Monday, December 2, 2019

Wargame Design: How Do You Become a Wargame Designer?

The most common question I get asked about wargame design has nothing to do with mechanics, morale, resolution, or probability.  The most common question is much more basic. 

“How do you become a wargame designer?”

The answer is even more basic.  In our modern world, life is so much simpler.  If you want to be a wargame designer, than anyone can do it.  I have written about how I got started here.  In that blog post, you find the seeds of the answer to the question. 

If you want me to be more explicit, here are the two things you MUST do to be a game designer:

1.       You must create a game
2.       You must make it available for people to play

Today, we have access to a variety of tools to help us both create our games.  I myself have helped by creating a series of Wargame Design related blog posts that walk you through the basic process. Books, articles, and blogs exist across the internet to help guide the way.  In addition, self-publishing tools have progressed to a point that even basic computers have Publisher, PowerPoint, or even Word. 

There are a variety of distribution methods to get the games to the people.  The internet has made it   much easier.  You can distribute via message boards, your own website, other websites like the Wargames Vault, and Social Media.  You can easily reach the world-wide marketplace of ideas from the comfort of your home.    

That’s it.  Pretty simple stuff.  If it is so simple to do, how come more people do not do it?  Becoming a wargame designer is simple, but it is not easy.

I suspect there are a few different reasons why more people do not make the jump to being a designer:

1.       They are afraid
2.       They do not create a process for Creation
3.       They let the Perfect be the enemy of the Good

Fear is the Mind-Killer
I have read plenty of internet comments that are not very helpful and just mean about games and the people who designed them.  I can totally understand why a person would shy away from opening their creative labor of love to the world only to be attack, shredded and left for dead on the proverbial floor of the internet.  No matter what you try to do in life there is a line around the block of people who want to psychologically kick you in the junk, laugh about it, and then wander off to kick someone else in the psychological junk.  It is not fun to get kicked in the junk, physically or psychologically.

As a designer, there are two things that get me over this fear hurdle:

1.       I MUST create games.  I can not help myself.  It is a compulsion.
2.       I design games for a very niche target audience.  I design them for myself and no one else.

True designers or creators MUST create.  They can not help it.  I can not help it.  I watched the Matrix and immediately started writing out ideas for making it into a board game.  I couldn’t stop myself!  I had no intention of ever making a Matrix board game, but I wrote out the ideas anyway and put them in my concept folder.

If I did not create games, I would simply stop being who I am.  I would be dead. 

Secondly, I design for an audience of one.  I make games I want to play because I want to play them.  I do not try to make games for other people.  I am 100% convinced I have no idea what other people want to play.  I watch game reviews, play various games, and talk to lots of gamers.  Even with all of that research, what some people enjoy and others do not is still a mystery to me.  I don’t create for them, I create for me.      

Now, just because I create games I want to play doesn’t mean that other people won’t want to play too.  I leave that up to them.  I will still pitch ideas to publishers, self-publish games, and market them like crazy.  However, if someone else doesn’t like the way a game plays, I don’t mind.  It wasn’t for them anyway.  I can guarantee my games will always have at least 1 local player…. Me!  Any players above 1 is a great success.  Sometimes, other people even like my games!

These two factors help me get beyond the “Fear Factor” of becoming a wargame designer in the public eye. 

Creation is a Process
No game is like Athena and just springs from the mind of the creator.  To create is a process.  It can be a harsh mistress, but I have always believed in planning your work, and working your plan.  Then be flexible enough to change your plan....

To create a game requires time.  Time does not come easy.  The time you design games is always being taken by things like family, work, friends, and other choices.  You are always confronted with choices.  You have to prioritize the choices you make in a day.  I try to set about 1-2 hours a week to write.  Some weeks I do more, but I almost never do less.  Writing is a routine and you MUST get into the routine. 

However, creating a game is more than just writing.  It is re-writing, editing, testing, playing, etc.  All of which requires time and effort.  You must budget your time the same way you budget your money.  It is even more important than money.

Once you have a routine, the Creation process is much easier as well.  The more you do it the easier it becomes.  If nothing gets written down, then you won’t have a game.  Without a game, you are not a game designer.    

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good
This impacts a number of wargame designers that I work with, collaborate with, and partner with.  I have fallen into the trap myself.  Sometimes, we get really hung up on making a perfect mechanic orsituation.  We will scrap something that works, because a one-off or edge case gets in the way.  Then, we go back to the drawing board, find nothing better and then get frustrated and walk away.  The game never gets done. 

To be a game designer, you need to actually produce games.  If you let the pursuit of perfection stop a workable game from hitting the table or playtesting phase, then you are getting in your own way.

This will be an unpopular opinion.  Of course you want to make the best game you can right out of the gate.  However, that is not typically how it works.  The more you play test, massage an idea, etc. the closer to perfection your mechanics and processes will get.  However, there is no such thing as perfection.  Instead, you want to get your current processes and mechanics as smooth, clean, and clear as you can.  Therefore, using this theory there is always one more step or modification to get your even better.  This is a trap!  If the mechanic and process works, then it is ready for playtesting. 

Being a game designer is very easy.  All you need to do is make a game.  Then play the game you made.  Bam!  You are now a game designer.  There is no special secret or magic to it.  It is simply a matter of sitting down and doing it.  Take those ideas, put them on paper (real or electronic) and keep adding on until you have a full game.  Then, play the game and see what happens.  The more you do it, the easier it becomes. 

The longest journey begins with a single step…. but more importantly it also ends with a single step.  Now, just go out and put the steps together in between and you are done. 

If you want to be a game designer, then make a game and make it available for people to play!            


  1. People aren't afraid, they simply don't think it's worth the effort. Let's face it, most probably hardly anyone will actually play a non-brand game. Most miniature gamers don't really care about rules, they just play what everyone else does and have very little interest in trying anything new or different.

    1. That maybe true, it is not fear but lack of drive and desire.
      I will be the first to attest that you will make almost no money and it takes effort. I could make more money recycling cans from the side of the road, but that would still take effort.

      Of course, such a thought process is self-defeating in accomplishing the premise of the question? Why even ask me the question then?

      Of course, all humans must prioritize their desires and make value judgments about what is important to them. Then, apply effort, time, resources, and knowledge towards those goals.

  2. Why is everyone in gaming so obsessed with making money their hobby? Of course people won't make money, but what's even worse, hardly anyone is giving these DIY games a try.

    Or maybe that's a good thing. There's a lot of dross with very little gold out there. Lots of Mordheims or LOTRs with minor tweaks and less or worse artwork, can't blame anyone for not being interested in wasting time on those. But it's also sad for the few genuinely good designers, whose games will never get the attention they deserve because of an apathetic and intellectually lazy audience. This hobby doesn't need more game designers, it need better gamers :-p

    1. Well, making money on your hobby is in the cultural zeitgeist right now. The Gig Economy and the Hustle and all that hullabaloo.....

      I completely agree with your comment about fewer game designers and more gamers. I typically recommend to be the change you want to see in the world.... but admit that I am not always the best about it myself.

      For an Indie game that I think is gold, try looking into Rogue Planet. I really need to get a review of it up soon. :)

    2. I try :-) But it's very very difficult to get others to play indie games. When a game doesn't have an associated miniature line and all the visual and narrative marketing bling of a Warhammer, nobody's interested. When it does but isn't an established big brand name, people say they are already doing a miniature game and can't justify the investment.

      And yeah, Rogue Planet is a brilliant game. Yet in spite of glowing reviews over the years, and easy availability in both pdf and printed rulebooks (in no less than 2 versions with each in its own way great production values), it remains unknown and mostly unplayed.