities in high-speed duels*. I could just imagine a boat flipping up onto one hull to allow a missile to whiz underneath. 

(*Yes I know the wind conditions around skyscrapers would be funky)

I mean - a "74"' ship of the line's most exciting sailing mishap is going in irons or grounding. Boring. A hydrofoil can come unstuck more spectacularly.

In the drowned cities of the future, sailboats would have to deal with pretty intense wind conditions.

Although space sailships seem to default to "Napoleonics in Space" aka Treasure Planet aka Spelljammer there is a lot of latitude here. Vector movement meets solar "wind" might be interesting tactically.

A lack of cool sailing miniatures is the issue for me. I could buy a functioning RC yacht for the price of larger model kits, and the small ones are very "kiddy."  I'm actually considering making some hydrofoils from LEGO.

Everyone loves wargaming the age of sail ships of line. But the actual sailing bit isn't exciting.

Anyway, I'd just like to see some wargaming love for something with sails that wasn't a trireme, galleon or a 74. Sail combat has opportunity for interesting tactics - I'm just not interested in the most boring version of sailing. If only I had a 3D printer.... (coughs guiltily).

Modern sail combat rules and minis are something our hobby desparately needs. 

There are dozens of us! Dozens!

Saturday, 4 September 2021

Delta Vector Spaceship Musings 2021

My original 2012 homebrew space rules (which inspired my interest in game design) were heavily played and playtested for a few months, but I gradually lost interest despite yearly attempts to revive them.  

The problem - I don't practice what I preach.

The game slowly lost their main design focus as I attempted to do too many things with the rules - they bloated and became generic. In attempting to make the rules work for all and any TV space settings, I lost the focus on the space settings that interested me - Lost Fleet and EvE:Online. I was reminded of this reading Eric's guest game design post last week - he mentioned "make games for yourself."

My most regularly worked-upon rules (psychic dino knights, simplified-Infinity-pulp, mechs, aeronef, tankmunda, demon-possessed cyberpunk, modern jets, dogfighting submarines, and space PT boats) all had a very specific focus and were because I felt I had to make them to fill a gap (i.e. there was - and is - nothing already available that "worked" for what I wanted to play)

So what did I want when I set out to make a space game all those years ago?

To move away from existing rules with hundreds of hitboxes and dice chugging a la Full Thrust or WW2 wet navy clones; to something with minimal record keeping, where initiative and vector maneuver mattered; with lots of decisions, and ship design was simple. Crew skill would matter. No written orders or IGOUGO. Ships could react to each other like modern skirmish games. Games would handle ~6 ships in 45 minutes.  Maximum choice, minimum recording.

The flaw was I wanted to make it "simulate all TV series."  

I noted "a game that allows every space show and element tends to be generic and bland" but a strong "theme" or particularly focussed gameplay element (i.e. the heat management in Battletech, the ARO system in Infinity) tend to be stronger and more interesting. 

...But I drifted off course regardless.

So what was the game I originally wanted to play? What space combat do I enjoy?

Lost Fleet - primarily the vector movement and plotting ahead of time; a kinda predictable maneuver ballet making initiative very important; plus the interplay of missiles/kinetics grapeshot/lasers. There is a hard limit (lightspeed) on combined velocities. There was ammo and shield management but no fighters or stealth of any time. Jumpgates were the primary combat chokepoints.

EvE Online - that every ship had a role. Even small ships are essential for tackling or jamming (debuffing big ships' speed/dps). Small ships were also very survivable due to a small "signatures" making them hard to target and again like Lost Fleet, relative velocity/vector affected how easily they could be hit. Their agility and utility made them able to dictate fights. Again there was no 'fighters', but limited amounts of drones who were leashed to the launching ship; neither was there stealth except one "submarine" style class. Weapons included both rapid fire and long range versions of kinetics and lasers, missiles as well as AoE bomb type weapons. Jumpgates were primary chokepoints but ships could "warp" between objects within a system. Again there was ammo and shield management.  The ship design system of high-medium-low slots allowed customising classes of ships within limits.

So, taking out the key points of Lost Fleet + EvE

+ No stealth rules needed

+ No fighter rules needed (perhaps drones)

+ Simple weapon list (kinetic railgun vs massdriver, laser beam vs pulse, missile/torpedo/AoE bomb)

+ Utility buff/debuff (tackle, EW) modules to make small ships useful/maybe tie to EvE-style module design system

+ Small ships made survivable via "signature"/size/velocity

+ Vector movement is very important

+ Initiative rules are very important

+ Chokepoints (jumpgates/planetary bodies) to attract fights

- Some sort of energy management and/or shield management

- Ammo is tracked

While most of these ideas fit under my original 2012 design brief, I'm a bit concerned about shield/energy management and ammo as they may run counter to "minimal recording" and "extra decision making layers must be simple to execute" design goals.

I think I'm struggling with what will satisfy me as "minimal recording" - I'd like to avoid piles of tokens which seemed to accumulate in many skirmish games I play. If I make a ship data card for each ship about the complexity of a Warmachine card it shouldn't be to onerous if I only use 4-8 ships. Out of all the space games I played, I remember not minding Battlefleet Gothic recording - so I'll aim for that level.

How to Fix Small Ships

I always hate how in 99% of space games, small "escort" class ships like frigates/destroyers are pretty much glass cannons at best, and cannon fodder/ablative armour for big ships at worst. Small ships rarely survive many turns into a game and are just window dressing for the big boys. 

It's probably realistic, but not fun gameplay.

I always enjoyed playing as an tiny, speedy interceptor frigate in EvE; bring difficult to lock/hit due to small signature and performing a vital job to "tackle" and stop huge battleships warping out. Sure, you could only nibble away at battleship defences (unless you were in a wolfpack) and if you flew carelessly in a straight line you could get blown away, but if well-flown you were extremely survivable and could "dictate" the fight.

I've been thinking about how to implement this in a wargame.

1. The obvious, initial answer was to steal the "signature" from EvE and make it the base "to hit" number against say a d10. I.e. a frigate with a sig of 4 would have a 40% chance to be hit, and a battleship with 7 sig would have a 70% chance to be hit by the same weapon. 

2. In addition, there will be velocity modifiers - i.e. the combined velocity of firer and target will impact this - a frigate whizzing past head-on and angled will be harder to hit then one who is slowly closing in from the stern. A higher thrust ship can obviously manage its velocity/position better.

3. But I want initiative to matter too. Small ships should dictate the fights against larger clumsier brethren. Another thought is to make the signature also the "reaction radius" - the radius at which enemies react. So the sig 4 frigate would only trigger reaction fire from enemies within 4" - but the battleship would trigger reactions within 7".  Basically, this means a frigate 4-7" from a battleship could choose to continue a fight or fly away; and also "dodge" between other ships without triggering reactions. A big sig (aka reaction radius) is bad for initiative/reactions.  ^I quite like this idea but have yet to test it in practice.

4. Finally, I'd like speed (thrust) to matter.  Perhaps the difference in thrust could be a modifier to the faster ship in reaction rolls (i.e. a thrust 5 frigate gets a +2 to any opposed rolls with a thrust 3 battleship).  Thrust could also be used as a modifier to "dodge" enemy fire at longer ranges. 

To stop small ships being too attractive, this would be balanced by vastly better armour/strength of larger ships; i.e. a small escort will struggle to do meaningful damage (or even drop the shields) of a battleship - but dps is not its role - instead the escort will screen against enemy escorts, and "tackle" big ships and stop them warping off, or debuff them in various ways such as EW/jamming - or even launch AoE-ish torpedo attacks which are only dangerous in numbers or if the target is crippled already.

Anyway, enough rambling - off to the shed to dig out some spaceships...

Friday, 27 August 2021

Game Design #84: Making Wargames (Eric Farrington)

As a break from pure theory, I'd like to introduce Eric Farrington - author of Osprey's Men of Bronze and the upcoming Wars of the Republic. His interests and games are very random (from post apocalyptic cars and wild west with "flick" mechanics, gangster wars to gladiators. I know him as one the friendliest, most prolific and thoughtful inventors of random games in the Delta Vector google group. His work can be seen on the Blood & Spectacles blog, website and wargamesvault page.

I think you'll enjoy (and many will identify with) his responses. It's very self-aware, practical and realistic for a budding game designer:

Q1:Tell us a bit about yourself; personal background, gaming history etc

Well, you can see some of the gory details in my Osprey Bio on the Wars of the Republic or Men of Bronze page.  The main thing is, I have followed the trajectory of many wargamers in my region.  I started D&D in the mid-80s, got sucked into Rogue Trader and Warhammer Fantasy Battle from an advert in Dragon magazine, and then eventually got off the GW carousel and started exploring around in other game systems and styles.  This was during the dawn of the internet, so things like Wargame Vault did not exist yet!  You had to go to the local game store, and some games seemed more intimidating and impenetrable than others at the time. 

Eventually, I was so broke I was barely hanging onto the hobby and started to learn how to do things for myself, like sculpt minis, build paper templates, and even create my own rules.  I became a DIY gamer!  Eventually, this phase in my life ended but I still kept the skills I learned.  I am still mostly a DIY gamer today.        

In addition to wargaming, I also get to play a few board games and a few role-playing games.  However, I have managed to keep my wallet safe from CCG games so far!

 Q2: What are some of your key influences/what is your overall design philosophy?

I have had a couple of key influences when it comes to game design.  A big one is actually the wargame design discussions on Delta Vector!  They really helped shape much of my thinking on what makes a good game, and in turn I try to pay it forward by recommending the series when people ask me about Game Design!

Some other games that were really influential to my style are, of course various GW systems.  I still think Necromunda and Mordheim are the building blocks for a great skirmish campaign system.  Who actually wrote those rules is unclear, and it looks like a bit of a group effort from the old GW design team on that one.  However, there is something about the way Rick writes a rulebook that I really enjoy as it captures that gentlemanly feel a good gaming group should have in my opinion. 

The Ambush Alley team and their Force-on-Force rules were also really influential in my development as a game designer.  You can see it in some of my early work much more than you can see it now.  The way they handled activation was pretty exciting to me.  

Paul Ward from Matakishi’s Tea House was also a big influence on me.  I really enjoyed his Crom rules.  These were also a big eye-opener to me about what could be done with dice pools, and I still love a good dice pool!

Warwick Kinrade’s Aeronautica Imperialis from Forgeworld is also a big inspiration to me.  The mechanics were about 10 pages long, but in play they led to some of the best and most interesting games I had played.  You were always trying to guess what your opponent was going to do and trying to stay ahead of them and gain the right firing position.  Again, it was teaching me a lot about the relationship between movement, restricted fire, and other lessons I still feel are critical to good, tactical gameplay.      

Finally, Daniel Mersey and his series of games for Osprey is also a big influence on me.  I directly attribute him and his books in the Men of Bronze designer notes.  Something about his games Lion Rampant, Dragon Rampant, and Dux Bellorum really drove my creativity.  I think it was the simplified approach to units, terrain, and even combat.  I of course have added my own spins, but you can clearly see Mersey’s influence in much of what I do.  Some would probably just call me a “Mersey Hack”!  They are not necessarily wrong!     

All of these various inspirations swirled together and helped make the following design philosophy for myself:

  1. Meaningful Choice = Fun
  2. Innovation in game design is over-rated, pick the best tool for the job and use it
  3. Rebasing sucks and I want to use what I have! Always make your games scale and model agnostic.
  4. Design games only for yourself and no one else
  5. If you want to be a game designer, you have to have games people can play; so finish the darn game

Now, what goes into creating Meaningful Choice?  That is a book or article all on its own!

Q3: How did you get into designing games?

There is a bit of a common joke in the indie design world, we all started trying to build a better Warhammer.  I kind of fall into that category as well.  Although, to be honest I was just trying to hack and expand on existing Specialist Game ranges. 

My first time being published was a set of Jungle Fight rules in the old Warseer E-zine called Firebase.  I believe it was issue #7.  The Jungle Fight rules were basically just a hack of the old Catachan rules and newer (at the time) City Fight codex.  It was really exciting not just to see my rules in print, but that they were featured in a battle report in the magazine!  That was really exciting! 

My imagination was also captured by the Eye of Terror and Medusa V Global Campaigns by GW.  The content and storylines the fans were creating, coupled with the creative output in armies and the like was really exciting.  Plus, the idea that GW released a whole army book for Eye of Terror was pretty neat.  Lost and the Damned forever!  On multiple occasions I tried to re-create this energy in smaller online campaigns on various message boards.  Each of these campaigns typically had a setting that would naturally lend itself to some special rules.  These usually took the form of how to incorporate the GW Specialist game ranges into the campaign.  I was a huge Specialist Games range fan and loved those games way more than the main 40K game.

One of these campaigns, the Battle for Ammoriss on The Ammobunker forum led me to build my first game from scratch.  That game was all about wet-navies in the 40K universe.  The idea was that all worlds in the Imperium of Man needed to defend themselves from domestic and external threats.  Ammoriss was mostly water, so what would that look like?  Therefore, Aquanautica Imperialis was born.  It took me two years or more to get all the rules and fleets made, plus I added paper templates I made in MS Paint for all the fleets.  It was an entirely self-contained game. 

The game got a surprising amount of online press for an unofficial fan publication on a niche message board.  This was just before the dawn of Social Media, so Facebook and their ilk had not destroyed all the Message Boards yet.  This “success” was enough to propel me forward to continue making games.  I also had success with some fan made Aeronautica Imperialis campaigns around the same timeframe as well.  These included all sorts of new aircraft to round out what was available from 3rd parties and to fill in missing gaps in the range.           

It was around this point, the Kirby era at GW; that I pretty much got off the GW band wagon.  Specialist games got officially axed and the core games were the focus.  There was an edition change…. Again…. And I just did not want to stay on that carousel any more.  Plus, other game systems like Spartan, Warlord, and the new Osprey Wargaming Series were far more interesting.  To me, the Osprey Wargaming Series was the best thing to happen to wargaming in a long time.  I am so proud to be part of it. 

From there, combined with my budget battles; it was clear to me that designing games was the way forward.  I enjoyed it, it was cheap, and I knew every time I took a game I made to the table I would enjoy it.  Plus, it really cut down on rules disputes!     

Q4: Where did the ideas for your originate (I.e. Rampant series, Men of Bronze, some of the “flick” games?)

In reality, the process of creation does not happen in a vacuum.  It is an amalgamation of ideas and thoughts that are influenced by outside forces.  I may see the kernel of an idea from one source, I then see something from another source, and then a third bit. I combine all these sources and that creates a new concept.  Nothing begins from nothing, it is always inspired or influencer by something I am exposed to. 

For example, I will be publishing a game via Osprey in 2022 called Castles in the Sky.  You and some of the Google Group folks are intimately familiar with this one.  This game was inspired by a simple blog post from you on Delta Vector about how you did not like existing Aeronef games on the market, why you did not like them, and what are some ways you would approach them differently.

In college, I had taken a few Naval History courses through the Navy ROTC, even though I was not in the ROTC program.  A long story.  I had also done a lot of work on Pre-World War I history and the naval arms race in college as well.  Therefore, your discussion triggered me and this pent up knowledge I had on the subject.  I started thinking, well….. how would I do it? Then I wrote it down, over, and over, and over again.   

Another example from Delta Vector, was you started posting various posts that added Dinosaurs to existing genres of games.  I had also been watching several battle reports about Arena Rex and Bushido, both of which were small-model count boutique, model vs model skirmish games.  I thought, “Hey, there is room for a small model vs model dinosaur fighting game!”.  I got started on jotting down ideas right away and eventually Only The Strong Survive came to the Wargame Vault.  The process took about two years from start to finish.  Big assist from my Nephews for helping me get this one across the finish line.  They wanted to play it!    

The third way is I look at models I want to use and decides how I want to use them.  For example, Men of Bronze was inspired because I saw the cool models from Victrix and thought to myself, “I want to use those models.  How am I going to do it?” In essence, Men of Bronze was a huge exercise in justifying a purchase to myself! Some thing similar applies to Rampant Stars/Sun.  I looked at my collection of 40K and thought…. I really want to use these BUT I do not want to play 40K again.  What should I do?  I will make a game I can use them with.    

Honestly, to me the “Concept Stage” is the easiest part of the creative process.  I have whole notebooks with scribbles and beginning stages of games.  Some are simply concepts, while others have designer goals, some have units, a few have mechanics jotted down to go with the game.  To me the hard part is not the concept, it is finishing the darn game.          

Q5: Describe the design stages

The question makes it sound like there is a methodical process.  On the Blood and Spectacles blog I have a series of blog posts about creating your game from Concept to reality.  It uses the analogy of the human body and how various parts of the design process build on each other and become a finished whole.  On the blog it recommends starting with the concept and then fleshing out the design goals, then moving to the 4Ms of Movement, Melee, Missiles, and Morale, then activation, chrome, profiles, etc.  Very workman like and efficient. 

That is not how I actually design game though.  True confession time!  I almost always start by making some basic lists of units I want to see in the game and what a “finished” army might look like.  Then, to motivate me, I make a draft cover.  Yeah, seriously!  Then, I go backwards and create the 4Ms and retroactively apply them to the units.  Then, I build how the 4Ms will interact, and then I flesh out the rest. 

Typically, when I am on a roll I can bust out the core mechanics of a game in about 16- 32 hours.  That is the 4Ms, the activation system, the “hook”, and the force creation process.  I can actually write games really quickly.  It is not uncommon for me to write 3-6 new games in a year.  They are everything you need to hit the table, but not a complete game.   

Then, I am typically spent on that project for a period of time.  The hardest part of writing games for me is adding all the things you need to play BEYOND the core rules and forces.  Things like fleshing out the campaign system, the scenarios, how you set up a board, complications, deployment, etc.  These elements are half of a game!  Therefore, I have a lot of half-finished games sitting around!  Seriously, I can have a game sit at this half-finished stage for months and even years! 

The other step that takes a great deal of time is I want to get the game to the table and playtest the resolution mechanics before I go on.  That means making templates (or buying and painting minis), setting up test games, getting my fellow gamers on board with trying it, getting a decent table space, etc.  Sure, I run simulations on paper but there is nothing like playing it on the table against someone else.  Plus, there are multiple iterations of this process.  

The final hurdle to getting a game “released” is the lay-out, artwork, and pictures.  I typically just use PowerPoint as my lay-out tool.  It is easy to use and I have decades of experience using it to make all sorts of things.  I am pretty good with it.  However, finding copyright free artwork that is appropriate, getting art from artists, and taking photos of minis and games….. that is a huge time commitment.  Plus, new artwork can be expensive and hard to source.  Pictures of models on table are expensive to buy and take time to build and paint.  Making vignette’s and set-pieces of terrain are not cheap either and take time.  This step is even harder than getting past all the playtesting and non-core mechanical work because it costs money AND time!     

Most of my games take 2 to 3 years to get completed, and then if a pitch is accepted it can take another 2 years to hit the shelves.  So, the design life of any given game is about 2-5 years.  Therefore, the games I am working on now can look pretty different to the ones hitting the shelves for sale. 

That is why one of the core tenants of my design philosophy are:

  1. To be a game designer you need games for people to play
  2. To do that you need to finish the darn game!  

Q6: How did you go about publishing your work? Can you recommend the PDF route? What about Osprey publishing? Any plans for working with mini companies?

 I was talking to an author friend of mine and he gave me some insightful advice that I take to heart, “You aren’t going to make much money publishing 1 book.  It’s when you have 50 books that it all adds up.”  I took that to heart, and I have seen it in practice as well.  I could make more money recycling cans from ditches, rummaging through the couch for change, or getting a second job at a gas station.  Therefore, the goal is not to make money, but to avoid losing money!  Maybe when I have 50 books under my belt, things might be different.   

That is why a key part of my design philosophy is to design games only for yourself, and no one else.  You must design games because you HAVE TO design games.  You have to want to do it more than you want to do anything else at that moment.  Trust me, there are lots of other things you could be doing with your time.  You can not do it to make money, because you won’t.  You can not do it to be famous, because you won’t be.  You can not do it for players, because there is a good chance they will not like what you make.  I spend a lot of time reading, playing, and talking to gamers and I have NO IDEA what people want to play.  I DO know what I want to play.  The ONLY person you can design for is yourself. 

Wargame Vault and Lulu are game changers for us as Indie designers.  Like many things, the internet has allowed creators to bypass gatekeepers and go directly to their market.  This is a blessing, but there is a flood of other game designers out there.  You are not in competition per se, but realize that there is only so much fan money going around in such a small niche market.  I still highly recommend PDF sales as they create a small stream of incoming you can use to finance future efforts.  Plus, the more games you have out there, the greater this stream of income is.  It won’t be enough to feed your kids, keep a roof over your head, or even keep a car running; but it will be enough to self-fund the next game and the purchases that go along with it. 

As for working with Osprey, it has been great!  I love having professional editors and other people to help get pictures, artwork, etc.  The main thing is to be able to work to their word count needs and their deadlines.  They have VERY long lead times, so a game like Wars of the Republic has been two+ years in the making to get published.  Keep in mind, the game was essentially done when they booked it, 2 years ago.  They also have a lot of industry connections for artwork, photos, and even promotional publications via wargame magazines.   

In addition to Osprey, there are a couple of wargame magazines that will also pay for articles and submissions.  This is a good way to get name recognition for PDF sales, and for one-time jolts of income.  I was able to get articles and books published simply by using the Standard submission process and putting together a strong pitch!  It also helped that my rules/articles were ready to go in a complete format when they asked to see more, which indicated I was not a deadline risk for them. 

My wargame design philosophy is to build scale and model agnostic games.  Therefore, I have no plans to work with any miniature companies.  At best, I might try to teach myself how to 3D print and do some Thingiverse style designs that might go along with some of my games BUT that is just mostly for my own entertainment.  However, there is no need to work with miniature companies when most of my work is either historical or generic in nature.

There is also no chance for me to try and get hired on at a company like Fantasy Flight Games, Games Workshop, etc.  I am too busy with my own very rewarding corporate job for that.  I have no plans to ever go “Full Time Game Designer”.      

Q7: If you had your time over again, what would you do differently?

Looking back on it, I have been extremely slow and reluctant to move to a more pay oriented model.  If I had to do it over again, I would probably have used PDFs and different pricing structures earlier.  However, it took me a bit of time to get “over the hump” to understand that what I was doing was worth something. 

I also would have started into my own projects sooner instead of piggy-backing off existing IP.   

I also really, really, really wish I could go to more conventions.  Another true confession, I have never been to a game convention.  I have never really been to any convention that was for fun. 

Finally, I would have embraced and gotten better with Social Media a lot faster.  I mostly just use Instagram, message boards, blogs, and have a feeble Facebook presence.  If I was smart, I would have ramped it up sooner with Twitch and YouTube and been an earlier adopter to other Social Media channels.  I tend to lag in this regard for a lot of reasons so miss out on building some of the audience and sales I should have been working on earlier. 

Q8: Any plans for the future? What genres would you like to explore?

I have several plans upcoming including continuing to expand my Historical selections based on the Men of Bronze engine.  These are relatively quick and easy to make since the “grind” of game making is done.  Instead, I get to focus on updated Lines of Battle, the historical details, relevant period flavour, and updated scenarios.  The hardest part of these rule sets is the historical research and the post-production work.  I do not think I will be partnering with Osprey in this (unless Wars of the Republic has HUGE sales), and will mostly be working on it for my Wargame Vault page as the genres are getting more and more Niche.  I mean, how many other people want an Aztec Flower Wars themed game?  The closest to completion are some Viking Age and Assyrian Bronze Age themed games.  I have a Late Roman and Aztec Flower War game a bit further down the pike.    

I am also continuing to explore how to make Melee combat themed games less about Yahtzee and more about decision making.  I am looking at this closer in a game I call Homer’s Heroes, that was inspired after reading the rules for Dracula’s America, but is very different.  This idea about making compelling melee combats has infused many of my games all the way from the start.  You can see it evolving in games like The Games: Blood and Spectacles (a Gladiator game on the Vault) through Only the Strong Survive (A Dinosaur game on the Vault).  Both handle melee combat very differently but are exploring how to add more choice into melee combat.  I am also always interested in aerial games, and have been working hard on a game to showcase air combat in Korea called White Star/Red Star.  This game is explicitly trying to remove the clunkiness of air combat while maintaining its unique feel, and tactics of this transitional period.  This game was also inspired by musings on Delta Vector.       

I am also delving into different genres all the time.  Part of this is further exploring the RPG-Lite genre of wargaming with more Co-op/solo/versus capable games.  The line between RPG and Wargame has always been of interest to me.  How do you create “character” in a model or unit on the table?  What are the choices beyond the 4Ms that a wargame can accommodate?  How do you customize your “model” or Unit to reflect its character?  I have a couple of skirmish games that work in this space mostly done, but still need tweaking and post-production.  One set in the aftermath of the successful Orson Welles Martian Invasion of 1938, and the other a more generic Monster Hunter style game.  Both intentional use different mechanics than I typically use to avoid getting into a design rut and to make sure I am applying the right tools for the job. 

On the flip side, I want to expand my game creation output into some more RPG themed design for existing IPs and also to create my own Role-playing Games.  This I am taking on very slowly since RPGs need a different level of detail than a Wargame for a variety of reasons.  However, the core ideas of good design are essentially the same.  I have been working on some stuff for a Space Mecha Theatre type RPG and Wargame, and doing some work on Highlander/immortal themed ideas, and a Broken Legion style alt-Roman RPG.  Some are farther along than others.     

I am planning on launching a Patreon before the end of the year.  This will be a BIG shift for how I have approached the business side of things.  I think it will actually allow me to get games into people’s hands faster, and help me focus my output a bit more.  I should have more than enough content in the form of Lines of Battle, Rules Mods, Complications, etc to keep backers happy.  Plus, it will give me a way to expand my playtesting group outside of my usual play testing base, which is a great thing!  You can keep and eye out for Blood and Spectacles publishing on that platform. 

Finally, locally I want to create a larger player base in my rural area.  I have run into tons of people who are interested in RPGs and wargaming, but just do not have a good way to start.  For example, at my weekly RPG game, we attract an audience of 3-5 people almost every time.  I am also going to have a local “Launch Party” for my book at a local venue, and am in the preliminary stages of starting a micro-Con in the area.  These steps are all intended to grow the player base for gaming in my local area.  The reasons are selfish, but I want a lively gaming community to be part of my legacy locally.  

As you can tell, I have a lot of big plans and have a lot of content on the work desk.  Much of it is ready for Post-production, but that is also MY biggest challenge when it comes to being a Game Designer.    

I could probably spend another post dissecting points Eric has brought up. I manfully resisted the urge to bold bits of interest and interject (Terry Pratchett style) with brackets etc. Oh well, there's always the comments...