Commercial Development, State of the Art

GMT Games represents the industry standard. There are smaller publishers who do a better job on a unit basis, but nobody moves more good product than they. Over the years GMT have published developer’s reports and interviews but there is no explicit notion of how development proceeds in their shop. When putting up titles for P500 orders, developers will advocate or introduce a design . Whatever GMT is is doing, works. Although my query to Gene Billingsley, the company’s president, went unanswered we have the following from Boardgame Geek:

We tell the developers that their job is not to change the designer’s game or even modify it. It’s to give him clear feedback and let the designer make updates/corrections before a new version goes back to the testers. So the developer running the test process frees the designer to observe, listen, and then work on addressing any issues without the time sink of having to worry about all the interactions of the testing process. During final pre-production, the developers are really useful in helping the designer catch any errors that creep in during the final art/layout process. All in all, developers just make our products better.

So the role is one between a game organizer, catching observations as they rise from playtest, and a production editor. Contrary to popular notions, development isn’t a step between design and playtesting. This is Do-No-Harm development; not Berg’s synthetic-creative relationship.

I’m not sure how much sense it makes to talk about a state-of-the-art in magazine game publishing, if not because comparing them is difficult, given their varying publication schedules then for the logic that they publish games, after all, which are not so different from those that come in boxes on a more stately schedule. If you want to argue that magazine games are rough drafts, I’ll give little argument. If you say that that buyer expectations should be lower, I’ll refer you to my previous argument that the hobby is so crowded that bad games are driving out the good.

Decision Games, the inheritor of SPI’s imprimatur, and presumably some of its production practices, is quite straightforward. At this writing, the following job listing is open:

…[W]ork as a part-time contractor and meet with the Managing Game Developer and Publisher at least once per year. …responsibility for the overall quality of assigned games of a particular type (magazine, mini/folio, or boxed history strategy games, science-fiction themed, or Euro-style), assigned game audience development, direction of assigned Play Testers, and development of assigned game projects. He/she coordinates development efforts through Play Tester reports, progress reports to and discussion with the Managing Game Developer, and the proofing of component/art files. This individual coordinates schedules with and reports to the Managing Game Developer.

Additional duties and responsibilities listed are oversight of game publication process; communication with the design, development, and production teams; and, responsibility over printer’s proofs and freelance proofreaders.

The following is notable:

Ensures audience development from previews and discussion of assigned games during development through responding to game play questions and providing gamer support after publication.

Ummm, yeah. Did you get the memo about the TPS reports?

You had me at part-time with obligatory travel. Intermediary reporting just sealed the deal! Add to that responsibility for customer outreach and advocacy and one wonders what part the publisher plays other than run the presses. It is clear, albeit hierarchical, but also a rather tall order for flat-fee compensation. One can dream, I suppose. There is no mention of matching particular historical expertise to designs. Both of these professional descriptions are centered on coordination and production control, an emphasis different from editor and movie director metaphors. Development is more scut work than top-down direction.

Mark Walker, of Tiny Battle Publishing, is considerably more utilitarian and to-the-point. A recent ConsimWorld Post:

I’m specifically looking for a person who can take what the designer deems to be a completed design, test it, eliminate silly-ass mistakes, such as “Set up on this hex” when “this hex” isn’t on the map, or “conduct ranged fire in the Ranged Fire Phase” when there is no such phase (it’s called a combat phase) or misspellings, poor grammar or mistakes on the counters or any of a million other things. I’m not looking for someone who tries to redesign a design…

Berg’s synthetic notion is out the door. This is production-oriented line editing. An interview at Grogheads suggests that the think-tank model no longer applies in the new golden age, at least at Tiny Battles:

What we don’t do is extensive development. If a designer can’t give us a completed game, we don’t want it. The role of the developer has become greatly exaggerated in today’s wargaming scene. I’ve met first-time designers who don’t feel it is their responsibility to test their own designs. They’re wrong.

This is something much more than Do Not Harm. Call it GIGO, or garbage-in, garbage out. It won’t do to submit grotty boxes of glued-together prototype counters rendered freehand with a few sheets of notebook paper, I guess. Walker wants to turn the presses, certainly, but he seemingly wants more forethought than designers traditionally apply.

Commercial Development, Iconic Golden Age

John Cooper’s website is the bomb. Tell him DefLing sent you. And Pat Summerall. If you’re too young to get that, well then, I don’t know what to say.

At this writing, games are subjected to vicious opportunity competition in the market space. Commercial publishers don’t have the latitude for too much artistry. The market is divided between novelty and nostalgia. Games which bridge the gap do well.  Patience is certainly a virtue. With luck a publisher hits on a perennial title like Twilight Struggle or the Command and Colors franchise upon whose coattails a publisher might follow his star to more obscure or contemporary subjects like 3LW/NWL. Games publishing is content to let design progress at a slow pace. Accordingly, publishers’ understanding of development is conservative.

Yet even during wargaming’s first Golden Age, there was an injunction to make it new. It is a bitter irony that the call came from Strategy & Tactics (S&T) magazine, the longest continually-published wargame magazine, now put out by Modern Warfare’s publisher, Decision Games. What gets published in the pages of S&T has always had the appearance of being subscriber driven, via regular polling on a curated list of subjects. Speaking for S&T fourteen years before its Decision Games incarnation, Richard Berg wrote, “To simply do a subject over again because it is your favorite is not enough; make sure there is something to say.” Moving the conversation along used to be part of S&T’s DNA and presumably remains among its developers’ goals. The magazine is still fertile ground for would-be designers — not necessarily for the right reasons. Along with this model of novelty emerging from tradition comes the notion of integration with previous designs but also contention. Berg sets out a creative and synthetic designer-developer relationship:

“At SPI a two-man team handles a game: the designer does the research and initial conception; the developer then takes it from the designer and polishes the product, consulting with the designer as he proceeds to a conclusion. This system has several major advantages. First, it puts two people’s experience into a game….”

James Dunnigan, twice S&T’s editor, wrote in 2005 — after development between digital and manual titles had had enough time to differentiate — that cheap-to-develop manual games led to publishers putting out a multitude of titles. There is a novelty-driven thirst among game consumers that might be profitable to feed. Publishers of all kinds have to play a long game in hopes of breaking even. Manifold titles is a way of dispersing risk. Even on the digital side, as practices were worked out, seek tight control over costs.

Development, Popular Notions

Third Lebanon War is undeveloped in the sense that, after initial testing, it was the designer who made tweaks, not a third party; NWL, however, was submitted to Modern Warfare, provisionally accepted for publication, assigned a developer, who in turn requested subsequent tweaks from the designer (among them to reduce the number of die rolls) and then ignored some while and adding others of his own. Then in-house testing presumably took place. At least this much can be surmised from the back and forth between designer Brian Train and developer Eric Harvey, who shares something of his reasoning:

All in all, I can only suggest that we agree to disagree, and I’m sorry that your game as originally submitted was not exactly suitable for the magazine-game customer that wants games with less complexity.

Fair enough. This tallies with a popular notion of what a manual game developer does and even includes a slight dose of condescension as a bonus. Players and/or customers often employ holistic, naturalistic metaphors which seem inappropriate for the discipline. A design might be caused to grow and differentiate along lines natural to its kind, but I rarely see evidence of such tender, botanical care, certainly not in 3LW/NWL’s case. Modern Warfare knows what its subscribers want to see and will accordingly modify games to gratify them. Call it a Shoehorn Approach.

Not pictured are the attachment of artificial limbs, unnecessary counters, plastic squirrels, ambiguous rules, muddy topology, and yellow ribbons.

The real use of any definition is to complain in a more convincing fashion. Wargame development must be some very odd pornography indeed, if not for the narrow clientele, then for its slippery definition. What could there be beyond “I know wargame development when I see it.”? The following is a survey of game players’ understanding of development. A recent thread on Boardgame Geek supplies a decent handlist of development metaphors, many of which are dysfunctional.

Sometimes, the designer-developer working relationship is author to editor, screenwriter to director, musician to music producer, and finally the arcane theater director to dramaturge. Sometimes, developing games is likened to forging a sword. The designer is the metal and the developer is the hammer. The developer must have a strong hand, I guess. Or maybe the designer is a crazed artist while the developer wipes his chin and remains the knowing, sober judge of the designer’s real worth. This is a needlessly arrogant image and every variation comes with an unnecessary reminder that there is real money at stake for the publisher. If this bougie-romantic image had much truth to it, there would be want ads in every game magazine for game developers. Judging by 3LW/NWL, mediocre development seems to have been priced into Modern Warfare‘s cover price.  That a designer comes up with the mechanisms and a developer turns the game into physical product limits both roles and seems unlikely to produce a game with richer nuance. Call it the Do-No-Harm approach.

The old saw about design. “You may choose two.” My opinion? Glad you asked. “Slow down, already!”

Better notions of development seem to issue from actual experience and stress its cooperative nature, where the best development is done by playtesting teams. Maybe a developer has a limited role in creation, mostly acting as an agent of the publisher to see that the game is finished. Nobody says that development isn’t a worthwhile process but, even when minimally functional, it might not be an experience anyone would want to repeat with certain developers; it seems that good development is necessarily diplomatic.

The real economic constraint on all aspects of gaming is always time, expressed as the opportunity cost of playing one game over another. Successful game companies capable of bringing new ideas to market and advancing the idiom know what they mean by development. Others observe that the overabundance of wargames at this writing owes to a shortage of decent, experienced developers. Some designers strive, but do not hurry, to deliver fully-developed games. Call it the Simmons standard. Discussion of financial risk is often very overheated. If a publisher is taking existential risks every time he runs the presses, then he is doing it wrong and won’t be around long anyway. Publishing of any sort, traditionally, is a long-term losing proposition. I do not doubt for a minute that publishers who are concerned about risk are currently slowing their production. The problem is that the market has been an absorbing an ever-increasing number of games and, for the past decade or so, various publishers have seen this as a production problem, not a development one. So many mediocre games have been produced that they obscured the good ones.

Curiously, throughout my survey nobody raised the role physical proximity plays in effective development. Just as American publishing is unimaginable without New York City, one cannot really imagine the critical nexus of SPI circa 1980 in, say, Fort Worth. Nor could Avalon Hill be imagined anywhere other than in the greater Washington DC area. Physical proximity and access to a critical mass of playtesters, brings with it a charge of speed and creativity difficult to maintain otherwise, even via the Internet.

What do publishers themselves expect of development? Survey continues in the next post.

Playing NWL

Now that’s what I call freedom of movement!

The first turn saw deep penetrations of HZB space, the IDF task force rolling into Tyre without so much as the possibility of interference. The rocket forces there, units which can directly produce victory points for HZB, were lucky and evaded. The rules seem to suggest that they can evade to another zone, but this isn’t explicit. I left them in the zone.  Bringing an opponent to battle is much more straightforward than in 3LW because the intelligence function has been simplified, become much more powerful; battle is no longer a function of chit expenditure, just proximity to the enemy.

Rather than fire them on Israel, I dispersed the rocket forces in Tyre elsewhere, but the initial chit draw was such that I could do little else but strengthen a militia unit. Since, In NWL battle happens everywhere both sides occupy a hex, Operations chits (J3) are freed up for risk-free maneuver. This is much more in the vein of traditional small-scale wargaming where the temporal and spatial scales are such that “everyone moves; everyone fights.” The actual function of real-world J3 is coordinating fire and movement to  carry out command’s intent. Something larger than a change in the designer’s intent seemed afoot.

The IDF escalated through random event. I made up the task forces and pushed some more counters. The first battle was a fiddly affair of matching up forces off the table (a signature feature of a Miranda game) and repeated single die rolls. As unwieldy as 3LW’s bucket-of-dice resolution might be (not very), NWL is at least as much bother and fiddle. The new game is much more procedural. The timing of when battle happens is important but confused: it is unclear whether they are all conducted at one time, at the end of operations, or whether one may wait and conduct subsequent operations. I shrugged and soldiered on through the fog.

A subsequent turn had the IDF securing the border to Nahariyya although Nahariyya is linked to another region. The difference matters quite a lot to HZB as raids, always successful in NWL (presumably, to eliminate a die roll), are important for victory. Raids can be launched from either four hexes or two, depending on the deals you make with your opponent. The graphical link between Nahariyya and Quryat Shemona is perhaps just a detail — and perhaps it is pedantic to bring up. Good wargames are made with attention to detail. The assumption that players work it out among themselves can only contribute to player indifference. “Meh, just another magazine game.” Trying to learn the rules, I felt like I was being asked to love the design far more than the publisher did. For I was surely doing the publisher’s work. This kind of publishing is brain damaged and has been going on for far too long. Nostalgia besotted indifference amounts to a negative standard without which the industry would be better off. Damaged and bad games continue to drive out the good in the competition for gamers’ time.

Is it safe? Whether the border is secured from HZB raids depends on your ability to read the developer’s mind. Note the playing card, top left. For the uninitiated “playing cards” are traditional household game materials that, apparently, the publisher thought necessary to represent in the counter mix!

The rest was a knife fight in the phone booth of the scenario’s eleven hexes. Soloing is a real disadvantage, but one that applies to both my playtests. The decision cycle seemed much less characterized by hard choices than in 3LW. HZB evades often only to fall into automatic battles once the IDF is sufficiently dispersed. Battles just happen wherever there is contact. J3 chits fly much more freely and so does combat air support. Collateral effects and negative outcomes occur more logarithmically rather than linearly in relation to volume of fire. It is unclear topographically whether HZB may enter the IDF’s sanctuary, although the rules seem to prohibit it — something which is also true for HZB’s sanctuaries in Northern Lebanon and Syria. I played the short scenario through, finishing with such a sense of fatigue that the long scenario was not an option.

On close inspection, much nuance present in 3LW has been leached out of NWL; even basic procedures have changed, and not for the better.  Initial setups don’t have to be much thought out (aside from puzzling over the cartographic ambiguities) as the general tendency of NWL to give the IDF a great deal more freedom than in 3LW. Players are deprotagonized, to borrow some jargon from role-playing game theory — chit selection is now half random, half player selection. Worse, command and control capacities are fixed in NWL. Denying HZB the tactical objective of temporarily impeding the IDF’s superior planning by disrupting task forces removes important nuance from the model.

Leaving aside the numerous errors introduced during 3LW/NWL’s sloppy development, the elimination of variable C2 levels (among others) actually counts as eliminating news the designer seemed at pains to deliver about the real conflict. It prompts re-examination of the 2006 war: did HZB consider degrading IDF C2? If not, why? If so, how? Decision Games apparently has, ahem, decided that such nuance doesn’t belong in the pages of Modern Warfare. But if there was ever an audience which delights in nuance it is long-time wargamers. For whom in the wide, wide world of sports is Modern Warfare published?

Next War: Lebanon; Topological Differences

Next, some impressions of playing Next War: Lebanon, the Decision Games’s version of 3LW, published in Modern Warfare, issue 13

Starting a magazine game by first having to overlook rules ambiguities is both familiar and annoying. I have no nostalgia for the feeling. Before getting to the confusing cross references, rendered incoherent by subsequent revisions (there are no “Disrupted” markers in NWL; setup instructions can’t be executed with provided counter mix), you have to get past the map. For some mysterious reason a hex grid has been imposed over the terrain. Since I’m a cartographer by trade, I must remark the topology between the two versions is different. True, wargames often succeed or fail by close attention to such detail, but the game-stopping problem is the ambiguity of Israel’s depiction. There is no differentiation, as there is in 3LW, with Israel’s reserve area or between named border areas.

Relative topologies with the number of paths to and from each node. 3LW (left) NWL (right). While it is still three spaces to Tyre, the Shaqra area and Tyre itself are richer nodes, favoring the defender by making freedom of movement harder to control. Similar constraining/expanding effects can be seen in northern Lebanon and along the Syrian border.



The internationally recognized border, so visible on the 3LW map is completely absent on the NWL one. This doesn’t seem like an improvement on the original and has caused experienced wargamers to reject playing it out of hand. So, on balance, pleasing readership with a cosmetic and unnecessary hex grid doesn’t seem like much of a win. A more careful development of the original map would have been to make the line of the Litani river explicit, adding a few cosmetic touches (with no game effect) to edify the reader.

I think I can anticipate a commercial logic behind the hex grid – a gridded map is what wargamers expect to see. Yet why use it and then have an undivided Syria, an ambiguously divided Israel, featuring both hexes on the regular grid, an attached ambiguous space, and two place names labelling a contiguous space? This is just the first of trivial seeming changes which, in the ensemble, weaken the story the designer was trying to tell.

If changes like the hex grid are so trivial, why make them in the first place? Especially if they come at cost of introducing confusion that did not exist before?


3LW’s Organic C2 and ROE models

The drive on Tyre continues apace. It’s only thee spaces to the objective, but C2 chit economies and competing imperatives intervene. Click through for a larger image.

Turn 7 and we’re still not in Tyre! Lots of effort diverted to securing the IRB and, with activation of 162, demands on planning capacity increase.When all else fails, playing 3LW, when there’s no play to put together from the chits, or there’s no Schlitz on the shelf, 3LW tempts the IDF player to lash out. He has the unusual liberty to decide how much force to employ. Going beyond a certain point gives you the enemy’s ground but loses you points. Hezbollah is ever present. The “fish in the sea” concept HZB employed in 2006 is organic to the system – there is no need to add rule exceptions or chrome in order to model it. Rather, creativity and resiliency matter more to HZB, especially if he can get ahead in the decisional loop. Miranda’s idea works lucidly to express operational tempo, moreseo than other operational systems which become accounting exercises. Once HZB’s planning capacity is stressed they are constrained by the chit economy to raiding into Israel, or else raining down missiles into Israel. This tallies very well with journalistic accounts of the 2006 war and with current thinking about the dilemmas of fourth-generation warfare (4GW).

After operations IDF anticipates objectives for Turn 4, choosing chits accordingly. HZB makes use of sanctuaries to reorganize while disengaging, and searching for the IDF SF bn. Upcoming turn will be dedicated to missile strikes and restocking next-generation ATGMs.

A reformed bucket-of-dice mechanic (BoD) is well-suited to a game where force is elegantly modeled other than in terms of basic mobility and firepower. If you listen to what the designer is trying to whisper, rules of engagement matter very much in 4GW. Applying the optimal amount of force is a major consideration.

Turn 7 and we’re still not in Tyre! Securing the IRB and activation of two other task forces have stressed IDF planning capacity, making the original CONOPs difficult to purse.

After six or seven hours of solo play of both scenarios I began to worry over resolving an ambiguity about when command chits are returned to a player’s pool. It wasn’t clear whether the chit pools refreshed at the end of each turn or whether chits actually selected in the previous turn took some time before becoming available again. The refresh phase rewards the second player (usually HZB) inordinately, as he will have more potential chits to play in reaction to the first player’s actions; whereas, the first player suffers greater uncertainty and greater stress on available chits, as he must decide whether to husband them for future reaction. Decoupling chit refresh from a final, mutual phase opting for a sub-phase of the player turn would be better. Chronologic resource-management aberrations arise in all IGOUGO systems. Nevertheless, command staff adapts well to hybrid warfare and could be an excellent tool for challenging some of the operational assumptions of the COIN series. Next I’ll look at DG’s version of the game Next War: Lebanon.

Playing 3LW, Hello OODA

Concept of operations for HZB/IDF in the short, historical scenario of 3LW covering the limited invasion of 2006.

Playing both sides in 3LW takes the trick of the mind known to most wargamers — maybe especially so to lovers of magazine games who often seem to despair of finding opponents for commercially unproven games on esoteric subjects. I drew up a concept of operations for both sides. The Israeli Defense Force IDF isn’t really menaced in any conventional way; whereas, Hezbollah (HZB) has to think about optimizing its ability to hide and delay discovery of their rockets long enough that they can rack up victory points. Above all he has to be a wicked opportunist. With respect to traditional designs, 3LW puts you in the deep end of planning considerations. You do not have long parallel snakes of counters to analyse or even lines of communication to secure. Yet you have strategic assets such as special operations forces whose optimal use is outside of a larger force. Once it is understood that the IDF has great freedom of movement, the initial situation is very tense and unpredictable.

IDF begins by developing intelligence on enemy positions before pushing the 36th division up to Tyre. Command chits structure

The real limit on force is planning capacity. The IDF rolled into southern Lebanon like the tide. But there were gaps. Hezbollah (HZB) conducted reconnaissance and so discovered the IDF’s main effort, a critical intelligence task that is often underplayed in most operational wargames. (Note that in a face-to-face game all counters are face down until discovered via ISR or engagement.)

Setting correct priorities for your planning staff is crucial. The fight immediately settles into absorbing cycles wherein some force capabilities become robust while others are at rest. Worry about where the other side might be in its cycle invades your choices. For example, it is best if the HZB player times his planning so that he fights at the precise moment the IDF has to take an operational pause to coordinate its maneuver, before his intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets become available. The IDF player has to decide whether it is opportune to go pedal-to-the-metal at the expense of maintaining combat power.

IDF 36th division moves and successfully uses its ISR to identify the enemy in Al Naqurah. HZB opts to exfiltrate them, requiring the expenditure of one of its J2 chits.

Joe Miranda’s command card system models these considerations in an admirably straightforward, simple fashion. 3LW would be an ideal tool for professional study of the conflict. Students of operational warfare will appreciate how naturally John Boyd’s famous OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) decisional cycle manifests itself. I can’t think of a wargame which illustrates this concept better, in fact. Staying ahead of the enemy’s cycle is hugely important. It is hard to judge in a solo playtest, but I can well imagine expending intelligence (J2) chits to reveal the enemy’s chit selection.


Third War Lebanon/Next War: Lebanon, a case study in game development

The print-and-play version of Third Lebanon War, BTR Games


Game development is one of those things you recognize when you see it. Yet, absence of development is a portmanteau upon which a reviewer might hang any sort of criticism without going into too much depth. I’ve always found this unsatisfying, even though I’ve made the same criticism myself. This is a case study of Third Lebanon War (3LW), which became Next War Lebanon (NWL) upon publication by Decision Games. I tried to tease out a useful definition in the hope of moving discussion about development in the wargaming community toward better publication practice.

I first played designer Brian Train’s 3LW in advance of receiving NWL. The former is the designer’s edition, informed only by his own playtesting whereas the latter was the version DG brought to market, benefitting from the attentions of an in-house playtest and the effort of developer Eric Harvey. I’ve appreciated Train’s irregular warfare designs since 2007 when, in preparation of a presentation on French influences on US counterinsurgency, I came across his rather sober game Algeria, which was welcome compliment to my reading.

Over subsequent posts, I’ll try to set out the differences in game play between 3LW and NWL, set out the changes made over development, and come to a conclusion about the relation of each to the conflict they model.

Camp Bowie 1918, Preliminary Visualization

Looking north-west, toward Rivercrest and the West Fork of the Trinity River

Here’s a preliminary 3D model of my work for the Military Museum of Fort Worth. You can see the approximate locations (accurate to within a meter) of all the camp buildings, circa 1919, superimposed on the familiar Google Streets layer for contemporary Fort Worth.

A new model will fill in the trench that is perceptible when looking east down I30.

I will do further work to fill in the I30 trench in the digital elevation model. I plan to use the USGS LiDAR point cloud for North Texas to improve the precision of the underlying model and perform a TIN interpolation to fill in the trench, working from period contours. Final rendering to be done in Sketchup, skinned from period photography.

If you’re in the DFW area, you could do no better than to discover the local military heritage and history delivered by this gem of a museum. Like every good museum in Fort Worth (Amon Carter and Kimbell Art Museums) it is found right off Seventh Street. Also note that this realization was accomplished with data from Tarrant County Archives, NARA, FW Public Library and the collections of private individuals.

Click for a manipulable model.

Camp Bowie, 1917

My hometown, Fort Worth, Texas. Well, the west side of town, anyway.

You would think I would know my way around after forty some-odd years. The above was the most difficult georeferencing project I’ve done. I grew up in the woody part to the north west. If you look at period photographs of Fort Worth there aren’t any trees, however. There are barely any houses. Only a few of the stately homes survive. The only vestige of Camp Bowie (1917-18) that I can remember was, perhaps, the Prevost Street water tank, which was taken down around 1995. It’s a parking lot now, but locals will remember the place for the news stand that used to be there called “Under the Tower.” It used to be the only place on the west side of town (or anywhere in town?) you could buy an edition of the New York Times or Le Monde.

The project is to create a 3D visualization of the army camp which was created to train the 36th Infantry Division for France after its withdrawal from the Mexican border in 1916. It is challenging because all of the streets in Fort Worth were dirt back then. What permanency persists in the road grid owes to the cadastral parcels. Interstate 30 cuts right through the middle. All the streets that were laid on a parallel azimuth to Camp Bowie Boulevard (then Arlington Heights Boulevard) are gone. It is interesting to imagine my high school’s playing field serving as a parade ground for the 141st Infantry Regiment.