Inside the Design Studio: Production/Design Philosophy and Incentives
Conflict Simulations LLC is considerably different than other wargame publishers for a number of reasons, the main difference being that I am doing this to make a living. Most people in the games industry (not all) are doing it as a boutique hobby or have a bunch of money already to start with. Unfortunately, the wargaming industry isn’t the most profitable endeavor, however noble it may be 😊. That said, this requires me to work in ways different to other publishers, and I thought I would pull back the curtain a little bit and talk about how I go about designing and releasing a game.
The first thing I’d like you to keep in mind is that I do not have the same luxury of time as other publishers do. We strive to have games coming out every month, but it’s more like every other month given common delays in editing or playtesting. For one thing, most of the production work is done by volunteers who are only able to do so in their limited free time.
Everything starts with a thesis, or at the very least a strongly held conviction/big idea. Nothing can begin until I’ve come up with an argument I want to prove. In that way, some of the preparation for a design is not unlike the preparation involved in writing a large paper at college. Before I start writing rules, I will go over sources taking notes of the things that stick out to me, or things that seem important. Once I have created a collection of all this data either in a notebook or on my PC, I will usually sketch out some abstract ideas about mechanics related to the thesis kicking around in my head.
Nine times out of ten, the most fundamental mechanics will have to deal with movement, because I would argue that movement is the most important aspect of any wargame. This is because 80% of a wargame is centered around movement. Unless doing a very realistic tactical simulation, combat is almost always much easier to simulate than the realistic movement of forces within the time scale of a simulation. This is because most abstractions of combat are nothing more than the designer’s opinion (based on experience, research bias etc), whereas doing so with movement (with the exception of research) can result in deeply flawed simulations that fail to reproduce historical outcomes, no matter how detailed the logistics and combat mechanics are.
Apart from coming up with movement allowances for units, there are several critical mechanical decisions related to movement that designers make that can effectively change the whole feeling and character of a game. From deciding on movement penalties for stacking, movement allowance charts based on the size of a stack or nationality, let alone the effects of entering enemy Zones of Control are all integral to the heart of any simulation. As a result, after reviewing my collection of notes from research, I apply these notes to mechanical concepts related to movement. A simple example for this is the decision to add a movement cost to stacking in 1864: On to Jutland, literally represents the time spent setting up a chain of command and the figuring out of logistics related to the force. One can think of units in the stacks actually occupying multiple spread out hexes radiating out from the hex occupied by a stack. Gamers tend to think very literally when it comes to hexes and counters simulating history, but more often than not history is better reflected in a nuanced effect on movement or stacking than several pages of chrome.
Once I have my big idea figured out mechanically, I go about designing the rest of the game keeping in mind that I only want complexity in regard to my big idea. Most people, myself included, can really only handle 1-2 complex ideas in any simulation. While there are plenty of other games with loads of complex mechanics, many of them only get played by people truly devoted to the time period or game itself. ASL being a perfect example given most people need a copy of the rules open to play at all with armor or artillery. I do not intend to knock these games as I have enjoyed many in my own right, but in terms of design philosophy, a deductive approach to complexity and complication will produce the most playable, marketable, and enjoyable simulations in my honest opinion. Creating a detailed tactical game there doesn’t make much fiscal sense for us in terms of the amount of time I would need to spend doing research relative to my rent check.
The decisions outside of movement are much easier to make in general. Wargames are essentially known for the fact that nearly all of them use the same concepts of hexes, zones of control, stacking etc, and unless your name is Mark Hermann, you probably aren’t going to reinvent the wheel with each simulation you design. My decision-making process in terms of what ideas and concepts to use in terms of combat, supply, and other mechanics, solely relies on what feels good. This is fairly vague I am aware, but what I mean by feel is how well the mechanics reflect the history being portrayed. One quick example being I’ve always thought tactical games that resolve combat with 1d6 feel totally limiting, given that tactical encounters can have way more than 6 possible outcomes given the small amount of space being depicted. So as much as I may like an idea I have for combat resolution, I always temper the idea against the complexity of the other mechanics. Unless doing a game heavily focused on logistics, supply and attrition are fairly straightforward to abstract as well without needing to go into a detailed explanation.
This part of the process should produce varying results for different people. What may feel acceptable or realistic to one player may easily be blasphemy to another, so in some ways, you will never win no matter what you ultimately decide. That said, seek the opinion of others well versed in the subject to validate and check your own ideas. Failing to check your own creative mechanics against actual history can easily result in a broken game. It’s imperative of CSL to do what would not only play well but sell. Sometimes this part is also impossible though, no matter what you do. I remember one publisher who I was trying to shop a game to telling me “I hate all games with facing”, so much for the tactical system I spent a year working on.
After ruminating on and synthesizing the factors described above, I will then go on a manic writing spree usually writing stuff non-stop for a few days until I have a rough draft. This is more or less just force of habit left over from when I was a musician, most of the creative work I do, I end up doing best when ignoring everything else in my life sometimes to the detriment of my health but it’s worth it given I am almost always satisfied with the work I end up producing as a result. Then my ideas will get looked at by my developer Matt who will send it back to me, and we’ll do that once or twice before it goes to our editor Nick. Nick is a saint who takes my often times rambling mechanics and makes readable and understandable. After I make all of Nick’s changes, it then goes to Trevor who does all of our formatting for our rules.
Simultaneously during this period, I will attempt to do as much playtesting as I can between myself and my developer. Admittedly, for the time crunch under which I am under, it is almost impossible to find playtesters that can reliably and promptly test things between life and other obligations. That said, Matt and I go the extra mile to test these things as much as we can. Once I feel comfortable that the game is finished, Matt says it’s fun and Nick says it’s readable, it will then go to Trevor who puts it all together. Finally, all these files get sent to Steve at Blue Panther who then prints each game that you guys order and sends it over to you. Oh and of course, our usual map artist Ilya along with our usual counter artist Ivan will work with me closely to create the components.