Thursday 25 January 2024

Game Design #104: Start Small, Keep it Tight

I often try indie games and wonder "my goodness, how much has this been playtested?"

Logically, the answer will be "not much." 

I mean, do you really think 'part time designer dad' has playtested each of the 70 special rules in his game? How many campaigns would he have played through from start to finish? 

In fact, how many games has he played, period - with a circle outside (even inside) of his/her own group of friends who may already have a shared expectation/knowledge of the game. In some cases, I'd be surprised if it was more than half a dozen.

Keep it tight. Stay focussed. Start small, expand later.

Example: Necropolis. It's a game where undead battle in spooky locales. It has a clear size limit (1-8 models) it has a clear theme. It plays on a small board. It has only ~5? warband types - which draw from the same ~10 base archtypes. The factions share similar traits, but just have access to different ones. There are 3 schools of magic, with 5 spells each. 

There is plenty of variety available, but the rules are pretty focussed and specific. It would be possible to to playtest quite a big range of combinations, given the small scale, 8-a-side nature of games. It's available from a Discord which by its nature tends to encourage chat/communication amongst players/testers.

You could see it expanding in the future, with extra spells, warbands and character archetypes, but it can build on a small, established, well-tested base. (I have no idea if it has, but it could)

It does not attempt to be a mass battle game and a skirmish game at the same time. It does not attempt to bridge genres. It just does one thing. Small scale, undead skirmish. It does not have 101 unique special rules for each mini and faction. Instead, all factions share a limited pool of special rules; with differentiation/flavour given by denying factions access to certain magic - not inventing their own unique special rules in an appendix somewhere.

It uses archetypes with examples of the minis you could use i.e. a "Revenant" might be a dessicated knight, a barrow monarch, a spectral martyr - it uses less/shared rules to cover multiple ideas/concepts.

The rules are pretty chaotically laid out, so the actual rules - about ~10 pages of  'how to play' are scattered through the book; but the whole shebang (campaign rules, traits, spells, etc) comes to ~50 pages. So it's not too onerous to have skim through to see if you want to try it.

While Necropolis, thematic as it is, isn't my 'thing' (also ugh, hitpoints) I'd be confident that if/when it released it, at least could have been properly tested.  It seems to have started with a reasonable scope/clear focus. I'd say this is a good example of a narrow, limited focus which is eminently 'testable.'

Campaigns are hard impossible? to balance. There are so many branching variables. I've spent a few blog posts agonizing over how to prevent things 'snowballing' i.e. the inevitable increasing gap between winner and losers. But I think I've ceased to care as much, as long as it isn't egregrious. I mean, a campaign that penalizes losers and rewards winners will naturally increase the gap between the have and have nots, but excessive penalties/rewards should be obvious just by reading the rules.  I.e. I recall in MESBG's Battle Companies, hobbit warbands get a 6-point hobbit as a casualty replacement, when the army of the dead warbands get a 12-point replacement. Wow, I wonder how that will go over a long campaign, when one warband gets a stream of reinforcements twice as good as a rival?

 But I reckon 90% of issues can be solved with having a clear campaign length (5-6 games), avoiding excessive penalties/punishments for win vs loss, and just not playing with assholes. The main issue with campaigns is:

Campaigns make is more obvious who players 'are'. It magnifies their personalities.

A competitive jerk who camps all game hiding and sniping your men and not trying for the objective? He may be glossed over if it is a one-off game - but if everyone has to play him over dozens of games, as he uses campaign bonuses to min-max his army to make his camping strat even more unpleasant? Yeah. 

A player who likes fluff and background will certainly take the opportunity to lovingly individualise, kitbash and customize each of his models and give them their own backstory for the campaign. Again, may not matter as much in a one-off game (and he probably won't go to the same effort): but in a campaign, lovingly kitbashed Wizard Uhtred the One Legged can be sniped by the competitive asshole in Turn 1 and he is gone for the rest of the campaign. Ouch.

Start small, start simple

A bit like background fluff, an indie game designer may be best served keeping things minimal. Tossing every cool idea/army/special rule in at the start makes things very difficult to playtest. 

I do science with teenagers and we always start with very simple experiments and change only one variable at a time. Start simple, add minimal extras. Make sure the core works. I know there are all these cool ideas, factions, weapons you have - but do we need them all right from the start?  Make sure infantry rules work first, then add vehicles. Avoid adding 'all the things.'

Tangentially, a very dense complex 'alpha' rulebook makes it less likely a playtester will bother to meaningfully engage with the rules. Speaking personally, I'm far more willing to try a simple alpha concept of 10 pages, than a 120-page magnum opus which has never actually been tested. Why should I spend hours reading something you probably haven't even tested properly yourself? It's like a little kid handing in a story they wrote but haven't even proofread themselves to see if it makes sense.

Stay focussed

Keep the game focussed. Was the sci fi space hulk game meant to have vehicles? Was the game originally meant to have 30 per side? Or did you originally intend for it to be only 10v10? Do you need to start with all 10 factions? Or can you start with 2-3, playtest them, and gradually add the others in later when you know the game works?

Limit rules exceptions.

Avoid bloated lists of traits and special rules. Use shared special rules, archetypes and stats. Have one rule do several jobs i.e. a single "blast" rule can cover an ice blast, fire blast, lightning blast - as long as the effects are similar. Use a "one handed weapon" rather than swords vs axes vs maces. Limit the exceptions. Make 'learning' the rules easy. Detail (if needed) can be added later.  I'm not saying rules can't be complex, or have many weapons/traits/factions etc. I'm just saying they should be avoided at the start.

It's also very easy to fall down the rabbit hole of 'rivet counting' weapons, traits etc. Once when working on an aerial wargame, I spent hours researching and "statting up" missiles - when my core initiative and movement systems had not even been decided. I had this big list of weapons, traits and special rules and I hadn't even fully decided how the core game should play! Or tested the core mechanics! Was it fun to create and research? Yep. Was it a good use of my time. Nope.

Campaigns are going to be nearly impossible to playtest thoroughly. Unless you have a dedicated group, it may even be impossible. I'd suggest campaigns need to be limited to a set amount of games and check you've avoided penalizing losers/rewarding winners too much (see: widening gap between said winners and losers) but the fun of a campaign is probably more dependent on the player personalities.

Do I need this rule/trait/faction - right now?

Like a lot of background fluff - with special rules, weapon lists, traits (aka rules exceptions or extra rules) is it needed yet (if at all) or it it just the designer enjoying exercising his creativity in an undisciplined manner? 

If you are working on homebrew rules, here's a few unpleasant? questions:

1. How much complexity/factions/traits/special rules/gear have you already added? Are they needed? How much had you written before you even tried to playtest your rules?

2. When did you last playtest your rules? How much more 'stuff' will you add in before you decide to do so again? (Will you change so many variables that it's impossible to compare old vs new versions?)

3. If you handed your rules to someone, would they want to read them? I.e. 20 pages vs 120 pages. How big an effort would an outside playtester have to make to even read your rules?

4. How much time do you spend on 'creating' weapons/traits/special rules vs 'testing' core gameplay? Have you minimized the 'rules exceptions?' (see #3). 

5. Are you drifting away/expanding from your core focus? (i.e. such as adding vehicles into a space hulk dungeoncrawler). Is there anything you can prune out?

If you just want to 'create' rules and don't want to play (playtest) your own rules, why would anyone else want to playtest or play them?

Start small. Test, expand.

(Note: this was written under the influence of COVID so the logic may be foggier than usual...)


  1. Necropolis sounds really interesting, but I do wonder if a miniature skirmish game can really be fun on such a small board. Wouldn't be over almost instantly, given typical movement & shooting ranges? I know it works for chess where some pieces have effectively unlimited movement in some directions, but can it work for a game not played on a grid, like Necropolis?

    1. Many games have unlimited movement and unlimited shooting ranges, which has a similar effect. And they seem to be pretty energetically championed.

      (I'm not super sold on the 'unlimited' concept myself, but that's just my preference - for me, it just seems very 'gamey' and logically inconsistent to selectively ignore time/distance scale for some things - i.e. movement - but not others - i.e. say rate of fire of weapons)

      The answer tends to be "use lots of terrain to add tactics" - and since Necropolis is all about making cool (small) spooky dioramas, it's kinda got that angle covered.

      Necropolis also uses hitpoints so you are less likely to 1-shot enemies instantly.

      It's an interesting question though: how big should a terrain table be vs movement of minis? (I've covered movement vs shooting ratios before - a rough guideline is 6" move: 24" shoot common to most wargames)

      Most skirmish games are 48 x 48 but are increasingly 36 x 36 and even 24 x 24.

      -How many turns is the average game? Say ~4?
      -How far is average movement? Say ~6"?

      24" would be reasonable - you'd expect to be able to make it to the enemy edge within an average game.

      Bear in mind I've only casually fiddled with Necropolis - it just ain't my 'thing' - its merely used as a good example of: 'start small and focussed, then expand.'


    2. Not sure I actually answered the question, so....

      The most popular skirmish games would be Kill Team and War Cry - intended to be played on a 30"x22" but commonly played on 24x24" so we could perhaps view that as the average.

      16x16" seems pretty small, but most Necropolis ranged attacks (6") are faaar less than GW games and movement (3"-4") is usually less.

      If you view shooting/movement distance proportionate to table size, Necropolis is actually similar to Kill Team/War Cry.


    3. yeah, looked at it that way it could work. it just *seems* so small :-) I like the idea in theory, you could play this in a pub.

    4. Smaller boards (e.g. 24" x 36") are fine with "unlimited" range, as long as the designer specifically designs around that feature. I don't believe in unlimited movement, though, as tactical (pre-)positioning should always be important.

      As eM notes above, you require "sufficient" (i.e. dense) terrain to break up LoS and provide cover. In addition, it's also about objectives that require movement, and an appropriate risk v. reward system. Finally, you need to keep the model count down so players can't simply flood the board and cover everything.

      - GG

    5. I feel unlimited movement seems arbitrary and boardgamey.

      "So... my movement is unlimited?"

      "Yes - enjoy the tactics, the freedom, the action!" Free yourself from stodgy time scales! Feel the dynamic realism! Embrace building lots of terrain!"

      "What if I want to change directions? What if I want to go round or through a terrain piece?"

      "Well actually your movement ends. Movement is only unlimited in specific situations that we decide"

      "Okay I guess. Well, if time is fluid, then I want to fire an unlimited amount of times! Gimme all the dice!"

      "No no! Time is only fluid for movement, not shooting! You have a strict limit for actions or shooting!"


    6. Hahaha, yeah the problems with unlimited movement are broad and create logical contradictions for the players, hence, it's bad design.

      OTOH, unlimited range isn't unreasonable when it's mirroring real world scale. It just needs to be bound by real world line of sight, reaction time, accuracy, rate of fire, etc. - concepts players easily understand and accept.

      It's irritating that artificial limited range is so common when it creates game contradictions in historical scenarios.

      All of this gets back to play testing mechanics which itself suggests that ad hoc game creation is happening without formal game design. There's something to be said for designing by feel, as it often injects a lot of "character", but not at the expense of playability and suspension of disbelief.

      - GG

    7. "....problems with unlimited movement are broad and create logical contradictions for the players, hence, it's bad design."

      I'm not even saying it's bad. It can be fun. It's different. But I don't think it's the dog's balls like some folk seem to. And I do think it is illogical/selective. It gives me a boardgamey feel with the terrain being 'nodes' that could almost be abstracted. That's OK. It's great people enjoy all sorts of games and mechanics. But it isn't "more realistic" or even "simpler."

      "OTOH, unlimited range isn't unreasonable when it's mirroring real world scale. It just needs to be bound by real world line of sight, reaction time, accuracy, rate of fire, etc - concepts players easily understand and accept."

      Absolutely agree. I naturally expect a sniper rifle to reach across the table. I don't expect the sniper himself to whiz from one table edge to the other in a single move. Even without a precise time scale there is an IMPLIED time scale.

      It's irritating that artificial limited range is so common when it creates game contradictions.... ....suggests that ad hoc game creation is happening without formal game design.

      I wonder if it is less creative ad hoc design and more copying homework. I mean - 6" move, 24" shoot is a 40Kism which transferrred to other games - like Bolt Action - where it is glaringly obviously wrong in a historical context.


    8. It's not necessary wrong to copy successful products, but doing sowithout understanding produces glaring errors when using WW2 minis scaled like modern 40k without the handwavium of 40k.

      Had BA used 1/100 scale FoW minis, the 40k-isms of 6" movement and 24" range never would have been an issue. Thus, it's clear that there wasn't a formal design spec integrating time, distance, and model scale. Instead, we see clearly why 40k doesn't work well for "realistic" wargaming after the 1920s.

      - GG

  2. I like the example of the experiment where you only change one-variable at a time. Often times, as designers we change multiple variables at once and then are not 100% sure what "fixed" the issue. That leaves bloat hanging on at the edges.

    On the flip side, many gamers WANT those options because that is what makes a game worth talking about. If you can't discuss which combo is best, then the game is soon dead. I have found that the most popular games tend to have a lot to talk about. I am looking at Battletech, D&D, and Warhammer as examples. Sometimes it feels like people like to theory-craft them more than actually play them!

    1. I think as a indie designer changing only one thing at a time would be vastly impractical. Time is limited. But if you've added 30 pages, a new faction, 20 new traits and weapons... it's barely even the same game you tested last time.

      To reiterate. I'm not against complexity, chrome, options. I'm against them AT THE START. Start simple. Test, then add.
      The test again. Then add.

      A lot of games seem to leap full grown from the designers mind into a 100+ page document with very little testing in between.

      By 'starting big' (lots of rules before you test) it makes it very hard to nail down the problem.

      In science for kinetic energy, I'd start kids by having them drop a tennis ball and measuring its bounce. NOT by constructing a catapult. Because the greater initial complexity of the latter makes it hard to nail down what is even causing the problem.

      Is it the core mechanics? Or it it one of the 30 traits/weapons/morale rules/etc that is causing the issue? If you start big, it's hard to tell. If you change 100 things before you test again, it's also mostly guesswork.


    2. Makes sense.

      I usually recommend make sure the 4Ms (Movement, Melee, Missile, Morale) before you do anything else.

  3. Great article. My son is frustrated at the pace we've been developing a game. He wants to add in special units & chrome but I'm still trying to get the feel of the gameplay to match what I see in my mind.

    1. There's a good chance that you should be developing 2 different games, "cool" unbalanced chrome vs whatever you're trying to feel out. Given that it's your son, don't sweat it. Calvinball his game and let him play what he wants. It's only a "problem" if he says so.

      - GG

  4. WRT "jerks" who camp for maximum points, aren't they just playing the game the way it was mechanically designed?

    That is, a game that punishes risk-taking that can lead to permanent long-term disadvantage, versus "safe" play that nearly guarantees cumulative progression in power is going to see "smart" players choose the route that gives the higher expectation. And given that nearly every campaign works this way, it's hard to fault strategic players from defaulting to such strategies when they consistently pay off.

    As I've repeatedly mentioned, I like to play PUBG mobile, a Battle Royale game that rewards the last man standing. Over the years, scoring for rank has evolved to increase weight of kills and exploration over pure survival, with recognition for combat feats like killing many opponents quickly. I believe it's technically possible to advance rank purely on combat ability if you are good enough. You'll probably advance slower than a safe camper who consistently gets a lot of survival points, but at least there's a choice in how to rank. That's good design.

    If you don't like those sorts of strategies dominating, then it's really incumbent upon you as the designer to create a different risk v. reward payoff, where rewards significantly outpace risk, to strongly encourage the sort of gameplay you want to see.

    - GG

    1. For as much as Frostgrave gets beat on here for poor combat mechanics limiting player choice the original campaign rules encouraged wizards killing enemies to the point that the camping strategy was a losing strategy. Given the majority of skirmish campaign rules encouraged camping I found that to be a notable difference.

    2. Great example, thanks!

      - GG

  5. Camping Jerks Vs Nice Guys...

    I feel there's a risk in getting bogged in specifics of a broad example and ignoring the big picture aka

    - campaigns branch so much and are nigh impossible to properly test for a small designer
    - i.e. the long term cumulative effects of a campaign (including on gameplay) are thus hard to forsee (vs one-off games)
    - the nature of a campaign tends to make a player's nature/priorities more obvious than in one-off games
    - fun players are far more important than tight balanced campaign rules; you can have an awesome time with dodgy campaign rules and cool players but less so with dodgy players and cool rules

    TL:DR Use commonsense, avoid glaring 'unbalancing things', but don't sweat the campaign rules, it's 99% players that make a campaign fun. Campaigns just emphasize who people already are.

    Going off tangent onto the more specific example i.e competitive camping dude vs fluffy dude:
    "Just because you can, doesn't mean you should"
    Yes, for some, winning "maximum efficiency" is more important than both people having fun. But I don't blame rules loopholes for choosing to be an arse. This kinda underlines that social skills > campaign rules (or indeed any rules). In soccer, I probably COULD pull player's shirts and get away with it. It'd help me defend better and win more. But I don't.

    If everyone else turns up with fluffy named armies and one guy chooses the OP faction aiming for 100% win record; that's a social failure more than a design failure.

    If playing the game with "maximum efficiency" "best strategy" leads to everyone else abandoning the campaign after only a few games, then everyone loses...

    And I speak as someone who is pretty capable of playing the percentages and spotting flaws in a system to "game."

    Discussing indie rules as we are, it's safe to assume we are not talking about competitive campaigns, for big prize money....


    1. It's not in uncommon for campaigns to feature prizes above and beyond bragging rights, especially when sponsored by a store to drive sales, even moreso when an entry fee is paid. If I buy in, the chance I play to win is proportional to the potential value.

      To imagine that any campaign advantage is mean jerks exploiting loopholes against fluff bunnies and clubbing baby seals is equally unreasonable. It's also a weak excuse for not doing the proper play testing to ensure that minmax players aren't unduly rewarded for playing by the rules as written.

      When I play PUBG, it's not uncommon for me to get 3rd partied or sniped by a camper, and I'm not so magnanimous as to eschew such opportunities on principle. The underlying game mechanics are soundly grounded on real world military tactics.

      As before, I'd blame the designer before I blame the player. Designers need to consider a variety of players, some of whom will play seriously. If you release with problematic "loopholes", then it's really highlighting design failure.

      - GG

    2. "It's also a weak excuse for not doing the proper play testing to ensure that minmax players aren't unduly rewarded for playing by the rules as written."

      Q: But.... how much playtesting CAN a small indie designer do? Do you honestly expect them to playtest 10 campaigns? 5? 3? How many one-off games do you expect them to play? This is, 99% of the time, not their full time job.

      "When I play PUBG..."
      I'd say a popular worldwide online game is not even remotely the same as a cozy campaign at your local gaming store. Turning a phone app on and off with a bunch of anonymous internet strangers is a very different level of commitment, responsibility and relationships. I doubt I could drive away all the PUBG players in my town like I could destroy a Mordhiem campaign.

      "To imagine that any campaign advantage is mean jerks exploiting loopholes against fluff bunnies and clubbing baby seals is equally unreasonable."
      Absolutely. But that's not what I said. It was that campaigns, by their nature magnify the difference in player expectations/focus. It gives players exaggerated opportunity to 'be themselves' - for good or ill.

      "As before, I'd blame the designer before I blame the player. Designers need to consider a variety of players, some of whom will play seriously. If you release with problematic "loopholes", then it's really highlighting design failure."

      Q: Why do rules NEED to cater to all types of players? Were games like Burrows and Badgers, SoBH, EVER intended to be played seriously/competitively? Why MUST designers cater for competitive players? Many deliberately avoid points values etc and explicitly say they are not intended to be competitive.

      I can play backyard footy with my mates. We don't need a ref and the rules can be a bit vague. There are loopholes! But the onus is on players not to be jerks. I COULD squash a new player in a wargame I am teaching them. I could use a subtle rule interpretation to 'gotcha' them. But I... ...just don't?

      I do agree with obvious loopholes & flaws. A quick glance at LOTR Battle Companies shows Rangers get all OP heroes and their reinforcements are all OP heroes. Even a commonsense skim of the rules points out they will start strong and snowball even stronger. Yes, this is a design flaw. But even then - players can just avoid Rangers... No one "has" to play them just because the flaw exists. It's still a player choice.

      "It's not in uncommon for campaigns to feature prizes above and beyond bragging rights, especially when sponsored by a store to drive sales"

      Huh. I didn't know any small indie games that did this. I don't think I've even seen a sponsored/$/prize campaign from anything other than a big commercial company. But I do live in Australia!

      Remember, I'm talking in the context of small, homebrew rules - Nordic Weasel not GW. I don't view it as a design fail if they are unable to thoroughly test a campaign.


    3. "....not a lot of people in either space are interested in helping you play or test your game. Why would they? It takes up their time and their effort for little reward. In addition, you can't take their feedback at face value. Players do not always understand designer intent or are aligned with the designer's goals."

      One thing I notice is that sometimes rules seem to be written for the local players who already know the intent/the rules. They are awful if you are the 'early adopter' - and you are learning the rules from the book solo.

      The other is 'sugarcoating.' I feel people are disproportionately shocked if I criticize rules here on this blog; then I jump on Youtube and the reviews are 99% sunny, positive, or gloss over faults, and I realise the default review is "good". It's like movie reviews where a 8/10 is a normal movie. Or even a shitty ebay seller can have a 94% rating.

      Imo, if I bought (or even tried) your rules; you are already a success. It's OK for me not to like them.

      I don't expect indie rules to be scientifically playtested; but I would suggest they start small, and simple and then work up. Sometimes I get see drafts of rules which are already 100+ page documents with many factions, special rules and chrome and they have obviously never been tested.

      It seems an exercise of undisciplined creativity (rather like much background fluff).


    4. A small indie designer should be designing games and campaigns that they can test, rather than kitchen sinking something untestable like SPI's infamous Campaign for North Africa. This gets right back to the KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid) principle. If a designer creates a big branching campaign with too many options, that's the same type of overreach as having a laundry list of special rules for each model. Therefore, testing difficulty is not a valid excuse.

      A campaign in an indie game should be short and simple, linking all of the one-off scenarios together, plus a couple of campaign-specific "giant killer" and "underdog" scenarios that deliberately give weaker players a chance to "catch up", and maybe a "grand finale" to cap things off. Similarly, to simplify campaign rewards, bonuses and penalties. All of this is in the designer's control by dint of their choice to include them.

      A few comments and answers:

      PUBG is most typically played as 25 teams of 4, and teams typically form out of clans who regularly play together. If you're a jerk, you'll get kicked or denied healing. There's also a reputation meter that will block you from team play. Also, you missed the entire point about the designers deliberately tweaking incentives to provide viable alternatives to meta camping deemed undesirable play style by many opponents.

      In any game, there will be players who want to win just as there are fluff bunnies, noobs, and people who are there for the experience. That's human nature, and it's either naive or ignorant not to address it in some ways. WotC did a whole thing about gamer archetypes to maximize the appeal of Magic, and the results speak for themselves. OTOH, if you want to restrict to a limited audience a la "Play like you've got a pair", that's fine, too. Just be clear and upfront that you intend to alienate many gamers by literally telling them "this game is not for you". Add a 'votekick' type rule whereby min-max Munchkin jerks suffer in-game penalties based on social peer scoring, regardless of how well they played.

      Finally, those prize campaigns are typically run by the local game store as a marketing activity to seed a new game, although it's not unheard of for the publisher to provide "bonus" prize support. Back when I played a lot of GW regularly, I basically "won" the equivalent of a small starter army; however, I spent far more than that, so it clearly worked out for the store, too.

      - GG

    5. @eM - A couple comments on your reply to EF:

      Rules being written for the locals is a side effect of the designer being able to clearly explain the game and the changes that they've made to get to whatever point the game is at when it releases. New players don't have that luxury, and have to go by the Rules As Written, rather than being able to infer the Rules As Intended from previous playtesting over months & years. Even more the point, the ruleset very likely directly incorporates feedback reflecting preferences of that local group. To bridge this gap, an Introduction and/or Designer's Notes can be very helpful, ideally in the rulebook itself, but now perfectly acceptable as a blog entry or website posting.

      Sugarcoating feedback has to be on both sides, as it's not really good to antagonize the designer or the tester. A "gentleman's 'B'" should be par for the course; after all, they're playing it, so there's something about the game that they liked enough to play it and provide feedback!

      Heck, for many designers, just getting new eyeballs on the ruleset is a big win. Getting back to the original post, it's a lot easier to convince someone to blind read a small pamphlet than it is to get them to read a monstrous rulebook. The Osprey games are probably around the maximum length for easy accessibility.
      - GG

    6. "Sugarcoating feedback has to be on both sides, as it's not really good to antagonize the designer or the tester. A "gentleman's 'B'" should be par for the course; after all, they're playing it, so there's something about the game that they liked enough to play it and provide feedback!"

      My 10c: As I tend to get rules 'sight unseen' I often like the IDEA of the rules - say "steampunk zombie monster hunting ninjas" but when the rules arrive I find the execution is meh. I don't feel like I owe anyone a default good score. If I order a delicious looking burger on a menu and it tastes like sawdust - I ain't recommending it to my mates. No need to be rude to the server, of course.

      That said, I do think it's important to point out "why" - and to make your personal preferences clear.

      For example, it's probably obvious I dislike personally 10+ hitpoints per mini in a skirmish game as the "take 9 HP and you're fine, then a rabbit bites you for 1HP and you keel over" seems (to me) illogical, unnecessary and extra recording. But it's possible to have HP and be a great skirmish game. That's just my preference.

      But with something like modern rifles having a 24" hard range (Bolt Action?) which in scale with the minis looks like the bullets vanish after 50m/50yards and you can stand 51m away and be immune from gunfire - I reckon that's objectively weird, regardless of my preferences.

      I have noticed a trend to put extra design notes/stuff that didn't fir on blogs/websites.... but is the onus on me to hunt it down?

      Random aside: I like the price point, but think the Osprey books would benefit from a bit more flexibility; maybe another 10+ pages wriggle room. They sometimes remind me of marking a kids essay when the kids rush the end cos time is running out in the period....


    7. Fair enough, all around.

      The big question is what they'd be using the extra pages for. Another 10 pages of introductory background fluff? More special rules? What?

      - GG

    8. "The big question is what they'd be using the extra pages for."

      Depends on the book, but amusingly, it's *usually* whatever was close to the end - the campaign, morale rules, etc - just like a rushed end to a kid's essay! It'd like they suddenly realised "crap, I am only allowed 70 pages and I'm on 65 already!"


  6. Could not agree more about osprey books and the artificially ‘rushed’ feeling they add. Even if there’s no additional content the author wanted to fit in, Several osprey published rulesets I can think of in recent years could have enormously benefited from using a few of those pages fleshing out a complex or ambiguous rule with some examples of play.

    1. They also feel "crammed" which makes them hard to read. They can be very dense and tightly formatted with walls of text - I presume the author needed to "fit" his ideas into a page count.

      It makes them surprisingly hard to use at times, which is a bit weird as they seem aimed at the small and "lite" rules niche.

      Even play examples (when they have them) aren't necessarily user friendly - En Garde's play example was 1 1/2 pages of dense, wall-of-text. In contrast to say my MESBG book where rules have widely spaced paragraphs, accompanied by annotated photos of the rule in action.


    2. Let's not pretend that another 10 or 20 pages would alleviate the problem of excessive rules and inadequate explanation. The text will expand to overflow the space available, precisely because these are relatively novice authors who are trying to make a big first impression. And supposing that they managed the page count to include proper whitespace and clear examples, the total amount of content would likely decrease. Instead of 10 missions, there might only be 5. Instead of 50 special rules, there might only be a couple dozen. And then the players would complain "it's too simple" and "lacks advanced content".

    3. ... Sorry, published by accident. Anyhow...

      There's no perfect answer, as different players will want different things. Some won't ever notice (or care) that they're not playing as the author intended. And if they ever learned, they might just house rule the way that they've been playing.

      - GG

    4. Hm, I don't think many of the Osprey authors are truly novices. I mean, some may be, but at some point if you have several games under your belt and you're making a living out of it, are you really still novice?

      Ash Barker, Joe McCullough, Daniel Mersey, Andrea Sfiligoi -- none of these guys is a novice rules author.

      I agree Osprey books often lack clarify, good examples and playtesting, but I don't think this is because their authors are novices. I think it's the reality of these being budget titles.

    5. @Andy - I didn't want to characterize them as amateurs, as they are getting paid for their work, but I wasn't aware that they're typically publishing several games. The impression I had was of authors getting A (singular) game published, and being lucky to get a sequel. If they actually are pumping out multiple games, then there really isn't any explanation other than "it's what the author intended", which makes things actually worse because it's no longer their first time out.

      - GG

  7. Osprey has some pretty tight restrictions on what they can and can not do in a Blue Book.
    - They have a very specific word count
    - Set number of images (including cover)
    - The author often has to arrange their own photos
    - No or few charts/diagrams/boxes (Generally the author provides these themselves and might can be added to the book)
    - Very rarely room for Design Notes, Quick reference sheets, unit cards, etc.
    - There is never an index
    - They all use the same font, white-space, lay-out, etc. and the Author can only re-arrange paragraph or sentence placements
    - Edits, structure of the rules, phrasing and grammar are mostly up to the writer with some editorial input for clarity
    - Typically, you have 3 drafts between contract and publication over a 18 month to two year period.
    - Post-launch promotion is up to the author
    - They rarely do sequels or follow-up books after In Her Majesty's Name. You have to have a strong pitch/sales to get a second chance at it. Even better for a hardcover.

    From my experience with other Print shops for Newspapers and Yearbooks. Osprey Editors are working on a number of books and games at once. They are scheduling time on the Bloomsbury printing machines (for limited print runs) years in advance. Their main job is scheduling output and then making sure the proofs are ready when the machines are ready and delivering it within spec. The most important thing for them is that you deliver drafts on schedule, because a delay can throw off the timing for a number of print runs for various books, not just the Blue Book series.

    The margins on Blue Books is probably not that great, and it is amazing to me that they still exist. Osprey's goal is 2 a year, but some years you might only get 1 or none if something goes wrong or they can not get on the Print schedule. If you miss your window, you might not get another chance; see Operation: Flashpoint.

    Therefore, there is a certain approach to writing a Blue Book. The Hardcovers might be completely different. For Blue Books it is about hitting deadline, being easy to work with, working within your limitations, and sales.

    1. Thanks for the details, it's not the least bit surprising that the actual publication of a book is purely business, with hard requirements and print deadlines. If it's a 2-year cycle, do authors receive $80k over that timeframe? $40k per year to cover living expenses, or you can't really make a living writing rulebooks for Osprey.

      OTOH, of it's a side gig for extra income, then it's rules writing in their spare time, and the rush to deadline will see less polish.

      - GG

    2. 80k? Full time job? Wat? If anyone is becoming an indie wargames author for money (even 'extra income'), it's for the wrong reasons.

      Osprey may sound like the big time, but I recall when Osprey was purchased ~10 years ago? it had 200+ titles and made less than a million profit. That's ~$5000/title profit, to give you an idea of their economy of scale.

      Perhaps if someone writes a constant stream of dozens and dozens of rules that 'add up' - the "Frostgrave" guy probably makes a full-time living out of rules writing - he's done about 50+? reasonably popular rules/supplements etc in a short time frame.


    3. I'm pretty sure Andrea Sfiligoi from Ganesha Games has said he manages a living out of his games. He has tons of rulesets (besides the famed Song of Blades and Heroes) and is very prolific with expansions too. I'm glad he can support himself, he's really a top notch guy.

      Agreed however that most indie authors aren't in it for the money. It's probably more about publishing the kind of games they themselves enjoy playing.

  8. As a fellow author once told me (Paraphrasing), "You published a book, congrats. Now do it 49 more times and you might make a living."

    I have been trying to follow their advice and get to 50 publications.