Theory: Mark Herman on (War)game Design

Yesterday I got to hear a spectacular talk by Mark Herman, longtime wargame developer and former CEO of Victory Games. Among the things I learned:

  • Games feel better when it’s clear whose shoes the player is standing in. Don’t just make the player “the UK;” make the player “Churchill.”
  • To choose the right level of abstraction, think about (a) the story the game is meant to tell and (b) who the player embodies in the game. Knowing that you’re building a game about grand strategy wherein the player is Churchill will drive you toward including certain things and omitting others. By contrast, if you’ve decided to tell a story about taking a specific bunker with the player as Sgt. Rock, that will naturally push you to incorporate what Sgt. Rock cares about and can interact with.
  • If there’s something that’s important but outside the level of abstraction for your game, don’t include a whole model for it. Instead, incorporate it as an element in a mechanism the game already has. For example, if your game has event cards, make it one of the cards.
  • Charles Roberts made wargames enormously more fun through the simple idea of being allowed to move some, all, or none of your pieces. Much of the fun of chess is building up a combo of moves—but doing that in chess is very hard. Allowing players to move lots of pieces at once made the fun of combos accessible.
  • Your game is done when you’re addicted to it.
  • Keep abreast of the market and its requirements. 100-hour campaigns used to be OK; today, the market won’t support them. It’s more fun as a designer to create games players will actually play!

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