Thursday, 22 November 2012

My Ten Commandments of wargame design

A couple of days ago David Crook (with whom I enjoy a very regular email correspondence) informed me that he was going to try to write his own ‘Modern’ and ‘19th Century’ wargames rules specifically to use with his wooden block armies.

I am pleased to see yet another wargamer joining the ranks of the wargames designers, and I sent him a list of ten suggestions that I thought might be of help to him … and he has suggested that I share them with my other regular blog readers.

So here are my Ten Commandments of wargame design, in no particular order …
  1. Set out what you want to achieve before your start. This should determine the basic structure your rules will follow and will help you to identify the mechanisms you want to use.
  2. Try to keep the structure of your rules logical.
  3. Always try to devise the simplest method of achieving the results you want to achieve.
  4. Always err on the side of simplicity rather than complexity.
  5. Always remember that less is more.
  6. Use the psychology of numbers (i.e. High is good, low is bad) when using dice to generate results.
  7. Try to make ensure that each mechanism you use is not dependent upon another mechanism otherwise changing one can end up affecting everything else. In other words use ‘plug in’ mechanisms that can be ‘unplugged’ if they don’t work.
  8. Play-test each mechanism before you add it to the rules.
  9. Keep that language you use simple and consistent.
  10. Remove anything that does not contribute to the rules. In other words if players keep forgetting to use a mechanism and the games are not affected by its absence ... then ask yourself whether or not you need that mechanism.
None of them is revolutionary, but they are the distillation of many years of trial and quite a lot of error!

One final thing; a quote from an excellent film about getting old – THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL – which is equally applicable to all sorts of situations in life:

'Everything will be all right in the end. If it's not all right, then it's not the end.'

18 comments:

  1. Bang to rights.

    I've been working on improving my favourite gaming obsession, namely BattleTech, on my blog using the keep it simple paradigm. and everything you say hits the spot for me.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ashley,

    Good luck with your developments. Whatever you end up with, it will be yours and will reflect what you want from a set of wargames rules.

    My Ten Commandments are the result of hard-learned lessons and many past mistakes ... and I suspect that many wargame designers have a similar list of 'does' and 'don'ts'.

    All the best,

    Bob

    ReplyDelete
  3. Bob,

    Much good advice there,
    But, personally, I have found Wellington's comment: 'I have no plan; I shall be guided by circumstances.' a congenial philosophy - not shared, alas! by school management or Ofsted, which is why I now work as a private tutor...

    Whilst appreciating the Boblical significance of having TEN commandments (so one can count them off on one's fingers?), I cannot resist suggesting that at least two of them could easily be omitted or incorporated into others, thus reducing the number to eight - making them far more portable if carved on stone tablets!

    Now I think of it, the Bible is a good example of how NOT to write a set of rules - pad them out with interminable historical background of doubtful veracity, displaying a distinct bias in favour of one nation, incomplete army lists with expensive but easily destroyed wonder weapons (eg Goliath) and unbalanced scenarios (don't choose the Philistines or Egyptians if you want to win!).

    Arthur

    ReplyDelete
  4. Arthur1815,

    Whilst I appreciate Wellington's quote from a philosophical sense - and like you I tended to follow it in the classroom - I am sure that he always had a vague idea or plan before he actually went into battle.

    The fact that there are Ten Commandments was purely coincidental. I did not set out to have ten ... they just 'became' ten. Fewer would be more portable if I had carved, delineated or otherwise indicted them in stone, but thanks to modern technology they weigh no more that the weight of my iPad!

    With regard to you biblical allusion, you forgot to mention the use of multiple authors who do not agree with each other, the arbitrary removal of whole sections in order to 'please' certain interest groups, and the need for whole additional sections in separate books that explain and/or expand upon the main text.

    All the best,

    Bob

    ReplyDelete
  5. Bob, that's an exemplary list. Years of experience, work, play-testing and trial-and-error distilled into one short list. Thank you so much. This, if anything is, is just what blogging was made for. It doesn't get better than this. Thank you so much (again)!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Sidney Roundwood,

    Many thanks for your kind words. I just do my best, and having been a teacher for most of my life, I have always thought that it was vitally important that lessons learnt and experience gained should be shared for the benefit of all ... and you are absolutely right that blogging is a great way to achieve this.

    All the best,

    Bob

    ReplyDelete
  7. "Set out what you want to achieve before your start"

    I helped a very erratic genius design and develop a set of rules years ago. He tried to use the same framework for everything from Woodland Indian skirmishes to World War Two mass tank actions to Age of Sail.We would get together with a bunch of ideas, and immediately start in two different directions. My constant question, before finally giving up on the process, was "What are we trying to model?" When the answer turned out to be "Everything", I knew it would not work.

    I found a good "test mechanism" for rules last week. After putting your draft in the hands of a few people, post a battle report that you played. See how many questions you receive on "how did you do that?"
    I found I had left the "Commanders" rule out of my PW:ECW draft.

    I am printing off a copy of your Commandments, and attaching them to the computer tower where I do my work. Hopefully, they will prevent the excesses that this hobby seems to embrace!
    -Steve

    ReplyDelete
  8. Steven Page (Steve),

    Gaining experience is not always an easy thing ... and from what I understood from your story you gained some valuable experience the hard way!

    I like your idea for 'testing' mechanisms ... and it something that I try to achieve by making drafts of my rules available online. The feedback I get from users is invaluable. My only problem at the moment is lack of time to do my own play-testing.

    I hope that you find my Ten Commandments useful … and if you can come up with any of your own, let the rest of us know!

    All the best,

    Bob

    ReplyDelete
  9. Sage words indeed. Simplicity (built on the rock of knowledge and solid research) and clarity of language are probably the keynotes for a successful set of rules.

    ReplyDelete
  10. BC,

    Many thanks for the very complimentary comment. I just do my best to keep things clear and simple ... and it seems to work!

    All the best,

    Bob

    ReplyDelete
  11. Interesting set of Commandments, Laws, guidelines... I was interested in the 'Psychology of numbers' thing. Over the years I got so sick of the 'six is good/one is bad' gig that I looked for ways of varying it in wargames.

    One method I used for ACW involved a bit of a steal from 'Terrible Swift Sword'. Allowing 'sixes good' for combat, I made 'sixes bad' for morale. This one seemed to work rather well, I thought. I hoped thereby to mitigate the effects of 'a run of sixes', sort of thing (yes, I understand probability; but I also understand superstition).

    This is why I like my 'Die Range' system, which is a simplification of the 'subtract from die roll' system. Broadly speaking, that makes a really good roll more often than not somewhere in the middle of the range of possibilities; ones are nearly always OK rolls, and sixes are good only when the circumstances of the die Roll are already very favourable.

    I recall years ago playing an ACW game with 6mm figures using rules adapted from SPI/Avalon Hill board games. This used a CRT similar to these board games, but in which low die rolls gave better results. That day I rolled sixes like stink - didn't matter what I did, if it was a combat, I'd roll a six. How I managed to fight that action to a draw, I can't think...

    If the CRT had been the other way round, I'd have been rolling ones.
    That is why I like to mix things up a bit.
    Cheers,
    Ion

    ReplyDelete
  12. When I did my course in software engineering I discovered my lecturer was also a wargamer (which is why, 25 years on, he's a friend). His approach to rules design, which I have tried to emulate, was to treat wargames rules as software and apply the same development process you would when writing software. Although not explicitly stated your Ten Commandments encapsulate much of this - knowing what you're trying to achieve, keeping the design as simple as possible, modularity and so forth.

    I also remember an article in a wargames magazine many years ago which recommended doing a lot of your research *after* you'd written the rules and played a few games. What you were doing was checking to see if the games you'd played bore any relation to the thing you were trying to simulate. System testing, in a way. Or user-acceptance testing :)

    I am a fan of clear, unambiguous rules, which I guess comes from my programming background. The idea that disputes can be settled by gentlemanly agreement is all well and good, but I'd prefer a set of rules that, as far as possible, covers all possibilities such that all disputes can be resolved from the text. Such a set doesn't exist, but I think it's always a worthy goal as part of the design, rather than assuming there's bits that players will fudge if they come up. This is probably why I like HOTT so much; there may be a lot of prose but the rules cover well over 95% of possible situations, and go a long way towards resolving the other 5%. I find 'Fire and Fury' similarly unambiguous. The few rules I have on my own blog are designed with this in mind; I attempt to cover all possible questions as clearly as I can.

    So that's my 11th Commandment - Players shouldn't have to apply their own software patches :)

    ReplyDelete
  13. Oh, and I ought to mention 'my' method of converting 'hits' to 'casualties' in my H&M rule sets (actually quite similar to Chas Grant's system in 'The war Game'). This makes use of the range of possibilities, not the actual value of the numbers.

    Mixing up the dice roll functions gives, I think, a more interesting sort of game. But that's just me.

    Cheers,
    Ion

    ReplyDelete
  14. Archduke Piccolo (Ion),

    Thanks for raising such interesting points in you comment. I think that this aspect of game design is often overlooked and needs more discussion.

    I have tried all sorts of different methods of generating results using standard D6 dice (and other, multi-faceted dice) … and despite my attempts to break away from the ‘high is good, low is bad’ paradigm, user feedback always supports its use. It appears to be a learnt response. In fact, I think that it might even be a pre-programmed response. Interestingly, if you look at ordinal numbers rather than cardinal numbers the natural reaction is that 1st is better than 2nd, which is in turn better than 3rd, etc.

    An alternative is using dice like those used in Richard Borg’s designs where each face has a symbol rather than a numerical value. The laws of chance have not changed, but player reaction does.

    When helping Tim Gow design MEGABLITZ we devised something akin to a CRT … but in actual fact it was just a normal ‘six is good, one is bad’ dice system made to look as if it wasn’t!

    All the best,

    Bob

    ReplyDelete
  15. Kaptain Kobold,

    Thanks for your Eleventh Commandment. It is a worthy addition to the other Ten!

    After teaching computer applications for over ten years, your comments rang several bells! Trying to din into the heads of students that their applications had to go through several stages of development (Requirements and Specification, Design, Initial Implementation, Testing and Debugging, and Final Implementation) made me realise that good wargame design had to go through the same stages of development. I even found myself referring to game mechanisms as subroutines, dice throws as inputs, and results as outputs! It worked for me but confused anyone who did not work within the IT industry.

    I agree about trying to remove ambiguity in rules, although it is impossible to produce a set that covers every eventuality. (I am sure that you have taken part in wargames where your opponent has said ‘but it doesn’t say that you can’t do it’ even though what they want to do is ridiculous! HOTT is an excellent set of rules, and in the past I have adapted them to suit a particular period or conflict, but once I began using grids I began to look around for alternatives … and ‘found’ Joseph Morschauser. (Some years ago Phil Barker took part in a play-test of my SCWaRes rules, and commented that he should have used a grid when he designed DBA as it would have removed the need for ‘tedious and endless measuring by some players.’)

    All the best,

    Bob

    ReplyDelete
  16. Archduke Piccolo,

    I had completely forgotten the system you mention that was used by Charles Grant in THE WAR GAME. I will try to look it up later today.

    All the best,

    Bob

    ReplyDelete
  17. The Dancing Cake Tin (James),

    Many thanks for the compliment.

    All the best,

    bob

    ReplyDelete