Friday 13 August 2021

Game Design Index: 2021 Update

My original "I hate current spaceship games" rant has kinda turned into a long-running saga as I explored different aspects of wargame design in a (somewhat biased) manner. An abiding interest in activation mechanics, a dislike of unnecessary recording*, complexity* and special extra rules are common themes. Player agency (aka decision points) linked to a clear design philosophy is important. Increasingly, I have a preference for simple, consistent dice mechanics as I am of the opinion they are less important than they first appear.

(*I can show you on the doll where Starfleet Battles touched me)

Reminder: This is usually kept updated in a "Game Design Index" tab on the right. 

Question: Would anyone be interested if I sorted/grouped or colour coded them in this post by topic or theme? (the original numbered sequence will remain in the tab).  

EDIT: I have roughly sorted them - the 'better' ones (imo) are in bold.


#1. "Decision Points" 
This is about "decision points"(tm) - the amount of times during a game or turn that the player can make a choice to influence the outcome of a game. "Resolution"" is how long it takes to resolve these decisions.  Lots of decisions + simple/fast resolution = good game.

 #16. Record Keeping, Counters & Bookkeeping
Considering the tradeoffs of "enhancing gameplay" vs ""time/fiddliness." Is it worth it?

 #65. Abstraction, Tables & "Negative Design"
When to abstract?  Good riddance to tables - or not? Negative skills - when skills and special abilities stop you and your opponent having fun.

 #70. Wielding the Axe - Why your best idea is not always best for your game
Sometimes an awesome concept or mechanic is not the best for the game. Sometimes awesome ideas are in the wrong place or genre.

#67. Character Skill vs Player Skill
Is it your decisions as a tabletop commander that win it for you, or the wtfbbqpwn combo army you built that won the game before you started?

#78. Complexity Creep, Reference and Baseline Games

It's easier to add rules than to simplify, but there's a limit to how simple something can be. Clean simple "baseline" games are good to build upon.


#4. Keep it Consistent
Keeping mechanics consistent vs using 20 different dice rolling methods.

 #13.  Is Originality Possible?
There are only a finite amount of ways to represent wargame mechanics - and do we really need more anyway?

#28.  Morale Rules & Combat Stress
Musing on morale systems.  Is there a "best"method, or can we ignore morale altogether? 

 #63. Detection, Blinds and Vision Range - an Unwanted Mechanic?
Despite being vital to warfare, detection and vision rules are out of favour.

 #73. Willpower & Morale as a Resource
Morale rules are often tacked on as an afterthought; often at ridiculous (50% casualties) to trigger tests. But science suggests willpower is a finite resource to be managed...

#77. The Dice Mechanics Aren't Important. 

Dice mechanics have little influence on the game compared to a host of other factors. So keep them simple, stupid.


 #7.  Design Philosophy
The importance of designers "nailing their colours to the mast" and setting a clear success criteria.

#2.  The Fifth Element
Most wargames have the four Ms - Morale, Melee, Missile & Movement. But games need something more.  What is the X factor that sets a game apart from its peers?

#15. Philosophy in Wargames
Game designers need to decide how they want their game to play; then reward/punish using modifiers and game mechanics to "encourage" players to play that way.  For example, 40K rewards good list building and deployment; Infinity emphasizes the good use of cover and positioning of fire lanes.

#33. Influences on Wargames
Wargames designers can fall into different categories - from unreformed RPG players, to "British" style rules, to the rivet counters.  

#51. Intellectual Theft
Designers miss out on valuable playtesting, feedback and publicity through paranoia someone will steal their idea.  News flash: Get real. 

 #52. Casual vs Competitive Game Design
What makes a game "competitive" or "casual?"  Is bad competitive experiences the result of bad game design?


#3. Special Rules, Stat Lines, and False Economy
In which I posit the modern trend to move away from stat lines is actually complicating matters as well as losing differentiation.

#54. Special Rules Best Practice: Infinity vs Savage Worlds
A current trend is to avoid a "stat line" in favour of a zillion special rules. Special rules have their place - but what is the best way to implement them?

#72. Power Creep + Special Rules vs Stats
Units which render others obsolete; and I revisit the old "stat line vs special rules" debate, and "incomparables" in game balancing.


#5. What happened to Time Scale and Ground Scale in Wargames?
They still exist, even if we ignore them.  It's the game designer sacrificing realism for the ability to play 100 genres with the same rule set. 

 #10.  Pre-measuring vs Guessing
Always a contentious topic.  Do we favour estimation skills or geometry? Or neither?

 #27. True Line of Sight
It's increasingly popular, and almost the de-facto for vision rules. But is true-line-of-site really the best choice?

 #30.  Coherency & Leadership Range
I start to explore command and control, by looking at the ubiquitous 2" coherency rule.

#37.  The Better the Hit, the Better the Damage: Managed Probability & Modifiers
Randomness is good - or we end up with chess.  However probabilities must be predictable and manageable to promote tactics.

#40. Avoiding the Scrum in the Middle - Manuever & Spacing Units
How do we avoid our games degenerating into a mess of pushing everything into the middle and chugging dice?

#46.  Skirmish - Basing, Group & Individual Moves
Many skirmish games tend to be binary - either everyone moves in units or everyone moves and acts individually.  But is there a middle ground?

#47. In Praise of Area of Effect Weapons
"Blast Template" or "AoE" weapons are not as popular as they should be.

 #59. Unit Count - is there a Perfect Number
In which I attempt to prove there is an "ideal" number of units in a tabletop game.

 #60. Movement:Shooting Rations and Scale
How does shooting range relate to movement and game balance?  ...and how it links to ground scale.

#61. Lethality & Modifiers
How likely are units to be destroyed each turn? How this links with modifiers, and how it effects gameplay.

 #71. Zone of Influence - Facing, Focal Figures, Arcs and Flanking Fire
Thoughts about facing/positioning, and the importance of flanking fire.

 #75. Weapon Range vs Terrain Density
Weapon ranges are often compressed for tabletop wargames. But do we consider the terrain?


#38. Reactions in Medieval & Fantasy
Can we use the now-trendy reaction in fantasy? What might it look like?

#39. Reaction Moves, Reaction Fire
Defining types/genres of reactions in wargames.

#41.  Reactions Again - Types of Reaction
We further explore the reaction move, and classify reactions as they impact gameplay.

 #49. Musings About Activation Pools & Resource Management
A quick look at how activation and resource management can be merged to add gameplay depth

 #58. Reaction Mechanics - a Waste of Time?
Reaction mechanics are trendy for adding decisions and player involvement - but are not without their issues.

#68. LOTR, Alternate Activation and Actions Per Turn
I look at "how much" a unit can do when it is activated, and how we can "break up" turns into small chunks to avoid clunky reaction mechanics.

#69. Momentum
Follows on from #68, looking at the ability to respond to enemy actions and maintaining initiative.

#76. Uncertainty in Activation
Another exploration of one of my favourite topics - activation mechanics.


#6.  "Realism"in Wargames
In which the realism-v-fun myth is debunked; it's actually realism vs unrealistic, and simple vs complicated.  Realism is possible, and it's a good thing.

#20. Realism Revisited
I revisit the "realism vs fun" myth and attempt to define it more accurately, in terms such as "process vs results" and "detailed vs abstract." CAMPAIGNS, SCENARIOS & SETUP

#8. Scenarios for Wargames
The old chestnut. Points systems vs scenarios. Can they co-exist?


 #25. Mordhiem, Competitive Campaigns, & Balance
No game has filled the Necromunda/Mordhiem niche.  A look at balancing campaigns for the competitive sphere.

#48. Wargames & "Setup":A Neglected Topic?
The setup phase of a game is a opportunity for depth and tactics: Chain of Command shows us how


#9. Fluff n'Stuff.
A few ground rules for good fluff.

#42.  Fluff & Stuff II
We revist the topic of in-game "fluff", with some commonsense ideas regulating its use.

 #50. Focussed Fluff vs Generic Fluff - and the Shiny Factor
 Detailed, rich fluff beats generic bog-standard fluff, but should not be "prescriptive." Production values matter.


#11. The Balanced Points System
In which I contend a balanced point system is impossible on many levels - but still worth including.

  #14. The "Forgotten" - Terrain, Victory Conditions, & Balance
The often-neglected impact of terrain and alternate victory conditions on game balance. 

#17. Playtesting - is it a fair test?
Using the scientific method of a "fair test" I point out how it's almost impossible to playtest a game properly.

#57. Asymetry
Wargames are always trying to be "balanced."  But is balance always desirable?



#12. Commercialism - Supplements, Rules and Miniature Sales
The rise of the "cookie-cutter" one-size-its-all rulebook, and how miniature sales (not fun, playability or realism are driving game design.  The codex arms race. 

#22. Best Selling Wargames
Analyzing the bestselling games, and trying to quantify what makes a rule set commercially successful.

#26.  The out-of-game experience
Most successful games seem to have lots to do when you aren't actually playing.  

#31. Readable Rulebooks
Writing rulebooks that are user-friendly.

#36.  Accessibility, or Why Bad Games get Played More
Popular games aren't always the best. The key? Accessibility.


#18. The decline of MMOs, and how it applies to wargames
Drawing parallels between the stagnation of MMO design and trends in wargame design.

#19. "Early Access" ""Pay to Win" and "Wargaming DLC" 
Some less-than-desirable trends from the PC industry that seem to be transferring to wargame companies.

#21. RPG Resources 
Musing about magic systems, and concepts wargames could borrow from RPGs.

#23. Enjoyable or Innovative Mechanics 1 - Setup/Activation
Sharing fun and interesting game mechanics.

#24. Favourite Mechanics 2  - Movement
Sharing more favourite game mechanics. 

#29. Vietnam in Space
Hard sci-fi is everywhere - it's the new "platoon-level WW2" - where has the imagination gone?

#43. Skirmish Wargaming Means so Many Things
Skirmish wargaming is a bit of a catch all term.  What is a true "skirmish" game?

#44. Random Roundup
A few musings on simplicity, dice and absolute values.

#45. "Original" Sci Fi Wargames
Why are all sci fi games re-badged fantasy or WW2?  They need to focus on a particular new technology and build the game around it.

#53. The Future of Wargaming
Extrapolating a few trends to guess where the hobby could go in the future....

#64. Influences on Game Design
Lists of some influential rulesets and those I've found "educational."

#74. Possession, AI and the "Resource Pool"
I discuss a few pet gaming ideas.

#74 II (man, I can't count!) Why Aerial Wargames Suck
Why are we remaking the same 1970s aerial games? We should be pew-pewing not book-keeping like 1970s Napoleonics. A look at some issues and ideas about a tough-to-design genre.


#32. Making Wargames - Ivan Sorenson
Ivan Sorenson (author of FAD, NSiS, 5Core) talks about game design and PDF publishing.

#34. Making Wargames - Brent Spivey
Brent Spivey (author of Havoc, Mayhem, Rogue Planet) talks about game design.

#35.  Game Design & Playtesting - Brent Spivey
Brent Spivey takes a very thorough look at the steps of designing and playtesting games.


#55.Solitaire Wargaming. Designing NPC "AI"
Exploring solo wargaming mechanisms, and "AI" flowcharts to direct opposing troops.

#56. Solitaire Wargaming. Part 2
Defines the difference between tactical (easy to implement) and stategic (not so easy) AI.


#79. Alternate (Unfair) Activation - Bigger Armies Get Better Tactics

Years after my 2014 rants, we have moved on from IGOUGO. But is alternate activation worthy of being the new "standard?"

#80. Heroic Heroes and Leaders Who Lead

Wargaming "leaders" often wear too many hats. Are they a support, a tank or a killing machine?

#81. Overhead or The Cost of Entry

Discussing the concept of "overhead" in rules - a mix of mental strain (new/complex rules), financial and time cost. What do you need to do to start playing?

#82. The Token, Low-Effort, Bolt-On, "Lite" Campaign

I'm sick of every skirmish game advertising it's disappointingly low effort 3-page campaign as a "feature." Why has no one recaptured the Necromunda/Mordhiem magic?

#83. Generic Settings & Backgrounds (bad) vs Familiar Mechanics (good)

A unique setting/theme and narrow focus is far more important than unique dice mechanics to avoid your rules being bland and generic.

#84: Making Wargames: Eric Farrington

Eric is a prolific author both with Wargamesvault & Osprey.

 #85. Morale Rules Suck!

Morale rules are surprisingly low effort for a key aspect of warfare. I dissected many rulesets. 

 #86: The Forgotten: Space Horror

As a follow-on to #85, I explore morale through some homebrew rules.  

#87: Design Goals, "Key Mechanics" and Dice Methods

Having a goal, and choosing rules and mechanics to suit your game goal; rather than creating a game around a mechanic; dice are RNG not core gameplay.


 #88: The Melee Dilemma

Balancing speed of play vs interesting decisions. Should melee just be shoving models together and rolling dice til one dies? 

#89: Too Many Decisions!

While decision points are good (see #1 in the series!) too many serious decisions can stress a player. There needs to be balance.  

#90. I never finished this topic (deployment/terrain)

#91. Devaluing Death

 Miniature combat is too lethal.  How can we move to victory conditions beyond 'kill em all.'

#92: Complexity vs Detail vs Realism

I dive back into a favourite topic.  No, they are not the same thing! I also recap flow, and actions per turn.

#92:  Wargames I Should Love: But I Don't

I dissect Ragnarok and explore 'accessibility/ease of play' vs gimmicks. Yes, my numbering is shonky.

#93: Musings on Movement

Warfare is about movement. Miniatures games is about massacre. Should we move more and kill less? 

#94: Boring & Unfair: Campaigns & Skills

Making campaigns and special skills more interesting and less unfair.


Sheesh, that's quite a bit. So nerdy - luckily I am already married! I'd appreciate folk pointing me towards similar blogs as I only started to write about it because I couldn't find much on the topic that was in detail. However, my google-powers are weak and I'm pretty bad at networking...


  1. thx, this is really useful!

  2. Warning! Extreme self-promotion ahead!

    I write a bit about wargame design on my blog here:

    However, I am by no means an expert on the topic, I only know what I like in a game.

    1. Your blog is already on my links list, so don't be worried about self promotion!

  3. I'll vote for colour coding and separating the rants plan.

    1. Thank you. Most appreciated.

      I'm writing my first new set of rules in 30 years. I've done house rule modifications for sets like BattleTech and AK47R, but my original set OHMU: War Machine tanked back in the day, so revisiting the process has been interesting.

      Your articles have clarified issues I needed to address. Anyway, Big Little Wars is currently a WIP, it's a near future SF setting, based on my Gate Walker setting of my novels.

      So not Vietnam in space. I'm working off TooFatLardies CoC and was given access to their cancelled Fighting Season draft. Currently I'm vacillating over dice and mechanics of combat. So many choices, which one to choose. ;-)