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OnLine of Departure Support Wargames by Jim Werbaneth




Supplements and Player's Aids



Originally Published February 2, 2003

By Jim Werbaneth

For most wargamers, the process by which their games are designed is a little mysterious.  Designer’s notes might shed some light on how the art works, and there have been a few more attempts to shed a little more light on the subject.  Long out of print, SPI’s book Wargame Design presents a detailed history of how the classic Panzergruppe Guderian was designed, but the SPI approach is much different than how most games are designed today.  In the SPI system, the designer might draw out a rough version of the concepts of his game, but turn over most of the work, all of the hard work, to the developer, who turned a handful of notes and embryonic ideas into cardboard reality.  In the end though, the SPI method did not outlive the company, with its singular concentration of design and development talent in one place, and today it is the designer who is the real driving force of the game. 

I have some experience as a designer, producing Inchon for Command magazine, and Britain Stands Alone for GMT Games in the early nineties.  I’ve designed three other games too, which for business reasons have not seen publication, on the Chosin Reservoir battles of 1950, Rommel’s desert victory at Gazala, and the liberation of the Marianas islands in the Pacific War.

Along the way, and with the advice of other boardgame designers willing to share their experiences, I settled on a process of design that I found to be efficient and conducive to better quality.  At the same time, having a structured design approach is always better than an undisciplined methodology, which leaves too much room for oversights. 

I break down the design process into five distinct stages:

  • Conceptual Formulation

  • Feasibility Study

  • Physical Design

  • Trial and Error

  • Development

Of these, the first four are the responsibility of the designer, and the last is that of the developer.  In many cases the designer does his own development work, but in my opinion the game is served much better when there is a second pair of eyes and a new brain willing to look at it dispassionately, and hone the design further.  However, the best developers keep the designer involved to the very end, as the finished product should always embody the principles and intent determined in the first phase, though in a more refined state. 


First, there is the vision. 

A writer should write the novel that he wants to read, but that no one else has though to write yet.  A game designer should work from the same premise, designing the wargame that he wants to play. 

More than anything, that calls for deciding upon an essential vision of the wargame.  Naturally, the designer starts with the subject of his creation, which battle or conflict he will cover, and the scale.  That comes first before anything else.  Often, he then proceeds to the intended level of complexity and detail.  Though inevitable, he might not do this as consciously as describing it might sound, but in any case, it happens. 

My approach too is to work out the most important mechanics from an early date, long before the first ink meets the paper.  I prefer to work out the most critical systems and mechanisms in my head, visualizing how they will work, and work together.  I believe that working through this at the beginning saves time and energy later, and also reduces the chances of confusion about the direction the game will take.  The last can become very important in the event of adversity, such as playtest results indicating that changes are in order; in those cases, the designer should remember what parts of his game are absolutely essential to the project’s character, and which aspects can be refined without fatally compromising that intent. 

I also envision some special emphasis in the game, some single characteristic that will give it its identity.  In Inchon, it was the proficiency ratings for the combat units, which measure their “soft” attributes such as training, leadership and cohesion, whereas the combat factors are concerned chiefly with firepower.  On the combat results table, the combat odds are dependent on combat ratings, with the differences between proficiency ratings serving as die roll modifiers.  From the very start, I wanted proficiency to be a saving grace for better units facing unfavorable odds, and as a something that might frustrate a seemingly superior force. 

Britain Stands Alone is a more complex game, and my special emphasis there reflected it, operating on several levels.  At the highest, I intended to demonstrate the interaction of air, naval and land forces in amphibious warfare at the strategic level, as Gulf Strike (Victory Games) does for operations in the 1980’s.  Next, I wanted to show that getting an army onto the enemy shore was not the ultimate measure of success; those units would have to be supplied and supported too.  Finally, in research for earlier articles, I had learned that tactical air support in the Blitzkrieg era was geared toward interdiction and strikes behind the lines, rather than close tactical support, such as that practiced by the United States Marine Corps in the Pacific War and Korea.  Thus air missions against ground forces in Britain Stands Alone are conducted independently of ground attacks, and depending on the number of hits inflicted on a land unit, first erode its movement and attack ratings, and then its ability to defend itself. 

These were decisions that I made long before actually designing the games, and which survived through all the following phases of the projects. 

There is one prerequisite that might seem obvious, but still needs to be mentioned: Before beginning, an aspiring designer should have more than a passing knowledge of the subject.  Without some familiarity, the original principles of the design are more like prejudices. 


The second stage of design asks whether the design is doable, and if it is, whether it is marketable.  A designer is always free to assemble a game for his own education or for the enrichment and enjoyment of a small circle of friends.  Yet I can attest from experience that it is a lot more satisfying to have the game published professionally, and that should be the ultimate goal. 

Then too, one has to look at the financial rewards.  Being paid for work always makes it more worthwhile, and though no one can make a living from board wargame design alone anymore, there is no shame in looking toward a royalty check.  Though only two of my five games have been published, both all either passed a feedback questionnaire, or were commissioned by a publisher.  Of the three that did not see print, Rommel at Gazala was approved and purchased by Command (which elected to publish another game on the same subject with an identical title), and Marianas Campaign was designed for Spearhead Games, which is no longer in existence.  Frozen Chosin is the property of Liberty Games, which published one game, Battle for the Bayous, and not followed up with any others.  But in no case did I design any game purely on speculation. 

Besides ascertaining if there is a market for his work, the designer needs to find out if there is sufficient historical data available for the design.  Even if the information is available, it has to be in a language that the designer can actually access; one who wants to simulate obscure battles of the Hungarian army in World War II, for example, should either be fluent in Magyar himself, or have a lot of research assistance from someone who is.  Similarly, either party has to have access to sources in the language. 

There are three areas in which the designer needs information: Map, order of battle, and narrative.  For the first, it is a matter of finding out what the battlefield looked like, and the terrain features that influenced and determined the battle.  Most maps in general histories are pretty useless, so one needs more specialized sources. 

The same applies to orders of battle.  With general histories, it can be a struggle finding out the specific units that fought, let alone which ones were reinforced or worn down by previous battles, their relative performance, or special capabilities.  One has to get past the word general, and the individual human interest stories that overly concern many writers. 

Narrative is the easiest element to find.  This starts with the background to the battle or campaign, then goes to its story, and ends with the ever-important questions of who won and why. 

A resourceful game designer can usually find the information that he needs.  Some, such as Vance Von Borries, are genuine scholars of their subjects, and go far beyond the standard of the minimum data necessary.  Sometimes, just looking at the wealth of geographic and order of battle information encapsulated in his East Front Series (GMT) can be a little intimidating, as few can meet his standards.  But for the rest of us, there is hope of at least reaching adequacy. 

Obvious sources include articles in Strategy & Tactics and the unfortunately defunct Command, military history magazines for gamers.  If an article does not have what the designer needs, then bibliography can certainly help.  Indeed, the bibliography of any previous game or general history is vital to finding out what sources are available, and in many cases even the more obscure can be obtained through interlibrary loan. 

There is another easily obtainable type of source in the form of the Osprey Campaign Series of books.  These are fairly brief, in some ways being more like very long magazine articles than in-depth tomes.  However, they are excellent sources for basic order of battle and narrative data, and tend to have abundant and detailed maps as well as illustrations that actually shed light on the battle and combatants. 

When and where they exist and are available, designers should use official histories.  Though they can be self-serving in some cases, and purposely perpetuate some of the more dearly-held misconceptions of the publishing country, it should be remembered that the overriding reason for their existence is to educate future leaders in the lessons of the battle. 

There is one more means of research that one might forget: Personal reconnaissance.  If a designer lives within a day or two’s drive of a battlefield, as is often true for those in the Middle Atlantic about to design a game on Gettysburg or Antietam, then by all means he should get in the car and go for a visit.  Though terrain can change greatly over the decades or centuries------as shown by the trees that now obscure the Civil War-era vistas of Fredericksburg-----one can still get insights from a visit than cannot be had from a book or a map. 

There are instances in which the information that a designer needs just does not exist, particularly for ancient and medieval battles.  In these cases, a best guess is perfectly acceptable, provided it is the most educated guess possible, and the designer admits such. 

Even if there is enough data available, the designer has one more question to answer, and that is whether the subject is really “gameable.” 

There are a lot of battles, campaigns and wars throughout history, and not all of them make good games.  For starters, many were so totally one-sided that no one would want to play the side that lost historically; for example, Hannibal’s victory at Lake Trasimeme is a fascinating battle and a tour de force of the tactical arts, but no one would want to play the hapless, blundering Romans, whose tactical choices are limited by the confining terrain anyway.  Similarly, in a nineteenth-century colonial battle in which spears were pitted against gatlings and bolt-action rifles would hardly appeal to a player given the spears. 

Others are just boring; grinding battles of attrition such as the Hürtgen Forest, with much blood and little maneuver, fit that description, adding a less than attractive sense of futility too. 

A battle can also have hinged on a miscue by a leader so stupid and inexplicable that no wargamer would even replicate it of his own volition.  Chancellorsville, lost by the Union due to Joseph Hooker’s exasperating loss of nerve at the moment of decision, is one such engagement, making it difficult but not necessarily impossible to simulate in a board wargame. 

Other situations present the exact opposite kind of obstacle, a coup by a general that represents such a stunning leap of genius that it immortalizes him.  Napoleon’s actions at Austerlitz certainly qualify. 

Ultimately, the feasibility stage represents a moment of truth for the designer.  Does the subject of the game warrant proceeding further?  If so, does the designer have enough confidence in his own abilities and resources to make it work both as a simulation and a game? 

This is the time too when he begins attending to the business side of the design process.  It is a good time to inquire of prospective publishers about their interest in the project.  For a magazine game, this calls for writing a feedback proposal, which entails another set of skills for presenting the essentials of the game in a manner that is both clear and appealing. 

That calls back to the conceptual formulation phase for the designer’s special emphasis, the aspects of the game that do most to give it a unique identity.  When selling the project, either to the owner of the firm or to the readership at large, it is good to have a “hook,” and this is likely to provide it. 

The feasibility study phase is also a good time to write an historical article to accompany the finished game.  I did this with both Inchon and Britain Stands Alone, writing the article before actually designing the games, and found that it helped a great deal to help organize my thoughts and the information at hand.  A lot of times, particularly during the design of Inchon, I could refer to the manuscript of my article instead of leafing through the notes and photocopies from my prior research, with the extra benefit that the game and the article fit better from a conceptual viewpoint within the magazine. 

The business of creativity provides one more reason to write an article: Income.  Nearly without exception, every magazine game needs an historical article to go along with it, and considering that the designer is supposed to acquire some expertise in the subject while designing the game, it makes sense for him to write it.  Even if the magazine does not choose to publish the game, or if it was never intended for such a venue anyway, the designer can still see some reward for his work through having the article picked up by someone. 


This phase of the creative process involves taking the concepts formed in the first stage and tested for workability in the second into physical form.  The end result is the first prototype of the wargame. 

It is not necessarily the most time-consuming stage; I tend to spend a lot more time on the first and especially second.  But it requires more concentrated time and attention, and consumes more energy.  I do not think it is a coincidence that every time I have designed a game, I got sick during the physical design stage, usually with something like the flu. 

The physical design stage is the one that most players would associate with wargame design-----drawing the map, laying out the counters, writing the rules and tables.  For me at least, there is little room for major conceptual breakthroughs, as I always have the basic principles of the game worked out in the first phase.  There is some room for adjustment though, as what looks pretty sound in one’s mind can prove in need of refinement when put onto paper.  But the operative word is refinement; I never went through the physical design and had second thoughts about the essential foundation, let alone felt a need to go back to the beginning and start over. 

I have to confess that this is my least favorite part of the design process.  It is less creativity than the transformation of putting creativity into a more permanent form, and since all of my work was done on a DOS-era computer, technology was of far less help than it would be too others.  Later designers might benefit from more advanced word processor software than my old WordPerfect 5.1, and who could have a useful graphics package for counters (I had none).  On the other hand, generations of designers before me could only dream about any sort of computer. 


No battleplan survives contact with the enemy, and no wargame design, no matter how rigorously conceived, survives contact with reality without some necessary change.  This begins with the trial and error stage. 

This sees the first rounds of playtesting.  My preference is to begin testing with one group, and attend the games myself to see firsthand how they react to design.  At first at least, I do not look for “gamey” strategies and gimmicks that warp strategy from roughly historical alternatives and patterns, but rather examine the essential soundness of the design and its components. 

The combat results table is the one element that is most certain of alteration, regardless of how well I might think it was conceived.  Inchon presented a clear lesson in that. 

I created the first draft of the CRT based on that of Hitler’s Last Gamble (3W), the Battle of the Bulge game designed by Danny Parker.  I respected his methodology and expertise, and thought it would be valid to extrapolate from World War II combat with similar organizations and weapons, at a comparable scale, to engagements in Korea about six years later.


Unfortunately I was completely wrong.  Not about Parker’s abilities, which I still hold in high regard, but about the applicability of his CRT to my game.  The first rounds of playtesting revealed that it was not nearly bloody enough to simulate the battles of the Inchon campaign.  The North Koreans were able to make a stand right outside the American beachheads and hold the invaders there in an Anzio-like enclave, despite the latter’s massive advantages in tactical airpower and naval gunfire support.  It was both highly ahistorical and very frustrating for the players. 

More than a little frustrated myself, I suspended playtesting and redid the CRT.  This time, rather than deferring to another designer’s work, I went back to my notes and analyzed historical combats during the drive from Inchon to Seoul.  I played my prototype solitaire a few times, making a small number of minor adjustments, and arrived at a CRT with which I was comfortable. 

I took it back to the playtest group, and it worked for them too, to my satisfaction.  Ultimately, it was the most important change in the game, and I believe the key to making it a success. 

Frozen Chosin uses a variation of the Inchon system, with two major changes.  One is a change in scale, to companies and two turns, one day and one night, per calendar day.  The other is a move from six-sided to ten-sided dice, later adopted for Marianas Campaign too, calling for adjustments to the CRT and the units’ proficiency ratings. 

Despite the benefits and lessons from Inchon, Frozen Chosin still called for one major change.  Early playtesting revealed that the forward USMC units had too much freedom of action, effectively turning around and running for the base at Hagaru-ri as soon as the first waves of Chinese came out of the mountains.  Historically, the 1st Marine Division was under orders to attack to the northwest, not conduct a fighting retreat in the opposite direction, until the level of the Chinese intervention and the danger posed by it became more clear to the X Corps headquarters.  Additionally, one could not simply turn around two regiments and move the other way, not without a good deal of preparation and staff work.  The game was allowing the United Nations player to reverse direction with a pace that would have been the envy of his historical counterparts. 

As a matter of principle, I try to stay away from rules that simply and perhaps arbitrarily prevent a player from a specific, fundamental strategic decision.  Consistent with that, and with the needs revealed in playtesting, I opted to penalize the UN player in terms of victory points, representing additional risks and the loss of supplies and equipment, if he retreated too quickly.  The player might decide to turn around and run, but he had a reason though not a compulsion to behave in a more historical manner. 

Over the long term and multiple designs, the most frequent and critical areas that require adjustment are play balance and the victory conditions.  They are frequently related, as an imbalanced game might be fixable by either altering the victory points from geographic objectives or inflicting casualties; make this town a little more important and that mountain a little less so, and balance might be attained.  Sometimes too, as shown by the example of Inchon’s CRT, it is necessary to make a change to the game itself.  Then there is the corollary of Frozen Chosin, in which a change to the game can have an impact on the victory conditions. 

Through this stage of trial and error, the designer has to keep in mind what is a part of the game that can be changed, and what is an immutable core principle.  The first is open to refinement, the second is so fundamental that revision effectively abandons the design, and calls for starting over.  I believe that a designer has to have sufficient self-discipline and confidence in himself and his work, to defend the character of the game, even when playtesters express dismay with some of its details.  At the same time, he must keep his ears and his head open to constructive suggestions about those details. 

Either way, the decisions and responsibility rest with the designer. 

He has one more decision to make, and that is when to submit the game design to the publisher.  There really is a point at which the designer feels that he has done all he can, and the game is good as he can make it, and that is when he should declare victory. 

Some novice designers might think that they cannot hold onto the game for too long, and that every playtest session represents another step toward perfection.  I beg to differ.  One can get bogged down in the details, and start to see problems that do not exist.  Even if they do, they might be too small to warrant major examination and major work; furthermore, it is possible that a minor shortcoming is more appropriate for the developer to address, with a fresh outlook and new sets of playtesters. 

A designer should be just as ready to see when his work is done as he is to notice that it needs more refinement.  When that happens, it is time to pack off the finished prototype and hand off responsibility to the developer. 


In the first four stages of the design process, the designer has autocratic authority over his game.  He decides what changes are in order, which ones are adopted, and when his work is done.  After the game goes to the developer, usually appointed by the publisher, the responsibility passes to him. 

A good developer continues the work of a good designer, and has the same respect for the game’s core values as does the man who formulated them.  A poor developer is a frustrated designer himself, and sees the game as something he can use as an avenue for his own ideas; I am completely convinced that if a developer is ready to completely retool a game under his care from the ground up, then he should quit, and go design his own game on the subject. 

The developer continues the trial and error phase of the process, overseeing new rounds of playtesting with new groups, including the blindtesting.  It is a bonus if the designer can run his work past a second playtest group that he does not observe, preferably true blindtesters who do not know the designer, and are seeing the game for the first time.  It is much more important for the developer to introduce this element of validation. 

All the while, the developer should communicate with the designer.  The designer is the originator of the game, and is the ultimate authority on what principles and intentions underpin it.  Further, he has his experience with the playtesting, and should be able to share what he witnessed, and the rationale of the refinements he made.  

For his part, the developer cannot blindly rubber stamp the game design.  One who fails to exercise a critical eye fails, period.


Wargame design is hard work.  That should be obvious to any player.  However, until one actually designs a game, it is impossible to fully understand just how much work goes into it.

A designer does not need any more work or any more aggravation than is incumbent in the task anyway.  Going about wargame design according to a structured and disciplined methodology actually makes matters easier by allocating the right labor to the right time.

That should not lead to rigidity though.  If there is a need to mix some work out of order, in order to make a better game, then the designer should yield to necessity.  For example, if the project is in the trial and error stage and the designer discovers some new information that calls for revising the order of battle, then the interest of accuracy trumps the structure of the design process. 

Preparation is a major part of this.  In fact, I see the conceptual preparation and feasibility study phases being primarily preparation; when the designer sits down to draw the map or write the rules, the essentials of the game should be in place already, just waiting to be put onto paper. 

Moreover, the process is one of allocating the right model of work to the correct time.  There are two ways of looking at design, the one of Nikola Tesla and the other adopted from Thomas Edison.  The great Serbian-American scientist Tesla was noted for his ability to work out difficult problems in his brain, then translating them into inventions such as alternating current and the rudiments of radio. 

Tesla’s onetime employer and subsequent rival Edison attacked operated from an entirely different point of view.  His approach was experimental much more than theoretical, and was summed up by his oft-quoted principle that genius was one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. 

Which methodology is appropriate for wargame design?  I hold that both are, at different times.  The designer begins with a Tesla model of creation, and in the fourth phase of trial and error, tests and validates along Edisonian lines.  Each works in its own time. 

The designer should also keep in mind what is the ultimate objective, which is the completion of a historically valid, entertaining game that ends up professionally published.  It is more than just a creative task; it is a business proposition, as the game has to be sold as well designed.  There is room too for that in design process, and indeed it is integrated into it. 

This is one more indication, as although it was really necessary, that wargame design is multi-faceted, multi-task activity.  It calls for research skills, analysis, writing, coordination of testing groups, and a measure of salesmanship.  But just as the methods of Tesla and Edison each have a place in the process, so do all of these activities.  The trick is performing them in the right sequence.