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...


  1. My favorite two blogs got together and had a post!

    Thanks for doing the interview, I love Eric's game design posts and how prolific and eclectic he is as a designer.

  2. I look forward to your dissection! I think I could learn a lot from that.

    1. It's more there's lots of relevant points i.e. I'm pretty sure I have notes somewhere on a rant how melee is just meaningless rolling dice - there's no decision points besides the initial choice to actually push the minis together. Even the "how to get out of melee" rules are always lazily thought up. "If you want to leave they get a free hit" or something. There's no maneuver or repositioning or decisions (even simple power attack vs quick attack vs defend like most PC games)

  3. Well, it is often discussions like these in the comments and the google group that help fuel my creativity, fill my concept folder, and give me the last push I need to finish one set of rules to move onto the next.