Theory: Every Designer Should Play a Wargame

Once every so often I see a list of “board games every designer should play.” They’re often very good, with lots of quality games that can teach valuable lessons. However, I’ve noticed that they rarely include wargames—and that’s an important oversight. Love them or hate them, wargames have a long history and have had significant influence outside their genre. New designers should play at least one.

Fundamentally, wargames are board games. Hex-and-counter affairs played on a map are obviously so—a physical board to play on comes in the box! Miniatures games are as well; their tables serve as the board, the minis as the meeples. There’s no definitional reason to treat wargames as their own separate thing.

Given that they’re part of board games, we might ask: are they important enough that every person interested in board game design should have to spend time with one? They can be long, after all, and demanding to learn. One could get through most of the games in this very good list in the time it would take to play D-Day.

The answer is a resounding “yes, it’s worth it.” For both historical and mechanical reasons, a designer needs to understand at least the broad strokes of how wargames operate.

Historically, for a long time wargames were a huge part of “grown-up” board gaming. If you were a tween or older, in the United States, and were interested in board games, your options were pretty much chess, trivia/party games, and wargames. Any designer who wants to be a student of the art, to understand where we’ve been so as to better see where we can go, would benefit from exploring such an important force in board gaming’s history.

That exploration is particularly important because wargames have had a tremendous influence on other genres. Dungeons & Dragons, for example, was directly inspired by squad-level wargames, and through D&D wargames continue to have influence on the RPG industry. One sees their guiding hand particularly clearly in the many RPGs that have much more extensive rules for combat than for social interaction, even though at least one experienced industry figure argues that simulating the real- (or fictional-) world behavior of different weapons shouldn’t matter when role-playing. Without knowing wargames, a designer can’t recognize the places where other types of games imitate them.

Mechanically, ideas from wargames are at the core of lots of board games. Area control, perhaps the quintessential wargame goal, is now a routine and broadly employed design tool. Up Front was building tableaux with cards in the early 1980s. There’s some wargame in lots of board games’ DNA.

Of course,wargames exert some of their influence by teaching how not to do things. Rolling a single die, with the flat probability distribution that implies. Tiny, hard-to-manage pieces. Unattractive counters. Heavy, motivation-sapping rulebooks.

Still, a game—or a genre—need not be perfect to be foundational. Wargames have been, and continue to be, important to designers. Lists of vital games for them to try would benefit from including one.

Theory: Early D&D as an Indie RPG

Dungeons and Dragons’ older editions are often treated as progenitors of a genre, historically important but missing key gameplay innovations. Yet, when looked at with fresh eyes the classic versions of D&D reveal themselves to have mechanical and thematic unity, a trait associated with recent trends in role-playing game design. These old games thus have more in common with today’s indie RPGs than one might think.

Over about the last 15 years, a substantial proportion of role-playing games have sought to use their mechanics to reinforce the game’s intended theme. Indeed, this has become an important part of an indie movement in RPGs.* Dogs in the Vineyard, for example, uses poker-style raises to help players think about how far their characters are willing to go to win a conflict. In Polaris, a game about the last defenders of a dying civilization, gaining experience also means being one step closer to succumbing to exhaustion. These games, and others like them, are about something—and their rules meant to drive the point home.

I don’t intend to take up the question of whether aligning theme and rules in role-playing games is a good or a bad approach. That debate has been played out countless times in countless fora. For our purposes here it suffices to say that having mechanics that support a theme is one hallmark—not necessarily the only one or the best one, but a hallmark—of current role-playing game design.

Older editions of Dungeons and Dragons are sometimes criticized as lacking this sort of link between mechanics and theme. These versions of D&D take their cues, it is argued, from The Lord of the Rings; one can play as a ranger like Aragorn, or as a hobbit, or even as a Gandalf-esque wizard, and do the things those characters did. However, the rules are generally focused on combat, with relatively little support for other elements of the LotR story: singing traveling songs, negotiating with the spirits of dead warriors, fighting against the corrupting influence of an evil artifact. The game’s purpose and its rules misalign.

Or so the argument goes. It is fair to say that the early versions of Dungeons and Dragons were combat-focused. Extending that to criticize the games as incoherent, however, is going too far. The early editions of D&D were very good at doing the thing they were specifically designed to do: be games about going into dungeons and fighting dragons.

Paging through the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook, one sees this purpose very clearly. Over and over, the rules point toward a game-wide goal of supporting players who want to delve underground seeking treasure. The section on the unique traits of humans, elves, and dwarves specifically notes which species can see in the dark. Gnomes get a call-out for their ability to determine whether a tunnel is soundly constructed or in danger of collapsing. Magic spells for creating light feature in the wizard’s bag of tricks. It’s sometimes said today that when a player puts something on an RPG character sheet, she is signaling that she would like that thing to be relevant in-game; it would be difficult to create an AD&D character whose sheet does not somehow indicate an interest in dungeoneering.

That early Dungeons and Dragons was essentially intended to be about underground fantasy combat, with rules directly supporting that activity, is reinforced by the game’s history. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the creators of D&D, were wargamers. The very first iterations on what would ultimately become Dungeons and Dragons were essentially squad-based fantasy wargames. D&D grew beyond that, but the early versions of the game reflect a wargaming background and the expectation that combat would be a central aspect of play.

The fact that one could do other things than fight in D&D, even from its earliest days, does not in any respect undermine this argument. Every tabletop role-playing game offers players a wealth of possible options limited only by their imaginations. Being able to do something outside the norm does not make a game incoherent or indicate a divide between rules and purpose. It merely demonstrates that role-playing games, more so than most games, are toolsets that can be put to unexpected uses. Polaris can be approached as an Arthurian romance, and Dogs in the Vineyard could be played as a comedy of manners, but that does not mean either one is somehow broken.

The early editions of Dungeons and Dragons told players what their archetypal activity was, starting with the title, and then presented rules focused on doing that. In many respects those games were old-fashioned or used mechanisms common at the time but largely dispensed with today. With regard to unifying mechanics and theme, however, they tapped into a line of RPG design thinking that would become prominent decades later. They had more indie in them than they, or we, often realize.

* “Indie” is, admittedly, a term whose meaning has been much debated; which games are indie games, and whether there is one indie movement or several, can be hard to say. With that in mind, I think everything that needs to be true for the purposes of this post is uncontroversial: that there is at least one group of people who design RPGs and who want to have mechanics and theme work together.

Theory: Run Railroads Through Your Sandbox

Although I don’t play role-playing games often, I like to think about them. They’re interesting both from a definitional perspective (is Dungeons & Dragons a “game” if there’s no winner?) and as a source of technical problems to solve. One of those technical problems came up recently online: how to motivate players in a freeform, “sandbox” game. I find that issue particularly fascinating because at its root are definitions–the competing natures of the “sandbox” and the “railroad”–and solving it requires one to break down some of the barriers between them, mixing the two styles of play.

“Sandbox” role-playing games are familiar to video gamers who enjoy the Elder Scrolls series or Minecraft. These games allow players to participate in storylines, or not, as they choose, and provide alternative activities for those who want to explore the game world on their own terms. Star Wars Galaxies, the now-defunct MMO, was a classic example: players could save the galaxy . . . or set themselves up as a shopkeeper . . . or attend in-game dance parties.

“Railroad” role-playing games, by contrast, have a fixed plot that the players are required to follow. They can make tactical decisions about how to negotiate with a queen or defeat a dragon, but the plot only proceeds when the queen gives the players a quest or the dragon is slain. Deposing the queen, allying with the monster, or otherwise deviating from the pre-determined story is not an option.

In recent years, “railroad” has often been treated as synonymous with “bad.” If someone wants to run a railroad game, it’s said, he or she should instead write a book and spare players the experience of going through the characters’ motions. Sandboxes, where the players can do anything they choose, are argued to be a more interesting mode of play for all involved.

The trouble is that setting up the sandbox doesn’t always lead to a great game. People often go to great effort to construct a wonderful, vibrant, fascinating world–and then find that their players don’t interact with it. Rather, the players wait for someone to give them direction, as though they can’t do without the hated rails.

Frustrated world-creators sometimes frame this problem in terms of preferences: they like the sandbox while their players prefer the railroad. However, there’s another way of approaching the issue that makes it far more manageable. The problem, one could say, is that the players are behaving rationally in an unknown environment.

Consider what a sandbox looks like from a player’s perspective. The player is confronted with a very complex system (good sandboxes, after all, have a lot going on). It’s hard to predict the consequences of actions, but given the elaborate weave of the setting there are apt to be unforeseen and even negative ones. How should the player respond?

A player might, completely logically, answer “do nothing.” Since any action could end up badly, and there’s no way to predict which courses will be fruitful and which will get the players in over their heads, it’s sensible for them to wait and see. Rather than empowering the players, the sandbox encourages them to give in to paralysis.

Getting the players moving again is not a matter of changing their gaming preferences, nor is it a matter of locking them into a railroad. Instead, the sandbox needs to change so that players are incentivized to act. The railroad isn’t needed, but the rails are, because they tell players what they’ll be rewarded for doing.

Think about, for example, Red Faction: Guerilla. RF:G tasks players with replaying the American Revolution, with Martian colonists standing in for the Americans and Earth as the exploitative, mercantilist power. Think that building up support among the colonists is most important? Prefer instead to steal industrial equipment? Feel that it’s time to take the fight to the Earth forces? Want to just plain drive fast in low gravity? Players can do any or all of those, and more besides. RF:G is a great sandbox experience, with lots of things for players to do or ignore as they choose.

Yet, although RF:G has freedom, it also has guidance. Players are introduced to the rebellion-against-Earth plotline early, and it’s made clear that in the game world participating in the rebellion will be viewed as a morally good act. They’re also rewarded for participating in the first few missions with new equipment. At that point the player is cut loose to do as he or she will, but missions on behalf of the rebellion are clearly marked on the player’s map, available whenever the player is interested.

By putting players in a sandbox but giving them some initial goals, RF:G avoids the problem of the cautious player. I’ve never heard of anyone who responded to RF:G’s sandbox by doing nothing. Players are incentivized to act by the plot, and have enough information to feel comfortable taking advantage of the additional opportunities available.

Other successful sandbox games follow this freedom-with-guidance model. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion has a plotline about stopping cultists from summoning monsters that incidentally helps players become acclimated to the game world; players can stop the cultists or not, but they at least know what kinds of things are available to do. Infamous puts the player in the shoes of a superhero, and lets him or her know the game world’s citizens will be grateful if he or she saves the city before opening the game up. Even Lego sets come with instructions. Incentives to do something are provided along with the option to do otherwise, and thus the player is given both freedom and some forward momentum.

Making a good sandbox, then, doesn’t involve completely dismantling the railroad. It instead requires designers to provide both open-ended choices and some direction to encourage players to engage with them. Run some rails through the sandbox, even though the players will be permitted to leave them. If they do nothing else, those rails will help players understand what they can do. The fun of the game will take it from there.

Something Completely Different: Making Competing Players Powerful – Rules

How can a two-player competitive game reinforce both players’ feelings of might and prowess, where the game is played synchronously in the real world?

There aren’t a lot of competitive games that are designed so that all of the players feel good at the same time. Usually it’s exactly the opposite: at any given moment someone is losing, knows it, and feels lousy. Miniatures games are no exception; since everything is (usually) right there on the table, it’s easy to see when you have taken greater losses than your opponent or are further away from an objective.

Since minis games weren’t helping me find rules germane to the issue, I ranged around a bit. Here’s what I came up with:

1. Players should “fail forward.”

This one comes from role-playing games. In essence, it says that failure should not mean that the player’s turn just ends in defeat. Instead, something interesting should happen.

Knowing a little role-playing game history might help clarify how this rule works in practice. (It’s also interesting in its own right.) Dungeons & Dragons, arguably the first major role-playing game as we’ve come to think of the term, was designed by wargamers. Those designers modeled D&D’s combat on the wargames they were familiar with: dice were used to model the uncertainties of combat, with a good result meaning you succeeded in hitting the target and a poor result meaning failure. This system is used even by game designers with military experience, so I assume that it’s at least a reasonable way to model people fighting.

Over time, however, problems revealed themselves. When playing a wargame, one normally controls many pieces. A single piece’s bad roll is just one part of a larger turn, so even when the dice go against you it’s still possible to have a satisfying turn overall. By contrast, in role-playing games the player usually controls a single character who makes a single roll in a turn. If that roll comes up snake eyes, that’s it–the turn ends on a down note.

Failing forward is one solution to that issue. (It also relates to other role-playing game design issues, to say nothing of the term’s use in self-help books and other arenas; I’m focusing on this particular application of the idea.) In essence, it says that failure should make things more interesting instead of just being a stopping point. The player doesn’t get what he or she wanted, but does get something else: plot advancement.

So, for example, in D&D (or at least, some versions of D&D) a player might try to swing a sword at a monster in order to slay it. If the player fails to slay the monster, that’s it; the player’s turn is over. By contrast, in a fail-forward model the player might fail to slay the monster–and be carried back to the monster’s lair. That means a whole new set of opportunities and options: maybe the player will have another go at fighting the monster, or sneak away, or find out that the monster’s lair is full of the monster’s artwork and the monster is actually a sentient being. Instead of the player’s turn just crashing to a halt with failure, the player is left with new possibilities to consider while waiting for his or her next chance to act.

Failing forward doesn’t mean failure is impossible or that players are choosing between a menu of good options. It just takes some of the sting out. The player missed the mark this time, but something interesting still happened and so the player can focus on that instead of stewing over the failure.

2. The game should involve building something the player can take pride in.

Agricola is a controversial game, which is surprising for a farming simulation with tried-and-true mechanics. A lot of people find the theme dull, or don’t like the “Euro” design sensibility wherein much of the game boils down to constructing an economic engine. I can’t say those criticisms are unfair–I’m not, I have to admit, all that interested in agriculture myself–but Agricola is nevertheless one of my favorite games. That’s for one simple reason: each and every time I play, I get a sense of accomplishment from building my little farm even if I lose.

I see the same dynamic play out in the Civilization series of video games, Minecraft, even building toys like lego. It’s fun to make something. Creating is enjoyable even if you lose, or even if the game is such that winning and losing aren’t meaningful concepts. Seeing something neat that’s new in the world, and being able to say “I did that,” is for many people compelling regardless of the context in which it occurs.

Building doesn’t have to be linear or unopposed; Civilization, Minecraft, and many other games involve building in an environment of challenge with the possibility of setbacks. Overcoming those obstacles can be another part of the fun, and can even give character to one’s result. The key is the sense of accomplishment; players need to be able to take pride in the results of their efforts, even if those efforts don’t result in winning.

That last sentence deserves a little more emphasis. It’s critical that the players end up with something they can take pride in. Agricola’s building is fun because your farm is a nice, productive spot even if it doesn’t earn the most points. Games where the building is just another way to keep score–where one can end the game with a useless half-constructed building, or a spaceship that could never fly–don’t provide this kind of satisfaction.

So what does all this mean?

I’ll be honest: I’m not quite sure yet how rules from role-playing games and a farming simulation apply to a miniatures wargame. However, I feel like these rules are already pushing in interesting directions. This game is supposed to play out a story, and failing forward involves plot advancement; doesn’t that suggest a very different kind of minis game? One where success is measured, not in the number of opposing units destroyed, but in telling a story? Where does that story come from? How does the building factor in? What are the players building? A thing? Character competence? The story themselves? How is the building handled so that players can enjoy the result even when they lose?

At the risk of being unfair, I’m going to leave those questions hanging for a little while: on Friday I’ll have the results for the latest round of Over the Next Dune’s playtesting.

What We’re Doing: Underlying Principles

Today was going to be about awkward rules. However, I realized that while I’ve talked a lot about using legal analysis, I haven’t really explained how it works to readers who aren’t familiar with it. I want to remedy that, and in the process discuss in a bit more detail what is driving this blog. We’ll come back to awkward rules in a little while.

At its most fundamental level, legal analysis works like this: there are some facts. Those facts give rise to an issue–the legal question you want to answer. To do so, you go back through the annals of the law to find the rule(s) applicable to your issue. The you compare the facts to the rule(s) to get an answer; the answer is called a “holding,” but it’s basically an answer. That answer/holding may end up being used as a rule in future cases.

So, for example, suppose John Doe takes someone’s car without that person’s permission, joyrides it around town, and crashes it into a tree. If you had absolutely no pre-existing knowledge of the law, that might give rise to the issue “do these facts make out a criminal offense?” (We all know John Doe stole the car, but again, suppose you had no knowledge of the law whatsoever.) Your research might reveal, depending on one’s jurisdiction, a rule that looks something like “taking another person’s property without that person’s permission, intending not to give it back, is theft.” With that rule one might conclude, based on the facts at hand, that John Doe committed the offense of theft; he took the car without permission, and joyriding it dangerously suggests that he did not intend to return it.

There are many pitfalls in this process. First, one must correctly identify the legally relevant facts. You have to know that Jon Doe’s particular name doesn’t matter; if you think it does and spend all your time looking for rules specifically about John Doe you aren’t going to get anywhere. (Of course, there are occasions when John Doe’s identity does matter–think of signs in subways specifically noting that there are extra penalties for harming a transit worker. Sometimes you need some knowledge of the rules in order to detect the relevant facts.)

Second, the issue must be framed correctly. To give an example from Over the Next Dune’s development, for a long time it was possible for the players to get close to their goal with the searchers far behind them. The searchers would rarely catch up, and so the endgame was very easy. I cast the problem as “how can the searchers be kept relevant throughout the game,” which first led me to try various ways to let the searchers “respawn” in more relevant positions and then, when those proved unsatisfactory, to reduce the size of the board. The latter solution worked well, but I only tried it because I had stated the issue broadly. If I had considered the issue to be “how can the searchers respawn to be relevant throughout the game,” I would have kept going down a futile path.

Third, the rule has to be correct. If your calculator thinks that 2 + 2 = 5, it will give you wrong answers no matter how carefully you frame the question and input the numbers.

The problem I’ve seen in game design is that there are lots of facts and issues, but very few reliable rules. Even the rules which are commonly propounded are, to use a term from my college days, under-theorized; we don’t understand them well enough to know their limits and proper use.

Let me give a quick example. Mark Rosewater, lead designer of Magic: the Gathering, once made a list of rules for game design to teach to kids. One of the rules was that a game should have inertia; it should move toward an ending. That’s clearly true for Magic, but players of role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons might disagree. Role playing gamers often look back fondly on long campaigns, and see keeping their games going as a virtue; these games don’t want to move toward an ending, they want to keep going indefinitely. Similarly, I know people who have sunk hundreds of hours into various Elder Scrolls games, exploring and adding to their homes/castles/wizard’s towers/etc. Those players would be happiest if the game never ended–if it had an infinite amount of interesting stuff to see.

Do those examples mean Mark Rosewater is wrong? He’s an incredibly successful designer, having shepherded a brilliant game–and it is brilliant, as even its detractors (who often focus on its collectible distribution rather than its gameplay) generally agree–for many successful years. We should hesitate to say he’s mistaken.

I think the real problem is that Mr. Rosewater’s rule isn’t applicable to all games. In legal terms one might say that didn’t identify all the relevant facts; the case presented was about making a marketable game intended for relatively short individual plays, but he just presented it as being about games. His rule is right–so long as one understands it thoroughly and knows when to apply it.

My goal for this blog is to improve our understanding of the rules that are already out there, and to develop new rules where they are needed. In doing so, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants–and yes, Mark Rosewater is one of them–who went before me. I’m not sure if I’ll ever see farther than they have, but my hope is that by using a legal analytic structure I will be able to see clearly, and to impart what I’ve seen effectively.