Monday, September 13, 2021

Wargame Design: Designing Against Type


Long time readers of the blog know that I have a few "maxims" that I espouse as a game designer.  Basic ideas like: 

  1. Choice is good
  2. Firepower vs. maneuver
  3. Innovation is over-rate
  4. Choose the best tool for the job
  5. Game designers must create games 

There are others, but those are the ones that come to mind off the top of my head.  

Now that I have a few games under my belt, I am starting to run across a bit of a unique issue.  How do you design against your own "Type" of game?  What do I mean?  

Joseph A. McCullough had a great deal of success with FrostgraveThis was a well-received game that has received a lot of attention.  It has a few core design elements that make the game, the game that it is.  However, it was so successful that it spawned a variety of alternate games using the same basic ideas and structures to it.  In a sense, Mr. McCullough now had a game "Type" 

Everyone knows I am a huge fan of Daniel Mersey's games such as Lion Rampant.  It also received a lot of player attention.  Some of the core ideas would continue to be mined in games like Dragon Rampant, Pikeman's Lament, Rebels and Patriots, and The Men Who Would Be King.  Each had some unique elements, but the core game play mechanics were often the same.  Daniel Mersey now has a "Type".  

I am sure we can all think of other designers and games that have a certain 'Type" to their games.  A Type is certain core game play elements that they focus on or re-use.  In a way, you can think about it as a "brand" or audience expectation that is designer X is involved then the buyer's have a certain expectation of what is "in" the game.  

Therefore, I suppose we can refer to a Designer's Type as the following: 
  • Core game mechanics that are applied across various game genres by a single designer
I myself have a "type" of game as well.  I have found I can make a variety of "Ancient" games using the bones of the Men of Bronze system.  I can make fun, flavorful, and interesting games using the core rules with some flavor tweaks around the edges.  The logic of using a Type is inescapable.  

The Type offers the following: 
  1. Pre-packaged solutions to common wargame issues
  2. Core mechanics you know work
  3. Tools you all ready felt were the "best tool" for a job
  4. Easier playtesting
  5. Removes the "grunt work" of churning out basic rules
  6. People have all ready responded positively to what you have built
Those are some pretty compelling reasons to keep building on your Type as a designer.  Removing the "Grunt Work" of churning out basic rules is a HUGE bonus!  I do not want to have to re-write the rules for LOS fresh every time UNLESS I am bringing something very new to the table.

However, always writing and designing to your Type is a trap!  Using your Type too much and it becomes a crutch.  Soon, you have a hard time designing beyond your crutch.  That leads to stagnation and soon you have no more fresh or interesting ideas to bring to the table.  You are trapped in your own Type.  

So, the question becomes; how do you design outside of your own Type?    

Here are some tricks that help me:    
  1. Exposure to new Rule Sets
  2. Talk about Wargames with other people
  3. Mine your concept folder
  4. Write, write, and write some more
Exposure to New Rule Sets

What a surprise.  I am always talking about making sure that you are reading and playing a lot of different rule sets.  This always gets the juices flowing as you decide how or if you would utilize the various mechanics ideas and mechanisms you find for yourself.  

For example, I was reading the Dracula's America rules, and the simple and tiny mechanic of being able to push some one back in close combat instead of trying to damage them triggered me to write Homer's Heroes: Bronze Age Bad Boys over the space of a week.  The game is very different from my usual solution to "gang-based" games.  Homer's Heroes is nothing like The Games: Blood and Spectacles or Men of Bronze even though in theory they could be almost identical to either of those.  

Therefore, you need to constantly be exposing yourself to new rules to trigger your own creativity.  Even deciding if you like a rules mechanic forces you to think about why a designer would use the tool they chose.  Then, you gain insight into its strengths and weaknesses.  From there, you can decide it it is something you yourself want to try.  That gives you a way to break Type. 

Talk About Wargames with Other People

My poor suffering wife gets to hear me talk about wargame design.  She dabbles, but is by no means a "wargamer".  However, she can tell me if that is something she would "like" or "not like".  This is an invaluable resource!  I do the same with my poor gaming group.  This gives me insight into the topic and helps me understand how it will be perceived by someone other than me.

Social Media is also a good place to engage with others about Wargames.  I have no idea what other people like to play, but hearing them explain WHY they like or do not like certain things gives me insight.  It makes me think.... uh?  Can I make use of this or something like it myself?  What if I put this spin on it?  

Frequently, other people will give you a seed of an idea.  It is up to you to plant that seed and grow it.  In an online discussion I had about pre-measuring; the idea of using Line-of-Sight as a resource came up.  Certain activities would give or reduce your line-of-sight.  This triggered the idea of using Line-of-Sight like a modifier that applied to your ability to engage a target rather than using a dice rolling modifier.  Hence, it is a new form of "friction" to add to a game.  This became the basis for my work on a modern "horror" themed game. 

Speaking of which..... 

Mine Your Concept Folder   

Pull out the old concept folder and start poking at it.  There are nuggets of ideas in there, see if you can start stringing them together into something.  It is like playing with blocks.  You start stacking some blocks together, until you see a shape that you are interested in.  Then, you start adding and taking away until it all falls over!  The intention isn't to come out the other side with a game, the intention is to get your brain in the right place, to start putting things together that didn't fit before, and see things that are outside of your normal Type.  

Your Concept Folder is full of ideas that you either haven't finished, never really started, or struck you at one point; but the inspiration left.  These could be a great premise, some bit of rules mechanics, or snippet of back story that is a hook for a future project.  By tacking them up together you begin to look for and see ideas and patterns that weren't obvious before because you were seeing them in isolation, instead of in a big Concept Jumble.  

This often gives you a starting point, a starting point to just write.....

Write, Write, Write, Write..... and then Write

How many times have you pulled out a sheet of blank paper and just stared at it?  Opened a new File on your computer and just looked at it with your hands on the keyboard?  Nothing comes out, because you are out of ideas, not in the right head space, or have a block.  What is the best way to get over this?

Write anyway!  Just start writing.  It doesn't need to be good!  Just start putting ideas to paper.  At worst, you can throw it in your Concept Folder for later.  At best, you are starting to create a game.  If your lucky, you won't stop until you have the rough draft of a game done.  If you are unlucky, you have more fodder for the Concept Folder that you can tinker on later.  

Despite my busy corporate job, side hustle, family, and LIFE I make sure to set aside at least two hours a week to write!  Most of it is hot, steaming garbage..... but some of it?  Some of it is birthed into a game against Type.  

Final Thoughts
Wargamer Designers can fall into repeating habits of thoughts and mechanics that they try to apply across games and genres.  There are benefits to such a process, but it is also a trap!  It can lead to stagnation and the misapplication of ideas.  Worse, it can lead to games you never finish or want to play!  

Breaking out of your Type is important to refresh your creative energy.  To do this, you need to expose yourself to new ideas constantly, and then you have to give yourself the space to think and apply them for yourself.  Through this method, you will uncover new ideas and concepts to keep you fresh as a designer AND help you break Type when you want to.  

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  1. I know you rub elbows with deltavector, are there any other game design blogs you follow/recommend?

    1. That is a good question. For blogs, I can't think of one of the top of my head.

      I do spend sometime in the Dakka Dakka Game Design section of the forum. That has been a useful place for me as well to swap ideas and talk shop with some other folks.

      The Man Battlestations Podcast also does a lot of interviews with game designers. However, that is focused on Naval warfare.

      Blogs are more hit and miss. I mostly find stuff for "professional" i.e. military/Intelligence resources, or board games. Not much on the actual miniature wargame hobbyist front.