Monday, October 7, 2019

Wargame Design: Creating Hooks for Your Game

In this series we have talked extensively about how to build a game from beginning to end. We have talked about coming up with a concept, building out the 4Ms, choosing your Activation method, building Profiles, adding chrome, and playtesting. That is a lot of ground to cover. However, there is one key element that we have touched on only briefly when discussing the concept and the chrome. Ultimately, a game is only as good as its hook.

A hook is exactly what it sounds like. If you think of players as fish, the hook is what element you are going to use to capture a player's attention and make them want to play your game? What is that unique element or “secret sauce” that will catch their eye and give it a try. The wargaming market is a small niche, the indie wargaming market is even smaller. Therefore, the hook for your game is even more important if you ever want anyone to play it.

Generally speaking, a good hook falls into one of the following categories:

  • Concept
  • Theme
  • Mechanics
  • Genre
  • Look

Concept Hook
Concept hooks are very simple, but it is not easy. It is perhaps the most difficult to pull off successfully. You are proposing playing a game like no one has every played before. It is unique in the market and not just a re-hash or variant of a game, genre, time period, etc. that has been played or featured hundreds of times before.

This is the hardest hook to pull off since there is nothing new under the sun, and innovation is over-rated anyway. Essentially, your concept for what the game is about is so compelling that players immediately see it and think, “Wow, I have never played anything like that before!”

An example of a game that uses the Concept Hook is All Quiet onthe Martian Front. It uses a couple ideas such as late steampunk, War of the Worlds, Weird World War, and Assymetrical combat and mixes it together in a unique concept that makes players take notice of it. It is like nothing they have really played before.

Theme Hook
A Theme hook is based on what the game play experience is supposed to be like. You are offering something that a player wants to experience in their gaming life. It is offering to meet a need for the consumer. This could be appealing to tournament play, narrative play, single player, co-op, etc. It is offering a unique hook for game play style itself.

I have two examples for this type of hook. The first is Rangers of Shadowdeep, from the creator of Frostgrave. This game offers a Role-play lite, co-op to single player experience that very few other games offer right now. It wasn't the first to do it, but it is appealing to that theme of a game. You can customize your Ranger, and then send him on a campaign all by yourself or with a small group of like minded players. The whole point is narrative and campaign play.

The second example of this type of hook is Warmachine. From day one, it was focused on having a tight, competitive ruleset. The entire focus was on playing to win by mastering the game mechanics and out playing your opponent via list building and combo-stacking. It never really tried to be anything else, and it was designed to attract a certain type of player.

Both offer very different themes, but ultimately the hook is to appeal to a certain type of player for their game.

Mechanics Hook
This hook is the most common type of hook most wargame designers try to focus on. Wargame designers are fixated on mechanics, so it makes sense that this type of hook is focused on by designers themselves. However, the truth is players are less interested in this type of hook. The entire focus of the hook is using an innovative game mechanic to try and entice players into trying the game.

Two games I can think of that tried this hook were Malifaux and Infinity. In both instances, the initial hook was that it did not use traditional Games Workshop style mechanics and therefore allowed for a different type of game. Malifaux famously used a card flip mechanic and special rule stacking, while Infinity used an “innovative” activation system and stacking special rules to create a different style of game then what the majority of games were offering at the time.

Genre Hook
A genre hook is offering a new take on an existing genre. This is often combined with a Concept hook, but can also be a stand alone. You are basically offering gamers a new way to play a new or existing genre.

The best example of this Hook in action is Flames of War. World War II gaming in 1/72 scale
or 20mm had been going on since World War II ended! However, Flames of War offered a new experience with a structured, methodical, approach to playing at the 15mm scale which allowed bigger forces and more tanks. The genre itself was an old, well-established genre, but the game was offering a new way to play it.

This also applies to offering new “Lore” or background from an existing genre such as Sci-Fi. For example, Battletech offered a new way to tackle Sci-Fi by not having it all shiny and futuristic, but by making it all grim, dirty, and fuedal with giant robots! Again, this was a very different approach to Sci-Fi and acted as a genre hook. A new way to play an old genre.

Look Hook
This is also hard for most game designers to pull off. However, it is about giving your game world and universe a distinctive look unlike anything else on the market. This is all about branding with artwork, fonts, colors, and models. They offer a unique experience from other games out there.

The grand daddy of this approach is Games Workshop with Warhammer40K. It is all about the look and feel of the models themselves. The Fantasy trope extrapolated into the far, far future provided a unique look like no one had seen before. Part of the appeal of wargaming is the spectacle, and Warhammer 40K delivered customize-able spectacle in spades! Of course, now it builds on much more, but the initial hook was the distinctive look and feel of the models and how they reflected the universe they were from.

Hooks in Action
There are literally hundreds of ancient wargames on the market. Therefore, if you are creating a new one you need to have something unique to bring to the table. Why would a player want to change from whatever Ancient game they are playing now and switch to yours? They wouldn't.

Therefore, when I designed Men of Bronze I had to think carefully about what made my game unique? There are actually a couple hooks I built into the rules intentionally to reduce effort to adopt the game AND appeal to existing ancients players.

Scale, model, and base agnostic
This is a Genre Hook. I knew my target audience would mostly have existing armies or be brand new to wargaming. Therefore, they had to be able to use existing models OR easily get models to play with. Hence, the mechanic was designed to allow them to play a genre in a new way.

Arete Points
This is a Mechanic Hook. The idea was to offer the players of the game a new way to simulate command and control on the battlefield. Typically, command and control was overlooked compared to maneuver and flanking. Therefore, I wanted to have a way to accentuate an overlooked aspect of Hoplite combat.

No Figure Removal
This was a Look Hook. I knew that players spent a lot of time painting and building up their collections. No one wants to spend all that time painting, assembling, buying, and setting up a game to simply remove the models within a few seconds of the game starting. Let the models show off for almost the whole game instead!

Hoplite Warfare
Of course, I was interested in Hoplite warfare, but this was also a Genre Hook. This game was not going to be for all periods of Ancients. Instead, it was going to offer a play experience unique to the Hoplite period and focus on those aspects of wargaming unique to that warfare such as Phalanxes, focus on shock melee, the grinding and pushing of hoplite combat, etc.

Those are some of the basic examples of Hooks I placed in the game to make potential players sit-up and take notice of this game and think..... “Wow, I want to try this game.”

Without a hook, why would anyone want to play your game? What will differentiate it from the raft of other wargames out on the market? If you do not have an answer, then your game is not ready. Go back and review the rules, concept, chrome, etc and think about where you have or can input hooks. If all you have is the 4Ms, then you are overlooking a key point of game design.

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