Thesis Driven Design - A short non-academic essay
One of the better pieces of wargame design advice I’ve ever received, I think it came from Kevin Zucker’s game design dispatches, was that (and I am loosely paraphrasing here,) the best wargames tend to focus on one idea that the designer wants to showcase above all others. One old S&T game I am forgetting the name of (by Joe Miranda, maybe Wars of the Imperial Age?) had players rolling on a march chart every time they wanted to move to represent commanders not being able to accomplish everything they want in a given time. An example of this in action in one of Zucker’s games is where player’s roll dice in order to see if their headquarter units can exert full control over subordinate units within its command range, if not within range of a higher level headquarters.
It has taken me a while to get to a point where I realized how true this concept was, at least when it came to doing simulations as opposed to straight up games. Simulations can easily get bogged down when they attempt to simulate too many things at once. This can easily be seen in a number of later game that try to do a million things at once. That’s not to say those games aren’t fun, or that they don’t simulate something accurately, but it can get cumbersome and fatiguing to play.
One thing that works congruently with the format of the 2140 series is that given counter and package limitations, it forces me to concentrate on a point I want to get through to the player. One thing that consistently bugged me about games on Verdun was that while all of them feature attrition as a backdrop to tactical maneuvers, there were little to no games focused on the campaign at an operational scale which can better represent the combined effects of attrition. So the main focus of 1916 is Administration Points, which function as an abstraction of national morale, politics, bureaucracy and production. Players can burn these points in combat, attrition, or planning operations but must do so intelligently or they risk completely overstretching their forces and then unable to effectively react and maneuver to an opponent.
Most games on Korea (with most notably the exception of Starkweather’s magnificent OSS Korea) players know the makeup and relative competency of their forces. In reality, nearly all the forces were untested and green and there were wild variations in how units performed. Occasionally a green US task force would hold up an entire North Korean division, all while tanks menacingly rolled onto the Pusan Perimeter.In 1950, units are only given a unit quality rating, and movement allowance. Their combat strength is determined randomly, and then resets at the end of each half-month, two of those in a game turn. 1950 also uses a back and forth activation sequence that forces advance planning on both sides without knowing how those units perform beforehand, to a combat factor accountant’s dismay.
I am merely a manic amateur wargame designer but I’ve often told friends that I believe wargame design is not dissimilar to academia or creating and supporting an argument as in writing a paper in school. One must be able to support their ideas with clear sources and evidence. The art of wargame design at least to me then becomes how well one is able to transfer that argument into what essentially is a repeating set of instructions, much like an analog computer program. In my view, a game succeeds when it is able to allow the player to immerse themselves within the constraints of the command decisions made by those with the insight or initiative to do so successfully.
In closing, I propose that some of the most successful simulations hammer down on a single point they want to make, and then build the game around that point. I’ve already made some examples of games that do so but a total classic which represents this idea fully is PanzerGruppe Guderian, with it’s untested Russian units having both players with little to no idea where the majority of the Russian forces are located. Most of, if not all of the 2140 series games are being designed with this in mind. Each game has it’s own thesis from which the rest of the game is built around.