A Simple (?) Game Idea

One of the most memorable games I ever played was SPI’s Napoleon at Waterloo. This tiny wargame was created by SPI as an effort to evangelize board wargaming. It was printed as a small magazine (except for the 50 or so cardboard pieces) and the gameboard was the centerfold. In the US it was intended as a giveaway; in Australia it was sold for $2.

SPI's Napoleon at Waterloo (closeup of counters on board)
SPI’s Napoleon at Waterloo (closeup of counters on board)

It’s a very simple “classic” boardgame design. It has “locking zones of control”, combat is by odds ratio and a D6 die roll, and players take turns to move and perform attacks. Artillery can fire from two hexes away, everything else can only attack adjacent units. Each piece is defined by its “combat” factor and its “movement” factor (basically, cavalry is fast, infantry and artillery slow). Terrain can slow you down (or, in the case of roads, speed you up) and/or give you a defensive bonus. Assuming you have any familiarity with board wargaming, those are basically the rules.

I’ve often thought that a really clean implementation of a very simple board wargame would make a truly great little computer game, especially for something like the iPhone. That said, I’ve often railed against the restrictions of board wargames being copied into computer wargames, particularly when they are an artifact of the game being played on a board. For example, the hexagon is simply a means of dividing up maps to make keeping track of movement and position manageable on a game board. Since a computer can keep track of floating point numbers very easily, why not represent unit positions and movement more realistically (e.g. smear units across the landscape to represent stragglers, traffic jams, and so on).

Each of the things that makes a board wargame intrinsically unrealistic would make the same game more complex to play if it were fixed in a board wargame, but not necessarily if it were done on a computer.

So here’s my simple game idea. Produce a ridiculously simple wargame… Not even as complex as Napoleon at Waterloo (which has 50 or so counters) but say a game which would fit without zooming in and out on an iPhone screen while still being finger-controllable. That means a map with a grid roughly 6×8 in terms of resolution (although much more exact positioning is perfectly possible). We’re talking smaller than the size of the grid in Battleship. This means a game with perhaps 10 units on each side as an absolute maximum.

OK, now take every bad board wargame convention and rethink it.

So, first, units do not occupy “hexes”. A unit is a bunch of tiny things below screen resolution whose position is merely depicted in approximate form on the map. (SPI developed a naval wargame called Jutland for Avalon Hill in the early 70s, that used miniatures conventions for tactical movement, and used a refereed system for handling strategic intelligence, so it’s not like board wargame designers were unaware of these problems; the solutions just weren’t commercially practical for paper games.)

Next, you never really know where anything is. The map is simply your “best guess” of what’s going on. This means enemy unit dispositions are merely speculative. This means that friendly unit dispositions are simply what you’ve been told and/or what you believe. (Again, SPI repeatedly attacked this problem with increasingly innovative systems for “fog of war” ultimately producing a streamlined, referee-less system for Taskforce and Cityfight. Taskforce was a big hit. Cityfight a terrible flop.)

Next, you can give orders, but that doesn’t mean they’re received or understood, let alone obeyed. (The closest paper games came to handling this issue was requiring pre-plotted phased movement, e.g. Star Fleet Battles, which was extremely cumbersome.)

Next, you don’t necessarily have an accurate map of the battlefield. Your map may show an open field where there’s a mud flat, a freeway where there’s a cratered mess, or a bridge where there’s a bunch of wreckage. (The “eyes in the sky” problem generally refers to both players being able to see pretty much all units, friendly and enemy, all the time. An equally important but subtler problem was the fact that players could see the same map, and that map was accurate. In very few wars do both sides have the same maps, and in no wars are any maps perfectly accurate. If Montgomery’s staff had been able to read movement rules and terrain costs off their map, Operation Marketgarden would either never have been attempted or far differently planned.)

Next, you don’t know how good your troops or subordinates are, although you can make educated guesses, especially after seeing them perform in action. (SPI often employed the concept of “untried units” in its games, especially contemporary games. The concept of a unit’s quality being uncertain is far clearer when peering into the future — will our tanks actually be resistant to their anti-tank weapons? — than when looking at historical battles, which is I guess why these rules tended to be more prominent in simulations of hypothetical wars — but every general must make decisions based on the assumed future performance of his (or her) troops.)

There are plenty of other terrible concepts from board wargaming that should be omitted from computer versions. The abstraction of logistics. (In Avalon Hill’s The Longest Day, supplies were actually units you had to move around. In Victory Games’s Pacific War fleets load up specific amounts of supplies and fuel. In pretty much every other game I know of, no matter how detailed, supply is completely abstracted.)

The best computer wargame I ever played was the original Harpoon (on the Amiga, although I believe it was available for both Mac and DOS). It was real time. Movement was completely freeform. The only information you got on enemy disposition was “sightings” which expanded as they got older (i.e. if you “saw” an enemy jet capable of flying at 600mph at a specific point at a specific time, it was represented by a red rectangle expanding at 600mph). I think that Naval simulations seem to handle limited intelligence better than most other games because (a) locating and identifying the enemy is so frequently a key element of the narrative description of naval battles, and (b) naval warfare generally involves relatively small number of actual units, and even smaller numbers of formations, than any other form of warfare. I’ve yet to see any kind of computer wargame that successfully applies similar concepts to other forms of warfare.

Arguably, there’s a huge amount of work to do implementing this “simple” game, especially if you try to dress it up in realistic trappings (e.g. imagine the map is a representation of one of those map tables you see in war movies, with WACs speaking to someone on the phone and then moving little figures around on the map table with croupiers’ sticks). But if you abstract all the uncertainty, it’s not necessarily going to be terribly complex (except perhaps when it comes time to implement an AI). It seems to me that such a game would be very interesting to play; much more interesting than a bigger, more detailed, and more “complex” game implemented with conventional assumptions.

Redmond Simonsen Passes Away

I never met the man, but he is probably one of the single greatest influences on my life. Greg Costikyan worked with him for several years, and it’s worth reading his blog entries on the subject. There’s also a NY Times obituary.

Update: Greg’s blog is — I hope temporarily — out of order. Here’s a link to my page on the history of wargame design on my Project Weasel site. This page cover a lot of related ground.

One afternoon in 1979

Autumn 1979. I’m in high school in Armidale, a small town in Northern NSW. A friend has suggested I might like to stay after school and check out the wargames … club. (There’s no formal club, just a bunch of people who meet to play games after school, supervised by a teacher who shares the interest.)

My friend is no veteran of the group, he’s heard about it somewhere. (Our school is only 500 or so students, so the fact that this group has escaped our attention for so long is actually pretty amazing.) We go there and are given a rather strange game to play, it’s called Napoleon at Waterloo and it has a small board, which simply and clearly shows the layout of a famous battlefield subdivided into hexagons, on which we place pieces which, somewhat less intuitively, represent formations of cavalry, infantry, and artillery.

An hour later the game is over, and I’m hooked for life.

Unfortunately, for SPI the end was already near. Board wargaming had peaked, and already role-playing games and computer games were eating their market. Within a few years, SPI would be gone. Within 10 years the best “refugee” companies formed from SPI’s designers would be gone.

(Now, I wasn’t entirely new to this kind of game. I’d seen some people playing similar — much less well-designed — games when I was younger. I hadn’t had time to learn the rules, so I had gone home and tried to design a similar game, inferring what the rules must be like from the game layout. The most ambitious game I worked on was an all-encompassing game of interstellar war and colonisation — and in trying to complete it I encountered every problem which SPI turned out to have solved: e.g. what constitutes a complete, usable set of rules?)

The game was from SPI, and Redmond Simonsen was credited with the graphic design of every one of the 400+ games SPI produced in about a decade. SPI didn’t invent board wargaming any more than Apple invented the home computer. SPI invented the process for designing and developing board wargames in a manner that made them consistent (where consistency made sense). SPI credited game designers (Costikyan credits Simonsen with coining the term “game designer”), put play testers and blind testers in its credits, developed standards by which game rules were organized and printed, and developed a process for taking a game from idea through design to testing and publication.

SPI created the games industry. And Redmond Simonsen — along with James F. Dunnigan — created SPI.

Farewell Redmond. RIP.