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 Wargame Design and Publishing

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The Art of Rulesmithing

Verisimilitude vs. Playability.

House ruling someone else’s game system is for amateurs, while designing and writing good, playable rules is for professionals. I’ve house ruled things over the years, mostly inside the Europa game series and to a much lesser extent OCS. I cannot claim to be a professional rules writer yet. My hope is that our collective design contributions to Symphony of Destruction may convince you otherwise.

What does it even mean to be a game design professional? This industry is a cottage one at best, and I can probably count on two hands how many people make a living doing this stuff. Most designers are getting a cut from the publishers for the hundreds if not thousands of hours put in… a very small cut.

Given all that, most of my time and contributions to the Horseman Unleashed system rules, which Symphony of Destruction will showcase, has been the hundreds of hours of discussion, debate and idea sharing with my co-designers. Todd has done most of the heavy lifting on rules writing, but it’s been based on hours of dialog between the three of us. No one is working in a silo on this project, nor can we afford to do so. Everything each of us contributes gets scrutinized ad nauseam.

Between map work, counter design, box cover art, chart design and so on, I planted a flag on air rules design. It’s something I’ve really wanted to wrap my head around and get right. Looking back at many of the games I’ve played, air seems abstracted, ladled over the the meat of the ground system like gravy over potatoes at Thanksgiving. Some games gloss over air so much one would think it was an afterthought. This isn’t necessarily a knock on the design, rather, it was a choice made by the designer. Some games go through the motions of air unit counters with a full/half side, which has always left me wanting. Were air units typically cut by 50% in strength then wiped out to the dead pile on a second loss? My new favorite game(s) use just a few generic air counters, which add a column shift to a combat. I love these games not because I think the air rules are great, but the system in its entirety is elegant, playable and it just feels right in the context of that game.

I’ve thought about doing this. Just give each side some generic air counters that add a column shift, used once a turn. No AA, no air combat, just a column shift and poof you’re done. My problem with this is that air was so important, and so much effort went into it during World War Two that simply abstracting it all down to a shift seems unjust. Our methodology at 10K Games is to throw all the details into the pot and cook it down, straining what’s good into the rules and tossing what players often will perceive as complex or too taxing. The guiding principle is slick and elegant, so that whatever complexities we have taken into consideration, remain behind the curtain, unseen to the players. I suppose many designers wrestle with this and most players go about playing, never knowing or caring how much thought and crunch sits under the hood, they just play because they like the game.

This is where I’m at with these air rules. I’ve been reading and learning a lot of things about air operations, aircraft, and the support industries which make an air force function and be sustainable.  I’ve looked at production numbers for Germany and the Soviet Union as well as loss rates on the West and East fronts, pilot training hours, sortie numbers, aircraft statistics and even how climate and poor weather affects air operations. These are the ingredients, but getting all this data into some form of air rules and combat with bombing charts/effects has been elusive.

Our game operates on three day turns, broken up into six segments called action points (AP’s) netting out to roughly two a day. Ground elements move and or attack by spending action points. This got me thinking, should air operate in similar fashion? Initially I was like, yes it should but then I started getting into the weeds on what an action point is. Is the first action point the daylight hours of a day and the second the evening/nighttime hours? That begged the question, how much air flew during daylight vs night operations, which led me to: If AP’s are ~12 hours, then in a three day span, only AP’s one, three and five ought to be the day mission opportunities, but that didn’t jive at all with how ground units spend AP’s doing stuff.

I was stumped on this for days, which turned into weeks and still my promises of “I’ll have some draft written by next meeting…” kept falling back like a budget resolution in congress. I discussed these challenges with Todd and Greg, and debated internally for weeks on and off.  More articles were found and read, yet I found myself unable to move forward. Then it hit me. The solution was staring me in the face the entire time. The AP’s are themselves abstractions of time in roughly half day increments, of which both can occupy daylight which wasn’t in my thought process initially. My original concept was that action points one, three and five represent daylight and AP’s two, four and six night, but if you cut an action point from 12:00 AM to 11:59 AM as AP #1 and the second AP, 12:00 PM to 11:59 PM, both have ample daylight to work, which helped me get past a design block.

I know you’re probably thinking:

 “Why are they breaking a three day turn into segments? Action points seem to be getting into the tactical weeds and is probably unplayable for an operational scaled game.”

On the surface, I couldn’t agree more! However, in the Horseman Unleashed series rules, action points are all spent as you move a unit. It’s just a way to break the movement and combats into chunks that are easily digestible. This adds a great deal of unpredictability for both sides. Certain actions, like movement cost an AP, certain combats cost one or two action points, and these can be combined as the player wishes.

Where does this leave me with air? Still thinking, still sketching ideas out. I don’t see the HU system rules using generic counters representing column shifts, nor do I envision every air unit represented by ID in a traditional two step to dead counter mix. It will be a hybrid of air points and counters which will allow for attrition while keeping things manageable. Some of this will come with sequencing of course, but the essence of our air system will capture the feel of air operations with an elegant touch. Hopefully the air lovers will see the subtleties incorporated and the panzer jocks will appreciate the affects without having to switch roles from a tank leader to a wing commander. 

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