Monday, February 19, 2024

Wargame Design: Managing Criticism


Congratulations!  Your first (second, third, fourth, etc.) game is out into the world!  You went through all the steps of the process, play-tested it, finished it, did the post-production work, and now it is out in the wild and people are playing it!  If you are like me, this process has taken 2-5 years of your time.  However, you are now a wargame designer!  

I hope you are ready for the hard part.  People are not going to like your game, and they won't be afraid to tell you about it.  Some of this feedback is more helpful than others and you can learn from it for your next game.  Typically, it falls back into the following categories: 

  1. None at All
  2. Not Helpful
  3. Misalignment
  4. A Gift
None at All
Perhaps the most ominous type of feedback when you publish your game is None at All.  There is radio silence and no one is talking about it in any meaningful way.  That means, you did not even get someone interested enough to comment.  Perhaps the most damning, the most frustrating, and the most useless form of feedback.  As the Wargame Designer, you have no idea where the disconnect occurred and no one is engaging enough to tell you!  That makes it really hard to do better next time, is it the rules, the distribution model, the way you advertised?  You just don't know.    

Not Helpful
Some of my favorite and most colorful feedback falls into this category.  I actually printed out and posted this feedback on my work space wall because I loved it so much.  It comes from an Amazon review.

Absolutely love this review.  I am glad 4 people found it helpful to them.  I mostly keep it because it makes me laugh.  

However, the review itself doesn't give me anything to work with and no real feedback that I can actively go back and work with to make a ruleset better.  The only thought I had after reading this was, "If they though it was a waste of paper, they should have gotten the e-publication instead?"  The feedback I took was to start publishing more content electronically, after all I wouldn't want to waste paper.  

A lot of feedback you get will fall into this unhelpful category.  They will say things like, "It's trash" or "It sucks".  That doesn't give you anywhere to go with it, and follow-up questions would be needed to find out what the actual issue was.  On the other side, positive feedback can fall into the same category.  Saying a game is "Great" or "Perfect" doesn't help out much either.  However, it does feel much better than the other side of the coin!     

This is the most common source of feedback and criticism that you will find.  There is a simple misalignment between what your customer was looking for and what you delivered.  This is a very broad category and has a number of sub-categories.  
  1. POV
  2. Wants
  3. Expectations
A misalignment on POV simply means that the assumptions you made about warfare of the period or the setting do not align with what your customers POV is.  You may think that in your game it is Vietnam in Space.  Meanwhile, your players wanted Space Opera.  You may think that defined battle lines were less important, and that they were more fluid than traditionally thought, but your player disagrees with your assumptions.  This misalignment around what the rules should do leads to dissatisfaction with the game.  

A misalignment on Wants is similar.  Basically, it is a disagreement about taste and preference.  They wanted a crunch game, but you delivered a simple game.  They wanted 20 different unit types, while you simplified it into 5 broad categories.  They like a One Roll to Rule them All, but you used Dice Pools.  This misalignment around how the game is structured or built leads to feedback or criticism of the system.  

The last misalignment is around Expectations.  They player wanted something with a hard, defined time scale and you do not have that.  They expected to highlight armor, when the game you delivered focuses on infantry.  The player read your blurb and expected model-vs-model but got unit-vs-unit.  Essentially, the player had built up how they wanted the game to be, but you had other ideas.  This happens a surprising amount of times.

These misalignments are the number 1 driver of critique and feedback about your game.  These can be mined for useful ideas and thoughts to help you create a better, and different product next time.  

A Gift
The final form of feedback or critique you will receive is The Gift.  This is the rarest, and it is almost like catching a unicorn!  A Gift is feedback that helps you as the designer make your next game better. It is specific, clear, actionable and aligns with your own goals and objectives as a designer.  This is often very simple and specific things you can do and implement in your work for next time.  

A Case Study
It is no secret that Men of Bronze received a decent amount of feedback and criticism upon its release.  I was grateful that enough people tired it out to even give me this feedback!  There were four primary sticking points: 

1. It was not clear on how to use different scales and multi-based units
2. The abstractions were not to everyone's liking
3. Models could charge too far
4. The support rules did not make sense to players

So, let's dg into these critiques and see where they fall into the matrix of critique?  

1. Unclear how to be Scale and Model-agnostic     
This tended to fall into pretty reasonable discussion and I rated this as "A Gift".  I was able to rectify this with some simple clarifications in the FAQ on the blog, in Hercules Abroad the supplement, on the Message Board, and was incorporated into writing Wars of the Republic.  This feedback made future games better, and the verbiage has been an easy port into all my other MoB-centric systems. 

2. The abstractions were not to everyone's liking
This critique came in a number of varieties.  Some people simply hated that I put in a quick blurb using 10 models in 28mm for a unit.  This really got under people's skin, and their reaction was to often call the whole thing trash from that one sentence.  Of course, I have seen people play the game with units of 50+ models in 28mm too.  However, this one sentence sent some of the critiques into the Not Helpful territory.  

The majority of criticism on the abstractions were simple misalignment.  They had certain assumptions about how you should use figure/distance scales to represent space and unit size.  This was not that type of ruleset.  Others believed that the fundamental idea of "bathtubbing" or small forces for big battles wasn't what they wanted to play.  Others were unsure if this was a model-vs-model or a Unit-vs-unit game and came expecting one or the other.  

Some of the criticism that came in fell into the Gift category.  They had a clear understanding of what I was trying to do, and were able to give me tips and tricks to do it better.  

Therefore, when I wrote Wars of the Republic I spent more time and words to be intentional with explaining the abstractions.  This seems to have been successful, as commenters have been much more satisfied with the overall rule than with Men of Bronze.  I was able to carry this over into other games as well. 

3. Models could charge too far 
This was simple, straight forward criticism that fell into the Gift category.  It was easy to make an adjustment in this category in the FAQ and in future works.  I also tend now to give cavalry and mounted units a better charge, pursue, and evade distance than models on foot as well.   

4. Support rules did not make sense to players 
Most of the criticism here fell into the Misalignment side of the equation.  Folks with a strong Historical background had certain "expectations" of how supporting worked in a game.  Most of the decision-making of support came in the deployment phase and was not part of the actual gameplay.  Men of Bronze wanted supporting to be an active choice with risk and reward, and therefore had some big consequences that could leave holes in your battle line if you chose to do it.  In addition, you could incur greater losses if you gambled and failed.  

Ultimately, the criticism that explained the why behind the misalignment moved the criticism from a Misalignment to A Gift.  Then I was able to understand what they were looking for, and integrate some of that expectation and the decision-making I wanted around support into the rules for future games.  Indeed, Wars of the Republic is seen to have superior support rules than Men of Bronze.  I was still able to keep the decision-making aspect I wanted, but also incorporate or streamline the confusion players had by removing some of the less-popular aspects of supporting.  Now, these types of rules have become staples again in my game design for MoB-inspired sets.   

Final Thoughts
Many of the readers of this blog are or want to be miniature wargame designers.  Thankfully, it is easier now than ever.  All you need to do is complete a game and get it out into the public space for people to play it.  However, that is not the end of the cycle.  

Once your game is alive and in the public space, you can expect to get criticism and feedback for your work.  Learning how to deal with this feedback is critical if you want to continue writing miniature wargame rules.  Some of the criticism will be useless to you, most will be a misalignment between your Design Goals and the wants/needs of the player, and the last is very useful information that can help you be a better designer in the future.  

Take these gifts of feedback, and use it.  It will make you a better designer in the long run.  

Until next time! 

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1 comment:

  1. Excellent article! Especially the depressing nature of the 'None at All' category. Ivan Sorenson of Nordic Weasel Games highlighted the value of committed playtesters (ones who actually play the game and feedback), and also how hard they are to find.

    Which leads me onto a thought of mine about how useful the internet is for developing/publishing rules as opposed to going out to Conventions etc and showing for real the game and being able to talk, real-time and face-to-face?