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'Inventing' Games
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
December 2010

Every few weeks, I get to show our warehouse to a visitor or two. They marvel over the stacks and stacks of brightly colored game boxes. And if they’re not gamers, they inevitably ask some variation of the same question:

“Did you invent all of these yourself?”

I’ve never known how to answer that; for starters, “invent” implies a much greater depth of creativity than any of our games represent. And there’s an awful lot of work than goes into each game, from a range of people supplying different elements. None of those elements is any greater than the others, and so I’ve always resisted putting my own name on the game boxes. Ego’s a major driving factor nonetheless; I know of one designer/artist who screeched like a 4-year-old because his name appeared on or within a game box “only” 14 (yes, fourteen) times.

Not that I am without ego; I take immense satisfaction in my craft. I just don’t like to tell people how great I am; I prefer for them to inform me of my genius.

Starting next month, I’ll be working on games full-time and handing over the administration of Avalanche Press to John Phythyon, who’s taking over as general manager. The company needs better handling, and it needs a steadier flow of new product. This is something we’ve discussed internally for a long time, and some staff turnover presented the opportunity to make the radical change we’ve needed.

So if I won’t be inventing games, what does the work entail?

I’ve read a very angry diatribe on the internet claiming that I’m not a game designer at all, since very few of our games use a “new” game system. Rather than dump on that angry academic (is there any other kind?), instead I’ll go over just what goes into a new game from the design end, since that’s going to be the bulk of my work in 2011.

I’ll use Infantry Attacks: Fall of Empires as a handy example. It’s a game we announced a long time ago, when we did a series of what we termed “Classic Wargames” on topics we thought would be difficult to sell through our usual distribution channels. The subject is the 1914 campaigns in Galicia between the Russian and Austro-Hungarian armies; were this a new project launched today I doubt that topic would be chosen.

I’m familiar with the campaign, so the first task was to sketch out the maps where the action would take place. These are pretty standard, following the same philosophy as those in the first Infantry Attacks game, August 1914. They also need to be compatible with games from the Panzer Grenadier series.

Fall of Empires started as a much larger game, and I’d already sketched out the maps for that one. I’d pulled a couple of those for use in August 1914. After looking over the types of scenarios, I chose the types of maps. August 1914 has no river maps, and there will be river actions in Fall of Empires, so I included two river boards. The other four are based on typical terrain found in Galicia: farmlands, woodlands, some small hills and swamps. The rougher terrain found in the Carpathians, where fighting took place at the end of 1914, I decided to leave off for the most part.

Along with the terrain, I also needed the mix of forces. There are a couple of different ways to go about this. I prefer what’s been called a “toy box approach”: I come up with a set of pieces and then design the scenarios around them. Some prefer to design all the scenarios first and then total up the pieces needed. I’ve used that approach as well, but over time I’ve found it very easy to overlook a piece here or a piece there. And very little sends your players into paroxysms of rage like an “incomplete game.” Leave out one anti-tank gun and they will wish your soul to hell.

So I’ve found it easier to first set the counter mix. I try to work with complete formations: an entire brigade of infantry, for example (24 or 32 infantry companies, depending on the army), a couple of cavalry regiments and so on. That means that in some games, there will be a few more pieces than ever required in a scenario. Since we like to add more scenarios in supplement books, that’s not a bad thing; they’ll all get used eventually.

In Fall of Empires, the Russian Army is very similar to that seen in August 1914, with a few differences. There are more Guards and regular cavalry, and fewer Cossacks, to reflect the forces needed for the scenarios. There are also Reservist infantry, which probably should have been in August 1914 as well but were left out.

The Austro-Hungarian side features three armies: the Imperial & Royal regulars, the Austrian Landwehr and the Hungarian Honvedseg. Both of the latter are regular forces, not militia. I guess I could have used the same set of pieces to represent all of them but that just seemed wrong, so all of them are present, though the two “national” armies are there in somewhat smaller numbers.

That last is one of the difficulties in designing games in this series or Panzer Grenadier: Just because fewer troops of a particular branch or nationality were present on the front as a whole, doesn’t make the counter mix any smaller. A brigade or regiment still needs a lot of pieces to be properly represented, even if it’s the only such brigade that ever existed. So you pretty much need as many pieces for the Russians as you do the Montenegrins or Portuguese.

By the time the maps and counters were ready, then, I already pretty much knew what the scenarios would look like. When I’ve done most of these games there have been a handful of “core” scenarios that I consider the centerpiece of the game; in this case, it’s the Battle of Jaroslavice on 21 August 1914, a massive cavalry battle featuring a division-sized charge and counter-charge between the Austrian 4th and Russian 10th Cavalry Divisions.

Then it was just a matter of writing them; “just” of course representing an enormous amount of work. First, I identify an action that would make a good Infantry Attacks scenario; when you’ve done this often enough, you learn how to pick them out. Both sides should feel the action important, preferably each should have unique goals. You need enough detail to understand how the battle played out, when forces made contact, what forces were present and what forces each side believed the other had fielded, what each side believed its objectives to be and so on. It’s actually a fairly detailed requirement. Then you translate that into game terms, first by identifying the battlefield and choosing maps to represent the terrain as best you can manage.

While the research has been going on all along, this is the stage where it gets fairly intense. Most of the games have drawn on many sources, as does Fall of Empires, but in this case there’s one that provides most of the detail. The Austrian Official History of the war, Österreich-Ungarns Letzter Krieg, is a massive multi-volume work prepared in the decades between the world wars. The political message has to be filtered very carefully; in some volumes, the war was as good as won if it had been for those treacherous Slavs. But in terms of the details needed to construct regimental- or brigade-sized game scenarios, the set is of inestimable value. I have a full set, a graduation present from my parents when I was awarded my doctorate, and used it extensively for the Fall of Empires scenarios.

Once you have the scenario information you need, the rest usually falls together: where the different sides set up or enter, and their objectives. Those objectives need to be translated into game terms: capture key hexes, inflict casualties on the enemy and things like that. Those become the victory conditions.

Setting each side’s force level is a bit trickier: You can’t just send them into battle with the units noted on their table of organization and equipment. How much action have they seen in the hours and days previous to the battle? What sort of losses have they suffered? Has there been straggling? It’s an informed judgment call. And so it is with morale and initiative; morale usually reflects the unit’s cohesion and effectiveness at that particular moment; initiative is more a matter of the larger unit’s mission. Units on the attack generally receive a little more initiative than those tasked with static defense, for example.

And how many leaders do they get? That depends on a number of factors: unit quality, the educational level of the army as a whole, it’s own social structure and so on. In this particular game, the ratio is about one leader for every three combat units, with reserve units doing slightly less well and elite ones (Austrian mountain troops, Russian guards) much better. A leader is not simply an officer; these pieces represent men of exceptional effectiveness, not just guys occupying a billet and drawing pay.

Once all that’s done, I usually set them up to see if they look the way I thought they should. Sometimes I’ll move the forces to where they should be able to reach by a certain point in the game, but I almost never play them out; playing a game doesn’t tell you a whole lot. There’s a time and place for that; a new rules set can benefit from actual play from a group that’s never seen them before. Once you know the rules too well, rolling dice isn’t going to prove much of anything.

When I’m satisfied with the scenarios, off they go to the developer. At this point, they need to be as good as I can make them, what I consider ready for press. Then they get made better. The biggest changes are usually to the victory conditions. Once they come back, they need editing, their little map sketches need to be drawn, and they’re laid out for press.

Printing the game, assembling it and shipping it are all even more complicated, so they’ll wait for another day. The design part of Fall of Empires probably added up to about 200 hours of work on my part, maybe a little more. Doing the math in my head, it looks like I could have made more cleaning the grease traps at Wendy’s.