PROCESS INTO PRODUCT
A DESIGN METHODOLOGY FOR BOARD WARGAMES
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,
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:
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
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
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
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
There is another easily obtainable type of source in the form of
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
TRIAL AND ERROR
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.
I created the first draft of the CRT based on that of Hitler’s
Last Gamble (3W), the
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
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
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
Despite the benefits and lessons from
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
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
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
Either way, the decisions and responsibility rest with the
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
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
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
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.